Family Challenges Private Ambulance Billing Practices

NBC 5 Responds helps family Save $2500 on ambulance bill

How else would a six mile ride in suburban Chicago cost more than a round trip plane ticket to Paris?

Liz Cunningham of Glenview is speaking out after a private ambulance transport for her son between two northwest suburban hospitals came with a $5800 price tag.

“I think that somebody needs to hold these ambulance companies responsible,” Cunningham said. “They’re taking advantage of people.”

It all started when Cunningham’s fifteen-year-old son, Kevin, injured himself on a school basketball court. She said he took a nasty fall that knocked him out cold.

“He actually came down almost vertically from what the guys described and hit his head,” Cunningham said.

The Wilmette Fire Department stabilized Kevin and transported him to Skokie North Shore Hospital. There, Cunningham said doctors told her the scary news: her son had a skull fracture.

“You hear kids break their arms. You hear kids break their legs. But you don’t hear kids break their heads,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham said she was told Kevin needed pediatric trauma care. She said Kevin was already on a backboard and had an IV started.

A Superior Ambulance transported Kevin six miles to Lutheran General Hospital. Cunningham and her husband followed close behind.

“The ambulance never went above the stated speed limit, did not turn the lights on,” Cunningham said.

After arriving at Lutheran General, Cunningham said Kevin’s brain swelling eased over the next several hours. His blood began to absorb back within the brain. And he did not require surgery.

“He literally just needed his body to heal,” Cunningham said.

Weeks later, Cunningham received the ambulance bill. Superior billed her insurance provider $5800. After her insurer paid its portion, Cunningham was left to pay around $2500.

“I thought, ‘oh, no, they must have done something wrong,’” Cunningham recalled.

She said she called Superior and was told the bill was correct.

Cunningham said the $2500 ambulance bill cost more than her out-of-pocket costs for Kevin’s two hospital visits.

The Illinois State Ambulance Association previously told NBC 5 Investigates a lot factors in to private transport rates, including the advanced equipment on board ambulances and interaction with doctors.

Superior Ambulance told NBC 5 Responds it could not discuss Cunningham’s bill without her permission due to privacy laws.

But several days after NBC 5 Responds contacted Superior, Cunningham said the ambulance service dropped the charges not paid by insurance. Thus, she no longer would owe $2500.

“I think it is fair and the right thing to do, based on the payment that has already been made by the insurance company,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham said she never knew that insurance companies did not contract with ambulance providers.

“I have a much better understanding of this and if this would ever come up again I think I would be a little bit more vocal,” Cunningham said.

There’s even more good news. Kevin made a full recovery and is shooting high school hoops once again.

The Better Business Bureau urges consumers who are faced with high ambulance bills to try negotiating with the ambulance service. The BBB said you could possibly get a discount up to 20% or more.

Jim Poynton of Healthpoynt said medical billing advocates may be able to negotiate down bills for consumers. He said advocates typically work on a cost savings percentage that varies from 20 to 35%. For example, Poynton said if a bill is $5,500, an advocate can negotiate it down to $3,500 for a savings of $2,000. The consumer would pay the remaining $3,500 plus the percentage owed the advocate.

Keep in mind, most fire departments charge for ambulance trips. An earlier NBC 5 Investigates and Better Government Association analysis found Chicago area municipal ambulance rates range between $365 and $2,500.

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