From late March into April, Timothy Regan had severe coughing fits several times a day that often left him out of breath. He had a periodic low-grade fever too.
Wondering if he had COVID-19, Regan called a nurse hotline run by Denver Health, a large public health system in his city. A nurse listened to him describe his symptoms and told him to immediately go to the hospital system’s urgent care facility.
When he arrived at Denver Health — where the emergency room and urgent care facility sit side by side at its main location downtown — a nurse directed him to the ER after he noted chest pain as one of his symptoms.
Regan was seen quickly and given a chest X-ray and electrocardiogram, known as an EKG, to check his lungs and heart. Both were normal.
A doctor prescribed an inhaler to help his breathing and told him he might have bronchitis. The doctor advised that he had to presume he had COVID-19 and must quarantine at home for two weeks.
At the time, on April 3, Denver Health reserved COVID-19 tests for sicker patients. Two hours after arriving at the hospital, Regan was back home. His longest wait was for his inhaler prescription to be filled.
Regan wasn’t concerned about just his own health. His wife, Elissa, who is expecting their second child in August, and their 1-year-old son, Finn, also felt sick with symptoms like those of COVID-19 in April. “Nothing terrible but enough to make me worry,” he said.
Regan, who is an estimator for a construction firm, worked from home throughout his sickness — including while quarantined. (Construction in Colorado and many states has been considered an essential business and has continued to operate.) Regan said he was worried about taking a day off and losing his job.
“I was thinking I had to make all the money I could in case we all had to be hospitalized,” he said. “All I could do was keep working in hopes that everything would be OK.”
Within a couple of weeks, the whole family indeed was OK. “We got lucky,” Elissa said.
Then the bill came.
The patient: Timothy Regan, 40, an estimator for a construction company. The family has health insurance through Elissa’s job at a nonprofit in Denver.
Total bill: Denver Health billed Regan $3,278 for the ER visit. His insurer paid $1,042, leaving him with $2,236 to pay based on his $3,500 in-network deductible. The biggest part of the bill was the $2,921 general ER fee.
Service provider: Denver Health, a large public health system
Medical service: Regan was evaluated in the emergency room for COVID-19-like symptoms, including a severe cough, fever and chest pain. He was given several tests to check his heart and lungs, prescribed an inhaler and sent home.
What gives: When patients use hospital emergency rooms — even for short visits with few tests — it’s not unusual for them to get billed thousands of dollars no matter how minor the treatment received. Hospitals say the high fees come from having to staff the ER with specialists 24 hours a day and keep lifesaving equipment up to date.
Denver Health coded Timothy’s ER visit as a Level 4 — the second highest and second most expensive — on a 5-point scale. The other items on his bill were $225 for the EKG, $126 for the chest X-ray and $6 for his albuterol inhaler, a medication that provides quick relief for breathing problems.
The Regans knew they had a high deductible, and they try to avoid unnecessarily using the ER. But with physician offices not seeing patients with COVID-19 symptoms in April, Timothy said he had little choice when Denver Health directed him first to its urgent care and then to its ER. “I felt bad, but I had been dealing with it for a while,” he said.
Elissa said they were trying hard to do everything by the book, including using a health provider in their plan’s network.
“We did not anticipate being hit with such a huge bill for the visit,” Elissa said. “We had intentionally called the nurse’s line trying to be responsible, but that did not work.”
In an effort to remove barriers to people getting tested and evaluated for COVID-19, UnitedHealthcare is one of many insurers that announced it will waive cost sharing for COVID-19 testing-related visits and treatment. But it is not clear how many people who had COVID-19 symptoms but who did not get tested when tests were in short supply have been billed as the Regans were.
Resolution: A Denver Health spokesperson said Regan was not tested for COVID-19 because he was not admitted and did not have risk factors such as diabetes, heart disease or asthma. He was not billed as a COVID-19 patient because he was not tested for the virus. The medical center has since expanded its testing capacity, the spokesperson said.
UnitedHealthcare officials reviewed Regan’s case at the request of Kaiser Health News. Based on Regan’s symptoms and the tests performed, Denver Health should have billed them using a COVID-19 billing code, an insurer spokesperson said. “We reprocessed Mr. Regan’s original claims after reviewing the services that he received,” a UnitedHealthcare spokesperson said. “All cost share for that visit has been waived.”
The Regans said they were thrilled with UHC’s decision.
“That is wonderful news,” Elissa said upon hearing from a KHN reporter that UHC would waive their costs. “We are very thankful. It is a huge relief.”
The takeaway: The Regans said they initially found no satisfaction in calling the hospital or the insurer to resolve their dispute — but it was the right thing to do.
“He’s definitely not alone,” said Sabrina Corlette, a research professor at Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms. “The takeaway here is both the provider as well as insurance company are still on a learning curve with respect to this virus and how to bill and pay for it.”
Corlette said Timothy should not have second-guessed his decision to use the Denver Health ER when directed there by a nurse. That, too, was the right call.
Insurers’ move to waive costs associated with COVID-19 testing and related treatment is vital to stem the outbreak — but it works only if patients can trust they won’t get stuck with a large bill, she said. “It’s a critical piece of the public health strategy to beat this disease,” Corlette said.
To help with billing, she said, patients could ask their provider to note on their medical chart when they seek care for a possible case of COVID-19. But it’s not patients’ responsibility to make sure providers use the right billing code, she said. Patients need to know they have rights to appeal costs to their insurer. They can also seek assistance from their employer’s benefits department and state insurance department.
Bill of the Month is a crowdsourced investigation by Kaiser Health News and NPR that dissects and explains medical bills. Do you have an interesting medical bill you want to share with us? Tell us about it!