The COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn has caused millions to lose their jobs in the United States. In February 2020, the U.S. unemployment rate was 3.5 percent. By April, it was 14.7 percent. While employment numbers are slowly improving, there are still more people than ever making hard choices about everything, including health care, as concerns rise about how to pay medical bills during this time.
People are Delaying Care Due to Uncertainties
With COVID-19 in circulation, it’s clear many people are avoiding clinics and emergency rooms due to fears of coming in contact with the virus. The economy is another major factor in health care changes during this pandemic. People are experiencing layoffs, furloughs and uncertain employment futures, making any sort of spending a bigger, more stressful decision.
“We’re seeing a significant increase in people seeking financial assistance options because of losing insurance due to layoffs or permanent loss of work,” Jayne Hildebrand, Executive Director of Patient Access, says. “There’s also been an increase in those who are a bit more reluctant to part with money until they absolutely must do so, due to a temporary reduction in cash flow from furloughs or worries of losing a job at any time.”
With the virus still spreading and disrupting livelihoods, Hildebrand says it’s difficult to tell what the job market will do. But she predicts the amount of people looking for financial assistance for health care during COVID-19 will continue to grow.
First Health Care Steps Following Employment Changes
Hildebrand says the first thing she suggests is to explore options with COBRA insurance. COBRA stands for Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. It gives the employee the right to pay premiums to keep the group health insurance they would otherwise lose after being laid off or quitting a job. Be aware, you only have a limited amount of time after your job status changes to sign up for COBRA.
It’s also a good idea to talk to your care team about your employment changes.
“I think it’s always important to talk to your provider about care options. If your physician doesn’t know about your change in employment status, they won’t know to consider additional treatment options – especially cost-effective suggestions. Your doctor and your care team are an excellent resource and might have options you never considered,” Hildebrand says.
Help Paying Medical Bills During Tough Times
There are three services available at UnityPoint Health that can help you get the care you need to keep your health on point. Depending on your demonstrated financial need, your financial coordinator can help guide you to these resources:
- Medication Patient Assistance Program. This program helps UnityPoint Health hospital and clinic patients in need of assistance with their prescribed medications. Any patient who wants to use this program will need a referral from someone at UnityPoint Health – like their health care provider or a financial coordinator. The program can help qualifying non-insured and under-insured patients request support from drug companies or from National Foundations for medication needs.
- Payment Plans. This is, and always has been, a very popular option for people. If you want to set up a payment plan, there is a pre-payment required upfront. That means anyone who wants to use this option must pay a small percentage of their total out-of-pocket cost. You can set up a payment plan before your treatment or after you receive a medical bill. The length of your payment plan can vary.
- Low-Interest Loans. These are available for expensive services, usually over $10,000. These loans are available through an outside lending agency and allow people to spread payments out even farther than a payment plan would.
“With the price of health care and the amount of people who have high-deductible insurance plans, it’s not as uncommon as you might think for people to need procedures that add up to $10,000. Generally, it often includes surgical cases for things like spine, orthopedics or cardiac services,” Hildebrand says.
How to Get Started with Financial Aid for Medical Bills
If you have an emergency – like a heart attack – you’ll be contacted by a financial coordinator following your release from the hospital to talk through payment options. Your focus should be getting better – then we’ll talk about how to handle the hospital bills in a way that you and your family are comfortable with.
If you are considering a procedure or treatment, and want to know about estimates for medical costs, payment plans or low-interest loans, you can fill out a form on our website. There’s also a phone number you could use:
- Madison: 608-417-5030
- All other UnityPoint Health locations: 833-237-7423 (833-23-PRICE)
“Your submission will go to our financial team. They will contact you to find out more information – like if you have health insurance or not. If you do have insurance, they’ll help you understand your benefits. We know insurance terms are confusing and frustrating – ‘What does out-of-pocket mean, and what’s a deductible?’ Your financial coordinator will also talk through your options, including low-interest loans and payment plans. They also have information about the drug assistance program, if needed,” Hildebrand says.
As part of the process, we will also check to find out if you qualify for Medicaid assistance through the federal government.
“One complication with the pandemic is some patients have been receiving some additional federal payments through unemployment that has put them over income guidelines. The result is a delay in their ability to get Medicaid as quickly as they might need it,” Hildebrand says.
Finally, your financial coordinator might know about community resources available – depending on your diagnosis.
“Overall, always feel free to reach out via the form on our website. We are here to be your partner, to reduce your frustration and help you through difficult decisions,” Hildebrand says.