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Could Trump’s Push To Undo The ACA Cause Problems For COVID Survivors? Biden Thinks So.

The same day the Trump administration reaffirmed its support of a lawsuit that would invalidate all of the Affordable Care Act, Joe Biden sharply warned that the suit endangers millions of Americans.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee said the law is even more important now, more than a decade after it was enacted, as the COVID-19 epidemic sweeps the U.S. The virus has killed more than 130,000, and Biden noted that some who survive may have long-lasting health problems.

His speech in the battleground state of Pennsylvania focused on a legal challenge headed to the Supreme Court and the fallout if the court upholds a 2018 U.S. District Court decision that struck down the entire ACA, including preexisting condition protections that bar insurers from rejecting people with medical problems or charging them more.

“And perhaps most cruelly of all, if Donald Trump has his way, complications from COVID-19 could become a new preexisting condition,” Biden said.

The Trump administration has supported the challenge. A decision from the Supreme Court is expected next year, after the November presidential election.

But would a decision against the health law affect COVID-19 patients in the way Biden described?

We decided to check because it’s likely to come up a lot in the presidential electioneering. We reached out to the Biden campaign to find out the basis for his statement. A campaign spokesperson responded by reiterating the points made by the former vice president in his speech and sharing various news stories about COVID-19 and the preexisting condition coverage issue.

Several law and health policy experts noted that Biden is on fairly firm ground, though the issue — like many others in health care — is complicated.

First, A Little History

Before the ACA went into effect in 2014, insurers on the private market could reject applicants for coverage if they had any number of medical conditions, such as cancer, depression, heart disease — even high blood pressure, acne or plantar fasciitis. Consumers had to fill out forms listing their medical conditions when applying for coverage. An estimated 54 million Americans have a preexisting condition that could have led to a denial under pre-ACA rules, researchers estimate.

Also, at the time, some consumers had coverage cancelled retroactively once they fell ill with a serious or costly disease, as insurers would then comb through years of medical records looking for anything the consumer had failed to report as preexisting, even if it seemed to have little or nothing to do with the patient’s current medical concern.

Those rejections and cancellations mainly affected people who bought their own coverage, not those who got insurance through their jobs.

Job-based coverage, which is the main way most insured people get their plans, had some protections prior to the passage of the ACA. For example, the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 said people who held health insurance continuously for at least a year could not face preexisting condition limits when they enrolled in a new employer plan, as long as they didn’t go uninsured for more than 63 days.

Those who didn’t meet that yearlong coverage requirement or went uninsured between jobs could find their medical conditions excluded for up to a year in a new group plan.

Before the ACA, insurers broadly defined preexisting conditions. Many included any condition for which a patient had received treatment, or even undiagnosed conditions for which a reasonable person should have sought treatment.

The ACA changed that. Among other things, it barred insurers from rejecting applicants based on their health, excluding coverage of preexisting medical conditions and charging sick people more than healthier ones. It also ended annual or lifetime dollar limits on coverage and said employers that offer insurance can’t make new workers wait more than 90 days for coverage to kick in.

Could COVID-19 Become A Preexisting Condition?

Biden’s comment raises the question of whether COVID-19 would be considered a preexisting condition in a future without the sweeping health law on the books.

Because the virus is so new, there’s no definitive answer on its long-term health effects.

But media reports note hospitals and physician groups are finding evidence that some recovered COVID patients suffer from lung damage, blood clots, neurological conditions, strokes or fatigue.

Researchers are now starting to follow patients to track long-term effects.

Given insurers’ history, it’s certainly reasonable to assume they would put what are now cropping up as potential COVID complications in the preexisting-condition category, said Sabrina Corlette, who studies the individual insurance market as co-director of the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University.

“There is a real concern that if those preexisting condition protections are overruled or taken down by the Supreme Court, people who have COVID-19 could be medically underwritten, charged more or be denied a policy,” said Corlette.

That is possible, said Joe Antos, resident scholar in health policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. But many of the people most likely to suffer complications from the coronavirus likely already had conditions like diabetes, asthma or heart disease that would already have put them in danger of being rejected for coverage under pre-ACA business practices, he added.

