Several viewers contacted us after our first report back in February about their huge bills from Air Methods, a for-profit air ambulance company contracted by University Hospitals.
Chuck and Mary Ann Nowak don't dispute that the helicopter that took Chuck from Elyria Medical Center to University Hospital in Cleveland most likely saved his life.
Chuck had Legionnaires' disease in 2014. Both lungs shut down and caused his heart to stop. He was flown to UH by the MedEvac helicopter owned and operated by Air Methods. A Colorado company that operates in 48 states including Ohio and contracted with UH since 1998.
Chuck spent the next six months in the hospital, but it didn't take long for his wife to start getting the bills. When she received the first from Air Methods she thought there was a typo.
"I thought, this has to be a mistake I mean I was looking at a bill that was 48 thousand dollars," she said.
The Nowak's insurance, Anthem, covered $11,000 of the cost, but they were responsible for the rest.
"Then I got a bill for $38,000 and I was expected to pay it," she said,
Mary Ann made repeated calls to the company questioning the bill.
"What's this fuel charge over $6,000 for fuel, you know they only flew about ten minutes," she said.
Air Methods and its parent company Rocky Mountain Holdings offered this statement explaining the rates:
Air Methods is in essence an airborne ICU, ready to deploy 24/7/365. Patients flown by helicopter air ambulances are the most serious, time-sensitive cases, including traumatic brain injuries, burn victims, strokes and heart attacks. Our crews only respond when called upon by a physician or first responder, and our hospital and EMS partners call the closest air medical provider for optimal patient care; it’s about getting the patient to the most appropriate medical facility within the critical time frame.
The average cost of being ready to deploy at a moment’s notice is $3 million per base per year, which includes the flight nurses, flight medics, EMS pilots, mechanics, crew quarters, fuel and the multi-million dollar aircraft.
Yet, 7 out of 10 of our patients have either Medicare, Medicaid, some other government insurance. Our charges are comparable to average charges by other non-subsidized air medical service providers, and the fundamental problem our industry is facing is that current reimbursement rates by Medicare, Medicaid and some private insurance fall woefully short of what it actually costs to carry our air medical transports.
To continue to provide access to our lifesaving services for the people and communities that need it the most, we must start by fixing the drastically low reimbursements from Medicare and Medicaid services. We strongly support the proposed federal legislation that would resolve the Medicare reimbursement shortfall by updating reimbursement rates. Also, insurance companies must be willing to reimburse for emergency air medical services. Unfortunately, some highly-profitable insurance companies play a major role by placing the financial burden on patients through increasing insurance premiums and reductions of coverage.
We balance bill only as a last resort and, even in these cases, we work with patients one-on-one to recover what they deserve from their insurance company and to determine what they can reasonably pay. After the emergency is over, our team of patient advocates work closely with our patients to help them navigate the complex and often frustrating process of seeking fair reimbursement from insurance companies. In addition, we have a long-established charity care program in place to support patients who need further financial assistance.
As a responsible provider, we are working toward long-term and meaningful solutions and we continue to try to build collaborative partnerships with insurers who share our goal of putting the patient first and recognize the value of our lifesaving services.
In certain states, including Ohio, we’ve developed innovative solutions to help get patients out of the middle of the billing process, including Air Methods Advantage, which is a membership program that ensures covered members will never have to pay out-of-pocket for emergency transports provided by Air Methods. Membership in this innovative program starts at just $40/year. You can find more information HERE.”
Mary Ann did negotiate down her bill. From $38,000 to $13,000 which she put on her credit card. She wanted a monthly payment option but was told it would cost her $7,000 more.
What angers her most she says were the attitudes of the customer service representatives she dealt with.
"I told them, I'll make payments but you can't really expect me to write a check for $38,000, she said if you don't pay what we think you should pay we'll put a lien on your house," Mary Ann recalls.
There are several lawsuits pending against Air Methods over their billing. A Federal Class Action was filed in Ohio this past February. The Nowaks are now part of that suit.
"If you can accept $13,000 down from $38,000, don't you think you overcharged?" she said.