Air ambulance crisis grips the north

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Norway is in the grips of an air ambulance crisis that has disrupted emergency medical service, especially in the northern counties of Finnmark and Troms. Members of Parliament are demanding immediate cancellation of the results of an ambulance service bidding process last year that generated all the turbulence.

Air ambulances like this one have been mostly grounded in Northern Norway this week, following turbulence flying around the service providers’ contracts. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Air ambulances are a critical part of medical emergency response in Norway, where distances can be vast over narrow winding roads that also are prone to closure by bad weather, floods, avalanches or rock slides. Hospitals also tend to be centralized, with many residents living far from the nearest emergency room.

The country currently has nine air ambulances with one based in Kirkenes, two in Alta, one each in Tromsø, Bodø, Brønnøysund and Ålesund, and two at Norway’s main airport at Gardermoen. There’s also an ambulance jet based at Gardermoen.

The fleet of aircraft is used primarily to transport patients between hospitals, while one of the planes in the far northern city of Alta is part of acute ambulance preparedness.

Pilots not reporting for work
The problems began when Lufttransport, which runs the current service on behalf of the national air ambulance service Luftambulansetjenesten, lost its contract to a British-owned air ambulance service, Babcock Scandinavian AirAmbulance. While Lufttransport scored slightly higher on the quality of its service, its bid was 11 percent (NOK 47 million) higher than Babcock’s, which won the new contract due to begin next year.

No demands were made for Babcock to hire Lufttransport’s pilots, meaning they need to re-apply for their jobs. That’s led to labour conflicts and the current chaos, because Babcock operates with fewer pilots on fewer shifts and has fewer reserve aircraft. The company also has signalled pay cuts for any pilots retained of around 25 percent.

Finnmark and the rest of Northern Norway can offer some spectacular scenery, but also long, narrow roads over vast distances that make air ambulance service extremely important. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

Pilots and mechanics for Tromsø-based Lufttransport, which held the contract for the past 25 years, see little job security with Babcock and have already started searching for new jobs, quitting or calling in sick and otherwise protesting Babcock’s pending takeover. That resulted in the grounding earlier this week of all five air ambulances used in Northern Norway because of a lack of people to fly or service them, raising fears for life and health in the vast area where it can take 12 hours for a conventional ambulance to drive a patient in need, for example, from Mehamn to the region’s largest and most-specialized hospital in Tromsø.

So far there have been no huge medical emergencies, but state broadcaster NRK reported Tuesday evening on the case of a woman in the coastal Arctic community of Mehamn who had to give birth in a local doctor’s office instead of being carried by air ambulance to the University Hospital in Tromsø when suddenly faced with a premature delivery that raised concerns. “It was intense and I was scared,” Liss Inger Eriksen told NRK. The baby was born healthy, but she doesn’t want other mothers to have to face the same concerns.

The Reds Party’s lone Member of Parliament, Bjørnar Moxnes, was calling for Babcock’s contract to be annulled and he had support from other opposition parties. Health Minister Bent Høie of the Conservative Party still expects the pilots and Babcock to come to terms. The whole point of the bidding process, he argues, was to get the best service for the best price for taxpayers who ultimately foot the annual air ambulance service cost of around NOK 400 million (USD 50 million). More left-leaning politicians retort that critical national medical services should not always be subject to the lowest bid.

Conflict of interest, too
Babcock, meanwhile, is faced with finding new pilots, complicated by the fact that it also had a crewing agreement with a Norwegian firm, Bedriftskompetanse AS, that’s run by the same woman, Marianne Telle, who leads the board of Northern Norway’s public health care agency Helse Nord. She has now declared a conflict of interest in any further dealings with Babcock, but not before several local and national politicians were demanding her resignation.

That made the chaos complete, with Babcock’s CEO, Marius Hansen, declaring in a press release Wednesday morning that Babcock will cancel its agreement with Telle’s company that included pilot recruitment. Telle continues to insist that she had no direct personal involvement in last year’s bidding round that left Babcock with the contract.

It’s now in flux as calls continue for a solution that will get Norway’s current fleet of air ambulances flying again.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund