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COVID-19, insurance reimbursement threaten air ambulance industry

As was recently reported, positive and suspected COVID-19 cases are reaching record highs in Arizona, as are the use of ICU beds and ventilators. Hospitals in rural counties like Cochise, Santa Cruz and the Navajo area are at risk of facing the strain experienced by countless rural facilities overrun with coronavirus cases. Luckily, air medical providers are there to transport patients to less crowded facilities as the need arises.

But even when the immediate crisis has ended, some Arizona hospitals, especially in rural areas, may close permanently due to the financial strain caused by the coronavirus. In fact, the cancelation of elective procedures to free up beds for COVID-19 patients has led to a loss of 30%-40% of normal hospital revenues statewide. Closures mean residents must travel farther to reach the nearest emergency room in a crisis. Air ambulances, fortunately, are there to fill the gap.

Christina Kanmaz

Christina Kanmaz

As anyone who has suffered a major cardiac event or stroke knows, in emergency situations, every minute counts. Air ambulances are essentially flying emergency rooms, equipped with life-saving equipment, and trained medical staff. They provide swift transport to the nearest hospital while treating the patient in the air, improving health outcomes.

Air medical providers are on the frontlines of the fight against the pandemic in Arizona and around the country, ensuring access to medical care when it matters most for patients suffering severe respiratory symptoms, as well as providing inter-facility transport to ease the burden on rural facilities lacking in staff, ventilators, or open beds to treat the influx of COVID-19 cases.

Air ambulance providers, like all other frontline health care workers, have faced increased operation costs in the battle against COVID-19, including significant investment in PPE and increased time spent on decontamination of aircraft. Unfortunately, even before the pandemic, the industry was facing financial headwinds that resulted in 57 base closures last year alone, including in Arizona. The companies forced to close their bases cite low reimbursement rates from Medicare and Medicaid, as well as insurers refusing to bring their services in-network and even refusing to cover the full cost of a patient’s bill, citing medical necessity. This dangerously threatens an industry that is only growing in necessity. 

Patients in Arizona deserve access to the life-saving services that air ambulances provide. It is not just critical during this pandemic, but will remain critical for victims of stroke, cardiac arrest, and traumatic injury once it is over as well – especially as more and more facilities close their doors.

Arizona policymakers must ensure that air ambulance providers can access resources intended to reimburse the health care industry in future coronavirus relief legislation. Insurers must also do their part and step up to cover the costs of care. Failure to act puts Arizonans at risk. 

Christina Kanmaz is spokesperson for Save Our Air Medical Resources, or SOAR.


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