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