December 23, 2009 • Vol. XXXII, No. 23
Two large snowmen greeted revelers at the entrance to this year’s Yuletide Ball. See more colors from the Christmas season in our 2009 Yuletide Colors Photo Feature. Andrew Cremata
Town weighs forming local ‘Medevac Fund’
Guardian Flight-Apollo MT relationship unresolved; carrier addresses high costs
By JEFF BRADY
Residents will get a chance to hear more about the proposed Skagway Medevac Fund during two meetings next month, and decide whether the community should buy memberships to cover the whole town. In the meantime there are “serious” unresolved issues between Guardian Flight, the company that provides the bulk of Skagway’s medevacs, and insurance broker Apollo MT.
Simon Claydon, one of the organizers of an effort to buy a community policy through Fairbanks broker Apollo MT, said he has received $14,000 in pledges from the Eagles, Eagles Auxiliary, American Legion, and businesses, and is seeking commitments from other organizations and businesses, as well as $10,000 from the municipality. It would go toward a $32,000 a year discounted community premium, based on an estimate of 2.5 members per household.
The Skagway Medevac Fund is being set up through the Eagles F.O.E. 25, and Claydon recently presented the municipality with four recommendations to consider:
• Convene an open hall town meeting at the earliest opportunity.
• The Eagles Trustees recommend, from a legal standpoint, that PFD receipts be used to qualify residents for membership, but other considerations are welcome.
• The municipality would administer the logistics of the fund, specifically maintaining the population and list of qualifying households. “This would help the citizens of Skagway to have confidence in their insurance and in the safe-keeping of their personal information.”
• The municipality would include an option for residents to donate $25 to the fund on each quarterly utility bill. “This recommendation is derived from a large number of suggestions by people still willing to pay the $100, knowing that the extra $10 will help someone else.”
Apollo MT vice president Tim Baker said currently there are roughly 100 family memberships in Skagway. Most pay the full $100 that covers air medevacs as well as ambulance rides. In a community plan, that premium would be cut 10 percent to $90 per family.
Claydon said the optional donation on utility bills “gives everyone an opportunity to contribute” and would lessen the need for large contributions from charitable organizations year after year.
“Thanks to everyone in the community who has shown support and hopefully we will get this done,” Claydon concluded.
The borough assembly’s Health, Education and Welfare Committee will hold a meeting with Claydon to go over details on Tuesday, Jan. 12 at 5 p.m. at City Hall. Baker said he will be there as well. Then a town hall meeting is tentatively scheduled for after the burger feed at the Elks on Friday, Jan. 15.
In an interview last week, Baker and Dr. Eric Stirling, a director with Apollo MT and the former owner of Guardian Flight, said it would be up to the community to determine who would qualify for coverage. They were impressed with the community-driven desire to provide a “safety net” for all residents. If the community policy is secured, then those who currently have coverage would have their memberships extended, Baker said.
He clarified that the coverage is not solely for Guardian Flight medevacs, and the membership policy is underwritten by United Life Insurance Co. The proposed services contract spells this out, extending coverage through Alaska, the Yukon, British Columbia, and even down to Seattle.
“If you are flown by any medevac, we cover,” Baker said.
Guardian provides most of the medevacs for the town, but cannot always get here from its closest base in Sitka. At times, Dahl Memorial Clinic and Bartlett Hospital have had to call on Captial City Rescue in Juneau to come up on a special TEMSCO helicopter to take a Skagway patient when Guardian was busy elsewhere or can’t fly due to darkness. A few weeks ago, a Coast Guard helicopter came up in the early evening for a man with serious injuries from a fall off a roof. And when no one can fly, the Skagway ambulance will drive up the highway to Whitehorse, where patients have been transferred to Guardian and other air ambulances.
