An intubated coronavirus patient was declining rapidly when doctors decided to airlift her to a hospital with better critical care resources.
“It’s life or death,” the family of the 60-year-old woman recalled being told when it happened in April. “We have to transfer her now.”
The patient was flown by helicopter from one Philadelphia hospital to another 20 miles away. She spent six weeks at the new hospital and survived. When she came home, a letter arrived: The air ambulance company said she owed $52,112 for the trip.
Last year, Congress abandoned its attempt to prevent surprise bills like this one, and coronavirus patients are now paying the price. Bills submitted to The New York Times show that patients often face surprise charges from out-of-network doctors, ambulances and medical laboratories they did not pick or even realize were involved in their care.
The plan to ban these kinds of bills was popular and bipartisan, and it was backed by the White House. It fell apart at the 11th hour after private-equity firms, which own many of the medical providers that deliver surprise bills, poured millions into advertisements opposing the plan.
I received one of these surprise bills last year to the tune of almost $3,500 when I was told by my insurer to use a certain hospital for tests. A couple of months after the testing was done, I got hit with bills from out-of-network providers and a lab working with the hospital.
While I paid about $3500 out of pocket, the insurer only covered about $700 on a policy that allegedly had a $500 deductible that I'd already met. My monthly premium for that policy was over $1100. In other words, the insurer didn't even come close to reimbursing one month's worth of premium payment and left me saddled with a huge bill after going to the hospital the insurer told me to use so that my tests would be covered.
When I really dug into the situation, I concluded that there was literally no way for me to have the medically necessary tests without getting hit with a huge bill, despite having insurance that was supposed to cover the testing I needed.