Are Air Ambulances Grounding Patients in Debt?

Costs of air ambulances have soared in recent years

The cost of healthcare is rising. Nowhere is that more true than in the rising costs of air ambulances.

A federal study conducted in 2017 found that the cost for medical flights nearly tripled from $15,000 in 2010 to $40,000 in 2016.

“It is costly, a very cost-intensive industry,” said Don Wharton, the director of business strategy for Reach Medical Air, one of the leading air ambulance providers in California.

Two Northern California families learned that fact the hard way.

“I was terrified, I didn’t know what was going to happen,” said April Harais, who watched as her one-year-old son Connor’s health deteriorate during an allergic reaction. She told NBC Bay Area that doctors ordered a helicopter to fly him 500 miles to a Children’s Hospital. That flight cost Harais $51,000 despite her having insurance.

Northern California father David Rodriguez and his wife were hit with a $140,000 air ambulance bill after their twin boys developed a life-threatening blood condition.

They too had health insurance. As was the case with April Harais, their insurance did not cover the transport.

Reach Air’s Don Wharton says those costs could be reduced if large public and private insurance agencies paid their fair share of the costs.

“It comes down to reimbursement -- actual reimbursement per patient,” said Wharton. “What we have found, again, there have been no adjustments on Medicare.”

So, what should families do when it comes to ensuring their children and loved ones can get the care they need without getting grounded in debt?

First and foremost, said Wharton, is call your insurance company and find out if air ambulance flights are covered.

If not, air ambulance companies such as Reach Air offer membership plans just in case of an emergency.

“It’s kind of like Triple AAA, you buy it and for a nominal fee, in our case, it's close to $80, and we’ll cover the entire family for the entire year,” said Wharton.

Wharton told NBC Responds that the plans are useful for residents living in rural areas where ground transportation is limited and ambulance rides could take time. 

But for April Harais and David Rodriguez, they had to learn about the rising air ambulance costs the hard way.

“There’s got to be a better way they can make better use of their equipment without having to overcharge everyone that flies,” Rodriguez told NBC Bay Area’s Responds Team.

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