The costs vary widely. Guardian charges about $25,000 but has the most dependable service and is the carrier preferred by Bartlett, the receiving hospital, noted DMC medical director Carolyn Borg and Skagway EMS Captain Jeremy Simmons. Borg said the Coast Guard does not charge, but “is very, very picky” and will only come up in a life-threatening situation.
Captial City Chief Richard Etheridge said they typically charge $1,200 for the ambulance trip and sending EMTs up to Skagway on the helicopter. The helicopter is billed separately and costs around $4,000, said TEMSCO’s Paul Reichert. A larger chopper in Juneau is outfitted for a “med bed,” said Reichert, the local tour manager, and it can be here quicker in the summer than having a local tour helicopter changed over. However, in the winter, a helicopter in their Skagway hangar is outfitted and ready for emergencies, Reichert said.
If a Skagway EMS crew were to jump on a helicopter with a patient, the cost would be the usual $500 for an Advanced Life Support call, said acting deputy chief Colin Aikman. But both he and Simmons said Guardian Flight is better for the patient, because the air service’s accompanying paramedics have easy access to equipment during the flight. In a helicopter, the patient is lying down next to the pilot and the EMTs are in the back. And with the noise, it is hard to take vitals. Furthermore, if Skagway EMS sends two people, then the town is not covered as well, and there is a cost for their return home.
Borg said patients are always presented options and a worst case scenario about what could happen if they are not medevaced. A few will choose to wait for a Wings flight in daylight, or even a ferry ride.
According to Skagway Fire Dept., the town had 81 medevacs through August, and has had another 10-15 since then. There were 65 in 2008. Most of those went on Guardian, but when the ownership changed a year ago, the price went up, and the complaints rolled in this summer.
Guardian’s new rate of $25,000 for a medevac from Skagway to Juneau appears to be on the high end for medevac costs in the state and the nation, according to a recent story on msnbc.com. Guardian’s rates went up after the company was purchased by Joe Hunt, owner of Eagle Air Med of Blanding, Utah, said Stirling. When he owned Guardian, the Juneau-Skagway cost was $6,500, Stirling said.
A competing carrier in the Fairbanks area, Warbelow’s Air Ambulance Service, charges $7,500 to $10,000 for a medevac over a similar distance in the Interior. Owner Art Warbelow called the News and cautioned Skagway residents about the membership programs, questioning their legality and need when health insurance or Medicare pays most medevac costs. He said he testified against Dr. Stirling in Juneau a few years ago when the doctor set up the original memberships through non-profit Critical Care Inc. When the state balked, Guardian Flight Air Care was formed and it eventually was converted to Apollo MT as a separate insurance provider. Apollo has a registered producer license with the Division of Insurance which went into effect on February 20, 2009. Similar membership programs are growing in popularity nationwide.
After repeated inquiries over the past few weeks to brothers Joe and Jim Hunt of Utah, Guardian Flight director of business development Shanon Pollack sent a statement to the News on Monday addressing questions about its relationship with Apollo MT and Guardian’s costs.
The statement reiterated that Apollo MT and Guardian Flight are separate companies owned by different individuals, adding that Eagle Air Med did not own Guardian. When asked to present a list of owners, Guardian did not respond by press time.
In the e-mailed statement, Pollack did note: “Guardian Flight and Apollo MT compete for air medical contract relationships. At this time we are attempting to resolve some serious issues between the two organizations and we do not know what the outcome of the attempted resolution will be. A community-wide signing with Apollo MT will be between the community and Apollo MT only.”
Reached again on Monday, Baker and Stirling addressed the Guardian statement.
Stirling said the Apollo program works for any provider, including Guardian, with whom Apollo has a four-year agreement. As an insurer, Stirling said, “we can’t compete for medevacs.”
He added that the agreement with Guardian honors the memberships, but suggested that Guardian may be challenging contracts that were in place before the sale of the company.
“The bottom line issue with the provider is irrelevant,” Baker added. “There would never be a concern (for the patient) if Guardian wanted to charge more. They would go after Apollo, not the patient.”
