In matters of life or death, air ambulance costs soar

A life-saving service billed to the Morgan family cost them a ton. They contacted Call 12 for a lifeline.

BOUSE, Ariz. - Air ambulances can save your life, but they can also fly away with your savings.  

The cost of these life-saving services has soared in the past few years -- in some cases up to $100,000. That's left many patients pleading for a lifeline to help pay their bills.

There is no place where this is more true than rural America and Arizona where hospitals are closing at an alarming rate. That often forces patients who need emergency medical care to fly to a hospital that's dozens or hundreds of miles away.

Since 2010, 78 rural hospitals have closed, according to the North Carolina Rural Research Program.  And 673 are close to closing their doors, reports the Chartis Center for Rural Health.  

In Arizona, the small town of Bouse, about 130 miles northwest of Phoenix, doesn't have a hospital and often requires emergency patients to be airlifted to the Phoenix area.  

Carl and Dona Morgan learned that firsthand on a cold day in February of 2016, when Dona started to black out.

"I can't remember a lot," Dona Morgan told 12 News. "I just started panicking. I couldn't catch my breath."

So Carl called 911 and the volunteer fire department rushed over. The EMT thought Dona was having a stroke, so he called for a life flight.

"It was really scary," Dona said. "Once they said I was having a stroke, I think that just put me over the edge."

The EMT rushed Donna to a helipad and an air ambulance flew her to a hospital in the Valley. Carl was worried sick and drove there as fast as he could.

"By the time I got to the hospital, they released her and said she had an anxiety attack," Carl said  "She was fine.  I was elated."

"I was happy to be OK," Dona said.

But that relief and happiness didn't last long. Just a few weeks later, the Morgans received a bill from TriState Careflight, which is now Air Methonds, for $47,385. The Morgans could not afford the flight, particularly because they did not have health insurance.

"That was devastating, because I knew he was stressed out and I was stressed out and everything that we worked for all this time, could've been taken," Donna said. "It was really devastating."

So the the Morgans reached out to Call 12 For Action.

Our investigation found they are not the only ones with sky-high air ambulance bills. About 400,000 people are transported by air ambulances every year and their bills are skyrocketing, too.

A study by Research 360 found Air Methods' average cost of a bill more than doubled, from $17,000 in 2009 to to more than $40,000 in 2014.

Air Methods did not want to talk on camera about why the costs of these flights have taken off, but a representative sent a statement that in part said, "Unfortunately, emergency air medical service providers are being squeezed by drastically low government reimbursement rates."  

In fact, 70 percent of patients flown in air ambulances have Medicare, Medicaid and other government insurance or no insurance at all. Often, government reimbursements pay for just half the cost of the flight or even less. That leaves the air ambulance companies to cover the rest. They in turn, pass that cost to patients with private insurance.

"That is ultimately at the heart of the problem of these large bills we're seeing," said Amanda Thayer, who's with SOAR, Save Our Air Medical Resources.  

She and SOAR are pushing Congress to increase Medicare's payments for air ambulance flights.  They hope that will reduce the bills for everyone. 

"The Medicare reimbursement shortfall would go a long way and ease the cost shifting that's happening on right now," Thayer told 12 News.

But even with this cost shifting, that's at least in part to blame for the expensive bills, air ambulance companies are seeing their profits soar. Take Air Methods for example -- in the last 10 years its profits have increased 700 percent.

"You can see this is a real concern and real issue," U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, a Republican from North Dakota. 

He and Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, took to the floor of the U.S. Capitol last year, to try to amend the Airline Deregulation Act and give states more control of air ambulance flights and how much they cost.

"People have to make literally life and death choices," Sen. Tester said. "The system is broken and needs to be fixed."

But right now, no one can agree on how to fix it.  That leaves the solution to air ambulance bills ... up in the air. 

Back in Bouse, the Morgans spent almost a year concerned they'd have to give up their home to pay their $47,385 air ambulance bill. But then in November, they got a lifeline. 

Thanks in part to Call 12 For Action, Air Methods reduced their bill to just $3,000.

"After that day, I was actually smiling again and I wasn't for the last nine months," Carl Morgan said.

Here's the full statement from Air Methods on air ambulance costs:

Air Methods’ mission is to provide emergency air medical service to communities and people whose lives depend on it, and we only respond when a physician or first responder calls us. And much like a hospital emergency room, when Air Methods is asked to save a life, we deploy without regard to a patient's ability to pay. Real-time deployment readiness and providing high-level care is vital, and the cost to operate a base to be ready 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year is $3 million annually.

Unfortunately, emergency air medical service providers are being squeezed by drastically low government reimbursement rates, and 70% of air medical transports are made up of Medicare, Medicaid, other government sponsored insurance, or uninsured. These drastic reimbursement shortfalls sometimes make it necessary for providers to bill patients for the balance of the cost. Balance billing is a last resort for Air Methods - after the emergency is over, our team of patient advocates work side-by-side with patients to navigate the complex and often frustrating process of seeking fair reimbursement from insurance companies. Air Methods take its commitment to supporting patients very seriously, and we recognize that balance billing can be a financial hardship for some patients. As such, we have a long-established charity care process in place to help patients who need further financial assistance, like we were able to do for Ms. Morgan.

We believe there are two important solutions that would minimize balance billing and prevent base closures in areas around the country that need air medical services the most. First and foremost, the drastically low reimbursements from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services must be fixed. We strongly support the proposed federal legislation that would resolve the Medicare reimbursement shortfall by updating reimbursement rates. Second, insurance companies must be willing to negotiate and start to reimburse for air medical transport services at a reasonable rate. A recent study conducted in Montana showed that for only a $1.70 more per month in insurance premiums, emergency air medical transportation can be reimbursed in full without burdening patients with huge bills.

© 2017 KPNX-TV


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