July 15, 2021 By Alex McCuaig, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Medicine Hat News
It’s been an uphill battle for HALO air ambulance since it launched in 2007 as a one-year pilot project that has since become a 14-year going concern.
The challenge throughout the emergency rescue helicopter’s history spanning six premiers and three different ruling provincial parties has been to secure stable and consistent government funding.
On the surface, the government’s commissioned report on helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) released [in late June] doesn’t appear to move HALO any closer to receiving provincial financial support.
The recommendation the province moves to a single provider, namely STARS, may even be seen as a step back for HALO.
But according to HALO, STARS and local UCP MLA Michaela Glasgo, no decisions have been finalized.
In an interview with Medicine Hat News, STARS chief operating officer Mike Lamacchia, stressed the HEMS report was commissioned by the provincial government. And it’ll be up to them to decide how or if it wishes to proceed with the report’s recommendations.
“In some areas it’s straightforward, in some areas there are still a lot of questions,” said Lamacchia of the report’s recommendations. “We will continue to work and integrate where the government feels we need to work.”
STARS currently operates out of three bases in the province – Calgary, Edmonton and Grande Prairie. The HEMS report does not recommend additional bases be added.
Lamacchia again stressed what services the provincial government will provide, and where, will be up to them to decide and fund.
“It goes back to what level of service the Ministry of Health wants to establish in this province,” said Lamacchia. “Once they tell us all what they want, we – as a partner in the health system – will fill that need where it is.”
But it’s the report’s recommendations of substantially increasing funding for STARS without necessarily seeing bases added that raises concerns with HALO executive officer Paul Carolan.
“This still leaves this area uncovered by emergency helicopters,” said Carolan.
He added, “there is no question of HALO’s commitment to this part of the country.”
It’s also more than just transporting critically injured individuals but assisting in search and rescues, flood and fire responses that have hit this region and will continue to be a concern, says Carolan.
Those are points he says HALO will put to Health Minister Tyler Shandro during a meeting on the topic next week.
Brooks-Medicine Hat MLA Michaela Glasgo says residents of southeastern Alberta deserve access to the same services as the rest of the province.
Glasgo said it is too early to speculate as consultations with partners are set to continue, but added when it comes to HALO and this part of the province, “it would be incumbent on STARS to contract these services when needed. That could be an option.”
What HALO means to area residents isn’t necessarily fully understood in other parts of Alberta, Glasgo added.
“I don’t think it’s possible to understand HALO’s connection to this community without living here,” she said.
Glasgo says she is encouraging HALO supporters to email her on the importance of the service to pass on to decision makers.
But for independent Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes, he believes the government is deaf to the concerns of area residents.
Barnes says HALO is cost effective and, “The fact that this report is calling for more taxpayers’ money to subsidize STARS shows that they forgot to not only look at the safest practice, they forgot to look at what was most efficient.”
Multiple requests for an interview with Alberta Health were not responded to.