Government watchdog: Costly air ambulances can put patients at 'financial risk'

Government watchdog: Costly air ambulances can put patients at 'financial risk'
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Air ambulances can be life-saving for critically ill patients who need to get to a hospital quickly, but they can also put patients in financial risk, according to a study conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). 

The median price charged by air ambulance providers in 2017 was from $36,400 to $40,600, and those costs aren't always covered by insurance, according to the report. 

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Sixty-nine percent of the 20,700 air ambulance transports taken in 2017 by privately insured patients were out of network, meaning their insurance companies had not contracted with that provider and the costs may not be fully covered, the GAO says. 

While the GAO analysis didn't indicate how much these patients paid, those who receive out-of-network care can often face high bills.

That's because providers bill patients for what insurance companies don't pay for, a tactic called "balance billing" or "surprise billing."

One customer in North Dakota told the GAO they received a $34,700 bill for an air ambulance transport. The patient's insurance company only paid $6,700 of the $41,400 charged by the air ambulance provider. 

Patients with no insurance might also be billed for the entire price. 

The GAO notes that patients generally have no control over the decision to be transported by air ambulance or the selection of the provider. First responders make these decisions based on proximity or established relationships with providers, and not on what a patient's insurance plan will cover, the study says. 

Congress and state legislators have increasingly focused on ways to crack down on surprise billing practices. 

A bipartisan group of senators is expected to release legislation soon that would cap how much patients have to pay for medical services. But it's not clear if that would apply to air ambulance costs.