Surprise Medical Bills Slam Some COVID-19 Survivors

As if the pandemic itself wasn’t bad enough, some of those who have had COVID-19 are now finding themselves in the hole for thousands of dollars in surprise medical bills.

Given this country’s patchwork of complex medical insurance coverage, BILLSHARK wasn’t shocked to hear how our system of insurance is victimizing people at their most vulnerable time.

In a survey this past August, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Network found that 43 percent of all emergency department visits and 42 percent of all hospital admissions resulted in some unexpected out-of-network charges. The former averaged $628, while the latter averaged $2,040.

Some of the surprise COVID-19 medical bills were eye-popping: $500,000 for dialysis and $50,000 for an allergy test, for example.

No job, no insurance

Some 30 million Americans have lost their jobs along with any insurance they may have had. And add many COVID-19 survivors are battling long-term debilitating effects from the coronavirus (the so-called “long haulers”). Now you have a recipe for mass bankruptcy brewing.

“Because most U.S. workers rely on their employer or a family member’s employer for health insurance, the shock of the coronavirus has cost millions of Americans their jobs and their health care in the midst of a public health catastrophe.”

Josh Bivens, director of research at the Economic Policy Institute

If you’re younger, you may think you’ll be okay, because the virus is known to hit older people harder. You’d be mistaken.

All ages impacted

Earlier this month, the Associated Press (AP) spoke with 30-year-old elementary school teacher Melissa Szymanski of Hartford, Connecticut. She believes she came down with COVID-19 in March, because she had all the symptoms. But because the hospital she went to was limiting tests, she was never definitively diagnosed. Her insurer left her on the hook for a $3,200 bill for five hours in the emergency room.

“I was surprised that I got a bill because it just so clearly seemed to be COVID,” she said. Later tests proved her right, but she’s still having to fight the insurance company.

Both the federal government and many large insurers have said they will waive some typical expenses such as deductibles or co-pays, but there are still many people being caught by loopholes. Even if you follow all your insurer’s rules and make sure you’re being treated at an in-network hospital, you might still end up being treated by doctors who are out of your network.

“If you get any out-of-network care for COVID . . . you could be looking at big bills.”

Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow with the Kaiser Family Foundation

Games insurers play

It’s not just coronavirus-related, either. The pandemic has brought this problem to the forefront, but the games insurance companies play to avoid paying for medical care has been going on for a long time.

According to a 2019 report from the Journal of General Internal Medicine, about 137.1 million Americans faced financial hardship last year due to unpaid medical bills. And medical bills are the top reason for bankruptcy in this country, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

So what can you do if you find yourself facing unexpected or outrageous COVID-19 medical bills?

Ask questions

Start by questioning everything on your bill. Ask about charges you don’t understand. Look for duplicate line items, and services you didn’t receive.

The AP spoke with Sabrina Corlette, co-director of Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms. She said hospital billing departments are still in the learning stages of how to process COVID-19 claims.

“There are reasons why both the provider and the insurer may say, ‘Oops, we made a mistake.’”

Sabrina Corlette, co-director of Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms
Negotiate

Investopedia recommends speaking with your healthcare provider’s medical billing manager. This is the person with the authority to lower your bill. Don’t wait until the bill is in the collections stage, which can seriously damage your credit—contact them as soon as you’ve verified all the charges.

Medical Billing Advocates of America recommends asking for an aggressive discount for immediate payment. Say something like, “If I pay you 30 percent right now will you write off the rest?” This saves the provider the effort and expense of pursuing you for payment for months or years.

Other tactics including asking for the Medicare or Medicaid rate, or for a zero-interest payment plan.

Ask for help

If none of these tactics work, and you end up with a medical bill you can’t pay, many hospitals have charity funds set up for their low-income patients, according to Investopedia.

Ask to speak with a caseworker, who can refer you to charities, churches, community organizations, and government agencies that can offer financial assistance.

If you’re looking for extra money to pay COVID-19 medical bills or any other needs, let BILLSHARK’s professional negotiators find you savings on your satellite, Internet, wireless, and pay TV bills.

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