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Balance billing and federal regulations are leaving emergency airlifted patients with sky high bills

When life is on the line for someone you love, you do whatever is necessary to help them fight for survival – just like the Williamson family did.

The Bend Bulletin recently shared the story of 3-year-old Grant Williamson, who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic lymphoma when his doctors found a cancerous tumor pressing on his trachea. Without immediate attention, Grant would have died.

Doctors at St. Charles Medical Center in Bend, Ore., arranged an emergency flight to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland to get Grant the required treatment. Thankfully, within a few days, Grant’s tumor was under control.

But months later, as the story goes, his mother, Sarah, “learned the true cost to fight.”

Life Flight Network, a nonprofit air medical transportation service serving Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana, billed Grant’s family more than $42,000 for the flight and ambulance ride. The family’s insurance company paid about a quarter of the cost, leaving the Williamsons with the remaining $31,000.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a new story, and it is becoming an even bigger issue as the air-ambulance industry grows.

Although Medicare increased the rate it pays for air ambulances in 2002, operators are still looking for money from the only place they can – patients with private insurance or no insurance at all, said The Bend Bulletin.

Since 2015, the Oregon Division of Financial Regulation has received 15 complaints about these exorbitant bills.

“In these situations, we have done our best to bring all parties together to find a sensible resolution,” said division spokesman, Brad Hilliard. One barrier to addressing this problem is the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act, which prevents states from regulating price, route or service of air carriers.  Although several states have tried to place limits on balanced billing by air ambulance companies, the legislation gets overturned in court.

According to many air-ambulance companies, 70 percent of flight transports are for Medicare, Medicaid or uninsured patients. And, while there is a processes in place for customers to apply for a reduction in their bills if they can show financial hardship, the air ambulance companies “want to make sure it goes to someone who actually needs it, versus someone who’s making six figures and living very comfortably,” said Jacob Dalstra, Regional Director of Life Flight.

The Bulletin reported that Grant’s father’s employer eventually covered their bill, and the Williamsons bought memberships with AirLink, Life Flight, and the local ground ambulance service – just in time for Grant’s second emergency flight to Portland.

Have you or a loved one had to take emergency air transportation? Were you stuck with a large bill?  Share your story with Voices for Affordable Health.