UMMC is partnering with medical aviation company Med-Trans to operate its AirCare helicopters.

JACKSON • University of Mississippi Medical Center is partnering with a private, for-profit medical transport partner to operate AirCare service.

Med-Trans, which operates in 26 states, will provide helicopters, equipment and pilots for the AirCare bases in Jackson, Meridian, Columbus and Greenwood. The partnership allows AirCare to provide advanced emergency medical care and continue to build on its education and research mission, said Dr. Damon Darsey, medical director of UMMC’s Mississippi Center for Emergency Services.

“Med-Trans is an aviation partner that can help us match our aviation innovation and service to the clinical advances we have experienced,” said Darsey, an associate professor of emergency medicine and pediatrics in a press release. “It’s more than transporting a patient or flying life-saving care to wherever it’s needed. It’s improving the system of care to make sure that the right patient gets to the right place.”

Med-Trans, which is part of Global Medical Response, already has three bases located in McComb, Hattiesburg and Gulfport.

“We are privileged to be able to provide the medically configured aircraft and the highly trained pilots and aircraft maintenance technicians who will work alongside the outstanding medical professionals at the University of Mississippi Medical Center,” said Brian Foster, Med-Trans vice president for operations via a UMMC press release.

The state’s only academic medical center cares for some of the sickest and most critically injured patients in Mississippi. UMMC houses the only Level I trauma Center and Level IV neonatal intensive care unit, the highest level for both.

AirCare is the only provider in the state equipped to transport premature and ill newborns. It stocks special medications to help with major bleeding along with whole blood and liquid plasma. It has special equipment including an ultrasound.

“Together, we will leverage each other’s experience and resources to continue to develop an amazing program. You will still see the same type aircraft, the same clinicians, and we will continue to develop our protocols to make them among the most advanced in the industry,” said Stephen Houck, director of the UMMC’s Mississippi Center for Emergency Services, in a press release.

Paying the bills

The rapid, expert care provided by air ambulances can save lives when time is critical. However, like emergency departments and intensive care units, they are very expensive to operate.

Under the new partnership, Med-Trans will handle the billing for air ambulance services, said Marc Rolph, executive director of the UMMC office of communications and marketing. Other academic medical centers around the country are partnering with private companies to run medical helicopter transport in similar ways.

“The current health care landscape necessitated a change to an industry expert in running a medical helicopter transport program,” Rolph said. “We will be able to better focus on the needs of the patients.”

In Northeast Mississippi, both North Mississippi Health Services and Baptist Memorial Hospitals contract with national aviation companies to provide air ambulance service.

Previously, AirCare rates had been significantly less than for-profit medical helicopter companies, and patients came under UMMC financial assistance policies, according documents on UMMC website. Med-Trans did not respond directly to the Daily Journal request about how rates and networks might be affected by the new partnership, but emphasized they were willing to work with patients and their families.

“At Med-Trans, we understand that an air medical transport may be expensive for some and we do not wish financial hardship on anyone after having to have an air medical transport by our company,” according to a written response. “We take a compassionate approach to working with our patients.”

Air ambulances have been at the center of the national debate on surprise medical bills and balance billing practices. Balance billing is a practice where the patient is charged over and above what their health insurance deems reasonable and customary. The extra payments above copayments and deductibles don’t count toward out-of-pocket maximums.

In 2018, Jackson-based Mississippi Health Advocacy Program received a number of complaints from consumers who were asked to pay tens of thousands of dollars for air ambulance service after their insurance carriers had made payments. The same year, the Clarion-Ledger wrote about a stroke patient who was initially charged $37,000 after insurance to be airlifted by Med-Trans from Hattiesburg to Jackson. Med-Trans reduced the bill to just under $17,000.

However, the balancing bill problems with air ambulance carriers seem to have declined over the past two years.

“We really haven’t seen any air ambulance cases for quite some time,” said Roy Mitchell, MHAP executive director.

In the debate, air ambulance companies have said they have no choice but to bill patients because of inadequate reimbursements.

“When they are left with a balance bill which usually occurs when their insurance provider refuses to pay the full cost of the transport,” according to the Med-Trans statement. “Should anyone receive a balance bill, we will compassionately work with anyone willing to resolve the remaining balance, regardless of their financial means.”

Med-Trans offers a comprehensive membership program through the AirMedCare Network that families can buy to cover their portion of air ambulance transportation.

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