Insurance Companies Continue to Balk at Covering Air-Ambulance Rides

Jul 12, 2019

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The public outcry over high medical bills has gotten the attention of Congress. Senate Health Committee leaders have proposed the Lower Health Care Costs Act, aimed at reducing patients' out-of-pocket charges for medical care.

But critics say the legislation doesn't hold insurance companies accountable to cover life-saving air transport to the hospital. That's a big issue in rural areas, where emergency rooms and trauma centers might be far away. Whitney Corby of Salisbury, Md., a nurse who survived a car wreck six years ago, said that without access to a helicopter ambulance, she might not be here today.

"On the helicopter, I went into a coma - and then, when I got there, they did all the tests and everything," Corby said. "The doctor came out, and he told my parents that if I hadn't been flown, I would not have survived." Most insurance companies currently don't cover emergency air medical services, leaving patients to foot the bill.

While the proposed legislation would require insurers to reimburse the cost of air-ambulance rides based on regional or median in-network rates, it would prohibit air medical-service providers from negotiating directly with insurance companies. For Corby, it's simple: Her air-ambulance ride cut travel time to the hospital in half. For people who have never been in a life-threatening situation, she said, it's difficult to convey the sense of urgency when every second counts. "Now that I am in the medical field, and thinking about if one of my patients was in that position, how much that resource is critical to getting patients to where they need to be, to get the care they need," she said. "Something as simple as a helicopter can save your life."

Nearly 100 hospitals have closed in the United States since 2010, often leaving rural residents no choice but to rely on air ambulances in an emergency, whether or not their insurance covers the cost of the trip.