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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Northwest lawmakers push back on VA rule that would cut payments for air ambulances

A Life Flight helicopter touches down atop MultiCare Deaconess Hospital on March 15, 2019. Other hospitals are borrowing again after pausing during the pandemic.   (DAN PELLE/The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – Northwest lawmakers in the House and Senate are pushing back on a proposed Department of Veterans Affairs rule that would cut reimbursement rates for air ambulance services, a move both Democrats and Republicans say could lead to delays getting patients to the hospital.

The VA says the change is needed to avoid wasting taxpayer dollars, a response to a 2018 watchdog report that found the department was paying 60% more than the rate it was supposed to pay according to a policy Congress had enacted. The proposed rule, which also applies to ground ambulances, would take effect in February .

In July, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers – including Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane; Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside; and Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez, D-Skamania County – warned in a letter, “If there is not an appropriate legislative solution, emergency services in our communities will be gutted and unnecessary deaths will occur.”

Ben Clayton, CEO of Life Flight Network, a not-for-profit air ambulance service that operates in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana, said the VA would reimburse only half of his company’s costs under the proposed change. That could force them to close some of the helicopter bases they operate around the region, he said.

“What that means is that it could eliminate access to veterans and to rural Americans who are relying on those services to get to tertiary care centers, to get to the specialty care that they may need if they’re having a heart attack or a stroke,” said Clayton, who flew CH-53E helicopters in the Marine Corps. “It could have a devastating impact.”

The change wouldn’t only affect veterans because Life Flight Network and other air ambulance services don’t wait to check a patient’s health insurance or veteran status before getting them to the closest, most appropriate hospital.

During an event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Monday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough rejected the idea that his department is proposing a reduction. The VA, he said, has simply told ambulance providers that if they don’t have a contract for their services, the department will have no choice but to reimburse them at a rate set by Medicare.

“I hope we get to the bottom of this and work this out,” he said, adding that the 2018 report from the VA Office of Inspector General should have been enough to address the issue. “We’ve got to make sure that we’re doing right by our vets and doing right by our taxpayers.”

In September, a bipartisan group of senators, including Democrats Patty Murray of Washington an Jon Tester of Montana, introduced legislation that would block the VA from implementing the rule change in February.

“This proposed rule needs to be carefully considered before implementation to prevent any negative consequences to timely health care and emergency services, especially for veterans in rural areas,” Murray said in a statement at the time, urging the VA to make sure it wouldn’t “result in more limited access to emergency services.”

On Nov. 1, the Senate passed an amendment to an annual spending bill that would make that same change. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House.