In other words, COVID-19 could simply find a place on a long list of other conditions that could disqualify consumers from obtaining insurance.

And even if the high court tossed out the ACA, insurers might choose to keep offering coverage to people with health problems, say some analysts, including Antos.

But this take triggers skepticism.

“Insurance companies have an obligation to shareholders, and that obligation is to maximize profits,” Corlette said. “They don’t do that by covering a lot of sick people when competitors are not doing it.”

The Biggest Unknown

Just how would Congress and the president react if the ACA is struck down?

Under a Biden presidency, coupled with Democrats holding the House and possibly winning the Senate, the ACA would definitely be replaced, the experts all agreed.

Under a second-term Trump administration, Republicans would face a dilemma because — even though the party has called for the law’s repeal since its enactment –— they have been unable to agree on how to replace it. Yet polls have consistently shown that parts of the law, especially the preexisting condition protections, are very popular with a wide swath of voters.

“They don’t want to come across as coming up hard against people who have health conditions,” said Antos.

Private practice attorney Christopher Condeluci, who served as tax and benefit counsel to the Senate Finance Committee when the ACA was drafted, agreed. He thinks Congress or the president would act to save the preexisting condition protections at least.

But how to do so is problematic. That provision is intricately tied with many other parts of the ACA, those aimed at getting as many healthy people to enroll as possible in order to spread costs out among the many, rather than the few.

The ACA did that partly by requiring most Americans to carry insurance coverage — the provision at the heart of the Texas lawsuit seeking to overturn the legislation. Restoring that requirement might be tricky, so the path forward for a split Congress or a second-term Trump presidency to come up with a solution quickly — or at all — if the Supreme Court tosses the entire law is a difficult one.

Our Ruling

Biden said that if Trump had his way, COVID complications could become a preexisting condition. He said this while discussing what might happen if the ACA is overturned by the Supreme Court. Though the statement can’t be definitively proven, there’s a lot of evidence backing it up.

First, some patients are showing at least short-term aftereffects of COVID-19, some of which could be costly. Some may prove long-term.

Second, insurers dislike costly medical conditions. Their business model is designed to have enough healthy enrollees to offset those with costly conditions. Before the ACA, they did that by rejecting people with medical conditions, charging them more or excluding coverage for those conditions. Some also temporarily delayed coverage for specific conditions in group plans offered by employers. Without the ACA, no federal law would prevent them from returning to these practices when selling plans on the individual market.

We rate Biden’s statement Mostly True.

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COVID Catch-22: They Got A Big ER Bill Because Hospitals Couldn’t Test For Virus

Fresh off a Caribbean cruise in early March, John Campbell developed a cough and fever of 104 degrees. He went to his primary care physician and got a flu test, which came up negative.

Then things got strange. Campbell said the doctor then turned to him and said, “I’ve called the ER next door, and you need to go there. This is a matter of public health. They’re expecting you.”

It was March 3, and no one had an inkling yet of just how bad the COVID-19 pandemic would become in the U.S.

At the JFK Medical Center near his home in Boynton Beach, Florida, staffers met him in protective gear, then ran a battery of tests — including bloodwork, a chest X-ray and an electrocardiogram — before sending him home. But because he had not traveled to China — a leading criterion at the time for coronavirus testing — Campbell was not swabbed for the virus.

A $2,777 bill for the emergency room visit came the next month.

Now Campbell, 52, is among those who say they were wrongly billed for the costs associated with seeking a COVID-19 diagnosis.

While most insurers have promised to cover the costs of testing and related services — and Congress passed legislation in mid-March enshrining that requirement — there’s a catch: The law requires the waiver of patient cost sharing only when a test is ordered or administered.

And therein lies the problem. In the early weeks of the pandemic and through mid-April in many places, testing was often limited to those with specific symptoms or situations, likely excluding thousands of people who had milder cases of the virus or had not traveled overseas.

“They do pay for the test, but I didn’t have the test,” said Campbell, who appealed the bill to his insurer, Florida Blue. More on how that turned out later.

