As reported by the Washington Post, the National Transportation Safety Board has adopted new safety recommendations covering medical helicopters. This addresses a serious safety issue mentioned before on this blog here, here, and here. Excerpts from the article:
The most sweeping change was a proposal that Medicare, the nation’s largest insurer, pay only for flights conducted by medical helicopter programs that abide by safety and performance standards that the Medicare program would develop.
The NTSB has no regulatory authority, but it can make safety recommendations to other agencies to remedy problems it uncovers during accident investigations. Most of the proposals adopted Tuesday were directed to the Federal Aviation Administration and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Private, for-profit companies dominate the medical helicopter industry, with about 830 medical helicopters vying for patients, a recent investigation by The Washington Post found. The number of aircraft has doubled every decade since 1980, leaving some firms with fleets as large as that of US Airways. But unlike commercial airlines, medical helicopters can fly without safety features such as terrain warning systems or flight data recorders.
The recommendations come after the industry’s deadliest year, with 23 crew members and five patients killed in seven accidents in 2008.
The recommendations include requiring terrain warning systems, flight data recorders, night vision systems, use of autopilot to help single pilots and enhanced pilot training, as well as establishing national guidelines for when to transport a patient by helicopter and annual data collection of flight hours and trips to improve analysis of safety records.
In 2002, Medicare boosted reimbursements for medical helicopter transports, fueling growth and saturating some regions with bases.
Medicare pays ground ambulances depending on the sophistication of the care they provide. Medical helicopters all are treated the same. The NTSB recommended that the Medicare program evaluate paying more for more advanced programs.