Florida's Insurance Commissioner Advocate forms group to look at air ambulance costs

60 consumers complain to state after getting bills
Posted at 6:52 PM, Oct 18, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-18 18:52:51-04

The Florida Insurance Consumer Advocate is trying to come up with a solution for huge air ambulance bills being passed along to patients.

It's an issue the I-Team has been reporting for months.

The main problem is that nation's largest air ambulance company, which controls a large percentage of the air ambulance service in Florida, is considered out of network by most insurance carriers.

As a result, patients end up getting hit with huge bills, even though they have insurance.

Air ambulances can provide a lifeline for trauma patients, but their costs have skyrocketed, often leaving patients with big bills.

Florida Insurance Consumer Advocate Sha'ron James has now formed a working group of regulators, insurance companies and local governments to try to come up with a solution to the growing problem.

“My hope is that we'll all come to the table in a collaborative manner for the sole purpose of helping Florida consumers,” said James.

Since March, the I-Team, in collaboration with ABC’s Brian Ross Investigative Unit, has reported how patients have faced big charges, often for very short flights.

One patient complained of getting a $35,000 bill after a 34-mile flight.

That patient received a $16,000 bill for the emergency surgery at the hospital.

The nation's largest air ambulance provider, Air Methods, regularly sues patients for the amount their insurance doesn't pay.

The company defends its high charges, saying they lose money on 7 out of 10 patients. 

“I think it's necessary to have doubled the price,” said Air Methods Vice President Paul Webster, defending his company’s recent billing practices.

But air ambulance patients say they shouldn't have to shoulder those high costs.

“It's just wrong that we have to worry about this,” said Chris Nichols, who was balance billed more than $11,000 after a cycling accident.

He was sued by Air Methods four years later.

Sha’ron James says that even though the state currently can't regulate the air ambulance industry, she hopes that by bringing everyone to the table, they can find a way to keep patients from getting hurt by big bills.

“We continue to work with the National Association of Insurance Commissioner to push federal legislation that would allow states to regulate air ambulance companies, but in the meantime, my thought was that we couldn't sit and wait,” she said..

James says she's received about 60 complaints from consumers regarding the high air ambulance bills, but she believes that's just the tip of the iceberg.

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