CNBC | Why Ambulance Rides Are So Expensive In The United States

Thank you to American Ambulance Association Payment Reform Chair Asbel Montes for eloquently representing the EMS perspective on surprise coverage in this video from CNBC:


It’s an open secret in America that calling for an ambulance can be a financial gamble because of surprise bills. There’s no way for patients to know how much an ambulance will cost before they get inside the vehicle, and the final bill can be thousands of dollars. Here’s why ambulances are so expensive in the United States and what can be done to change it.

Statement for NBC Nightly News Balance Billing Story 3/9/18

Last night, NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt ran a segment on ambulance balance billing. Although provided with a brief one-paragraph statement in advance, they chose to use less than one sentence of it during the broadcast. We have reproduced our original statement below to provide additional context.

For a better understanding of the forces driving the costs behind ambulance care, please see this recent longer media response by American Ambulance Association President Mark Postma.

Video Story

Original Statement Provided by American Ambulance Association

Emailed to Eric Salzman on January 28, 2018 | Very brief due to TV news format
Ambulance providers, both private and public, serve their communities with lifesaving on-demand mobile healthcare 24/7, regardless of patients’ ability to pay. Ambulance services are saddled with a high cost of readiness as they keep certified personnel, sophisticated technology, and costly medications ready round-the-clock. Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance often reimburse ambulance services at rates below the costs of providing this care, endangering their ability to continue serving families in their time of extreme need. Ambulance services bill patients as a last resort: This necessity is driven by a complex combination of rising patient deductibles, reduced insurance coverage, and unfair contractual negotiation techniques employed by insurers that leave patients with uncovered balances. Like most issues in our healthcare landscape, there are no quick fixes for these challenges. However, as dedicated healthcare professionals, we welcome ongoing public dialogue about how to bring sustainable reimbursement to ambulance providers in order to reduce cost-shifting to patients.

AETNA/CVS Deal Along with Uber Concepts May Finally Change Ambulance Industry

Mark Postma, AAA President & Asbel Montes, AAA Payment Reform Chair

The recent merger of Aetna/CVS may be the catalyst that finally brings the change that the ambulance industry has been advocating for over the past several years. This new healthcare strategy supports the ambulance industry’s ideas that alternative patient destinations are needed in EMS.

To explain this better, one must understand the current state of ambulance reimbursement via the 911 system or equivalent. At this point in time most commercial payers of healthcare (Insurance) as well as Medicare will not pay for 911 ambulance transportation to any destination other than the “nearest appropriate” hospital based emergency room; arguably, the most expensive and least efficient form of healthcare. The continuation of this policy discounts the advanced capabilities of both EMS and new clinical settings and the savings that can be achieved through innovative change. In addition, at the same time that the cost of healthcare in general is increasing, reimbursement from all payers is decreasing, creating a significant challenge for providers. Medicare consistently pays providers below cost for providing life-saving services and state Medicaid agencies are consistently underfunding the critical services to the un- and under-insured populations that have allowed intermediaries to delay or not pay ambulance services.

Much of the U.S. population believes that vital 911 EMS services or the equivalent are provided free or included in their local property taxes. This is generally not the case. While EMS services must be at the ready on a 24/7/365 basis, they are not paid for being on call, but only when the service is used.

Many communities have governing rules that require 911, or the equivalent, paramedic services to arrive on-scene within 8-12 minutes of receiving the call. This cost of readiness is VERY expensive. Skyrocketing personnel costs, ambulances, equipment, and other high cost drugs only exacerbate an already fragile reimbursement structure. Although recent articles about calling Uber or Lyft sound intriguing, these drivers and cars are not prepared for any type of injury. Nor can they alert the hospital in critical situations to have the heart cath lab ready or a trauma surgeon on standby, shortening the time to definitive care when time matters most. Emergency paramedics are highly trained, are nationally and/or state certified, and provide services on state regulated ambulances equipped to manage all types of emergencies. Ambulances are also often strategically placed to arrive in that 8-12 minute response time requirement. However, there is one piece missing from the ambulance scenario that allows for Uber/Lyft to succeed; your personal credit card is on file with them. NO GUARANTEED PAYMENT, NO TRANSPORT. The cost of providing ambulance services “on call” with life-saving equipment, medications, and personnel at the ready is steep. When you consider the many regulations providers must adhere to outside of patient care, the cost increases even more. This misunderstanding of the cost often results in patients being stunned when they receive a bill for services provided and feel that it is excessive. However, comparing the cost of a life-saving ambulance transport to an Uber/Lyft ride is like comparing the cost of building a house to putting up a tent.

