Air ambulance services play a critical part in providing medical care on time for stroke victims. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that about 795 thousand people suffer strokes every year in the United States of America. Up to 140 thousand of these people die of stroke. Approximately 610 thousand people have never experienced stroke before. To put these numbers into perspective, one person has a stroke every 40 seconds on average in the country. All these people need air ambulance services to receive care on time. If not, they are at risk of suffering disability for the rest of their life.
Air Ambulance Services are Time Critical in Stroke
It is said that the chances of survival and complete recovery improve drastically if the patient receives care within the first three hours of the stroke. Air ambulance services play a major role in ensuring that this. The fact that rural doctors are moving towards urban areas and the reality that rural hospitals are closing at a rapid rate makes air ambulance services for such regions critical and life-saving. These patients are in need of high-level care facilities equipped to handle this medical condition.
The Economics of Stroke
In the US, cost of stroke treatment is approximately USD 34 billion annually. This includes the cost of care, medicines and loss of work revenue due to medical absence. Despite this, insurances only cover about 30 to 40% of the cost related to air ambulance services. Why? Because the reimbursement rates have not been revised for over 20 years, which puts a lot of financial strain on air ambulance services. The result – medical flight service providers are closing at a rapid rate, especially in rural America. If something is not done about this by the congress, it could turn out to be a grave situation for the people in the near future.
Perhaps the biggest problem that people who avail medical air transportation services face is unexpected costs that run into thousands of dollars, even when they are covered by their health insurance policies. Now, a new bill has been passed by the state of Virginia that seeks to end this uncertainty. The bill is called ‘Air Medical Transportation; Informed Decision’. The bill was introduced by Jeremy S. McPike and it went into effect on March 1, 2019. It was passed by the House and Senate of Virginia with zero votes against it recently. Here, we discuss what this bill will mean for the common citizens.
What is Virginia Medical Air Transportation Bill All About?
The bill mandates that hospitals establish processes, which necessitate giving an electronic or written notice to the patients or their authorized representatives. The notice should contain the cost implications of availing medical air transportation services. It should also contain the alternative options including emergency ground ambulance options. If the medical air transportation is out of network of the patient’s health insurance, this fact too must be made apparent. Even if the medical air transportation is covered only in part, it has to be brought to the attention of the patient or his/her authorized representative.
What will the New Bill will do for the Patients?
Patients in Virginia will now have the power to choose whether they want to avail medical air transportation services. Further, it will let them know the cost implications beforehand so that they do not get any nasty surprises in the form of huge bills later on. It is a good attempt by the state to bring about transparency in billing.
It is hoped that the medical insurance companies and the medical air transportation industry will ultimately come to an understanding with regards to costs, facilitated by this bill.
It is a short question that demands an elaborate answer. As the rural hospitals close at a rapid rate, air ambulances are playing a vital role in bringing patients quick access to emergency rooms. It is believed that, currently, a quarter of the population in the United States of America do not have access to medical care within an hour. It is air ambulances that fill this gap. A report reveals that 80 rural hospitals have closed in the past decade and over 700 rural hospitals, it is believed, will be closed in the next 10 years. Air ambulances are turning out to be critical services.
Time is a Factor that Air Ambulances Manage Well
A Federal rule says that air ambulances can traverse between state borders without having to worry about state regulations. This allows for seamless travel across borders without any regulatory hassles. If the states are allowed to regulate the air ambulance industry, it might so happen that traversing these now-free state borders could become lengthy or challenging to say the least.
A statistic says that over 30% of air ambulances cross borders annually. The state laws, if different from each other, might make flying the skies tricky, prompting the air ambulances to fly to another state because the regulations are less tedious. A report by American Stroke Association says that brain juries not getting treatment in time can result in fatality or poor recovery. That alone should be an argument enough in favor of Federal regulation.
It’s All About Reimbursements
The reimbursements rates by insurance companies have remained unchanged for over two decades. This puts a lot of financial stress on air ambulance service industry. Unable to get adequate cost coverage, organizations are compelled to go to the patients. Most disheartening is the fact that the patients who pay for this service are insurance holders but without adequate coverage.
Let’s understand the scenario with a hypothetical situation – a patient has suffered a serious injury and is in Carthage, Missouri. It is felt that the most appropriate facility to treat the patient is in Joplin, which is just about 12 miles from where he is. A medical flight is summoned, in spite of the ground ambulance being ready to take the patient. The medical flight takes about an hour to reach the patient and another 15 minutes to reach the treating facility. A week elapses, just when the patient is thanking his stars that he was lucky to receive the treatment on time, he is slapped with a balance bill of $25,000. The insurance company has covered $20,000 of the total $45,000 bill. The once happy patient is now contemplating mortgaging his house to pay off the balance bill.
