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Air medical transportation: How a 15-minute ride may cost $30,000, and how we can change it

By Chris Myers

There’s been no shortage of recent media attention to the costs of emergency air medical services, which the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) refers to as “air ambulances.” Across the industry, consumers, legislators and payers are asking how a lifesaving 15-minute helicopter ride could cost $30,000 or more — and what can be done to stabilize the industry.

The perception is that air medical transportation has widely out of control prices. This can be directly linked back to the reporting on the high bills some patients face after receiving critical care in the air services. These shocking costs often receive sensationalistic news media coverage and are often due to an air medical provider trying to recover some of their significant financial losses through balance billing. In addition, what many patients believe is a bill is actually an explanation of benefits (EOB) sent from the payer that lays out all charges and what is covered by health plans. However, the total shown on the EOB is not reflective of the payments that are received — oftentimes only a fraction of those charges is actually collected.
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We in the emergency air medical service industry agree that the costs patients face in these isolated billing incidents are too high. We value transparency and welcome scrutiny of our business practices and cost structure. Because emergency air medical services are critical to the millions of Americans who depend on them for lifesaving care, all stakeholders must work together to develop a solution that preserves access to patients and creates a sustainable future for the industry.

To arrive at that solution, two things must happen soon: First, the federal government must modernize its antiquated method for reimbursing air medical transports, as current reimbursement rates are not tied to today’s actual costs of providing services. Second, more insurers and other managed care organizations must step up to the negotiating table to reach in-network agreements with emergency air providers.

By reaching this consensus, not only can consumers avoid balance-billing sticker shock, but managed care organizations with in-network air medical coverage can continue to rely on the highest-quality emergency care for their members, lower overall costs, improve outcomes and increase member satisfaction.

24/7/365-readiness at a moment’s notice
Emergency air medical services are provided to transport critically ill or injured patients to the closest appropriate hospital when requested by third-party medical professionals or first responders. Air medical services never dispatch themselves — they are always called to scene or the hospital for an emergency need. Nine out of 10 air medical transport patients have suffered a serious cardiac event, stroke, or trauma — all regardless of the ability of the patient to pay. Our industry is focused exclusively on saving the patient’s life. Rapid transport and immediate medical intervention during flight can give patients the best chance at survival and recovery.

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