SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: Why Are Ambulance Bills So Expensive?

If you need an ambulance in the Fresno area, get ready for sticker shock. It turns out ambulance bills are expensive and there are several reasons why.

As paramedics and EMT's prepare for their day, they're ready to help anyone who needs them.

"We're going to respond to every request. Once we get there we're going to figure out the need and provide that need to the patient," says Edgar Escobedo from 'American Ambulance'.

However, the majority of people that use ambulances don't pay their bill. In fact, according to 'American Ambulance' 70% of people don't pay or pay very little of what they owe.

"We provide services unconditionally, which means we will not refuse care," adds Escobedo.

Here's the breakdown of what's happening. 'American Ambulance' says only 5% of patients pay their bill in full. Around 70% of people are on Medicare and Medicaid, and the company only receives $130 dollars for each of those patients. The ambulance provider, which also handles dispatching ambulances, says there's nothing the company can do to get the rest of the bill paid.

"What happens is just like hospitals they end up shifting that cost to private insurance and private pay people, which means they have to charge them more to pick up for the loss," says Fresno County Department of Public Health EMS Director Dan Lynch.

Lynch regulates 'American Ambulance's rates and says no one can stop people from using ambulances like taxi cabs and there is no way to stop it.

"We aren't out there doing a wallet biopsy during every call, that's not part of it," adds Lynch "They are obligated to respond, treat, and transport no matter their ability to pay."

However, are 'AmericanAmbulance'' rates too high to begin with? The company says depending on the level of care the base rate for a bill will range from $500 to $1100.

"We're fortunate in our area to have one of the lowest ambulance rates in the area. I say that somewhat reluctantly because someone would look at those rates and say, "Oh my goodness, it looks like a lot of money," says Lynch.

When we compare Fresno's private ambulance rates with other communities in Fresno County, Kings County and Tulare County, Fresno is one of the cheapest. The only city that has cheaper rates is California Hot Springs in Tulare County and they don't charge for ambulance service.

"The cost for a fire department or a municipal agency to provide service is much higher. Their overhead with pensions and things of that nature is much higher than a private provider who doesn't carry all those rules," says Lynch.

The way the current system is set up, ambulance providers say something will have to change eventually, because they can't sustain themselves under the current system forever.

"We may see more of going to someone's home, caring for them and not transporting them to a hospital," says Lynch.

The most expensive ambulance rates in the state are in the Bay Area. The cheapest rates are actually here in the Central Valley.