InvestigatorsMatter for Mallory


Maryland couple disputes $175,000 air ambulance bill after emergency on overseas vacation

Air ambulance charge
Posted at 6:00 AM, Apr 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-19 08:23:20-04

BALTIMORE — For nearly 20 years, a Sykesville couple traveled to Jamaica for vacation without incident, but on their last trip in May 2021, they experienced a medical emergency.

Instead of enjoying the beach, Teri Gibson and Bruce Williams saw the inside of hospitals for 44 days costing them a lot of money and almost a year of back and forth negotiations over medical bills.

When Williams and Gibson landed in Jamaica on May 4, Williams had difficulty breathing.

“Bruce was very sluggish. He was always walking behind me,” Gibson said.

As soon as they arrived at the resort, they sought out medical treatment.

“His breathing was worse, he was very delirious at that point,” added Gibson.

The hospital requested she pay $800 in cash for a chest X-ray.

“They did that and determined he had bilateral pneumonia and he needed to be ventilated,” said Gibson. “I was told by the hospital that they’ve done everything they could for him and his condition continued to deteriorate so he would need to be medevaced to the United States as soon as possible.”

Gibson had to put together the transport, their family in the states helped find a company, and the U.S. Embassy in Jamaica provided a range of what she should expect to pay, which was between $15,000 and $20,000.

“We had to pay upfront because at that time I still didn’t get a pre-authorization from the insurance company, so that bill was $17,754,” said Gibson.

The quote included air transportation as well as ground transportation to and from the hospitals.

Williams and Gibson landed in Fort Lauderdale six days after arriving in Jamaica. Williams started receiving the care he needed, and Gibson filed a claim with the insurance company seeking reimbursement. But on her account, she noticed another claim for $175,320.

“On the date of transport, as is often the case in medicine, they signed a lot of other documents including documents saying the air ambulance provider could submit a claim to their carrier,” said Kim Cammarata, director of the Maryland Office of the Attorney General Health Education Advocacy Unit (HEAU).

Gibson turned to the HEAU for help with the medical billing issue and the agency discovered that during transport, while Gibson's husband clung to life and she focused on keeping her composure, she signed the agreement.

“I have no recollection of doing this,” said Gibson. “It was a very difficult situation to be in so I think if anyone was in that situation you would sign away.”

“At this point, she was pretty much led to believe I was not going to live,” added Williams.

Gibson’s insurance carrier said she'd have to seek reimbursement from the transport company. And the transport company wasn't paying until they received a check from the insurer.

“And I was in shock. I’m thinking CareFirst is really not going to pay that money are they? And then I watched it every day, multiple times a day and finally boom, it was processed,” said Gibson.

CareFirst processed the claim on March 14 and Gibson received a check from the air ambulance company on March 18 for the full balance due of $17,754.

This medical billing saga stretched 10 months. Looking back, they wish they had purchased travelers insurance.

“For instance, one of doctors said he goes to Honduras or someplace remote and he always gets travelers insurance. He said he got a really bad cut on his hand and within 15 minutes there was a helicopter there and it was all paid through his travelers insurance, so lesson learned,” said Williams.

Not all travelers insurance includes emergency medical transport coverage, so you'll want to check the policy and coverage amount.

Travel experts recommend at least $100,000 in coverage for overseas trips. And the cost of the plan will vary based on the traveler's age, cost of trip, the duration and location.

And while Gibson’s insurance provider processed her claim, health plans can vary as well as the insurer’s discretion on whether the transport was medically necessary.

Squaremouth, a travel insurance comparison site, has more information on the differences in emergency medical coverage and recommendations on policy coverage amounts.

If you need assistance with a medical billing dispute, contact the Health Education and Advocacy Unit by clicking here.

And as of January 1, 2022, there are new federal protections for patients facing sky-high air ambulance charges as well as other medical bills.

Click here to learn more about the No Surprises Act and how it applies to patients.

And take the No Surprises Act quiz by the Kaiser Family Foundation to better understand the new federal protections.