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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Threat Of Legislation Changes Air Ambulance Game In Montana

A bill to address the high cost of air ambulance rides may not do anything if it passes in the state legislature. Because, as one lawmaker puts it, the proposed legislation may accomplish its goal even before it becomes law. For over a year, lawmakers in Helena have debated ways to protect Montanans from the high costs of rides in air ambulances that are out of their insurance company networks. Those life saving rides can come with a price tag running tens of thousands of dollars, pushing families into crippling debt for a medical service they often have no means of shopping for, or that many think is covered by their insurance plans.

Gordon Vance, a Republican from Belgrade, is sponsoring a bill this legislative session to prevent air ambulance and insurance companies from saddling patients with the cost of out-of-network rides.

Vance testified Tuesday morning before a House committee. No one spoke in opposition to his bill, during the hearing. That’s quite a change from last year, when air ambulance providers and insurance companies blamed each other for patients getting stuck with huge bills.

Here’s Gordon Vance:

"I think initially they resistance was really high because I think they felt that he the bill wouldn’t go anywhere. And when they could see that it was, that's when they decided, maybe they should solve the problem themselves."

The House appropriations committee passed Senate Bill 44, what Vance sometimes refers to as the 'hold harmless bill', on a 21-1 vote. The bill passed the state senate in February with unanimous support.

Vance says when the legislature started working on this issue, about six of the roughly dozen air ambulance providers in Montana were out of insurance company networks. The two sides blamed one another for not being willing to negotiate network agreements.

Now, he says only one company remains outside of insurance company networks. He declined to say which company that is.

Senate Bill 44, if passed, would require an insurance company to pay the bill, negotiate a settlement, or fight the air ambulance companies in court, instead of the current practice of ambulance companies billing patients for any amount an insurance company refuses to pay. It applies only to air ambulance services not affiliated with hospitals.

Vance says the legislation may be solving the problem, just by having the prospect of passing and becoming law.

"That’s the beauty of it. It is doing what we wanted it to do, and if we get that last provider and the last insurance company to work together, then you’re right, the bill doesn’t do anything."

John Doran is a spokesperson for Blue Cross Blue Shield Montana, the biggest health insurer in the state. He says his company still doesn’t support the bill because it tries to solve a problem that should be solved in the private market place and not through legislation.

When asked if Senate Bill 44 motivated insurers to work harder to get more air ambulances in network  Doran said Blue Cross Blue Shield has always worked to get providers in network.

"As we do with all different provider types, we are continually looking to expand our air ambulance network, so that our members do have access to that in-network provider."

Doran says he can't comment on ongoing negations with any air ambulance providers or even say if there are any negations going on.

Senate Bill 44's sponsor, Gordon Vance says the bill needs two more votes of approval, one in the House and one in the Senate before it can be sent to the governor’s desk for a signature.

Another bill, House Bill 73, which would increase the regulations of air ambulance memberships has passed the House and the Senate, and is awaiting a vote to approve amendments.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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