Local towns pay for residents’ medical flights

The Meducare helicopter that serves the Medical University of South Carolina is part of an agreement between AirMedCare and the towns of Kiawah, Edisto Beach and McClellanville that eliminates out-of-pocket costs for residents with medical insurance who are transported by air ambulance.

The towns of Edisto Beach, McClellanville and Kiawah Island are providing a new benefit for full-time residents — helicopter transport to a hospital without the financial worries.

The Edisto Beach Town Council agreed to pay about $5,000 for a year-long agreement with AirMedCare to accept whatever a resident’s medical insurer allows as payment for air transport, said Mayor Jane Darby.

McClellanville Mayor Rutledge Leland said Town Council voted in favor of paying $2,300 for the same program.

“It just sounded like an awfully good deal. The council jumped right on it. It basically covers the whole town for a small amount of money,” Leland said.

Kiawah Island Town Council paid $8,000 for its AirMedCare agreement.

“The cost was low and because it’s not uncommon that a resident can be transported, we thought it was something that we would try,” said Councilman Craig Weaver, chairman of the Kiawah Public Safety Committee.

Uninsured residents are billed at the Medicare-allowed rate, and tourists and daytrippers are not included in the program, officials said.

The air ambulance cost agreement for McClellanville, Kiawah and Edisto Beach applies to residents if they need to be evacuated to a hospital from anywhere in the county, officials said.

Jim Ritchie, executive director of the S.C. Alliance of Health Plans, said the program is an innovative solution to address the needs of rural populations and to give residents peace of mind.

Usually, health insurance plans have a cap on what is paid for air ambulance transport, he said.

“All of us are trying to find a way for local communities or states to control the cost of air ambulances,” he said.

One Edisto resident who had medical insurance was hit with a $25,000 bill for air ambulance transport, Darby said.

“We have had horror stories,” the mayor said.

Courts have said only the Federal Aviation Administration can regulate air ambulance rates. So far, the FAA hasn’t acted on the issue. Medicare and Medicaid set their rates for air medical transport service, he said.

“They’ve left the states and citizens and insurance companies to drift without that kind of control. At this point states are unable to pass laws to regulate air ambulance rates. That’s been the challenge nationally,” Ritchie said.

AirMedCare has more than 200 aircraft locations in dozens of states. Here, it is based at Charleston International Airport where Meducare Air is a local AirMedCare provider.

An AirMedCare representative recently spoke to Seabrook Town Council. Wes McAden, AirMedCare membership sales manager, said he also spoke to the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s new to this region of the country,” he said.

The medical air transport program is also available to individual households for $65 yearly, McAden said.

Doctors, firefighters and paramedics make the call on whether air transport is medically necessary. Air ambulances most commonly carry patients with traumatic injuries, pregnancy complications, heart attacks, strokes and respiratory diseases. The average air ambulance trip is 52 miles and costs between $12,000 to $25,000 per flight, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

Many insurers will pay for what they deem reasonable use of an air ambulance. However, sometimes the air ambulance company and the insurer disagree on the cost. The balance becomes the patient’s responsibility, the association says.