News13 Special Report: Sky-high air ambulance bills hurt patients

Grand Strand

CONWAY, SC (WBTW)- Local hospitals use private air ambulance companies to transport patients via helicopter to save their life, but patients said the bill they receive when they get back is crippling.

In May of 2014, Lindsey Mcknight was pregnant with a baby boy. She went to the doctor knowing something was wrong, and found out she lost her son. She was then taken to Conway Medical Center where she discovered her liver ruptured.

“They said because of the rupture, I couldn’t handle the bumpiness of the road of a regular ambulance. It would be potentially catastrophic to my liver,” said Mcknight.

Mcknight said, “I remember them saying, you’re getting on a helicopter. This has nothing to do with your family’s request of transfer. You’re getting on the helicopter. Sign this piece of paper.”

After a 45 minute flight to MUSC, she was hit with a $52,244 bill from Rocky Mountain Holdings, also known as Air Methods.

“I got another bill reduced because insurance paid $5,000 for $47,000 dollars,” said Mcknight.

Which she was supposed to pay out of pocket, while she came to grips with the loss of her son.

“Losing a child that you’re able to deliver and hold in your arms. It’s a real baby. I got to hold him and see him. That is traumatic emotionally, and so I had some PTSD,” said Mcknight.

Mcknight said, “I was dealing with some of that on top of Air Methods constantly sending me this piece of paper saying sign this so we can bill, and you’re going to pay the difference.”

She isn’t alone. News 13 found five other people in Horry County that Rocky Mountain Holdings has sued for debt collection, and with prices varying from nearly 16 to 50 thousand dollars.

It doesn’t stop there, News 13 found lawsuits in other areas of the state and the country.

“From a financial stand point had I died. My family would’ve been better off,” said McKnight.

This is an unregulated industry. Local representatives Kevin Hardee and Jeff Johnson are trying to change that. 

Kevin Hardee said he’s been trying to change that for years, but the price of these flights fall under the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act, which created a free market in the airline industry and removed control over airfares and routes.

“Sit down with us and we will negotiate a rate that’s fair for everybody, and that will stop this. They wont sit down with us because they don’t have to, and can continue to charge you anything they want,” said Rep. Kevin Hardee.

 Right now, lawmakers are trying to pass the Air Ambulance Affordability Act, which would require air ambulance companies to get a permit through the Department of Health and Environmental Control.  It also brings the insurance companies to the table.

“If the insurance companies would make them be a preferred provider in their network that would be some kind of regulations,” said Rep. Hardee.

News 13 reached out to Air Methods who said “The cost of this around-the-clock readiness averages nearly $3 million per year for each air base”

They also said “Further, 77% of air medical providers’ cost are fixed, giving these companies little leeway in reducing cost of their own.” 

According to a study prepared for the Association of Air Medical Services, the cost per transport ranges from $4,000 to $20,000, with an average cost of $11,000. 

This begs the question why some people are being billed way more than that.

Air Methods said 80% of transports in South Carolina have Medicaid, Medicare, or are uninsured. They said Medicaid in South Carolina only pays $3,000, Medicare pays $6,000, and those who are uninsured pay less than $200.

Those with insurance have to cover the cost for everyone else.

“I don’t think because I have insurance that I should be penalized and essentially ruined,” said McKnight.

Lindsay now has a little boy, and hopes her story will affect change.

Conway Medical Center said they don’t have any control over the cost of air ambulances.
They also said they will continue to work with partners like MUSC and Duke to see if there are more cost effective means for patients.

Congress currently has a committee studying this issue.

Air methods and Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina are currently in negotiations.

Right now, Blue Cross Blue Shield does not have any air ambulances in network. 

Air Methods also said price controls would ultimately cause every air ambulance service to leave the state.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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