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Long Covid results in $9,500 in total average medical costs for workers and their employers within six months of a diagnosis, according to research by Nomi Health.
Long Covid is a chronic disease that can come with potentially debilitating symptoms, which can last for months or years. This can impact anyone who has a first Covid-19 infection, regardless of age or health.
Up to 30% of Americans who contract Covid have developed long-term symptoms; that means up to 23 million Americans have been affected, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Associated medical costs largely result from doctor visits, hospital stays, and an increased likelihood of prescriptions for steroids, antibiotics, and respiratory medications, among others, according to the Nomi Health study.
Long Covid patients are “health system vagabonds,” said Mark Newman, CEO and co-founder of Nomi Health. “They’re like nomads through the healthcare system, trying to figure out ‘What’s wrong with me?'”
The health system analyzed 20.3 million claims for reimbursement for 4.7 million workers with health insurance in the first half of 2022.
Its estimate of medical costs only takes into account workers with a long diagnosis of Covid.
But getting a diagnosis can be a long and expensive process for many people. There is no test that tells patients if they have long Covid, meaning doctors often only conclude someone has it after a battery of tests ruling out other ailments. Since a cure remains unknown, treatment usually focuses on ongoing symptom management.
“There are diseases and conditions with a lot of obvious answers, and for a long time Covid was not one of them,” Newman said.
In a separate study, Harvard University economist David Cutler estimated that long Covid costs patients $9,000 a year in medical bills. As with Nomi’s estimate, Cutler’s is a total cost before taking into account health insurance cost sharing and any out-of-pocket limit that may apply.
Patients with long Covid racked up $9,000 in additional average medical costs per person compared to similar people who had Covid but had no subsequent long-term symptoms, Nomi Health found.
Medical costs are not the only financial cost that sufferers may incur. For example, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people are out of work or have reduced working hours, resulting in a loss of income.
Nomi Health found that employees with long-term Covid are 3.6 times more likely to be absent from work for medical reasons.
“This is an ongoing tax and burden on our society that we will have to deal with for decades to come,” Newman said.
Cutler at Harvard University felt, based on confirmed Covid cases, this long Covid would cost the US economy $3.7 trillion due to increased medical expenses, reduced income and reduced quality of life. That total cost is equivalent to that of the Great Recession, Cutler said, which before the pandemic-era recession was the worst recession since the Great Depression.
Proactive strategies to help with medical costs
There are a few considerations that may help manage the financial fallout from the long Covid.
“It’s so painful when you have an illness and all of a sudden you’re out of money,” Carolyn McClanahan, Certified Financial Planner and Physician, told CNBC.
Workers who are not yet sick should enroll in disability insurance programs during their open enrollment period at work, if their employer offers the benefit, McClanahan said.
This can provide a financial buffer if someone has to be away from work for a short or extended period due to long Covid. These group policies offer guaranteed coverage at a low cost, but there are often exclusions and limitations that are worth considering.
People should also be careful when choosing a health plan. For example, some plans carry lower monthly premiums but have larger deductibles and other costs, as well as a smaller network of physicians available to patients. Conversely, plans with higher monthly premiums may have smaller deductibles and out-of-pocket limits. and a larger list of specialists available to them, perhaps without a referral from a primary care physician. Going out of the network of a health plan can entail significant costs.
Health plans with larger networks of doctors and specialists can serve a long Covid patient well, said McClanahan, founder of Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, Fla., and a CNBC advisory board member.
“There are so many variables you have to consider,” she said.
Some aspects of health care, such as prescription drugs, are more expensive with insurance, which means it could be beneficial for someone to shop around and use resources such as GoodRx, said McClanahan. For example, a drug for $100 through insurance might cost $4 through the right pharmacy using a GoodRx coupon, she said.
While it’s generally not a good idea to draw down retirement savings early, there are tax-efficient ways for patients to consider withdrawing money from an Individual Retirement Account if they have need funds, McClanahan said. It can be helpful to talk to an accountant about these options, she said.
For example, an investor under age 59.5 generally owes a 10% penalty tax in addition to income tax when withdrawing money from an IRA.
However, there is an exception to this 10% penalty in certain cases involving significant and unreimbursed medical expenses. Those people would have to document their medical expenses and would still have to pay income tax on that IRA withdrawal, McClanahan said.
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