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SOAR Campaign: Emergency air medical services must be preserved and protected

by Amanda Thayer, spokesperson

Save Our Air Medical Resources Campaign

It was with a deep sense of regret and concern that everyone in the air ambulance service community learned the news that LifeFlight Tallahassee had shuttered its main base of operations. We feel for the employees whose livelihoods are being disrupted. But there is a greater issue at stake in the event of an air medical base closure: Countless lives could be put at risk from the loss of an important medical service.

Air medical transport services take our mission of providing emergency assistance very seriously. No provider wants to close a base, in Florida or anywhere. That’s the last thing any air medical provider wants – our mission is to serve communities, not leave them. In the wake of base closures like the most recent one in Tallahassee, the stories that emerge about loved ones saved and heroic rescues carried out by pilots and crews underscore just how much communities rely on this service.

Unfortunately, the reality is that our services must be ready to mobilize on a moment’s notice and able to provide high-level care, and that comes at significant cost. In the current environment, the LifeFlight air base in Gadsden County cannot survive because of drastically low reimbursement rates paid by Medicare and Medicaid for emergency air medical transport. For the safety of the public, this is a situation that simply must change.

To operate a base that stands ready to deploy 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year costs roughly $3 million annually. However, about 70 percent of patients being transported by these air services rely on Medicare, Medicaid, or some other government insurance coverage, or they are entirely uninsured. This means the providers of this essential but costly service are being under-reimbursed on 7 out of 10 transports. It doesn’t take long to see that this is unsustainable.

This problem is manifesting in communities across Florida and our nation. Some 90 percent of patients who use air medical services are transported after suffering a serious cardiac event, stroke, or trauma, and air medical services extend the reach of hospitals and trauma centers so millions of Americans in rural areas have access to them. More than 85 million Americans live more than an hour by ambulance from a Level 1 or Level 2 trauma center, and without air medical transport service they literally have no way to get there during the all-important “Golden Hour” that can save their lives.

Since 1990, almost one in four rural hospitals have closed – one per month since 2010 – and hundreds more are now on the brink of closure. As a result, patients must travel farther to get emergency care.

Save Our Air Medical Resources (SOAR) is a national campaign dedicated to preserving access to emergency air medical services for Americans across the country. We are working toward a dual track of solutions to prevent more air ambulance bases from closing, in order to protect the health and safety of the public.

First, the problem of drastically low reimbursements from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services must be fixed. Our campaign strongly supports proposed federal legislation that would resolve the Medicare reimbursement shortfall by updating reimbursement rates. Second, insurance companies must be willing to negotiate and begin reimbursing for air medical transport services at a reasonable rate, taking patients out of the middle of the balance billing process that we desperately want to move away from.

As the LifeFlight experience shows, no community can take for granted that a vital, life-sustaining service will always be there when needed. The two common-sense changes mentioned above would make a tremendous difference in safeguarding the lives of citizens in the Tallahassee community and across the country.

Amanda Thayer is the spokesperson of the Save Our Air Medical Resources (SOAR) campaign, a national effort aimed at preserving access to emergency air medical services for Americans across the country.

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