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Rising complaints about sky high air ambulance fees

Air ambulances provide lifesaving assistance, but most service is not covered by health insurance policies. (CR photo)

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, and that means you as the consumer are stuck to pay the rest of the bill. And that cost can be high. Consumer Reports says the average bill for medical helicopters is more than $30,000.

Even more shocking? Consumer Reports finds many people taken by air ambulance could have been safely driven to the hospital in a ground ambulance in the same amount of time, or even quicker. This is so unfair for consumers because 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. Consumers often have absolutely no idea they’re going to be on the hook for such a big bill.

If you get stuck with a high air-ambulance bill, Consumer Reports suggests you ask your insurance company to advocate on your behalf to challenge the bill directly with the air-ambulance provider. And to bolster your odds, file a formal complaint with the appropriate agency in your state government.

State regulation limited

Be aware that in many states, including the state of Washington, insurance regulators have no jurisdiction over medical air transport companies. A federal law passed in 1978 prohibits states from regulating price, routes or service of air ambulance operators.

While the Washington Insurance Commissioner may not be able to intervene, consumer complaints can give regulators an idea of the scope of the problem, as advocacy groups and some members of Congress push to give patients more protection from often insurmountable bills.

Right now, some Medicare patients may have limited air ambulance coverage if air transport is deemed medically necessary. Medicaid typically covers air transport if the provider, airlift equipment, and procedures meet state requirements.

Most medical air transport companies however, offer annual memberships that cover your air ambulance expenses if you need them. The memberships are very affordable compared to getting a bill.

With Airlift Northwest, the main air transport carrier in the Pacific Northwest, it's as little as $79 a year- for every member of your household.

By the way, Sgt. Cindi West with the King County Sheriff's Office says victims needing search and rescue helicopter service, such as her county's search and rescue helicopter Guardian 2, are not charged.

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