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Many health insurers are rolling back COVID-19 waivers; here's what you may have to pay for

Posted at 6:58 AM, May 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-06 06:58:43-04

(WSYM) — Early in the year, COVID-19 was the number one cause of death in America.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the U.S. averaged over 2,400 deaths from COVID-19 in February. That's 20% higher than heart disease which is typically the country's leading cause of death.

On Tuesday, the U.S. marked fewer than 1,000 lives lost to from virus in a single day.

The progress comes as a result of the nearly 150 million Americans who have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, along with better treatment for the virus.

That treatment is expensive, and increasingly, insurance companies who once voluntarily waived fees for treating COVID-19 are quietly getting rid of those waivers, leaving patients trying to navigate both a physical and financial rebound.

Matthew Crawford got his first Moderna shot on April 8 and his symptoms were pretty typical – fever, chills, body aches. He thought he was reacting to the vaccine, but a week later, the side effects were still there.

Turns out, Crawford contracted COVID-19 in the week before he got the vaccine. He's slowly getting better now, but still being treated for blood clots in his leg and chronic pain. Treatment for COVID-19 patients like Matthew can add up.

Federal law requires COVID-19 tests to be free of charge, but health insurance companies voluntarily waived fees like copays, deductibles, and coinsurance – until now.

"They voluntarily waived certain aspects of COVID fees at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, and now we're seeing them voluntarily roll them back," Annemarie Kelly, a health care law and policy professor at Eastern Michigan Health Care Law, said.

COVID Waivers rolling back

Kelly says insurers are well within their rights to reassess fees for treatment, and that includes other aspects of coronavirus screening like X-rays, blood tests and blood cell counts.

"Even if you have employer-sponsored coverage through yourself, your spouse, your parent, if you're under 25, it could be thousands of dollars out of pocket," Kelly said.

Big insurers like Aetna, UnitedHealth, and Anthem are among the companies rolling back the waivers. Kelly said they were always designed to be temporary, and they were rolled out for goodwill and great PR.

"It could be seen as certainly unfriendly, but even unpatriotic if you were to charge someone high co-pays or other deductible fees during a pandemic," Kelly added.

It was also smart from a legal standpoint. Federal law wasn't changed to require the waivers, because the companies were already doing it. The move encouraged Americans to get tested and be treated.

Sarah Bouchier is expecting her second child. She came down with COVID-19 and landed in the ICU at Henry Ford Hospital followed by a stay in labor and delivery so the doctors and nurses could watch her baby.

"Have you received any bills yet," Keenan Smith asked.

"I have not now. No ambulance bills, no medical bills yet. I keep checking," she responded. "I mean, I have really good insurance. I'm assuming it's not going to be anything crazy."

Blue Cares Network accounts for roughly 40% of the state's health insurance market.

Nearly 250,00 Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Michigan members have had COVID-19 treatment fees waived. The company says they've put more than $1.5. billion into responding to the COVID-19 crisis.

The companies are still waiving fees for COVID treatment until September, according to Blue Cross Blue Shield Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jim Grant

"It's the right thing to do for our members where we're all going through a lot of stress of COVID-19, our members, our customers, our providers, our community," Dr. Jim Grant, the chief medical officer for BCBSM, said.

But one by one, all companies will roll back these waivers at some point. To avoid a surprise, look out for notices of changes to your policy. Dr. Grant says get vaccinated so you don't get sick.

Priority Health, Michigan's third-largest health insurer, said it's also still waiving fees.