Sky-Rage: Bills, Debt, Lawsuits Follow Helicopter Medevac Trips

The hidden cost of half-hour flight to the hospital: $50,000.
8:50 | 03/17/16

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Transcript for Sky-Rage: Bills, Debt, Lawsuits Follow Helicopter Medevac Trips
Millions of Americans are rushed to the hospital every year. 400,000 of them transported by emergency helicopter. Many times it's a life or death flight where every second counts. But the service often comes with a sky-high price tag. Tonight ABC's chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross examines the big business of air ambulances. You're talking about very critically injured patients. Traumas, strokes, heart attacks. Reporter: Emergency workers call it the golden hour. The crucial 60 minutes to get medical care for a patient facing death. Failure to get them to the care probably means they aren't going to survive. Reporter: That urgent need to beat the golden hour clock that is spawned a nationwide fleet of helicopter ambulances, saving countless lives. But our "Nightline" investigation conduct the with ABC stations across the country also found it has left many of the very people it saved facing financial turmoil with bills as high as $40,000 or $50,000 for a short flight. Would you call this price gouging? Some of it is. There's no question that some of it is. Reporter: Behind those heart-warming stories of lives saved is a hard-edged air ambulance industry free to set any price it want. Takes advantage of people at a very vulnerable moment. Reporter: Loren Larson, a helicopter pilot himself, says he was stunned at the cost of the quick flight for his daughter after she was injured in a serious offroad atv accident. $47,000 for 79 miles. After insurance and a failed negotiation, he still owes $36,000. It's definitely going to cripple us financially. Reporter: He is not alone. We found hundreds of families. I'm worried to death about it. It's very stressful worrying about it. Reporter: Being sued. I don't have the money to give them. So my wife and my son and myself don't wind up being homeless. Reporter: Hounded by debt collectors. I look, I see the number, I say, I know who it is, I don't want to talk. Reporter: Human bills their insurance won't cover. I feel I can never dig out. Reporter: Some forced into bankruptcy. One after another patients told us how they felt they had been taken for a ride in more ways than one. I wasn't asked if I wanted to go on the helicopter. I didn't think it would hurt that bad. Reporter: 91-year-old Warren Lowe and his wife Ethel were on their way to church in Virginia when an uninsured driver slammed into them. What's your emergency? Car wreck on 89. Several people hurt. Reporter: Lowe's leg was shattered and doctors at his local hospital wanted him sent to a trauma center 55 miles away. Didn't nobody tell me nothing. They just took me, put me in the helicopter, and gone. Reporter: The cost, $47,000 for a 20-minute helicopter ride. I couldn't believe it when we looked at it. $47,000? That's ridiculous. Reporter: Lowe's bill came from air methods, the biggest of the for-profit helicopter ambulance companies with more than 370 helicopters operating in 48 states. The publicly traded air methods posted profits last year of more than $100 million. Even as insurance companies complained their bills were excessive. Its CEO, Aaron Todd, earned almost $500 million last year. Aircraft hike this serves about a 150-mile radius. Reporter: But he sent someone else to answer our questions at one of their bases in rural Illinois. We serve 82 million rural Americans across the country who would not have access to trauma care within the critical hour, what's called the golden hour. Reporter: Air methods vice president Paul Webster said the company is willing to lower its bill for those who can prove financial hardship. He says the real problem that is many insurance companies and medicare and medicaid won't cover the full cost of helicopter flights. If everybody paid their fair share, you know what the charge for this service would be? $12,000. That's the reality. You're shifting the cost to people who have insurance, and when their insurance doesn't pay, you go after them in court? The other choice is -- You put them into bankruptcy? The other choice is this service and this access goes away. Reporter: No, it's not, say the people who run a nonprofit air ambulance service, set up by five hospitals in the Dallas area. Care flight. So we're going to methodist, this brown building here -- Reporter: The company with its own fleet of state-of-the-art aircraft -- This is an $8 million aircraft. Reporter: Charges substantially less and does not use debt collectors to go after its patients. How could you be absolutely committed to saving that person's life and then turn around and sue them? Because they can't pay a bill? The CEO of care flight, Jim Schwartz, says air methods has developed a reputation as an aggressive bottom-line company trying to please its Wall Street investors. No one should be surprised a for-profit company acts like a for-profit company. You raise the price as high as you can, as fast as you can. And you try to collect as much as you can and use whatever tactics you have to. Reporter: Jean Medina got a $35,000 bill from air methods after her teenage daughter, Sofia, on a family vacation, developed complications from a tonsillectomy. The surgery itself was $16,000. The helicopter was $35,000. It seems a crazy amount of money. Reporter: After insurance and a protracted back and forth, she still owes $17,000. And Medina questions whether her daughter's 37-mile medevac trip was necessary. It took almost an hour for the helicopter just to arrive and load, and she was able to drive the distance in almost the same amount of time. I left a few minutes before they took off and ended up arriving at the hospital about five minutes after they did. Reporter: Air methods said its flight crews provide medical care that a ground ambulance could not. The same thing could not have been accomplished on the ground. Because of the level of care that she receives inside the helicopter. Reporter: According to the flight logs for Medina's daughter, no extraordinary treatments were necessary. If the patient really isn't time sensitive, we can take them by ground and we're a nonprofit, therefore we're not going to try to figure out the most expensive way to do it. Reporter: The decision to call in a helicopter ambulance is made by attending doctors. But the families, like the larsons of Kentucky, are the ones on the hook for the cost. Warren Larson says he was being treated himself, given morphine, when he signed this air methods consent form for his daughter's medevac trip which in small print made him personally and fully responsible for the bill. They said, don't worry about it, it's just a standard form, just give us permission to transport your daughter. Reporter: Nowhere on the standard form does it inform the patient or guardian of the expected cost. Why don't you put the price here? I can get back with you on that. You're the vice president in charge of this. This is your standard form. Why don't you put the price here so people know what they're signing on for? Sure, it's a question that I can ask. You don't know the answer? No, I don't. Never been raised before? No, it has not. Reporter: State insurance regulators say they have been unable to rein in the prices or tactics air methods and other helicopter ambulance services because of a loophole in the federal law. Al Redner is the insurance commissioner in Maryland. When the federal government deregulated the airlines industry, these commercial helicopter companies were part of that. As if they're major air carriers? That's right. You can't regulate them because of FAA rules? That's right. They can get away with these charges, charge whatever they want? They can, they can. Reporter: Of course, many of the air methods customers praise the service provided by the company, including Kim downs whose daughter suffered life-threatening injuries in an auto accident in Illinois. But I was told they initially thought she was dead. Yeah. That it was extreme. Reporter: And recently showed up to thank the flight crew. She wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for them. They're angel in the sky. Truly. Reporter: The bill was $55,000. But her insurance covered it all. And she never had to face the air methods tactics that so many others say they have had to suffer through. They're asking for help. They're not asking for threatening their life savings or anything else. They're not asking for a lawsuit. They're asking you to help save their life. Reporter: For "Nightline," this is Brian Ross, ABC news, New York. Join the conversation on our "Nightline" Facebook page.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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