This Is One Anxiety We Should Eliminate for the Coronavirus Outbreak

Over at the New York Times, Dave Anderson (the indefatigable blogger at Balloon Juice) and I have a new op-ed on the risks of surprise billing in connection with coronavirus.

In a coronavirus pandemic, a patient can do everything right and still face substantial surprise bills. Take someone who fears that she may have contracted Covid-19. After self-quarantining for a week, she develops severe shortness of breath. Her partner rushes her to the nearest in-network emergency room. But she’s actually seen by an out-of-network doctor — who may soon send her a hefty bill for the visit.

Matters get worse if the in-network hospital is approaching capacity and the patient is healthy enough to be sent to a hospital across town with spare beds. If the second hospital is outside her insurance network, she could potentially receive a second surprise bill. A third could come from the ambulance that transfers her — it too might not be in-network, and no one will think to check during a crisis. She could get a fourth surprise bill if her coronavirus tests are sent to an out-of-network lab. And so on.

Even in normal times, patients with private insurance receive roughly one surprise bill for every 10 inpatient hospital admissions.

These are not normal times.

Like my prior post on why federal law will prevent states from mandating coronavirus tests, the op-ed explores how a preexisting problem in our health-care system—ERISA there, surprise billing here—will create difficulties in coping with the coronavirus pandemic. Every one of the system’s many warts will show.


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