Consumer Reports recently posted an article about how for-profit air ambulance companies, which provide a valued service for patients in life-or-death situations, are sometimes utilized for minor emergencies. Since these companies are often “out-of-network”, insurance often doesn’t cover their charges in full, leaving patients with huge—and unexpected—bills.
The specific example in the article was a woman whose 13-year-old daughter burned her hands and legs in a backyard accident. Paramedics advised that an air ambulance helicopter should take her to a burn center about 40 miles away. While the burns didn’t seem life-threatening, she was a concerned mom in a traumatic situation and didn’t question the paramedics’ recommendation.
Fast forward a few months. The daughter’s hospital bills were covered by insurance, and her burns were healing well, but the family owed $18,300 of the $24,000 balance for the helicopter transport. It’s arguable that the girl’s burns didn’t necessitate the $24,000 airlift, but not knowing she would be responsible for that fee, and trusting the paramedics’ judgment, Mom went ahead and agreed to the helicopter transport.
A similar situation occurs when patients call an ambulance. Third-party ambulance and paramedic providers are sometimes not fully covered by insurance, and patients can be responsible for hundreds or even thousands of dollars for transportation, in addition to hospital bills and co-pays.
The point is, if you’re in a situation requiring an ambulance or helicopter transport to access medical care as quickly as possible, you’re probably not thinking about the potential cost, and who will be responsible for paying it. Some of these services are considered out-of-network by insurance companies. Don’t assume that your insurance company will cover the cost of medical transport.
Tuckahoe Volunteer Rescue Squad in Henrico County is one of the few localities in the Richmond area that doesn’t charge for its services. The Richmond Ambulance Authority posts its retail rates online. But in an emergency, what if you don’t have time to research, or the dispatcher sends a different ambulance service when you call 911?
Buyer―or in this case, patient―beware: if you call 911 and an ambulance is dispatched for a situation your insurance company does not deem to be a life-threatening emergency, you may be charged the entire cost of the transport.
In retrospect, it’s easy to imagine that the mom in the Consumer Reports article would likely prefer to put the $18,300 she owes for an arguably unnecessary air ambulance transport toward her daughter’s fast-approaching college education. Should families have to choose between medical care and higher education?
Heed this warning: even during an emergency, consider whether an ambulance or helicopter transport is necessary for the situation at hand. If it’s a minor emergency, you may want to arrange another transport method to the hospital.