These women suffered from coronavirus symptoms for weeks and sometimes months, and now face staggering costs.

By Brienne Walsh
October 30, 2020
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Credit: Getty Images

Even with health insurance, Kristin, who is in her 50s and lives in Seattle, struggles to pay for the care she needs to deal with her lingering COVID-19 symptoms. After coming down with the virus at the beginning of February, she has suffered from extreme exhaustion, bad eye infections and a nagging cough for months now. When her doctor prescribed an inhaler to help her breathe, Kristin was shocked to discover that it cost $300, even with insurance. “We had to dip into our savings to pay for it,” she says. Because she was unable to get a test in March—Seattle was an early hot spot, and tests were scarce—her doctor marked her diagnosis as “probable” COVID-19, which excluded her from benefits given to COVID-19 patients by her health insurance company.

With a high deductible on her health plan, she started putting off paying for other things entirely. Indeed, when Kristin’s doctor suggested she get a CT scan to find out the extent of damage to her lungs, Kristin nodded, but didn’t do it. “I’ve been letting myself go without because I don’t know how much things will cost,” she says.

What’s more, while before the pandemic, Kristin—who withheld her last name to protect her privacy—was working at a family business that hosted cooking classes, she has yet to return to work. She and her husband can survive on his income, but just barely. “My life has shut down,” she says. “I don’t see myself ever being able to go back to work, because I don’t feel well, and I can’t trust being out in public.”

Kristin is one of millions of Americans who are living with the after-effects of COVID-19. The CDC estimates that one in three patients who suffered from COVID-19 have prolonged symptoms. These symptoms can lead to lost wages and jobs, medical debt and mental health problems, among many other issues, experts say. “It’s still early in the pandemic. We’re only just beginning to see the long-term [health and financial] impacts of the disease,” says David Goldhill, the CEO of Sesame, a direct-to-patient healthcare company. “There are so many question marks.”

But one thing is clear on the financial front: Getting COVID-19 can be costly. A study published in the journal Health Affairs found that the average cost of a coronavirus infection is $3,045 in direct medical costs—four times the amount of a flu infection. Fair Health, a nonprofit that collects data for private health insurance companies, found that the average cost of hospitalization for a COVID-19 infection is $73,300.

For the roughly 30 million Americans who don’t have health insurance this can lead to a lifetime of debt, bankruptcy (medical debt is the No. 1 cause of bankruptcy, research shows) and other financial issues. Fortunately, in response to the pandemic, many large health insurers waived fees for testing, doctor’s visits and hospitalizations due to COVID-19. (For a full list of healthcare benefits from major providers, follow this link.) Even still, many Americans remain in the dark about the coverage available to them during the pandemic. A recent poll conducted by Policygenius found that 8% of respondents avoided COVID-19 testing, treatment and care because they were unsure whether it was covered. What’s more, many people who suspected they were infected with COVID-19 early in the pandemic, but, like Kristin, were unable to get tested due to a shortage of tests, may be exempted from some updated COVID-19 benefits.

And the medical costs don’t even take into account the staggering financial impact of lost wages due to COVID-19. Indeed, an estimated 33.6 million private industry and state and local government workers do not have paid sick leave. So when they don’t go to work, they don’t get paid; if you get COVID-19, and especially if you get it and have lingering symptoms that prevent you from working, this can cost you thousands in lost wages.

What’s more, some Americans say they were subtly punished at work for their illness. Emma, 31, a dental hygienist who lives in Detroit, tested positive for COVID-19 on September 2. She quarantined for three weeks until she received a negative test, and then returned to work on September 29, only to find that she had lost her most lucrative shift. Emma, despite working in the healthcare industry, does not have health insurance. She works at an hourly rate, and estimates that since September 1, she’s only made $1,000. She’s had to dip into her savings to pay everything from her mortgage to her expenses for her two children, aged 7 and 10. “I’m afraid this is going to keep on happening to me,” she says.

And sometimes, the financial impacts of the disease ripple far out into the community. After several months of little money coming into her business. Laurina, the owner of a car repair shop in Los Angeles, had to discontinue health insurance for her employees. “We had four months without any income, and we couldn’t afford our premiums,” she says.

When Laurina herself tested positive for COVID-19 at the end of August, she says she paid for all employees to be tested, for a total of $1,700. Like many people who have contracted the virus, Laurina suffered severe symptoms including fatigue that made it impossible for her to get out of bed to work. She still struggles to put in a full day, and estimates that her personal care, from doctor’s visits to prescription decongestants, have cost roughly $3,500 out of pocket.

“We’ve been hit twice,” she said. “First, our business struggled because of the shutdown. And now, it’s struggling because of the virus.” If you have COVID-19-related healthcare costs, Kaiser Health News recommends challenging bills that you think should be covered and asking your doctor to make a note in your chart that you are being treated for possible COVID-19 so that insurance companies have a record.