Federal agency calls on air ambulance industry to increase transparency in pricing

The air ambulance industry should consider disclosing pricing information to consumers, hospitals and insurance companies to prevent people being blindsided by bills that can have “potentially devastating financial impacts,” according to a new government report.

The report, released last week by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, studied the prices charged by some air ambulance providers to people who were sick or injured and often unaware of the size of the bills they would get. ABC News investigated industry pricing in 2016, finding that amid the heartwarming stories of lives saved, air ambulances are free to set any price they want.

Desperate consumers told ABC News of being charged $40,000 for a short flight, with little help from their insurance plans. The investigation found that the industry’s largest for-profit player, Air Methods of Englewood, Colo., regularly employs “balance billing,” in which patients are on the hook for whatever insurance doesn’t cover. Some consumers heard from debt collectors after they couldn’t pay. Air Methods declined ABC News’ request for comment on the GAO report.

Air Methods posted a profit of $97.9 million in 2016 on revenue of $1.17 billion. The company, which provides service in 48 states, says it is expensive to provide 24-hour service at the ready with state-of-the-art equipment and well-trained medical staff.

The GAO report found that because air ambulance providers aren’t allowed to turn away patients with Medicare or Medicaid, they increase the price for consumers who have private insurance. The median Medicare reimbursement in 2014 was $6,502.

In its investigation, ABC News brought several cases to the attention of Air Methods, including a Kentucky family that was billed $47,000 for a half-hour flight and an Illinois family that was billed $35,000 for a 37-mile flight that was only a few minutes faster than going by car. Asked about these types of high bills, Air Methods Vice President Paul Webster said the company charges patients more than the actual cost of a flight to offset low government reimbursements for the poor and elderly.

“If everybody paid their fair share, you know what the charge for this service would be? Twelve thousand dollars,” Webster told ABC News.

An industry group blamed Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements that have not kept pace with increasing fixed costs. The Save Our Air Medical Resources campaign (SOAR) said the disparity is…

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