Government plans to pay hospitals for COVID-19 care for uninsured

Hospitals and health care providers would be reimbursed at Medicare rates, HHS secretary says

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee on Feb. 26, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee on Feb. 26, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 3, 2020 at 8:01pm

The Trump administration said Friday evening that officials plan to reimburse hospitals and health care providers for uncompensated care given to COVID-19 patients who do not have health insurance.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said at a White House press briefing that hospitals and health care providers would be reimbursed at Medicare rates for the treatment of uninsured patients. Providers would be banned from balance billing patients or sending them a surprise medical bill to make up the difference in costs not covered by the government.

The announcement comes after about 10 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits over two weeks in late March. Many workers who lost their jobs also would have lost employer-sponsored health insurance coverage during the pandemic. The Trump administration declined to open a special enrollment period for people to sign up for insurance on the federal exchange set up by the 2010 health care law.

[States reopen insurance enrollment as coronavirus spreads]

People who lose their employer-sponsored health insurance already qualify under existing rules for a special enrollment period, which Azar noted from the briefing room podium, but other people who did not lose their coverage but had been uninsured or are underinsured would not be able to purchase a plan on HealthCare.gov. 

The top Democrats on congressional health committees sent a letter Friday night to Azar and Vice President Mike Pence urging them to establish a special enrollment period.

“Those who are uninsured and otherwise struggling to navigate these challenging times may avoid seeking medical treatment altogether as a result,” they wrote.

Loading the player...

Azar said the administration’s proposal would be better for uninsured people than allowing them to sign up for coverage in a special enrollment period.

“In many respects, it’s better for those uninsured individuals,” he said. “What President [Donald] Trump is doing here with this money is an unprecedented, disease-specific support of care for individuals to make sure that people get treatment.”

The plan is not expected to cover the uninsured for conditions unrelated to COVID-19. 

The funds will come from $100 billion provided for hospitals and health care systems in a law responding to the economic and health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. A spokesperson for the Office of Management and Budget did not immediately respond to a question about how much of the $100 billion would go toward compensating care for uninsured patients.

The American Hospital Association earlier this week urged the administration to disburse the $100 billion quickly to providers based on categories like expenses related to surge capacity for the virus, ensuring an adequate workforce, lost revenue because of canceled elective procedures and other health care expenses.

Several health insurance plans also have said they would waive out-of-pocket costs for treatment its members receive for COVID-19 through the end of May.

Trump also said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends that people voluntarily wear a cloth or fabric mask to cover their mouth and nose while out in public. He stressed that people should leave surgical masks or N95 respirators for health care workers.

Still, Trump said he likely would not wear a mask himself. He said he couldn’t envision himself wearing a mask in the Oval Office or while meeting with foreign dignitaries.

“I don’t know. Somehow I don’t see it for myself,” he said.