5 On Your Side

Patients, families usually on hook for air ambulance costs

Posted May 9

Getting hit with a medical bill you thought insurance would pay is always surprising.

Air ambulance bills can be especially difficult.

Consumer Reports says it has seen a spike in the number of complaints about air ambulance costs, and an investigation found that the emergency flights may not always be necessary.

Jennie Stout still remembers the day her daughter, Ashlyn, took an unexpected trip in a medical helicopter.

"I could hear Ashlyn in the background, just screaming, and I knew right then," Jennie Stout said. "I was like, 'Oh, this is a lot worse than it sounds.'"

Ashlyn had been badly burned in her backyard. Paramedics said the nearest burn center was 40 miles away, so they decided Ashlyn needed to go by air ambulance.

"There are four paramedics standing in your bathroom saying, 'We're going to fly. This is what's going to happen,'" Jennie Stout recalled. "You just go, 'OK.'"

Ashlyn made a full recovery, and the Stouts' insurer covered the hospital bills. But two months after their ordeal, they received a bill from the air ambulance company with a balance of more than $18,000.

"In a true medical emergency, if you call a ground ambulance, your insurance company is likely to pay most of the cost, but insurance companies say air ambulances charge such huge bills, they're only willing to pay a fraction of the cost," Consumer Reports' money editor Donna Rosato said. "That means you as the consumer are stuck to pay the rest of the bill."

The uncovered portion of an air ambulance bill is often a huge number, with the average checking in at more than $30,000, Consumer Reports says.

More unsettling than that, though, is that a Consumer Reports investigation found many people taken by air ambulance could have been safely driven to the hospital in the same amount of time, or even quicker.

"This is so unfair for consumers. In an emergency situation, that last thing you're thinking about is how you're going to pay the bill for the transportation that takes you to the hospital," Rosato said. "Consumers often have absolutely no idea they're going to be on the hook for such a big bill."

Jennie Stout said she didn't think twice about costs during her daughter's emergency.

"You have health insurance for a reason, because when something catastrophic or life-threatening happens, that coverage is supposed to be there to help protect you financially," she said. "Even with all of that in place, it just didn't."

The Stout family spent four years challenging the bill. The fight hurt their credit, and at this point, they've exhausted all of their appeals.

As they work to spread the word, they're also considering a class-action lawsuit.

If you get stuck with a high air-ambulance bill, Consumer Reports suggests that you ask your insurance company to advocate on your behalf to challenge the bill directly with the ambulance provider.

To help your odds, consider filing a formal complaint with both the North Carolina Attorney General's Office and the North Carolina Department of Insurance.

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