SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — An air ambulance will be stationed just seven minutes from the heart of South Dakota's Rosebud Indian Reservation starting Wednesday, when it begins flying out of nearby Valentine, Neb.
Sioux Falls-based Rural Health Care Logistics Inc., which since 2007 has run a similar service out of Rapid City serving patients on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, will house the fixed-wing aircraft in a Miller Field airport hangar.
Efforts to place an air ambulance near Rosebud have been in the works for more than five years, said John Warnock, the company's chief executive.
Jody Waln, a Rosebud Sioux Tribe community health representative, said the new service is essential for residents of the isolated reservation because it will cut wait times from service out of Sioux Falls or Rapid City.
"It's a lifesaving endeavor," Waln said. "You wait for a plane here when your family member's lying there, sometimes dying, and minutes and seconds count on saving a life."
Warnock said the twin-engine, King Air is essentially a portable emergency room. Having the plane and medical crew on standby in Valentine will offer doctors on the reservation and other rural communities a quicker option to fly trauma patients to major medical centers.
And having it run by an independent company instead of a hospital helps increase the health care options in the region.
"Our aircraft, because it's unaffiliated, will go to any medical center — Omaha, Lincoln, Sioux Falls, Denver, Minneapolis — that the doctor and the patient deem the patient will get the best care," Warnock said. "That means that these medical centers will begin to compete for that patient, where in the past they just got them because they had the air ambulance."
Although helicopters work great for short distance flights to pull patients from an urban rush-hour accident or airlift a skier with a broken femur out of a mountain resort, Warnock said fixed-wing aircraft hold many advantages. They are faster than most helicopters, are equipped to provide advanced life support, can carry two patients and next of kin and operate in more varied weather conditions, he said.
The Rosebud Sioux Tribe bears no cost for the service, as Warnock's company supports itself by billing insurers. For patients on Rosebud, those claims will go mostly to Medicaid, Medicare, Indian Health Service and Veterans Affairs. For residents of the surrounding rural areas, that consists mostly of private and public sector insurers, Warnock said.
Rural Health Care Logistics provides the aircraft, medical teams, insurance and equipment and bears the cost of fuel, maintenance and hangar storage.
The city of Valentine and a local economic development board paid for the concrete slab and supplied electricity and plumbing, and Cherry County Hospital helped pay for construction of the hangar and taxiway, said Brent Peterson, the hospital's administrator.
"We saw this as an opportunity to minimize time even more with being able to dispatch the ambulance here either for ourselves or neighboring communities," Peterson said.
Warnock for years ran a Minnesota-based air courier service for banks that flew to small towns in that state, the Dakotas and Wisconsin. As he began talking to people in rural towns about their needs for charter air service, he quickly learned that critical air medical care was the more pressing need.
The first and most critical step is trauma care, he said, but once the aviation infrastructure is in place the plane can also be used to bring doctors onto the reservation.
Waln, the wife of the tribal Chairman Rodney Bordeaux, said the Rosebud reservation's isolated location and limited housing and education options make it hard for clinics and hospitals to recruit specialists. The added transportation option could allow a specialist to live and work in Sioux Falls while also putting in regular time at a reservation hospital, she said.
"If they can be flown in for four days at a time and flown back out, I see that as a win-win situation for our people," Waln said.
Warnock said his company is looking at starting similar services at other sites on the northern Plains, along the Great Lakes and in the northern Mountain states.
"It's a model we're going to roll out," he said.