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COVID 'Long Haulers' Struggle Not Only With Lingering Symptoms, They're Also Deep In Medical Debt

Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash
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A study found one in 10 patients who have Medicare Advantage insurance and about one in 14 privately insured patients had to pay over $2,000 within 90 days of discharge from a COVID hospitalization.

"Long COVID" is a range of prolonged symptoms after a COVID-19 infection.

It can include brain fog, fatigue and gastrointestinal issues as well as anxiety and depression, but there can also be some financial side effects like high out-of-pocket costs and medical debt.

Fifteen months after getting COVID, Becca Meyer from Kalamazoo is still dealing with some serious side effects.

She’s also trying to manage the financial burden of "Long COVID." She has four kids, and she can’t work because she’s sick. Her partner was laid off too.

“Any extra money we've had like [our] tax return or stimulus check has all gone to medical debt,” Meyer said. “We don’t purchase anything fun; we purchase medications.”

selfie of Becca Meyer
Credit Courtesy of Beth Meyer
Becca Meyer

Meyer doesn’t actually know how much medical debt she has, but the last time she checked, she thinks it was $10,000. She stopped opening some of her bills.

“It's not the smartest choice, but I can't pay them with fake money, so why open it?”

There are a few reasons why Meyer has such huge costs. The first being she needs a lot of care. She was recently diagnosed with post-COVID generalized GI dysmotility, which is why she needs a feeding tube. Meyer also needs anti-nausea medicine because she’s throwing up all of the time.

On a regular basis, she sees a chiropractor, a therapist and her primary care doctor, and then there’s her teeth.

“I have a huge dental bill,” Meyer said. “I have to pay $6,200 to get my teeth fixed because throwing up every day for 15 months is really not good for your teeth.”

Her insurance doesn’t cover all of these services. She has a cap on certain doctor visits that are covered, and some of her doctors are out of network.

She says some medicines aren’t covered either. She’s tried to change her insurance plans, but bureaucracy is slow, so she’s just waiting until she has the green light to switch her plan.

Until then, it’s piling unopened bills, asking for community support and charging credit cards.

Heather-Elizabeth Brown is another Long COVID patient. She lives in Detroit and got COVID-19 back in April of 2020. Brown is dealing with health issues, like COVID-induced diabetes, pulmonary problems and lymphedema.

selfie of Heather-Elizabeth Brown
Credit Heather-Elizabeth Brown
Heather-Elizabeth Brown

She’s had to exercise a lot of self advocacy over the past 14 months to get the care she needs.

“Even when I see higher price tags on things, I make the decision to go ahead and get the treatment or see this doctor or get this supplement or go to this therapy session, and then look at my finances and try to find a way to make it work,” Brown said.

Back in June 2020, Brown had to go to the hospital for an in-patient physical therapy stay. She had blood clots after COVID and couldn’t walk. She’s now facing a $55,000 medical bill that her insurance won’t cover.

“As far as my plan for paying off the debt, my plan is to get my insurance to cover that $55,000 plus—to just continually go back and not accept ‘no’ as an answer.”

Out-of-Pocket Costs For COVID Are Common

Dr. Kao-Ping Chua is a general pediatrician and health services researcher in the Department of Pediatrics and the Susan B. Meister Child Health Evaluation and Research Center at the University of Michigan.

He’s been studying the out-of-pocket costs of COVID. Chua’s study found a lot of people hospitalized with COVID were on the hook for some of those expenses.

According to his study, 71.2% of privately insured and 49.1% of Medicare Advantage patients had out-of-pocket costs. That’s in spite of claims from many insurance companies that they would waive the costs of initial COVID hospitalizations. 

When these symptoms did start, the medical bills just kept piling up.

Chua found that about one in 10 patients who have Medicare Advantage insurance and about one in 14 privately insured patients had to pay over $2,000 within 90 days of discharge from a COVID hospitalization. Now, in 2021, insurance companies are abandoning those hospitalization waivers.

Chua thinks the federal government should mandate full coverage for COVID hospitalizations at least while the U.S. is still in a public health emergency.

But as far as covering long-term COVID care, the kind of care long haulers need, Chua doesn’t see that happening.

“If you do that for COVID patients, then patients with other chronic diseases who also have to spend a lot, then they'll start saying, well, why not me?” 

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