Bills, debt, lawsuits tied to air ambulances

Posted at 10:01 AM, Mar 17, 2016

Over the past five years, the costs of air ambulance service nationwide has doubled, leaving patients with five-figure-bills that often lead to lawsuits, liens or even bankruptcy.

The nation's largest air ambulance service, Air Methods, has been getting the most complaints here in Florida.

The ABC Action News I-Team worked with our partners in the Brian Ross Investigative unit at ABC News for this first-of-its kind national investigation into what’s driving these prices up and what can be done to help consumers. 

In an emergency, air ambulances can mean the difference between life and death. Eric Leonhard was air-lifted after being injured in a crash.

“I remember the crunch of metal and that's all I can remember,” he said.

Sophia Melina, 12, had complications from having her tonsils removed while on a family beach trip. 

“Sophia got up and was spitting up some blood,” said her mother Jean Molina.

Christy Deloach went into sudden cardiac arrest, causing her implanted defibrillator to activate.

“It fired three times that morning within two-and-a-half hours and I knew I was in bad shape,” she said.

All three patients were in Florida, had insurance coverage and were flown to hospitals by Air Methods, America's largest air ambulance provider.

Air methods handles one out of every four helicopter medical transports in the U.S. from 300 bases in 48 states.  One is located at St.Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, which operates under the name Bayflite. The company also maintains bases in Pinellas, Sarasota and Hernando Counties.

 Air Methods, which posted about $110 Million in profit last year, also leads the industry in billing. Eric Leonhard received two bills.

 “I got airlifted to the local hospital and they determined that it was so severe that they had to fly me down to Miami,” he said.

The total bill was more than $70,000, which the company is trying to collect more than three years later. 

 “You have enough to worry about with just your physical injuries and what you're dealing with in life,” Leonhard said.

Sophia Medina's family was billed $34,800 for a 37-mile flight from Naples to Ft. Myers.

“The surgery itself was $16,000 and the helicopter's nearly $35,000,” Jean Medina said.

Christy Deloach was charged $40,800 for a 26 mile flight, about $1,500 a mile.

“I want everyone to know how egregious this is. It's crazy,” she said.

Who's behind the bills?

“The insurance company that underpays the bill is the one that really sticks them with the bill,” said Paul Webster, who is Vice President of Air Methods.  “We lose money on seven out of 10 transports,” he said.

Webster says his company often has to transport uninsured patients for free and gets low reimbursements from Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance.  Those costs are then passed on to paying customers.

Deloach's insurance paid about $4,100.

Medina's insurance paid $5,700, less than half the amount Webster says is Air Method's cost.

“If everybody paid their fair share, you know what the charge for this service would be? $12,000. That's the reality we operate at,” said Webster.

"No transparency"

Because air ambulance services fall under the same category as airlines, there are no restrictions on what they can charge.

“They can charge whatever they want to charge, and there's no transparency as to how they get to that price,” said Sandy Ahn, a researcher with Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute, which has studied the rapidly increasing costs of air ambulance service.

“You're unconscious, you're bleeding and you really don't have any choice in saying ,‘Yes, I want to take this flight,’ and then afterwards, you don't have any ability to figure out what they real price is." --Sandy Ahn

Dozens of lawsuits from the Bay area are among hundreds Air Methods has filed nationwide against patients who didn't pay their balances after their insurance companies wrote checks.

Christy Deloach's husband signed a form as his wife was being hustled onto the helicopter giving Air Methods permission to put a lien against their home. She's currently trying to settle..

“They came down to an additional $16,000, in addition to the costs already paid and wanted me to agree if I got any more money from the insurance company to give it to them and not to speak to anyone about it,” she said.

Air Methods says it works with patients who are unable to pay the full amount But Webster says the company will have to continue charging its current fees until reimbursements grow.

“The other choice is, this service and this access goes away,” Webster said.

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WATCH: The ABC News investigation