Sen. Gordon Vance, R-Belgrade

HELENA -Insurance company-sponsored amendments for a bill designed to shield Montanans from exorbitant air-ambulance bills would harm the bill and should be rejected, the bill’s sponsor said Friday.

Republican Senator Gordon Vance told MTN News he believes a Senate committee considering the bill will defeat the proposed amendments, which were authored primarily by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana.

“I believe that the bill will come out of committee in pretty much the original form and then it will go to the floor of the Senate, and we’ll see what happens,” he said. “I just hope we’re successful and we can do what’s right for the people of Montana on this issue.”

The Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee likely will vote on the bill next week.

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Vance said the proposed amendments, which could require hospitals to pay portions of air-ambulance bills, undermine the bill and perhaps make it conflict with federal law.

Senate Bill 44, if passed, would require health insurers to cover the entire cost of air-ambulance flights – regardless of whether the air-ambulance company is in the insurer’s provider network.

At the bill’s first hearing Jan. 10, a half-dozen Montanans testified that they faced out-of-pocket bills as high as $60,000, because their loved ones had been transported by air ambulances not in their insurer’s network.

SB44 also says once the out-of-network bill is paid, insurers and the air-ambulance company can go to mediation or court to settle differences over the payment.

Health insurers and employee health plans, including Blue Cross, opposed the measure, saying it allows certain air-ambulance firms to continue to get away with charging excessive amounts.

Blue Cross officials have said most of the complaints concern two companies – Reach and Life Flight – that are transporting people primarily in southwest and western Montana. The companies are not in health insurers’ networks and won’t negotiate prices, insurance officials said.

Blue Cross Montana spokesman John Doran confirmed that the insurer authored the amendments.

The amendments say if an in-network provider is “reasonably available” and a hospital arranges a flight with a non-network company, the hospital must by any uncovered fees from the non-network firm.

They also say “fair market price” of a flight cannot exceed 350 percent of the applicable Medicare rate for a flight.

Vance said federal law prohibits states from regulating air travel or prices, and the amendments likely would convert the bill to a regulation on air travel.

“The proposed amendments would make (the bill) preemptive (of federal law), and we don’t want to get in trouble with the federal government,” he said.

Doran said Blue Cross is searching for a solution that will protect people from getting hit with huge “balance bill” charges, but at the same time not “reward” air-ambulance firms that are over-charging.

Some “market solutions” are in the works, he said, such as expanding in-network providers in southwestern Montana or setting up a voluntary dispatch center that hospitals can call to search for in-network providers when a flight is needed.