In one recent case, 35-year-old radiologist Dr. Naveed Khan rolled an ATV while scooting along the Red River in Texas, according to Kaiser Health News. His left arm was mangled, and the hospital at Wichita Falls decided he needed immediate helicopter transport to a trauma center in Fort Worth if there was any chance of saving the arm.
The 108-mile flight cost $56,000, Kaiser Health News reported. Khan’s insurer paid about $12,000 of that, leaving him on the hook for the remaining $44,000.
Industry blames high charges on underpayment by Medicare, Medicaid
The AAMS says that underpayment by federal insurance programs dictates the higher prices charged to private insurance.
“The median cost of a helicopter air ambulance flight is $10,200,” the AAMS said in a statement. “On average, Medicare pays $5,900 per transport, Medicaid pays $3,500 per transport, and the average uninsured patient pays $350 per transport.”
“Because of the vast underpayments by Medicare and Medicaid, and in order to preserve the ability of air medical services to provide access to critical levels of health care for millions of Americans, rates are raised to cover the losses incurred by providing services to Medicare, Medicaid and uninsured patients,” the AAMS continued. “More than 70% of helicopter air ambulance patients are covered by Medicare, Medicaid or are uninsured.”
Khan told Kaiser Health News he was frustrated to learn that the price charged to him was far more than the actual cost of his flight.
“It’s unfair,” he said. “It’s random, it’s arbitrary. It’s whatever price they want to set. And to put that onto a person who’s already been through what I’ve been through, I hate to say it, but it’s cruel.”
Bai and her colleagues performed their cost analysis using Medicare data.
The investigators found that helicopters provided about 85% of air ambulance trips for Medicare patients in 2016.
The median charge ratio for helicopter transport — the charge divided by the rate Medicare pays — increased 55% between 2012 and 2016, while the median charge ratio increased 46% for airplane transport.