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How Much Did You Pay For COVID-19 Treatment?

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inewsource and KPBS are partnering up to uncover the cost of COVID-19.

Speaker 1: 00:00 For the last nine months, officials have assured us testing and treatment for COVID-19 is affordable, but is that true? Well, a project between, I knew sources, Jill Castellano and KPBS health reporter Teran, Minto hopes to answer that question and both of them join us now. Taran. Jill. Welcome. Thank you. Thanks. Hey, Taron, I'll start with you. What prompted this project?

Speaker 2: 00:23 Yeah. Th the New York times has done some excellent work on surprise medical bills and found that some patients were receiving unexpected charges, not covered by insurance. Even a resident in a nursing facility told the times that they had a COVID fee to cover personal protective equipment. Another COVID patient saw a similar PPE charge on a bill for an ambulance ride. The time referred to this as the COVID charge, they also reported on surprise fees for out of network services, uh, that the patient wasn't aware they were receiving. So we're looking to see if any of this has happening in San Diego County

Speaker 1: 00:59 And Joe, you know, aside from looking at San Diego County, what do you hope to find out from all this?

Speaker 2: 01:04 Well, we know medical bills can be really expensive. There are cases where patients are being charged a lot of money for COVID testing or treatment, and sometimes they had no idea it was going to cost that much. We also know some providers are charging more than others for the same services, which shows a problem with equity in our healthcare system. So we're trying to understand why these situations are happening and prevent residents from facing the same problems in the future

Speaker 1: 01:32 In Taran. What's the reason some medical bills are so expensive despite government assurances that they won't be

Speaker 2: 01:39 Right. There are, there are laws. Um, insurance companies are required to pay the full cost of COVID-19 testing without charging a patient, anything. And if a patient receives care at an out of network facility, they're not supposed to face higher charges for that, but if they go to a facility in their network and a doctor there happens to be out of their network, then that could cost more. So there are exceptions to treatment and testing, and, and that's what we're looking into. We're trying to learn from our audience when these happen and then dig into why it's happening.

Speaker 1: 02:11 And Jill, you all mentioned in your call out that some high medical bills related to COVID-19 are just unavoidable. Can you tell me about some of those situations?

Speaker 2: 02:20 Absolutely. One of the most common scenarios is ambulances either on the ground transport, or when it gets really expensive is helicopter rides. If you're unconscious, it might be the case that you need to be airlifted to the hospital and you have no control over that situation. You certainly don't have to have control over who operates that helicopter, who owns that helicopter, what agreement that owner has with your insurance company or with the hospital you're being flown into. So, because of all those factors, there are cases we've seen where people are being charged tens of thousands of dollars for these helicopter rides. There was one recent study that found as many as 70% of ambulance rides could result in surprise out of network bills.

Speaker 1: 03:04 Wow. So medical transport is one thing Taryn talked to me about some of the hidden fees and these medical bills that you're, that you're hearing about.

Speaker 2: 03:10 Right? So the times has reported, you know, that some nursing homes and dentists are charging customers, extra fees without letting them know beforehand, to maybe make up the money that they're spending to acquire that personal protective equipment for their workers. And the times called these COVID fees. And that could be around 25 or $50.

Speaker 1: 03:27 And so then Jill, tell me about these medical offices and facilities. Can they realistically offer COVID testing and treatment at an affordable price and are they given resources to do so from the government?

Speaker 2: 03:40 Yeah, that really gets to the heart of this project. We know here in San Diego County and state testing sites are fully covering the cost of testing and charging $0. I've gone to these sites and paid $0. We've started to have people write into our call-out and say they haven't paid any money for going to these County and state sites. But we also know there are other sites out there and that we need those other sites that are not County or state run to meet the need in San Diego County. And we've started receiving responses from people saying they've paid as much as $160 for testing at some of those private sites. So the question is, are those private providers receiving enough financial support from the government to make testing and treatment affordable? And if they are, why are they charging so much? Basically we want to know, could COVID healthcare be less expensive than it is right now?

Speaker 1: 04:29 And Taran, we keep mentioning this call out. What do you need for people listening to this to do

Speaker 2: 04:33 Well, they can help us by telling us, you know, what have you been charged for COVID-19 testing or treatment, and then spreading the word about this project, uh, and to answer the questions about what you've been charged, you can go to kpbs.org/covid cost. Uh, and because this is an I new source KPBS partnership, you can also email covid@inewsource.org, also KPBS, and a new source or on Twitter. Jill and I are on Twitter. So you can tweet us there and we've, we've both pushed. Benmar pushing out the link. That'll take you back to how you can answer these questions.

Speaker 1: 05:08 I've been speaking with Tara and Minto KPBS health reporter, and Jill. Castellano a reporter with I news source. Thank you. Both of you.

Speaker 2: 05:15 Thank you. Thanks.

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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.