Members urged to check insurance options
Living almost an hour’s drive from the nearest hospital emergency room, many Methow Valley residents have purchased memberships for air ambulance services that provide helicopter or plane transportation in emergencies.
The valley’s local ground ambulance service, Twisp-based Aero Methow Rescue Service, is often the first responder to treat and transport victims of serious accidents and illnesses. But when people need to get from the Methow Valley to a hospital as quickly as possible, or receive specialized care at a medical center in Seattle, air transportation may be the best option.
Two air ambulance providers serve the Methow Valley – Life Flight Network and Airlift Northwest. Until recently, the companies operated under a reciprocal arrangement that honored each other’s memberships. However, that reciprocal agreement was discontinued by Airlift Northwest about three months ago.
At a cost of less than $70 annually per household, the memberships ensure that members will not incur any out-of-pocket expenses for air transportation. The air transportation companies work directly with insurance companies for their portion of payment, and cover whatever portion is not covered by insurance. The costs of air ambulance transportation can be upwards of $20,000-$30,000 in many cases.
Airlift Northwest discontinued the reciprocity agreement with Life Flight on March 25, which means that a Life Flight member could potentially face a big bill if transported by Airlift Northwest.
Airlift Northwest said the decision to stop honoring the reciprocal arrangement was made “to comply with federal laws that generally prohibit marketing or offering inducements to patients to choose a particular medical service.”
Life Flight Network officials said they were “disappointed” with the decision and saw no legal impediments to continuing reciprocal agreements. “We are unaware of what legal interpretation Airlift Northwest has on this. We had our counsel look into this and the opinion presented to us is there is no federal statute that would apply to this,” said Dominic Poponio, regional vice president for Life Flight Network.
“In the Northwest, we are part of an Association of Air Medical Membership Programs. We feel as an association there is no legal issue with offering reciprocal services,” Poponio said.
After learning that Airlift Northwest was terminating the reciprocal agreement, Life Flight established a policy that allows members of Airlift Northwest who are flown by Life Flight to purchase a membership retroactive to the date of transport.
Airlift Northwest is also planning a similar program, said Jenny Fry, outreach coordinator for Central Washington. “A bedside signup is being rolled out,” Fry said. “We will have a way for you to sign up before the helicopter gets there,” she said. If a patient is too ill or injured to sign up for a membership, a family member could do it, she said.
Airlift Northwest dropped its annual membership fee from $79 to $60 per household to make purchasing memberships for more than one air ambulance provider more affordable, according to a statement from Airlift Northwest. Membership for Life Flight is $69 per household, so the cost of two memberships would be $129.
For Methow Valley residents, reciprocity by air transport providers “wasn’t too much of an issue for the most part” because until last year Life Flight has been the primary provider of air ambulance services in the Methow Valley, said Cindy Button, director of services for Aero Methow Rescue Service.
Life Flight had the closest bases to the Methow Valley – Brewster and Moses Lake. Airlift Northwest’s closest bases were Yakima and Arlington, which meant that Life Flight generally could respond more quickly from its Brewster or Moses Lake bases. Last July, Airlift Northwest established a new base in Wenatchee.
If Aero Methow’s medical team determines a patient needs air transport, they usually call the Brewster Life Flight base first, Button said. If that helicopter is already on a call, the next choice would be Life Flight’s Moses Lake base. It’s rare that both bases would be on missions, but if that happens, then the Airlift Northwest base in Wenatchee would be called, Button said.
“The chances of Life Flight not being available, and using Airlift Northwest, aren’t much,” Button said. Often patients who need medical air transport are brought by Aero Methow ambulance to the Twisp Municipal Airport or Methow Valley State Airport for transfer to a helicopter, Button said. Occasionally a helicopter is called to the site of a medical emergency to land as close to the patient as possible, she said.
In rare cases, such as critically burned patients who need to be treated at Harborview Hospital in Seattle, a Learjet air ambulance is called, Button said.
Button said she has had a membership for Life Flight, and has given them as gifts to family, for many years. She said she will consider memberships to both providers.
She advised people to check with their insurance companies to determine if they already have coverage for medical air transportation. “If you have Medicare and good secondary insurance you would probably be covered,” she said.
The Medicare website, Medicare.gov, states that “Medicare may pay for emergency ambulance transportation in an airplane or helicopter to a hospital if you need immediate and rapid ambulance transportation that ground transportation can’t provide.”
If people don’t have insurance and are unable to pay their airlift transport bill, the providers “are usually generous working them out,” Button said.
“We have very robust programs in place that are designed to help patients in need obtain financial assistance or provide forgiveness and charity care if they are unable to pay,” said Suzanne Beck, Wenatchee base manager for Airlift Northwest.
Both Life Flight and Airlift Northwest are not-for-profit organizations. Life Flight is owned by Oregon Health and Science University, and acquired the Northwest MedStar air ambulance program and its bases in Brewster and Moses Lake four years ago. Airlift Northwest is a program of the University of Washington.
Explaining its decision to stop honoring memberships of other air ambulance companies, Airlift Northwest said in a letter to members: “Historically reciprocity arrangements provided greater air ambulance access in underserved rural areas. Following airline industry deregulation and changes to Medicare reimbursement, air ambulance services with overlapping geographic service areas have dramatically increased, and reciprocity arrangement largely no longer serve their original purpose.”
Tina Mankowski, a spokesperson for UW Medicine and Airlift Northwest, said recently that the decision to end reciprocity “came after review with our Attorney General who recommended we discontinue this practice. At this time, we have no additional information.”