AUSTIN – The Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved a plan to replace three helicopters used to transport critically injured patients to hospitals with newer models.

Item 4 of the court’s Sept. 12 agenda states “Consider and take appropriate action on the following related to the replacement of STAR Flight helicopters and organizational sustainability.” The agenda request said the cost for replacing the helicopters is estimated to be $30 million, but Seton Hospital has reportedly expressed willingness to donate $10 million toward buying helicopters and STAR Flight estimates it can get another $10 million from selling its existing helicopters.

According to KVUE's partners at the Austin American-Statesman, commissioners passed the measure unanimously. The court also approved the sale STAR Flight 4, a Huey bought in 2012 for use in firefighting.

“We don’t want an expensive program to be decided with emotion, like right after a wildfire,” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt told the Statesman. “In 20-20 hindsight, we probably should not have purchased that. And I think we need to be honest with the public about that.”

A 10-year estimate for two options – keeping its existing fleet and buying new helicopters – show a possible savings of around $7 million. The additional cost for keeping the existing fleet is estimated to go into refurbishment and maintenance for the three helicopters. A third option would have involved keeping two existing helicopters and selling a third. Such a move would be around $10 million less than keeping the three helicopters over the same 10-year period.

The Statesman said STAR Flight tripled its fees in August for Travis County patient transport to increase revenue and lighten the burden on taxpayers. Insurance companies now pay a $15,000 base rate and $200 per mile, up from $4,500 for county residents and $9,500 for non-county residents, and $165 per mile. Patients pay deductibles and co-pays according to their insurance plans.

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