The Argument Against Medical Flight Company
The insurance company argues that the ground ambulance was readily available and the destination was just 12 miles away, which would have taken the ground ambulance about half an hour to reach. Yet, a medical flight was called in, even though it took an hour for it to simply reach the patient. The insurance company feels there was no need for the medical flight service in the first place and refuses to cover the bill in full. In the outset, the argument seems right but only until what the medical flight company has to say.
Looking at the Situation from the Medical Flight Company’s Angle
Medical flight companies do not and cannot choose to take a call whether they want to fly a patient. They are summoned by the hospital and the medical necessity is decided by the treating physician. Come to think of it, the treating physicians usually have a sound logic behind suggesting an air ambulance service. The ground ambulance might not be best suited, owing to the patient’s condition.
What needs to be done in contradictions like these is following a middle ground and for this, there needs to be a mechanism in place where things are sorted out between medical flight and air ambulance companies. Until that happens, the patient will continue to suffer.
Imagine heading a business where customers only pay you 30% of the time in full and the remaining 70% only pay you 50% of the cost. How would your business survive? This is precisely the situation of most air ambulance companies in the United States of America say industry experts. What adds insult to the injury is the fact that there is a outcry about the charges both in national media as well as people, not to mention the politicians who are trying to pin all the blame on air ambulance companies. Most players in the industry say that air ambulance business is getting harder by the day to run.
Air Ambulance Companies Asked to Do More
Rural hospitals in the US are closing down at a rapid rate. More and more rural patients are veering towards the services extended by air ambulance companies. However, the fact remains that air ambulance services are expensive and the costs are not being reimbursed by health insurance providers citing several reasons. While the most common is the ‘lack of medical necessity’ others simply have a small ceiling of reimbursements that have not been revised for a very long time.
Most of the Air Ambulance Costs are Fixed
Costs of running a medical base is, on an average, about USD 3 million a year. This amount accounts for about 85% of the costs and are fixed. These include maintenance of the aircraft, hangar, support staff, crew and the like. Then there are write-downs that are either forced upon the air ambulance companies or the ones that they undertake themselves on humanitarian grounds. All this adds up to a huge amount. Plus, there are always the running costs such as fuel which is also quite expensive. Industry experts feel that the demand for the services provided by air ambulance companies is going to increase considering that the population is aging, and that something needs to be done on a war footing to make the reimbursements commiserate with the services provided.
We have been citing the reluctance of insurance companies to revise their payment charts, in keeping with the time and also several air ambulance companies that simply refuse to budge down when it comes to the pricing.
This time around, Missouri Insurance Department has come up with a report that reveals, on an average, people of Missouri are paying about USD 20,000 for an air ambulance services. Of course, this is a whopping price for a common person, not just in the state but anywhere in the world. The report further said that close to USD 26 million was billed by air ambulance companies in the year 2017. Of this, 12.4 million is what people had to bear, taking into consideration deductibles and co-pays.
Does the Report Vilify Air Ambulance Companies?
This was a question that air ambulance industry advocates would raise without a doubt and not for any frivolous reasons. Balance Billing, which forces patients to pay the amount when insurance companies refuse to clear the air ambulance bills, had no mention in the report. The reason stated for this was ‘insufficient data’. One could even say that the lack of this data, sort of makes the report a little lopsided.
High Fixed Cost was Cited by Air Ambulance Companies
One aspect that should be appreciated about the air ambulance companies is that they have not shied away from saying the amounts charged to the patients are pretty steep. They have also expressed their helplessness in containing this, as the fixed costs of maintaining a medical flight is very high. However, what goes against the favor of some air ambulance companies is the fact that they are unwilling to come in the network of insurance providers.
As we have always stated, the air ambulance industry and the insurance industry need to come together to find a middle path, so that the common person does not have to bear the burden of huge bills.
One of the most basic criteria for insurances approving and covering costs of medical flights is establishing that there was actually a medical necessity for availing the service. However, understanding what constitutes a ‘medical necessity’ is important. Of course, we have discussed, in our earlier guides, that the decision to summon air ambulances can only be taken by the treating medical professionals in the hospital or at the site of accidents. Let’s dive into this topic a little deep here.
Medical Flights and their Advantage Over Ground Ambulances
It must be established or deemed important to leverage the advantage that medical flights have over ground ambulances. The instability that comes with transporting a patient via ground ambulance and the need for rapid medical transportation could be the two reasons to avail medical flight services. Further, the condition of the patient should be such that he or she could suffer serious medical consequences or even face death if an air ambulance is not used.