“These loopholes exist,” said Wendell Potter, a former insurance industry executive who is now an industry critic. “We’re just relying on these companies to act in good faith.”

Exacerbating the problem: Many of these patients were directed to go to hospital emergency departments — the most expensive place to get care — which can result in huge bills for patients-deductible insurance.

Insurers say they fully cover costs when patients are tested for the coronavirus, but what happens with enrollees who sought a test — but were not given one — is less clear.

KHN asked nine national and regional insurers for specifics about how they are handling these situations.

Results were mixed. Three — UnitedHealthcare, Kaiser Permanente and Anthem — said they do some level of automatic review of potential COVID-related claims from earlier in the pandemic, while a fourth, Quartz, said it would investigate and waive cost sharing for suspected COVID patients if the member asks for a review. Humana said it is reviewing claims made in early March, but only those showing confirmed or suspected COVID. Florida Blue, similarly, said it is manually reviewing claims, but only those involving COVID tests or diagnoses. The remaining insurers pointed to other efforts, such as routine audits that look for all sorts of errors, along with efforts to train hospitals and doctors in the proper COVID billing codes to use to ensure patients aren’t incorrectly hit with cost sharing. Those were Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, CIGNA and the Health Care Services Corp., which operates Blues plans in Illinois, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

All nine said patients should reach out to them or appeal a claim if they suspect an error.

To be sure, it would be a complex effort for insurers to go back over claims from March and April, looking for patients that might qualify for a more generous interpretation of the cost waiver because they were unable to get a coronavirus test. And there’s nothing in the CARES Act passed by Congress — or subsequent guidance from regulatory agencies — about what to do in such situations.

Still, insurers could review claims, for example, by looking for patients who received chest X-rays, and diagnoses of pneumonia or high fever and cough, checking to see if any might qualify as suspected COVID cases, even if they were not given a diagnostic test, said Potter.

One thing was clear from the responses: Much of the burden falls on patients who think they’ve been wrongly billed to call that to the attention of the insurer and the hospital, urgent care center or doctor’s office where they were treated.

John Campbell developed a cough and fever of 104 degrees in early March, was directed to an ER and ultimately received a $2,777 bill for the visit. He is among those who say they were wrongly billed for the costs associated with seeking a COVID-19 diagnosis.(Courtesy of John Campbell)

Some states have broader mandates that could be read to require the waiver of cost sharing even if a COVID test was not ordered or administered, said Sabrina Corlette, a research professor and co-director of the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University.

But no matter where you live, she said, patients who get bills they think are incorrect should contest them. “I’ve heard a lot of comments that claims are not coded properly,” said Corlette. “Insurers and providers are on a learning curve. If you get a bill, ask for a review.”

Scarce Tests, Rampant Virus

In some places, including the state of Indiana, the city of Los Angeles and St. Louis County, Missouri, a test is now offered to anyone who seeks one. Until recently, tests were scarce and essentially rationed, even though more comprehensive testing could have helped health officials battle the epidemic.

But even in the early weeks, when Campbell and many others sought a diagnosis, insurers nationwide were promising to cover the cost of testing and related services. That was good PR and good public health: Removing cost barriers to testing means more people will seek care and thus could prevent others from being infected. Currently, the majority of insurers offering job-based or Affordable Care Act insurance say they are fully waiving copays, deductibles and other fees for testing, as long as the claims are coded correctly. (The law does not require short-term plans to waive cost sharing.) Some insurers have even promised to fully cover the cost of treatment for COVID, including hospital care.

But getting stuck with a sizable bill has become commonplace. “I only went in because I was really sick and I thought I had it,” said Rayone Moyer, 63, of La Crosse, Wisconsin, who was extra concerned because she has diabetes. “I had a hard time breathing when I was doing stuff.”

On March 27, she went to Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center, which is in her Quartz insurance network, complaining of body aches and shortness of breath. Those symptoms could be COVID-related, but could also signal other conditions. While there, she was given an array of tests, including bloodwork, a chest X-ray and a CT scan.