In its statement regarding the costs, Guardian provided a lengthy response when asked to justify its 400 percent increase last year.
It noted there were “substantial losses” by the air medical industry in 2008, and that “Guardian Flight in particular lost millions of dollars last year and would have been insolvent in October of 2008 had it not been for the change in ownership and the substantial funding that was provided by the new ownership which allowed Guardian Flight to continue operations.”
Pollack’s statement added that rates are set at a level that allows the companies to “remain financially viable and recoup costs associated with low paying flights or those flights where the patient has no insurance. Guardian Flight responds to emergency calls regardless of the patient’s ability to pay. We do not turn the plane around if the patient has no insurance.”
It added they work with Medicare, Medicaid, Native corporations, Blue Cross, and other insurance carriers.
“After insurance pays, we work with the patients on a case-by-case basis to evaluate their financial situation for their ability to pay the remaining portion of the bill,” the statement said. “We attempt to work with patients as much as we possibly can, often leading us to write-off a portion of the bill/remaining balance. We also provide patients with interest free payment plans that are custom fit to their financial situation. If there are no remedies for payment, Guardian Flight will take a loss on the entire bill.”
Pollack added that they have yet to take a patient to collections since new management took over in October 2008.
In the much publicized case last summer, in which two Skagway residents were initially charged more than $25,000 each for sharing a Guardian medevac on July 4, neither party has had to pay anything out of pocket.
John McCluskey’s original bill was $25,315, and 80 percent was covered In October by his mother’s Premiera Blue Cross policy with the municipality, while the 20 percent co-pay was covered by his ASEA insurance as a ferry system union employee. And they were signed up with Apollo MT as well.
On Nov. 13, Guardian then sent a letter to the other patient, Viola Gazzara, notifying her that they had “determined to write off the full balance of $23,315…. Your account is deemed paid in full.”
This came after her partner, Charles Stearns, sent a letter to Congressman Don Young and others about Guardian’s cost increase and being double-charged. They were not insured and are also dealing with other costs from the episode. Gazarra was in the hospital only a couple hours for her stomach ailment and released.
Stearns said the Apollo MT insurance “is cheap, almost too cheap,” but something the town should be able to take care of. A summer resident for many years, he said the residency and household definitions will need to be clarified, but using the Alaska PFD makes sense. He is worried that rising health care costs in general could result in a situation where “fewer people will be willing to risk working in Alaska, especially in Skagway.”
McCluskey said she was glad they had the Apollo policy, even if it was not used, and Baker said there is no guarantee that Blue Cross will pay every time.
When asked if she supported a community plan, McCluskey said, “If it saves one person from going bankrupt, it would be worth it.”
Princess switch ‘a wash’; Ryndam a loss for 2011
CVB: New winter and spring events in planning stages
By JEFF BRADY
Carnival Corp. announced last week that it will be pulling two more ships out of the Alaska market in 2011. The decision to remove the 710-passenger Royal Princess and Holland America’s 1,258-passenger Ryndam, will result in an estimated net loss of about 11,300 passengers to Skagway in 2011, according to the Skagway Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The Royal Princess is replacing the similar size Pacific Princess in 2010 and will call on Skagway eight times. But the numbers lost in 2011 from the Royal, the smallest Princess ship in the Alaska fleet, will be made up by a larger class 2,600-passenger Princess ship replacing a medium class 1,970-passenger ship, said Tourism Director Buckwheat Donahue.
“So the Princess capacity will be the same for us,” Donahue said. “It’s a wash.”
However the loss of the Ryndam, which called on Skagway 11 times last summer and is scheduled for nine visits in 2010, will be felt.
Donahue said those ship’s numbers will not be made up, but overall the 2011 season will be stronger than 2010 with the return of Crystal Cruises and the introduction of a Disney Cruise Lines ship in Alaska waters.
“It’s still a gain over 2010,” he said.
