Maddy Alewine/Kaiser Health News
Sean Deines and his wife, Rebekah, were road-tripping after he lost his job as a bartender when the pandemic hit. But while visiting his grandfather in a remote part of Wyoming, Sean started to feel very ill.
Rebekah insisted he go to an urgent care center in Laramie.
“Your white blood count is through the roof. You need to get to an ER right now,” Deines, 32, recalls a staffer saying. The North Carolina couple initially drove to a hospital in Casper but were quickly airlifted to the University of Colorado Hospital near Denver, where he was admitted on Nov. 28, 2020.
There, specialists confirmed his diagnosis: acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a fast-growing blood cancer.
“Literally within 12 hours, I needed to figure out what to do with the next step of my life,” said Deines.
So, after he was started on intravenous treatments, including steroids and antibiotics, to stabilize him, the couple decided it was prudent to return to North Carolina, where they could get help from his mother and mother-in-law. They selected Duke University Medical Center in Durham, which was in his insurance network.
His family called Angel MedFlight, part of Aviation West Charters of Scottsdale, Ariz., which told Rebekah Deines that it would accept whatever the couple’s insurer would pay and that they would not be held responsible for any remaining balance.
Sean Deines was flown to North Carolina on Dec. 1, 2020, and taken by ground ambulance to Duke, where he spent the next 28 days as an inpatient.
By his discharge, he felt better and things were looking up.
Then the bills came.
The patient: Sean Deines, 32, who purchased coverage through the Affordable Care Act marketplace with Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina.
Medical service: A 1,468-mile air ambulance flight from Colorado to North Carolina, along with ground transportation between the hospitals and airports.
Service provider: Aviation West Charters, doing business as Angel MedFlight, a medical transport company.
Total bill: $489,000, most of which was for the flight from Denver, with approximately $70,000 for the ground ambulance service to and from the Denver and Raleigh-Durham airports.
What gives: Insurers generally get to decide what care is “medically necessary” and therefore covered. And that is often in the eye of the beholder. In this case, the debate revolved first around whether Deines would have been stable enough to safely take a three-plus-hour commercial flight to North Carolina during a pandemic or did he require the intensive care the air ambulance provided.