She was billed in May: $2,421 by the hospital and more than $350 in doctor bills.

“My insurance applied the whole thing to my deductible,” she said. “Because they refused to test me, I’ve got to pay the bill. No one said, ‘Hey, we’ll give you $3,000 worth of tests instead of the $100 COVID test,’” she said.

Quartz spokesperson Christina Ott said patients with concerns like Moyer’s should call the insurance company’s customer service number and ask for an appeals specialist. The insurer, she wrote in response to KHN’s survey of insurers, will waive cost sharing for some members who sought a diagnosis.

“During the public health emergency, if the member presented with similar symptoms as COVID, but didn’t receive a COVID-19 test and received testing for other illnesses on an outpatient basis, then cost sharing would be waived,” she wrote.

Moyer said she has filed an appeal and was notified by the insurer of a review expected in mid-July. Back in Florida, Campbell filed an appeal of his bill with Florida Blue on April 22, but didn’t hear anything until the day after a KHN reporter called the insurer about his case in June.

Then, Campbell received phone calls from Florida Blue representatives. A supervisor apologized, saying the insurer should not have billed him and that 100% of his costs would be covered.

“Basically they said, ‘We’ve changed our minds,’” said Campbell. “Because I was there so early on, and the bill was coded incorrectly.”

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Pruebas para el VPH y el cáncer cervical podrían hacerse en casa

Pasa un pequeño hisopo por la vagina para recoger células. Luego lo colocas en un kit de detección y lo envías por correo.

Una prueba sencilla como ésta, que se puede hacer en casa, ayudaría a los Estados Unidos a acercarse a la erradicación del cáncer de cuello uterino o cáncer cervical.

El año que viene, el Instituto Nacional del Cáncer (NCI) lanzará un estudio en diferentes localidades que involucrará a unas 5,000 mujeres para evaluar si la autoprueba casera puede equivaler a la que realiza el médico en un consultorio.

Casi 14,000 estadounidenses este año serán diagnosticadas con un cáncer que es prevenible, y más de 4,000 morirán. Las mujeres que no tienen seguro o que no pueden acceder a servicios médicos regulares tienen más probabilidades de no hacerse pruebas de detección que salvan vidas, dijo Vikrant Sahasrabuddhe, de la División de Prevención del Cáncer del NCI.

Sin salir de sus casas, las mujeres podrían recolectar células vaginales y cervicales para analizarlas en la detección del virus del papiloma humano (VPH), que causa virtualmente todos los cánceres cervicales, de la misma manera que las muestras de heces en casa pueden usarse para detectar el cáncer de colon, añadió.

“Sigue existiendo un número constante de mujeres que padece cáncer cervical cada año”, explicó Sahasrabuddhe, que supervisa los estudios sobre los cánceres relacionados con el VPH. “Y ese número no va a bajar”.

Las autoridades federales esperan que la investigación acelere un test aprobado por la Administración de Alimentos y Medicamentos (FDA) que podría formar parte de las directrices de evaluación si se demuestra que tomar la muestra en casa es eficaz, señaló Sahasrabuddhe.

En lugar de esperar a que las empresas que realizan las pruebas de VPH para los médicos hagan estudios de automuestreo, los funcionarios federales se unirán a empresas, instituciones académicas y otros en una asociación público-privada, explicó. Los funcionarios del NCI, que esperan gastar unos $6 millones en fondos federales, supervisarán los datos y el análisis del estudio.

“Queremos acelerar ese proceso”, indicó Sahasrabuddhe.

El automuestreo del VPH, existente en países como Australia y los Países Bajos, es uno de los enfoques de los investigadores del cáncer cervical en los Estados Unidos. Otra estrategia clave consiste en vacunar a las adolescentes contra el VPH, que se transmite a través de la actividad sexual. En 2018, casi el 54% de las niñas habían sido vacunadas al llegar a los 17 años, al igual que casi el 49% de los niños, según los datos federales más recientes.

Los países que han tenido más éxito en la reducción del cáncer cervical —un análisis predice que Australia está en vías de eliminar la enfermedad— han hecho hincapié en la vacunación contra el VPH en adolescentes.

