The shocking cost of air ambulances

When your life is on the line in an emergency, you'll do anything to stay alive. Sometimes that means using an air ambulance or medical helicopter. But a Consumer Reports investigation reveals a spike in patient complaints after getting saddled with thousands of dollars in surprise ambulance bills. And what's more troubling, in many cases, those helicopters might not even be necessary.

It’s the call no parent wants to get. Jennie Stout’s daughter, Ashlyn, was badly burned in their backyard. “I could hear Ashlyn in the background, just screaming, and I knew right then, I was like ‘oh, this is a lot worse than it sounds’.”

Paramedics rushed to the scene. The nearest burn center was 40-miles away, so they decided she should be taken by air ambulance.

Jennie Stout said, “There are four paramedics standing in your bathroom saying, ‘we’re going to fly, this is what’s going to happen,’ you just go, ‘okay’.”

Ashlyn made a full recovery and the Stout’s insurer covered the hospital bills, but two months later they received a bill from the air-ambulance company saying they owed over $18,000.

Donna Rosato, the Consumer Reports Money Editor said, “In a true medical emergency, if you call a ground ambulance, your insurance company is likely to pay most of the cost. But insurance companies say air ambulances charge such huge bills, they’re only willing to pay a fraction of the cost, and that means you as the consumer are stuck to pay the rest of the bill.”

And that cost can be high. Consumer Reports says the average bill for medical helicopters is more than $30,000.

Even more shocking, Consumer Reports finds many people taken by air ambulance could have been safely driven to the hospital in a ground ambulance in the same amount of time, or even quicker.

Donna Rosato said, “This is so unfair for consumers. In an emergency situation, that last thing you’re thinking about is how you’re going to pay the bill for the transportation that takes you to the hospital. Consumers often have absolutely no idea they’re going to be on the hook for such a big bill.”

Jennie Stout said, “You have health insurance for a reason because when something catastrophic or life threatening happens that that coverage is supposed to be there to help protect you financially. Even with all of that in place it just didn’t.”

The Stout family has spent four years challenging the bill, which they say has hurt their credit.

If you get stuck with a high air-ambulance bill, Consumer Reports suggests you ask your insurance company to advocate on your behalf to challenge the bill directly with the air-ambulance provider. And to bolster your odds, file a formal complaint with the appropriate agency in your state government.

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