State leaders to push federal government on air ambulance regulations

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HARRISBURG, Pa. - State leaders intend to push the federal government to remove the air ambulance industry from regulatory legislation that forbids states from enacting laws on the industry.

At a news conference Monday, House insurance committee chairwoman Tina Pickett (R - Bradford County) and insurance commissioner Teresa Miller told of complaints they had received from constituents who were saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in air ambulance bills.

Pickett plans to host a hearing Tuesday morning on the issue, and in conjunction with Miller, will urge Senators Pat Toomey and Bob Casey to support a bill by Sen. Jon Tester (D - Montana) that would allow regulation of air ambulance companies at the state level.

One man, Gary Karwaski of Dallas, Luzerne County, told reporters of an instance when he was at his cabin at Promised Land State Park in Pike County when he fell from the roof, breaking his leg, hip and fracturing his spine.

"While I greatly appreciate the service that was provided, the whole affair caused me more mental anguish than the actual injury, which I suffered from the fall," he said.

He was airlifted to a hospital in Scranton, but after his recovery, he was saddled with a more than $42,000 bill, and his insurance coverage only reduced his responsibility to around $30,000. Unable to pay, his debt was sent to a collection agency, which settled the debt for $7,500, which he paid.

"When my wife and I are now driving somewhere in a car and happen to see an air ambulance in the sky we'll look at each other as if to say, 'I wonder if those poor people have any idea what awaits them,'" Karwaski said.

Miller and Pickett said they are ready to work together on the issue, but are unable to because of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, which leaves all matters of regulation of aviation industries solely with the federal government.

A federal judge overturned a law passed by North Dakota last year that attempted to regulate the air ambulance industry.

"I think a lot of us state regulators are looking at this issue, are seeing it in our states and really want to take some action to protect our consumers, and yet with the federal preemption and what North Dakota taught us is that our hands are really tied and there's not much we can do," Miller said.

State officials say complaints on this issue from all across the commonwealth have been filed. Some of those complaints included patients who said they were adamant about not utilizing an air ambulance, but were told an air ambulance was mandatory.

"As we go on and on with more of these cases, what is the protocol, what is it that says that someone really has to be transported in an air ambulance?" Pickett asked rhetorically.

A representative with Life Lion, a Dauphin County-based air ambulance service, told FOX43 Monday they had not heard of this effort until this afternoon, but contends its billing rates are among the lowest in the state.

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