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REACH upgrading helicopters, expanding under new ownership


REACH Air Medical Services is acquiring new helicopters and opening a new base in Southern California, seven months after its purchase by the world's largest air medical transport company.

The Santa Rosa-based REACH, which pioneered air ambulance service in Sonoma County, is slated this fall to begin operating a new, $6 million Eurocopter EC135 out of its base at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport. The roomier, quieter craft will replace the Italian-made red Agustas copters that have flown for years over the North Coast.

The company this year is purchasing three EC135s for its Northern California operations, including one already in use at REACH's Concord base. Officials said the new helicopters are an example of the difference made by Air Medical Group Holdings, the Bain Capital subsidiary that purchased REACH in December.

The copter purchases were "something we could not have done" without the new ownership, said Vicky Spediacci, REACH's director of operations.

Air Medical last year borrowed $245million to purchase REACH and upgrade its equipment, officials have said. The larger company, whose subsidiaries operate in 28 states, was purchased in 2010 by Boston investment firm Bain Capital for a reported $1 billion.

REACH has transported 80,000 patients since it started 26 years ago.

The company was founded by Dr. John McDonald, considered the father of emergency medicine in Sonoma County. McDonald, a former hospital emergency room director who died in a private plane crash in 2000, is credited with infusing REACH with a patient-focused approach and an eye toward growth.

The Santa Rosa company was 6 years old before it opened a second base, since closed in Vacaville. But today, REACH and related company Cal-Ore Life Flight together have 27 helicopters and airplanes operating out of 17bases in California, Oregon and Texas.

In addition to Santa Rosa, other Northern California REACH helicopter bases today include Lakeport, Concord, Stockton and Marysville.

And last month, REACH opened a new helicopter base in Oceanside near San Diego — one of four operations in Southern California.

Overall, REACH employs about 380 workers.

The company, said Spediacci, has long held that "if you want to survive, you need to grow."

"We would like to continue with what I consider to be our cautious, measured growth model," she said. REACH is "by far more competitive today" for expansion due to the backing of Air Medical Group Holdings, she said.

At the same time, officials said, Air Medical has indicated it wants to support REACH's current culture and mission.

"They bought REACH for who REACH is," said Anna Blair, vice president of business relations and development.

A key part of that culture, Blair said, goes back to founder McDonald and his maxim to "always do what is right for the patient."

For McDonald, that meant helping develop Memorial Hospital's first emergency department in the 1970s, establishing a county paramedics program, working to develop the Level II trauma center at Memorial and working to start the air ambulance program that became REACH.

Portions of the North Coast have long benefited from two air medical helicopters services. The nonprofit CALSTAR, headquartered in McClellan, has operated a base in Ukiah for 15 years and this spring began operating its own EC135 copter there.

Both CALSTAR and REACH have long provided backup coverage for each other, especially around Mendocino and Lake counties. Emergency dispatchers decide whom to send based on which copter is the closest and most appropriate for each situation.

Both organizations also offer their own membership programs that have proved popular with rural residents concerned about potentially paying a hefty portion of the cost for an emergency flight.

Such memberships allow a patient who is flown in an emergency to have the flight deemed paid in full — along with any reimbursement from health insurance. And the amount a patient might be billed can vary widely depending upon health coverage.

For some insurance plans, the patient's cost for an emergency flight might be as low as $100. But some patients have been billed $10,000, said Debbie Pardee, CALSTAR's Northern California Region director.

David Hodges, a Santa Rosa health insurance broker, said he has his own REACH membership because of his frequent trips to Sea Ranch. He said otherwise he would pay a substantial amount if he ever needed to take an emergency flight on a REACH copter.

For rural residents, Hodges said, "you're crazy not to do" the membership. Even Santa Rosa residents should consider it if they regularly engage in ocean diving or other outdoor activities out of the city.

About 35,000 people are covered under the REACH membership, which costs a family $65 a year. It now offers members the same protection in 28 states as part of Air Medical's network.

CALSTAR, which is celebrating its 30thanniversary this year, has about 10,000 residents of Lake and Mendocino counties on its membership program, Pardee said. The membership costs $50 a year.

Pardee recommends that Lake and Mendocino residents have memberships with both organizations. The reason is that, on a busy day, either copter might respond to an accident in that region.

"Murphy's law is, if you only own one, it'll be the other one that shows up at your accident," Pardee said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com.)