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10 Investigates’ 'Show us your bills' project reveals disparity, lack of clarity on COVID healthcare costs

The surging number of COVID-19 cases across the country – and especially midwestern states like Ohio – has led to a surge in hospitalizations.

The surging number of COVID-19 cases across the country – and especially midwestern states like Ohio – has led to a surge in hospitalizations.

Those increasing numbers, state health officials warned this week, could place increased pressure on hospital staffing and bed capacity as community spread remains the main culprit for the rise in infections.

With more people being hospitalized – 3,024 in Ohio as of Wednesday – it could certainly mean an increase in hospital bills for patients once they recover.

With area hospitals unwilling to discuss their specific pricing on-camera with 10 Investigates, we attempted to understand from patients how much their COVID-19 treatment had cost them.

We started the segment here called “Show Us Your Bills” - dovetailing off work our sister station in Denver began years ago. What we found were patients frustrated by sticker shock and an overall disparity and lack of clarity about what are the costs for COVID-19 testing and COVID-related care.

The answer is that the costs vary depending on where people were tested for COVID-19, how they were tested, treated (whether they were insured or uninsured) and whether their infection required a stay in the hospital.

“This bill to me is a like a slap in the face, it’s like a slap in the face. Everyone wants you to get tested, tested, tested and I had no idea this was coming,” said Vicki Beckley, a part-time waitress in McArthur, Ohio told 10 Investigates.

Beckley was not happy about the $335 bill she received after getting a COVID-19 test. To her relief, the test was negative for coronavirus. What she is positive about is that she’ll be challenging the bill.

“I haven’t called them – but I don’t want to pay it because I think it’s wrong,” Beckley said.

Adrian Thrush shared with us his COVID-19 test cost, which ended up being about $120 from the Fairfield Medical Center. Thrush said he felt lucky considering he initially went to the hospital to be tested and was told he might want to go to a drive-thru clinic which would reduce the out-of-pocket cost to them.

Nick Harger said he ended up with a more than $700 bill from Ohio State Wexner Medical Center even though he says he spent less than six hours in the hospital room. Harger says he caught COVID-19 during the second wave in July. He tested positive at an urgent care clinic and started to self-isolate and recover at home when he says “it started to feel like I was breathing through a straw.”

“I didn’t have breathing issues immediately. Then once the pain started subsiding – that’s when I started having the breathing problems – that’s where it started to feel like I was breathing through a straw,” he said.

He sought help at the hospital, which his bill shows ran a series of tests, provided him with some medication and then sent him home.

“I coughed, coughed, coughed. I thought the coughing was going to take me out,” said Robin Baker, a housekeeping employee who says she believes she caught COVID-19 after cleaning rooms on a COVID floor at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center.

“If we don’t clean the area, the nurses can’t accept the patient. I am dedicated. I love my job. But for me to get the bill I couldn’t understand it.”

Baker said she spent a week in the hospital in April. She said she had great doctors and nurses and luckily was never placed on a ventilator.

Before insurance kicked in, her bill was more than $33,000. While her health insurance covered the lion’s share of that it did leave behind a remainder of approximately $2,000 which she says right now she can’t afford to pay.

“Baby I wish. I wish I did. I wish it was that easy. But even trying to make this payment I still need help. It went as far as it’s with the collection agent,” she said.

Baker says she fears her debt may linger, like the breathing difficulties she still has months later.

“I am just going to tell them I don’t have it, I don’t have it right now,” she said.

10 Investigates reached out to Sue Null, a medical-billing advocate, to ask her about the struggles with understanding medical costs during the COVID-era. Her advice, she says, is the same.

“Your knee-jerk reaction should not be you get a bill you pay it immediately because if you haven’t gone over it forensically you could be overpaying,” Null said, whose business, Systemedic, aims to help alleviate medical billing errors and ensure patients are paying the lowest cost necessary.

Her best advice after receiving a medical bill – pick up the phone, talk to the provider, talk to the insurer covering the costs of the care or treatment.

Null says hospitals use codes as part of their billing system and those help determine how much you pay.

With Nick’s permission, Null took a look at his bill and said knowing he entered the hospital knowing he was already COVID positive could have impacted how he was charged.

“The question to me is what was the cost that this was billed with because if it was not COVID-19 then he could dispute with the hospital that I came in for COVID 19 will you re-bill this as a corrected claim,” Null said.

With the hospitals unwilling to talk for an on-camera interview, we spoke to John Palmer with the Ohio Hospital Association.

Palmer says the hospitals have their own patient advocates and have received government assistance through the CARES Act to help cover the costs of the uninsured.

But Sue says that doesn’t arm patients with the knowledge to know if they’re paying what they should, and she says hospitals can often hide their master price lists.

Her best advice is for patients to help themselves. If you have questions about your bill, stay on it.

“80 percent of medical bills have mistakes in them. You want to make sure yours isn’t one of them,” Null said.

Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center said no one was available to speak to us on camera regarding pricing, but a spokeswoman provided this statement:

“We offer our charges on our website or patients can call for an estimate.

We’ve had very few concerns with covid-related billing and minimal issues with payers denying claims. Of the issues that have come up, the biggest confusion lies with a couple situations:

  • The patient has both a covid test and a flu or strep test… the covid test is paid in full, but the payer invokes the patient’s deductible or co-insurance for the other test.
  • The patient presents for inpatient services. Depending on the reason for the admission, the payer might invoke the patient’s deductible or co-insurance. 
  • The patient presents in the emergency department. While the covid test is covered, the payer applies the patient’s emergency dept. copay or coinsurance on any other services rendered. 

There is a misunderstanding about the CARES Act. If the patient has insurance, the hospital must bill that payer. The hospital must prove the patient is uninsured before billing the CARES Act. When the patient is scheduling the covid test, sometimes they’re confused by this and want us to bill the CARES Act, when we can’t. There is very thorough scrutiny on whether the patient has any insurance.”

Here is a link to the charge list for Ohio State Wexner Medical Center ( remember these are cost estimates):

https://wexnermedical.osu.edu/patient-and-visitor-guide/patient-pricing-lists

A spokesman for Ohio Health declined 10 Investigates request for information on pricing and suggested we reach out to the OHA.

A spokeswoman for Mount Carmel provided 10 Investigates with the following information:

“Every patient’s case is special and requires different levels of care. There are many factors that can influence cost of care, including complexity of care, length-of-stay, staffing, specialists required, and so on. Therefore, it is difficult to provide the average cost for treatment of a COVID-19 patient that would be meaningful to an individual.

We have not found many, if any, inquiries surrounding COVID-related billing. If a concern surfaces, it's important for us to alleviate patient confusion or concern associated with their cost of care. If a patient does have a question, they can call 614-324-8888.

As we continue to treat COVID-19 patients as well as other patients in our facilities, we are committed to providing safe, high-quality care, and we remain prepared and well-equipped to do so.”