Surprise ambulance bills: Watch for white paper by year’s end

Consumers concerned about ambulance charges of hundreds or thousands of dollars after they call 911 can expect a report by the end of the year from a state group that met for a fourth and final time Tuesday.

The contents of the “white paper” could set the stage for what state legislators attempt to do, or not do, in their spring 2018 session.

A big issue: Whether the work of the Emergency Medical Transportation Working Group hosted by Florida insurance consumer advocate Sha’Ron James amounts to a strong case for a ban on “balance billing.” That means public or private ambulance providers, most of whom decline to join insurer networks, could be prohibited from charging consumers more than the equivalent of “in-network” costs.

Ambulance providers warned it could mean higher taxes or reduced services.

“If you don’t have balance billing, then you’re asking the taxpayers of Stuart to pick up the difference,” said Stuart Fire Rescue Chief David Dyal.

There’s only so much “blood in the turnip” of taxpayer support, he said.

In many cases, ambulance providers say, consumers are paying more because their health plans increasingly make them responsible for higher deductibles.

But groups representing insurers argue there has to be some incentive for ambulance providers to negotiate rates — particularly with air transport, where charges can run into tens of thousands of dollars — or consumers will increasingly get hit with big bills they do not expect.

Fearing such charges becomes a public-safety issue if consumers hesitate to call 911 when they really need fast help.

“If God forbid we were in an emergency in the future, I would think twice about calling an ambulance,” Bonny Fishman of Boynton Beach said in February about charges of more than $800 for her husband’s ground ambulance ride.

“There are points where stakeholders are clearly apart,” James said Tuesday, but “we’re all here to work for the best interests of patients or consumers or policyholders.”

 

 

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