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Reality Check: Consumers on the hook for outlandish air ambulance bills

(MGN) Reality Check: Consumers on the hook for outlandish air ambulance bills
(MGN) Reality Check: Consumers on the hook for outlandish air ambulance bills

Imagine getting a $57,000 bill in the mail. Could you pay it? The Saucer family says they certainly couldn't. Tonya Saucer says the financial stress from their air ambulance bill on top of the angst worrying about their ailing child was overwhelming.

"I've spent countless days crying over this," said Saucer.

Tonya's daughter Holin was born with six major heart defects, including being born with half a heart. In May 2017, Holin stopped breathing in the middle of the night. The family rushed to the hospital and were told Holin had to be transported by air ambulance to a hospital in Atlanta for treatment. There was no other option. Tonya says hospital workers told her their insurance approved the transport.

But then came the denial letter from her insurance and a big bill from the air ambulance company for $57,135. Insurance, after much persistence, ultimately covered just $8,900 of that bill. That still left the Saucers on the hook for $48,000, a practice known as balance billing.

"It's sickening. You think you're fixing to lose everything you've worked your whole life for," said Tonya.

The Saucers certainly aren't alone. A Government Accountability Report found the median price air ambulance companies charge is between $36,000 and $41,000, depending on the type of helicopter used. The report also found it's people like the Saucers with private insurance, who work and make too much to be on Medicaid, that are the most vulnerable to getting these high bills.

"This could have bankrupted us very easily," said Saucer. "I feel like it's a crooked system."

States have tried and failed to rein in air ambulance bills. Every time the air ambulance companies win because of a 1978 federal law called the Airline Deregulation Act, which prevents states from regulating prices, routes and services of air carriers. Now Congress may be stepping in. A special committee is now investigating how to protect consumers from balance billing and will make recommendations to lawmakers. Their first public meeting was last month.

"What we are given is the authority to prohibit and take regulatory action, whether by rule or enforcement order, to prevent unfair and deceptive practices in the air transport industry and unfair methods of competition," said Dept. of Transportation General Counsel Steve Bradbury at the meeting.

Florida lawmakers aren't waiting on Washington. They're taking on exorbitant air ambulance bills this session. A bill making its way through the Florida legislature right now would force insurance companies to pay reasonable reimbursements to air ambulance companies. If it passes, patients and their families wouldn't be stuck with huge bills.

Change, if it happens, will come too late for the Saucer family who wound up settling with the air ambulance company for an undisclosed amount.

"I feel like there's a loophole, and this loophole needs to be addressed," said Saucer.

Industry trade group Association of Air Medical Services says it welcomes a review of their industry. In a statement the group said, "patients should not be burdened by balance bills when their insurers refuse to adequately cover the costs of their emergency medical services. If these practices are allowed to continue, the entire emergency air ambulance system in the United States would be at risk."

Recognizing the tremendous financial burden for people, leaders in Gulf Shores last year partnered with AirMedCare Network, which includes Medstar AirCare. The city pays $163,000 annually and in exchange residents pay nothing for both ground and air transport, if the departure originates from Baldwin County.

"If something happens and you need this service, it's here. You worry about you and your family and you get them better and get them home and get back to living on this beautiful Gulf Coast," said Gulf Shore Fire Rescue Deputy Chief Keith Martin.

For a small fee, residents can upgrade their subscription to include transport for emergencies that happen outside of Baldwin County. For more information, click here.