Air Ambulances Successfully Navigating Covid Skies

 - August 5, 2020, 12:15 PM

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the air ambulance industry is holding its own—for now. While the sector has had to make some adjustments due to the pandemic, it seems to be avoiding the types of economic pain that have afflicted other parts of the aviation industry. 

Metro Aviation is reporting an uptick in patient transports that includes 500 Covid-19 patients through the end of July. The company provides aircraft and flight personnel for mostly hospital-based programs.

Spokesperson Kristen King Holmes told AIN that Metro “is fortunate enough to be in a position that allowed us to maintain operations during the pandemic without reducing our fleet or laying off employees.” She said Metro reacted quickly to the pandemic, forming a Covid advisory panel, developing proper aircraft sanitation and crew PPE procedures, and hosting regular calls with customers to provide updates and share best practices.

“It gives our customers across the country a chance to share their experiences and find out how others are responding to the pandemic," Holmes said. "We also have a customer forum that was in place before Covid-19 that has seen continuous activity from our customers." Metro created a landing page on its website to provide news and updates related to the virus. The company is continuing to respond to RFPs from potential new customers. While Metro did have to cancel its leadership education, advancement, and development (LEAD) seminar, an annual retreat for operations customers, and other seminars and meetings for communications specialists, pilots, and technicians, Holmes said the company “quickly pivoted to provide other channels of communication.” 

Air Methods has seen its flight hours decrease 9 percent year over year but has not had any Covid-19-related layoffs, base closures, or fleet reductions. While the company has transported an estimated 2,000 Covid patients, it has not specially modified any of its aircraft to deal with the pandemic. However, company spokesman Doug Flanders said that Air Methods follows Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines related to crew PPE and aircraft decontamination and will transport a Covid-positive or suspected positive patient only if “it is safe for our crews to do so.” Additionally, transport data is collected on every transport to ensure the effectiveness of policies and procedures, and adjustments are made if the data and the company’s safety management system (SMS) process warrant it. 

Thanks to agreements with some of the nation’s largest health insurers, Flanders said, over 50 percent of Air Methods’ transports are now in-network. “Our goal is to be in-network with 100 percent,” he said. However, insurers Aetna, Cigna, and United Health have yet to sign agreements. Flanders said that Air Methods, “in an effort to remove the patient from the process, is proactively signing agreements directly with employers” that use these insurance carriers to “ensure that their employees have coverage for emergency air medical services.” 

Industrywide, the Association of Air Medical Services (AAMS) reports that its members have conducted over 10,000 Covid patient transports through July. So far, it has no reports from members of widespread pandemic-generated layoffs, base closures, or hospital to community-based business model shifts, but Chris Eastlee, the association’s v-p for government affairs, points out that the cost of transports, along with other medical services, has increased due to the implementation of Covid-related protocols and precautions. And that, coupled with Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements that are below costs, could spell trouble for the industry down the road.

He said federal relief received by the industry from the CARES Act is not sufficient to cover the reimbursement gap. Eastlee said that Medicaid reimbursements were particularly egregious in some states, amounting to as little as $200 per transport. He also noted that while some of the association’s members have had success negotiating in-network agreements with insurers, patients are “in a terrible position” when such agreements are absent. Eastlee said AAMS and its industry partners are lobbying Congress to prioritize emergency medical services in any future Covid aid packages.