There's no question that helicopter ambulances save people's lives, but these unregulated trips can also cost patients up to $55,000 (video below).
ABC News recently reported that the Larson family of Owensboro, Kentucky, was hit with a massive $47,000 bill for a 79-mile helicopter ambulance ride by Air Methods for their daughter.
The Larsons' health insurance paid $15,000, and they were stuck with the rest. Air Methods offered to bring down the price for a large payment upfront, but when the deal fell through, Air Methods hit the family with another $4,000 in interest. Now, the Larsons owe $36,000.
“It’s definitely going to cripple us financially,” Warren Larson, who is a helicopter pilot, said.
People are being sued, hounded by debt collectors and forced into bankruptcy by an industry that is not regulated.
Patients, such as Warren Lowe, often have no choice as to whether they even want the helicopter ambulance ride. Lowe was charged $47,000 by Air Methods for a 55-mile helicopter ambulance ride that took 20 minutes.
Air Methods, which has helicopter ambulances in 48 states, reportedly earned $108 million in 2015; its CEO Aaron Todd made almost $5 million.
Air Methods said it offers discounts to people with proven financial hardship, but has to charge high prices because of underpayments by the government and health insurance companies.
“Look, if everybody paid their fair share, do you know what the charge for this service would be? $12,000, that's the reality that we operate in,” Paul Webster, Air Methods vice president, told ABC News.
However, it is Air Methods that decides what the "fair share" is.
CareFlite, a Texas-based non-profit state-of-the-art helicopter ambulance, charges far less and does not use debt collectors and legal tactics on patients as Air Methods does.
Jean Medina was billed $35,000 by Air Methods after it flew her daughter 37 miles to a hospital. The girl had suffered complications after a tonsillectomy.
“The surgery itself was a total of $16,000 and the helicopter’s nearly $35,000, it just seems [like a] crazy amount of money,” Medina said.
After her insurance paid, Medina still owed $17,000.
Medina recalled that she drove to the hospital in about the same amount of time that the helicopter ambulance flew because it was slow to arrive and load.
Air Methods requires patients (or their families) to sign consent forms, but never mentions the estimated cost of the flight on the forms.
Webster said he didn't know why the pricing wasn't on his company's forms, but added, “It’s a question I can ask” headquarters.
Maryland insurance commissioner Al Redmer told ABC News that helicopter ambulance companies fall under a federal law that deregulated prices for the airline industry, so they can charge whatever they want.
Kim Downs' teen daughter Alyssa had life-threatening injuries after a highway accident, and the price of the helicopter ambulance ride by Air Methods was $55,000. Downs was lucky though, her insurance company paid all of it.
WSOC-TV notes that Dennis Oliver suffered injuries on a Costco construction site in Columbia, South Carolina, in January.
Oliver said he lay in a trench for two hours while emergency crews shored up the ground, which had collapsed.
Oliver was eventually flown via helicopter ambulance to a hospital eight miles away without the choice of ground transportation.
That trip cost him $32,881.
WSOC-TV associates drove to the hospital at the speed limit, stopped at red lights and made it in 13 minutes.