Hospitals and insurance companies are going after COVID survivors

Some Covid financial long-haulers never became ill themselves, but are overwhelmed by the bills that deceased loved ones left behind.

Rebecca Gale, 64, lost her husband of 25 years, Michael, to coronavirus last summer. Their insurance fully covered most of the “big stack” of medical bills that Ms. Gale received after his death. But it paid only a small portion of the $50,009 air ambulance bill for Mr. Gale’s transport between hospitals when his condition was deteriorating.

“I cry every day; this is just another thing that breaks my heart, that on top of losing my husband I have to deal with this,” Ms. Gale said.

The family’s health insurance plan limits its coverage of air ambulances to $10,000, and the air ambulance company spent months pursuing an additional $40,009 from Mr. Gale’s estate. Ms. Gale retired last year, from a job at an Ohio automotive factory stamping car parts, anticipating she would get to spend more time with her husband. After he died and the bills started to show up, she considered looking for a part-time job to help pay the charges.

Health care companies have discretion over what to do about the debts of deceased patients, sometimes pursuing their estates for reimbursement.

The air ambulance company, PHI Medical, declined to comment on Mr. Gale’s bill but said in a statement that it “followed the regulatory requirements” for billing coronavirus patients. It did cancel the charges, however, after The Times inquired about the bill.

Shubham Chandra left a well-paying job at a New York City start-up partly to manage the hundreds of medical bills resulting from his father’s seven-month hospitalization. His father, a cardiologist, died from coronavirus last fall.

For months he has spent 10 to 20 hours a week working through the charges, using his mornings for reading through new bills, and his afternoons for calls to insurers and hospitals. His spreadsheet recently showed 97 bills rejected by insurance with a potential of over $400,000 the family could owe. Mr. Chandra tells providers that his father is no longer alive, but the bills continue to accumulate.

“A large part of my life is thinking about these bills,” he said. “It can become an impediment to my day-to-day. It’s hard to sleep when you have hundreds of thousands of dollars in outstanding debts.”

Some coronavirus patients are postponing additional medical care for long-term side effects until they can resolve their existing debts. They are finding that long-haul coronavirus often requires visits to multiple specialists and many scans to resolve lingering symptoms, but they worry about piling up more debt.

Irena Schulz, 61, a retired biologist who lives in South Carolina, became ill with coronavirus last summer. She has multiple lingering side effects, including problems with her hearing and her kidneys. She recently received a $5,400 bill for hearing aids (to help with coronavirus-related hearing loss) that she had expected her health insurance to cover.

She has eschewed trips to the emergency room when feeling ill because she worries about the costs. She’s managing her kidney-related pain by herself, at home, until she feels she can afford to see a specialist.

“I keep on with Tylenol and drinking a lot of water, and I’ve noticed it does help if I drink a lot of pineapple juice,” she said. “If the pain gets past a certain threshold, I’ll see a doctor. We’re retired, we’re on a fixed income, and there are only so many things you can accumulate on the credit card.”

They are facing the same costs as all seriously ill people in the US are facing, unfortunately.

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