Connors, Rumpf and Gove Want SouthSTAR Helicopter BackPrivate Companies Now Do Medical Chopper Evacuations
State Sen. Christopher J. Connors, Assemblyman Brian E. Rumpf and Assemblywoman DiAnne C. Gove, of the 9th Legislative District, of which all of Southern Ocean County is a part, are calling for the reinstatement of the SouthSTAR medical evacuation helicopter service.
SouthSTAR (Shock Trauma Air Rescue) had provided such service for the southern half of the state since 1988. Helicopters and pilots provided by the New Jersey State Police and paramedics and flight nurses provided by Virtua Health performed some 25,000 missions during the course of 28 years, flying critically injured victims of auto accidents, drownings, spinal injuries, heart attacks, etc. to hospitals, most often to the Level 1 Trauma Center at Camden’s Cooper Hospital – the only L1TC in South Jersey – or the Level 2 Trauma Center at the AtlanticCare Regional Medical Center in Atlantic City.
That came to a halt on July 1 when Virtua Health, a comprehensive South Jersey healthcare system that owns hospitals in Voorhees, Marlton and Mount Holly, decided to bail out.
SouthSTAR, along with its northern counterpart, NorthSTAR, was publicly funded, paid for by a $4 surcharge on all New Jersey motor vehicle registrations. But Virtua, like Newark’s University Hospital in the north, had to reapply for a grant from the state every three years, and this year the company said that a careful analysis and review determined that the significant decline in SouthSTAR’s flight volume made the program no longer sustainable. No other hospitals put in a bid, so SouthSTAR was grounded.
Were there fewer accidents and other incidents requiring helo medivacs? No. The problem for SouthSTAR was competition.
In 2006, New Jersey started licensing private medical helicopters that could be used for hospital-to-hospital transfers. The private choppers moved into the emergency evac business, assisting the two state helicopters when they were busy. In 2009, New Jersey passed a law saying the closest helicopter to a medical emergency should be dispatched to the scene. Six private medical helicopters now serve South Jersey, so SouthSTAR, which used to average 75 flights per month a decade ago, averaged just 20 a month in 2015.
Connors, Rumpf and Gove sent a letter to N.J. Department of Health Commissioner Cathleen D. Bennett regarding the delegation’s deepening concern that South Jersey residents are being treated disparately as compared to North Jersey residents, who still can rely on NorthSTAR.
“Despite the unforeseen circumstances that led to the discontinuation of SouthSTAR services, there is an obvious and urgent need to take corrective action in the interest of public safety for those affected,” the lawmakers wrote. “While we recognize that the use of private helicopter service by medical facilities has increased over the past several years, the present situation continues to raise significant alarm for a number of our constituents fearful that lifesaving medical services will be unavailable to them.
“Adding to the level of discontentment among South Jersey residents is that the NorthSTAR service remains operational to service North Jersey residents. Justifiably, our constituents take issue with not only the loss of service, but by the continuance of a state-imposed surcharge on motor vehicle registrations that is dedicated to this service to which they are no longer entitled to simply due to living in the southern part of the state.
“There is a compelling argument that the SouthSTAR service is more critically needed in South Jersey given South Jersey’s more rural geography. Helicopter transport may be in greater demand for persons requiring emergency medical care on account of the greater distances to medical facilities as compared to the northern part of the state, which is more urbanized.
“To the extent that our constituency is being underserved and treated disparately, we are, accordingly, calling on the state to reinstate the SouthSTAR service ... thereby filling the existing gap in emergency medical helicopter services for South Jersey residents. Reinstating this service would be consistent with the Department’s commitment to ensuring that all residents, regardless of where they live in the state, have access to critical medical services.”
— Rick Mellerup