Americans hospitalized with COVID now face exorbitant medical bills, study warns

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — As coronavirus hospitalizations soared in 2020, the majority of healthcare providers waived costs, and prevented many Americans from being buried by bills. Things are changing now with the COVID-19 vaccine easily available. Major insurance providers are removing such policies, forcing at-risk patients to potentially pay thousands of dollars out of pocket, experts warn.

A recent study out of the University of Michigan analyzed more than 4,000 citizens who were hospitalized in 2020 due to COVID and had either Medicare Advantage or private insurance. They found that most patients’ insurance companies paid for the costs. Some, however, were not offered these waivers, and costs reached into the thousands. They found that 72% of major providers were ending their waivers by August of 2021.

“Many insurers claim that it is justified to charge patients for COVID-19 hospitalizations now that COVID-19 vaccines are widely available. However, some people hospitalized for COVID-19 aren’t eligible for vaccines, such as young children, while others are vaccinated patients who experienced a severe breakthrough infection. Our study suggests these patients could have substantial bills,” explains Kao-Ping Chua, a health policy researcher at Michigan Medicine, in a statement.

The study found that those without waivers and private insurance paid $3,800, and, those with Medicare Advantage paid $1,500. Even with the waivers, patients were often charged hundreds extra for doctor or ambulance care. Chua believes it is possible some were mistakenly charged extra while some insurers may not waive all costs, recommending those who get charged to contact their provider.

Chua believes that the implications behind insurers not covering hospitalizations could be severe. “One of my main concerns is that the threat of high costs might cause some patients with severe COVID-19 to delay going to the hospital, increasing their risk of death,” he noted.

Policymakers should continue to cover the costs of COVID-19 related hospitalizations throughout the entirety of the pandemic, the authors suggest. They say hospitals already get paid for caring for the uninsured, it is important to help the insured out as well.

This study is published in JAMA Network Open.

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