Feature Post: Air Ambulance Flights Leave Many with Sky-High Surprise Medical Bills

Angela Perry
Policy Analyst

Wednesday, July 27th, 2016
Air ambulance helicopter.

When patients need to be airlifted to medical care in an emergency, the first priority is getting them to a provider as quickly as possible. As a result, patients don’t always know who is going to pick them up, or if the air ambulance is in their health plan’s network. That can end up leading to surprise expenses when the air ambulance companies ask patients to pay the full bill, or to pay any balance left after the insurance plan’s out-of-network coverage is applied. And those bills can be astronomical – ranging from $10,000 to $100,000!

As many as 400,000 people are transported each year by air ambulances, estimates the Association of Air Medical Services. Patients may use an air ambulance in an emergency if they have an accident in a remote location or need specialized care not locally available. For people with insurance who think they’re protected against this sort of catastrophic health care bill, the cost of an air ambulance ride can be a shock. States regulate some medical aspects of air ambulances, but federal law says that states may not regulate the “price, route, or service of an air carrier.” Some air ambulance companies have relied on this federal law to challenge state efforts to protect consumers from rate shock. That has enabled many air ambulance companies to bill the patient for the balance left after any insurance payment.

Some air ambulance companies offer membership programs as “protection” from these big bills. For an annual fee of about $60 to $100, patients face no cost beyond what their health insurance pays if they use that company’s services. But there’s a catch: In an emergency a patient likely can’t choose which air ambulance service is going to pick them up. If another air ambulance company transports you, your membership will likely offer no protection from the cost.

Patients who survive a medical emergency should not have to go bankrupt from over-the-top air ambulance bills. Just like any shocking medical bill, air ambulance charges typically catch patients off guard, and the bills can be sky-high. Help us understand how this problem affects consumers. If you or a loved one has received an air ambulance bill, please share your experience with us here. Your story will help us inform policymakers and the public about this costly problem.

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7 responses to “Feature Post: Air Ambulance Flights Leave Many with Sky-High Surprise Medical Bills”

  1. MaryMcK says:

    NationalPitBullVictimAwareness.org Pit bull victims are often life flighted and their bills are huge whether they live or die. Pit bull owners never have money to pay so the victim of survivors are stuck.

  2. Scott says:

    I was airlifted in Kentucky after an accident involving a porch collapse. I had no insurance and told the paramedics I just wanted to go by ambulance to the nearest hospital. The paramedics told me I had a blood coming from my ear, and could have suffered a skull brain injury even though the blood was coming from my cut on my head above my ear. Reluctantly I went by air and was billed $26,000. for trip by air med. Hoe do they expect someone to pay that much money?

  3. G. Eisenbarth says:

    My wife and I had a motorcycle accident in rural Texas. The bill was $800 for the ambulance. The ambulance took us about 2 miles to a helipad. The helicopters took us about 70 miles to a level one trauma center. The bill was about $27,500. The total bill for the two of us was $56,600. Fortunately the air ambulance company accepted what Medicare approved (about $8,500). Our medicare supplement picked up the coinsurance that was unpaid by Medicare. I was pretty worried because my understanding is that Medicare makes an assessment about whether the helicopter was medically necessary before deciding whether to approve the payment. While the bills were astronomical, we were fortunate the service was available since both of us were badly injured.

  4. Gary Kujat says:

    From personal experience the Patient Protection Act does not include enough to protect the patient Having a painful staph infection I went the emergency room for pain pills and antibiotic, I ended up staying 5 days. Because the nurses were not qualified to take my blood pressure, temperature, and hook up IV’s separate nurses did each one. This caused me to not sleep more than about 2 hours at a time. This caused my pain to feel worse and I was given stronger pain medicines.
    The morning I woke up after getting out of the hospital I was completely paralyzed for about ten minutes and forced myself to roll off the bed onto the floor. Monday I went to my doctor and was told I was over medicated. I signed a release form to get my medical records from the hospital, he never received them . I went to the hospital 3 times to get copies of my medical records and was told they were not complete therefore they wouldn’t be able to give them to me. It was after the 2 year limitation to sue them that they gave them to me. The “medical records” were more o doctors assessments with some of the medications administered.
    Being sued by the hospital for unpaid medical bills I requested from the lawyers my “medical records” I did not receive them but did get a list of the charges. I was shocked at the number of drugs I was given, over 40. Eight of those drugs were for pain, 8 dose of morphine within a 5 day period

    Since hospitals with ACA are required to keep Electronic Health Records these records should be required to be kept in a timeline that includes services provided, treatments, doctors assessments, and medication administered. These records should required to be kept indefinitely and not destroyed-deleted after 7 years as they current are. This would help keep the communication between the doctors open thus benefiting the patient, reduce unnecessary treatments-services, and may reduce, patients from being over medicated

  5. Alan Graham says:

    I live in Ontario, Canada. Our Provincial Health Insurance does not cover ambulance costs. Our local ambulance service is operated by our regional government, paid for with our taxes, but if you have to use one, you are billed for it. My wife had to go to hospital because she felt faint. I was not home so she called 9-1-1. The trip to the hospital took about 5 minutes. Our bill was $45 plus 13% tax! It would have been cheaper to call a cab! Hate to think what the charge would have been if she needed a helicopter.

    • Nicole says:

      $45 would be nice, in Michigan my son was having breathing difficulties and required a 10 minute ambulance ride. I got the bill a couple weeks later, cost us over $500 out of pocket. I guess next time we’ll just cross our fingers that we can make it to the hospital by car before he passes out or worse.

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