The air ambulance industry has been in the headlines for quite some time now. Most recently, however, it was because the state of Wyoming was attempting to regulate it. The hurdle was (and is) a federal regulation that prohibits state governments from interfering in the affairs of air ambulance industry. However, the attempts were rejected by CMS. Wyoming had proposed that the states must be allowed a say in the matters of air ambulance industry. It had done so to keep the cost of medical flight services at bay as they have been getting steeply expensive recently.
Does this Mean the Air Ambulance Industry has Won?
The answer is “yes.” At least for now, the air ambulance industry seems to have won. The CMS verdict favors the medical flight service providers. They will not be subjected to any state control and will be free to fly across state borders and also charge the consumers what they feel is the right amount.
The industry had feared that if they are forced to come under insurance networks, they will then have to conform to the reimbursement rates that are set by the insurance organizations. This was especially worrying since the rates have not been revised in over a decade. Moreover, since bidding system to offer services for a particular state would have come into picture, there were high chances that some insurance companies would have gone out of business.
What does it Mean for Consumers?
Consumers will now have access to a wide range of air ambulance companies. This means they will be able to avail specialized medical flights during emergencies. Since the profitability will remain unchanged, the air ambulance industry would find it financially encouraging extending their reach to remotest parts of the country. There, however, is one drawback. Since insurance companies have not still revised their reimbursement rates, the consumers are at risk of high out-of-pocket expenses.
A recent survey has shown that medical flight services are now more open to insurance network participation. In fact, the numbers have gone up by a healthy 20%. It has also been seen that the medical flight services and insurance companies are holding intense discussions and negotiations surrounding in-network arrangements.
The reason behind this change has been the huge increase in consumer demand and also to steer clear of the negative publicity that both the industries have been subject to in recent times. The efforts by the state governments to regulate air ambulance pricing and also getting insurance companies onboard with their cost-controlling measures have seen a lot of backlash recently.
The Medical Flight Services and their Cost Compulsions
The refusal of the insurance companies to take cognizance of the fact that maintaining medical flight services is an expensive affair – some say – was the cause of all the misunderstanding. Air ambulance companies usually spend a fortune to remain on standby for emergencies. The cost, of course, is then transferred to their services. When insurance companies refuse to foot these costs, the burden unfortunately is transferred to the patients who avail the service. This is a practice that is popular as ‘balance billing’.
How In-Network Coverage Helps
Customers are able to enjoy discounted and ‘fair’ out-of-pocket expenses to cover medical flight services when in-network coverage becomes a reality. In an ideal world, all air ambulance services providers must be in-network. However, the onus of it does not lie only on these emergency service providers. The insurance organizations too must be willing to reimburse a fair amount. Otherwise, it simply does not make business sense for medical flight services to join any network.
The good news, however, seems to be that both these industries are coming around and finding common grounds to work together.
There has been much anticipation surrounding the new air ambulance bill that aims at curtailing surprise billing practices. However, experts opine that the draft leaves much to be desired for both parties – the payers and the air ambulance service providers. The feeling is that the lawmakers have tried to take a middle ground so as to not displease the air ambulance industry or the medical insurance industry.
From the insurance industry point of view, the fact that it suggests an in-network rate even for those medical flight service providers that are out of network seems like a big win. The provision is something that payers have wanted all along.
From the air ambulance industry point of view, the draft allows for arbitration if there is a dispute with regards to the billing. However, since this comes in the backdrop of a set rate, the industry is not too happy about it.
How is the Air Ambulance and the Wider Healthcare Industry taking it?
The American Hospitals Association has strongly opposed the draft. Their reasoning is that it harms the rural hospitals by limiting the access that patients currently have. The association went as far as saying it is a ‘windfall’ for the insurers ‘at the expense of’ community hospitals. American Association of Medical Colleges too has opposed the draft.
America’s Health Insurance Plans has displayed its dissatisfaction surrounding the provision for arbitration.
More about Arbitration
When it comes to air ambulance companies, arbitration will only be possible for amounts over $25,000. The industry is also expected to provide two years’ worth of data pertaining to costs. This data would be provided to US Transportation Secretary as well as HHS.
The air ambulance industry has been vocal in raising the concerns surrounding patient safety as well as closure of medical bases. They also pointed out that the current insurance payouts by Medicare and Medicaid do not cover even 40% of the costs.
Imagine a situation where a patient is in a life-threatening situation and a medical flight is an absolute necessity. The treating physician recommends an air ambulance. However, when a call is placed for dispatch, the service provider refuses to comply. The reason behind this is bad weather conditions. The hospital then calls several other service providers until they find one that is willing to take the risk. This is called medical flight shopping. While this might seem to be a logical recourse for the patient, it is not always desirable. The risk taken by the patient and the crew is huge in such circumstances. Why do air ambulance service providers agree to such a call?
The Pressures on the Medical Flight Industry
There are over a thousand medical flight service providers in the United States. This means they have to divide the existing customer base within themselves. Plus, most of these businesses are privately funded so profits matter. Rejecting patients for whatever reason does not serve the profit motive of these investors. Hence, the crew is compelled to take the call of answering to the need. However, this eventually places a huge financial burden on the patient. Let’s understand how.
The Out of Network Issue
In a situation where the need for medical flight service is huge and time is short, the patient does not really have the option of choosing a service provider. Most often, the service that he or she ends up with is one that is not covered by the insurance provider. While the insurance might cover a base rate, medical flight companies do not always comply with such rates. As a result, the patient is later compelled to cough up a steep price that the medical flight company charges in the form of balance bills. Medical flight shopping thus is a high-risk and expensive affair – a practice that must be relooked.
