Opinion: Rural areas need affordable air ambulances

It’s the kind of thing you never expect. You or a loved one experiences a medical emergency — a stroke, heart attack, aneurysm or trauma from a car accident — and you must get to a hospital as quickly as possible. Thankfully, as a resident of a bustling city, you are near plenty of hospitals, specialists and specialty care facilities where you can quickly get the treatment you need.

Unfortunately, 115 million Americans living in rural areas aren’t as fortunate. In their cases, the nearest medical facility is more than an hour away by a ground ambulance. That’s where air medical comes in — filling the gap in rural communities across the country so that patients can quickly get to the nearest and best medical facility.

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At Consumer Action, our job is to support and empower underrepresented Americans to assert their rights in the marketplace so they can prosper. Access to quality, emergency care is critical to that prosperity.

Since 2010, 80 rural hospitals have closed across America, according to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Rural Health Center. The National Rural Health Association estimates that there are as many as 700 more rural hospitals at risk of closing in the next 10 years.

As a result, the 115 million Americans who live in rural areas of the country live farther and farther away from the nearest hospital. Distances between rural hospitals can be almost 90 miles. Emergency response times are 30 percent higher in rural versus urban areas. That means it takes rural patients 30 percent longer to reach the care they need.

The effects of this access void are staggering. Rural patients are 50 times more likely to die from trauma-related causes than patients in urban areas of the country.

Unless we spend billions of dollars to build trauma centers 30 minutes away from each other all across rural areas, the access void is filled instead by air ambulances that reduce critical transport time for emergency patients. Simply put, air medical providers save lives, particularly in underrepresented communities.

However, air medical bases are at risk of closing. It’s expensive to run an air base — air ambulance providers must be ready to deploy 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, and providers are getting reimbursed only a portion of what it actually costs to send a helicopter. Because Medicare and Medicaid have not updated reimbursement of air medical services in almost 20 years, the rest of the system must absorb the cost. That’s simply not sustainable, and it is dangerous for these communities.

Making matters worse, many private insurers refuse to cover the cost of transport by claiming it’s not medically necessary or that the provider is out of network. Why should health insurance companies get to play doctor and determine retroactively whether or not emergency air ambulance transfers are necessary when, in fact, for …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Health


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