Medical Flight Services – to Call or Not to Call; that’s the Question

The call for medical flight services is usually left to the professionals who evaluate the situation and make a decision. However, the payment for the medical flight services almost always falls on your shoulders, and this can often turn out to be a huge burden.

What if the $10,000 call for medical flight services was totally unwarranted and you would have only incurred a few hundred dollars if you had opted for ground ambulance services? Here, we discuss a few factors that decide whether medical flight services should be pressed into service or not.

Is the Injury Life-Threatening to Warrant Medical Flight Services?

The concern for your loved ones is understandable but unless the patient is in a life-threatening situation and medical flight services can reduce the risk, there is no point calling for one. One must keep in mind that concern and fear are not the reasons to call medical flight services.

Discuss the extent of the injury with the qualified personnel who takes the call and voice your opinion. At the end of it, it is you who will have to make the payment and insurances won’t pay unless the reason for calling medical flight services is valid.

Will Medical Flight Services Actually Save Time?

Air ambulance cannot land just about anywhere. They need adequate landing facilities and if such a facility is too far, it is futile to transport the patient there. You are better off transporting the facility to the appropriate nearest medical center through land transport. Also, there must be a reasonable time difference between the land and air ambulance transport to the destination.

Are the Weather Conditions Congenial for Medical Flight Services?

FAA is already trying its very best to raise the safety standards of medical flight services. Bad weather and poor visibility are risky by themselves. A land ambulance would be a much safer choice in circumstances like these.

There are a lot of technicalities involved with air ambulance services and it is not always the quickest option. So, discuss the mode of transport with the decision-making authority on the scene, although you don’t have the real authority for making the decision when you are dependent on insurance for cost coverage.

Look Beyond Prices of Medical Flights

Speak of flights and the first thing that comes to mind is the price tag; however, one needs to look at medical flights from a totally different perspective. While price can be a criterion, it can never be the only one. Here are certain factors that you must be taking into consideration to ensure the wellness of your loved ones while choosing medical flights.

The type of medical flights being used

Not all medical flights have the capability of running in tough weather conditions. Plus, the air ambulance needs to be cabin pressurized for patient safety. There are aircrafts that are often used part-time as chartered planes; you are advised to steer away from such medical flights as the chances of them being fully equipped medical emergencies is questionable.

Medical flights and safety compliance

Look for the accreditations. A company that complies with the rules laid down by the Federal Aviation Administration is the best one to choose. Violation of these norms is usually recorded and made public so that people have the choice to avoid them.

Medical flights with qualified crew

This one might come as a shock to you but providers of medical flights are not mandated by the government to maintain standards when it comes to qualified staff (apart from the pilot). The doctors and emergency medical personnel might not have great credentials. Medical flights don’t come cheap and you deserve the best. Ensure that you are knowledgeable about the credentials and experience of the crew members.

Experience of the pilot

Medical flights take to skies in tough weather conditions some times. It is essential that an experienced pilot is in control of the aircraft. FAA mandates that the pilot has at least 1500 flying hours under the belt. Some providers have their own standards that are better than the FAA standards.

The medical equipments onboard

Medical flights are often required to take care of midair emergency situations. To accomplish this, they need to have adequate equipments like oxygen, heart monitors, etc.

The communication and coordination

Medical flights need to be in constant touch with the receiving hospital so that all necessary arrangements are made beforehand. Also, the medical flights need to have good communication systems that constantly keep the pilot abreast of weather conditions in the destination. Having adequate communication infrastructure saves crucial minutes when time is of essence.

Of course, people must ensure that their insurance policies cover medical flights so that they are not burdened by huge costs during emergencies that warrant air ambulances.

Healthcare Standards in Medical Flight Services and the US Law

Megan Gilbreath was a resident of Abilene, Texas. She was an 18-year-old student who was involved in a motor vehicle accident involving her pickup. She had a rollover accident where she sustained a head injury and a broken leg. A medical flight was quick to respond and she was all set to be transported to the nearest medical facility.

However, one major error was committed. The EMT that belonged to the medical flight service had intubated her wrongly. The tube that was supposed to carry oxygen was inserted into the esophagus instead of her windpipe. As a result she was declared brain dead by the time the medical flight took her to the treating facility. All the while oxygen was being pumped to her stomach instead of her lungs.

Are You Safe on a Medical Flight with Mere FAA Regulations?