Las autoridades siguen aconsejando a las mujeres vacunadas que se sometan regularmente a pruebas de detección, ya que la vacuna no protege contra todas las cepas que causan el cáncer de cuello uterino.

Sin embargo, a veces es un desafío.

Para algunas, el acceso o el costo puede ser un problema. La mayoría de los planes médicos cubren los exámenes y también hay algunos programas públicos, pero las mujeres sin seguro que no los conocen tienen que pagar por la consulta y la prueba.

Además, las mujeres no siempre salir del trabajo o encontrar una guardería, o pueden haber tenido “emociones o experiencias negativas en el pasado con los exámenes pélvicos”, señaló Rachel Winer, profesora de epidemiología de la Escuela de Salud Pública de la Universidad de Washington que estudia el automuestreo del VPH.

Invertir la tendencia

Unas 4 de cada 5 mujeres se someten regularmente a pruebas de detección de cáncer cervical, pero los índices alcanzaron su punto máximo alrededor del año 2000 y han disminuido ligeramente desde entonces, según datos federales.

Otro análisis de registros médicos de 27,418 mujeres de Minnesota, de entre 30 y 65 años, encontró que casi el 65% se había hecho la prueba en 2016, según publicó el año pasado el Journal of Women’s Health.

“Lamentablemente, creo que nuestros datos probablemente reflejan mejor lo que está sucediendo con los índices de evaluación en nuestro país”, expresó la doctora Kathy MacLaughlin, autora del estudio e investigadora de la Clínica Mayo en Rochester, Minnesota.

Un obstáculo para la prueba podría ser la complejidad de las directrices, dijo MacLaughlin. En lugar de un examen anual fácil de recordar, las evaluaciones ocurren en intervalos de más de un año. La edad de la mujer ayuda a determinar cuándo se recomienda la prueba de VPH o la citología vaginal (el Papanicolau), que recoge células del cuello uterino para buscar cambios precancerosos.

“El reto es cómo recordar que debemos hacer algo cada tres o cada cinco años”, comentó MacLaughlin.

Logística en casa

Si bien el NCI aún no ha decidido el tipo de automuestreo que utilizará, la técnica generalmente requiere que la mujer inserte un pequeño hisopo en su vagina y lo rote varias veces para recolectar las células.

Luego desliza el hisopo en un contenedor de muestras que tiene una solución conservante y devuelve el kit para el análisis del VPH.

Según un informe publicado en 2018 en la revista médica BMJ, la precisión de la identificación del VPH era similar cuando las muestras eran recogidas por las mujeres en casa que cuando lo hacía un médico.

También se estudia una prueba de VPH en orina, que podría resultar más fácil de realizar para las mujeres, dijo Jennifer Smith, profesora de epidemiología de la Escuela Gillings de Salud Pública Global de la Universidad de Carolina del Norte.

Antes que las compañías puedan aplicar para pruebas caseras aprobadas por la FDA, el automuestreo de las mujeres debe ser comparable en la detección del VPH, aunque no sea tan preciso, como cuando lo hace un médico, señaló Sahasrabuddhe.

Los funcionarios del NCI aún están ultimando los detalles del estudio. Pero el plan es invitar a participar a cuatro compañías que ya fabrican pruebas de VPH para médicos, dijo Sahasrabuddhe.

Las empresas pagarán el costo de las pruebas y las futuras tarifas relacionadas con la solicitud de licencias a través de la FDA. Sahasrabuddhe espera que los resultados del estudio estén disponibles para 2024, si no antes.

Si una mujer da positivo en las pruebas de VPH podría necesitar una biopsia, para buscar células anormales o cáncer cervical, indicó Sahasrabuddhe.

Si se desarrolla un test casero aprobado por la FDA, es crucial que las mujeres sin seguro y otras que no tienen acceso fácil a la atención médica puedan conseguirlo, enfatizó Smith.

“Porque no se envían kits al azar a los hogares”, dijo Smith, “y nadie se asegura que tengan a alguien con quien hablar sobre los resultados y que puedan tener un seguimiento”.

