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The Quebec government is making no excuses for the lack of a helicopter air ambulance service to transport trauma patients such as actress Natasha Richardson, who died of a head injury after skiing at Mont Tremblant this week.

Purchasing a helicopter ambulance is not a priority and there are no plans to acquire one, a government spokeswoman said yesterday.

Health and Social Services Minister Yves Bolduc refused to be interviewed regarding Ms. Richardson's accident. His spokeswoman Marie-Ève Bédard said Mr. Bolduc was concerned that anything he said could be used in any potential legal action against the government.

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Ms. Richardson was taken by ambulance to the Centre Hospitalier Laurentien in Ste-Agathe, a 40-minute drive from Mont Tremblant, more than two hours after she took a tumble at the resort. The hospital stabilized the actress and she was then taken by ambulance on an hour-long drive to a specialized trauma centre at Montreal's Sacré-Coeur Hospital and later flown to New York.

Since Ms. Richardson's death, questions have been raised about Quebec's lack of a helicopter ambulance. British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Nova Scotia have helicopter air ambulance services. The other provinces do not.

Quebec decided to buy two airplanes for its air ambulance service after a report in October, 2007, called for the consolidation of ambulance services in the province and the expenditure of $10-million to improve it.

The report made no major specific recommendation regarding air ambulances, but the government decided in January of 2008 to spend $40-million on two fixed-wing aircraft.

"We decided to give priority to replacing aging air ambulance planes with the purchase of two new airplanes," Ms. Bédard said in an interview Friday. "We don't exclude the possibility of introducing a helicopter service, but we insist on noting that if we need to evacuate someone rapidly we always call on civil emergency services for a helicopter to evacuate people."

François Rivard, who runs a private, non-profit medical helicopter service in Quebec called AirMédic, said he has approached the provincial government several times about integrating his service into the Quebec health-care system, without success. Mr. Rivard, a paramedic who has served with the Canadian Forces in Bosnia, said prompt delivery of trauma victims to specialized care can be crucial in saving lives.

"It's impossible to do that by land, especially in a vast territory like Quebec's," he said.

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Ontario's air ambulance service, known as Ornge, airlifted 5,700 patients by helicopter in the past fiscal year. The service reaches remote communities, provincial parks or car crashes that would take longer to reach by conventional ambulance.

"The major advantage of a helicopter is that it goes places without a landing strip," said Dr. Chris Mazza, CEO and president of Ornge.

"Helicopters are tremendously useful components of our health-care system."

With a report from Ingrid Peritz in Montreal

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