NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


May 4, 2005

Air ambulances were once a rarity. Not today. Across the country, competing helicopter services are locked in air wars over patient-rich areas as medical airlifting grows more profitable and common, says the New York Times.

As with other health care services that have become routine -- sophisticated diagnostic tests like CAT scans, for example -- the public price tag is soaring and helicopters are being used when ambulances might do.

  • The price of an airlift ranges from $5,000 to $10,000, 5 to 10 times that of a ground ambulance.
  • An estimated 700 medical helicopters operate nationally, about twice the number flying a decade ago; and with more of them scrambling for business, specialists say that emergency personnel are feeling more pressure to use them.
  • Last year, the number of flights paid for by Medicare alone was 58 percent higher than in 2001.
  • Spending by Medicare, which increased its rate of reimbursement for airlifts in 2002 and set a higher rate for patient pickups in rural areas, has more than doubled, to $103 million, over the same period.

In some cases, helicopters can transport seriously ill or injured patients to a hospital more quickly than by ground. But the industry's rapid expansion has taken place amid scant oversight of both flight safety and medical quality. The medical capabilities of competing helicopter concerns can vary sharply.

Meanwhile, deaths in crashes have reached alarming levels, say observers, and questions remain about the effectiveness of air ambulances.

In the past, medical helicopters were largely operated by hospitals. But increasingly, aviation companies run them like independent air taxis that respond to emergency calls or ferry patients between hospitals, says the Times.

Source: Barry Meier, "As Medical Airlifts Proliferate, the Public Price Tag Is Rising," New York Times, May 3, 2005.

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