Insurers, air ambulance companies dispute costs in legislative spotlight

The high price for life-saving air ambulance flights has recently grabbed media attention as rural U.S. residents, faced with unaffordable medical bills, have turned to state and federal auditors for intervention, reports Montana Public Radio.

Insurance plans and air ambulance companies in Montana continued to butt heads over fair reimbursement rates and financial responsibilities for medical transport flights Thursday at a legislative committee hearing.

At the meeting, air ambulance representatives said the price for their services is realistically based on fuel costs, trained staff salaries and emergency response capabilities, reports MTPR.

However, patients are left with increasingly larger bills because benchmark payment rates set by Medicare just aren't sustainable for an air ambulance business, Bill Bryant, a lobbyist for the air ambulance industry, said at Thursday's meeting.

Air ambulance bills often have five figures, and can range from about 400 to 1,000 percent of what Medicare traditionally reimburses, ambulance reps told legislators, according to MTPR.

Montana's insurers argue air ambulance companies are exasperating patient bills by refusing to come to the table for rate negotiations with insurance organizations.

"We have seen that air ambulance companies that do not participate in-network are more and more frequently not wanting to talk to us," said Connie Welsh, spokeswoman for Montana University System Health Plan in Helena, Mont., reports MTPR. "And I would say that in the last two years we have not had one single negotiation where we have had an air ambulance company willing to deal with us."

On Friday, Montana's economic interim committee plans to discuss potential steps to relieve the financial burden of expensive medical transport for state residents. 

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