Federal health officials continue to insist that it is not too late to contain coronavirus in the US if people stay informed and vigilant.
So when Osmel Martinez Azcue returned from Miami to Miami and got flu-like symptoms, he thought it would be wise to be tested for coronavirus for his family, friends and community.
But what might have been wise for public health was certainly not for Azcue’s wallet. He asked for a flu test and tested positive for that more general virus, but peace of mind came with a price tag of more than $ 3,000.
Azcue told the Miami Herald that he should have switched to a health care plan with more limited, complicated coverage and higher cash costs after his premiums for his old plan had risen.
It comes as two major problems in the US: the coronavirus outbreak spreading worldwide to make nearly 80,000 people (including 35 in the US) sick, and the escalating debate about Medicare for All, other programs for one payer or the current one American insurance system.
Osmel Martinez Azcue took all precautions when he developed flu-like symptoms after returning to Florida last month from China, where the coronavirus outbreak began. He has the flu, not a coronavirus, but when he found out he had a bill of more than $ 3,000
Azcue is one of half of Americans whose employers do not offer them health care.
But he buys his own insurance separately from his work for a medical device company and takes care of his own health and that of his family.
He was also alarmed, just like the rest of the world when what started as a few cases of mysterious pneumonia in China turned out to be a never-before-seen virus that swept the world quickly, killed thousands and made tens of thousands sick.
So when Azcue started to develop flu-like symptoms – breathing difficulties, fever, cough – he wanted to be sure that he had not returned the corona virus after traveling to China last month.
Officials of the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have warned that the new corona virus – SARS-CoV-2 may be transferable even in the absence of symptoms.
Azcue would normally have driven away the unpleasant flu at home with some freely available drugs.
But with a global public health emergency, he had no intention of taking risks.
At a hospital in Miami, Jackson Memorial Hospital, Azcue informed the staff about his travel history, symptoms and concerns.
He was dragged into an isolation room and the nurses who helped him zip into white protective clothing.
Azcue told the Messenger that some sort of smoke – what he suspected was an aerosol disinfectant – was under the door before he entered.
He told the Messenger that the Jackson Memorial wanted to give him a CT scan as part of the process to confirm or get rid of the corona virus.
But a CT can cost anywhere between $ 270 and $ 5,000 according to American Health Imaging.
And with his limited plan, Azcue knew it would be at the top for him.
Azcue stood firm with the hospital.
Azcue showed his passport that documented his travel history to China. His efforts to ensure that he did not contribute to the spread of the corona virus in the US cost him thousands
“This is from my pocket,” he told hospital staff in an interview with the Messenger.
“Let’s start with the blood test, and if I test positive, just fire me,” he said, meaning the flu test.
It is not clear whether the CDC considers flu testing as a result that should exclude coronavirus, but so Jackson Memorial took the test results from Azcue.
He was fired with a flu diagnosis and a sense of relief.
Aczue never guessed that his new insurance policy would give him a $ 3,270 bill for a flu test.
Others have reported flu tests – the more thorough laboratory analyzed blood tests – as high as $ 900 before insurance coverage.
In addition to the flu test, Azcue may have been hit with costs for the protective equipment, isolation, and containment needed to treat a patient who may have been exposed to the corona virus.
But in his case something bizarre also played. The national non-life insurance plan to which he switched last year contains a clause that requires a new customer to prove that he has no existing conditions, by offering three years of medical data.
Aczue had not done that yet. So until he coughs up three years of medical documentation that his insurance company is convinced that he has no existing conditions that would cause him to develop flu, the health care provider does not cover his bill.
“If someone has flu-like symptoms, you want them to get medical help,” said Sabrina Corlette, law professor at Georgetown University and co-director of the Center on Health Insurance Reforms.
“If they have one of these junk plans and they know they may have more to pack than they can afford to seek care, many of them will simply not do that, and that is a public health problem.”
In fact, the CDC has instructed hospitals and clinics in five American cities – Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Chicago – to also use their flu detection systems for coronavirus.
Anyone who has flu-like symptoms and tests negative for flu is supposed to be tested for coronavirus.
And it is impossible to say how much that test would have cost Azcue, or how his insurance company would have treated the pre-existing condition with regard to a screening test for a disease that did not exist a few months ago.
High costs are mentioned as a reason that about half of Americans wait longer than they should or do not visit a doctor at all.
But with a highly contagious outbreak that is about to become a pandemic, there is even more at stake than one’s individual health and well-being.
“How can they expect normal citizens to help eliminate the potential risk of person-to-person spread if hospitals wait to charge us $ 3, 270 for a simple blood test and a nasal swab?” said Azcue.