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New ‘surprise’ medical bills include a ‘COVID’ fee

Americans are discovering a new medical-related charge that some are referring to as a ‘COVID’ fee.

For Michael Hambley, this appeared as a one-time $900 charge his 87-year-old mother’s assisted living facility issued for masks, cleaning supplies and meal delivery.

Jennifer Koeckhoven saw a $60 personal protective equipment charge tacked onto her mother’s ambulance bill in June.

“She was already wearing a mask,” Koeckhoven said to the New York Times, noting that the one-mile ambulance ride already cost $1,759 before the fee.

In New York City, Zariely Garcia was billed directly for an additional $45 after a dentist appointment in July.

The coronavirus pandemic has increased the costs of health care as providers must wear more protective gear and sanitize equipment more frequently. However, many providers are also taking a financial hit unrelated to buying additional gear. Dental services have lost revenue as patients postpone nonurgent dental care, and assisted living facilities have been forced to admit fewer residents.

The Times reports some providers are turning directly to patients to make up this financial shortfall. New charges related to the pandemic range from a couple of dollars to nearly $1,000. Some fees charged directly to consumers, as in Garcia’s case, have drawn the attention of state attorneys general. In New York, state regulators outlawed direct billing as a violation of consumer protection laws in August.

“The cynical view is that some see this as an opportunity: Everyone understands something unusual is going on, and most customers are ready to embrace the idea they will need to bear some expense,” Darrin Fowler,  an assistant attorney general in Michigan who has been investigating coronavirus fees in assisted living facilities, told the Times. “Unfortunately, in every setting there are a percentage of folks who will take advantage of that situation.”

The additional fees are especially prevalent in dentist offices. Officially, the American Dental Association “strongly encourages” dentists to disclose any fees to patients, saying the decision to charge the fee is an “individual dental practice business decision.”

These new fees at dentist offices have resulted in numerous consumer complaints for regulators in Connecticut, Maryland and New York.

“We’re seeing complaints of all types,” William Tong, Connecticut’s attorney general, said to the Times. “All the arguments in favor of billing patients are not at all compelling to me.”

Have you received a ‘COVID’ fee of your own? Share your story with Voices for Affordable Health.