White House says no ‘surprise’ billing for COVID-19 patients

Hospitals taking money from the $2 trillion stimulus bill will have to agree not to send “surprise” medical bills to patients treated for COVID-19, the White House said Thursday.

Surprise bills typically happen when a patient with health insurance gets treated at an out-of-network emergency room, or when an out-of-network doctor assists with a hospital procedure. They can run from hundreds of dollars to tens of thousands. Before the coronavirus outbreak, lawmakers in Congress had pledged to curtail the practice, but prospects for such legislation now seem highly uncertain.

“The Trump administration is committed to ensuring all Americans are not surprised by the cost related to testing and treatment they need for COVID-19,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement.

Indiana lawmakers debated legislation this year that would have banned most surprise billing, but passed a much weaker law that mandates providers give patients a good-faith estimate of costs at least five days ahead of a procedure.

The stimulus bill includes $100 billion for the health care system, to ease the cash crunch created by the mass cancellation of elective procedures in preparation to receive coronavirus patients. Release of the first $30 billion, aimed at hospitals, is expected soon.

The prohibition on surprise billing will protect patients covered by government programs, employer plans or self-purchased insurance.

Hospitals that accept the grants will have to certify that they won’t try to collect more money than the patient would have otherwise owed if the medical attention had been provided in network.

A group that represents large employer plans applauded the White House action.

“In a time when nothing is certain, patients can take solace in knowing that they will not receive outrageous, unavoidable bills weeks and months after they have survived the virus,” Annette Guarisco Fildes, head of the ERISA Industry Committee, said in a statement. ERISA is the name for a federal law that sets terms and conditions for multistate employer plans.

A spokeswoman for the organization said it’s their understanding that the ban on surprise billing will apply to doctors as well as hospitals.

Medical costs for COVID-19 patients could turn into a political issue in the presidential election, particularly since the battle against the disease could take months and years.

So far, the White House has secured a commitment from the health insurance industry that patients won’t face any copays or deductibles for virus testing. Several major insurers, including Indianapolis-based Anthem Inc., have also announced they’re waiving copays for coronavirus treatment provided within their networks.

But it’s still unclear how cost of care will be covered for uninsured people as well as those who lose coverage because of the economic shutdown to contain the virus.

The ban on surprise billing for COVID-19 care was first reported by Politico.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

There are over 460,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S., along with more than 16,000 deaths.

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