THE number of rescue helicopters covering NSW could fall from 15 to 12 under cost-saving recommendations in a report commissioned by the state government.
The state is serviced by five different types of helicopters but the review recommends reducing the fleet and moving to two models of identically configured helicopters. It also calls for the number of back-up helicopters to be reduced from six to three.
However, even with those potential savings, the report, by accountants Ernst & Young, found the state government will need to find another $7.3 million a year by 2020 to fund the cost of medical helicopters.
If that investment is not made, mission response times in Sydney could deteriorate by as much as a minute over the next 10 years.
At present the average helicopter response time for the Ambulance Service of NSW in Sydney is nine minutes during the day. If the projections are correct, this could extend to 10 minutes.
The opposition health spokesman, Andrew McDonald, said most of the recommendations are about cutting money.
''How can you possibly improve response times with less helicopters?'' he said. ''It seems to me that the bottom line is more important.''
Helicopter emergency response time is understood to be the period between the helicopter being alerted and the time it takes off.
The independent review, released yesterday by the NSW Ministry of Health, found the need for widespread reform, and made 56 key recommendations.
Reducing the number of helicopters was ''necessary to eliminate the unnecessary duplication, inconsistencies and inefficiencies which the current arrangements exhibit,'' the report found.
It also found demand for the state's aeromedical services will increase by 23 per cent over the next 10 years, due to population growth and an ageing demographic.
The last major review of the services was in 2004.
The report also proposes reducing the number of service regions from five to two ''super-regions'', dividing the state into a northern and southern region.
Should the government adopt the recommendations, operations at Newcastle, Tamworth and Orange bases would become 24-hours, seven days a week.
Winch operations would be restricted to four bases - Sydney, Canberra, Newcastle and Lismore - ending operations at Wollongong and Tamworth.
Doctors would be on board all helicopters, instead of just at some of the state's bases.
It also suggests there be further investigation into moving the Wollongong service to the planned mega-base in Sydney.
A CareFlight director, Ian Badham, welcomed the report but said he had a few concerns.
''I'm concerned about contracting services to Sydney instead of moving helicopters further out to where the patients are,'' he said. ''[And] any extension to response times would be of concern.
''[But] I think the overall thrust is that there will be an improved availability and capability of support to trauma and ill patients across NSW in the future.''
The proposed changes are likely to spark a backlash from many regional communities already concerned that they are not adequately serviced by aeromedical services.
A NSW Health spokeswoman said the report had been sent to about 150 stakeholders for comment. They include the Ambulance Service of NSW, clinicians, a critical care taskforce, hospitals, unions and MPs.
The government will release its response to the review once the formal submission period closes in February.
with Bevan Shields