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White House Says Government Will Pay Hospitals for Coronavirus Care for Uninsured

Michael Rainey

The Trump administration sprung a couple of surprises last week: It said that it would not reopen the Obamacare exchanges for a special enrollment period that would allow more people to sign up for coverage in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Then, faced with mounting questions over coverage for those who were uninsured — or who might lose their employer-provided plans as job losses soar — the administration said late Friday that it will reimburse hospitals for the costs of treating uninsured patients suffering from Covid-19.

The administration’s plan: Speaking at the daily Coronavirus Task Force briefing, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the payments would come out of the $100 billion allocated to hospitals as part of the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package. Hospitals will be paid at the Medicare rate for services provided to patients with Covid-19. In order to receive the funds, hospitals must agree not to bill patients or issue unexpected charges, Azar said.

‘Purely ideological’: Azar’s announcement came just a few days after Trump decided not to reopen the federally operated health care exchanges — which offer Obamacare plans in 32 states during the fall enrollment period — in response to the crisis caused by the pandemic. Politico reported late Friday that the decision came as a surprise to the health care industry, which supported reopening the exchanges.

The decision also surprised some members of Trump’s own administration and raised questions about playing politics in the middle of a terrifying pandemic. “It’s a bad decision opticswise,” one administration official told Politico. “It politicizes people’s access to health services during a serious national health emergency.” Another unnamed Republican questioned to logic behind the decision. “You have a perfectly good answer in front of you, and instead you’re going to make another one up,” the source close to the administration told Politico. “It’s purely ideological.”

Still, the administration portrayed the payment program as a superior option. “In many respects, it’s better for those uninsured individuals,” Azar said Friday. “What President Trump is doing here with this money is an unprecedented, disease-specific support of care for individuals to make sure that people get treatment.”

Big questions remain: Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Family Foundation said Monday that there is still a lot of uncertainty about the administration’s plan, which could leave some uninsured patients exposed to big charges. Doctors could issue their own bills, Levitt said, and anyone who receives treatments but tests negative for Covid-19 could be billed for the full cost of their care. “[T]he details of how it’s implemented will determine how protective it truly is,” Levitt said, adding that “it won’t be the same as comprehensive health insurance.”

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