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March 6, 2021

Francis Koster: What will catching COVID-19 cost you?

By Francis Koster

America’s health insurance system is like a ratty old quilt. 

If your body is covered by the thick part of the quilt, you can feel more or less comfortable. If your quilt has too many holes in it, you suffer. North Carolina has 17% of its population uninsured. We rank sixthworst out of all 50 states for our percentage of uninsured.  Those uninsured who get sick will have mountains of debt they will not have the ability to pay.

Insurance claims filed by COVID-19 patients show that if you catch mild case  but can recover at home, the cost of treatment averages around $750 for your care. If you need to be hospitalized, the bill from the hospital is around $34,000. If you are so sick you need to be in intensive care, the cost is about $84,000.  

Last week, we were approaching 30 million confirmed cases of COVID-19. Even with the increasing number of people getting vaccinated, public health experts tell us that because of the new strains of the virus they expect the number of infected to more than double to 60 million (around one in five Americans) by June 1. Multiply those 60 million citizens by those bills I mentioned above, and you can see that the total healthcare expenses will be enormous.

This problem is bigger than it looks because medical researchers tell us that one out of 10 COVID-19 infected Americans will suffer longer lasting and expensive impacts on their brain, heart, lungs and/or kidneys.  

Doctors do not know for sure how long these after-affects will last, but it appears some of them may linger for life — and so will the financial cost. As a result you will then have a “pre-existing condition,” and if it were not for the Affordable Care Act you would not be able to get affordable health insurance ever.

There are three ways uninsured North Carolinians can reduce their risk of financial disaster. If they meet the guidelines, they can sign up for North Carolina Medicaid — a federal program administered by the states. One in five North Carolinians gets their insurance that way already. To sign up, you can call 888-245-0179 or go on line and look up North Carolina Medicaid Program. You can fill out the forms on your cell phone.   

If you are not eligible for Medicaid, another way to get insurance is to buy it from a private insurance company under the Affordable Care Act. President Biden has just signed an emergency Executive Order which opens up a special window of time from Feb. 15 to May 15 to allow uninsured Americans threatened by COVID-19 to register for Affordable Care Act insurance.

When you buy insurance from private insurance companies who cooperate with the Affordable Care Act, the federal government contributes to the premium so the cost to the newly insured is much lower than it would otherwise be. In the 10 years since the Affordable Care Act was passed, it has really worked — the number of uninsured Americans under 65 has been reduced by a third. Public opinion polls show the majority of all Americans support this law, although many support additional tweaks to make it better. There are a wide range of plans at various costs and benefits available. To sign up, you can go to the Navigator consortium’s website at ncnavigator.net or call the toll free number 855-733-3711. 

The third way is to ask our state legislators to join 39 other states, and adopt Medicaid for All. Enrolled states see cost savings in unemployment compensation, food stamps, supplemental social security and mental health care. Ninety percent of the program cost is paid for by the federal government. Because of political disagreements between the legislature and the governor’s office, North Carolina residents have been denied access.  

This debate has been going on for years now. It is time to take action.

There are some specific things that could be done locally to make sure more people are insured. Anyone giving COVID-19 tests or vaccinations could pass out application forms or instructions about how to log in online so that those sitting in line for their shot could complete the paperwork.  Churches, YMCAs, Rotary Clubs and similar groups could host volunteers who would help those needing insurance fill out the applications.   

Seizing the moment requires us to help our less fortunate neighbors both by changing things at the legislative level, and acting as caring individuals.  Let’s work together to patch this torn quilt.

Koster, who lives in Kannapolis, spent most of his career as chief innovation officer in one of the nation’s largest pediatric health care systems.

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