Ambulance bill rip-off: There’s always a public option

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A Kaiser Health News story on sky-high ambulance bills caught my attention; I have a long-standing interest in out-of-network billing and a more recent experience of taking a pricey ambulance trip myself.

Taken for a ride? Ambulances stick patients with surprise bills, is not a new story. To sum it up: it’s not unusual for a patient to get a bill for thousands of dollars and then to be stuck with a big part of the charge, even if that patient is insured. That’s because many ambulance companies can make more money by being out-of-network. Unlike physicians and hospitals, ambulance companies don’t lose patients by being out of network and refusing to offer discounts. After all, if you need an ambulance you wouldn’t have time to shop around, and it doesn’t affect repeat business either.

The article cites an example of a Fallon ambulance in Chestnut Hill, MA, one town away from where I live. A patient was transported to Brigham and Women’s hospital four miles away and charged $3,660, which the article points out is $915 per mile. The insurer paid about half and half was the responsibility of the patient.

In my own case I was crossing the street in a crosswalk and was struck by a car making a left turn. My bill from Fallon was $3,427.50 for a one-mile ride, so at least on a per mile basis it was much higher than the Chestnut Hill example.

But to be fair, the bill comprises a base fee of $3,350 for an advanced life support ambulance plus $77.50 per mile. That works out to exactly the same rate as what the suburbanite paid ($3,350+4x$77.50=$3,660) and demonstrates that Fallon is not mainly charging for mileage, it’s charging for the equipment and personnel being ready to show up on a moment’s notice.

Much of the ire is directed at the ambulance company for price gouging and the insurance company for leaving patients hanging. There are calls to regulate prices and otherwise tighten the rules, and I’m sympathetic.

But notice this point a little further down:

” If the injury had happened just a mile away inside Boston city limits, he could have ridden a city ambulance, which would have charged $1,490, according to Boston EMS, a sum that his insurer probably would have covered in full.”

When you call 911 to report a fire or a crime in Chestnut Hill and anywhere else near Boston, fire fighters and police officers are dispatched at no charge. It doesn’t matter what insurance you have –or whether you have insurance– it’s a service provided by the local government as part of its budget. Police and fire fighters responded to my crash, too, but they aren’t sending a bill.

Cities and towns could do the same with ambulances if they want. Some, like Boston, do. Public ambulances can still bill insurance and individual patients, but they’re less likely to antagonize patients and insurers with outrageous bills.

So while we think of policy solutions for ambulance bill rip-offs, let’s not forget that there are public options and lots of hybrid solutions, too.


By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

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