Air ambulances are often credited with saving patients’ lives because they quickly transport them to a hospital for medical treatment. However, air ambulances are increasingly leaving patients with staggering medical bills they cannot pay.
Recent cases have shown patients receiving bills of $45,000 and $54,000. Some have run as high as $533,000. Insurance typically covers only a fraction of the cost.
Air ambulances have become so costly that state lawmakers in Virginia have passed a new law that will give people a choice between getting transported by air ambulance or waiting for a regular ambulance.
It’s important to note that air ambulance is a different service than the non-emergency medical transport offered by companies such as Flying Angels.
Judge Left With $41,000 Air Ambulance Bill
Judge Sonna Anderson from Bismarck, ND., was thrown from her horse in September 2017. The 60-year-old lost consciousness and broke three ribs. She was brought to a hospital via air ambulance, according to CNN.
Anderson told CNN that her husband repeatedly asked why an air ambulance helicopter was necessary. A regular ambulance could have gotten her to a hospital less than an hour away. But he was told the air ambulance was necessary – although he was never told why and the official record gives no reason, according to CNN.
Anderson ended up with a $54,727.26 bill. Her insurance company paid $13,697.73, leaving her to come up with $41,029.53. Anderson told CNN the air ambulance crew had spent about 45 minutes with her and the price “shocked me…I wrote [the air ambulance company] a letter telling them that I thought it was all outrageous.”
A Worsening Problem
What happened to Anderson is becoming well known because she talked with CNN. But in looking into the cost of air ambulances around the country, CNN found it’s an issue that is drawing complaints everywhere.
They also found some bills reached as high as $533,000.
The issue has become more well-known as more air ambulance helicopters take flight. There are now about 900 helicopters operating as air ambulances in the United States, according to Bloomberg. They make more than 300,000 flights per year.
The business news service also reported that the average charge to Medicaid for air ambulance flights doubled between 2010 and 2014, from $14,000 to $30,000.
Bloomberg reported on a story similar to Anderson’s. A small child suffering from an apparent encephalitis attack and with a fever of 107 degrees was flown from a small town in West Virginia to a hospital 76 miles away.
The parents were hit with a $45,930 charge for the flight. Insurance covered only $6,704.
The mother told Bloomberg: “I was angry, and I felt like we were being taken advantage of.”
Lawsuits and Government Action
The parents of the child in West Virginia have sued the air ambulance company. The company has defended its charges.
Because federal law treats air ambulances like air carriers – just like Southwest or Delta – there are few restrictions on what they charge.
Virginia lawmakers are trying to help mitigate the problem by giving patients the right to choose a ground ambulance over an air ambulance if their injuries are not found severe enough to require a medical flight.
The law goes into effect in March 2019. It applies both to Virginians and anyone who is visiting the state and has a medical emergency.