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Air Ambulance High Cost: Saving lives but sending patients into bankruptcy

The air ambulance industry can save lives thanks to its ability to quickly transport patients to medical facilities. However, the high cost incurred by those people helped by air ambulance helicopters and airplanes can be crippling.

Medical technology advances

Modern medicine has enabled many people to live longer, healthier lives. Medical technology advances have meant individuals can receive lifesaving treatments at a moment’s notice.

Nowadays, sick and injured patients can be transported to hospitals hundreds of miles away to be cared for by experts. Yet, all this technology and advancement comes with a price that can hit patients, even insured once, heavily.

What is the Air Ambulance Industry?

Ambulance helicopter on the ground with EMT
The air ambulance industry saves lives.

Air ambulances are full-service air transport groups that move patients from one point to another. Many of these services are privately owned, for-profit organizations fill a vital need.

According to USAirAmbulance.com, the organization operates 24-hours a day, seven days a week, 356 days a year to transport patients.

It is a life-saving service that can move patients quickly and provide them with the medical care they need while in transit.

The air ambulance industry sprouted up in the 1980s. Hospitals initially operated most helicopters that transported patients to their facilities. However, as time passed, more for-profit groups began to operate and provide services to patients.

Companies differ in the care they offer patients. Some air ambulance companies may be focused on emergency medical care. Others primarily operate for the transportation of patients.

What medical equipment is inside?

Air ambulance inside
Ambulance helicopters and airplanes are equipped with life-saving equipment.

A look inside an air ambulance will show you just how far medical technology has come over the years. Ambulance helicopters and airplanes are equipped in similar ways to hospital intensive care units.

Depending on the size of an air ambulance, you will find mobile hospital beds for patients to lay on. An air ambulance also has medical machines that measure a patient’s vital signs.

In addition, air transport will carry a variety of items that could save a patient’s life if something unexpected occurs in route to their destination. According to Medical Air Service Worldwide, the helicopters and airplanes used to transport patients will have “monitoring systems, pacemakers, and defibrillators”. Medication, blood thinners, and adrenalin will also be packed on board in case they are needed.

How does the air ambulance industry save lives?

Research shows air transport can save lives following traumatic accidents. The amount of time it takes for a person to reach a hospital by ground transport increases the chances of a fatality.

An air ambulance can get the victim to a medical facility much quicker than ground transport. This improves their likelihood of survival. Air transport can move a patient from an accident to a hospital in a matter of minutes. When it comes to a life and death situation, those minutes matter greatly in the chances of survival.

A 10-year study by researchers from Columbus Regional Hospital, Atlanta Medical Center, Emory University, and the University of Calgary found that more patients died in ground ambulance transport than in air ambulances. Their research discovered 585 people died while being transported via ground ambulance compared to 43 casualties in air transport.

One theory for better survival rates, other than being able to transport patients more quickly, is the fact that air ambulances may be better equipped with medical equipment and personnel.

The air ambulance industry saves lives, but it can kill finances

Air Ambulance Industry,

While studies show the air ambulance industry helps keep people alive, research has found it is a killer to patients’ finances. The price to use an air ambulance has sky-rocketed in recent years. Simply stated, the air ambulance high-cost burden is out of control.

In 2016, Air Methods, an air ambulance service in Colorado, had an average patient charge of just under $50,000. The price of using an air ambulance can be crippling to those who use them and not all insurers cover patients who use them.

If a patient’s medical insurance company does not have a pre-negotiated contract with a specified air ambulance company, the patient must cover the charge. It can be a rude awakening to patients who believe their existing insurance will take care of their transport.

One reason for costs being high is in a moment of necessity, trying to reach a preferred air ambulance provider may not be possible. Especially when that provider is not the closest air transport available.

The regulation of air ambulances is another reason for their sky-high costs. Regulations are lacking in the industry when it comes to the amounts of money patients are charged.

Private air ambulance companies

The air ambulance industry is profitable for those who operate in it. According to John Tozzi of Bloomberg, most air ambulance companies work “out of network” to maximize the profits they bring in.

By working out of network, air ambulance companies can transport patients whose insurance doesn’t cover the transport. If the insurance does cover the transport it often isn’t fully paid by the insurer. The air ambulance industry has been criticized for charging extortionate prices to people in vulnerable situations.

President Donald Trump signed the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act in 2018. The act requires an advisory committee to be formed by the Department of Transportation and the Department of Health and Human Services to discover ways of explaining the charges and insurance options to patients in a more thorough way.

Unfortunately, many of the patients that air ambulances help may not be in a situation to negotiate and inform others of which service they are covered by. Although air ambulances do provide a vital service in the US, the exorbitant charges and burden on individuals need new regulation.

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