The roughly 60-mile trip by road from the beaches of South Baldwin County to University Hospital in Mobile, South Alabama’s only Level 1 trauma center, can take over an hour. But come Oct. 1, residents of Gulf Shores will be eligible for a one-year membership that will give them emergency transportation by helicopter or ambulance for just $45 or $35, depending on their age, saving precious minutes in the most serious of emergencies, flying them to University Hospital or elsewhere.
“This is really the plan for us, just Gulf Shores residents,” Mayor Robert Craft said.
This would include every member of the household listed on the address at sign-up. The coverage area would be anywhere in Baldwin County for anyone in the home. Sign-up would be $45, or $35 for residents 60 and older.
But there is one slight catch. Well, maybe two.
First, the patient must be transported in equipment from AirMedCare, owners of MedStar, which is the ambulance provider for almost all of Baldwin County. Orange Beach earlier this year spent about $1 million buying two new ambulances for emergency service there.
As far as emergency helicopters, members would have a 50-50 shot at getting an AirMedCare aircraft called out in an emergency. It owns two of the helicopters currently operating in the county and is the primary carrier used. If both are tied up then an Air Methods helicopter either from Pensacola or Semmes will be called in as backup.
The second catch is the city will have to pay AirMedCare almost $164,000 to provide the service and offer the memberships to Gulf Shores residents.
“The great thing about this program is if you do nothing at all and God forbid you need an air transport or ground transport and your pickup [point] resides in the county, you’re not going to have a balance bill for that transport,” Wes McAden of AirMedCare said.
Residents can upgrade the plan at $85 a month and be covered anywhere in the United States that Air Medical Holdings has helicopters stationed. Medics on the crew will determine the appropriate facility to transport the patient. The air transport membership is available to anyone in the country for that same $85 a year.
“The benefit to upgrading is if you’re uninsured it’s not going to matter whether you have health insurance or you don’t,” McAden said. “And it’s going to extend your coverage on the air side to everywhere we have a base across the United States. If you’re traveling and you’re in Hawaii and you’ve got to be flown, you are not going to have a balance bill for that emergency medical transport there.”
If you do have insurance, McAden said, his company will file it for you and collect the amount covered under your major medical plan or other insurance.
“Once we’ve accepted that transport and you’re a member, you will expect no balance bill for that transport,” McAden said. “We’re going to go to work on your behalf, we’re going to file your insurance for payment and get whatever we can get, even if it’s zero [dollars], we accept that as final billing and you’re done.”
Gulf Shores Deputy Fire Chief Keith Martin studied air and ground transports throughout the county and broke it down into how many transports involved Gulf Shores residents.
“Over a period of 20 months from Dec. 18, 2017 until Aug. 29, 2019, we pulled all of the numbers to see who all was being transported,” Martin said. “There were 3,410 ambulance transports and 26 helicopter flights that took place during that time. Out of the people who were listed to have 36542 [zip code] as their home address, there were 1,468 by ambulance and 11 of the helicopters.”
Martin said ground transports typically cost the patient about $400 over anything insurance may cover. On the air side, he used a base number of $27,000 as out-of-pocket costs for those transported.
“Out of the 1,468 that was about $660,000 payment that would have been spent by our residents,” Martin said. “If you take the 11 aircraft transports and use a $27,000 number based on personal experience, that’s $297,000. So, if you had had $600,000 and $300,000, that’s just shy of $1 million within that 20 months. It’s like anything else. You don’t need it until you need it.”
Martin said the ground portion of the plan will have more of an impact for Gulf Shores citizens.
“The biggest thing that I’m excited about is that we have the transport, the ground component and we know it’s used every day when we have at least three transports we can eliminate that extra payment to the residents,” Martin said. “The helicopter portion, that’s just a benefit on top of this.”
Craft said this feature for citizens is part of a continuing effort to improve healthcare in the city including partnering with South Baldwin Regional Medical Center on a free-standing emergency room. The city purchased a building previously owned by Sacred Heart Health System near Jack Edwards Airport in 2018. Once their agreement is finalized, the parties will apply to the State Health Planning and Development Agency for a Certificate of Need.
“We’ve made some significant strides for families with kids that live in Gulf Shores and opportunities that didn’t exist previously,” Craft said. “As our folks tend to grow more families and create a more family-friendly place to live this is a way to layer on that for families in the city limits that do not have kids.”
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