The couple, who live in Ray Brook, rushed to the Adirondack Medical Center in nearby Saranac Lake. But because that hospital lacks a neonatal intensive-care unit, their midwife called for a helicopter to bring Heather to a hospital in Burlington, Vermont, on the other side of Lake Champlain.
The good news: Heather avoided a premature birth. As of Friday, she remained in the hospital waiting to bring her baby to term.
But the Campbells are still dealing with the aftermath of another shock: two days after the medical emergency, they learned that the bill for the 25-minute helicopter flight was $59,999. And Heather’s insurance carrier would cover only about $370. The service provided by the helicopter company, LifeNet, was “out of network” and therefore not covered by her health-insurance policy.
Large bills for out-of-network services aren’t uncommon and have long been a source of contention between insurance companies and their customers. But there’s an added twist, said Campbell, a graphics artist who began researching the air-ambulance industry after receiving the bill. Because they describe themselves as air carriers, the companies say they aren’t subject to price restrictions. The federal government deregulated airline rates in the late 1970s.
Campbell, an Army veteran who served in Iraq, has been driving back and forth from his home to Burlington daily. Now, with the stress of the lengthy commute, the 31-year-old worries about his wife’s health. And then there’s the $60,000 helicopter bill.
LifeNet is a subsidiary of Air Methods, a Colorado company whose representatives didn’t respond to phone calls or emails on Friday.
The company has been the subject of several critical stories in national media that have called attention to its high prices and its tendency to pursue payments through bill collectors or legal action. Its home page describes its personnel as “Defenders of Tomorrow” dedicated to “quality of care to patients & safety in aviation.” The page also lists the company’s stock price on the NASDAQ exchange.
LifeNet is a relative newcomer to the North Country, arriving in the Watertown area several years ago to fill a void that opened when the Fort Drum Army base stopped providing free emergency helicopter airlifts. There had been a program at Fort Drum known as Military Assistance to Safety and Traffic, but it was moved in 2007 to Fort Lewis in Washington State.
Air Methods has operated elsewhere in New York, sometimes drawing controversy. One patient, New Paltz lawyer Diana L. Kidd, counter-sued the company after it brought legal action to collect a $36,646 bill for flying her from Catskill to the Westchester Medical Center following a motorcycle accident. According to press reports, Kidd contended that a regular ambulance would have gotten her there in less time than the 115 minutes she said she was billed for. Kidd couldn’t be reached on Friday.
The Campbells’ bill breaks out the charges into mileage (51 miles for $23,062) and the “Helicopter Rotor Base” ($36,937). Eileen Mowrey, a spokeswoman for Adirondack Medical Center, would not comment on the Campbells’ case, but she said people in an emergency need to take whatever option is available at the time.
The region has a volunteer group of paramedics who can fly with services such as State Police helicopters, but those helicopters weren’t available on the morning Heather Campbell went into labor.
Driving from Saranac Lake to Burlington, a 71-mile road trip, takes about two hours. However, individuals familiar with rescue services said getting a helicopter in the air from its base near Watertown, then flying 112 miles to Saranac Lake, loading it, and traveling on to Burlington can take close to two hours as well.
State and health insurance officials said the Campbells have several avenues they can pursue. The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, provides an extra level of potential appeals regarding charges racked up from non-participating providers. And state Health Plan Association spokeswoman Leslie Moran noted that since last year, consumers in New York can use an independent arbitrator to appeal payment issues for out-of-network charges.
Leigh Campbell’s sister started a GoFundMe campaign to help pay for the helicopter bill. As of Friday night, it had raised more than $8,600.
Photo from the GoFundMe page for Leigh and Heather Campbell.