Out-of-pocket treatment costs for some COVID-19 patients will be waived under an agreement announced Thursday with Minnesota’s nonprofit insurers, as the virus sends growing numbers to the hospital.
Under the deal, announced by Gov. Tim Walz and the Minnesota Council of Health Plans, cost-sharing for coronavirus testing will also be dropped and more telemedicine options will be available for insured patients.
The announcement comes weeks after state regulators urged the plans to bear the burden of COVID-19-related medical care, especially because a hospital stay can leave a patient with a cost-sharing bill of more than $1,000.
But there are some restrictions, and many people who work for large corporations, which self-insure and are outside the reach of state regulation, may still be required to make copayments, depending on their company’s policies.
Currently, 75 people are hospitalized for COVID-19, including 21 new patients reported today by the Minnesota Department of Health.
Due to more severe complications of the virus, 38 patients were in intensive care units — 11 more than Wednesday.
The confirmed COVID-19 Minnesota case count went up to 742 on Thursday, with 53 new infections.
There have been 18 fatalities in the state as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, including one new death of a 69-year-old Hennepin County resident.
Hospitals have been bracing for an influx of COVID-19 patients as the case count continues to climb.
An estimated 20% of those sickened will need some hospital care, with 5% of them requiring costly intensive care, according to estimates.
“Our goal is if you get sick with COVID-19 your focus should only be on getting better and recovering,” said Minnesota Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley. “You shouldn’t worry about getting a bill that will ruin you financially.”
The new plan policy applies only to care at in-network hospitals. If there were to be a surge of patients, some hospitals might be full and patients might be forced to use a hospital that is not covered.
Kelley said the plans were not ready to address the out-of-network issue and that discussions will continue.
“The plans have been assessing the risk of this pandemic all the way along,” he said. “It took them a while to arrive at the point where they felt comfortable from a financial point of view.”
The Minnesota Council of Health Plans, which represents the nonprofit insurers, said its members have “stepped up in a voluntary capacity to support their member enrollees” and “we will continue to adjust as needed to combat the epidemic.”
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, the state’s largest insurer, said it had already waived copays for testing, dropped prior authorization requirements for COVID-19-related care and made it possible for members to get 90-day refills on some medications.
The insurer is among those that expanded telemedicine, including the use of popular apps such as FaceTime and Skype to interact with clinicians.
Clinics across the state have seen significant drops in patient visits of all kinds and have pushed for more telemedicine capability to provide continuity of care.
The decline in face-to-face visits is one reason health care systems are taking a financial hit.
A $50 million health care aid program passed by the Legislature recently has been flooded with requests.
“We got over 200 applications requesting more than $256 million dollars,” said Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. “The request far outstrips that source of money.”
Long-term care facilities continue to be impacted by new positive cases being discovered in residents and staff.
There are now 47 facilities with known COVID-19 cases, with one location having a cluster of eight infections.
A total of 49 long-term care residents have caught the virus, including 11 who have died. Another 22 long-term care workers are also infected.
Notably, the seasonal flu outbreak has let up, with no influenza outbreaks in long-term care reported last week.
Flu-related hospitalizations have also plummeted, with just 27 admissions last week, the fifth consecutive weekly decrease. Since the flu season began last fall, more than 4,000 people had required hospital care, making it one of the more active seasons in the past few years.
As the flu wanes, community transmission of COVID-19 has brought Minnesota firmly into a new phase of the pandemic.
Nearly four weeks after the discovery of the first Minnesota case, about half of the known cases have originated in the state — 21% caught it from a known case and 30% were exposed locally but with the exact source not known, according to new data released by state health officials Thursday.
That information was gleaned from phone calls made by Health Department staff members to people who were diagnosed with the virus.
During epidemics, epidemiologists and other department staffers are reassigned from their ongoing tasks to find out how individuals got infected and who they may have passed it on to.
More than 1,600 calls have been made to close contacts, typically people in the same household or work colleagues, Malcolm said. They’ve also interviewed 700 health care workers who had been exposed.
Minnesotans who traveled internationally make up about 15% of all the state’s known cases, and another 3% caught it on cruise ships. The state’s first cases all had a link to travel.