By Dr. Chris Newcomb
You never know when a medical emergency might occur and force you or a loved one to rely on emergency transport to receive critical care. I have firsthand knowledge of this as a patient, as I was airlifted to a trauma center in Orlando after a life-threatening car accident.
My experience as a physician, especially the time I served in a busy emergency room, made me acutely aware of how important it is for patients to get to high-quality medical facilities as soon as possible.
Consider, for example, the catastrophic power-plant explosion in Tampa earlier this summer that caused multiple critical injuries and fatalities from severe burns. When medics arrived at the scene, two of the victims were flown by emergency air ambulance to Tampa General Hospital’s burn center. Tampa General is one of just three burn centers in Florida to have earned Verification by the American Burn Association/American College of Surgeons, and plays a critical role in providing treatment for burn victims.
Incidents like this highlight the importance of emergency air medical services to protect our communities from unforeseen tragedies. The Association of Air Medical Services estimates that more than 550,000 patients in the U.S. are transported by air ambulances each year.
No one disputes the benefits of air ambulances, but the continued availability of these services in Florida and across the nation is in jeopardy.
Operators of these essential services do not receive adequate reimbursement rates from Medicare, Medicaid and some private insurers, placing a substantial financial strain on air medical transport providers. Right now, the current Medicare Air Ambulance Fee Schedule results in a cost shortfall of over 70 percent.
The fees fail to take into consideration the rising operational costs for air medical transport providers to offer 24/7 top-notch care. Without adequate reimbursement rates, air medical transport providers are being forced to scale back or shut down operations across the nation.
Air ambulance services exist in many different forms, including public providers, nonprofit organizations and private companies. But they all have the same goal: providing quality care as they quickly transport patients in need. In Sarasota, we are fortunate to have air ambulance services like Bayflite that quickly deploy to the scene of an accident. I know I am certainly grateful for these services as both a patient and a physician.
While limited access to emergency air medical transport is a nationwide problem, it specifically affects Floridians because of our state’s expansive rural areas.
Limited availability of specialized care forces Florida’s rural communities to rely on emergency air medical transport to get patients to critical care facilities when a hospital is out of reach. This is especially true for burn victims in rural areas, where a lack of specialized centers give patients even less chance to reach appropriate burn centers in time for necessary treatment.
Recently, U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski of Indiana introduced legislation that brings these concerns to light. The Ensuring Access to Air Ambulance Services Act (H.R. 3378) would update Medicare reimbursement rates based on actual cost data, instead of the cost estimation that set the current fee schedule. This bill is an excellent start to protecting access to these life-saving services for when we need them most.
No one can plan when a medical emergency will occur. That’s why safeguarding the continued availability of emergency air medical services is important to ensure that the care patients require is available when they need it most.
Dr. Chris Newcomb, M.D., is a Sarasota physician who specializes in internal medicine.