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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.


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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