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Getting tested for the coronavirus could leave Americans drowning in medical debt

Getting tested for the coronavirus could leave Americans drowning in medical debt
[Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images]

As COVID-19 continues to spread in the United States, many Americans are understandably wondering whether they should seek out specific testing if they come down with flu-like symptoms. However, due to the nature of the privatized healthcare industry in America, getting tested for the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 could leave Americans saddled with thousands of dollars in medical debt.

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As The Miami Herald reported last week, Osmel Martinez Azcue, a Florida-based businessman, started experiencing flu-like symptoms after he came back home from a trip to China in January. Azcue, who had private health insurance, felt it was his duty to go to the hospital to be tested for the virus for not only the good of his own and his family’s health, but for the good of public health.

At the hospital, Azcue was offered a CT scan, which is one of the best testing methods to detect the virus. However, Azcue opted for a simple flu test first, and then would undergo other more advanced tests if the first turned up nothing. The good news is Azcue ended up having only the common flu–and, more importantly, he found out he wasn’t a danger to the public, as he feared.

But a few weeks later, Azcue reportedly got a bill from the hospital: Looking out for the public good would end up costing him $3,270. Keep in mind, that was the cost for a simple flu test—and not a CT scan. It was also his direct cost, despite having health insurance.

The story illustrates how America’s lack of a universal healthcare system could put others off from being tested. If Americans can incur significant medical debt just by going to get tested for the disease, at what point does someone decide that cost outweighs the benefit to public health? Taken to the extreme, this financial burden on Americans—which citizens in countries with universal health coverage don’t have to deal with—could conceivably allow the disease to spread more easily without detection.

The good news is, even if you think you have the coronavirus, experts say it’s currently unnecessary for most people to run out and get tested, reports the University of California, San Francisco:

If you have not traveled to an area of the world with sustained community transmission of COVID-19 within 14 days of feeling sick, you should follow the same steps that you would take if you thought you had the flu. These include staying home from work or school, unless you feel that you need medical attention.

If you have traveled to infected areas, or had contact with someone who has, and feel sick with a fever, cough, or difficulty breathing within 14 days, you should call your doctor’s office, urgent care clinic, or emergency department ahead of time and tell them your recent travel and symptoms. They can help to make decisions about whether, when and where you be evaluated.

That should come as a relief, considering the financial burdens many Americans must accept for basic healthcare services. Still, the prohibitive costs to tests that are in the interest of public health exemplify the problems exacerbated by America’s private healthcare system. As Osmel Martinez Azcue told The Miami Herald, “How can they expect normal citizens to contribute to eliminating the potential risk of person-to-person spread if hospitals are waiting to charge us $3,270 for a simple blood test and a nasal swab?”

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