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A $35,000 COVID bill

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A worker decontaminates an ambulance on April 6, 2020, in Yonkers, New York.

A worker decontaminates an ambulance. John Moore/Getty Images

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At first, it seemed like a drug complication, or the flu.

Danni Askini was recovering from cancer, Hodgkin lymphoma, when they started to get chest pains, a migraine and a cough. It was late February, and COVID-19 cases were still relatively uncommon in the U.S.

Askini knew their symptoms could have been caused by a lot of different things, but then things worsened. They developed a persistent cough; their breaths rattled and gurgled. They decided to go to the emergency room.

Askini is a nurse and a medical social worker, so they put on a mask before getting in the ambulance, just in case it was COVID-19. At the hospital, they were put in a decontamination room; everyone was in protective gear, there were extra precautions.

“My brain was just so foggy. I could barely talk, and I was really confused,” they said. “Also I was just thinking about how like the disturbing irony of spending 18 months fighting cancer only to die of a virus.”

Askini spent 18 hours in the ER before going home to recover. Still sick in bed, Askini got an email from the hospital with their COVID-19 test…and their bill. They had the coronavirus, and they owed about $35,000. Much of that total was tied up in facilities fees and extra protective gear, plus testing, equipment and more. There was also a $200 pregnancy test, which wasn’t applicable to Askini, who’s trans.

While Askini’s bill sounds remarkably high, it’s actually fairly common. One study from FAIR Health found the average cost of a six-day COVID hospitalization for someone with insurance is $34,623. For someone without insurance, like Askini, that number nearly doubles.

“The way that our country frames health insurance is like: if you don’t have it, it’s a moral failing. As opposed to like, we have structural problems,” they said. “It isn’t easy for people to get insurance, which is why, you know, there’s 27 million people who still don’t have insurance. That is evidence that the system is not working.”

This week, we’ll look at the havoc COVID-19 can wreak on your finances and why this pandemic is anything but a “great equalizer.”

If you’re dealing with a surprise medical bill, we talked with a patient advocate last year about how to handle it. Also, if you want to share your story about COVID-19 and your finances, let us know in the form below.

Finally, don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter for more stories about the pandemic, as well as the reading, watching, listening and eating recommendations from our housebound team. Here’s the latest issue, in case you missed it.

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