After a week of chaos and confusion regarding the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s abrupt repeal of Governor Evers’ Safer at Home Order, there is a lot we don’t know about how recovery efforts will unfold.
But we do know that COVID-19 continues to impact Wisconsin — and at a faster rate than ever. As the result of social distancing and economic disruption, many people have lost jobs and burned through economic safety nets. The last thing anyone needs right now is an unexpected, unavoidable healthcare bill.
Large healthcare bills are always scary for a middle-class working family struggling to make ends meet. Today, that fear is multiplied by COVID-19 related medical emergencies. Addressing the issue of “surprise” medical bills is more urgent than ever.
Surprise medical bills happen when a patient unknowingly receives treatment from an out-of-network provider or is unable to choose different treatment due to circumstances beyond their control — like when they are unconscious, for instance. A patient might wake up from an accident or procedure and be surprised by a giant bill. These bills can be crushingly high.
A poll released by the Kaiser Family Foundation prior to COVID-19 found concerns about surprise medical bills outweigh all other family expenses, including paying the mortgage, buying food, or even covering the cost of pharmaceutical prescriptions. According to the poll, 65% of respondents with health insurance, and 81% without, were at least somewhat worried about covering surprise medical bills.
Among surprise healthcare costs, air medical transportation is one cost that hits rural residents the hardest. In rural communities, air flights are utilized when a patient needs to be transported quickly to a medical facility. In the case of COVID-19, the onset of breathing problems can be sudden. Quick medical attention is key to patient survival. For a Wisconsin resident living on a farm, air transport is a necessity.
In these cases, and other medical emergencies, immediate medical transportation is the difference between life and death. The so-called “golden hour” after a traumatic event is when prompt medical treatment is essential. To survive, patients need to get to a hospital fast. Air ambulatory services can transport patients quickly to increase the odds.
While medically necessary, the price of air ambulatory service is far outside the reach of most people. According to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, the fee for a life-saving trip can easily add up to $25,000. Imagine getting a bill that equates to the cost of the family vehicle for a single trip to the hospital. Surprisingly, that is exactly what can happen if health insurance does not cover the expense.
Most people would agree that it is fundamentally unfair to deprive any Americans of an affordable life-saving healthcare option simply because of where they live. However, that is what happens when rural people cannot afford to get to the hospital quickly.
Right now, Congress is working on legislation to address surprise medical bills. COVID-19 underscores the need for healthcare solutions that address the unique characteristics of rural America. To get it right, Congress must pass legislation that include protections to ensure insurance covers the full cost of air medical transportation. Those of us living in rural Wisconsin should have the same chance to survive as anyone else.