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Adapted from Brookings; Chart: Axios Visuals

Air ambulances owned by private equity firms charge the highest rates — more than seven times what Medicare pays, according to a new analysis by the USC-Brookings Schaeffer Initiative for Health Policy.

Why it matters: Air ambulances are frequent sources of surprise medical bills, and even when they're covered by insurance, we all pay for these expensive prices through our premiums.

  • 40% of helicopter ambulance rides result in a surprise medical bill, which averages around $20,000, according to a recent study.

By the numbers: In 2017, helicopter air ambulances owned by two private equity firms charged, on average, $48,250 — or 7.2 times the Medicare rate.

  • Air ambulances that weren't owned by private equity firms or publicly traded companies charged $28,800 on average — which is still 4.3 times higher than the Medicare rate.
  • Private equity carrier charges have also grown faster than the charges of other air ambulances, and by 2017, private equity controlled nearly two-thirds of the national Medicare air ambulance markets.

How it works: Charges aren't what insurers actually pay. But they serve as a starting point for price negotiations, and providers often bill patients for the difference between the charge and what the insurer agrees to pay.

The other side: Air ambulances argue that they must charge privately insured patients more to make up for low government payment rates, and for trips they never get reimbursed for.

Go deeper

Caitlin Owens, author of Vitals
Dec 14, 2020 - Health

Lawmakers reach deal on surprise medical bills

Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Key congressional committees on Friday announced that they've reached an agreement on how to prevent patients from receiving surprise medical bills.

Between the lines: This doesn't guarantee that the measure will become law, but it's a crucial step forward on an issue that resonates deeply with many Americans.

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

  1. Health: CDC director defends agency's response to pandemic — CDC warns highly transmissible coronavirus variant could become dominant in U.S. in March.
  2. Politics: Empire State Building among hundreds to light up in Biden inauguration coronavirus tribute.
  3. Vaccine: Fauci: 100 million doses in 100 days is "absolutely" doable.
  4. Economy: Unemployment filings explode again.
  5. Tech: Kids' screen time sees a big increase.

Biden Cabinet confirmation schedule: When to watch hearings

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on Jan. 16 in Wilmington, Delaware. Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

The first hearings for President-elect Joe Biden's Cabinet nominations begin on Tuesday, with testimony from his picks to lead the departments of State, Homeland and Defense.

Why it matters: It's been a slow start for a process that usually takes place days or weeks earlier for incoming presidents. The first slate of nominees will appear on Tuesday before a Republican-controlled Senate, but that will change once the new Democratic senators-elect from Georgia are sworn in.