State police officials tried yesterday to reassure critics in the General Assembly that Maryland's emergency medical transport system was in capable hands despite a recent audit detailing numerous maintenance and management deficiencies at the police-run helicopter fleet.
"We would urge members of the committee not to let our administrative shortcomings overshadow decades of accomplishment," Maj. Andrew J. McAndrew, commander of the police's Aviation Command, told the committee that commissioned the audit report published last month.
Despite maintenance issues, auditors praised the police for an "impeccable safety record," noting that the 12-helicopter medevac fleet has logged nearly 90,000 flight hours since 1989 without a major accident, injury or fatality. But some lawmakers remained concerned about the program's safety.
"If this were a commercial operation, they'd have been shut down by the [Federal Aviation Administration] a long time ago," Sen. John C. Astle, an Anne Arundel Democrat and former helicopter pilot, told the auditors after their presentation.
Astle, a member of the Joint Audit Committee, is an outspoken critic of the state police aviation unit. He also works for Columbia-based MedStar Health, a company that has a helicopter patient-transport division that could benefit if the state were to privatize its statewide emergency response system, as some lawmakers suggested yesterday.
The hearing comes as lawmakers are contending with the likelihood of major budget cuts in the coming months, jeopardizing a $120 million plan to replace all 12 helicopters over three years. The heads of budget committees in both legislative chambers attended yesterday's hearing, underscoring the scrutiny the medevac budget likely will face.
Last week, a separate Annapolis committee examined the medical operations of the medevac system, questioning whether it is overused. About half the patients flown by helicopter to Maryland trauma centers are released within 24 hours, according to data released this year. Officials said at that hearing that they have implemented changes to reduce unnecessary use of the helicopters.
Yesterday, Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, seized on a statistic in the audit report showing that the helicopter fleet has flown more than 200 public relations missions every year since 2004. That amounted to about $1 million in noncritical costs a year, Pipkin said.
"A cynic might say this is part of a public relations campaign by a state agency to make sure there's not future competition" from private operators, he said.
McAndrew said he recognized that the frequency of so-called "demonstration" flights was a "big problem" and took steps last year to reduce them.
The police major also told the committee about other steps his department has taken to address the audit findings, including appointing a new director of maintenance and a chief of pilots. He said his department was in the process of addressing the data-management issues highlighted by auditors.
After the hearing, Del. Norman H. Conway, an Eastern Shore Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said that the state's fiscal problems could delay the overhaul of the helicopter fleet and that the legislature likely would debate privatizing it. But Conway said the police officials' responses yesterday made him confident in their ability to run the program.