Florida consumers generally have no way to shop around in an emergency, but they have reported being stunned by out-of-pocket charges up to $1,000 or more for ground ambulance rides and more than $37,000 in the air during the last three years, a state working group heard Monday.
It’s an unresolved issue because ambulances were exempted from a bill that passed last spring to limit surprise medical bills when consumers have little choice of medical providers. Florida insurance consumer advocate Sha’Ron James convened a panel of industry representatives and consumer advocates to look for possible solutions over the next year regarding ambulance services, which typically decline to join insurer networks.
A big part of the problem comes when ambulances and insurers disagree on an appropriate charge and the consumer gets a bill for the difference. That’s sometimes called “balance billing” and it can mean several hundred dollars to more than $1,000 for ground rides, complaints show. Air ambulance cases can involve far larger amounts, including a consumer billed $25,000 in Indian River County another hit with a $35,000 charge for a ride from Key West to Miami, state officials said.
Ambulances represent “a very big hole in consumer protection,” said Wences Troncoso, vice president and general counsel for the Florida Association of Health Plans.
Federal rules may limit the ability of states to regulate prices on air travel including ambulances, but Troncoso said a potential prohibition against balance billing by ambulances could protect consumers without directly setting prices and provide some incentive for ambulances to join networks and negotiate prices.
But ambulance providers said they are wary that insurers want to set reimbursement far too low. As for the scope of the problem, they expressed surprise that fewer than 60 complaints were reported by two state agencies since 2014 even as as emergency transporters provided millions of rides each year.
“This almost sounds like a solution looking for a problem,” said Mac Kemp, deputy chief of clinical affairs for Leon County Emergency Medical Services, representing the Florida Association of Counties.
Most ambulances are operated by counties and cities, and any solutions that force them to join networks could force local taxes to go up or services to be cut, ambulance representatives said.
Despite the emphasis on consumer charges, the first consideration for patients should be “did they survive to complain about the bill in the first place?” Kemp said.
As The Palm Beach Post has reported, consumers like Penny Farrow of Boynton Beach found “outrageous” charges such as $600 she faced for a ground ambulance trip even though she had insurance. The way many consumers see it, they often pay local taxes for ambulances and premiums for insurance only to get whacked with further surprise charges again when they call 911.
A bill signed this year by Gov. Rick Scott carved out ambulances but limited what medical providers such as radiologists and anesthesiologists can charge consumers in situations where patients have no meaningful choice of providers.
The national advocacy group Consumers Union said the legislation put Florida at the front of efforts to fight surprise medical bills.
“The involvement and feedback from folks in Palm Beach County was crucial in highlighting the face of the issue,” James said at the time. “As a result of the Post’s interest in the issue, we received many phones calls and messages from consumers who had experienced surprise medical bills.”
Consumer feedback about ambulance charges could matter a lot as the panel prepares for its next meeting, tentatively set for early February and focusing on ground ambulance charges.
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