Air ambulance charges can reach $100,000

Clark Fork Valley Press

by Kathleen Woodford

Emergency response in rural areas raises the question: How much is a life worth?

The Interstate 90 corridor from Superior to Haugan is reportedly higher in car accidents than any other stretch of the highway in Montana, according to the Montana Traffic and Safety Bureau.

In 2014, the Montana Highway Patrol reported 326 incidents in Mineral County resulting in 1 death, 88 injuries, and 237 crashes involving property damage.

Emergencies like car accidents and a multitude of other health issues, may require air ambulance services.
Life-saving resources can be costly, especially in rural areas like Mineral County where driving a patient to a Missoula hospital can take up to an hour.

“I’m told that many insurance companies don’t, or won’t, cover expenses and costs can run over $8,000 to a Missoula facility,” said Mineral Community Hospital representative, Monte Turner.

Reducing excessive air ambulance charges is a goal of Sen. Jon Tester’s. He is proposing legislation which would give states the authority to establish some rules for how much healthcare companies can charge their customers.

He states that “too many air ambulance companies are taking advantage of families in crisis by charging an exorbitant amount of money for critical medical service. In some cases, air ambulance bills are totaling $100,000. As a result, Montana families are being forced to consider cashing out their savings, selling their homes, or declaring bankruptcy just to pay the bill.”

Tester also says that many of these families have health insurance, and so they think they are covered. But some of these ‘for-profit, out-of-state companies, aren’t affiliated with local hospitals, and they don’t have contracts with insurance companies. Leaving families with few options when dealing with the charges.

The effort Sen. Tester along with Republican Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota sought was to amend the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization legislation to allow states to decide if they want to create rules governing air ambulance rates and services.

That effort failed, but the Montana Legislature’s economic affairs interim committee is studying the issue and intends to introduce a bill during its 2017 session. However according to chief counsel for the Montana Auditor and Insurance Commissioner’s Office, Jesse Laslovich, state legislation will likely be limited in its effectiveness.

“We can teeter around the edges, but in dealing with the substance of the problem, we’re going to need an act of Congress to say air ambulances don’t fall under the aviation deregulation act,” he said in a recent interview.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners recently issued a statement on the subject and advised people to make sure they understand what, if any, air ambulance coverage they have.

Some private air ambulance companies are offering annual memberships for their services. For example, in April, Northwest MedStar became the preferred provider of critical care transport for Providence St. Patrick Hospital and Community Medical Center in Missoula.

Life Flight air ambulance was serving Missoula Hospitals. On April 1, 2016, Northwest MedStar joined the Life Flight Network in order to expand their network.

Northwest MedStar provides care and transport services to over 3,700 patients each year from bases in Missoula, Spokane, TriCities, Moses Lake, Pullman, as well as Seattle and other facilities throughout the U.S. and Canada. With two new helicopter bases slated for Colville and Walla Walla, Washington. A MedStar membership costs $60 per year.

But there is still no guarantee the company, like MedStar, will be the one that actually transports the covered patient. Sometimes patients don’t realize they should ask or might not be capable of asking, whether their transportation is in network or how much their insurance will cover. This can result in large medical bills for patients.

The Montana Senate and House of Representatives are to have studies on this subject concluded by September 15, 2016 and final results will be reported at the next Legislative session.
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