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Emergency helicopter flights to the hospital could come with a surprise bill

Many patients are left in the dark about payments until the bill comes in the mail

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Photo (c) Keith Brofsky - Getty Images
Going to the emergency room can come with a lofty price tag for many consumers, and researchers from Michigan Medicine at the University of Michigan are digging deeper into the surprise costs that emerge from trips to the ER. 

Their new study revealed that when patients are transported via helicopter to the ER, patients are often left to pay their own way. According to their work, there’s often no time to assess a person’s insurance plans when one of these flights are taken because of the severity and urgency of their injury. Unfortunately, that leads to many consumers having to foot the bill when all is said and done.

$20,000 medical bills

To understand how many patients end up on the hook for ambulance transport, the researchers evaluated insurance claims from a five-year period. Of the 1.5 million ambulance transports in that time, 26,000 of them were by helicopters or planes. 

The researchers explained that timing is key because the goal of ambulance operators is to begin treatment during the trip to the hospital. This often means skipping many of the clerical tasks, like checking patients’ insurance. However, though medical care is the primary concern, this often means that patients leave the hospital with rather large bills that come as a surprise. 

The researchers learned that an out-of-network helicopter or plane ride to an emergency room could run consumers up to $20,000. This becomes the reality for over 70 percent of patients who are airlifted to the emergency room. 

Patients who take ground ambulances are in a similar boat, as nearly 80 percent are left to pick up the bill for their trip to the ER. However, these trips tend to cost patients roughly $500. 

Prioritizing medical care

These findings are concerning to the researchers because they learned that many consumers tend to skip the ambulance altogether and find an alternative route to the hospital that’s cheaper. 

They encourage consumers to call an ambulance when necessary, as it provides the greatest chance of receiving optimal care upon arrival to the emergency room. 

“Anecdotally, we hear of more people taking Uber or Lyft, or having someone drive them to the emergency room to avoid an ambulance bill,” said Dr. Karan Chhabra. “But if you truly need an ambulance, concerns about cost should not get in the way. Arriving by ambulance, with a trained crew that can assess your needs, begin treatment and radio ahead to the hospital, means you’re more likely to be triaged and treated appropriately when you arrive.” 

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