“You gotta admit, folks, universal healthcare doesn’t sound too crazy now, does it?” says actor and comedian Larry David, in character as US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, in this weekend’s Saturday Night Live cold open about a coronavirus press conference.
For at least one American family, the joke is not playing to hypothetical fears: They’ve already received surprise medical bills connected to a government-mandated quarantine to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
The New York Times reports that Frank Wucinski, an American who lived and worked in Wuhan, China, and his 3-year-old daughter were put into quarantine in Marine Corps Station Miramar, near San Diego, in early February. Wucinski had voluntarily evacuated Wuhan, where the current outbreak originated, when the US government offered to assist Americans in the city. (His wife, who is being treated for pneumonia that doctors believe is associated with the virus, did not travel with her spouse and child.)
During their stay, the father and daughter were twice sent to the nearby Rady Children’s Hospital for isolation treatment that lasted three or four days. When the quarantine ended and both were found to be free of the virus (they’ve been tested multiple times, according to the paper), they went to stay with Wucinski’s mother in Pennsylvania.
The hospital bills apparently got there first.
So far, the bills total $3,918, of which nearly $2,600 is from the ambulance company that took them to the hospital. The other charges came from hospital doctors and radiologists.
Wucinski turned to GoFundMe, a popular crowdfunding site, to help pay for the costs, as The Intercept reports.
Wucinski told the Times that he knew he would have to pay for the evacuation flight, but he had assumed the government was paying the hospital bills. “We didn’t have a choice. When the bills showed up, it was just a pit in my stomach, like, ‘How do I pay for this?’” he said.
In China, Wucinski has medical coverage through his employer, a British standardized testing company, but he does not have insurance for US medical care.
To be sure, it’s possible that Wucinski will not have to pay all the charges. The hospital has told reporters that the bill was sent in error. But Wucinski and his daughter were just one of many families who were quarantined under federal order, the Times points out. (The ambulance company declined to comment on the case to the Times, but said they would be looking into the matter.)
One expert who spoke to the paper said it’s unclear who is legally obliged to pay for federally mandated quarantines, which could increase as the Covid-19 outbreak continues to spread around the world.
Although the government has the right to quarantine citizens when a public health threat exists, the laws do not stipulate who is responsible for costs incurred by private hospitals and other healthcare providers. And because quarantines have been so rare, there’s no standard practice to follow, Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, told the news outlet. “They do have the powers, but they’ve almost never used them in modern times.”
The professor “worries that high charges for mandatory isolation could make patients wary of seeking needed medical treatment,” the Times wrote. That could lead to greater spread of the disease by individuals who are infected but too wary of expensive health services to visit hospitals.
For international travelers in America without insurance, US medical care is particularly burdensome: Out-of-pocket costs for hospital stays and other procedures carried out in the US can be thousands of dollars more than the same care in other countries.
Research shows medical costs act as a deterrent to seeking medical attention in the US, even for those with insurance, if they have high deductibles. Tens of millions of Americans are also underinsured or not insured at all.
It isn’t only those who have been quarantined under federal orders who have to be concerned, either. Another American man has been billed for taking necessary and protective precautions against the disease in the US.
A Miami resident, Osmel Martinez Azcue, was charged for a test he requested at a local hospital after he sought care for flu-like symptoms that followed a work trip to China, as Quartz reporter Alison Griswold noted last week. The hospital staff had recommended a CT scan, but Azcue wanted a flu test, which came back positive. Later, he was charged $1,400, nearly half of the $3,270 total claimed by his insurance.
“One of the disadvantages the US has in trying to tackle Covid-19 is that many people avoid going to see a healthcare provider because they are worried about the cost,” Gavin Yamey, professor of global health and public policy at Duke University, told Griswold. “You absolutely want people in this situation to be going to see a health provider.”
In contrast to the US, in South Korea, where citizens are already covered by universal healthcare, Covid-19 testing has reportedly been made free to all.
There are currently 70 confirmed cases of Covid-19 disease in the US, 22 of which were discovered through the US public health system, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC.) A man in his 50s in Washington state became the first US covid-19 patient to die from complications of the virus, the CDC announced yesterday.