Manitoba needs to answer crucial questions about how it will transport patients safely before government proceeds with a new air ambulance contract, critics say.
On May 6, the province announced it has opened a public tender process for a multiyear contract with an air ambulance provider, seeking requests for proposal by Sept. 9. The health department says the process is starting now because existing contracts are set to expire in the coming months.
When asked Monday if the move has anything to do with last year’s death of a 31-year-old patient during a failed transfer attempt, the government didn’t directly respond. It said it plans to bring in additional aircraft for medical transports, and will require the aircraft supplier(s) to "introduce high safety measurements and use a safety management system, following national and international best practices."
Krystal Mousseau, a mother of two from Ebb and Flow First Nation, died in Brandon in May 2021, following an attempt to airlift her out of province. She had tested positive for COVID-19 and needed intensive care but Manitoba’s ICUs were full. Prior to her death, she had been deemed stable enough to make the trip to Ontario.
An internal critical incident report was completed, but the chief medical examiner has stated an inquest into how Mousseau died would be unnecessary. The health department did not answer when asked Monday if the government intends to call an inquiry.
During a scrum with reporters, Health Minister Audrey Gordon was asked what the provincial government is doing now to ensure the safety of air ambulance patients.
"I don’t know if I want to use the word ‘now,’ because it has always been our priority to ensure that an individual who’s being transported, whether it’s by ambulance, road or by air, that it is being done safely," Gordon said.
"We will continue to ensure that when we put out our RFPs, when we sign contracts with the various organizations that provide service delivery… that they’re meeting standards that will ensure Manitobans continue to receive that service in a safe manner."
The RFP is being interpreted by some as an attempt to distract from problems with the service in the aftermath of Mousseau’s death.
Critical care physician Dr. Dan Roberts warned provincial officials against privatizing the air ambulance service before the province proceeded to do so in 2019.
Privatization alone is not the problem, he said, it’s a lack of transparency because private carriers don’t have to release information about incidents that occur during transport.
Roberts has been calling for a public inquiry into Mousseau’s death and has drawn comparisons to a similar death of a 70-year-old woman in 1986.
"The lack of an administrative accountability structure, enforced training requirements, (as well as) safety and performance standards, must be addressed in order to determine determine the requirements in any RFP," Roberts said. "Carriers must be required to submit detailed information about each transport to permit proper auditing. Otherwise, this is just a PR manoeuvre."
Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew has also called for an inquiry into the matter. On Monday, he said patient outcomes have gotten worse since air ambulance service was privatized.
"We know there are unanswered questions here. At the very least, those questions should be resolved in the name of patient safety before the government furthers their privatization agenda," Kinew said.
— with files from Carol Sanders
Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.