“My job is to go out and sing, and entertain these residents in the senior living facilities. And I need to be able to hear the frequencies, and I lost those during my infection with Covid.”
A battle with Covid-19 left singer Irena Schulz with pain in her ears and hearing loss, jeopardizing her job performing for elderly and dementia patients if she could no longer hear the music.
“I have been suffering from severe depression because I can’t hear. And then I had this ringing in my ears that is just — it’s deafening. I didn’t really want to wake up in the morning. I just I was that depressed,” Schulz told CNN’s Elizabeth Cohen in an interview.
Schulz’s serious Covid-19 infection last summer has left her with more than lingering symptoms of her infection.
The recovery isn’t just physical — it’s financial.
‘I can’t go see a doctor. I can’t afford it’
A Covid-19 infection left Schulz, a retired Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s researcher in South Carolina, with nearly $10,000 of credit card debt from medical bills.
“It’s very scary when I can’t go to the doctors, when I can’t afford it,” Schulz said.
The medical bills she faces from a hospital stay, trips to specialists for hearing loss, and new hearing aids have depleted the Schulz family’s emergency funds and strained the family’s finances.
With the pandemic tidal wave finally receding in the United States, the damage left behind is finally emerging, and the financial toll on families laid bare.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 115 million Americans have been infected with Covid-19, and the full picture of the medical costs and debts facing survivors of Covid-19 is still being assessed.
Survivors of the virus, like Schulz, believe now is the time to make a change, and help the large number of Americans that are struggling financially from medical debt.
“We need a health care system that actually works for us. … We should not have to worry about whether we can afford to go to the doctor, or whether we’re going to be able to afford the procedure or the treatments or the drugs. We shouldn’t have to worry about this,” Schulz said.
“I shouldn’t have to burden my family because Covid has left me the way it has.”
The threat of financial insecurity from large medical bills following Covid-19 treatment adds a new and frightening layer for patients and families.
But it’s something Schultz and many other Americans are now grappling with.
A 2020 study by the Peterson Center on Healthcare and the Kaiser Family Foundation calculated the potential costs of Covid-19 treatment and care for people that get their insurance through employers. Utilizing data for pneumonia treatment, the study found that people with private insurance who become seriously ill could face out-of-pocket costs of more $1,300.
The virus left Schulz a Covid long-hauler, with chronic exhaustion and a weakened immune system.
But for those like Schulz, medical debt is often another lingering symptom.
Despite her long-haul symptoms, she hasn’t been to the doctor in a year.
“I can’t go see a doctor. I can’t afford it. Our premiums, you know, every month are incredible,” Schultz said. “My deductible is $3,000, so I have to meet that deductible. How do I pay that deductible?”
Covid-19 ravaged Schulz’s ability to hear, and her doctors told her she would need hearing aids to compensate for the hearing loss and ringing in her ears. The hearing aids came with a hefty price tag — $5,400 — which she had to put on her credit card and pay out of pocket.
For more than six months, Schulz has been battling her insurance to cover 60% of the cost of the hearing aids — a claim they continue to deny, refusing to reimburse her, she says.
Schulz thought her trip to the emergency room and other bills would be covered by the medical insurance she receives through her husband’s employer. That insurance company opted not to waive Covid-19 treatment fees, leaving her responsible for the payments, she said.
Democratic Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota wants to make sure people don’t face unexpected bills if they become sick with Covid-19. Smith has a piece of legislation — the Covid-19 Treatment Coverage Act — that has been awaiting review by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions since August 2020.
“I have heard stories of people facing hospitalization bills and other bills for prescription medicines that can be thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars,” Smith told CNN.
“That’s why I’m trying to get this legislation through, that would make sure that everybody — regardless of the kind of insurance that they have — won’t face these unexpected bills if they do become sick,” she said.
But Schultz can’t afford to see her doctors now, let alone wait for Washington to work through legislative gridlock.
“It’s a conundrum for me right now because it’s — how do I explain this? I have a 17-year-old. Am I being a terrible mom, because if this continues on and this is something very serious … and the worst happens and I die, how is that helping my son?” Schulz said. “Yet on the other hand, if I go to these doctors and I have all these bills to pay, and if we lose the house because of it, how does that help?”
Who pays for Covid-19 treatment?
Federal law ensured that Covid-19 tests and vaccines are free, and not eligible for insurers to cost share — or bill patients out-of-pocket for a portion of the cost not covered by health insurance.
That federal protection was not extended to the treatment for Covid-19, meaning if people with private insurance got sick and treated for the virus, they could still be responsible for large bills.
American health care was already a complicated and confusing topic, but the mixed response to Covid-19 by some states and insurers have left murky coverage expectations.
How you’re covered and what you’re responsible for paying could depend on where you live and what insurance company you have, Cheryl Fish-Parcham, the Director of Access Initiatives at Families USA — a group that tracks private insurance — told CNN.
“People who have insurance that they either bought themselves or that they’re getting through an employer that is state regulated. In that case, some states have required that those insurers waive cost sharing for Covid-related treatment,” Fish-Parcham told CNN.
In some other cases “insurers have voluntarily waived cost sharing, and sort of announced that they were waiving cost sharing for Covid related treatment and testing,” she said.
The only people federally protected from being charged for any part of their treatment for Covid-19 are people who are uninsured, or people on Medicaid.
A bill for $3.4 million
The 2020 study by the Peterson Center on Healthcare and the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that patient bills are larger for those with severe illness, and found that the need and duration of ventilator support could push into tens of thousands of dollars.
Casey Gray, a 29-year-old, is a perfect example. He was hospitalized with Covid-19 for 75 days in Florida, half of which he spent in a coma. As he slowly recovered — and in anticipation of huge medical bills — Casey, a youth minister, and his wife Savannah, a teacher, sold one of their cars to prepare for the debt.
“We were kind of taking bets on how much we would actually have to pay, or like how much we would be billed for. I was like, I think it’s gonna be around a million dollars,” Gray told CNN.
Gray’s first bill was for an eye-popping $3.4 million dollars. “We looked at that price and we just kind of laughed. We were like yeah, it’s probably not going to happen,” he said.
Hospital discounts brought Gray’s bill down to $900,000, insurance kicked in, and ultimately left Gray with a final bill of about $10,000 — still an overwhelming number to most people, including the young couple.
Gray’s sister-in-law turned to a method all too familiar in the US: crowd funding medical bills on the donation site GoFundMe.
The money from 105 different donors covered the remaining medical debt, and helped the couple get back on their feet.
“Without it we would have been in debt. There’s no way around it,” Gray said.
He is another Covid long-hauler, and now needs to walk with a cane after losing sensation in his left foot. Despite his lasting symptoms, he feels lucky to be alive, and wants other Covid survivors to know they’re not struggling alone.
“There’s hope. … It’s not all dark days. There is hope. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. There is,” he said.