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An ambulance ride of just a few miles can cost thousands of dollars, and a lot of it may not be covered by insurance. With ride-hailing services like Uber or Lyft far cheaper and now available within minutes in many areas, would using one instead be a good idea?
Perhaps surprisingly, the answer in many cases is yes.
The high cost of an ambulance isn’t really for the ride. It comes with emergency medical staff and equipment, and those can be very important, of course, even lifesaving.
But they are not things you always need, although you (and your insurer) pay for them with every trip.
“Don’t reflexively call an ambulance,” said Anupam Jena, a physician and researcher with the Harvard Medical School. “Ambulances are for emergencies. If you’re not having one, it’s reasonable to consider another form of transportation.”
The cost of ambulance rides adds up. In 2011, the United States spent about $14 billion on ambulance services, $5.3 billion of which Medicare paid for. Many of those trips might not have required an ambulance. Estimates of inappropriate use vary, but most are around 30 percent.
Although it’s not always clear when an ambulance is warranted, there is evidence of waste and fraud in the industry. Last year, ambulance companies collectively billed Medicare improperly for at least $700 million.