The Cost of an Ambulance Ride

Call 911 for an ambulance and you're likely to have another heart attack when you get the bill. Ambulances are not usually free. They cost a lot to keep on the road and charge a lot to get you from point A to point B. How much will you pay? That's a question almost no one is going to be able to answer for you, especially not the paramedics.

This article discusses the cost of an ambulance ride, including how these rates are determined.

Paramedics taking patient on stretcher from ambulance to hospital
Paul Burns / Getty Images

Public vs. Private

Ambulances differ from law enforcement and most fire departments in that they can be privately owned. In fact, they are nearly as often privately-owned as they are to be public entities like a public health department.

In an emergency, you probably won't know whether the ambulance is run by the government or an investment banker. Paramedics are the same whether they work for the government or not. They don't care about the bills. They care about treating patients and getting folks to the proper hospitals.

Whether the ambulances are for-profit, non-profit, or publically owned, they're all going to send you a bill.

In many municipalities, ambulances are the cash cows with steady profits that help finance the other emergency services. (Or, in some cases, they're thought to help finance while not really helping much.)

Charges vs. Collections

When you are transported by ambulance, the bill is going to be pretty big. In the U.S., ambulances charge way more than they collect. It is that way all over the country. The reason is the collection rate.

The ambulance company might send out 10 bills for $1,500 each. Two of the bills might be paid in full. Another bill will be paid by Medicare at $450. Two more by Medicaid at $105 each. The rest might go uncollected because the patient didn't have insurance or an address to send the bill.

The $3,660 for all of that is collected and averaged across 10 ambulance bills. The bill for $1,500 becomes a collection of $366, about 24.4%, which isn't all that bad.

It's not unheard of for an ambulance company to collect 10% of its billings, or worse. That's not unique to ambulances—it's a problem in health care in general.

If ambulance companies aren't making enough on collections, why don't they just raise the rates? They could, but only a handful of payers are going to pony up the difference.

If you raised the rates 10%, only the commercial insurers are going to pay the full bill. So after billing out $1,650 ten times, you'll collect $1650 twice, $450 for the Medicare trip, and $210 for the two Medicaid calls.

Medicare and Medicaid fees are set by the government, so they don't really care how much you charge. The uninsured patients who blew you off the first time will still ignore the bill when it's 10% higher. After all is said and done, a 10% hike in charges will get you an extra $300, bringing the average to $396, still 24%.

Complicated Billing

Part of what makes this whole thing sort of ridiculous is the complicated process for billing. Start with the Medicare Fee Schedule published yearly by the feds, which is what Medicare is going to pay. Then add in complicated contractual "networks" of commercial health insurers.

If you ask a medical ambulance biller to explain how the bill is processed. they likely can't do it in a way that makes sense. They can do the billing, but they can't articulate it very easily. It's that complicated. For that reason, the paramedic crew that responds to your call won't be able to explain the bill even if they wanted to.

Expensive to Run

Where does all that money go, anyway? Ambulances are pricey. The medic and the emergency medical technician (EMT) are the most expensive part of the response.

You don't want to have a paramedic making minimum wage responding to your medical emergency.

According to a paper published by the Government Accountability Office, the medical crew makes up about 61% of the operating costs for that ambulance. Fuel, rent for the facility, administrative costs, maintenance, and supplies make up the bulk of the rest.

Add all that to the fact that the ambulance isn't always running calls. The ambulance might only transport a patient once every three hours.

Ambulance managers calculate a number to help them understand how efficient the ambulance company is performing. Divide the number of transports by the number of hours each ambulance is in service. That's called a unit hour utilization (UHU) and is sort of an ambulance batting average.

In fact, a good batting average is about what a good UHU looks like—something close to 0.300 or so. To see how the ambulance is doing, multiply the UHU by the average amount that an ambulance trip makes. (In our example, that's $366.)

So, a UHU of 0.300 multiplied by an average ambulance trip of $366 would give you $122. That number, $122, is what our fictional ambulance earns per hour. That's less than most doctors. Out of that, all of those expenses have to be paid.

Incentives to Transport

Trips or transporting patients is the only thing most insurance companies, including the insurance run by the federal government, will pay for. They don't cover simply treating patients.

A paramedic or EMT could arrive on the scene of a choking patient and perform the Heimlich maneuver, saving her life. The patient is determined to be fine and does not need a ride to the hospital. However, the ambulance that just saved her life doesn't get a dime.

They can bill for helping her out, and many ambulances do. But, the reality is, most insurances won't pay it and most ambulances won't pursue it. When ambulance agencies calculate how much money they're making (or losing), they rarely include the non-transports.

Besides the fact that transporting is the only way to get paid, not transporting is the most common way to get sued. Leaving a patient at the scene of an emergency (or even a perceived emergency) is the most dangerous action a paramedic can take.

Evidence suggests that paramedics aren't great judges of when a patient is not that sick. So, there's a chance they could be wrong if they don't take someone to the hospital. And they don't get paid unless they do take them. Which makes more sense, taking or leaving?

What You Can Do

First, if you think you're having a medical emergency, forget the bill. Go to the hospital and get better. On the other hand, if you didn't call 911 and don't think you have an emergency, you can always just take Uber.

You always have the right to refuse treatment. Don't refuse it if you're really sick. But if you don't really need treatment and are concerned about a big bill, always be willing to stand up for yourself.

Summary

Many different factors go into determining the cost of an ambulance ride. Ambulance companies tend to charge much more than they collect. That's because only a small percentage of ambulance bills will be paid in full.

Operating costs for the ambulance also play a role in determining the rate. These operating costs include fuel, facility rent, supplies, and medical crew. Ambulance companies often only get paid when they transport patients. They may have several hours where they don't transport any patients.

Regardless of the cost, if you need emergency help, don't hesitate to call 911 for an ambulance. The most important thing is to get you to the hospital quickly and safely.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How much does it cost to call for an ambulance?

    It depends on the ambulance company. Some may not charge you unless they provide transportation. Others may charge for being called to the scene, even if you aren't taken to the hospital.

  • How much does an air ambulance flight cost?

    In 2017, the median price charged by air ambulance providers was $36,400 for a helicopter transport for privately insured patients.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Ambulance fee schedule.

  2. United States Government Accountability Office. Ambulance providers. GAO-13-6.

  3. Brown LH, Hubble MW, Cone DC, Millin MG, Schwartz B, Patterson PD, Greenberg B, Richards ME. Paramedic determinations of medical necessity: a meta-analysisPrehosp Emerg Care. 2009 Oct-Dec;13(4):516-27. doi:10.1080/10903120903144809.

  4. U.S. Government Accountability Office. Air ambulance: Available data show privately-insured patients are at financial risk.

By Rod Brouhard, EMT-P
Rod Brouhard is an emergency medical technician paramedic (EMT-P), journalist, educator, and advocate for emergency medical service providers and patients.