On the other hand, these highly trained paramedics, with vehicles that are comprehensively (medically) equipped to meet the highest safety standards, have no credit card on file. They do not treat you based on your ability to pay. In fact, approximately less than half of ambulance patients have insurance, and when commercial insurance does pay, they are increasingly paying only a percentage of the total bill, leaving their insured left to pay the balance. In a time of an emergency, insurers should not place an additional burden on their insured through underpayment or claiming out of network status. In addition, although many emergency 911 calls begin as a “frantic call for help,” not all are life threatening and require the highest level of care; however, they do need some type of a health care intervention.

It is this high volume of low acuity patients who do not have primary care physicians and who currently by law must be transported to hospitals that continue to bottleneck emergency rooms. This bottleneck then requires ambulances to be “on the wall” at local hospital emergency rooms. The cost to the 911 EMS system rapidly begins a domino effect where all the patients begin to be diverted/directed to other hospitals causing an overflow to the next hospital. In large EMS systems, this domino effect can bring emergency rooms at all available hospitals to capacity quickly. EMS units are unable to go on additional emergency calls because they are caring for a patient while waiting on hospital staff to become available to take over. They also cannot leave that hospital with the patient to go to another hospital due to federal laws that prohibit this movement.

So why does the AETNA/CVS excite the leaders of EMS organizations? Most people assume that since this acquisition just occurred, Walgreens will probably follow suit with another insurer. Other local pharmacy “CVS types” may partner with local hospitals or medical insurance cooperatives as well. This leads the ambulance industry to believe that the capacity to transport patients to alternative locations could greatly change the landscape of EMS. The idea that local CVS/Walgreens/clinics could receive low acuity patients breaks open the bottleneck and can provide several benefits for the ambulance service and patient. One benefit is that adding these stores/clinics greatly increases the resources for caring for low acuity patients and could potentially double the locations an ambulance can transport to, which will allow for quicker transport times and increase efficiencies. Lastly, and most importantly, diverting the low acuity patients to these additional community resources would reduce overflow in the emergency departments and allow true emergency patients to be transferred over more quickly to receive the higher level of care they require. This scenario is also a win for the patient. They could be transported to the most appropriate location to care for their needs and therefore can be billed more accurately for services they require rather than the emergency department fees which are usually costlier.

To make this happen, obviously the CVS system needs to evolve to receive these patients. More importantly, ambulance reimbursement by federal, state, and private payers must evolve to meet the demands of the market. Due to the complexities of how EMS services are provided because of state and local regulations, mandatory response times, service area parameters, and others, reimbursement for these services must be adequately paid for by Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurers. Today EMS agencies can only “hope” that their patients have a source of payment!

Although one would think that this state of concern for EMS services is being monitored, it currently has only a very small voice in the healthcare continuum. Federal agencies seem to want to look at what EMS will look like in 10 to 25 years rather than where EMS is today and where it can develop over the next few years. EMS reform needs to happen soon to save these systems from bankruptcy and/or the public from higher taxation.

We hope that this merger will be the beginning of alternative EMS/ambulance destinations with allocated reimbursements that meet the costs of providing high quality, efficient, and necessary 911 ambulance services.

Mark Postma, COO, Sunstar Paramedics
American Ambulance Association, President
Works for Sunstar Paramedics, Florida’s largest EMS provider
MPostma@sunstarems.com, 727-224-0295

Asbel Montes, Vice President, Acadian Ambulance Service, Inc.
American Ambulance Association, Chair-Payment Reform Committee
Works for Acadian Ambulance Service, Inc., Louisiana’s largest EMS provider
Asbel.Montes@acadian.com, 337-291-3310

Balance Billing: AAA EVP Maria Bianchi on WOSU Ohio

The American Ambulance Association continues to defend ambulance providers in the face of misunderstandings regarding balance billing.

Today, AAA’s Executive Vice President Maria Bianchi provided context on WOSU’s All Sides with Ann Fisher. Maria called in during an interview with Melissa Bailey, author of the November 20 Kaiser Health News article to which association President Mark Postma recently responded. Maria’s comments helped listeners understand the complex reality of EMS funding.

Listen on-demand now►

Response to Kaiser Health News Ambulance Billing Article

Below is the American Ambulance Association’s Response to a recent Kaiser Health News article on ambulance billing. It was reprinted in several metropolitan areas on November 20, 2017.

To the Editor:

I write today in response to Melissa Bailey’s November 20 piece about ambulance balance (“surprise”) billing. While we disagree with the characterization of ambulance services in the article, we welcome the ongoing public dialogue about how unsustainable reimbursement for emergency medical services results in cost-shifting to patients.

