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Behind air ambulances' astronomical charges

Air ambulance
An air ambulance. Photo: Steve Osman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images via Getty Images

Air ambulances charge higher rates relative to Medicare than most other services, and these rates have increased over time, according to another new study in Health Affairs.

Why it matters: Insurers often don't contract with air ambulances, meaning patients may be charged exorbitant sums for emergency transportation whether they're insured or not.

By the numbers: Air ambulances charged between 4.1 and 9.5 times more than Medicare paid for these services in 2016, depending on the type of ambulance and type of charge.

  • The median charge per air ambulance trip increased from about $24,000 in 2012 to about $39,000 in 2016.
  • The median ground ambulance charge was 2.8 times what Medicare paid.

What we're watching: Air ambulances are very unhappy with the provisions of a Senate health care bill that would force them to separate out transportation and medical charges, prohibit them from balance billing patients, and establish a payment benchmark for out-of-network care.

  • But, as the authors of the study write, "without congressional or regulatory effort to address air ambulance billing practices, patients — who in emergencies have few options and little bargaining power — are at risk of exposure to excessive charges."

Go deeper: Air ambulances are expensive and most likely out of network