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Long Covid leads to $9,500 in total average medical costs for workers and their employers in the six months after diagnosis, according to a study by Nomi Health.
Long Covid is a chronic illness that can carry potentially debilitating symptoms that can last for months or years. It can affect anyone who has an initial infection with Covid-19, regardless of age or health.
Up to 30% of Americans who get Covid have developed long-distance symptoms; that means about 23 million Americans have been affected, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
The associated medical costs are largely the result of doctor visits, hospital stays and an increased likelihood of prescriptions for steroids, antibiotics and respiratory drugs, among other things, according to a study by Nomi Health.
Long-term Covid patients are “vagrants in the health care system,” said Mark Newman, CEO and co-founder of Nomi Health. “They’re like nomads in the health care system trying to figure out, ‘What’s wrong with me?'”
The health system analyzed 20.3 million medical claims for 4.7 million workers with health insurance in the first half of 2022.
His estimate of medical costs only considered workers who received a lengthy Covid diagnosis.
But getting a diagnosis can be a long and expensive process for many people. There is no test to tell patients if they have long-lasting Covid, meaning doctors often conclude someone has it only after a battery of tests rule out other illnesses. Because a cure remains unknown, treatment usually focuses on ongoing symptom management.
“There are diseases and conditions with very obvious answers, and long Covid is not one of them,” Newman said.
In a separate study, Harvard University economist David Cutler estimated that prolonged Covid costs patients $9,000 a year in medical costs. As with Nomi’s estimate, Cutler’s is a total price before accounting for health insurance cost sharing and any personal funds limits that may apply.
Long-term Covid patients accrued $9,000 in additional average medical costs per person compared to similar people who had Covid but no subsequent long-term symptoms, Nomi Health found.
Medical expenses are not the only financial costs that those affected may incur. For example, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people are estimated to be unemployed or on reduced hours, resulting in a loss of income.
Nomi Health found that employees with prolonged Covid were 3.6 times more likely to miss work for medical reasons.
“This is an ongoing tax and burden on our society that we will be dealing with for decades,” Newman said.
Cutler of Harvard University calculated, based on confirmed Covid cases, this long Covid will cost the US economy $3.7 trillion in increased medical costs, 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 decline since the Great Depression.
Proactive strategies to help with medical expenses
There are several considerations that can help manage the financial consequences of the long Covid.
“It’s so painful when you’re sick and suddenly you don’t get any money,” Carolyn McClanahan, CFP and physician. said CNBC.
Workers who aren’t already sick should sign up for disability insurance programs during the job’s open enrollment period if their employer offers the benefit, McClanahan said.
This can provide a financial buffer if someone needs to be away from work for a short or long period due to prolonged Covid. Such group policies offer guaranteed coverage at a low cost, but there are often exclusions and limitations that are worth reviewing.
People should also be careful when choosing a health plan. For example, some plans carry lower monthly premiums but have higher deductibles and other costs, and a weaker network of doctors available to patients. Conversely, plans with higher monthly premiums may have lower 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 a health plan’s network can result in significant costs.
Health plans with larger networks of doctors and specialists can serve a longtime Covid patient well, said McClanahan, founder of Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, Fla., and a member of CNBC’s advisory board.
“There are so many variables to consider,” she said.
Some aspects of health care, such as prescription drugs, are more expensive through insurance, which means it can be beneficial for someone to shop around and use resources like GoodRx, McClanahan said. For example, a $100 drug through insurance can cost $4 through the right pharmacy using a GoodRx coupon, she said.
While raiding retirement savings early isn’t usually a good idea, there are tax-efficient ways patients can consider withdrawing money from an individual retirement account if they need funds, McClanahan said. It may be helpful to talk to an accountant about these options, she said.
For example, a saver who is under age 59½ generally owes a 10% tax penalty on top of income taxes when he withdraws money from an IRA.
However, there is an exception to this 10% penalty in some cases involving significant, unreimbursed medical expenses. Such people would have to document their medical expenses and still owe income tax on that IRA withdrawal, McClanahan said.