In late April 2015, a medical helicopter picked up an injured hiker from the Barton Creek Greenbelt in Austin, Texas. A nurse descended onto the ground from the helicopter to secure the hiker, and the two were being hoisted back up into the aircraft when the carrier began to spin. Moments later, the nurse fell to her death.
Medical helicopters are among the most lucrative aspects of health care in the U.S., aggressively expanding their networks and raising their rates. Health insurance companies typically cover the majority of large air ambulance bills, which can exceed tens of thousands of dollars. The average bill for an Air Methods transport is just over $40,700, compared to just over $17,200 in 2010.
As the industry booms, wrongful death and injury lawsuits against medical helicopters have also increased. These types of claims usually involve catastrophic injury or deaths from negligence helicopter operation or defective parts.
Air ambulances are an important mode of transport and have saved countless lives that would otherwise been lost due to inaccessibility. An estimated 400,000 are rescued by air ambulances each year, mostly from rural or rough-terrain areas. The vast majority of these patients have no say in how they are transported, and then are slammed with outrageous bills regardless of whether or not they are able to pay.
Unfortunately, the safety of medical helicopters is widely contested. Over the last few decades news outlets have been reporting on serious air ambulance crashes that claim the lives of workers and patients alike.
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In the event of a medical helicopter crash, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigates the scene. In the Texas incident,the NTSB determined that the nurse died at the scene after she fell from a spinning hoist, though it did not report how far she fell or exactly what caused the accident.
The company operating that flight, STAR Flight, typically carries three emergency workers (pilot, hoist operator, and medical professional). The medical professional would use a harness system to strap in the injured patient, then ride up into the helicopter with them.
This type of accident is not uncommon, nor is it uncommon for air ambulances to crash.
Little Regulation for a Dangerous Industry
The Association of Air Medical Services recently proposed legislation that would increase how much Medicare paid to air ambulance companies. Federal reimbursements used to be quite generous in the early aughts, then the industry boomed and insurers were less willing to pay for air ambulance services since they were happening more and more often.
There is no law that limits how much air ambulances can charge for their services, making the industry even more alluring. Now, there is an oversupply of air ambulances. There is very little regulation in the air ambulance industry, which used to be operated almost exclusively by hospitals. These companies are owned and operated mostly by for-profit corporations and publicly traded companies now, with unintended but dire consequences.
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Federal regulators and many doctors believe that the amount of skilled helicopter pilots has drained, and many companies are using older aircrafts. Lesser trained pilots are more likely to make poor decision, or decide to fly out in weather that a higher quality pilot would not fly in. There is a wide variety of self-imposed standards that is proving to be unsafe both for patients and emergency personnel.
Our team of helicopter accident lawyers is currently investigating cases of serious injury or death from negligence air ambulance companies. We provide free case reviews to potential clients nationwide.