NY campaign seeks to protect future of air medical services

The Save Our Medical Resources campaign includes legislation that would require transparent cost data to be submitted to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services


CORNING, N.Y.­— On an icy December night in 2013, Whitney M. Corby was driving to the gym when her car slid on black ice, slamming into a tree.

First responders arrived at the scene and it was determined Ms. Corby, 24, was in a life-threatening condition.

An AirMethods helicopter was called to transport her to the closest trauma center, in this case a 15-minute ride to Robert Packer Hospital in Sayre, Pa.

The Save Our Medical Resources campaign includes legislation that would require transparent cost data to be submitted to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (Photo/AirMethods)
The Save Our Medical Resources campaign includes legislation that would require transparent cost data to be submitted to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (Photo/AirMethods)

Upon the helicopter’s arrival at the accident scene, Ms. Corby’s condition was extremely critical as she had sustained a traumatic brain injury, skull fracture, broken cheekbone, broken collarbone and bruised lung. The flight paramedics got Ms. Corby into the helicopter, put in a breathing tube and administered medications to stabilize her.

“We’re like a flying ICU,” said Sean C. Mitchell, flight paramedic for Ms. Corby.

Ms. Corby was in a coma for nine days and doctors had told her parents to prepare themselves for the worst. With all odds against her, though, Ms. Corby woke up.

“I have no recollection of any of this,” Ms. Corby said. “I only know what people told me.”

She was transferred to Unity Hospital’s brain rehabilitation center in Rochester to re-learn how to walk and other basic motor skills. Ms. Corby was discharged a month later in February and went through extensive outpatient therapy.

Ms. Corby said her parents were told over and over again that if the helicopter hadn’t been there to help, she wouldn’t have survived.

Air medical service companies, such as AirMethods, are crucial for rural areas like the north country in providing quick access to trauma centers for life-threatening situations. However, the air medical service industry is reimbursed far below the cost of their services on 70 percent of transports because those patients have Medicare, Medicaid or other government insurance or are uninsured.

Depending on where the patient is in the country, the medical flight can cost up to $25,000, with many states’ Medicaid providers only covering about $200.

With the reimbursement rates under the true costs of providing service — the average Medicare reimbursement only covers 50 percent of actual transport costs — many air medical bases have been forced to shut down across the country.

Rural areas are most at risk, with rural hospitals closing at a rate of nearly one per month since 2010, resulting in a heavier reliance on transporting patients by air to get the appropriate care.

In the north country, most patients are transported to Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, an hour away. Hospitals in the area, on average, use the air medic services about 28 times per year, which doesn’t include trauma accidents that result in patients being transported directly from the scene, rather than later on from a local hospital.

Mr. Mitchell explained there is a “golden hour” of survivability for every patient, meaning if the patient can get from the time they were injured to specialty care within that hour, it increases their chance of survival. Without air medics in rural areas, that chance is slim.

“For one quarter of Americans, that specialty center is over an hour away,” Mr. Mitchell said.

To fix this problem, the Save Our Medical Resources campaign was started to provide education and resources to the public, as well as decision and policy makers.

The largest part of the campaign is a bipartisan piece of legislation that would protect access to air medical services by modernizing the Medicare Air Ambulance Fee Schedule, which hasn’t been updated in nearly 20 years.

The legislation, the Ensuring Access to Air Ambulance Services Act, requires air medical operators to collect and submit transparent cost data to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services so that it can develop an accurate payment system based on actual costs of providing care.

Additionally, it would establish a mandatory air medical quality reporting program, implement a value-based purchasing program to promote high-quality air medical services and provide immediate relief to providers while the data collection occurs.

The legislation was introduced to the House and Senate last year, but no action has been taken since.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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