Missing from the article is a true understanding of the sky-high cost of readiness for emergency medical services. Ambulance service providers offer their communities 24/7/365 on-demand mobile healthcare. Skilled staff and ambulances—high-tech emergency rooms on wheels—are ready to respond to a 9-1-1 call at a moment’s notice to help patients with issues ranging from stroke to heart attack to trauma to childbirth. EMS is also on the very front lines of the surge in opioid overdoses, providing naloxone (Narcan) to hundreds of patients each day. Keeping supplies, medications, equipment, and personnel at-the-ready requires a significant ongoing investment, regardless of whether or not an ambulance is out responding to a call. Cost comparisons between EMS and the rideshare app Uber may make for catchy sound bites, but they are misleading and misguided.

The piece states that our nation’s 14,000 ambulance service providers received 1,200 Better Business Bureau complaints spread over three years. While certainly not optimal, this is a tiny, unrepresentative fraction of the tens of millions of responses ambulance service providers conduct annually. In fact, BBB 2016 statistics show that ambulance services receive far fewer complaints than hospitals, physicians, dentists, and many other trusted healthcare providers.

The article also offhandedly mentions that balance billing occurs when private insurers and ambulance service providers are unable to agree about fair reimbursement rates. This glosses over the dark reality that it would be hard to categorize the process that occurs between the insurer and ambulance services as a “negotiation.” Instead, insurers often present an all-or-nothing proposition to force ambulance service providers to accept contracts at unsustainably low reimbursement rates. Unlike the multi-billion dollar insurance behemoths, most ambulance services are small and operate on razor-thin margins. In fact, 73% of ambulance services provide fewer than 1,000 Medicare transports per year—just three per day. Ambulance services do not turn down insurance network contracts out of greed, but instead out of necessity. Facing reimbursement rates below the cost of the services they provide, they must decline these agreements in order to keep their doors open and continue to provide healthcare to their communities. Unfortunately, this sometimes creates a situation where out-of-network ambulance costs are shouldered by patients via balance billing, instead of insurers.

In addition to challenges receiving fair compensation from private insurance, EMS is stretched thin by ultra-low Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates. In fact, in 2007 and 2012 GAO studies showed that without temporary, Congress-authorized percentage increases in EMS payments, ambulance services would receive reimbursement from government payors below the cost of operations. These are often the very same unsustainable rates that private insurers are attempting to strong-arm EMS providers into accepting for network contracts.

Finally, when someone calls 9-1-1 in need of emergency medical care, it is key to recall that, unlike in other industries, an ambulance responds regardless of the patient’s ability to pay. In many cases, the patient does not have insurance and is financially unable to reimburse the ambulance service provider. Therefore, EMS provides a significant amount of uncompensated care, the cost of which must be spread across all payors in order for them to continue their life-saving operations.

Ambulance services provide an essential, on-demand healthcare benefit to their communities. Unfortunately our current healthcare payment structure means that much of this care is not compensated equitably, resulting in the necessity of balance billing patients. While there are no quick fixes for this issue, we encourage consumers to educate themselves about their own insurance coverage. We also ask for your support of legislation that provides sustainable reimbursement for ambulance providers, including the bipartisan US Senate Bill 967. Together, we can ensure the future of mobile healthcare in our great nation.

Mark Postma
President
American Ambulance Association
“Representing EMS In America”

 

Patient Satisfaction and the Collections Conundrum

Emergency Strikes The year was 2001—seems like a distant memory. Expecting our first child, my wife and I were living in Modesto, California, thinking about cradles and nurseries. We were so excited—the little one we’d been expecting was on his way! Excitement quickly changed to deep concern as we learned there were some major complications…

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UnitedHealthCare Denials for ALS-2 Claims

Talking Medicare with Brian S. Werfel, AAA Medicare Consultant Over the past few weeks, we have received emails from ambulance providers across the country reporting that UnitedHealthCare (UHC) has started to deny claims for the ALS-2 base rate. Affected claims include both commercial and Medicare Advantage claims. These providers are reporting that UHC is requiring…

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Administration’s Proposed Rule on Marketplace Stabilization

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has released the “Marketplace Stabilization Proposed Rule” (Proposed Rule). Overall, the rule proposes a series of modifications to the Marketplaces that align with requests made by issuers in an attempt to keep them in the Marketplaces. The background section of the Proposed Rule emphasizes the concerns of…

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WTAE Shows 25% of Ambulance Calls Unpaid

WTAE Pittsburgh’s Action News recently published a great video investigative piece by Paul Van Osdol on the realities of ambulance funding.

So who pays for these and other non-transport calls?

“The folks that go to the hospital end up paying for the 25 percent that we don’t transport,” Porter said.

But even that does not cover the entire cost, and as a result, ambulance companies are hurting.

A survey of Allegheny County EMS services found 75 percent of them are losing money. On average, they collect only 43 percent of the amount they bill.

“That is frightening when you think about the EMS system as a whole,” Porter said. “The risk is burnout of EMS crews, overworked EMS crews, delayed response time, inadequately trained staff.”

Read the full article, and see their fantastic video, over at WTAE.com.

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