Air ambulances were once a rarity. Not today. Across the country, competing helicopter services are locked in air wars over patient-rich areas as medical airlifting grows more profitable and common. As with other health care services that have become routine – sophisticated diagnostic tests like CAT scans, for example – the public price tag is soaring and helicopters are being used when ambulances might do. The price of an airlift ranges from $5,000 to $10,000, 5 to 10 times that of a ground ambulance.
“They are buzzing above you like buzzards,” said Brad Lancaster, the director of emergency medical services in Murray County, south of Oklahoma City. On a recent windy morning, Cliff Rost, the volunteer fire chief in Morrison, Mo., found himself walking an older man bothered by shoulder pain a quarter of a mile down a road to reach a helicopter run by a company called Air Evac Lifeteam. The man had bought a company “membership” that allowed participants to call for an emergency airlift without any out-of-pocket cost. “They had people running around saying, ‘You don’t need to call 911, just call Air Evac,’ and that’s what’s been happening,” he said.