Air Ambulance Company Charts Course for Growth

A Birmingham-based air ambulance company has been recognized internationally for its service, but it also offers benefits to patients closer to home.

AirMed International recently won the Air Ambulance Provider of the Year Award at ceremonies in Venice, Italy. AirMed was the only U.S. finalist for the award, which was presented by London-based Voyageur Group’s International Travel Insurance Journal.

With its fleet of medically dedicated, fixed-wing aircraft operating out of three U.S. bases — including Birmingham — AirMed can provide state-of-the-art intensive care transport for patients all over the world. AirMed operates two lines of business: a fee-for-service air medical transport service and a prepaid membership program.

In 1983, Jeff Tolbert, founder and CEO, became the first in the United States to operate a civilian jet aircraft equipped exclusively for medical transportation. He also operated the first civilian aircraft equipped with a medical liquid-oxygen system. In 1990, Tolbert pioneered the concept of offering medical air-evacuation membership coverage to U.S. citizens and corporations after a client suffered financial hardship paying for his son’s evacuation from Afghanistan. Shortly thereafter, Tolbert, an Alabama native, founded the Birmingham-based company MedJet, which was renamed AirMed in 2003.

Tolbert, who has been flying commercially since he was 18, started an air charter service while majoring in transportation at the University of Alabama. He added the transport of human transplant organs shortly after graduation. In 1980, he transported an organ donor on life support to UAB Hospital in Birmingham from out of state for the South’s first heart transplant surgery.

“That went off very successfully,” Tolbert said. As the program evolved, the need to transport organ donors largely disappeared, because now doctors go to the hospital where the donor is located to harvest the organ. But Tolbert realized there was a broader need for a long-range air ambulance service.

“There is a need for longer-range capabilities than the traditional helicopter air ambulance,” Tolbert said. “Most people think of a helicopter that is a first responder and lands on the side of the road. But we think of helicopters within about 150 miles of their base hospital. Beyond that, you need to start thinking fixed-wing.”

Since the company’s inception, Tolbert and his team have flown hundreds of thousands of nautical miles with more than 12,000 total missions, averaging 2,000 flights annually. Customers include Fortune 500 companies, renowned medical centers, international assistance companies, major universities, embassies and other foreign government agencies.

The Hawker 800 long-range jet, of which AirMed has two and is getting ready to add another based in Hong Kong, is the largest U.S.-registered, ICU-equipped aircraft. It provides a stand-up cabin and enclosed lavatory for crew and patients’ family members.

But Tolbert says AirMed’s equipment is only part of what makes the company unique. “When someone buys our membership, they can rest assured that it’s a totally vertically integrated company, from the initial phone call to the final delivery of the patient,” he explained. “They’re going to be on AirMed’s aircraft, with a highly trained medical crew and seasoned international pilots. That’s what makes us unique from any other membership program or air ambulance company. There’s a lot more to patient transport than just a ride in a jet airplane.”

Tolbert’s headquarters, as well as one of its aircraft bases, is in Birmingham. “It was extremely scientific,” he said with a laugh. “It was home. I can’t say we employed all these consultants and they put a dot on the map.”

One advantage of being headquartered in Birmingham, he said, “is it gives us a great group of highly experienced healthcare professionals to recruit for our staff.”

AirMed uses a wider range of medical staffing than others in the medical transport business. Altitude-experienced physicians, trauma nurses and respiratory therapists are common on AirMed flights. The company also taps medical professionals from many areas of adult and pediatric specialties. About a third of the company’s international flights involve patients classified in poor to critical condition, and 22 percent are ventilator dependent.

The company plans to open an international base in Hong Kong early this year, making it the first U.S. air ambulance company to operate a base in China. In addition, Tolbert says, AirMed’s goal is to partner with the top five hospitals in America. Currently they have partnership relationships with two of them: the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic.

Closer to home, AirMed covers more than 1 million people in Alabama, providing air medical benefits to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama members. Last fall, AirMed announced the endorsement of the Alabama Education Association (AEA). AEA members now have the ability to join AirMed at a substantial discount and pay via monthly payroll deduction. Tolbert says people often don’t realize they have AirMed coverage through their insurance provider or employer.

February 2008

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