A Virus By Another Name

Right before I went to the ER on March 24, I was on the couch feeling miserable. I knew deep down that I needed to go to the emergency room, but I kept thinking, “I don’t want to go bankrupt.” 

Some background: 

I quit my job at the end of January to pursue freelance work. I knew I’d lose my health insurance but I was prepared to buy it on the exchange like so many self-employed Americans. It took me some time to figure out the best plan. I had ruled out continuing my insurance through COBRA because it was ridiculously high-priced for the crummy plan it was to begin with. I hadn’t quite made the decision yet when I got sick. In other words, I didn’t have insurance. 

As I’m getting sicker and sicker, I was afraid of what was happening with my body and, if I lived, how I’d deal with a medical bill of some unknown amount. As I’m lying on my couch with a temperature of 102 degrees, I managed to find the COBRA sign up information and signed up from my phone. Ten minutes later, I was on my way to the ER. 

Fast forward to today, the bills are in:

For a 15-minute trip to the ER to get tested ($965!) and then a second trip to the ER with a 1-week stay in the hospital the total bill to date (because I have follow-up appointments I still need to do) is  $15,845.34. 

After my insurance, the total I have to pay should be the out-of-pocket maximum of $6,600. This will wipe out my HSA and then some. [Side note: the doctors were worried that the results of the first test would not come back in a timely manner so I had to be retested during my hospital stay. In other words, the $965 visit and charge were for nothing.]

Today, I called the billing department to make sure they sent the bills back through my insurance. I also asked for an itemized bill. They said they couldn’t give it to me. That’s right: the billing department could not get me an itemized bill. I searched through my online account and found a somewhat itemized bill. The billing department’s records showed that I owed $63 less than what my bill said. However, the billing department lady could not explain why. 

The realization is hitting me that I survived one virus only to be faced with another - the medical-industrial complex. And just like with COVID-19, no one seems to have any answers. 

The fact that I mustered up the wherewithal to sign up for COBRA when I could hardly walk to the car is truly astounding to me. I had access to an HSA and I worked hard over ten years to make sure I kept money in there for an emergency such as this. I’m a pretty savvy and stubborn person in general who has the capacity to navigate the system. I’m mentally well enough now that I can. I don’t have dependents that I need to be concerned about. In the end, I will be okay.

Some people will choose to not get help because they are afraid of what a hospital stay will mean financially. Some people have not had access to an HSA, or been well enough not to spend it. Some people don’t have a fallback COBRA plan. Some people will be way too sick to even think about money and will wake up to a $16,000 bill that a stimulus check won’t even begin to cover. Some people will be unable to navigate the convoluted system. What about them?

How can we do better by these friends, neighbors and family members?

A couple of interesting articles:

CNBC article about paying for treatment

NYT opinion piece


  • Coming to you from Australia the US health care situation that most Americans must see as ‘normal’ is to an Aussie abhorrent and inhuman. Here we pay a tiny percentage of our taxes towards unversal health-care, and almost no-one misses out on the care they need or has any more to pay once treated. Those who cannot earn are covered by those that can. US style big-business private health industry has tried to push our system into a more USA-like situation, much as they have tried in other parts of the world, but so far have only dented, and I would say, robbed our health resources for shareholder gain. I can only pray the US moves to a system like ours or say the UK NHS sometime soon in the future – clearly not under your present administration, but perhaps a subsequent one. Thank you for sharing your story. Best wishes and much love from ‘down under’.

  • I know that they had to give you another test but it was pretty ridiculous that you didn’t get the results of the first one. So now you got charged for 2. I thought at one time you got the test for free. Not be able to get an itemized bill. That is nuts!!!! It is your right to see what you are paying for. Some people are never going to be able to recover from this. So sad and for you to have to deal with it when you are not yourself yet.


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