Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
After returning from a trip to Colorado in mid-March, University of New Mexico Hospital nurse Marie Sparks had to be tested for the coronavirus before going back to work in the hospital’s intensive care unit.
Sparks didn’t have the coronavirus. But something else took her breath away.
A $1,500 bill.
While patients shouldn’t have to share the cost of COVID-19 tests and treatments under state and federal orders, several UNMH employees have recently received bills after taking tests that were mandatory in order for them to return to work.
“I feel like they’re taking advantage and capitalizing on the system in place,” Sparks said earlier this week after initially being told that they could put her on a payment plan. “I feel like UNM is making money off us.”
Hospital officials reversed course Friday.
They acknowledged that the bills were sent out, but said they will be adjusted so employees don’t have to pay anything out of pocket.
Mark Rudi, a hospital spokesman, said COVID-related bills have only been sent to hospital employees, and not other patients.
“The response to COVID-19 has been very swift and fluid with updates in guidelines to lab testing, diagnostic coding and benefit coding. We are working with Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Mexico to identify impacted members and adjust claims for members being billed for visits related to a COVID-19 test,” Rudi said in a statement. “UNMH remains committed to covering the cost of COVID-19 testing and related treatment for our members who are covered by the UNMH health plan.”
Sparks quarantined herself in her home for days after returning from a trip in the early days of the pandemic. After reporting the trip to her supervisors, she was told that she would also need to be tested for COVID before returning to work. Her current assignment is to care for COVID patients who are in intensive care.
She was tested on March 21. Recently, she received a bill for a little more than $1,500.
After getting the bill, she checked with her supervisors and UNMH Patient Financial Services. Sparks said she was initially told that while she isn’t being charged for the COVID portion of the test, the hospital also tested her for respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, and possibly other viruses.
Sparks said she didn’t know that she was going to be tested for any viruses other than COVID when she gave her sample.
She said she was initially told she would have to pay for the additional tests and the hospital asked if she wanted to go on a payment plan.
No charges for tests, treatments
Russell Toal, the superintendent of insurance in New Mexico, on March 12 issued an order that prohibited patients from having to share any costs for COVID tests and treatment. Toal’s order also applies to health services for influenza and pneumonia.
Part of the reason, Toal said in the order, was that such costs could discourage patients from seeking testing or treatment, potentially causing additional public health problems in the state.
Melissa Gutierrez, a spokeswoman for Toal’s office, said since that time the office has been in communication with health insurers to make sure patients don’t receive bills in violation of the orders.
The office has set up a hotline to try to resolve complaints about billing problems, she said.
Jodi McGinnis-Porter, a state government spokeswoman, said the hotline has fielded several calls surrounding COVID billing issues but so far state officials have been able to resolve the problems.
While patients don’t have to share the cost, hospitals are creating unique bills for every patient who is tested or treated for the coronavirus, said Brad Cook, the chief revenue officer for Presbyterian Healthcare Services.
“There might be some misconceptions out there that health care providers aren’t billing insurance companies for this. We absolutely are,” Cook said. “Insurance companies are required to pay for the services and waive the cost share.”
Cook said at Presbyterian, if an insurance company incorrectly sends a bill back to a patient for a COVID test or treatment, the hospital is intervening on behalf of the patient and not sending the bill along.