The emails readers sent me after I wrote about that $600 bandage gave me a solution. Many included medical bills with the price charged, what the insurer paid and what the patient was responsible for. The secrets were suddenly in plain sight.
Since then, readers’ medical bills have become a crucial source for my reporting. They are the documents that say exactly what medicine costs in the United States. Coupled with interviews with patients, who can explain the effects of those costs on their lives, they underpin powerful stories about living in a country where routine care can cost three or four times what it does abroad.
The Coronavirus Outbreak ›
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated August 6, 2020
Why are bars linked to outbreaks?
- Think about a bar. Alcohol is flowing. It can be loud, but it’s definitely intimate, and you often need to lean in close to hear your friend. And strangers have way, way fewer reservations about coming up to people in a bar. That’s sort of the point of a bar. Feeling good and close to strangers. It’s no surprise, then, that bars have been linked to outbreaks in several states. Louisiana health officials have tied at least 100 coronavirus cases to bars in the Tigerland nightlife district in Baton Rouge. Minnesota has traced 328 recent cases to bars across the state. In Idaho, health officials shut down bars in Ada County after reporting clusters of infections among young adults who had visited several bars in downtown Boise. Governors in California, Texas and Arizona, where coronavirus cases are soaring, have ordered hundreds of newly reopened bars to shut down. Less than two weeks after Colorado’s bars reopened at limited capacity, Gov. Jared Polis ordered them to close.
I have antibodies. Am I now immune?
- As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
I’m a small-business owner. Can I get relief?
- The stimulus bills enacted in March offer help for the millions of American small businesses. Those eligible for aid are businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 workers, including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and freelancers. Some larger companies in some industries are also eligible. The help being offered, which is being managed by the Small Business Administration, includes the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But lots of folks have not yet seen payouts. Even those who have received help are confused: The rules are draconian, and some are stuck sitting on money they don’t know how to use. Many small-business owners are getting less than they expected or not hearing anything at all.
What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
What is school going to look like in September?
- It is unlikely that many schools will return to a normal schedule this fall, requiring the grind of online learning, makeshift child care and stunted workdays to continue. California’s two largest public school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — said on July 13, that instruction will be remote-only in the fall, citing concerns that surging coronavirus infections in their areas pose too dire a risk for students and teachers. Together, the two districts enroll some 825,000 students. They are the largest in the country so far to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August. For other districts, the solution won’t be an all-or-nothing approach. Many systems, including the nation’s largest, New York City, are devising hybrid plans that involve spending some days in classrooms and other days online. There’s no national policy on this yet, so check with your municipal school system regularly to see what is happening in your community.
Last year, readers’ bills helped me figure out that the only trauma center in San Francisco was out of network with all private insurance companies, leaving patients with thousands of dollars in medical debt. I received those bills through a reporting project at my last job, where we crowdsourced a database of 2,000 emergency room bills.
Just last month, I got exceptionally lucky when four patients who received coronavirus tests in one Texas emergency room decided to send me their billing documents. Three patients sent them in totally unconnected to one another, each aghast at the prices. (The fourth came from one patient’s friend.) Together, they showed that the price of a test could range from $199 to $6,408 — all in the same facility.
That story made me eager to better understand what the price of testing and other coronavirus care looks like in the rest of the country, and, working with my Times colleagues, I decided that readers’ bills were the best way to tell the story. (When handling sensitive information, access is highly restricted and is never published without prior consent.)
Collecting medical bills is, admittedly, a slow, inefficient process that doesn’t lend itself to automation. The documents that come in are messy. Some are image files and others are PDFs. Each hospital and insurer uses its own formatting. A few medical bills — the ones I now swoon for — include detailed, itemized information that shows the price of every pill and scan. Others, frustratingly, lump everything together into one price.
Running a project like this is equal parts stressful and exciting because I don’t know in advance what stories I’ll tell. Instead, I’m waiting to see where the readers’ submissions will guide me.
Right now, I’m mostly excited: Since starting on Monday, we’ve already had nearly 200 submissions. The more I read, the more interesting patterns I start to notice.