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Sha'Ron James

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Air ambulances: There when you need it most


Date: June 12, 2017
Source: Capital Soup
Author:  Walt Dartland


This month, state Insurance Consumer Advocate Sha’Ron James will convene an Emergency Medical Transportation Working Group to find solutions to insurance challenges facing Floridians. As someone who has spent my career fighting for Florida consumers and the public interest, I am encouraged that the Working Group is including air ambulances in its discussions.

It is vitally important that Florida maintain emergency air medical services, which keep our communities safe by reducing the travel time between serious accidents or illnesses and a hospital capable of caring for patients in need.

Unfortunately, air medical bases are closing around the country, and mostly in rural areas, due to financial insolvency. One of the major reasons bases are closing is insufficient reimbursement rates. Emergency air medical providers are reimbursed far below the cost of their services on 70% of transports. This is an issue that needs immediate attention because every medical base that closes can affect hundreds of individuals in critical condition.

In particular, it is rural communities that most rely on emergency air medical services. Across the nation, rural hospitals have been closing at a rate of nearly one per month since 2010, putting those who live outside of metropolitan areas beyond the reach of trauma centers. In Florida, there are only 33 state-verified trauma centers, all of them located in the most densely populated areas of the state. If ground ambulances were the lone option available for emergency transport, one-third of Floridians would not be able to access a trauma center within 60 minutes. With the addition of air ambulances, 98% would benefit from such prompt access, a crucial factor in quickly getting trauma patients the care they need.

The helicopters that serve as airborne ambulances are expensive to operate, needing a highly-skilled emergency flight team consisting of a pilot, flight paramedic, and flight nurse. Like traditional emergency rooms, these bases remain open 24/7 in order to provide service around the clock. These costs are necessary to provide critical care for patients in crisis situations.

In order for air medical transport to remain available to those who need it, Florida must re-evaluate the way insurance providers schedule reimbursement rates for this life-saving service. We need to find solutions that balance the clear need to keep these services available with the strong desire to keep costs at a reasonable level for consumers and taxpayers. Emergency air medical transportation is an essential component of heath care, and a service to which every Floridian deserves access.

Florida is at the lower end of Medicaid reimbursement rates for air medical transport among populous states, leading a growing number of providers to stop offering emergency air medical service. Discussions of air medical transport like the one being conducted by Florida’s Insurance Consumer Advocate should take these factors into consideration, in order to develop policies ensuring that Floridians have access to emergency air medical services when they need them most.

Walt Dartland is a former Deputy Attorney General for the State of Florida,former Miami-Dade County Consumer Advocate, and the Executive Director Emeritusfor the Consumer Federation of the Southeast.