Sean Deines and his spouse, Rebekah, have been road-tripping after he misplaced his job as a bartender when the pandemic hit. However whereas visiting his grandfather in a distant half of Wyoming, Sean began to really feel very in poor health.

Rebekah insisted he go to an pressing care heart in Laramie.

“‘Your white blood depend is thru the roof. It’s essential get to an ER proper now,’” Deines, 32, remembers a staffer saying. The North Carolina couple initially drove to a hospital in Casper however have been shortly airlifted to the College of Colorado Hospital close to Denver, the place he was admitted on Nov. 28, 2020.

There, specialists confirmed his analysis: acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a fast-growing blood most cancers.

“Actually inside 12 hours, I wanted to determine what to do with the subsequent step of my life,” stated Deines.

So, after he was began on intravenous therapies, together with steroids and antibiotics, in Colorado to stabilize him, the couple determined it was prudent to return to North Carolina, the place they might get assist from his mom and mother-in-law. They chose Duke College Medical Middle in Durham, which was in his insurance coverage community.

His household known as Angel MedFlight, half of Aviation West Charters of Scottsdale, Arizona, which advised Rebekah Deines that it will settle for no matter the couple’s insurer would pay and that they’d not be held chargeable for any remaining steadiness.

Sean Deines was flown to North Carolina on Dec. 1, 2020, and brought by floor ambulance to Duke, the place he spent the subsequent 28 days as an inpatient.

By his discharge, he felt higher and issues have been wanting up.

Then the payments got here.

The Affected person: Sean Deines, 32, who bought protection by way of the Inexpensive Care Act market with Blue Cross Blue Protect of North Carolina.

Medical Service: A 1,468-mile air ambulance flight from Colorado to North Carolina, together with floor transportation between the hospitals and airports.

Service Supplier: Aviation West Charters, doing enterprise as Angel MedFlight, a medical transport firm.

Whole Invoice: $489,000, most of which was for the flight from Denver, with roughly $70,000 for the floor ambulance service to and from the Denver and Raleigh-Durham airports.

What Offers: Insurers typically get to resolve what care is “medically essential” and due to this fact coated. And that’s typically in the eye of the beholder. On this case, the debate revolved first round whether or not Deines was secure sufficient to securely take a three-plus-hour industrial flight to North Carolina throughout a pandemic or required the intensive care the air ambulance supplied. Second, there was the query of whether or not Deines ought to have stayed in Denver for his 28-day therapy to get him into remission. Insurers have a tendency to not think about affected person stress or household comfort of their choices.

Additionally, each air and floor ambulance companies have been heart stage in the nationwide combat over big shock payments, since the for-profit firms that run them continuously don’t take part in insurance coverage networks.

Angel MedFlight, which was not in Deines’ insurance coverage community, sought prior authorization from Blue Cross Blue Protect of North Carolina. The request was dated Nov. 30, however the insurer stated the fax arrived in the predawn hours the identical day as the flight, Dec. 1, 2020.

On that day, Angel MedFlight flew Deines to North Carolina in an airplane, together with a nurse to supervise his IV medicines and oxygen ranges.

Angel MedFlight spokesperson Kimberly Halloran didn’t reply a particular written query from KHN about why the flight went forward with out prior approval; typically medical interventions are postponed till it has been obtained. However in an emailed assertion, she stated the firm “happy every step in the medical insurance course of and transported Sean to his long-term well being care suppliers in good religion.”

Based on the evaluation of the case accomplished months later by an unbiased evaluator, Blue Cross on Dec. 3 denied protection for the air ambulance companies as a result of medical data didn’t help that it was an emergency and Deines was already in an applicable medical facility.

At the finish of December, an enchantment was filed in opposition to that call on behalf of Deines by Angel MedFlight.

Then, in March 2021, Blue Cross despatched Deines a test for $72,000 to cowl half of the $489,000 invoice, which he forwarded to the air ambulance firm. The rationalization of advantages confirmed the majority of the fees have been dominated “not medically essential.”

Sean and Rebekah Deines look over medical payments at residence in Hendersonville, North Carolina.(Maddy Alewine for KHN)

Angel MedFlight, by way of a income administration agency it hires known as MedHealth Companions, continued to enchantment to Blue Cross to overturn the denial of the flight portion of the invoice.

Then, three months after Blue Cross despatched the test that Deines then despatched on to Angel MedFlight, the insurer demanded Deines pay again the $72,000.

