By ALYSSA DE ANGELUS
Medevac Alaska will be stationing a light twin-engine emergency aircraft in Skagway until the end of September. This is the first time that Skagway will have immediate access to a healthcare planes in the area.
Medevac Alaska is a separate service from current medevac insurance providers Guardian Flight and Airlift Northwest.
Currently, Medevac Alaska does not have a membership coverage plan available for Skagway, but they have recently passed a two-year service operation requirement which will allow them to apply for an insurance plan in the near future.
Medical Director of Dahl Memorial Clinic, Chris Hansen, was initially ecstatic upon Medevac Alaska’s arrival, believing that a quicker response time would cut down on the need for coast guard evacuations during civil twilight.
“I am thrilled they are here,” Hansen said in an interview conducted in the middle of May. “You know because that has been an issue, especially this last winter, that was a huge issue. We were here multiple nights last year waiting for somebody.”
According to Hansen, each medevac has taken less than an hour to lock and load patients. Though Skagway’s windy weather has been problematic from time-to-time, patients in the area don’t have to wait for an off-site medevac crew to come to town, or risk not making the cutoff before prohibited night flights.
“It has already made a huge difference on the workload stress load because now you are not having to wait for hours,” Hansen said. “I mean like I said we are well-staffed most of the time but could [you] imagine having people here overnight and now you’ve got two, three people up all night and next day they are already booked for patients? You know, it’s just not sustainable for us.”
Since adjusting to Medevac Alaska’s terms of service in the past few weeks, however, Hansen has become less hopeful toward making significant improvements for emergency care in Skagway, specifically mentioning that a King Air emergency aircraft would be better utilized by locals and tourists in the area over the light twin-engine plane.
This summer the majority of patients on medevacs have needed further treatment in Anchorage, which is atypical, according to Hansen. Hansen says that most years 90 percent of patients would seek fair treatment for their conditions in Juneau, but this summer circumstances have changed and Skagway has found itself needing a bigger aircraft for a longer flight out of town.
Because the light twin-engine emergency aircraft is only authorized to fly to the Bartlett Hospital in Juneau, the on-sight Skagway service has been more or less of a wash and Hansen feels that this whole situation has become a “nightmare.”
Early in the summer Hansen remembers Medevac Alaska offering to replace the light twin-engine emergency aircraft for a King Air, but Hansen says that no one has followed up since.
Kip Fanning, Medevac Alaska President, says that his company will continue to look at the market and evaluate their options, but it is unlikely that they will divert from their original Skagway to Juneau route at this time.
“We are Alaskans and we come from small town Alaska and our goal is to help people who live here,” Fanning said.
“Here and/or traveling through, we have been in the tourism business as well, so we just want to give back to the community.”
For Jeremy Simmons, volunteer Fire Department chief of 20 years, it’s about the big picture, the future of healthcare in Skagway.
Simmons still remembers flying people out on local commercial airplanes because that’s all there was. Once Guardian became the first medevac service for Skagway, providers came to realize a need that has been there all along.
“It [Skagway] has been able to be profitable because they are all private industries, profitable enough to maintain their service and their competition with [Airlift Northwest], causing Airlift to change some of the planes they were using so then Airlift started coming in here now too,” Simmons said. “There is this competition now.”
Simmons said he recognizes that Medevac Alaska, along with other private medevac companies, are a business that need to make a profit and Skagway’s incident rate in 2017 fit the bill, but what will happen to Skagway when the flight crew leaves for the winter?
In the darkest hours, where a town population is under 1,000 people and packed cruise ships are nowhere to be seen, Hansen admits that this less profitable time is also the most dangerous time for residents to become sick or injured.
Dahl Memorial Clinic goes from four full-time providers, three medical assistants and two nurses in the summer to three full-time providers, three medical assistants and one registered nurse in the winter. In addition, the closest-stationed medevac is usually in Anchorage, as opposed to Juneau.
Despite potential future growth, Simmons pointed out that the town size will continue to restrict growth and discourage workable solutions for years to come.
“There’s no like silver bullet, and again, it’s a big complicated thing,” Simmons said.
In light of this situation, Hansen is working to improve the clinic by pushing telemedicine in fields such as psychiatry and searching for ways to financially secure a cardiologist to the Skagway team.