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May 3, 2021 - 7:36pm

Challenges abound as Mercy Flight Inc. pushes through effects of COVID-19 on its air, ground operation

Mercy Flight Inc.’s air and ground emergency transport operation has taken a significant financial hit due to COVID-19 and continues to deal with challenges in other areas, including the safety and protection of its first responders and the ongoing effort to fairly compensate these skilled emergency medical technicians and paramedics.

That was the gist of a report by Michael Gugliuzza, the agency’s director of medical operations, at this afternoon’s Genesee County Legislature’s Human Services Committee meeting at the Old County Courthouse and via Zoom videoconferencing.

Gugliuzza said program expenses increased by more than $115,000 for personal protective equipment due to COVID-19 while net revenue for the period of July 1, 2019 through June 30, 2020, decreased by $400,000 due to a decline in ambulance calls and the loss of emergency management services standby revenue from Six Flags Darien Lake.

On a positive note, he did say that funds from the CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program and federal stimulus have offset much of the loss.

In Genesee County, Mercy Flight received 143 requests for helicopter ambulance service during that fiscal year, resulting in 76 transports, Gugliuzza said. Fifty-six of the requests were deemed not necessary and 11 were canceled due to poor weather conditions.

He said that a change from Visual Flight Rules to Instrument Flight Rules will enable Mercy Flight to increase its weather-related capabilities.

“We’ve gone from what they call VFR, Visual Flight Rules, to be able to fly IFR or Instrument Flight Rules like the commercial jets and things like that,” he said. “So, this has broadened our capability with inclement weather – to be able to fly through much greater weather events.”

Ground ambulance transport decreased by about 6 percent, he said, with 9,649 calls for service resulting in 7,191 instances of patient contact (transports, lift assists and treatments without transport).

Gugliuzza said the company continues to battle the coronavirus virus from the front lines.

“We’ve worked hard to keep our crews protected,” he said, adding that those who wanted the vaccine were able to be fully vaccinated by mid-January.

He emphasized the importance of keeping staff and patients safe and protected, and thanked Genesee County Emergency Management Services for being “great partners” in meeting the PPE needs.

Gugliuzza said Mercy Flight’s “big challenge coming up now is essentially staffing, manpower and pay rates.”

“It’s a very tough market now between a lot of job openings, people not applying for a lot of jobs, and we’re competing with other industries outside of EMS,” he offered. “Part of that is we’re seeing big shifts in pay rates and those kind of things.”

He said Mercy Flight officials are working with payers (Medicare, Medicaid and others) to try to increase the pay scale. He also urged lawmakers to support first responders “and thus the safety and welfare of their constituents with legislative action when necessary.”

“Many of the fee schedules haven’t been adjusted in years and it really becomes detrimental to not just our agency but to EMS as a whole and other agencies as well,” Gugliuzza said. “We’re going to champion that cause and try to move this ahead in an effort to really make this a better industry for everybody.”

In legislative action, the committee approved an allocation of $12,825 for this year to support Mercy Flight.

Vaccination Process ‘In A Transition’

In a related development, Paul Pettit, public health director for Genesee and Orleans counties, said the vaccination process is in a transition – shutting down the mass vaccination site at Genesee Community College and in Ridgeway, Orleans County as “every county in all of the state sites are really facing a reduction in demand of folks seeking the vaccine.”

“The amount of folks who are getting signed up now doesn’t really need to be in such a large location, so we’re kind of reverting back to a different model,” he said. “We’re taking more of a shift to the health department for a permanent site, so we will be there at least one day a week with walk-ins and/or appointments.”

Pettit said that health department staff is contacting business owners and managers to see if they are interested in on-site vaccinations for their employees and families, and also plan to travel to the various villages for one-day vaccines, either by appointment or walk-in.

“We’ve kind of hit our bulk number, I think, with the people that want it at the moment,” Pettit said. “So, it’s a little harder slogging at the moment and trying to talk to people about the importance of getting vaccinated and what that means to them – but also what opportunities it could afford them, like avoiding quarantine if you’re exposed, being able to go to different events and you wouldn’t have to pay for testing to attend. There’s a lot of different advantages that are out there by getting vaccinated.”

He said Johnson & Johnson (one shot) clinics are scheduled for Wednesday at GCC and at the Office for the Aging, with no appointments required.

“Johnson & Johnson -- one shot and you’re done. Two weeks from now you’ll be fully vaccinated,” he said.

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