In a statement, Carnival said that strong demand for cruising in Europe and higher costs of doing business in Alaska drove the change to drop the two ships from the 2010 itinerary. Carnival CEO Micky Arison has been highly critical of the cruise excess tax passed by Alaska voters in 2006, and the industry is suing the state.
The industry was able to fill ships in 2009 by offering deep discounts last winter, and the season’s passenger numbers are in. Skagway saw a slight increase in cruise visitors over 2008, from 765,492 to 779,043, according to CVB figures. But those numbers will drop by about 70,000 in 2010 with the loss of a Royal Caribbean and Princess ship next summer. Other ports will see greater losses in 2010, but Skagway’s loss is offset by gaining a Celebrity ship and Holland America’s Amsterdam.
At the CVB’s Dec. 15 meeting, members talked mostly about new winter-spring events. Plans are underway for a Back Country Bash and Ball in mid-March, featuring a weekend of outdoor activities on the summit and an amateur winter video festival.
In addition, the spring writer’s conference now has a name and theme, “North Words Writers Symposium: Exploring the Frontiers of Language”, and will be held the first week of June. It will be advertised in Alaska Magazine in February. Donahue has been working with the magazine on promoting the conference and with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Yukon College on bringing faculty to it, as well as Haines writer/teacher Dan Henry. Donahue hopes to draw about 80 to the conference, and an itinerary will be developed on a new website in the new year. The early June date fit best with university schedules.
In other business, the CVB is studying ways to generate more revenue, including the possibility of a satellite museum in AB Hall that could feature rotating exhibits from Skagway Museum and National Park Service collections. Members said the exhibits should be set up so they can still have functions in the hall. The CVB also is working on designing four new welcome signs, and working with the local ATIA chapter on hosting a board meeting here prior to the ATIA’s annual convention next October in Whitehorse.
Paws & Claws’ Katherine Moseley receives 2009 Helen B. Clark Award
Paws and Claws animal rescue shelter founder Katherine Selmer Moseley was named the winner of the 2009 Helen B. Clark Award.
The 23rd annual award for Skagway community service was presented at the start of the Yuletide Ball on Dec. 12.
Reading from portions of two separate nominating statements from 2005 and this year, Skagway News publisher Jeff Brady said the following about Moseley:
“She has been an animal lover all her life. It all started when she was little and tried to take animals home – from catching a crow, to “buying” a rabbit from Chris Rohlf and telling her parents she found in on a street corner, and then, of course, caring for “Nick” the horse.
“When she grew up, she manifested this love by seeing a need in the community for an animal rescue service. She founded Paws and Claws, which has evolved from her gaining an endorsement from the city council in 2002, to an MOU that resulted in a building next to the police department for housing and caring for animals, the hosting of spay/neuter clinics, visits by veterinarians, and holding classes for animal first aid. Since its inception, Paws and Claws has rescued cats, dogs and a horse, and working with other shelters in the region, has found foster homes for many unwanted pets.
“It’s fair to say that she probably knows the name of every dog, cat, rabbit, horse, turtle and bird in our town, and several dogs in Angoon. She has fostered so many animals herself that a family joke at her house is ‘Who’s in the bathroom today?’ The support of her husband Eric and children Kiara and Isaiah play a big roll as well, along with people on the board who take in animals or help with fundraisers.
“She does not herald her accomplishment so it is easy to take her for granted. Helping animals is her way of life. She recently told her mother that no matter what, ‘all animals need love.’ And this love has spread around the community where we now have a local pet rescue organization that people can turn to and know that pets will be placed in good homes. Thanks to her for raising this awareness in Skagway – for the animals especially – and for making us all better and responsible pet owners.”
The HBC committee of past winners also gave Special Recognition certificates to two others in the community:
• Linda Calver for her volunteer work with youth.
• Duff and Karla Ray for their volunteer efforts on various boards and through their church, and support of community events by their businesses.
