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As We Lose Our Rural Hospitals, the Costs of Air Ambulances Skyrocket

As We Lose Our Rural Hospitals, the Costs of Air Ambulances SkyrocketIn October, Southwest Georgia Regional Medical Center in Cuthbert became the eighth rural hospital in Georgia to shut down in the past ten years. As rural hospitals in Georgia and across the country shutter, air ambulances have become much more important to patients in remote areas with urgent medical needs. Air ambulances reach areas ground transport cannot and quickly transport patients from one hospital to another.

Medical helicopters and EMT teams save lives. Unfortunately, they are not cheap. The aircraft are expensive to pilot, operate, and maintain. And for many patients, they are shockingly expensive to ride in as a passenger – even after insurance. Often, patients receive what’s called a “balance bill” after an air ambulance ride, meaning they owe the charges insurance doesn’t pay and many experience sticker shock.

The unfortunate state of rural hospitals today

Becker’s Hospital Review reports that 2019 saw an all-time high for rural hospital closings. Eighteen hospitals closed in rural areas in the United States in one year, bringing the total to 119 hospitals in the past decade. With approximately 60 million Americans living in rural areas, this represents a massive loss of access to local healthcare over the last ten years.

The report points to several contributing factors to the decline in rural hospitals. These include issues like decreases in number of patients, over-reliance on Medicare and Medicaid, increased regulatory burdens and the higher cost of pharmaceuticals. Additionally, smaller, independent hospitals with no affiliation find themselves without the resources they need, like cutting-edge technology and physician networking services.

This leaves many rural hospitals closing their doors – and many rural residents far away from a hospital in the event of a medical emergency, often more than an hour away by car.

The high cost of air ambulances

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report in 2017 examining the air ambulance industry. Among other things, it noted:

  • The number of helicopter ambulances jumped from fewer than 100 in the 1980s to 1,045 in 2016
  • Approximately 75% of air ambulances in operation are owned by private companies
  • The average cost of a medical flight is $30,000
  • Medicare paid an average of $6,052 to air ambulance companies in 2016 (however, Medicare cannot balance bill Medicare patients)

Costs for an air ambulance can be much higher in rural areas – with less people living in an area, there is less need for ambulance runs.

Air ambulance insurance

If you live in a rural area yourself, you might be familiar with the concept of air ambulance insurance. Here in Georgia, just some of these companies include Medway Air Ambulance, Air Life Georgia, LifeStar Georgia and Air Evac. These types of privately-owned companies offer annual membership plans as a form of supplemental insurance that picks up the bill when your insurance runs out.

The catch with these types of programs is that the air ambulance from your insurance company must be the one to pick you up, and in emergency situations, this is not your choice to make. When an EMT or hospital calls for an air ambulance, there is never a guarantee which one will come, or from which company. If you are considering this type of program, it is important to be a smart consumer and choose with care.

The GOA report calls for increased transparency and regulations for private air ambulance companies, ensuring patients and passengers on these aircraft are as safe as possible.

Air ambulances are critical for patients and accident victims with life-threatening conditions. It is also critical that citizens in rural areas don’t lose access to necessary healthcare and are not afraid to call for emergency help when needed. Everyone deserves proper access to medical services, as well as a safe way to get there, without the added anxiety of surprise medical bills.

At Harris Lowry Manton LLP, we work to protect the best interests of the people of Georgia. To talk to one of our injury attorneys, get in touch with us today. To schedule your free case evaluation, call our Atlanta office at 404-998-8847, our Savannah office at 912-417-3774, or we invite you to reach out to us through our contact page.



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