NOEL KING, HOST:
When the White House and Congress passed coronavirus aid packages, they promised that sick people would not get stuck with the bills from COVID-19 tests. That has not turned out to be entirely true. Every month, we take a look at medical bills for our Bill of the Month series. Today, a woman from southern California who did everything she was supposed to do. Sarah Varney, a senior correspondent with our partner Kaiser Health News, brought us this story.
SARAH VARNEY, BYLINE: Follow your doctor's orders. That's exactly what Carmen Quintero did when she developed a wracking cough on March 23 and was sent home from work.
CARMEN QUINTERO: I went to work, and I was sick, so they sent me home. They told me I couldn't come back until I was tested, until something said that I didn't have the virus.
VARNEY: Quintero is 35, and she and her girlfriend live in Corona, Calif., east of Los Angeles in a house packed full of four generations. She's a supervisor at a warehouse that distributes N95 masks, an essential business during the pandemic.
QUINTERO: I called my primary doctor. She even told me, it seems like you have the COVID-19 symptoms, so I need you to go to the nearest hospital 'cause we do not carry the tests here with us. So then I hanged up - I hanged up, and I did what she told me.
VARNEY: Quintero went to the Corona Regional Medical Center. A nurse tested her breathing and X-rayed her chest, but the hospital didn't have any coronavirus tests. And the nurse told her to go to the Riverside County Public Health Department. It was still early in the pandemic then, and tests were scarce. The earliest the county could test her was April 7, more than two weeks later.
QUINTERO: Then after that, I got two bills from the hospital for that day, 1,840, and just because I did not meet my deductible. And I just didn't thought it was fair because I went in there to go get tested and they started doing all this stuff.
VARNEY: Congress passed a series of federal aid packages meant to shield patients from coronavirus testing bills, but do they protect patients like Carmen Quintero who get medical care they never asked for and never get the tests they wanted? Some insurance companies are voluntarily reducing copayments for COVID-related emergency room visits. Quintero says her insurer, Anthem Blue Cross, would not reduce her bill.
But on that day, when her body shook from coughing, when she ricocheted from work to the hospital to the health department, her immediate worry was infecting her family, especially her girlfriend's parents, both over 65, and her 84-year-old grandmother.
QUINTERO: If something was to happen to them, I would've - I don't know if I would've been able to live with it, you know?
VARNEY: Quintero wanted to isolate in a hotel, but she couldn't afford to. She had only three paid sick days and was forced to take vacation time until she was allowed back to work. At the time, few places provided publicly funded hotel rooms for sick people to isolate, and Quintero was not offered any help.
Now, as lockdown restrictions ease and coronavirus cases rise in the country, public health officials say quickly isolating infected people before the virus spreads through families is essential. Dr. Heidi Behforouz is medical director for Housing for Health at the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.
HEIDI BEHFOROUZ: We believe that there's a need for medical sheltering for the foreseeable future. We have made an agreement to continue isolation quarantines to the end of the year. My hope is that that will be extended because I think it is an important safety valve for us.
VARNEY: Nearly all local health departments, including Riverside County, where Carmen Quintero lives, now have these programs, according to the National Association of County and City Health Officials. Many were designed to shelter people experiencing homelessness but can be used to isolate others. But Raymond Niaura, interim chairman of the Department of Epidemiology at New York University, says these programs are used inconsistently and have been poorly promoted to the public.
RAYMOND NIAURA: No one's done this before. People are making it up as it goes along. And, you know, I don't want that to sound pejorative, but, you know, we've just never been in a circumstance like this.
VARNEY: After a week at home, Carmen Quintero's cough subsided. Her voice came back. She was allowed to return to work. Her family did not fall ill. She returns home from work every day now, puts her clothes in a separate hamper, diligently washes her hands and turns to the medical bills she still owes the hospital.
QUINTERO: I call my insurance, and the same thing. They send me back to my - to the hospital, same thing. So none of them wanted to work with me or anything, so I just have to give the first payment on each bill so that they wouldn't send me to collections because they kept sending me, sending me bills.
VARNEY: She never did get the coronavirus test since it seemed useless after she recuperated, and she didn't trust that her insurance company would pay the bill. For Kaiser Health News, I'm Sarah Varney.
KING: If you have a shocking medical bill that you want us to look into, go to NPR's Shots blog and tell us all about it.
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