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Why Are Ambulance Rides So Expensive?

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How does a 5-mile ride turn into an $800 bill? Last week, we told the story of Jim Mathes, who was angry about the bill he received after he took a short ride to the hospital, the first installment of our new Consumer Rage series.

Readers raged, too, both for and against the ambulance industry and the high cost of emergency transportation.

Plenty of consumers said Mathes had gotten off easy; that they’d been hit with much bigger bills than $800.  Karen Ewart, for example, said her daughter was transported a short distance after a car accident and ended up with a $2,400 bill. Laura Cataldo didn’t like the $1,200 bill she ended up with after a 1.2-mile ride, but took particular exception to the $25 charge levied for four baby aspirin she was administered.  (“I could have purchased 20 bottles of baby aspirin” for that price, she lamented.)

Several readers complained that they paid upwards of $1,000 for simple transportation between medical facilities, such as when a doctor ordered a test using a machine in a different building or campus of the hospital. More than one complained about separate transport fees for spouses or children riding in the same ambulance.  And while this isn’t quite the same thing, it’s worth noting: patients who needed helicopter transport said they’d received bills upwards of $25,000.

“That’s nothing compared to [the] hospital bill,” wrote Joella Johnson, who also added the price was worth it — emergency technicians helped save her daughter’s life.

Insurance paid most of these bills most of the time, but certainly not always.

Gregory Kolbo was in an accident while riding his bike and said EMTs talked him into an ambulance ride so he could be examined.

“I thought my county had free ambulance care. The ride cost me more to go six blocks to the county hospital than it would have to charter the limo I drove all day,” Kolbo said.  He didn’t pay the bill, and that was a big mistake.

“They took me to court, got a judgment, I wound up paying anyway, but now I have bad credit,” he said.

Defending the Costs

Plenty of readers jumped to the defense of medical transport costs, explaining that ambulances are basically mobile hospital emergency rooms, and are costly to maintain and staff.

“People forget you’re also paying for this service to be available 24/7. You have to pay the staff for being on call, the lights, the room, etc. It’s always there for you,” wrote a man who identified himself only as Dave. “If you need it at 2 in the morning on a holiday it will be there for you.”

One EMT laid out the costs: A new ambulance costs more than $100,000; a heart monitor, $10,000; and a stretcher about $4,000.

“What people don’t seem to get is that ambulances haven’t been just ‘throw the patient in the back and take off’ type transports since about 1960,” wrote John. “You are getting a mobile hospital room with all the tools/equipment and skills needed to keep you alive. That costs money. Just one piece – the LifePak heart monitor/defibrillator – is close to $12,000 to purchase new from the manufacturer.”

EMTs also complained that many patients call 911 for minor injuries, clogging up the system. Worse yet — fewer than half pay their bills, raising costs for everyone.

“Please tell me another business that knows before the sun comes up that they are going to be giving away their services for free to most of their customer base,” wrote “Gabe.”

The Volunteer Model

Finally, Sharon Tee wrote in to lament emergency transport of days gone by, when technicians were volunteers and pancake breakfasts were held to pay for new equipment.

Actually, she wrote in to say her small town in Maine still has such a quaint arrangement.

“In our town our Volunteer Fire Dept provides ambulance service for free,” she wrote.

“We hope that the folks we take to the hospital will maybe send a gift, but whether or not that happens, we help them. Then we work to support that service w/bean suppers, spaghetti dinners, and a grand auction. We are proud to make this available to our town. Wish it were so for other cities.”

Haven’t had your say yet? Got another consumer issue that fills you with rage?  Leave your comment here, visit the Credit Experts Facebook page, or send me an e-mail at Bob at BobSullivan.net

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