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Patients getting slammed by surprise costs related to COVID-19

COVID-19 can do more than torment patients physically. It also clobbers some financially.

Even though many insurers and the U.S. government have offered to pick up or waive costs tied to the virus, holes remain for big bills to slip through and surprise patients.

People who weren’t able to get a test showing they had the virus and those who receive care outside their insurance network are particularly vulnerable. Who provides the coverage and how hard a patient fights to lower a bill also can matter.

There are no good estimates for how many patients have been hit with big bills because of the coronavirus. But the pandemic that arrived earlier this year exposed well-known gaps in a system that mixes private insurers, government programs and different levels of coverage.

“There are in our system, unfortunately, lots of times when people are going to fall through the cracks,” said Sabrina Corlette, co-director of Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms.

More than 7 million people have had confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the virus started spreading earlier this year in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University.


Alarming spike of COVID-19 cases across the U…

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The vast majority of those patients will incur few medical costs as they wait for their body to fight off mild symptoms. But patients who visit emergency rooms or wind up hospitalized may be vulnerable financially.

No test, no coverage

Melissa Szymanski spent five hours in a Hartford, Connecticut, emergency room in late March and wound up with bills totaling about $3,200.

The problem: The 30-year-old elementary school teacher couldn’t get a test even though she was fighting a fever and her doctor wanted a chest X-ray. At the time, the hospital was limiting tests, and she didn’t qualify.

Szymanski was never diagnosed with COVID-19 at the hospital and her insurer, Anthem BlueCross BlueShield, said she would have to pay the high deductible on her plan before coverage started.

The bill left her flabbergasted.

“I was surprised that I got a bill because it just so clearly seemed to be COVID,” said Szymanski, who also shared her story with the nonprofit Patient Rights Advocate.

Szymanski later got a blood test that showed she had the virus, and she’s working to reduce the bill.

Medicaid picked up all costs

Mary Lynn Fager also got sick in late March from a suspected COVID-19 case, and she has not received a single bill. Fager spent four days in a hospital on oxygen and has had several doctor appointments.

She eventually asked someone at the hospital about the cost, and they said she shouldn’t receive any bills. Fager had lost her job in March and qualified for New York’s Medicaid coverage program. She said it picked up all the costs.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “Even when I couldn’t breathe, that was in the back of my mind the whole time I was there. I was thinking about the hospital bills.”

Separately, the federal government has

Pelosi introduces bill related to the 25th Amendment

House Democrats introduced a bill Friday to establish an independent commission under the 25th Amendment to evaluate a president’s health and oversee the transfer of power to the vice president if the president becomes incapacitated while in office.

The provision would not apply to President Trump during his current term, but could be invoked in a second term if he is reelected.

The 25th Amendment was adopted in 1967 after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to address what happens when the president of the United States is removed, dies, is incapacitated or is otherwise unable to fulfill the powers and duties of the office.

It provides for the vice president to serve as “acting president” if the president is incapacitated — during surgery, for example. It also allows for a transfer of power if the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet find the president unable to function in his office, a provision that has never been invoked. But it also, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted, “empowers Congress to set up an independent body to confront such a crisis.” 

Pelosi unveiled the legislation on Capitol Hill Friday, a week after President Trump was hospitalized after falling ill from COVID-19.

The bipartisan commission would consist of 17 “top former elected officials and medical experts” with the authority to request a medical exam of the president.

Pelosi was joined by Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a constitutional law expert who introduced a similar measure in 2017.

“This legislation applies to future presidents,” Pelosi said. “But we are reminded of the necessity of action by the health of the current president.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a press conference on Capitol Hill on Friday. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a press conference on Capitol Hill on Friday. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

Trump was released from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Monday while still undergoing treatment for the coronavirus, which included supplemental oxygen, an experimental antibody and the therapeutic drug remdesivir, as well as steroids.

On Thursday, Pelosi suggested Trump’s seemingly erratic behavior since his release could be due to side effects from his drug regimen.

“The president is, shall we say, in an altered state right now,” Pelosi said. “I don’t know how to answer for that behavior.”

Pelosi and Raskin dismissed questions about the timing of the announcement of a bill — which has virtually no chance of passing the Senate — so close to an election.

“This is not about President Trump,” Pelosi said. “He will face the judgment of the voters. But he shows the need for us to create a process for future presidents.”

“There’s never really a good time to do it,” Raskin said, but he added that Trump’s health has “focused everybody’s mind on the need for following through on this suggestion in the 25th Amendment that Congress set up its own body.”

Harold Hongju Koh, a professor of international law at Yale Law School, agreed.

“It is good to have a standing congressional commission of experts capable of making this critical constitutional