Patients who’ve recovered from COVID-19 are starting to see bills add up from their hospital stays and treatment.
One man profiled by The New York Times, whose father died of the virus last fall, is managing over one million dollars of outstanding debts. Another patient was charged $50,000 just for an air ambulance.
Some health insurance companies put policies in place to reduce COVID treatment costs. In many cases, however, hospitals haven’t followed those policies – leaving patients with the bills.
Long haul COVID impacts millions of Americans – who will need medical and financial support for a long time after the pandemic ‘ends’ more broadly.
Patients are facing ‘the financial version of long-haul COVID’ – massive medical bills for COVID treatment. Pictured: Chaplain Kevin Deegan prays with COVID-19 patient Esperanza Salazar, as she speaks with family members remotely in Los Angeles, February 2021
One widow of a COVID patient is facing a $50,000 bill for an air ambulance that insurance refuses to cover
Over a year into the pandemic, scientists are now well aware of a condition called ‘long COVID’ – in which patients suffer from symptoms for weeks or even months after becoming infected with the coronavirus.
What was once thought to be a niche condition is now known to be terrifyingly common. One in four COVID patients will develop long COVID, according to recent studies.
Long COVID can impact anyone – including patients who were young and healthy before their infection and those who had mild or asymptomatic cases.
A study out of the University of California, for example, found that nearly a third of long COVID patients identified had no symptoms during their initial infection – though other researchers critiqued this study for failing to include neurological symptoms in their analysis.
The most common long COVID symptoms, according to a survey of patients suffering from this condition, are fatigue, muscle aches, shortness of breath, and difficulty concentrating.
Fatigue is the most common symptom for long COVID patients, according to a patient-led survey
But there’s another symptom that falls outside of patients’ bodies: massive medical bills.
New York Times reporter Sarah Kliff calls this ‘the financial version of long-haul COVID.’ Patients may face massive medical bills after surviving the virus – or even while they’re still battling it.
Bills may add up to thousands of dollars – depleting patients’ savings. They can also follow patients’ families after a COVID death.
Shubham Chandra is in that position, sorting through hundreds of medical bills left by his father. Chandra’s father died last fall after a seven-month hospital stay – but providers still insist on collecting money.
Even after leaving his job to manage these medical bills, the Times reports Chandra is still overwhelmed. His family could owe over $400,000.
Another patient, Rebecca Gale, is facing a large ambulance bill on behalf of her husband – who died of COVID last summer.
While the insurance covered many other costs, it only paid about $10,000 of a $50,000 bill for an air ambulance that took Gale’s husband between hospitals.
Meanwhile Irena Schulz, a retired biologist suffering from long COVID, is struggling to pay a $5,400 bill for hearing aids that she needs to help with COVID-related hearing aids.
Gale considered taking on a post-retirement part-time job to pay for bills, while Schulz is now avoiding trips to the emergency room in order to cut down on future costs.
Out of millions who got infected one in four may still be suffering from long COVID
When a COVID patient dies, medical bills may be pushed onto their families
There is no relief program for these patients. The federal government isn’t covering their treatment costs in the same way as it covers COVID tests and vaccines.
Early in the pandemic, some large health insurance companies did offer to waive all deductibles, copayments, and other fees for COVID patients. But a policy like this is easier written than enforced.
In many cases, hospitals failed to actually waive fees for patients. Some facilities coded patient visits as non-COVID, even though a COVID patient did receive treatment. Such an error would mean that a patient still has to pay their typical deductibles and copayments.
In one case described by the Times, a patient spent 50 hours trying to get his M.R.I. scan billed as COVID-related – so that his health insurance will cover the full $1,600 cost. He hasn’t been successful yet.
In other cases, insurers might send patients into a bureaucratic maze – requiring them to fill out forms, make calls, and do other work in order to maybe get coverage.
‘I’ve heard so many stories of people being completely stymied filling out reimbursement forms and trying to get insurance to cover them,’ Senator Tina Smith, Minnesota Democrat and the lead sponsor of a bill to make COVID care free, told the Times.
‘It’s almost as if the system is designed to make it hard to get reimbursed.’
It can be especially difficult to deal with bills, endless calls, and other challenges when suffering from the fatigue and concentration difficulties common in long COVID patients.
And even the insurers that did offer waivers for COVID patients earlier in the pandemic are now winding down those programs. Anthem, UnitedHealth, and Aetna all stopped waiving fees for COVID care earlier in 2021.
Some insurance companies claimed to waive costs for COVID patients, but it didn’t always work in practice
Medical research on long COVID is just getting started. In February, Congress provided $1.15 billion in funding to the National Institutes of Health to investigate this condition.
But the millions of Americans suffering from long COVID don’t just need medical research support – they also need financial support. Senator Smith’s bill would waive treatment costs for any American, regardless of their health insurance situation.
That bill is far from law. In the meantime, Americans can still protect themselves from COVID – and from COVID medical bills – by getting vaccinated. COVID vaccines are always free.