Teacher: Instead of giving me a COVID-19 test, my hospital blindsided me with bills

I never imagined that the worst part of having a terrible case of COVID-19 was going to be fighting my price-gouging hospital.

I am a school teacher in Windsor, Connecticut, where I teach band to fourth and fifth graders. In late March I had all the symptoms of COVID-19 — trouble breathing, cough, high fever. I called my doctor, who referred me to get a COVID test.

However, I didn’t qualify at that time because the state was short on tests and I was not in a high-risk group, like people who are over 65 years old, immunocompromised, or work as a health care or front line worker. When my symptoms got worse, my doctor suggested I get a chest X-ray. Since I was turned away from an urgent care clinic because they didn't have enough personal protective equipment to treat additional patients, I went to the emergency room at Hartford Hospital.

I really wanted a COVID test, too. I understood that, because of the pandemic and an agreement between the state and many insurers, these tests were free for patients. But I never got a COVID test.

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Instead, the hospital gave me an electrocardiogram (EKG), a chest X-ray, IV fluids, a flu test, a pregnancy test, and later a bill for $5,000, of which $3,500 was my responsibility. I can’t afford that on my teacher’s salary.

Not incidentally, in May, I tested positive for having antibodies to COVID, proving I almost certainly had it. I have since donated plasma twice, further confirming I have the antibodies. Had the hospital tested and treated me for COVID, my portion of the bill would have been a lot less, if not completely covered.

Let patients make an informed choice

I feel violated and bullied by a hospital system I want to be able to trust. Is it too much to ask that our health care providers tell us what tests they recommend, why they recommend those tests, the total price of the services, and how much we will be expected to pay with insurance and let us decide if we want the treatment?

Teachers in the classroom are on the front lines. We are with your children. We need to be protected and to feel safe turning to a health system we want to believe is on our side, and not designed to take advantage of us.

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Thankfully, I have recovered fully from my illness and am back in the classroom this fall on a hybrid schedule doing what I love. But I have not recovered financially.

I have been working with my insurance company and Hartford Hospital to challenge this bill and resubmit it as COVID-related treatment. While everyone I have worked with has been helpful, we did not make much progress until I got my state insurance department involved. That has helped resolve some of the bill, but no one should have to go to these lengths.

Melissa Szymanski in 2020 in Windsor, Connecticut.
Melissa Szymanski in 2020 in Windsor, Connecticut.

Whether we’re in the midst of a pandemic or not, every American deserves to be protected from outrageous health care bills they cannot foresee.

Price transparency in health care would put an end to this. The United States Senate is currently considering a bill that would require hospitals and insurance companies to show their prices to patients upfront. Hospitals and insurance companies are fighting against this right for us to know prices.

Sadly, I now know why.

Melissa Szymanski of Glastonbury, Connecticut, is a school teacher in Windsor, Connecticut.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID patient: Lack of health care price transparency burns patients