RAINBOW CITY, AL (WBRC) - The parent company of Lifesaver helicopter is closing two of its bases in Alabama.
One of those is in the East Alabama city of Rainbow City, where Alabama Lifesaver 2 has been based.
A statement from Megan Smith on behalf of Air Methods, Inc. says the area’s Lifesaver calls, including an accident call in Glencoe Friday, will be handled by the Sylacauga base and another one in Cusseta.
It was unclear where the Glencoe call was dispatched out of Rainbow City, Sylacauga or Cusseta.
The statement says the company had to make cuts due to slow and decreasing reimbursements from Medicaid and Medicare.
Representatives of several fire departments in Calhoun and Etowah County say the announcement took them by surprise.
The other base being closed is in Evergreen, which is located in South Alabama.
The full statement from Air Methods reads:
“Air Methods, the leading air medical services provider, announced that after a thorough review and analysis of its operations, it will no longer maintain its Baptist Life Flight 3 base in Evergreen, Alabama or its Alabama Life Saver 2 base in Rainbow City, Alabama.
The Evergreen service area will be covered by other Air Methods’ air medical aircraft in the area, including the local USA SouthFlight in Semmes, Alabama; LifeFlight 1 in Pensacola, Florida; and Okaloosa MedFlight in Niceville, Florida. In addition, the Rainbow City area will be covered by Life Saver 3 in Cusseta, Alabama and Life Saver 4 in Sylacauga, Alabama. In the case for these two bases, neither dispatch center will experience any interruption in service.
Air Methods is dedicated to the delivery of emergency, lifesaving care to anyone who needs it, 24/7/365. Air Methods does not self-dispatch—we only go when we are called, and we transport every patient who needs our services, regardless of their ability to pay. In many cases, we are the only link between hospitals for patients who need more intensive care, which is a responsibility we take very seriously as we make these decisions.
The cost of this around-the-clock readiness averages nearly $3 million per year for each air base, according to a cost study prepared for the Association of Air Medical Services (AAMS). Further, approximately 85% percent of costs are fixed costs associated with operating an air base, giving companies little leeway in reducing costs on their own.
However, reimbursement for services has not kept up with costs. Medicare, which covers air medical services in emergency cases only, established the current air medical service payment rates in 2002 based on an estimated 1998 cost pool. Today, the average Medicare per-transport reimbursement covers approximately half of the cost per transport, according to the AAMS study. Payments from Medicaid are even lower but another 50%, while payments from uninsured patients average around a couple hundred dollars.
In Alabama, 70% of our transports are Medicaid, Medicare, and self-pay/uninsured, which combined reimburses less than 30% of overall costs. Again, we don’t self-dispatch nor have any idea of insurance status until after we deliver our patient and finish our mission. Medicaid in Alabama pays roughly $350 per patient transport, with Medicare covering around $5,000, and self-pay/uninsured normal out of pocket is just around $325.
Because of the high number of uninsured patients in Alabama and the low payments by government payers, each Alabama air ambulance patient with private health insurance has to cover the costs for the remaining balance left by these 70% of transports. This business environment is not sustainable and puts emergency transport access at risk, which is critical in a state like Alabama which has seen 13 hospitals close in the last 8 years.
Fortunately, Air Methods is in-network with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama and has more than 25 other in-network commercial health plan agreements across the country. In-network coverage offers health plan members a discounted, out-of-pocket payment for qualified services, which varies depending on their plan’s benefits. Additionally, our Air Methods’ Patient Advocacy Program is aconsumer-centered advocacy program which helps patients navigate the insurance billing and appeals process and provides them with the information they need to come to a financially sustainable resolution to their claim.
However, if the low government reimbursement continues, businesses will be deterred from providing this critical service that is needed. The best solution is to increase Medicaid reimbursement at the state level and the federal government to increase Medicare reimbursement for air emergency services which will ensure that the government doesn’t place this burden of debt on private businesses.”