CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A federal judge has rejected a Wyoming law that sought to limit how much air ambulance companies can charge the state for transporting workers injured on the job — the second such ruling in recent months.
U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson of Cheyenne last week sided with four air ambulance companies that sued the state. Johnson ordered Wyoming officials not to try to enforce a state law that sought to cap air ambulance fees.
Under Wyoming law, health care providers, including ambulance services, are required to submit bills for treating workers injured on the job to the state's workers' compensation program.
Four air-ambulance companies sued the state last year. The companies are: EagleMed, based in Kansas; Air-Methods Corp., and Rocky Mountain Holdings, both based in Colorado; and Med-Trans Corp., based in Texas. Attempts to reach lawyers for the companies for comment were not immediately successful.
In their lawsuit, the companies noted that Wyoming had capped what it would pay for air ambulance services for injured workers at just over $3,900 per flight. The companies said the state had denied their claims for higher payment, sometimes exceeding $40,000 per flight.
Wyoming officials said this week they were still reviewing Johnson's decision and couldn't comment on what it will mean for the state's worker's compensation program.
"We don't have anything to say at this point, because mainly we haven't had any time to digest this and get together," said Mick Finn, lawyer with the Wyoming Attorney General's Office.
In a similar case, U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland of North Dakota ruled this March in favor of Valley Med Flight, another air ambulance company. The judge ruled that a law in that state that sought to regulate air ambulance companies violated a federal airline deregulation law that prohibits states from regulating prices, routes and services.
An airline deregulation law that Congress passed in 1978 specifies that states may not enact or enforce laws or regulations regarding price, routes or service of air carriers.
Nonetheless, states are inspired to try to regulate air ambulance companies by citizen complaints that they're commonly hit with bills of as much as $100,000 per flight. Even people who have health insurance coverage often find it covers only a small fraction, officials say.
Prompted by reports of citizens facing huge bills from unregulated air ambulance companies, U.S. Sens. Jon Tester, D-Montana, and Sen. John Hoeven, R-North Dakota, this year introduced a measure that would give states authority to regulate air ambulance rates and services.
Wyoming Insurance Commissioner Tom Glause said this week his office has received private citizen complaints about huge air ambulance fees. He said he's heard of some bills reaching six-figures.
"It's a huge issue, and it's not only a Wyoming issue, this is a huge national issue," Glause said, adding that the federal law pre-empts state regulation of the companies.
"There is no regulation," Glause said, adding that the states can't regulate the companies while the federal government doesn't regulate them, either.
Glause said he expects his office will receive more complaints about air ambulance fees. He said most health insurance policies have caps on what they will pay for such services that cover only a small fraction of the actual bills.
Glause said it's clear to him that Congress needs to exempt the air ambulances from the Aviation Deregulation Act. "Once that happens, then the states can take a look at it and address legislation to deal with the issue," he said.
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