Patients see bills mount after medical helicopter rides: 8 findings

A flight to the hospital can leave patients with sky-high air ambulance bills, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars, according to an investigation by ABC-affiliated TV stations across the nation.

For the investigation, the stations looked at the cost of air ambulance rides, as well as the companies that provide them.

Here is what the stations found.

1. Bills for a helicopter ride to the hospital can reach up to $50,000. This cost can sometimes be greater than a hospital stay, and many times insurance policies won't cover that cost, according to ABC 6.

2. The average bill for an air ambulance is $34,000.

3. Sandy Ahn, an expert at Georgetown University with the Center on Health Insurance Reforms, told ABC 6 states are prevented from regulating the prices, routes and services of air ambulance companies.

4. Some air ambulance companies admit they engage in balance billing. This may occur when a patient receives a bill for an episode of care previously believed to be in-network and therefore covered by the insurance company, or when an insurance company contributes less money for a medical service than a patient expected. The companies claim it's to recoup costs.

5. Air Methods, the largest air ambulance company in the nation, made $108 million profit last year transporting more than 100,000 patients, and nearly doubled it's price per mile in the past five years. "Well, we have to," Paul Webster, vice president of payer strategy for Air Methods told ABC 6, adding that seven out of 10 flights transport Medicare patients. "Look if everybody paid their fair share, you know what the charge for this service would be? Twelve thousand dollars. That's the reality that we operate at."

6. Air Methods is currently pushing for legislation to target insurance companies and increase the amount Medicaid and Medicare pays, according to ABC 6.

7. Some patients with outstanding bills from air ambulance companies have been the subject of aggressive collections tactics.

8. The investigation concluded it will take federal regulation for air ambulance companies to charge less. "I think Congress needs to step in. There needs to be some kind of federal protection for ... consumers that are really stuck in an emergency situation," Ms. Ahn told ABC 6.

 

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