ST. PAUL — Minnesotans that break a leg while skiing, go into labor or get into a bad car crash can expect to see emergency air transport become a more central part of their health care experience in rural areas as hospitals consolidate or close.
And state lawmakers are hoping to shed light on the prices for those rides, which can exceed $10,000 in some cases.
Rep. John Huot, D-Rosemount, said he wants the air ambulance companies to be transparent about their prices to avoid price-gouging patients. On Tuesday, Aug. 27, he held a meeting with fellow lawmakers and air ambulance executives to assess what it would mean for them to make public some of their pricing information.
A former Life Link employee, Huot said he'd heard from Minnesotans who'd been stuck with surprise bills they couldn't afford and wanted to address the issue in the Legislature before it becomes more common.
“Some of these people have their lives changed within seconds and then they get a bill like this," Huot said. "So I’m hoping to help with that. Not make it worse.”
Huot filed a bill on the final day of the 2019 legislative session aimed at requiring the companies to share their pricing information. But with more than five months before lawmakers return to St. Paul for the 2020 session, Huot said he wanted to meet with stakeholders to revise the bill so that it reflects input from the industry, insurers, patients and medical experts. Federal law bars states from regulating prices for any air carrier, including medical air services. But it doesn't prevent them from posting their prices.
Five air ambulance industry officials crowded around a table in a state office building Tuesday to weigh in on what goes into transporting patients in critical condition and what it would mean to publish prices for their services. Rather than encouraging competition and lower prices, making them public could encourage some to bring fees closer to their competitors' or inspire companies to cut back on life-saving supplies in the helicopters or planes.
“Government intervention is going to happen whether or not we like it as an industry," Life Link III Vice President of Operations Lee McCammon said, noting that a move toward price transparency could be a "slippery slope." "There has to be a better understanding of why we charge what we charge."
McCammon and officials representing other air ambulance companies said they worked with patients to avoid surprise bills and often ate the cost of services that insurance companies refused to cover if people couldn't afford them. The real issue, they said, was with insurance companies denying claims for emergency air ambulance services saying they weren't pre-authorized or weren't necessary after a patient is transported and treated.
At the federal level, lawmakers are considering applying a cap to out-of-network rates charged by air ambulance companies. Industry officials have said the low reimbursement rates from Medicare and Medicaid force companies to shift higher charges to private patients to make up the difference.