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NIH Spearheads Study To Test At-Home Screening For HPV And Cervical Cancer

With a tiny brush, briefly swab the vagina to collect cells. Then slide the swab into a screening kit and drop it into the mail.

Proponents believe a simple test like this, which can be done at home, may help the U.S. move closer to eradicating cervical cancer. The National Cancer Institute plans to launch a multisite study next year involving roughly 5,000 women to assess whether self-sampling at home is comparable to screening in the office by a clinician.

Nearly 14,000 Americans this year will be diagnosed with the highly preventable cancer, and more than 4,000 will die. Women who are uninsured or can’t get regular medical care are more likely to miss out on lifesaving screening, said Vikrant Sahasrabuddhe, a program director in the NCI’s Division of Cancer Prevention. If women could collect the vaginal and cervical cells to be tested for human papillomavirus (HPV) — the virus that causes virtually all cervical cancers — they could get screened from home, just as home-based stool samples can be used to detect colon cancer, he said.

“What we have seen is this persistent group of women who continue to get cervical cancer every year,” said Sahasrabuddhe, who oversees studies involving HPV-related cancers. “And that number is really not going down.”

Federal officials hope the research will fast-track a test approved by the Food and Drug Administration that could be part of screening guidelines if self-sampling is proved effective, Sahasrabuddhe said. Rather than wait for self-sampling studies to be done by the individual companies that make the HPV tests for clinicians, federal officials will team up with the companies, academic institutions and others in a public-private partnership, he explained. NCI officials, who expect to spend about $6 million in federal funds, will oversee the study’s data and analysis.

“If every company goes and does their own trial, they may take years to achieve it,” Sahasrabuddhe said. “We want to accelerate that process.”

HPV self-sampling, already promoted in countries such as Australia and the Netherlands, is one of several approaches that U.S. cervical cancer researchers are pursuing. Another key strategy involves vaccinating adolescents against HPV, which is transmitted through sexual activity. As of 2018, nearly 54% of girls had been fully vaccinated by age 17, as had almost 49% of boys, according to the most recent federal data. The countries that have had better success in reducing cervical cancer — one analysis predicts that Australia is on track to eliminate the disease — have emphasized HPV vaccination for adolescents.

Federal officials still advise vaccinated women to get regularly screened, as the vaccine doesn’t guard against all the strains that cause cervical cancer. But persuading some women to come into the office for the physical exam is sometimes a tough sell.

For some, access or cost may be an issue. Most insurance plans cover screening and there are also some public programs, but uninsured women who are unaware of them may have to pay for an office visit and test. Besides, women can’t always break away from work or find child care, or they may have had “negative emotions or experiences in the past with pelvic exams,” said Rachel Winer, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington School of Public Health who studies HPV self-sampling.

Reversing The Trend

Roughly 4 out of 5 women get regularly screened for cervical cancer, but the rates peaked around 2000 and have been on a slight decline since, according to federal data. That figure, which is based on patient self-reporting, may be optimistic. Another analysis, which looked at the medical records of 27,418 Minnesota women ages 30 to 65, found that nearly 65% were up to date as of 2016, according to the findings, published last year in the Journal of Women’s Health.

“Sadly, I think our data is probably more reflective of what’s happening with screening rates in our country,” said Dr. Kathy MacLaughlin, a study author and researcher at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

One hurdle to getting screened may be the complexity of the guidelines, MacLaughlin said. Rather than an easy-to-remember annual exam, screenings occur at intervals of longer than a year. A woman’s age helps determine when the HPV test or a Pap smear, which collects cells from the cervix to look for precancerous changes, is recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

“It’s just that challenge of, how do any of us remember to do something every three years or every five years?” MacLaughlin said. “That’s hard.”

At-Home Logistics

While the NCI hasn’t yet settled on the precise self-sampling approach it will use, the technique generally requires the woman to insert a tiny brush into her vagina and rotate it several times to collect the cells. Then she slides the brush into a specimen container that has a preservative solution and returns the kit for HPV analysis.