Above,Katherine Moseley accepts her award, an antique wood type letter “K” from publisher Jeff Brady at the Yuletide Ball. Andrew Cremata
OBITUARY: Skagway loses the one and only Benny Lingle
BOROUGH DIGEST (complete digest in print edition)
Crossing that bridge: Taiya project slated for late Sept. 2010
The Taiya River Bridge will get some needed attention next fall when the Department of Transportation begins repairs on the deck of the failing structure. The logistics of dealing with the activities of daily life for folks living on the west side of the bridge was the focus of a pair of meetings held on Dec. 15 at City Hall.
Officials from DOT met with borough officials, National Park Service representatives, and the public to hear input on the issues bridge users and area residents will face when their only road access is closed during bridge repairs. Design Group Chief Alan Steininger said DOT hoped to start repairs at the end of September 2010 and the process would take a total of 60 days.
Steininger said bridge work was notorious for unseen problems and delays, and there could be potential for the 60-day timeline increasing after the work was started.
During the first meeting with municipal entities Steininger explained the bridge was due for two more inspections in the coming winter months. He said it was possible the bridge could be downgraded from its current five ton capacity to three tons. It was built in 1948 and is currently listed as “structurally deficient.”
The results of the inspections could have far-reaching implications for users of the bridge during the upcoming 2010 tourist season. A three-ton capacity rating would prohibit fuel trucks and tour vehicles from crossing the bridge until repairs could be made.
Steininger said he wanted to keep the focus on dealing with issues that will be faced during the actual repair of the bridge. He said these included emergency services, shuttling persons back and forth across the river, fuel delivery, and road maintenance.
He said that by including as many of these “services” in the contractor’s bid as possible, they would hopefully encourage the contractor to complete the project in a timely manner.
“We want him to get in and get done in the 60 days we think he can do it,” said Steininger.
Fire Department representative Colin Aikman said the department could keep a Suburban on the west side of the bridge for emergency response. The vehicle would be a means whereby persons in need of medical attention could be transported to the river, walked across, and then transported by ambulance to town.
Petro Marine Services manager Tim Cochran said a small fuel truck could be kept on the west side of the bridge for fueling and said it would be important for residents in the area to top off their fuel tanks before construction began.
Steininger said the contractor could provide a heated structure to house vehicles and provide road maintenance including snow plowing and obstruction removal.
Exactly how people would be moved back and forth across the river during bridge repair garnered the most discussion. There was some talk about the building of a temporary bridge but Steininger warned the cost of such a structure could make it prohibitive. Another idea was to direct the contractor to arrange time intervals, and a shuttle, for movement across the bridge, but Steininger said constant work interruptions could cause significant delays in the repair process.
Assemblyman Dave Hunz suggested utilizing the old suspension bridge that used to span the mouth of the Skagway River, and is currently being stored by the municipality. Steininger said the suspension bridge could be a permanent asset for the area if it were placed somewhere near the Taiya River Bridge, and would provide access from one side to the other during the entirety of the construction process and beyond.
At the public meeting held a few hours later, Steininger reviewed the key points with five Dyea residents who attended the meeting.
John McDermott said he would like to be able to use a four-wheeler to move back and forth across the bridge.
One attendee said that many residents may not have known about the meeting even though it was posted publically and printed twice in the local paper. Assemblywoman Colette Hisman suggested mailing a notice to residents of the area to receive more input.
Mayor Tom Cochran said that more information from commercial users would have to be gathered as none were present at the meeting, and there were unanswered questions about their use of the bridge during the fall months.
Steininger said the repaired bridge would be rated for up to 40,000 lb. dual-axle vehicles and would have a life span of up to 20 years.
The project was the borough’s top priority for the state this past year, and it is being funded through the department’s emergency repairs program. The engineer’s estimate for the project, according to the DOT website, is between $1 million and $2.5 million. The state anticipates advertising for bids for the project in April 2010.
