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Compounding health care issues with financial harm

March 10, 2021

Topics: Quote of the Day

Bad news for one unlucky patient is also a stark example of how dysfunctional U.S. health coverage can be.

By Sarah Kliff
The New York Times, March 10, 2021

John Druschitz spent five days in a Texas hospital last April with fever and shortness of breath. It was still the early days of the pandemic, and doctors puzzled over a diagnosis.

They initially suspected coronavirus and hung signs outside his door warning those entering to wear protective equipment. Mr. Druschitz had already spent two weeks at home with worsening symptoms. He recalls one doctor telling him, “This is what it does to a person.”

Ensuing lab work, however, was ambiguous: Multiple molecular tests for coronavirus came back negative, but an antibody test was positive.

Doctors found that Mr. Druschitz had an irregular heartbeat and blood clots in both his lungs. They sent him home on oxygen, and ultimately did not give a coronavirus diagnosis because of the negative tests. He didn’t think much about the decision until this fall, when he received a $22,367.81 bill that the hospital has since threatened to send to collections.

Working with a patient advocate, he discovered that his debt stemmed in no small part from his diagnosis. Not having a coronavirus diagnosis disqualified his hospital from tapping into a federal fund to cover bills for people who do.

Mr. Druschitz ultimately fell slightly short of qualifying for multiple federal health programs that would have paid for his care if the details had been slightly different. Health policy experts see his experience as a case study in how easily patients can fall through the cracks of America’s fragmented health insurance system.

“It shows the insanity of having a health care system where literally the clinical diagnosis determines whether someone is going to get bankrupted,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the public health school at Brown University.

Mr. Druschitz was briefly among those uninsured millions. On the day the hospital admitted him, he was 64 years old, 23 days away from qualifying for Medicare. He had mistakenly terminated his private health plan, which he had purchased on the Obamacare marketplaces, one month early.

“It’s more likely than not that he did not have Covid, but it’s certainly not a zero chance,” Dr. Jha said. “The fact that it will end up making a big difference in the bill is really problematic.”



By Don McCanne, M.D.

Suppose we had one single national health program – a single payer Medicare for All – that covers you from conception to death. None of this would have been a problem for Mr. Druschitz. In fact, none of the other millions who have problems with their coverage or lack thereof would have such problems in the future.

There are now innumerable studies that show that everyone can have comprehensive health care without having to face financial barriers, and we are already spending enough to pay for such a system once we recover administrative waste and correct the other deficiencies in our financing system.

How many lessons do we need?

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About the Commentator, Don McCanne

Don McCanne is a retired family practitioner who dedicated the 2nd phase of his career to speaking and writing extensively on single payer and related issues. He served as Physicians for a National Health Program president in 2002 and 2003, then as Senior Health Policy Fellow. For two decades, Don wrote "Quote of the Day", a daily health policy update which inspired HJM.

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