Accessibility of the Destination
An air ambulance can become a ‘medical necessity’ if the destination is located in a region that is remote or completely inaccessible to other forms of transportation. The ground approach to the destination could be such that it poses a serious threat to the patient owing to the terrain.
Time Taken to Reach the Nearest Treating Facility
There are times when a delay as small as 30 minutes to an hour can mean the difference between life and death. The ground ambulances may be available in such scenarios but the time that they take to reach the treating facility could be a deterrent and the advantage of quick transportation that comes with medical flights could be the advantage. Of course, the severity of the illness or the disease condition would be the primary factor behind this decision.
‘Stringent’ is the word that comes to mind when you think of medical flight insurance coverage norms. Cost reimbursements of medical flights can mean between a retaining your life savings and letting it go to cover the huge bills. It is important to know the basis on which insurance companies accept or deny the claims. Of course, the foremost thing is to own a health insurance policy that covers medical flight services or medical transportation of any form for that matter. If this condition is taken care of, following are the other conditions that you must be mindful of.
Insurance Coverage for Medical Flight Services
Medical flight services to and from hospitals are covered by Medicare Part B. It is worthy to note here that air medical transportation to skilled nursing facilities is also covered under Part B. However, it should be noted that medical flight coverage is provided when it is deemed that ground ambulances are not suitable for the medical condition or when it is determined that the patient is in dire need of care and timely care is possible when the patient is carried to the treating facility in the shortest possible time via an air ambulance.
Approval by the Treating Professional is Necessary
The ultimate decision of whether a medical flight service is necessary lies with the treating professional who could be a physician or a paramedic attending an emergency. This decision cannot be taken by the patient and in most cases cannot be overruled either.
If the medical flight company feels that the patient might not be able to pay for its services, it can ask the patient to sign Advance Beneficiary Notice that states that the patient would be responsible for the payment in case the insurance company refuses reimbursement. The patient can refuse to sign this notice; however, if the air ambulance company goes ahead and carries the patient, he or she might still be held responsible for the payment.
Over the past few years, the medical flight services have steadily risen in cost, so much so that the cost has gone up at a whopping 5% per annum since almost the past 7 years. There have been concerted efforts on the part of state governments and the federal government to bring the cost of medical flight services down, at least to a ‘reasonable’ level. However, the definition of what is reasonable has been rather loose. In the midst of all this, it is natural that people in general are concerned about workers’ compensation and how it deals with medical flight services.
Handling of Medical Flight Services by Workers’ Comp
The big concern of most people is naturally whether they have to pay out of pocket in the eventuality that medical flight services are utilized for a work-related injury. Many would simply ask whether there is a possibility of a balance payment being demanded.
Such worries, however, have no basis to them. The amount would be settled by the insurance carrier and if the amount being approved by the carrier is less than what the air ambulance company is claiming, the victim of the accident need not be concerned. It is up to the medical flight services company and the carrier to come to a settlement. In most cases, the air ambulance company gives the insurance carrier a discount.
The Clash of Two Laws and the Way Out
Most states have fee schedules that define the extent of medical flight services cost coverage. However, ADA or Airlines Deregulation Act of 1978 allows air ambulance service providers to charge what they feel is reasonable without any questions being raised. The two laws can be, sometimes, contradictory to each other. However, in spite of all this, it still boils down to the air ambulance company and the insurance provider coming to a common monitory agreement, in case there is a dispute.
Americans today seem to have a false sense of security thinking that everything related to their medical wellbeing is automatically covered by health insurance. The reality is far from this belief. The health insurance providers differentiate between hospital expenses and medical air transport. While a good insurance will cover almost the entire medical treatment bill, the same insurance would hardly cover one-third of the medical air transport bill. To make matters worse, the medical air transport cost, even for short distances, sometimes is very high.
Why are Medical Air Transport Costs so High?
Maintaining helicopters and airplanes is no child’s play. It’s an expensive affair. Plus, keeping emergency professionals on standby at all times means additional costs. All these expenses, of course, have to be ultimately borne by the patients availing the services or the health insurance providers. The insurance providers only cover the in-network medical air transport services, and since insurance companies tend to disagree with the high bills that air ambulance companies generate, they only end up covering a part of it. This dissuades these companies to go in-network with the insurance carriers.
There is a Way Out and It Does not Cost Much
All it takes is a bit of planning. When you know well that insurance companies do not cover the expenses fully, exploring other options is the wise thing to do. There are several agencies that specialize in providing medical transport coverage. The costs are nominal and the coverage is usually good. They cover those expenses which are left uncovered by the insurance companies. So, in today’s world while ensuring medical insurance coverage is important, it is equally important to also keep yourself and your family covered for medical air transport emergencies. Failing to do so, can land you in a financial mess that can take years to clean up.