Story at a glance
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has designed its own test for the coronavirus, rather than using the guidelines designed by the World Health Organization.
- Creating the guidelines cost time, and it could cost Americans more money — especially if they don't have health insurance.
- Experts are warning that the cost of testing and treatment could keep people infected with COVID-19 from seeing a doctor.
The novel coronavirus has arrived in the U.S., and while government officials assure the public they are ready for it, there’s another question hanging over the heads of some Americans — can I afford to get it?
Millions of Americans are uninsured — 27.5 million at last count in 2018. For them, even going to the hospital to get tested can come at a steep cost. Business Insider estimated that the average visit to the doctor could cost anywhere between $149 to $1,151, not including the cost of any testing.
Even those who are insured face tough numbers. In Miami, a man who returned to the U.S. from a work trip in China went to the hospital fearing he may be infected with COVID-19. Osmel Martinez Azcue told the Miami Herald he would normally have gone to CVS for over-the-counter medicine to treat his symptoms, but felt he had a responsibility to get tested amid fears of a coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. Azcue tested positive for the flu and went home with a bill for $3,270, which cost him $1,400 after insurance.
Dr. Karan Chhabra, a surgical resident at Brigham and Women's Hospital, said on Twitter these steep costs are hazardous, especially in the midst of such an outbreak.
There’s a serious moral hazard issue here. If I’m uninsured or underinsured, why would I risk going broke to get tested for COVID19? Safer to stay home (or even go to work) & hope for the best.— Karan Chhabra, MD (@krchhabra) February 29, 2020
Policymakers need to align incentives for people to do the right thing. https://t.co/6cMfx2qaCC
"Patients with high-deductible health plans, [where the monthly premium is lower but individuals must pay more costs before the insurance company pays its share] especially the short-term 'junk' plans that the Trump administration has actually expanded, are particularly vulnerable," Chhabra told Newsweek.
Jonathan Gruber, professor of economics at MIT, told Newsweek screening for conditions like COVID-19 is free or inexpensive for most Americans under the Affordable Care Act — if they visit a doctor.
"This guy's mistake was going to the hospital," Gruber told Newsweek. "The test would be cheap or free at a doctor’s office or clinic."
Still, some public officials are taking the concern seriously. After the first confirmed case of coronavirus was reported in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed state health insurers to waive fees related to coronavirus testing.
BREAKING: I am announcing a new directive requiring NY health insurers to waive cost sharing associated with testing for #coronavirus, including emergency room, urgent care and office visits.— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) March 3, 2020
We can't let cost be a barrier to access to COVID-19 testing for any New Yorker.
Until recently, only the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) could distribute test kits, but officials say the U.S. is preparing to loosen regulations on who can test for the virus, allowing private companies to get in the mix.