It is estimated that approximately 400,000 people each year are transported by air ambulance. For some people experiencing a medical emergency, being airlifted to a hospital can mean the difference between life and death. However, for many, emergency transport by air is unnecessary, especially when the astronomical price of the often short ride is taken into account. In many instances, a ground ambulance could do the job just as quickly and at a fraction of the cost.
The charge for a single flight can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars with no underlying basis for the charges. For example, the average bill sent by Air Methods, the country’s largest air medical transport company, is more than $40,000 per flight. These bills are often many times the amount health insurance providers deem justifiable, considering the circumstances, so they will typically only pay a fraction of the charge. That means that patients, who are already struggling to recover from their illnesses or injuries and to pay for other medical expenses are left with the rest of the bill. Sadly, oftentimes it is a grieving family who ends up with sticker shock over the air ambulance bill. Air medical companies are not shy about collecting on outstanding bills either. They often employ high pressure debt collectors to recoup the money and have even forced some people into bankruptcy to end the harassment and relieve the debt.
Why do air medical operators charge such exorbitant prices and how do they get away with it?
In many areas, there are far more air medical providers than needed, and the number of flight hours per aircraft is continuing to decline. Thus, air ambulance operators often seek out business to generate as much revenue as possible on a per-flight basis. Furthermore, air medical transport providers are sometimes unable to collect against cash-paying patients who simply cannot afford the bill, and they are generally reimbursed less by government payors such as Medicare or Medicaid. To offset these losses, air medical transport companies have begun overcharging individuals deemed more likely to pay. Typically, these patients will have private, employer-sponsored health insurance plans. To perpetuate this scheme, air medical transport companies will also opt to remain out-of-network in order to engage in a practice referred to as “balance billing.” Balance billing refers to out-of-network providers who seek to directly bill the patient any excess charges beyond what the patient’s insurance company is willing to pay.
Air medical transport companies also fail to disclose any information regarding the prices of these transports to patients or their families. Usually, patients and/or family members are not presented with any paperwork discussing costs at the time of the transport. The non-disclosure of the exorbitant pricing until after the fact is designed to help increase their flight volume.
What can you do if you have received such a bill?
• Call the air ambulance company and ask them to lower the charges. Keep in mind that the figure on their bill is “made up” and there is room to reduce the charge by thousands of dollars.
• If the transport company won’t negotiate with you or does negotiate, but the price is still too high, consult an attorney. Look for an attorney with both aviation and insurance knowledge, as well as a track record of procuring verdicts from large corporations.
• Help spur action against such price gouging by filing a complaint with your state’s consumer protection department or attorney general’s office.
Slack Davis Sanger has extensive experience representing the families who face inordinately high priced air medical bills. Partners Mike Slack and Ladd Sanger are not only aviation attorneys but also licensed pilots. And, with over 50 years of combined experience, they understand what it takes to successfully litigate cases.
To learn more about air ambulance transportation and billing, call us at 512-795-8686.