Sean Deines got the surprise of his life when he finally received the bill for an emergency medevac flight he needed while on vacation in Wyoming in 2020.
Deines, 32, had to be flown nearly 1,500 miles from Denver, Colorado, to his home back in North Carolina in order to receive treatment. But he should’ve stuck with one of the regular airlines—a point unpleasantly hammered home when he opened the bill for $489,000.
The eye-watering figure was assessed for the Angel MedFlight he took through Aviation West Charters, which unfortunately was not included in his insurance network. Along with the cost of ambulance transportation, which amounted to about $70,000, Sean Deines was on the hook for nearly half a million dollars.
The nightmare began when Deines was visiting a relative in Wyoming with his wife, Rebekah. The trip was uneventful, until he fell ill, prompting a visit to an urgent care facility, which led to a referral to the emergency room.
“‘Your white blood count is through the roof. You need to get to an ER right now,’” Deines, in an interview with Kaiser Health News (KHN), remembers a staffer telling him.
Local hospitals were ill-equipped to treat Deines’ condition, so he was airlifted to a Denver hospital in late November 2020.
While in Denver, Deines was diagnosed with “acute lymphoblastic leukemia,” which manifests as an excessive white blood cell count. Adult acute lymphoblastic leukemia is a serious, fast-growing type of cancer that afflicts the blood and bone marrow.
Doctors at the Denver hospital stabilized Deines’ condition for the time being, but then it was necessary for Deines and his wife to make a serious decision.
They could continue with his treatment in Denver, which was reportedly furnished with well-equipped and sophisticated medical facilities to treat his condition. But this entailed the further stress and expense of having to stay in a strange city without relatives or connections of any kind. Deines’ wife, for instance, could not be expected to remain in Denver throughout the course of his treatment.
So the couple made the sensible decision and resolved for Deines to undergo treatment closer to home back in North Carolina. The hospital in Denver submitted an application for a medevac transfer to Blue Cross Blue Shield, which was Deines’ insurance provider, but the company was slow to approve the request.
And this is where the whole process started to break down. In a departure from standard procedures, the medevac flight went through without prior approval. Unfortunately, just two days after Deines had already been transported back to North Carolina, the insurance company rejected the application, citing the adequacy of the facilities in Denver for the kind of treatment he required.
Talk about being a day late and a dollar short.
By that time, Deines had more important things to worry about with his cancer treatment. After 28 days in the hospital, he was finally discharged–and that’s when the bill for the medical flight came due.
”The initial thought was, ‘I can’t believe this is happening,'” Deines, an unemployed bartender who had lost his job during the COVID-19 pandemic, told KHN.
At one point, Blue Cross relented and gave him a check for $72,000 to cover his ambulance rides. But Deines was still responsible for covering the remaining $400,000.
Understandably, Deines was unable to pay the amount, and the bill was forwarded to collections. At this point, Blue Cross demanded the return of the $72,000 they had already given him. The situation began to seem desperate for Deines.
But this story has a happy ending: after the press became involved, the situation was resolved, and the insurance and air ambulance companies reached an agreement. Deines won’t be held liable for the exorbitant bill.
“We apologize for putting the member in the middle of this complicated situation,” Blue Cross spokesperson Jami Sowers told KHN in an email. “The air ambulance company billed more than $70,000 just for ground transportation to and from the airport — more than 30 times the average cost of medical ground transport.”
“Once North Carolina Blue engages in our formal inquiries about its refund request, the status of the funds will be resolved,” the spokesperson added in her email. “One thing is certain, Sean will not have to pay for North Carolina’s wavering coverage decision.”
This is welcome news for Sean Deines who says he doesn’t regret the decision to fly back to North Carolina for treatment.
“I would not change it,” he said, “because it provided support for myself and my wife, who needed to take care of me; she was keeping my sanity.”
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