Essentia Health Bills Approximately 1,000 Uninsured Patients For COVID-19 Tests

DULUTH, Minn. — A representative with Essentia Health in Duluth has admitted that the health care provider charged approximately 1,000 uninsured patients for COVID-19 tests, which are free under the federal CARES Act.

The issue came to light after one patient told FOX21 he received a $171 bill for his COVID-19 test in July.

That patient, Superior resident Nick Dalbec, said he needed to get tested for the virus after he had gone to a gathering with friends and family at a restaurant in Duluth.

“I was out with some friends, it was a going away party for my cousin,” Dalbec said. “We were social distancing, but you know, you never really know. And then I received a phone call from my sister saying that somebody there’s husband actually tested positive for COVID-19.”

Dalbec said he completed an e-visit with Essentia Health, then went to get tested.

“They never said anything about pricing, they didn’t ask for my insurance information, nothing, so I just assumed at that point that it was free,” he explained. “And that was my biggest concern, because I recently lost my job.”

A few days later, a bill for $171.35 was waiting for him in his mailbox, for just the COVID-19 test alone.

Although Dalbec had recently been laid off from his job, he still had his insurance for a couple more weeks.  However, his insurance wasn’t up to date with Essentia, so they charged him as an uninsured patient.

“I was really angry, because I had thought that this was supposed to be free,” Dalbec said. “So, as as soon as I found that out I called them up immediately, and I was informed at that time that no, it was not free, you will have to pay.”

Under the CARES Act, health care providers do not have to put the COVID-19 testing cost burden on uninsured patients. They can send those charges right to the federal government for reimbursement.

According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, health care providers can also seek reimbursement for uninsured patients who had an appointment and treatment related to COVID-19, in addition to testing. The federal government will also reimburse health care providers for administering a COVID-19 vaccination to uninsured patients when it becomes available.

An Essentia spokesperson said Dalbec speaking out about his bill exposed an “issue” with the billing process that has affected approximately 1,000 uninsured patients between the health care provider’s locations in multiple states.

Melanie Wilson, the vice president of Essentia Health’s revenue services, said that the average testing price Essentia charges patients is in line with Dalbec’s $171 bill. This would mean that uninsured patients who had COVID-19 tests done by Essentia Health could have collectively owed about $171,000 before the issue was brought to light.

“For the one percent of the patients that we did identify by this patient coming forward, we did find a system issue where, like I said, there were a few statements that did go out the door inappropriately, certainly not our intent,” Wilson said.

Now, Essentia is working to fix it.

“We are taking the appropriate steps to call each of those patients today and tomorrow, apologize for the mistake, help them understand that they are not financially responsible for COVID tests,” Wilson said.

Essentia is also sending out letters to affected patients to formally apologize, and explain that the charges on their accounts will be removed or reimbursed if they were wrongly billed.

Wilson added that Essentia plans to audit each patient account where a COVID-19 test was done, to make sure it was billed properly.

“We have put fail-safe processes in place that going forward to say that we identified a gap, how do we close that gap to ensure that this doesn’t happen for patients in the future,” Wilson explained.

Meanwhile, Dalbec will no longer have to pay $171 for his COVID-19 test, a big relief for someone who has recently lost their job at AAR in Duluth because of the pandemic.

While a financial weight has been lifted off of his shoulders, he said the testing experience has given him a new perspective on America’s current situation.

“I think people need to just stay safe, stay away from each other as best as you can, Dalbec said. “It’s a little more eye-opening when you know, you could be possibly exposed to it.”

Dalbec added that his results came back negative for the virus.

FOX21 also reached out to St. Luke’s Hospital to see if it has charged patients for COVID-19 tests. A spokesperson said that at the start of the pandemic, the hospital did, but after the CARES Act passed, they stopped and reimbursed the patients who were charged for testing.

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