- Salt Lake City-based Intermountain is acquiring air ambulance company Classic Air Medical in a bid to better coordinate virtual and physical care for rural patients.
- Snapping up Classic, which operates aircraft in eight western states and has a significant overlap with Intermountain's telehealth footprint, is meant to make it easier to transport high-need patients to the closest medical facility equipped for their needs, the nonprofit system said in a Monday statement.
- Financial terms of the deal, which Intermountain expects to close by the summer pending regulatory review, were not disclosed.
Consumers are increasingly looking to receive medical care in the home, and options for that — including telehealth, at-home visits, remote patient monitoring and more — have grown exponentially during COVID-19.
But for some patients in rural areas, it's less a question of convenience as it is a matter of growing medical necessity. A 2019 poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found one-fourth of people living in rural areas said they're not able to get the healthcare they need in their area.
That's the problem Intermountain is trying to address with the buy of three decade-old operator Classic, the system said.
For example, if medical professionals in rural areas decide during a virtual visit that a patient needs more specialized care, Classic's fleet will make it easier to transport them to the nearest medical facility, according to the integrated system.
Salt Lake City-based Classic, which has 28 aircraft, has 22 bases in Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Alaska, and says it completed 5,000 flights in 2020.
Intermountain doesn't plan to consolidate Classic with its existing air medical program, called Intermountain Life Flight, which has 19 bases in Salt Lake City and surrounding rural areas. Instead, Intermountain will operate Classic as an independent group with "distinct and complementary" services to ILF's hospital-based structure, the health system said.
Classic will retain existing clients, and Intermountain plans to keep on Classic's leadership team, along with its 400-some employees.
The trend of shifting acute care to the home and away from more expensive inpatient sites has been building for a while but been accelerated by the pandemic.
In June, Intermountain launched a program to provide hospital-level care in patients' homes for specific conditions like congestive heart failure and infections, using tools like remote patient monitoring combined with virtual and in-person check-ins with nurses and doctors. That's in addition to its homecare effort, Intermountain at Home, which focuses on palliative care patients.
Similarly, pre-pandemic, health systems like Ascension, CommonSpirit, Mount Sinai Health System and Highmark Health have signed joint venture deals with home care startup Contessa to move patients who don't need continuous monitoring out of the hospital. UHS inked a similar deal with home health giant Bayada in 2020.
CVS-owned Aetna partnered last year with WellBe Senior Medical on an Atlanta-area pilot program providing primary care for high-risk seniors. And in July, Humana invested $100 million in at-home primary care startup Heal, partnering to offer doctor house calls and telemedicine services in select U.S. markets.
However, it's unclear if linking with an air ambulance company to try and ensure rural patients can access the care they need will also lower healthcare costs for Intermountain's patients. More than 70% of air and ground ambulance rides taken by members of a major commercial insurer between 2013 and 2017 involved a surprise bill, and overall charges increased rapidly during that time, according to research published in Health Affairs last year.