“The preliminary thought was ‘I can’t consider that is occurring,’” stated Deines.

Medical necessity standards are set by insurers, with North Carolina Blue Cross protecting air ambulances in “distinctive circumstances,” similar to when wanted therapy isn’t out there regionally.

When Deines, who was nonetheless unemployed and present process therapy, couldn’t pay, the debt was despatched to collections.

In late June, Deines’ representatives at Angel MedFlight took the subsequent step allowed underneath the Inexpensive Care Act, interesting the insurer’s inside dedication that the flight wasn’t medically essential to an unbiased third celebration by way of the state.

On July 29, the evaluator dominated in favor of Blue Cross.

Usually, such a flight could be applicable as a result of the affected person was “medically unfit to journey by way of industrial airflight,” the evaluation famous. However, it went on to say, there was truly no must journey, as the College of Colorado Hospital — a member of the Nationwide Complete Most cancers Community — might have managed Deines’ therapy.

His well being plan “clearly stipulates their indications for medical flight protection and, sadly, this case doesn’t meet that standards,” the evaluation concluded.

Decision: The invoice disappeared solely after the press obtained concerned. Shortly after a KHN reporter contacted the communications representatives for each the insurer and Angel MedFlight, Deines heard from each of them.

The $72,000 cost was made in error, stated Blue Cross spokesperson Jami Sowers.

“We apologize for placing the member in the center of this sophisticated scenario,” she stated in an e mail that additionally famous “the air ambulance firm billed greater than $70,000 only for floor transportation to and from the airport — greater than 30 occasions the common value of medical floor transport.”

Such a scenario would “sometimes” be flagged by inside programs however for some purpose was not, Sowers stated.

“I’ve by no means heard of a floor transport that prices that a lot. That’s surprising,” stated Erin Fuse Brown, director of the Middle for Legislation, Well being & Society at Georgia State College Faculty of Legislation, who research affected person billing and air ambulance prices.

Nonetheless, there’s excellent news for Deines: Each the insurer and the air ambulance firm advised KHN he won’t be held chargeable for any of the fees. (None of the fees stemmed from his first air ambulance flight from Casper to Denver, which was coated by the insurer.)

Sean and Rebekah Deines pet their canine, Maddi, at residence in Hendersonville, North Carolina.(Maddy Alewine for KHN)

“As soon as North Carolina Blue engages in our formal inquiries about its refund request, the standing of the funds shall be resolved,” the ambulance spokesperson wrote in her e mail. “One factor is definite, Sean won’t should pay for North Carolina’s wavering protection choice.”

In an e mail, Sowers stated Blue Cross had “ceased all recoupment efforts” associated to Sean’s case.

The Takeaway: If the flight had occurred this yr, the couple might need obtained extra value info earlier than they took the flight.

A legislation known as the No Surprises Act took impact Jan. 1. Its major thrust is to guard insured sufferers from “steadiness payments” for the distinction between what their insurance coverage pays and what an out-of-network supplier fees in emergencies.

It additionally covers nonemergency conditions by which an insured affected person is handled in an in-network facility by an out-of-network supplier. In these circumstances, the affected person would pay solely what they’d owe had the service been absolutely in-network.

One other half of the legislation, known as religion estimate, might need supplied Deines with extra transparency into the prices.

That portion says medical suppliers, together with air ambulances, should give upfront value estimates in nonemergency conditions to sufferers. Had the legislation been in impact, Deines might need realized earlier than the flight that it could possibly be billed at $489,000.

Insured sufferers in related conditions as we speak ought to all the time test first with their insurer, if they’re ready, to see if an air transport could be coated, consultants stated.

Even when the legislation had been in impact, it possible wouldn’t have helped with the huge hang-up in Deines’ case: the disagreement over “medical necessity.” Insurers nonetheless have leeway to outline it.

For his half, Deines stated he’s glad he took the flight to be nearer to residence and household, regardless of the later monetary shock.

“I might not change it, as a result of it supplied help for myself and my spouse, who wanted to take care of me; she was retaining my sanity,” he stated.

Stephanie O’Neill contributed the audio portrait with this story.

Invoice of the Month is a crowdsourced investigation by KHN and NPR that dissects and explains medical payments. Do you could have an attention-grabbing medical invoice you need to share with us? Tell us about it!

Julie Appleby: [email protected], @Julie_Appleby