Once upon a time, the only thing Americans didn’t have to worry about when it came to covid-19 was how to pay for treatment. In the early days of the pandemic, government policy required insurance companies to waive fees for tests and treatment, including hospitalization—giving the country a taste of what it might be like to live with universal healthcare coverage.
That changed relatively rapidly, however. While the requirement to cover testing remained in place, treatment coverage obligations for insurers were reversed in many states. Throughout 2020, most insurers continued to wave fees for covid-19 treatment, which can be very expensive, particularly for patients with severe cases, who may have to be intubated and remain hospitalized for weeks or even months.
But in early 2021, coverage started to change, and a new report published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) shows that since August 2021, the average out-of-pocket cost related to covid-19 diagnoses resulting in hospitalization has totaled $4,000 for privately-insured patients.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the report found, only 2.2% of privately insured patients had any cost-sharing associated with covid-19 hospitalization. That percentage rose to 8.8% by January 2021, only to shoot up to more than 82% in March 2021.
A handful of states—Idaho, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia—still require that insurance companies waive cost sharing for covid-19. In some cases that includes pathologies with similar symptoms (such as pneumonia, or a severe flu) to encourage people experiencing respiratory illnesses to seek care, without the fear of a large bill if their illness didn’t turn out to be covid-19. But everywhere else in the country, patients are paying for treatment.
The report looked at more than 11,000 patients who had been hospitalized with covid-19 listed as the primary illness between March 2020 and March 2021. The vast majority didn’t pay anything, as they were treated while the waivers were still in place. But starting in early 2021, most patients have shared the cost of treatment, with a median cost of $3,998 per person. People living in western states typically had higher bills, with an average of $4,600 per person, while patients in the northeast spent less, $3,100 on average.
Although calls to return to normal are gaining traction across the political spectrum, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention more than 12,000 people a day are hospitalized for covid-19 in the US, and the disease continues to cause more than 2,300 deaths a day.