If you’ve ever been surprised by a bill for hundreds or thousands of dollars for ambulance service, you can follow the fourth and final meeting Tuesday of a group that aims to help state legislators decide what to do about it in coming months.
The Florida Channel will be streaming live the 9 a.m. Oct. 31 meeting in Tallahassee of the Emergency Medical Transportation Working Group, hosted by Florida insurance consumer advocate Sha’Ron James.
“I was shocked,” Edward Fishman, 64, of Boytnon Beach told the Palm Beach Post in February about ambulance charges of more than $800. “What is this? We pay taxes for fire and rescue. Why is there a charge? How do they determine how much they charge?”
While grateful for emergency help, many consumers feel frustrated that they pay taxes for county or city ambulances plus insurance premiums, only to get hit with additional charges they were not expecting after they call 911.
Such charges have been rising. They can range from several hundred dollars to more than $1,000 for ground ambulances. In the case of air ambulances, charges can quickly run into the tens of thousands of dollars, a devastating threat to a family’s finances.
Median air ambulance charges doubled in four years to $30,000 per transport, a Government Accountability Office report in July found.
Under Florida law, ambulance providers can, in effect, charge consumers virtually any amount they choose after the insurance payment has come in. This is an emergency situation where patients can’t shop around, consumers say. It raises a public safety issue if families, facing panicky situations where the severity of an injury or medical condition may be unclear, hesitate to call 911 out of fear they could receive charges they cannot afford.
“If God forbid we were in an emergency in the future, I would think twice about calling an ambulance,” Bonny Fishman, 62, said in February.
One possible legislative solution: End “balance billing.” That means ambulance services cannot charge consumers whatever amount they say is left over after they have collected payment from insurers. Under this concept, consumer charges could be capped at the equivalent of “in-network” services. In essence, ambulance providers would have to work out payments with insurers, and hold consumers harmless.
Public and private ambulance providers generally refuse to join insurer networks, and many argue taxes could rise or private providers could go out of business if they are forced to do so.
Perhaps the first thought for patients should be “did they survive to complain about the bill in the first place?” said Mac Kemp, deputy chief of clinical affairs for Leon County Emergency Medical Services, representing the Florida Association of Counties.
After heavy lobbying, ambulances were left out of a bill that passed two years ago to cap other kinds of consumer charges in medical situations where consumers cannot realistically choose other providers, such as an out-of-network anesthesiologist at an in-network hospital.
“Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to hear from a variety of stakeholders regarding ground and air emergency medical transportation services in Florida,” James said. “I look forward to moving the discussion forward by making policy recommendations that will ultimately protect consumers from suffering financially after recovering from an emergency medical event.”
The working group’s effort is coming to a close, but legislators are just starting their work for the 2018 session — so it matters that they hear from people who care about this issue. Tell your state legislator. Tell Post reporter Charles Elmore at (561) 820-4811 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or you can share your story online with James’s office here: