$19,000 bill for patient's ride in medical chopper


by Craig Cheatham


Posted on November 8, 2011 at 10:21 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 9 at 11:14 PM

(KMOV) -- Steve Groom was in a car crash. It happened close to a hospital in the Litchfield, Illinois area. Instead of taking Groom to nearby St. Francis Hospital, the first responders decided he should be flown 50 miles away to a trauma center in Springfield. Six hours after he got there, Groom walked out with a slight concussion. In hindsight, it's hardly the type of injury that would require such a remarkable medical effort.

"Why wasn't I sent to St. Francis to get looked over first?" Groom wondered.

The acting Chief of the Litchfield fire department declined to talk about Groom's case, but he insisted that first responders always do what they think is best for the patient. 

Groom's worst pain started when he received the bill from Air Methods Inc., the air ambulance company charging him about $19,000 for the flight. His insurance covered just $5,000. Groom told me his family was struggling to make it on seasonal work in a town of just 200 residents. Clearly, it's a community with few jobs and less opportunity to pay off an unexpected bill of that amount.  

In a letter written to Air Methods eight months ago, an Assistant Medical Claims Director for the Central Laborer's Pension, Welfare & Annuity Funds argued that Air Methods was taking advantage of Groom. "We recommend that since you are billing over Medicaire's 2010 Fee Schedule that you not balance bill the patient for any amount not covered by Insurance," she wrote.

Air Methods Corporation doesn't decide who uses its service, but it does determine the cost. The parent company of Arch Air Medical Service, which operates in St. Louis, has been on a money making roll. The stock more than doubled during the last year, profit margins are 50-percent about the industry average, and the top four Air Methods executives received more than $1 million each in salary and bonuses last year. Here's a link to a recent public report by the company showing its compensation for executives.

Company spokesman Craig Yale told me the executive compensation is comparable to what executives earn at other businesses "of our size."

Yale talked with me via Skype, insisting that fees charged by Air Methods, which can be 20 times higher than a ground ambulance, are justified because the air medical system reduces transport time, saves lives and must be staffed around the clock.

Still, Groom wondered, "if they are getting rich off it, why?"

The weight of the air ambulance bill was taking a toll on Groom's family, but after our interview with Yale, and follow-up phone calls to the company, Air Methods decided to drastically slash Steve Groom's bill, cutting about $7,000 in costs.

He is now paid in full.