CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Medical helicopters can rush patients to hospitals in minutes and save lives, but a 9 Investigation uncovered situations in which that quick ride may not be necessary, and some patients end up with massive bills.
Anchor Allison Latos worked with ABC News investigating a company that operates medical choppers across the country and in the Carolinas.
Some patients said they wish they'd been given a choice.
Dennis Oliver wears a brace that helps heal broken bones in his ribs and back from a construction accident at a Costco site in Columbia, South Carolina.
In January, a trench collapsed and Oliver fell more than 15 feet.
Emergency crews didn't pull him out immediately, and he said they worked to shore up the ground first.
He was in the trench for two hours, he said.
Then a medical helicopter flew Oliver to Richland Memorial Hospital about 8 miles away.
He said no one asked him if he wanted to be transported via helicopter.
Oliver's attorney Chad Poteat said because crews waited hours to pull Oliver out, he doesn't think air transport was necessary.
"It was more implausible when you look at the distance flown which is only approximately 8 miles," Poteat said.
Channel 9 drove from Costco to the hospital going the speed limit and stopping at red lights. The drive was 13 minutes.
Oliver later was billed $32,881 for the air transport, which he said he cannot pay.
Oliver isn't the only patient with sticker shock.
Channel 9 has worked with the investigative unit at ABC News looking into the billing and collections practices of the company Air Methods.
It operates the helicopter that transported Dennis Oliver and others across the country. The company provides pilots and does maintenance on Carolinas Healthcare System's medical helicopters.
ABC's Brian Ross took patient concerns over massive bills to Air Methods' Vice President Paul Webster.
"You take people to court," Ross said to Webster. "You put debt collectors on them. You threaten to put liens on their home. How many people are you currently in court with?"
Webster said he didn't know the answer.
Air Methods loses money on seven out of 10 transports because of low reimbursements from Medicare and Medicaid, Webster said.
Patients with private insurance face bigger bills.
"So you jack up their costs to make up for the, what you're losing on the others?" Ross asked Webster.
"Well, we have to," Webster said.
"Is that fair?" Ross asked.
"You know, it, it is the way the environment is set up right now," Webster said.
Air Methods transports 100,000 patients every year.
They flew Warren Lowe from Galax, Virginia to a Winston-Salem hospital after Lowe was in a car accident with his wife Ethel Lowe and suffered a shattered leg.
Lowe said he was never asked if he wanted to be taken by air.
"Nothing, didn't tell me nothing," Lowe said. "They just put me in the helicopter and took me. And the bill was so big."
He said his bill was $47,000.
Webster said there's no question his company saves lives.
First responders at the scene of an emergency call hospitals for a helicopter and it's up to the attending physician to make the call whether to send it.
Lowe and Oliver wish they had been given a choice.
Air Methods said a patient can refuse helicopter transport if the crew is sure he or she is not impaired in making that decision.
A South Carolina lawmaker introduced legislation to require insurance companies to cover medical flights, but the bill is stuck in committee.
There's currently no such effort in North Carolina.
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