Published: Sep 07, 2012 12:15 AM EDT

LEE COUNTY, Fla. - Lee County's MEDSTAR helicopters are still grounded. But millions of tax payer dollars just flew out the window.  Working with our partners at the News-Press, WINK News found out that millions of dollars MEDSTAR should be paid for dozens of medical flights will never make it into county coffers.  

Last month, Lee County suspended MEDSTAR flights and fired all the pilots.  Officials said they need to rebuild the program to meet higher accreditation standards. But for nearly a year, when the newest chopper in the fleet left the hanger, the county was left hanging for the expenses.

Lee County Commissioners received an e-mail Thursday from Kim Dickerson. She is the county's Deputy Director of Public Safety and Chief of EMS. In it, she explains the MEDSTAR helicopter was not fully certified by the FAA, meaning over the past year, they couldn't have, and shouldn't have billed patients for 79 flights.

It started with the purchase of a $2 million dollar Bell 430 helicopter in 2010. Dickerson also said in the e-mail that both the helicopter and the pilots needed to be certified under FAA Part 135 - which regulates air transport operations - in order to bill medicare and medicaid for medical services. rendered. When the Bell 430 first flew a medical mission in last October, neither the pilots, nor the aircraft were properly certified by the FAA. So, during the next 4 months, 39 patients flew for free.  Without the certification, MEDSTAR couldn't charge for the flights.     

The Bell 430 was finally certified for air transport on February 8th of this year. Dickerson said MEDSTAR ordered billing to begin the following day. But the pilots were still not certified to fly under FAA part 135 for air transport. According to the e-mail, the total amount charged for the Bell 430 was nearly $3,000,000. The total collected was more than $320,000.

Dickerson said now, they are working to refund for the 79 flights that should not have been billed. Over the next 30 days, Dickerson said they will provide the FAA with an initial plan of action to rebuild the MEDSTAR program.

In the meantime, a group has launched a website SaveMEDSTAR along with a petition with even more concerns about the service. We contacted several county commissioners, and were advised the assistant county manager had released a statement on their behalf. As Friday morning, we have not received.