Money is the last thing on anyone's mind during a medical emergency, but new research shows many patients could be hit with huge bills for that ambulance drive or helicopter flight to the hospital.
Quick response is crucial for people who have major injuries or require urgent care for serious health problems, and emergency dispatchers don't have time to check patient's insurance details when an ambulance is needed, University of Michigan researchers noted.
For their study, they analyzed five years' worth of insurance claims from nearly 1.5 million ambulance transports, including nearly 26,000 by air.
The data was from patients with commercial insurance offered by one large national company. The findings don't show how many patients actually got a surprise bill, just how many could have been affected.
The researchers concluded that 72 percent of air ambulance patients could be hit with a surprise bill because their ambulance provider isn't "in network" with their insurance. When ambulances aren't in network, they can charge whatever they want, and insurance doesn't always have to cover those charges in full.
That means that air ambulance patients could be on the hook for "balance bills" up to $20,000 per ride, according to the study published in the May issue of the journal Health Affairs.
The researchers also found that 79 percent of patients transported by ground ambulance could get a surprise bill, with an average total of around $550.
"Anecdotally, we hear of more people taking Uber or a Lyft, or having someone drive them to the emergency room to avoid an ambulance bill," said lead author Dr. Karan Chhabra, from the University of Michigan's Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.
"But if you truly need an ambulance, concerns about cost should not get in the way," Chhabra said in a university news release. "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."
Even when patients arrange in advance for non-emergency ambulance transport and can check insurance coverage beforehand, more than half face a surprise bill for out-of-network costs, at an average of more than $400.
Overall, annual out-of-network ambulance costs in the United States are $91 million for air transport and $129 million for ground transport, according to the study.
The American Ambulance Association outlines when to call an ambulance.
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