Missoula County Coverage

Nov 18, 2010 12:43 AM by Breanna Roy (KPAX News)

Rates different among Missoula air ambulances

MISSOULA - For 25 years, when someone near Missoula County needed an emergency helicopter, Life Flight, owned by St. Patrick Hospital, would respond.

But five years ago, another air medical service came to town. CareFlight built its base at Community Hospital and hoped to get in on the 911 calls.

Missoula County commissioners approved, and established an agreement where dispatchers alternate daily between sending Life Flight and CareFlight on calls.

But, a Missoula man who needed an air evacuation last summer said there is a difference between the two services in what they charge.

Back in June of 2009, Scott Kuehn fell over the front of a boat going full speed on Salmon Lake.

"My back hit the hull, fractured my back and my head hit the front of the engine and fractured the back of my skull in three spots," Kuehn said.

His family dove in after him, got him on the boat and sped to shore. They called 911. The call went to the Missoula County dispatch center, which determined an air evacuation was necessary.
It was an even day and CareFlight's turn to respond.

Both of Missoula's air ambulances are the same model helicopter and both will take you to either hospital in town, but each service charge at different rates. And they can, because the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 makes it clear state and local governments can not set prices.

Kuehn said it's not fair for a patient who is unconscious and can't compare prices.

"We got a bill from, actually it was NativeAir, which is out of Community Hospital for 13 or 14 thousand dollars for a helicopter ride," he said. "Turned it in to our insurance, Blue Cross Blue Shield, all of the sudden they go, 'You're not a Preferred Provider and we're only gonna pay half of that. We're gonna pay what Life Flight would've charged,' which was $5,000."

Life Flight chief flight nurse Larry Peterman said he has received calls from CareFlight patients asking how much their trip would've cost on Life Flight.

"There's been a few occasions where there'll be a crash that has multiple injuries and both services will land and both services will come here and I've received phone calls from the other half saying, ‘Why are the bills different?' I think there'd be no issue if we had a situation where the prices were in the same ballpark, but at this point, they're not."

Life Flight reports its base fee is $8,159 and each mile costs $76. Meanwhile CareFlight, owned by parent company OmniFlight charges approximately $10,000 every time it takes off and $120 a mile after that.

Applying those rates to an average 56-mile flight, Life Flight would charge about $12,415 while CareFlight could charge $16,720.

OmniFlight's vice president of operations, Joel Hochhalter, based in Mesa, Ariz. said even if a bill looks bigger, the patient isn't responsible for paying all of it.

"What is billed is really interesting, but what is collected is the important part," Hochhalter said. "Our collection compared to St. Pat's Life Flight or any other program across the country is standard. Nobody is held out special and gets any more money than the other."

After negotiating, Kuehn was responsible for about $6,000. But he still said it's not fair for the two helicopters to charge differently when the people they carry don't have a choice.

"It's not like you have the preferred provider book right with you when you get hurt sayin', you know, today I better go with Life Flight," he said.

A supervisor at the Missoula County dispatch center said 911 callers can request which helicopter service they want to respond, even if it's not that service's assigned day, and dispatchers try to accommodate them.

But, they can't guarantee who will respond because sometimes one service is already out on a call.

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