According to a review of studies published in 2018 in the medical journal BMJ, the accuracy of identifying HPV was similar when the samples were collected by women at home as when collected by clinicians. A urine-based HPV test, which may prove easier for women to perform, also is being studied, said Jennifer Smith, a professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Before companies can pursue applications for an FDA-approved home test, self-sampling by women has to be shown comparable to detect HPV, though perhaps it may not be quite as accurate as when a clinician is involved, Sahasrabuddhe said. NCI officials are still finalizing study details. But the plan is to invite four companies that already manufacture HPV tests for clinicians to participate, Sahasrabuddhe said. The companies will pick up the tab for the cost of the tests as well as future fees related to pursuing license applications through the FDA, he said. Sahasrabuddhe expects the study results to be available by 2024, if not sooner.

Any woman who tests positive for HPV will be referred for procedures, including possibly a biopsy, to look for abnormal cells or cervical cancer, Sahasrabuddhe said.

If an FDA-approved home test is developed, it’s crucial that uninsured women and others who don’t have easy access to medical care be able to get those procedures, Smith said.

“You just don’t send random kits out to people’s homes,” Smith said, “and not ensure that they have someone to talk to about the results and are going to be able to be integrated into a follow-up system.”

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Essential Worker Shoulders $1,840 Pandemic Debt Due To COVID Cost Loophole

Carmen Quintero works an early shift as a supervisor at a 3M distribution warehouse that ships N95 masks to a nation under siege from the coronavirus. On March 23, she had developed a severe cough, and her voice, usually quick and enthusiastic, was barely a whisper.

A human resources staff member told Quintero she needed to go home.

“They told me I couldn’t come back until I was tested,” said Quintero, who was also told that she would need to document that she didn’t have the virus.

Her primary care doctor directed her to the nearest emergency room for testing because the practice had no coronavirus tests.

The Corona Regional Medical Center is just around the corner from her house in Corona, California, and there a nurse tested her breathing and gave her a chest X-ray. But the hospital didn’t have any tests either, and the nurse told her to go to Riverside County’s public health department. There, a public health worker gave her an 800 number to call to schedule a test. The earliest the county could test her was April 7, more than two weeks later.

At the hospital, Quintero got a doctor’s note saying she should stay home from work for a week, and she was told to behave as if she had COVID-19, isolating herself from vulnerable household members. That was difficult — Quintero lives with her grandmother and her girlfriend’s parents — but she managed. No one else in her home got sick, and by the time April 7 came, she felt better and decided not to get the coronavirus test.

Then the bill came.

The Patient: Carmen Quintero, 35, a supervisor at a 3M distribution warehouse who lives in Corona, California. She has an Anthem Blue Cross health insurance plan through her job with a $3,500 annual deductible.

Total Bill: Corona Regional Medical Center billed Quintero $1,010, and Corona Regional Emergency Medical Associates billed an additional $830 for physician services. She also paid $50 at Walgreens to fill a prescription for an inhaler.

Service Provider: Corona Regional Medical Center, a for-profit hospital owned by Universal Health Services, a company based in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, which is one of the largest health care management companies in the nation. The hospital contracts with Corona Regional Emergency Medical Associates, part of Emergent Medical Associates.

Medical Service: Quintero was evaluated in the emergency room for symptoms consistent with COVID-19: a wracking cough and difficulty breathing. She had a chest X-ray and a breathing treatment and was prescribed an inhaler.

What Gives: On that day in late March when her body shook from coughing, Quintero’s immediate worry was infecting her family, especially her girlfriend’s parents, both over 65, and her 84-year-old grandmother.

“If something was to happen to them, I don’t know if I would have been able to live with it,” said Quintero.

Quintero wanted to isolate in a hotel, but she could hardly afford to for the week that she stayed home. She had only three paid sick days and was forced to take vacation time until her symptoms subsided and she was allowed back at work. At the time, few places provided publicly funded hotel rooms for sick people to isolate, and Quintero was not offered any help.

