Sen. Tester hopes to clear way for state air ambulance regulations

by Troy Carter, Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Amy Thomson’s infant daughter was deathly ill when they took an emergency flight to a hospital in 2014.

Isla Rose, then just weeks old, was diagnosed with a respiratory virus. Her heart was swollen, and she needed special care immediately. The hospital in Butte wasn’t capable. The family spent 10 weeks at the Seattle Children’s Hospital, most of it in the intensive care unit. Isla had heart surgery.

The week they got home to Butte, Amy and her husband Pat opened a $43,000 bill from Airlift Northwest. The total was $56,000, but their insurance company, PacificSource Health Plans, had already paid $13,000, the cap in the policy. “We had just spent 10 weeks fighting for Isla’s life only to come home and begin a 10-month-long battle,” the mother said.

In response to cries for help from Montana families, lawmakers in Helena have proposals that would prevent air ambulance companies from billing patients and force them to negotiate rates with insurance providers.

But courts sometimes overturn state regulations that conflict with federal laws. It happened in North Dakota last year when a court said that state’s air ambulance law was preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act, passed by Congress in 1978.

So congressional action must first clear a path for states wanting to forcefully regulate air ambulances.

On Tuesday, with Thomsen’s support, Sen. Jon Tester promised to “very narrowly” carve air ambulances out of the federal law created with commercial airliners in mind.

“It’s gonna give the right to regulate to the states,” Tester said at a press event inside a private hangar at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport. “We have to make it narrow enough so the airline industry does not oppose or we’ll never pass this thing.”

Tester’s staff said the bill would be introduced next week and provided a draft. It is a one-paragraph bill that would have major impacts on the air ambulance industry.

The Democrat hopes it’ll have bipartisan support and said it’ll likely become an amendment to a larger health care reform bill sent to the president’s desk.