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Surprise Medical Bills and Emergency Air Ambulance Transportation

An air ambulance helicopter in-flight.

Consumers Union has released a paper providing background on the market shifts in the provision of air ambulance services in the United States, consumers concerns, regulatory gaps, and recommendations for Congress and the states to take action. Read our air ambulance policy report here.

When patients need to be airlifted to medical care in an emergency, the first priority is getting them to the right healthcare provider as quickly as possible. Patients are at a disadvantage in this urgent situation because they cannot determine whether air transport is a medical necessity, nor are they equipped to direct which air ambulance provider should pick them up. That can lead to surprise expenses when the air ambulance provider turns out not to have a contract with the patient’s health plan, even if the consumer has insurance. The patient may then be billed for the full charge of the flight or the balance left after any payment by the insurer for the out-of-network coverage.

Have you been hit with a sky-high air ambulance bill? Share your story here.

Over the last 15 years, there has been a dramatic change within the air ambulance industry, with a rapid expansion of operators entering the market, particularly increasing the number of vehicles run by for-profit carriers. Those market changes have had far reaching effects on the costs patients must pay for services, and have resulted in patients receiving unexpected, exorbitant bills for tens of thousands of dollars for emergency transportation that the patient assumed would be covered by insurance. Unfortunately, federal law has often preempted state actions to protect consumers from air ambulance balance billing, leaving patients without desperately needed consumer protections. It is imperative that policymakers ensure consumer have access to lifesaving care in emergencies, as well as protecting them from financial ruin as a result of that care. Action must be taken at both the state and federal level, and it is needed now.

You can also find the Consumer Reports article on air ambulance surprise billing online. Read the air ambulance article here.