Air ambulances are used to transport patients during critical medical situations. They can be especially important in areas where ground ambulances may not be available—or in rural areas where an appropriate medical provider may be very far away.
Sky-High Prices. Recent data from the Health Care Cost Institute shows that the cost of air ambulance trips rose sharply in the last decade even though air ambulances are used less frequently. From 2008 to 2017, the use of helicopter ambulances declined by 14.3 percent while the use of airplane ambulances remained about the same. At the same time, the average price of an air ambulance trip more than doubled—rising 144 percent for helicopters and 166 percent for planes. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the average cost of an air ambulance was about $36,000 for helicopter transport and $41,000 for fixed-wing (airplane) transport.
While air ambulance transportation can be vital for patients, air ambulance providers are a common source of surprise medical bills. These bills can be very costly for patients. Although comprehensive data is not available, the GAO found that complaints about surprise air ambulance bills were almost always more than $10,000.
Need for Federal Action. Surprise bills from air ambulances present unique issues for policymakers. Federal aviation law currently restricts the ability of states to regulate air ambulance prices. Although state policymakers have tried to address air ambulance surprise bills, these efforts have been challenged in federal court or face significant legal hurdles. This is one reason why state insurance commissioners continue to urge Congress to include air ambulance-specific protections in any federal legislation.
Given this limitation, Congress must act to either 1) limit surprise air ambulance bills or 2) amend federal aviation law to enable states to regulate air ambulance pricing. To begin to address surprise air ambulance bills, the U.S. Department of Transportation established the Air Ambulance and Patient Billing Advisory Committee. This Advisory Committee will review options and make recommendations to improve price transparency for air ambulances, educate consumers about air ambulances and insurance coverage to prevent surprise medical bills.
Congress is currently considering a number of proposals to protect patients from surprise medical bills. In the two bills with the most momentum so far—one in the Senate and one in the House—only the Senate bill prohibits air ambulance providers from balance billing patients. The House bill would not prohibit the practice of balance billing by air ambulances but would require providers to separate the cost of flight from the cost of emergency services and supplies.
Featured Resources on Air Ambulances
- Air Ambulances – 10 Year Trends in Costs and Use (Health Care Cost Institute, 2019)
- Air Ambulance: Available Data Show Privately-Insured Patients Are at Financial Risk (U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2019)
- Are Air Ambulances Truly Flying Out of Reach? Surprise Billing Policy and the Airline Deregulation Act (Health Affairs Blog, 2019)
- Will It Fly? Wyoming Attempts End Run Around High Air Ambulance Prices (CHIRblog, 2019)
- Letter to House Representatives from State Insurance Commissioners on Air Ambulances (National Association of Insurance Commissioners, 2019)
- Letter to Senators from State Insurance Commissioners on Air Ambulances (National Association of Insurance Commissioners, 2019)