LITCHFIELD, Ohio — More than 550,000 Americans are flown by air ambulances each year, and the price for those flights is getting more and more costly. A Medina County couple found that out the hard way, and it can happen to any one of us at any time.
“So, the bike started oscillating,” said 53-year-old Paul Hleba from Litchfield.
“It was really scary,” said his 52-year-old wife, Julie Hleba.
“Neither of us remember the impact,” said Paul. “By the grace of God, it put us in a ditch rather than heavy traffic on the freeway.”
Last August, Paul and Julie were coming back from a 4,300-mile motorcycle ride when, in New York, the back tire blew out. Paul was driving and Julie was on the back. They were thrown.
“My adrenaline got going and then I jumped up and seen him and he was unconscious, and it was frightening,” said Julie.
Paul had a broken scapula, three broken ribs, and a lacerated spleen. A ground ambulance took him to a nearby hospital. He said he was conscious, wasn’t taken into surgery, and didn’t seem to be in a big emergency. But Paul told us doctors wanted to transfer him as a precaution to another one of their hospitals. “I wasn’t given the choice of taking a helicopter ride,” said Paul, who was forced to fly. Julie took a taxi. Google shows, by road, it’s 37 minutes.
“I never thought something like this would happen to us,” said Julie, who was talking not only about the accident, but about the $53,000 bill they received from the helicopter company Air Methods. Insurance paid roughly $15,000 or so, but that left the Hlebas with a $37,000 unsettled bill.
“It was a shock,” said Paul. “It was financially devastating to us if we had to pay something like that.”
Air Methods told us it can’t comment on specific casesm but did say that in Ohio, a flight base rate for a Medicare patient is around $6,000, Medicaid is $1,800, and the uninsured — $800. It said patients with private health insurance have to cover the costs for the remaining balances left on the 70% of transports. Paul is one of those patients.
“I don’t mind someone making a profit. But don’t pay the whole helicopter off on me,” said Paul.
“Air ambulances are a critical medical service,” said Director of Campaigns and Partnerships for Families USA Claire McAndrew. That’s a national non-profit, non-partisan organization that advocates for consumers about quality and affordable health care.
She doesn’t agree with air ambulance companies that say they have to charge so much for flights. “If you look at the amount of profit they’re bringing in, it really is egregious that they are putting these outrageous bills on the backs of consumers,” said McAndrew.
Courts have ruled air ambulances can charge anything they want. “So, everything in this country that relates to legal regulation of air traffic has to be handled at the federal levels,” said McAndrew. The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 forbids states from telling airline companies what they can charge customers. Air Methods puts itself in that category, and it’s winning, so far.
But the law firm Elk & Elk rounded up local clients and filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Air Methods. It argues patients have “no choice” when they’re flown, and it’s almost always out-of-network. McAndrew said there’s a reason for that. “A lot of the air ambulance companies are making a lot of money, and they often are not joining insurance networks because they are actually charging higher rates not going through insurance companies,” she told us.
Currently congress has a bill in the Senate that addresses air ambulance billing. “We need policy interventions to address surprise medical bills,” said McAndrew. “And so, it’s been very encouraging to see that it hasn’t really been a partisan issue.”
Encouraging, but nothing’s been done yet. And the Hlebas are still stuck with a $37,000 out-of-pocket bill.
Cleveland Clinic told us the current market cost for a medical flight is $8,000.