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White House says hospitals taking funding can't send "surprise" COVID-19 bills

$9,000 bill after coronavirus test

Hospitals receiving 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.

Patients with health insurance typically receive surprise bills if they're treated at an out-of-network emergency room, or when an out-of-network doctor assists with a hospital procedure. The bills can run from hundreds of dollars to tens of thousands. Before the coronavirus outbreak, 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.

The stimulus bill includes $100 billion for the health care system, meant to ease the cash crunch created by the mass cancellation of elective procedures in preparation for the treatment of large numbers of 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.

Still unclear is how the Trump administration would track that surprise billing to hold hospitals and health systems accountable. 

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

Hospitals, many of which are losing revenue from routine surgeries and other sources of income, are struggling to pay for an increase in personal protective equipment and other needs. 

Millions of Americans were already uninsured heading into this crisis, and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, more are becoming uninsured as they lose their jobs. U.S. Census figures released in late 2019 say that 27.5 million are uninsured. 

The cost of a coronavirus hospital stay varies, but the stay is extensive for most patients who need in-patient care. The average cost to treat a patient hospitalized with COVID-19 is roughly $30,000, according to a study by America's Health Insurance Plans, a trade group for insurance companies. 

The CARES Act passed by Congress last month is supposed to provide free coronavirus testing and preventative work. 

The potential cost of tests and treatments for the coronavirus could cause some people to delay seeking medical care. "Walking Dead" actor Daniel Newman doesn't know if he had the virus, but he still ended up with a bill for more than $9,000.

Newman said he got sick in early March. "I started to get a fever, just started to feel kind of chills, and I was just like, 'Oh crap, you know, whatever they had, I think I got it,'" he told CBS News Consumer Investigative Correspondent Anna Werner.

Worried he might need to warn others if he were infected, he called around to find out where to get a test and said he wound up speaking to health professionals at a Georgia hospital's ER. They told him to come in for a test. But, after doctors gave him the coronavirus test, they then told him they weren't allowed to process the test.

Newman said he was told, "We are not allowed to process the test because there's a really limited bandwidth of capacity on how many tests can be processed per day, and so we're not allowed to send off the tests for anybody that has mild symptoms."

He never found out whether the test was positive or not, he said, but on the way out, he asked whether the cost was covered by his health insurance.

"And they were like, 'No, you just came into an emergency room. It's gonna be thousands of dollars," he said.

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