Air ambulance transport costs have skyrocketed in recent years, according to a new report from FAIR Health.
Notably, the average estimated in-network allowed amount for air ambulance transport increased 76.4%, from $8,855 in 2017 to $15,624 in 2020.
The jump was part of a general rise in costs for both airplane and helicopter air ambulance transport during this time period, FAIR Health said, which included increases in charge amounts (the amount charged to a patient who is uninsured or obtaining an out-of-network service), estimated in-network allowed amounts for privately insured patients (the total fee negotiated between an insurance plan and a provider for an in-network service), and Medicare reimbursement amounts.
The average charges associated with a fixed-wing air ambulance rose 27.6%, from $19,210 in 2017 to $24,507 in 2020, according to the report, and the average Medicare reimbursement amount increased by 4.7%, from $3,071 to $3,216.
For helicopter transport, the average charges associated with a rotary-wing air ambulance rose 22.2%, from $24,924 in 2017 to $30,446 in 2020. The average estimated in-network allowed amount increased 60.8%, from $11,608 to $18,668, and the average Medicare reimbursement amount again rose 4.7%, from $3,570 to $3,739.
“Air ambulance services have been the subject of substantial policy focus,” said Robin Gelburd, president of FAIR Health, in a statement. “We hope that this study of air ambulance transport proves productive to policy makers, researchers, payors, providers, and consumers seeking to better understand this corner of the healthcare system.”
FAIR Health’s report also found that air ambulance claims increased 30% from 2016 to 2020 (0.7% to 0.9%) as a percentage of all ambulance (ground and air) claims.
In 2020, the most common diagnoses associated with fixed-wing air ambulance transport were chronic respiratory diseases, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and chronic respiratory failure, and the second most common was COVID-19, which accounted for 7% of fixed-wing air ambulance claims.
Because air ambulance transport is often used for patients in life-threatening situations, they generally have no control over type of transport or provider used, FAIR Health said. As a result, surprise bills occur frequently.
A number of states have made efforts to regulate air ambulance charges, but these attempts have been overturned by court rulings that state that such efforts are preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, the report noted.
However, the federal No Surprises Act, signed into law in December 2020, contained provisions to protect consumers from surprise bills, including those from out-of-network air ambulance service providers.
On September 30, HHS held a press call on one of its surprise billing rules, which would require companies to give patients “good faith estimates” of charges upfront and to submit a dispute resolution for out-of-network surprise bills.
Asked by MedPage Today whether air ambulances would be included, a senior administration official responded, “Yes, air ambulances are covered by this rule. They will go through a very, very similar independent dispute resolution process [as other providers]. I think the only thing different about the air ambulance process is the list of allowable information that the parties can bring to be considered in addition to the qualifying amount.”