Air ambulance industry weighs into medical bill debate with TV ads

By Jessica Piper, Center for Responsive Politics

The air ambulance industry is the latest player to weigh into the national healthcare debate with hundreds of thousands of dollars of TV and radio ads.

The ad campaign caps off a summer marked by battles on the airwaves, as health care emerges as a major issue in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary and providers and insurance companies lobby Congress over who will pay for rising healthcare costs.

The most recent ad campaign is from Global Medical Response, an air medical transportation provider. The company is spending more than $800,000 on TV and radio ads targeting a handful of senators over the next few weeks, according to an analysis of Federal Communications Commission filings available in the OpenSecrets political ad database.

The medical transport industry is one of the groups that would be impacted by legislation introduced by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) earlier this summer aiming to stop surprise medical billing.When health insurance companies do not have a contract with a given medical provider, patients who use that provider are sometimes hit with pricey medical bills. Murray and Alexander’s proposal would require insurance companies to pay out-of-network providers the median in-network rate for medical services. That means consumers would not be hit with high costs, and out-of-network providers would receive less compensation.

The change would have a sharp impact for the air medical industry, which was caught off guard by the bill’s rollout in June. A report from the Government Accountability Office earlier this year found that 69 percent of air ambulance transports were out-of-network. Air medical services rely on high out-of-network charges to subsidize lower payments they receive from Medicare and Medicaid.

Industry leaders say that, as currently drafted, the surprise medical billing legislation would make it difficult to cover their costs. It also would accelerate the closure of air ambulance bases, potentially cutting parts of rural America off from healthcare services. They argue that insurance companies need to cover a greater share of emergency bills.

The loss of rural healthcare access is the theme of the Global Medical Response ad campaign, which targets half a dozen states, including Tennessee.

“Air medical services are at risk and could disappear from rural communities, creating dangerously long drive times for critical patients,” one ad says. “Tell Congress to put patients first and protect access to air medical services.”

The ads display each senator’s phone number and ask viewers to call their offices.

In addition to Alexander, who is retiring at the end of his term rather than seeking reelection next year, the targeted senators include Sens. David Perdue (R-Ga.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). Perdue and Cassidy are both up for reelection in 2020, while Murkowski is a member of the Senate Health Committee, which is taking up Alexander and Murray’s bill.

The ad campaign is one of several put forth by the healthcare industry this summer.

Two groups that have also been running ads on the surprise billing legislation are Physicians for Fair Coverage, a coalition of medical providers, and Doctor Patient Unity, a newly created 501(c)(4) “dark money” group. Doctor Patient Unity has spent more than $13 million on TV ads so far, targeting senators who face reelection.

Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, a 501(c)(4) backed by insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and hospital groups, has run ads opposing Medicare for All and the public option, citing decreased payments to hospitals as a threat to patient care.

Those ad campaigns are on top of the nearly $39 million that health insurance and health service companies spent on lobbying during the first half of 2019.

In July, Global Medical Response hired a D.C. healthcare lobbying firm, McDermott+Consulting, to lobby on “Medicare rate adjustments and insurance reforms,” according to disclosure forms. The company paid $10,000. One of its affiliates, American Medical Response, also hired lobbyists, including Jeffrey Miller of Miller Strategies, LLC. Miller has been one of the top fundraisers for President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.

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