03/21/2014 12:11 EDT | Updated 05/21/2014 05:59 EDT

Demographics, paramedics factors in high air ambulance cost: Manitoba premier

WINNIPEG - Premier Greg Selinger says STARS air ambulance expenses highlighted by Manitoba's auditor general are due in part to demographics.

In her annual report Wednesday, Carol Bellringer said the government broke its own rules by not allowing other companies to bid on the service. She also said Manitoba signed a deal with STARS even though its cost-per-mission would be up to 600 per cent more than in other provinces.

Selinger said the cost-per-mission is high because helicopters are used less in Manitoba than in the other Prairie provinces. Part of the reason, he told a legislature committee Friday, is that most Manitobans live close to Winnipeg or other cities and can be transported by ground ambulance.

"People are close to the major population centres and can get to (hospital) services more rapidly without it requiring a helicopter."

The premier also said the NDP government has funded 700 more ground paramedics since taking power in 1999, so the ground service can cover more areas.

The province signed a 10-year contract with STARS worth $100 million. Most of the service's costs are fixed because equipment and health professionals are always on standby.

STARS flew 177 missions in Manitoba last year compared with 821 in Saskatchewan and almost 1,700 in Alberta.