Do you have $130,000 for an air ambulance ride?

An Airlift Northwest Learjet at the company’s hangar in Juneau on Friday. (Photo by Quinton Chandler/KTOO)

On Feb. 5, Lance McVay was soaring at 39,000 feet on a million dollar private jet with multiple bone fractures.

He spent the night before pinned in his car after he crashed into the woods of Douglas Island.

“I don’t remember doing anything past crossing the bridge. They think it’s related to sleep apnea and narcolepsy,” he said.

The next morning, emergency responders cut McVay free and took him to Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau.

“I broke my hip with my femur. (I) broke two vertebrae, my rib, my eye socket and my wrist,” McVay said.

He said the doctors scanned him and within an hour, they decided he needed to be treated in Seattle. The flight cost $135,000.

If you’re in a car accident, have a heart attack or your baby is born prematurely, you may need to get a medical flight to another city. But a medevac out of Southeast Alaska can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

If you’re put in that position, how are you supposed to pay for it?

Bartlett is a Level IV trauma center. That means if a patient with injuries like McVay’s is brought into the emergency department, they can evaluate them, diagnose them, stabilize them and get them ready to travel to another hospital.

Bartlett had 337 people flown out of Juneau last year.

LifeMed Alaska CFO Jared Sherman, left, and LifeMed CEO Scott Kirby stand in front of a Learjet housed in Juneau on Friday, Aug. 11, 2017.
LifeMed Alaska CFO Jared Sherman, left, and LifeMed CEO Scott Kirby stand in front of a Learjet housed in Juneau on Friday. (Photo by Quinton Chandler/KTOO)

Jared Sherman is the chief financial officer for LifeMed Alaska — the newest of three medevac operations in Juneau. They just opened shop in May.

“When the aircraft takes off with a patient on board there’s a set fee and it’s called the liftoff fee,” Sherman explained. “The other fee is a variable fee … and it’s a set dollar amount per mile that the aircraft flies with the patient.”

You add those numbers up to get the total price.  The good news is nobody pays that, Sherman said.

First, if you have private insurance, he said to talk to your insurance company. They’ll send you a letter asking if you have other insurance benefits, like Medicare, that can share the flight cost.

“So make sure you don’t ignore that piece of paper,” Sherman warned. “Complete it, call your insurance carrier, let them know you were transported, you needed to be transported and that Seattle or Anchorage was the closest appropriate facility.”

The three companies that fly patients out of  Southeast Alaska are LifeMed, Airlift Northwest and Guardian Flight. They offer household memberships they say will cut out of pocket costs.

LifeMed’s membership costs $49 per year. Airlift Northwest is $99 per year and Guardian Flight is $125 per year.

“With the membership program, we have now taken all of those membership dollars and used that in lieu of your copay,” Sherman explained. “So you’re actually buying a gap coverage in the event that you’re medevaced. So in that case, you don’t ever see a bill.”

Shelly Deering, the Alaska Regional Manager for Airlift Northwest, said her company’s membership program mostly benefits the patients.

“The membership program is to provide a peace of mind for people and that’s why it’s provided. It is not a big source of revenue or income for us,” Deering said. “The majority of our revenue comes from the transport of patients and billing the insurance companies.”

Shelly Deering the Alaska Regional Manager for Airlift Northwest stands in front of the newest Airlift Northwest plane, a pilatus.
Shelly Deering the Alaska Regional Manager for Airlift Northwest stands in front of the newest Airlift Northwest plane, a pilatus, on Friday. (Photo by Quinton Chandler/KTOO)

Deering said if you have Medicaid, you don’t need a membership. Medicaid will take care of the bill.

The catch with the memberships is that they only work for the company you buy them from. So, you have to make sure doctors know who you want to call if you need a medevac.

“Probably the best thing is family members,” Deering suggested. “If a family member comes in, make sure they mention that as soon as they arrive. … You can have it in your wallet, with your ID, because invariably, if you’re unconscious, they’re going to be looking for that ID. So a sticker on the back might be beneficial.”

Deering and Sherman said the companies have been talking about coordinating their services so each membership can work with all three carriers, but Deering said it’s complicated and right now, they don’t offer that.

If you don’t have insurance, Sherman and Deering said to call because they have a charity program and they will work with you to get your bill resolved. They said just like an emergency room, they won’t turn anyone away because they don’t have insurance.

Lance McVay flew with Airlift Northwest and he didn’t have a membership, but he and his wife are covered by two insurance policies through the state. His $135,000 flight was part of a $300,000 medical bill. His insurance providers decided he should pay $10,000 out of pocket.

Deering advises everyone to make sure their insurance covers medevacs. She estimates Airlift Northwest flies at least one patient out of Southeast every day.

Jacob Resneck contributed to this story. 

Editor’s Note: Lance McVay is a volunteer DJ for KTOO.

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