A Plano man survived a rattlesnake bite in west Texas, thanks to a team of doctors and nurses. The survivor is reeling again, feeling snake bit by a helicopter ambulance bill he found more traumatic than the snakebite itself.
Hugh Sparks and his son Briet were on Highway 380 near Haskell and stopped to take pictures of the wide variety of snakes that were crossing the road, even using a long umbrella to encourage a few back onto the roadside brush to save them from being run over by cars. Then Sparks saw one that he thought was just a prairie rat snake.
"Let's get a picture of it," he told his 26-year-old son. "So I just kind of swiped it up and it bit me, and I just tossed it off the road and said Breit, that was a rattlesnake. You're driving!"
They drove to the closest hospital in Haskell, where he was given his first doses of anti-venom. The medical team told him he would need to be taken by helicopter to a bigger hospital in Abilene.
"I said I don't want to take a helicopter ride," Sparks protested as his hand and wrist were beginning to swell. "I said it's too expensive."
He says they didn't offer a ground ambulance and wouldn't take him up on his next offer, allowing his son Breit to drive him the 50 miles in their own car.
"I remember the doctors and the nurses all telling him that he didn't have a choice," Breit Sparks said.
"I just didn't feel like I had any rights," Hugh Sparks said.
Once in Abilene, where additional anti-venom treatments were given, doctors warned him first his swelling arm and hand might have to be amputated. And at the start of his three days in ICU, they also told him there was a very good chance he might die. He didn't. Weeks later, he says he felt like he might, when he received the medical bills.
"This slow, boiling anger," he said overtook him as he opened his mail. "That was actually more traumatic than when I realized I was bitten by a rattlesnake."
Because Blue Cross Blue Shield settled the $127,199.18 hospital bill, the portion he had to pay was just $3,215.11.
"I was happy. I was paying them with a smile on my face. I was thinking, 'Yes, you probably saved my life. I love you guys. I want to pay you. Then I got the helicopter bill and then, and then my mood changed," he said.
Because the air ambulance bill, for the 47-mile trip to Abilene, was $43,514.56. Blue Cross Blue Shield agreed to pay $13,827.15. That left Sparks holding a bill for $29,687.41.
"Are you kidding me? For 47 miles! That's crazy," he said.
In an emailed statement to WFAA, a spokesperson for Air Evac LifeTeam explained its billing structure this way.
"When Air Evac LifeTeam is called by an EMS provider, first responder or hospital, we do not ask for insurance information before accepting a flight. We provide access to a higher level of care, and the cost to provide that access is 87 percent fixed. The costs include the lease and maintenance of the aircraft, and staffing a base 24 hours a day, seven days a week with professionally trained and credentialed flight nurses, flight paramedics, pilots and mechanics."
The company also said it encourages people to purchase a membership through the AirMedCare Network. The cost is $65 per household per year, and "whatever the patient's insurance company or third party provider pays is considered payment in full."
Air ambulance medical services in the U.S. are unregulated and have often complained that insurance reimbursements aren't enough to cover costs.
Hugh Sparks will try to negotiate with his insurance company and Air Evac LifeTeam. And he says don't get him wrong, he's thankful that a team of doctors and nurses helped save his life. He just didn't expect to be snake bit for a $29,000 helicopter ride as well.
"This makes my life difficult," he said. "But this will ruin other people."