Air Ambulances

Air Ambulances

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. This is consistent with a recent study published in Health Affairs, which found that out-of-network air ambulance bills averaged $91 million per year, rising from $41 million in 2013 to $143 million in 2017. 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. Another study showed that air ambulances resulted in median potential surprise bills of $21,698. And yet another study showed that 2 in 5 air ambulance transports resulted in a potential average surprise bill of $19,851.

Federal Legislation. 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, action by Congress was necessary to limit surprise air ambulance bills. 

Congress took action to protect patients from surprise air ambulance bills in the recent No Surprises Act, although those protections will not go into effect until 2022. Before that, the U.S. Department of Transportation established the Air Ambulance and Patient Billing Advisory Committee, which was tasked with reviewing policy options and making recommendations to protect patients.

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