Congress passes FAA bill that includes consumer protection for patients facing high air ambulance bills

By:  Chuck Raasch
St. Louis Post Dispatch

WASHINGTON • Congress has passed legislation aimed at protecting consumers who were facing exorbitant costs for air ambulance services. The problem was recently highlighted in a series of stories by the Post-Dispatch.

The provisions, pushed by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., were folded into a bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration. That bill passed the Senate, 93-6, and is headed to President Donald Trump for his signature.

The provisions would require air ambulance operators to attach on customers' bills instructions on how to reach the complaint hotline and website address of the federal Department of Transportation. 

It also establishes a federal advisory committee tasked with making recommendations on air ambulance practices, and requires Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao to create an air ambulance oversight plan and instruct states on how to refer air ambulance complaints to the DOT.

McCaskill called it “an important step to bring greater accountability and oversight to the air ambulance industry, whose practices have often left patients with tens of thousands of dollars of debt.”

The high bills were brought to light by the Post-Dispatch earlier this year through the story of a boy who suffered a skull fracture, had to be airlifted to a St. Louis hospital, and whose family later faced a $32,000 bill for the trip.

The FAA reauthorization was shepherded through the Senate by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who chairs a Senate subcommittee overseeing the FAA.

Key overall provisions included:

• Modernizing the Transportation Security Administration, including the authorization of more canine-security teams in airports, and the establishment of real-time information on security-line waits.

• Provisions on safety that included training for transportation officials on how to recognize human trafficking, a key issue for McCaskill, Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, and others.

• Comfort requirements, including the establishment of minimum legroom and seat width for commercial flights, and private rooms for nursing mothers in medium and large airports.

• Directions to the DOT to integrate drones into safety and other requirements of the national airspace.

Blunt said the bill “will help promote innovation in the aviation industry and includes reforms focused on issues passengers care most about.”