I have many fond memories from overseeing and managing the first air medical merger in the United States to form a consortium on March 21, 1993. I had read all about the Kalamazoo hospitals and how competition had led to higher prices and not lower ones from a front-page Wall Street Journal article in June 1990. Borgess Medical Center and Bronson Methodist Hospital, with pressure from the business community, looked at ways they could better cooperate, and West Michigan Air Care was one of the resulting decisions. They had already been working together with Michigan State University Kalamazoo Center for Medical Studies (MSUKCMS).
I knew that there would be skepticism among the staff at both Borgess InFlight and Bronson CareFlite that they had been sold out, and I predicted that the receiving physicians and staff at both hospitals felt that there would be no way that this new program would be better than their own hospital-based one. With time we proved these worries wrong, but it took many action steps and about one year to get there and really hit our stride.
After putting together a human resources plan with benefits, job descriptions, etc., and started the interviewing process, one of the things that I made clear with the board when I was hired was that I wanted the best people and that there would not be a quota from each side. It ended up being fairly well split but not by design. It was also helpful for each hospital to guarantee other positions in their respective hospitals for staff that did not want to join West Michigan Air Care.
The decision was made before I arrived in Kalamazoo that we were going to be a FAA Part 135 program and that we were going to order a new Eurocopter AS 365 Dauphin helicopter after first repainting and using the Dauphin (N365SJ) that Borgess had. The CareFlite Bell 412 was sold. Borgess InFlight had a Part 135 Certificate and Bronson CareFlite used an air operator, OmniFlight. Due to the time and complexity of writing and receiving approval of a whole new FAA Part 135 certificate, which had been initially mandated by the joint merger committee, I gained approval from the board to transfer the Borgess InFlight certificate. It made perfect sense since we were flying the same type of aircraft and our Director of Operations had been the Director at InFlight. That process went smoothly. After negotiating with Eurocopter, now called Airbus, a new Eurocopter AS 365 or N365WM was put into service in 1993. N365SJ, was used for a full-time backup, which was great to have to cover maintenance and for a solid in-service time.
After staff were hired and leadership positions announced, the task of creating a new team from those that had been at either program began. One of the things we did with leadership was a ropes course at the Adventure Center in Mattawan, Michigan. It was a great way to build trust and get to know each other. We also made many other decisions on uniforms, helmets, medical equipment, and the configuration of the new aircraft to name just a few.
Initially the administrative offices were housed at Borgess and the hangar was used for the backup aircraft. The main operations and communications center were at Bronson. It was the plan that we would move to a hangar and offices at the Kalamazoo / Battle Creek International Airport. After looking at several hangars and doing construction feasibility it was decided to stay in the current configuration since the cost was so prohibitive and we had so many aviation resources such as fuel and hangars at both hospitals.
The merger saved over $1 million dollars in the first full year and in each subsequent year. Thanks to so many dedicated staff members we proved that West Michigan Air Care could deliver excellent quality of care and do it without worries that any transports were not going to the appropriate facility or being re-directed.
I look back at my time in Kalamazoo with much fondness. It was a wonderful experience merging two programs and running an independent air medical transport program. I have such a passion for this business and have West Michigan Air Care to thank for helping me discover and build that passion. Congratulations to you all for building such a wonderful program. Thank you!
By Edward R. Eroe
First President & CEO
West Michigan Air Care