Hospital Air Service Providing Vital Support to Regional Patients

Five years since anonymous donation, Kalispell hospital helping record number of patients with ALERT II plane

By Dillon Tabish
Crews prepare ALERT II for a flight on April 20, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, Kalispell Regional Healthcare’s ALERT II flight crew is ready to ascend into the clouds from its hangar at Glacier Park International Airport. In a matter of minutes, the Pilatus PC-12 Turboprop fixed-wing aircraft can respond to patients across the region.

In March, the mobile medical team served a record number of patients, according to the hospital. The plane flew 25 flights spanning nearly 40 hours in the skies. Many of the flights connected patients from across the region, including Browning, Lewistown, Bozeman and Cut Bank, to Kalispell Regional Healthcare. Others picked up patients and shuttled them to larger cities, including Seattle and Spokane.

“We can get people who couldn’t otherwise receive care and bring them to the care they need,” said James Blasingame, a doctor at KRH who has worked with the ALERT II plane.

The fixed-wing aircraft has become an increasingly vital part of the hospital’s ALERT program, a nonprofit hospital-based air ambulance service dating back more than 40 years.

Most Flathead Valley residents are familiar with the ALERT helicopter, a Bell 407 that can travel 350 miles per trip and transports more than 400 hundred patients annually. When it was established in 1975, the ALERT helicopter was the nation’s first rural hospital-based air ambulance.

KRH officials say the hospital is in the process of purchasing a new helicopter to replace the current 17-year-old Bell 407 to avoid disruptions in service.

Amid growing demand and the hospital’s expanding services, the work of ALERT II is greater than ever.

Five years ago, an anonymous donor approached the hospital and purchased the multi-million dollar plane. The individual owns the plane but has effectively donated it to the hospital for full-time use. The hospital is responsible for staffing and maintenance, but the high-price cost of acquiring it has been covered.

“You can’t buy this type of stuff on the proceeds of taking care of patients,” Blasingame said. “This is from a generous local individual who gives us that plane.”

Another local resident donated a separate fixed-wing airplane that is used to shuttle doctors to rural communities and provide service.

“It’s absolutely amazing to see that spirit of philanthropy,” Blasingame said. “None of these people are interested in tooting their horn. They are just civic-minded and they see the mission of the hospital.”

The ALERT II was retrofitted with mobile medical supplies, allowing for in-flight care.

“It’s like a little intensive care unit,” Blasingame said. “It’s got all the monitors and can have a ventilator and other medical supplies, so there’s actually care going on during the flight.”

The plane can fly in inclement weather when the helicopter is grounded and can also travel further distances. The fixed-wing aircraft has the capability to fly as far as 1,600 miles per trip. The plane typically travels 290 mph, meaning a flight from Kalispell to Seattle last less than two hours. Due to its advanced setup, pilots can land and take off from rural airfields that are small and rugged.

“They’re top-notch pilots,” Blasingame said. “I’m impressed with the culture of safety and due diligence.”

For-profit air ambulance services have been under heavy scrutiny in recent years due to outsized costs. There are 13 air ambulance services licensed in Montana and seven are not-for-profit, such as the ALERT program. According to a state legislative report, the average cost per flight of an out-of-network air ambulance was roughly $53,000. State lawmakers have crafted multiple bills in recent months aimed at regulating air ambulance fees.

KRH officials say the ALERT program responds to every patient in need regardless of their ability to pay and works with insurance companies to prevent patients from receiving enormous bills.

The 39th annual ALERT banquet is April 29 at the Flathead County Fairgrounds. Tickets are $300 per couple. Proceeds support the helicopter service. For more information, visit www.krh.org.

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