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Alaska weakens air ambulance membership plan regulations

JUNEAU — Alaska health insurance officials have announced the state’s plan to weaken air ambulance membership plan regulations, officials said.

The Alaska Division of Insurance will no longer review and pre-approve consumer membership plans, CoastAlaska reported Thursday.

Health insurance does not cover the full cost of a flight, so there are three air ambulance companies that offer membership agreements, department officials said.

Households pay a flat rate fee between $49 and $125, depending on the carrier, to ensure they are not paying out of pocket, officials said.

“I think it’s important for people to understand the cost of being transported,” said Shelly Deering, the Juneau-based regional manager for Airlift Northwest, a nonprofit air ambulance service that flies in Southeast Alaska. “And that high cost can be over $100,000, depending where you’re coming from and where you’re going to.”

Any changes to membership plans could take months to approve under former rules, but the new rule could speed up the process, air ambulance providers said.

The complaint-driven process means patients have to follow up on their own, residents said.

"A consumer has gone through enough trauma to have to be in an air ambulance in the first place," said Dena Mendelsohn, senior policy counsel for Consumer Reports in San Francisco. "And now they're going to have to follow up and, and reach out to the regulator to get the protections that they should have already had from the beginning? That doesn't make sense."

The new regulatory order was signed by the state Division of Insurance Director Lori Wing-Heier and states that it "does not limit or in any way prevent the division from enforcing the insurance laws and regulations."

It is unclear how many people would be affected by the change, but records at Bartlett Regional Hospital show at least 1,000 people were flown over the past three years, officials said.

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