"Nobody plans to have to be airlifted,” says AirMedCare Network sales representative Steve Williams. “But you never know. You never know when you’re going to be driving down the road and someone is going to pull out in front of you. You never know when you’re going to be on the roof cleaning out the gutters and slip and fall and break your back. You just never know.” 

That’s the message that Williams, a former school principal and coach, carries to residents and business owners throughout a number of East Tennessee counties that are under his watch. 

AirMedCare is the company that partners with University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville to operate Lifestar, the university hospital’s air evacuation service. The company also partners with Med-Trans, Reach Air Medical Services and others. With 320 bases in 38 states, it is the nation’s largest air ambulance network. 

Lifestar flights to Scott County are not uncommon. Like most rural hospitals, Big South Fork Regional Medical Center routinely airlifts heart attack and stroke victims to urban medical facilities. Patients are also frequently airlifted after suffering injuries in car crashes and other accidents.

A quick flight in an air ambulance saves a lot of time when minutes count. A trip to UT Medical Center that would take an hour by ground takes just minutes by air, which means lives are often saved by the availability of Lifestar. 

Unfortunately, it costs a lot of money to maintain an air medical transport operation. There are pilots, doctors and nurses to pay, and expensive helicopters to purchase and keep maintained. So, for many, receiving life-saving medical treatment is just the start of their ordeal. Even those with the best health care coverage are left with medical bills to deal with once they’re released from the hospital.

The average flight on a medical flight costs $18,000. Some cost far more. That’s because they’re out-of-network for insurance plans.

And that’s where Williams comes in.

Williams’ role with AirMedCare isn’t flying helicopters or treating patients; in fact, UT Medical Center employs the medics and nurses for the Lifestar service, while AirMedCare employs the pilots and mechanics. Instead, Williams’ job is to sign residents up for AirMedCare memberships.

It’s a membership with a serious selling point. For just $85 each year, residents can avoid out-of-pocket costs in the event of a medical emergency that requires them to be airlifted.

“It’s not insurance,” Williams explains. “It’s like insurance, but it’s a membership with our company. And it’s a great deal.”

Williams has never been airlifted, but he has a friend who once was. The bill was $44,000. After the insurance paid its part — $9,000 — his friend was left with the balance, a whopping $35,000.

Though it’s a small price to pay for life, it’s hard for the average family to pay. 

If Williams’ friend had been a member of the AirMedCare network, though, his out-of-pocket cost for his life flight would have been exactly $0.

“We don’t want anyone to have to use it,” Williams said. “Because if you have to use it, that obviously means that you and your family are going through some difficult times. But if you do have to use it, at least you’re covered financially for this part of those difficult times.”

While no one wakes up on any given day believing that will be the day they’ll require the services of Lifestar or another air ambulance provider, disaster and tragedy can strike at any time.

Williams recalls a traffic accident in Morgan County two weeks ago that required three Lifestar helicopters to airlift three victims. Another time, he recalls, a shooting in Kentucky required six helicopters to be dispatched to airlift injured people to Vanderbilt in Nashville.

“You kinda have to think, ‘This could actually happen to me,’” Williams said. “But it’s hard to think about it that way. Most of us have on blinders. We think this will never happen to me or my family.”

For Williams, it’s all about perspective.

“I travel many miles every day,” he said. “Every morning I pray, ‘Lord, give me a safe trip and bring me back home.’ You just never know. Every time you listen to Knoxville radio you’ll hear about a wreck that’s blocking traffic on the interstate. Well, that guy who is blocking the traffic, he didn’t plan on that.” 

The bottom line? “We don’t know when a heart attack or a stroke is coming,” Williams said. “You have 30-year-old marathon runners having heart attacks.” 

The $85 annual memberships to the AirMedCare Network sound good on paper, but it’s actually better than that: the $85 covers everyone who lives in the member’s home, even if some of those people can’t be included on the homeowner’s tax return — such as an elderly parent. Children of members who are away at college in pursuit of undergraduate degrees are also covered. There’s no limit on the number of flights that are covered each year. And membership doesn’t limit members to coverage by Lifestar or any other single medical transport provider. Members are covered by any of the air ambulance providers that are in the AirMedCare network. That means Scott Countians who purchase an $85 membership are covered if they’re vacationing in Panama City Beach and suffer a heart attack that requires them to be airlifted, or if they’re traveling cross-country and are involved in a serious car accident.

Those covered by Tenncare are not eligible for membership with AirMedCare, since Medicaid covers all the costs of an air medical transport. However, Medicare does not cover all the costs, making membership an especially attractive option for seniors. 

In some instances, large groups — such as employees of a major company — can qualify for reduced membership rates. That’s the case with Scott County Government. Any employee of the county, including employees of the Scott County School System, can join for $45 per year.

Yet, fewer than five percent of Scott Countians are members of the AirMedCare Network. That’s a number Williams is hoping to change.

“It’s an awesome deal,” he said. “I think everybody should take advantage of it.”

To purchase an AirMedCare Network membership, or obtain additional information, contact Steve Williams at (865) 221-0440 or donald.williams@airmedcarenetwork.com.

This story is the August 2018 installment of Business Spotlight, presented on the third week of each month by the Scott County Chamber of Commerce as part of the Independent Herald's Back Page Features series. A print version of this story can be found on Page B8 of the August 16, 2018 edition of the Independent Herald.