“COVID didn’t kill me but I may die of grief and stress from not being able to pay the hospital bills.” - Z.B.
Z.B. had been recently discharged from the hospital with COVID-19 when the bills started arriving. Altogether, she owes $30,000 in medical bills from the five days she spent tethered to an oxygen tank, struggling to breathe, as she was treated for COVID pneumonia.
“I truly didn’t think I would survive,” Z.B., age 54, says. She’s grateful she did but is still suffering, a victim of “Long COVID.” She has lingering headaches, dizziness, inexplicable swelling in her legs and worst of all, cognitive impairments that leave her confused and forgetful.
“It’s horrible,” she says. “People have no idea how horrible COVID affects you.”
Z.B. was very careful about wearing a mask and isolating to avoid getting the coronavirus. She believes she was exposed by her husband, who contracted the virus at work. Although his workplace required mask-wearing, employees gathered in the lunchroom without masks where the airborne virus circulated. By the time her husband showed symptoms and tested positive, Z.B. and her two adult children had been exposed. All of them contracted the virus, but Z.B. suffered the worst effects.
Z.B. is worried about getting the healthcare she needs to treat her continuing health problems because she doesn’t have health insurance. She’s able to afford basic care at a neighborhood public health clinic but she is asked for co-pays for doctor’s visits and tests. The costs add up for Z.B., who is unemployed and dependent on her husband’s modest income. Doctor’s visits cost $35, x-rays and other diagnostic tests cost $30 - $40. She manages to pay the best she can, but she’s concerned that she may need follow-up specialist care for her inexplicable ailments, including severe arthritis, back pain and inflammation. She can’t afford to pay expensive specialists or complicated diagnostic tests, much less additional hospitalizations.
“I’m sick and I’m scared... Even if I tried for the rest of my life,
I could never pay back that much money.”
Since Florida hasn’t expanded Medicaid, Z.B. doesn’t qualify for the affordable health insurance program for working poor residents. Florida is one of 12 states that haven’t expanded Medicaid, limiting the program to pregnant women, the disabled and extremely low-income parents. If Florida legislators voted to expand Medicaid in the upcoming legislative session, the state would be able to provide affordable health care coverage to nearly one million more Florida residents - residents like Z.B.
Another option for Z.B. may be applying for an Affordable Care Act health care policy during the new COVID Special Enrollment Period (SEP) February 15 through May 15, 2021.
For now, Z.B.’s biggest worry is the unpaid medical bills and the fear of incurring more medical debt if she has a relapse or her health doesn’t improve on its own.
“COVID didn’t kill me when I was in the hospital but I may die of grief and stress from not being able to pay the bills,” she says.
Z.B. has tried to work with the hospital to clear up her debt because she heard that COVID treatment was covered by the federal government. She’s talked to many hospital representatives and social workers but is confused by the extensive and complicated paperwork they are requesting from her.
“It’s insane and intrusive,” she says. Hospital representatives have asked for bank account records and notarized letters and a mound of other paperwork.
“To tell you the truth, I’m afraid they may do something with all my information that will get me in more trouble. I’m sick and I’m scared,” she says. “Even if I tried for the rest of my life, I could never pay back that much money.”
The Florida Health Justice Project, a nonprofit organization, recognizes that access to quality and affordable health care is a human right and engages in comprehensive advocacy to expand health care access and promote health equity for vulnerable Floridians.
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