Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 6/6/2019 (432 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Pallister government has clipped the wings of the provincial Lifeflight air ambulance service and will turn it over to a private company before the end of the month.
In a Thursday afternoon news release, following a 3 p.m. meeting between Lifeflight medical staff and mechanics, the province said it will ground its two Cessna Citation aircraft — which handle about 50 per cent of the medical transportation calls — and replace them with private carriers. (The remainder of flights already use private carriers.)
A spokesman for Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said the air ambulance service, which covers areas outside a 200-kilometre radius around Winnipeg, will continue to be safe for Manitobans in need of its help.
"The safety of all Manitobans is government's top priority," the spokesman said. "These changes are being made to ensure the ongoing safety of the service, in response to staffing challenges... staffing challenges have necessitated immediate efforts to ensure the safe operation of the program moving forward."
Dr. Renate Singh, medical director for Lifeflight, said the announcement "comes as a surprise to all the Lifeflight physicians."
"We have no comment on the future of our involvement... We will be having discussions about it."
Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, which represents Lifeflight nurses, clerical staff, pilots and maintenance crew, said staff came out of the meeting in shock.
"It came out of left field," Gawronsky said during a hastily-called news conference.
"It is absolutely shameful that this government would not listen to the doctors, the nurses, the the pilots and the maintenance staff who have all — for months now — been telling them this is a risky move."
The move comes after 16 medical doctors from Lifeflight penned a letter to the province, saying the rush to privatize the service has seen "a complete lack of medical consultation in the process."
"These are highly skilled and trained medical professionals, with years of critical life-saving experience, but again the government would not listen," Gawronsky said.
The union leader said the only reason the government found it difficult to recruit new staff in the last year was its request for proposal for private carriers to operate government air services had created job security uncertainty.
Opposition Leader Wab Kinew accused the government of "starving the air ambulances to pave the way for privatization, and that's what we're seeing now."
"They've allowed the service to deteriorate to such a point that they now have to retire these jets and they're going to replace it with a private operation," the NDP leader said. "That should be a concern because air ambulance serves a ton of people across the province.
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"It's when people are the sickest and they need to be transported urgently to Winnipeg or to another centre for acute care," Kinew said. "This looks like another mistake that the government's making in health care."
Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the Pallister government "has been reckless in handling emergency services."
"The PCs have bungled this file. Pilots started to bail after the PCs threatened to privatize, destabilizing the service," he said. "Sheer incompetence."
Lamont said if a private company replaces the jets Lifeflight uses with turboprop planes, that would be "a serious downgrade in service.
"Private aircraft cannot land in over two dozen northern communities and turboprops take hours longer."
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The Progressive Conservative government is denying claims by the Opposition that the province's Lifeflight air ambulance service will be grounded this weekend.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew said Friday morning he had heard "on good authority" the service would be down for three days.
He would not reveal his source for the information, but demanded the government clear the air.
Several hours later, Finance Minister Scott Fielding issued a statement saying arrangements had been made with private carriers to offer uninterrupted service.
On Thursday, the government announced it would no longer use its two Cessna Citation aircraft — which handle about 50 per cent of medical transportation calls for a 200-kilometre-plus radius around Winnipeg — and replace them with private carriers. The other flights were already being handled by private carriers.
"Arrangements have been made with private carriers to provide continuity of service through these transitions. The province continues to offer air ambulance service, with the support of private aircraft," Fielding said.
He said because of "staffing changes in highly specialized positions," the province is no longer able to ensure the safe operation of its Citation aircraft in the future.
The Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, which represents Lifeflight nurses, clerical staff, pilots and maintenance crews, said the reason the government has found it difficult to recruit new staff in the past year is because it issued a request for proposal for private carriers to operate the government air service. The RFP has created uncertainty about job security, the union said.
An official with the MGEU said Friday the union is also worried about possible gaps in service over the weekend due to staffing issues.
Meanwhile, the government said a request for proposal for an interim air service carrier is expected to conclude in the coming weeks. That would ensure the extension of service until the air ambulance RFP announced in 2018 is concluded.