Better Solutions for Healthcare

NYT: ‘It Felt Like Deception’: An Elite NYC Hospital Charges Huge Virus Test Fees

By Sarah Kliff

March 30, 2021

Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan advertised its “Covid-19 Testing” on a large blue and white banner outside its Greenwich Village division’s emergency room. The banner said nothing about cost.

But cost turned out to be the testing’s most noteworthy feature. Lenox Hill, one of the city’s oldest and best-known hospitals, repeatedly billed patients more than $3,000 for the routine nasal swab test, about 30 times the test’s typical cost.

“It was shocking to see a number like that, when I’ve gotten tested before for about $135,” said Ana Roa, who was billed $3,358 for a test at Lenox Hill last month.

Ms. Roa’s coronavirus test bill is among 16 that The New York Times reviewed from the site. They show that Lenox Hill arrives at its unusually high prices by charging a large fee for the test itself — about six times the typical charge — and by billing the encounter as a “moderately complex” emergency room visit.

In one case, a family accrued $39,314 in charges for 12 tests this winter, all taken to fulfill requirements for returning to work or school. In another, an asymptomatic patient walked in because she saw the banner outside and wanted a test after traveling. Her insurance was charged $2,963.

Federal legislation last year mandated that coronavirus testing be free for patients, so individuals are typically protected. None of the patients tested at the Lenox Hill emergency room were billed directly for the service. But eventually, American patients bear the costs of these expensive tests in the form of higher insurance premiums.

Patient bills show that at least one additional hospital owned by Lenox Hill’s parent group, Northwell Health, has charged emergency room fees to patients at a mass testing site.

“It felt like deception, and an effort to try and get money that they are not entitled to,” said Ute Tabi. She was reviewing her family’s insurance claims and saw a $2,793 charge for a drive-through coronavirus test her husband got at a Northwell hospital in the New York suburbs, Huntington Hospital on Long Island. The hospital pursued the family for a share of the bill, which Ms. Tabi has so far refused to pay.

The Times has been asking readers to submit bills so that we can understand the costs of coronavirus testing and treatment. So far, more than 600 patients have participated. Their bills have revealed high charges and illegal fees, as well as patients who face substantial medical debt for coronavirus treatment. If you have a bill for coronavirus testing or treatment, you can share it here.

Northwell Health, a nonprofit, operates 23 hospitals in the region, and received about $1.2 billion in emergency health provider funding in the federal CARES Act last year.

The chain recently came under scrutiny after The Times revealed it had sued more than 2,500 patients for medical debt during the pandemic. It has since dropped those cases.

Northwell, which defended its coronavirus testing charges as appropriate, has since removed the blue signs at the Greenwich Village division advertising the service.

Officials said patients tested at the emergency room received more advanced care than they would elsewhere. They declined to comment on specific patient cases but said their protocols involve notifying patients that their test will come with emergency room fees. A sign with the information is taped to a plexiglass shield at the registration desk.

“I don’t think of the emergency room as a testing site,” said Barbara Osborn, Northwell’s vice president for communications.

But the Lenox Hill in Greenwich Village has tested 15,000 patients for coronavirus over the course of the pandemic. Patients interviewed by The Times said they went there because of the banner outside, not to seek emergency care. They were asymptomatic and seeking tests as a precaution before traveling or socializing.

Ms. Roa spotted the emergency room fee through an unusual circumstance. Her wallet had been stolen, and she was checking her bills. She feared her identity had been stolen because she had no memory of visiting an emergency room.