The latest big air ambulance news comes from a story reported by WCNC-TV from Charlotte, North Carolina. Recently, a North Carolina man named Charlie Pridmore suffered a stroke while fishing from a boat. EMS professionals arrived at the scene and drove him from the yacht club he was fishing near to the closest accredited stroke center, Piedmont Medical Center in Rock Hill.
According to Pridmore, the healthcare professionals at Piedmont Medical Center treated him with medication to help dissolve the blood clots that had led to his stroke. After speaking to a specialist from MUSC (Medical University of South Carolina) by video, however, he was convinced that he needed to be flown to Charleston by air ambulance, in case complications arose.
Pridmore says the specialist in Charleston told him about how there was a potential that he could develop a “brain bleed” and die if a specially trained neurosurgeon was not around to install a stint. The doctor then, according to Pridmore, told him over the webcam that she was the only doctor [he said he doesn't remember whether she said 'in this state' or 'in this portion of the country'] who was certified to do so, and urged him to get there quickly.
After hearing that he could die if he didn’t get to the facility in Charleston soon, Pridmore agreed to be transferred. Right away, the hospital called an air ambulance to transport him.
But they didn’t call the closest air ambulance.
The hospital called an air ambulance out of Conway, near Myrtle Beach, essentially on the other side of the state. Immediately upon hearing that the helicopter coming to get him would need to travel such a long distance, Pridmore’s wife tried to convince the hospital staff to consider another air ambulance, but, according to Pridmore, was told “we don’t do it that way.”
With the fear of death from stroke complications looming over his head, Pridmore waited well over an hour for the far-off chopper to arrive, then waited even longer for it to refuel before he could finally take off for Charleston. A Conway Medical Center spokesman pointed out that an available Med Center Air helicopter was available at the time in Concord, only a 20 minute flight away – so Pridmore is now left to wonder: why did the hospital decide to go with the air ambulance company that was located much further away, instead of the closer available air ambulance?*
(*Note: The hospital is unable to comment specifically on his case unless Pridmore signs a privacy release form and presents it, in person, with a photo ID.)
In addition, representatives from two major medical centers in Charlotte, NC (only 23 miles away, compared to Charleston’s 161 miles) told WCNC that they had specialists who were skilled, certified, and available that day to treat complications from a stroke, including installing a stint if necessary.
In any case, it took him multiple hours to make it to his destination in Charleston. With the new information he’s been given since that day, it’s now his opinion he could have gotten equivalent or better care, closer (and faster), if he had gone to Charlotte instead.
Regardless, several weeks later, Pridmore and his wife received a bill for the helicopter flight from Rock Hill to Charleston.
The total of the bill? $58,477.00.
Pridmore’s less-than-sympathetic insurance company wrote that the air ambulance flight that carried him across the state was, according to them, “not medically justified.”
Piedmont’s PR Manager released an official written statement including the following declaration:
“In instances in which a patient’s condition necessitates transfer to a facility that offers a higher-level of service, the decision regarding the method and location of transfer depends on many factors, including the severity of the patient’s symptoms, the patient’s treatment needs, the availability of needed services at other facilities, local weather conditions, and patient and family request. The patient and his or her family are consulted throughout the decision-making process.”
EMS offices in the Carolinas have protocols for air ambulances that pick up patients out in the field, at the scene of accidents, and so on. However, most air ambulance flights are from one hospital to another, and in those many cases, the choice of which air ambulance company to use is left in the hands of the individual hospital.
Pridmore’s case is not typical, but it’s not completely isolated either. There are air ambulance companies who will cap the cost of the air ambulance flight at a specific price now matter how many miles they have to fly to transport a patient. To get to a total of $58,477.00, Pridmore was charged about $250 for every “loaded mile” (across 173 miles), as well as a $15,400 “liftoff fee.”
“What am I supposed to do?” asked Pridmore. “Sell my house that I’ve worked 40 years to pay for in order to pay a $58,000 helicopter bill?”
Pridmore, thankfully, never developed a brain bleed or other complications that required a stint at MUSC. He is currently going through physical therapy and has recovered some use of the left side of his body. He has since received a written letter from a MUSC neurologist stating that his situation was an emergency necessitating the quick transport of an air ambulance, which he can now use to appeal to his insurance company.
South Carolina’s EMS Director said that “air medical transport is largely unregulated nationwide; that’s something we need to look at.”