No more surprise bills for those who use STAR Flight

AUSTIN — A new law that goes into effect Wednesday will ban “balance bills” for those who use STAR (Shock Trauma Air Rescue) Flight services.

Balance billing is the “practice in which a medical provider first bills the patient’s insurer for an amount exceeding the insurer’s typical rate, and, upon receiving “incomplete” payment, then bills the patient for the balance,” according to Senate Bill 790, authored by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.

“Our intent for STAR Flight is that our patients never see a bill from us,” Erick Ullman, STAR Flight’s chief clinical supervisor said. “Our feeling is that the residents of Travis County and Central Texas pay their taxes and they pay their health plan bills, and that’s the only bill that they should see. They’ve already paid for the service and that allows us to go out and do what we think is best for their care.”

For nearly eight years, Ullman has been a part of STAR Flight, Travis County’s public safety air rescue program. It’s a public emergency helicopter service that rescues people by land, from water or fire, firefighting, and assisting law enforcement in Travis County and 20 surrounding Central Texas counties. They work to quickly transport critically ill and injured patients to nearby hospitals.

Tim Watkins is also on the team as a flight paramedic, and both men have said there have been many times patients in need declined their services.

“There is a gentleman recently that refused our care and was very sick and needed to be flown to the hospital and needed to get care quickly but he was refusing because he was worried about the bill that he was going to receive after the event,” Watkins said.

With SB 790 going into effect, people will not have to worry about any surprise bills down the road after their insurance company has already paid.

“It lets us clear the books on debts when people can’t pay,” Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea said.

It’s a change STAR Flight personnel say could make all the difference.

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