Travis County triples rate for patient transport by helicopter

FILE - STAR Flight helicopter (KXAN File Photo/Todd Bynum)
FILE - STAR Flight helicopter (KXAN File Photo/Todd Bynum)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — STAR Flight was authorized Tuesday by the Travis County Commissioner’s Court to change its reimbursement practices for patients transported by the service, starting Aug. 1, 2017.

While the financial burden on the patient will remain limited to co-payments and deductibles — determined by the patient’s insurance provider — the county will charge a base rate of $15,000 and $200 per mile to available funded sources like insurance companies, Medicaid and Medicare. The original base rate was $4,500 for Travis County residents, which would make the rate increase a 233 percent increase.

A transported patient who is uninsured or under-insured and can provide proof will not be required to reimburse STAR Flight. However, reimbursement will be sought if a patient receives a settlement as a result of the injury or illness that led to the transport.

Currently, the county says they do not receive reimbursements that are consistent with the rates paid to other air ambulance providers in Texas. Tuesday’s decision by the commissioner’s court allows STAR Flight to collect the usual customary and reasonable (UCR) rate from insurance services.

The new reimbursement rates are expected to offset the cost to Travis County taxpayers for providing the air ambulance services.

“It’s not likely that we will ever be able to receive a reimbursement that will cover the actual cost of services provided by STAR Flight,” said Josh Davies, County Executive of Emergency Services. “Adjusting our costs – and seeking full insurance payments – will help decrease the impact on the county General Fund.”

The service will only issue a bill if a patient is transported to a hospital. They will not charge for just a response, or fire suppression, law enforcement or search and rescue services.

“It’s very expensive to provide these critical life-saving services to the region,” said Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty. “We must also seek to recover all available reimbursements from insurance services,” said Daugherty.

Around 20 percent of the service’s patient transports are not compensated, and only a portion of the billed amount is paid by insurance. Chuck Spangler, STAR Flight’s Director of Operations said, “We realize that the cost of air ambulance services is expensive, the patient is usually not able to make a decision to be transported in a helicopter when they are ill or injured – we understand that and need to provide relief to those who are not able to pay.”

In January, KXAN reported a STAR Flight fee increase from $3,900 to $4,500 (and $9,300 for a non-county resident).

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