In other DOT news, an emergency repair to a washed out embankment on the Dyea Road was recently completed by Hamilton Construction of Skagway, which bid $81,077 for that project. – AC
Sale signage ordinance back before assembly
The degree to which the municipality can report violations of the Alaska Unfair Trade Practices Act is before the Skagway Borough Assembly again.
At the Historic District Commission’s request, the assembly on Dec. 16 officially defeated one ordinance, 09-17, and is replacing it with another, 09-23, which passed first reading but is subject to further review by the HDC, administration, and the borough attorney.
HDC chair Casey McBride described how the commission got to this point. An ordinance that attempted to regulate misleading sale signs in the district passed last March, and had an overall good effect, he said, but problems developed over the summer about when “end of season” sale signs could legally appear. The HDC originally had set Labor Day as the date such signs could appear.
But according to the state Attorney General’s office, a year-round business has to wait six months, whereas a summer-only business could wait until the middle of the season to put up a sale sign, McBride said.
The ordinance came back to HDC, which set an arbitrary date of July 16 for when sale signs can appear, and defined a seasonal business as one open in fewer than four quarters of a calendar year.
Responding to administration concerns, the new ordinance also clarifies what the municipality can do when it receives a complaint about an alleged misleading sign. Its role is now meant to be a reporting agency.
McBride said that if a complaint comes in from an individual, it would then go to the permitting officer, who then would give the offending business written notice that the sign must be removed in three days, or the sign would be documented and the information forwarded to the state AG’s office.
“We don’t want to penalize businesses,” McBride said, “but we want businesses to know that they are being watched.”
Municipal Clerk Marj Harris said the new ordinance goes a long way to resolving issues administration had with the previous version, but they still have concerns about a section about signs that “falsely state the quality or source of merchandise.” She said they want to make sure that the municipality “stays out of the middle” of any dispute between the merchant and the state.
Mayor Tom Cochran said he had a problem with the ordinance coming from “outside the purview of the HDC,” saying they should be dealing with historic structures and let the chamber of commerce or a merchant organization handle the signage complaints.
But McBride said past violations have occurred in the district, and a part of their code deals with aesthetics.
Assemblywoman Colette Hisman said she supports the ordinance, because, as a former member of the HDC, commission members are constantly faced with aesthetic issues.
“When the district has the look of people doing shady things, it affects the whole district,” she said.
With some administrative questions still unresolved, Harris suggested passing the ordinance on first reading, and letting HDC work with administration before second reading on Jan. 7. This also would leave the borough attorney time to review it. The motion passed 5-0. Dan Henry was excused from the meeting due to a family matter. – JB
Sales tax holiday extension to Feb. 28
The assembly approved a resolution extending the current sales tax holiday through January and February. The resolution originally included the month of March, but Hisman said that could result in a loss of $95,000. She said March was usually a busier sales month.
Assemblyman Tim Cochran agreed, saying he was skeptical that the “economy is coming back.” With the school facing cuts and likely needing more municipal funding, he said they would need the March revenues.
Assemblyman Dave Hunz made the motion to amend the ending date to Feb. 28. He added that so far, revenues have exceeded budget projections this year, and he was comfortable extending the holiday another two months. – JB
SCHOOL REPORT (complete report in print edition)
School Community Forum scheduled for Jan. 19
The Skagway School will host its annual Community Forum on Tuesday, January 19.
During a work session earlier this month, the school board settled on topics that will be presented.
The evening will start at 6 p.m. with a presentation on the Virtual High School program currently being offered at Petersburg High School, followed by another presentation on Skagway’s Science Fair program by teacher Cory Thole.
Then at 7 p.m., there will be roundtable discussions on the following topics:
• What programs do parents want in the school.
• Expanding the length of the school day/calendar, with a possible later start by the high school.
• Forming a Fact Finding Committee with businesses, staff, students, and board to generate ideas to boost school enrollment and school growth.
• How to keep from losing students.
The School Community Forum will be in the McMillen Room. – JB