COVID-19 coverage safety net has plenty of holes in US

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Melissa Wilhelm Szymanski sits with her dog Cooper at home in Glastonbury, Conn., on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. Wilhelm Szymanski got sick earlier this year and wound up with a $3,200 bill because she wasn't diagnosed initially with COVID-19. Even though dozens of insurers and the federal government are offering to pick up all treatment costs during the pandemic, many holes remain for big bills to surprise patients. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

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.

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.

Melissa Szymanski spent five hours in a Hartford, Connecticut, emergency room in late March and wound up with bills totaling about $3,200.