For her medical care, Quintero knew she had a high-deductible plan yet felt she had no choice but to follow her doctor’s advice and go to the nearest emergency room to get tested. She assumed she would get the test and not have to pay. Congress had passed the CARES Act just the week before, with its headlines saying coronavirus testing would be free.

That legislation turned out to be riddled with loopholes, especially for people like Quintero who needed and wanted a coronavirus test but couldn’t get one early in the pandemic.

“I just didn’t think it was fair because I went in there to get tested,” she said.

Carmen Quintero (right) still tries to keep a safe distance from her grandmother, Teresa Carapia, and two other family members over 65. Quintero says she worried about them as she tried to self-isolate with COVID-like symptoms.(Heidi de Marco/KHN)

Some insurance companies are voluntarily reducing copayments for COVID-related emergency room visits. Quintero said her insurer, Anthem Blue Cross, would not reduce her bill. Anthem would not discuss the case until Quintero signed its own privacy waiver; it would not accept a signed standard waiver KHN uses. The hospital would not discuss the bill with a reporter unless Quintero could also be on the phone, something that has yet to be arranged around Quintero’s workday, which begins at 4 a.m. and ends at 3:30 p.m.

Three states have gone further than Congress to waive cost sharing for testing and diagnosis of pneumonia and influenza, given these illnesses are often mistaken for COVID-19. California is not one of them, and because Quintero’s employer is self-insured — the company pays for health services directly from its own funds — it is exempt from state directives anyway. The U.S. Department of Labor regulates all self-funded insurance plans. In 2019, nearly 2 in 3 covered workers were in these types of plans.

Resolution: As lockdown restrictions ease and coronavirus cases rise around the country, public health officials say quickly isolating sick people before the virus spreads through families is essential.

But isolation efforts have gotten little attention in the U.S. Nearly all local health departments, including Riverside County, where Quintero lives, now have these programs, according to the National Association of County and City Health Officials. Many were designed to shelter people experiencing homelessness but can be used to isolate others.

Raymond Niaura, interim chairman of the Department of Epidemiology at New York University, said these programs are used inconsistently and have been poorly promoted to the public.

“No one has done this before and a lot of what’s happening is that people are making it up as they go along,” said Niaura. “We’ve just never been in a circumstance like this.”

Quintero still worries about bringing the virus home to her family and fears being in the same room with her grandmother. Quintero returns from work every day now, puts her clothes in a separate hamper and diligently washes her hands before she interacts with anyone.

The bills have been another constant worry. Quintero called the hospital and her insurance company and complained that she should not have to pay since she was seeking a test on her doctor’s orders. Neither budged, and the bills labeled “payment reminders” soon became “final notices.” She reluctantly agreed to pay $100 a month toward her balance — $50 to the hospital and $50 to the doctors.

“None of them wanted to work with me,” Quintero said. “I just have to give the first payment on each bill so they wouldn’t send me to collections.”

The Takeaway: If you suspect you have COVID-19 and need to isolate to protect vulnerable members of your household, call your local public health department. Most counties have isolation and quarantine programs, but these resources are not well known. You may be placed in a hotel, recreational vehicle or other type of housing while you wait out the infection period. You do not need to have a positive COVID test to qualify for these programs and can use these programs while you await your test result. But this is an area in which public health officials repeatedly offer clear guidance — 14 days of isolation — which most people find impossible to follow.

At this point in the pandemic, tests are more widely available and federal law is very clearly on your side: You should not be charged any cost sharing for a coronavirus test.

Be wary, though, if your doctor directs you to the emergency room for a COVID test, because any additional care you get there could come at a high price. Ask if there are any other testing sites available.

If you do find yourself with a big bill related to suspected COVID, push beyond a telephone call with your insurance company and file a formal appeal. If you feel comfortable, ask your employer’s human resources staff to argue on your behalf. Then, call the help line for your state insurance commissioner and file a separate appeal. Press insurers — and big companies that offer self-insured plans — to follow the spirit of the law, even if the letter of the law seems to let them off the hook.

Bill of the Month is a crowdsourced investigation by Kaiser Health News and NPR that dissects and explains medical bills. Do you have an interesting medical bill you want to share with us? Tell us about it!

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