Surprise billing or balance billing is not just a problem specific to the air ambulance industry. The healthcare landscape itself is riddled with it. We have seen far too often that people who opt for a medical flight service receive huge bills that are not covered by the insurance network.
As a result, they end up liable to pay the surprise bill to the air ambulance service provider. While we often see that the money is waved off or a huge discount is offered, it is still an inconvenience and often a point of friction between the consumers and the medical flight company.
Is the Air Ambulance Industry Doing Enough?
Doubts are often raised whether the air ambulance industry is doing enough to keep the costs in check. While it is undeniable that there are some bad actors, the industry experts reveal that going in-network is not an option. The reason is the unfair reimbursement rates they say.
At the current time, the cost projections by the air ambulance industry and what the insurance companies are willing to reimburse are poles apart. Of course, there are some initiatives like memberships that medical flight companies offer, but not many are able to get the full benefits of such initiatives as consumers do not feel that necessity to pay extra, in addition to their insurance premiums.
What Can the Air Ambulance Industry Do Further?
It all comes down to negotiations. It is imperative that the air ambulance industry has a healthy discussion with the insurance companies to arrive at a fair reimbursement rates. The industry must be flexible enough to ultimately join the insurance networks.
Moreover, there is a necessity to present their points of view to the government so that there is a clear understanding of the roadblocks. The ultimate aim must be to unburden the common man.
Recently a woman aboard a cruise ship called Norwegian Escape fell seriously ill. It went on to the extent that an air ambulance had to be called out. Lucky for her, the coast guard was reachable and quickly responded to the emergency by evacuating her. However, not all are as fortunate as this woman to find help when it is needed most while cruising through a fun vacation in high seas.
Often, while in international waters, with different national borders in place, the logistical problem can turn out to be a nightmare. The cost too can be quite high as evacuation is rather tough and involves huge distances. Insurance coverage is therefore of paramount importance.
Ask About Air Ambulance Coverage Beforehand
Not all travel insurance policies will cover air ambulance evacuation and you might have to shell out a huge amount for this purpose. There have been instances where people have even turned to crowd funding to pay air ambulance bills. The wisest thing, therefore, is to opt for a travel insurance that has comprehensive medical flight evacuation coverage. Moreover, you would not want to be treated in a foreign country if the treatment duration is long. Getting back to your home country among your loved ones would be among your top priorities.
Your Options without an Air Ambulance Coverage
If you have deep pockets, of course, there is absolutely nothing to worry but if you do not, it can be a problem. Minor ailments like broken bones, fever, and food poisoning is cared for onboard the cruise as each one hosts medical professionals. However, if the health condition is severe, the ship simply has to wait for the nearest port and admit you there. It would then leave with the remaining passengers once you are assured appropriate medical care. Sounds a little scary? That’s precisely the reason you need comprehensive air ambulance coverage.
There’s a lot happening in the air medical transport industry currently. With the state lawmakers and the feds trying hard to end surprise air medical billing practices, there is a high degree of lobbying that is taking place both by insurance and air medical transport industry. There is a huge amount of blame game going on. Both parties are trying to pin the blame on each other. Often, you’ll find articles that highlight high bills that patients are compelled to foot and on the other hand, articles that detail the plight of the air ambulance industry and the rising costs it is grappling with.
What is a Surprise Air Medical Transport Bill?
In order to understand what surprise air medical transport bill is, we should adopt an industry agnostic perspective. The problem is not just with the air ambulance industry, it is rampant throughout the medical world. In the United States, unlike other parts of the world, insurance is a matter of network coverage. If a provider is not covered by the insurance company, it is likely that the reimbursement is going to be rejected. This compels the patients to foot the bill all by themselves. This phenomenon, where a person is compelled to pay a medical bill, in spite of having medical insurance, is known as surprise bill. This is what the polity of the nation is currently trying to eliminate.
Why is Tough to Eliminate Surprise Billing?
There are several facets to this. Some air ambulance companies, in the absence of fair reimbursement by insurance industry, simply do not want to come in network. The question arises, “Why?” The answer is obvious – this move paves the way for balance billing where the patient becomes responsible to foot that cost which is not covered by the insurance provider. Then who is to blame? Well, both insurance and air ambulance industries: the insurance industry because it refuses to reimburse a fair amount and the air medical transport industry because it refuses to come within insurance networks. It’s a Catch-22 situation.
Well this might not come to you as a surprise because you might have witnessed this yourself. According to one survey conducted by Kaiser Family Foundation, about 40% of US citizens have revealed that their families have received a medical bill despite being covered by medical insurance. This is a growing problem for the country as insurance companies are seen restricting the number of providers in their networks. Of course, out of network providers are not covered by insurance companies. In this context, the question arises, is it the same logic behind huge medical flight bills that people across the country are witnessing?
Medical Flight Bills and Insurance Network
A majority of industry experts believe medical flight service providers willingly stay out of insurance networks. The reason is simple, they lose the freedom to charge what they feel is fair for their services. It is also felt that there is a huge disparity between what the medical flight industry believes is a fair payout and what the insurance industry pays. The middle ground, it seems, is something that has not been achieved so far. The issue has not gone unnoticed by the lawmakers. However, the opinion is divided as to who is responsible for the huge bills.
Efforts by Lawmakers to Bring Down the Bills
Several attempts have been made to limit the amount that can be charged for medical flight services. From trying to ban balance billing to compelling air ambulance companies to come under insurance networks, several innovative efforts have failed. The reason behind this is the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. Designed to create a competitive environment to keep the price of this essential service down, it precludes the state governments from intervening in the matters of air ambulances. Only the Federal Government is authorized to make changes.
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.