Doctors, nurses, and healthcare providers across America are fighting on the frontlines against COVID-19. These heroes are working around-the-clock and putting themselves in harms’ way to protect patients when they are most vulnerable.
Congress faces two choices as this deadly pandemic spreads across the country. Washington can either support and protect our frontline doctors as they provide care to vulnerable patients or they can give more power to insurance companies looking to boost their bottom lines. The answer should be obvious.
Big insurance companies promised that they would waive co-pays and fees for COVID-19 tests. But across the country, insurers are still sending surprise medical bills to patients, discouraging many from seeking the tests and treatment they need. While President Trump and his administration rightly pushed the insurance companies to cover costs for patients, much of the damage has already been done.
Osmel Martinez of Florida was recently hit with a $3,270 surprise bill from his insurance company after he went to the hospital to be tested. He had developed flu-like symptoms when he arrived home from a business trip to China. Although Osmel was fine, he was still forced to pay for much of the cost. Unfortunately, Osmel’s story is becoming more and more common.
Frank Wucinski, a Pennsylvania native, didn’t have a choice in getting preventative treatment for COVID-19. He was evacuated from Wuhan with his 3-year-old daughter and placed in quarantine at a Marine Corps station in California. Wucinski and his daughter were twice transported from the base to a nearby hospital for mandatory quarantine, where they stayed for days. Eventually, they were cleared and sent home to Pennsylvania, where they were hit by surprise medical bills. Frank was charged nearly $4,000. He said he had a pit in his stomach when he saw the bill.
Reports of insurers not covering costs associated with coronavirus could have deterred those with symptoms from getting tested early on, as they were afraid of finding a bill for thousands of dollars afterwards. And while insurers have temporarily agreed to cover some costs related to coronavirus testing, it’s not a permanent fix, as there is no guarantee that insurers will cover hospital stays and other medical services.
Insurers and their allies in Congress are even pushing legislation that would make it harder for doctors to deliver the care we depend on. Government-rate setting, which some members are pushing to include in the next COVID-relief package, would make it harder for rural and safety net hospitals to deliver care. In the past 15 years, 170 rural hospitals have closed around the country. Congress must not pass legislation that will exacerbate physician shortages in the midst of a deadly pandemic.
Meanwhile, doctors on the front lines are also struggling as the healthcare sector has come to a standstill. Many doctors have been forced to postpone scheduled and elective, non-essential treatments to focus all their efforts on treating patients. This has caused a financial crisis for doctors who have lost their main sources of income. And, as if the financial toll were not enough, medical professionals are forced to self-isolate to protect their own families from contracting the virus.
Congress has to support our first responders in the next coronavirus relief package—or else doctors won’t have the resources they need to care for patients. Both sides of the political aisle, from Rep. Nancy Pelosi to Rep. Kevin McCarthy, must take the lead on this issue and support the doctors who are at the tip of the spear in this fight and who are the pillars of our national coronavirus recovery plan.
With help from leaders in Congress, we can provide medical professionals with the aid and support they need in this fight against a powerful, invisible enemy.
Ted Alexander is a State Senator representing North Carolina’s 44th District.