THE National Transportation Safety Board may be on to something with its latest safety recommendations for medical helicopters. The board wants to link stricter operation and training standards for helicopter operators to Medicare reimbursements. The financial incentive might work to improve the dismal safety statistics of an industry that suffered a record number of fatalities last year.
The NTSB believes changes in Medicare reimbursement rules in 2003 made it easier for helicopter operators to be paid for emergency flights. And it was arguably that influx of government compensation that led to an 80 percent growth in the number of emergency helicopters operating in 10 years. Along with that spike came an increase in accidents. Between December, 2007, and October, 2008, 35 people were killed in nine crashes.
It's time for the Federal Aviation Administration to stop dragging its feet on NTSB recommendations and impose tighter controls on training and safety equipment for medical helicopters. Among safety features, the board urges the required use of autopilot and night-vision systems, and flight data recorders.
It is equally important for the Department of Health and Human Services to act on the NTSB proposal to require that operators pass new safety standards before they can receive Medicare payments. It just might be what motivates a booming industry to become safer.