High costs of COVID-19: Uninsured Americans struggle to receive medical care

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A woman at a “Streamer Desk” at Naval Medical Center San Diego (NMCSD). The desk is the first stop in determining whether or not a patient goes to the screening tent or to normal patient care. March 31, 2020. Credit: Navy Medicine.

During this global pandemic, access to health care has become a critical issue. Americans are struggling to get adequate care too. That’s the subject of today’s Daily Dose with Michael Wilkes, a professor of medicine and global health at UC Davis.

More than 20 million Americans currently do not have health insurance, and many are people of color, according to Wilkes. Their jobs put them at higher risks of getting sick and injured. They’re janitors or in-home caregivers, for example. And so, they’re being careful about staying healthy so they don’t rack up medical bills.

He says uninsured people are often afraid to get tested — because emergency care is expensive, and they could lose their jobs if they take time off to get those tests. 

Why COVID-19 might make health insurance pricier 

The high costs of COVID-19 care may cause insurance premiums to rise, says Wilkes.

“I don't think that there are any health insurance companies in the world who have considered these kinds of unexpected costs. … The cost of providing care to someone with pneumonia in a typical year is about $20,000. But the estimates for how much it's going to cost to hospitalize someone with COVID-19 are around $70,000,” Wilkes explains.

He adds that canceling elective surgeries nationwide cuts off a source of income for hospitals, so to make up for that, other care can get more expensive. Elective surgeries usually help balance out the high costs of medical care. 

Besides seniors and people with underlying health conditions, are other groups of people vulnerable to COVID-19?

Wilkes points to people with opioid-use disorders. They face higher medical risks, and are more likely to become incarcerated or homeless. 

Those with opiate addictions also often attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and going there can be dangerous during a pandemic because that’s where they receive the drug methadone, Wilkes says.   

“The rules for taking methadone can be absolutely onerous, where you have to go every single day to get your medicine. You have to stand in a queue to get your medicine.”

He also points out that non-English speakers might not have proper access to public health information, which could make them high-risk cases. 

King County, Washington, has more than 1,600 positive cases. Wilkes says that could be partly due to a large Chinese-speaking population that didn’t have access to information. 

In California, people speak more than 200 languages, and 7 million residents have difficulty reading or speaking English. Wilkes is concerned about reaching these populations, and he says many of his patients are having trouble getting paperwork they need. 

Is Congress helping at-risk groups?   

About $100 million of the $8.3 billion COVID-19 stimulus package is intended to go to community health centers. But Wilkes says more money might be needed, given the number of these centers and the costs of specialized care for coronavirus patients.




Chery Glaser