State of New Mexico officials have said that no one should have to pay to get tested for COVID-19, but a nurse at UNM Hospitals received a $1500 bill for a nasal swab that she was required by her employer to get after traveling out of state. KUNM's Khalil Ekulona spoke with Marie Sparks about her experience, and the stress of navigating UNMH's bureaucracy to resolve the issue.
MARIE SPARKS: So I had traveled to Colorado on my time off. And then I have a neighbor who also works at UNM, and when I came back from my trip, she said, "Oh, you have to let the supervisor know, because you probably have to go to Occupational Health to get cleared first." So, I did that, and I was told that the area in Colorado that I was in had an outbreak. Even though I didn't have symptoms, I needed to self quarantine. Then, after five days of self quarantine, Occupational Health told me to go and get a COVID swab. When I showed up, they had their own room. It used to be a conference room that they've plasticed off and turned it into their respiratory care center. I got just one nasal swab. I didn't sign anything as far as additional testing. I wasn't aware of any additional testing, but I did get a bill for that swab, which was a negative.
KUNM: Now, did anyone say anything about you getting a bill?
MARIE SPARKS: No, there was no conversation at all about that I might be liable or that only the COVID test by itself was going to be covered. So, the COVID swab is just one portion of an RSV panel. I didn't realize that, but that's how the billing kind of gets away with it. Because then they say they covered the COVID-19 test, but then I'm stuck with the rest of the bill, which was $1500.
KUNM: Tell me how you felt when you got the bill.
SPARKS: I thought, clearly, there must be a mistake. Either they didn't understand that I'm an employee or that this was an Occupational Health order to return to work. Usually your department or your company covers that cost. I don't know of any employees that cover the cost themselves. I did call several times to clarify and even people I work with said, there's no way, that has to be wrong. I called and they told me, no, this is going to be your portion. But then they did recant the bill. But then I got a second bill. I'm still waiting to find out if that one is covered.
KUNM: What's this bill for?
SPARKS: This one says it is a provider bill, which, usually your health insurance covers the provider's costs. And I did call Blue Cross Blue Shield, which I have, and they said they'd be happy to cover the cost as long as UNM puts in the correct billing code for COVID.
KUNM: You had to go through all these steps, phone calls, phone calls, phone calls, for this to get settled. How long do you think you were on the phone?
SPARKS: You know, it actually only took me five minutes to get ahold of my insurance company, my health insurance. It took me hours and days to be able to go back and forth with UNM. And I was also told that I'm not the only one that there's lots of employees who are calling to see if they can get this fixed.
KUNM: You were quarantined, and you had to use your own personal time off for that?
SPARKS: I sure did.
KUNM: Does that create stress for you?
SPARKS: It does, because we don't get any hazard pay. There's no incentive for taking COVID patients. A lot of people say, well, you signed up for it. It actually isn't in our contract that you could be exposed to potentially dangerous pathogens. And then when I was told that there's no special circumstances, at least right now, and I have to use my major sick time that's been saved just in case I do get COVID, which now I don't have. So now if I do get exposed and get very sick, I have nothing to fall back on. And that happened. It's happening to a lot of employees. that's a horrible feeling.
KUNM: What other kinds of problems does this create for you and your colleagues?
SPARKS: I feel like someone is in charge of this. And it's impossible to figure out who is in charge of it. Because if it's not Occupational Health, and it's not billing, you know, who who do you go to to get these questions answered? It's like impossible to find out. And then when you can't find anyone, you feel like you don't matter.
This is an excerpt from a longer interview that originally aired on our show Your N.M. Government. Catch it every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m. on KUNM, or find it wherever you get your podcasts.
Your New Mexico Government is a collaboration between KUNM, New Mexico PBS and the Santa Fe Reporter.