Hospitals struggle to afford air ambulance services

Hospitals in the Big Sky State struggle to provide air ambulance service--leading to sky-high bills for some patients.

Cost pressures have hit many hospitals serving rural or semi-rural areas hard and prompting them to make hard financial decisions in lieu of closing their doors completely. As many as one in eight such facilities are in danger of closing due to financial duress, experts say.

But many hospitals in Montana had to abandon their helicopter ambulance services due to skyrocketing costs, forcing them to rely on private contractors, the Missoulian newspaper reports. One facility, St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, was losing as much as $1.6 million a year on its air ambulance service, forcing it to retain a private contractor instead, Washington State-based Northwest MedStar.

At the same time, air ambulance services--particularly in the form of extensively outfitted helicopters--could help fill a critical gap in care for hospitals that serve sparsely populated areas. And even just the use of general helicopter transport has shown to save the lives of patients suffering from serious injuries.

But the Missoulian noted that many such contractors are not in the insurance networks of patients, leaving them with bills as high as $85,000 for their transport. Only five of the 13 air ambulance service providers licensed in Montana contract with an insurer, according to the newspaper. Balance bills are up to seven times what Medicare pays. Some offer low-cost memberships to individuals and households, but they are not widely marketed.

"We need more air ambulance providers in insurance company networks," Jesse Laslovich, chief legal counsel to state Commissioner of Securities and Insurance, told the Missoulian. "In terms of the balance bill, there is no regulation because that's the way it works."

To learn more:
- read the Missoulian article