Wake County man survived COVID-19, now he's fighting a new battle with medical bills

WAKE COUNTY, N.C. (WTVD) -- A year ago, Martin Taylor lay unconscious on a hospital bed.

The Wake County father caught COVID-19 in July 2020 and it quickly escalated into a four-month stay at the hospital. He underwent multiple surgeries and was placed on life support.

Taylor won the initial fight against COVID-19, but now he faces a new battle.

"The bills keep coming and whatever is left, is left for me to pay," Taylor said. "We just don't know how we are going to do that."

The initial itemized list of services shows Taylor's treatment just from July to August 2020 added up to nearly $900,000. After insurance adjustments, $264,000 remained.

The cost of keeping Taylor alive shocked him.

"When I seen it, I closed it back up and put it in an envelope. I told my wife there is no way in the world that this bill is for this much," Taylor said.

'A long time coming': Taylor finally leaves WakeMed

And Taylor's medical treatment for COVID-19 extended far beyond his initial hospital stay. He had to learn to walk again through physical and occupational therapy. Twelve months later, he is still on oxygen and regularly seeing a pulmonologist for his lungs. All these ongoing services mean the bills don't stop.

"I think we got to the point whenever we see the front of the envelope, we know what it is. We just take it and put it in that little bag. We're like, we'll get to it after a while," Taylor said. "As long as I keep dealing with this virus, they are going to keep coming."

Taylor and his wife, Eugenia, admit they've lost track of how much they owe because it's a challenge just to stay afloat with daily expenses.

"When you have to pick between your children or paying a bill. It's like what do you do?" Taylor questioned. "I pick the family first."

With a daughter in college and Taylor now on disability and unable to work, the bills hit even harder.

Early in the Pandemic, federal officials mandated COVID-19 testing and vaccines be offered free to all Americans. These same protections didn't extend to COVID-19 treatment. Many private insurances chose to waive things like copayments and deductibles that related to COVID-19 treatment.

"We wanted to remove all the financial barriers to getting tested or treated or for COVID-19. Secondly, unfortunately, many of your viewers know that a great percentage of people in the state are one medical bill away from being economically blown up," said North Carolina Treasurer Dale Folwell, who oversees the State Health Plan.

The Taylors have insurance through the State Health Plan and Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina. Both issued waivers for COVID-19 treatment while Taylor was hospitalized.

"COVID-19 costs were covered and waived for out-of-network providers and services. If a person was hospitalized while all waivers were in effect, they should have owed nothing. If a person was billed for COVID-related tests, vaccines, or treatment before June 30, 2021, they should contact the State Health Plan," said a spokesperson for the North Carolina Office of the State Treasurer.

The spokesperson explaining even some post-hospitalization services related to COVID-19 qualified to be waived.

"It all depends on how the provider submitted the claim. If they submitted the claim with COVID codes it would have been covered while the waiver was in place," a spokesperson wrote in an email.

Without correct coding, insurers have no way of knowing whether the treatment is related to COVID-19.

The Taylors said they weren't aware out-of-network items also qualified.

The spokesperson for the State Treasurer said some bills can qualify to be reprocessed and refunded.

Jan Stone, a national healthcare advocate, said many people don't realize their hospital bills often contain errors and patients should double-check those bills.

"Never ever pay on that first bill, ever. Just make sure you're reading that through. If for some reason they are like, 'Oh, we're going to put you in collections or something, you just tell him we need to pause on this and you know I need a 60-day hold because I don't understand this bill," Stone said.

Unfortunately, double-checking medical bills and negotiating falls on the patients. Many, like the Taylors, are already spending a large amount of time to physically and mentally recover from COVID-19.

Stone recommends working with a healthcare advocate to take away some of the confusion and stress of high medical bills usually bring.

"You have to get someone who knows the system. It's not something that you are going to be able to learn," Stone said.

She recommends patients get copies of any digital forms they are asked to sign in hospitals and try to negotiate the bills with the hospital.

Situations like the Taylors' are becoming an increasing reality as hospitalizations rise across North Carolina and the country.

While COVID-19 hospitalization have increased by 1,000 patients in the last two months, many waivers insurance companies had in place to cover COVID-19 treatments are expiring, meaning patients down the line will likely face even larger bills.

One report from FAIR Health, an independent nonprofit, estimated in-patient COVID-19 care for people who were uninsured or went out of network was as high as $45,000 for people aged 51 to 60 years old.

At the end of June, North Carolina's State Health Plan followed Blue Cross Blue Shield in letting previous COVID-19 billing protections expire.

Folwell, who oversees this plan, said the State Health Plan spent $175 million out of its reserves to pay for COVID-19 testing, treatment and administering the vaccine; money that the General Assembly has not reimbursed.

"Anytime that we take money out of reserves that means that money's been expended. Once that money has been extended that puts us in this situation of dealing with how we deal with benefit changes and costs going forward as far as premiums," Folwell explained. "As you have heard most of your life, money doesn't grow on trees, and we don't have the money trees at the Treasurer's Office."

As insurance providers look toward the long-term effects, other healthcare advocates think it's time for the federal government to step in.

"I do not expect that unless Congress steps in that insurers are going to undo those steps," said Eliot Fishman, the senior director of Health Policy at Families USA. "I think Congress's focus has been on, and the White House's focus has been on trying to push vaccinations as much as possible. And there needs to be a return to actually thinking about the cost of treatment and putting some resources into that."

Families USA is a national, nonpartisan consumer health care advocacy organization that Fishman said has pushed for COVID-19 treatment to be free since the beginning of the pandemic.

"We 100% should reconsider that. That was always a mistake," Fishman said. "That step is long overdue."

The COVID-19 Treatment Coverage Act was introduced in the Senate last summer but legislators have not moved the bill any further.

Another bill introduced in the U.S. Senate this year would limit health care providers from collecting medical debt related to COVID-19 but it hasn't made any progress.

This inaction leaving many like the Taylors struggling to navigate the complicated world of medical bills while trying to regain what COVID-19 took.

"Everything has been moved away from normal life. You've got to rebuild your life from your current situation. When that finance side hit hard like it's hitting us, it's hard. It's really hard," Taylor said.

RESOURCES:

Find out where your coverage for COVID-19-related treatments stands.

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