facebook New GAO report: Air ambulance transport saves lives but puts patients’ finances at risk

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New GAO report: Air ambulance transport saves lives but puts patients’ finances at risk

An air ambulance may be the best way to get you to a hospital in an emergency. But how much could it cost you?

That’s the question researchers at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, or GAO, tried to answer. The GAO analyzed private health insurance data for air ambulance transports and found patients were left with sky-high bills.

That’s because roughly two-thirds of the 20,700 air transports in 2017 were from providers outside the patient’s insurance network. Generally, health insurance pays a portion of a bill from providers outside the network. Patients are then billed for the difference – a practice known as “balance” billing.

When the charges include emergency transport by helicopter or airplane, the balance patients owed in the GAO study was almost always well over $10,000.

Despite states’ efforts to regulate balance billing for emergency flights, Voices for Affordable Health recently published a story reporting how a 1978 federal law governing air carriers stands in the way of providing relief for consumers.

Meanwhile, the GAO found air ambulance flight charges continue to climb. In 2012 the median price was about $22,000 for helicopter transport. Now it’s closer to $36,000.

One consumer was charged $41,400 for air ambulance transport from Dickinson, N.D., to Bismarck, which is 97.4 miles. The patient’s insurer paid $6,700, leaving the patient with a balance of $34,700.

Fortunately, a small percentage of ambulance transports in the U.S. occur via air. Unfortunately, those who are so critically ill that they need air transport also may get stuck with a big bill.

In fact, the GAO pointed out that patients with private insurance pay the most. That’s because air ambulance providers are prohibited from sending balance bills to Medicare and Medicaid patients. And uninsured patients also suffer, because they’re ultimately responsible for the entire cost.

Have you or a loved one been transported by an air ambulance? What share of the bill came to you? Did you negotiate with the company? Share your experiences and tips with Voices for Affordable Health.