A Matter of Life and Debt: Ambulance bills are causing lifelong financial damage to those who can least afford it.

AuthorJohnson, Sharon

Some depleted their meager life savings. Others borrowed from friends or ran up credit card debt. Still others cut back on food and other basic necessities. All were shocked that the cause of their distress was an ambulance ride to a hospital for treatment following an accident, allergic reaction, chest pains, or another emergency situation.

Americans incur about $129 million in ambulance bills each year, according to a 2020 research article published in the journal Health Affairs. The average cost per patient was $450, although some patients incurred bills of $1,000 or more if they were transported long distances or received advanced treatments.

"An ambulance ride is often the most expensive journey of a person's life," Bobby Peterson, executive director of Advocacy and Benefits Counseling for Health (ABC for Health), a nonprofit public interest law firm in Madison, Wisconsin, tells The Progressive. "Patients are often stuck with bills if they have no health insurance or if their plans don't cover the full amount."

Public interest firms like ABC for Health are increasingly devoting attention to helping people resolve their ambulance bills, which are a significant part of the overall medical debt in the United States, estimated at $195 billion in 2019.

In the past five years, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) survey of health care debt in the United States, published in June, more than half of U.S. adults reported incurring debt from medical or dental bills, a significant problem that affects approximately 100 million Americans. Additionally, half of US. adults don't have the cash to cover an unexpected $500 medical bill.

The survey found that uninsured adults, Black and Hispanic people, parents, women, and people with lower incomes are the most affected by health care debt. Although one-third of those surveyed said they owed less than $1,000, nearly one in five said they didn't expect to pay off their debt--ever. And 20 percent said their medical debt was due to ambulance services.

Unlike appointments with physicians and hospitalizations, ambulance bills often have a surprise factor involved, because patients usually incur the costs during a time of crisis, when informed decisions are difficult to make, Peterson says.

"Someone lying on the street bleeding after an auto accident isn't in a position to find out what the ride will cost the way a patient does before deciding whether to make an appointment with a physician," he...

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