It must be noted that FAA is a regulating body for flights of all types and not just medical flights. This means the medical flight service providers don’t really have regulations that govern them when it comes to ensuring adequate medical care on the flight. FAA only has the say when it comes to medical flight safety when flying. It concerns itself with issues such as crew safety in bad weather conditions and medical flight during bad visibility at night.

Who Regulates the Medical Flight when it Comes to Standard of Care?

The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 that paved way for using air ambulances during medical emergencies had one major flaw. It exempted the medical flight service providers when it came to “routes, prices, and services.” This loophole allows the medical flight service providers to have their own standards when it comes to services.

This however does not mean that all air ambulance service providers cut costs when it comes to standard of care. Most medical flight operators maintain high standards of medical care. However, in the highly competitive air ambulance sector, it is possible that there are medical flight service providers who cut corners through not-so-well trained or inadequately trained medical staff.

The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 does have a provision where the states can regulate the medical aspect of air ambulances; the only condition is that such regulation should not impact the economics of operating a medical flight “significantly.” In essence, there is scope and hope for regulations in this regard.

A Real-life Guide to Air Ambulance Insurance Coverage

Shauna Laswell recently suffered chest pains and was taken to a local hospital; however, she was diagnosed as having a heart attack. She had to be emergently flown via air ambulance to a Las Vegas hospital. Shauna did get great care and survived the medical emergency. When she received the bill, she was just short of having another heart attack – it was a whopping $38,800! Thanks to her insurance provider who did not cover the air ambulance cost, she got a reimbursement of only $6,200.

Why Was Shauna’s Air Ambulance Bill Not Covered?

Anyone would wonder why air ambulance bill was not covered, as heart attack is a life-threatening situation and definitely warrants an air ambulance flight. For one, the nearest medical facility was not the one she was taken to. Insurances only cover the distance to the appropriate nearest medical facilities. So, the vital question is, “What can I do to avoid a situation like this?”

Few Tips to Ensure Adequate Air Ambulance Insurance Coverage

Remember that only travel to the nearest medical facility is covered by insurance. Also, you are better off hiring the services of the air ambulance attached to the hospital, rather than hiring an independent medical flight service. The ones attached to the hospital are usually cheaper.

Look at the kind of coverage that your insurance provider provides. If there are clauses that keep you from getting full air ambulance cost coverage, steer away from such providers. Most air ambulance services have membership programs. Being a member of such a program gives you immunity against the amount not covered by insurance company. The air ambulance company itself would cover such amount.

Be prepared for eventualities. Air ambulances are being increasingly used these days. So, request for the air ambulance provider that you prefer. Know the air ambulance services that are affiliated with your insurance provider.

Most of the time, insurance companies do not cover 100% of the charges for air ambulance services. The Utah State Insurance Department has even issued a warning to the public in this regard.

The Latest on Air Ambulance Transport Rules by FAA

The Federal Aviation Administration had laid down its groundbreaking safety rules for choppers in February of 2014, popularly known as the HAA (helicopter air ambulance) rule. It mandated that the choppers involved in emergency transport of the patient would have to meet requirements like:

  • Inclusion of certain specific safety instruments
  • Improved training and testing
  • Establishment of control systems for air ambulance transport vehicles

These were only a few requirements that were laid down. Although the initial deadline to meet these requirements was April 22 of last year, it was then extended by a year owing to the difficulties of the air ambulance transport companies to comply with them at such short notice. Most air ambulance transport companies have already complied with the first set of rules, although there is some anxiety in the air ambulance transport industry as the deadline nears.

The Air Ambulance Transport Sector will have to Meet More Deadlines

Although the air ambulance transport companies will have to comply with several of the rules laid down this year, there are some for which the sector still has time. Here’s a breakdown.

Compliance by April 2016: Setting up of operations control center.

Compliance by April 2017:

  • Installation of radio altimeters
  • Incorporation of warning systems and terrain indicators for choppers
  • Meeting qualification criteria for PIC instruments

Compliance by April 2018: Complying with mandated systems to monitor flight data.

Guidance is awaited by the Air Ambulance Transport Industry

The sources in the air ambulance transport industry revealed that it is not possible to comply with certain mandates unless there are clear guidelines by the FAA. Compliance with most of the rules will cost the air ambulance transport operators huge dollars, so obviously, they want to get it right and keep the expenses to a minimum.

For the pilots, crew and the people travelling in air ambulance transport vehicles, the rules will bring in more safety and efficiency. In general, the rules have been well accepted by the air ambulance transport industry so far.