You might have a "COVID" fee on your bill even if you went to the doctor for something unrelated

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The medical field is bursting at the seams with heroes who are dedicated to helping us survive the pandemic. But as we know, they're simply one part of the much bigger, trickier healthcare system at play. According to a new report by the New York Times, some physician’s practices, nursing homes, and other medical establishments have started charging patients “COVID” fees — an extra chunk of money unrelated to any actual coronavirus treatment.

It’s important to reiterate that these fees aren’t incurred for coronavirus treatment itself. The pandemic has made health care more expensive for providers since PPE, extra cleaning, and social distancing costs money. We get that that's rough, especially when revenue for nonessential medical care is already suffering. But is it fair to tack on extra (sometimes substantial) fees for a dentist visit?

The Times' investigation found charges added to bill for coronavirus-related items like PPE, masks, and cleaning supplies. Some of the patients who the Times interviewed had fees that covered tangential things related to the pandemic, such as an office’s raised pay rate to staff coming into work during this difficult year. Charging patients for items and services used in their care is a fair thing to do, of course, but already, the catchall fee seems to be a train to Ripoff Town.

Doctors aren’t the only industry to charge COVID fees, of course. These surcharges are justified by allegedly covering a cobweb of regulations, safety protocols, and actual physical items associated with reopening in this time. As one local rag noted, even pizza places have the right to charge for PPE used to serve you. When it comes to charging patients, though, it gets ethically complex.

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“You look around the community and see additional costs being imposed right and left because of COVID-19. Barber shops, pedicures and restaurants all have additional charges. It would be an undue burden to ask the medical community to bear this alone,” said Scott Manaker, a physician who is in charge of the American Medical Association’s practice expense committee, to the New York Times. That’s fair, but couldn’t the government help out — just as the CARES Act has helped cover uninsured patients’ bills?

One interviewee was “surprised to see a $45 fee tacked onto a dental cleaning” billed to her directly, as opposed to her insurance. That last part, billing a patient directly for care when they are insured, is illegal, as are surprise charges. They both are a violation of consumer protection laws.

Attorney generals in several states are looking into cases of overcharging in medical offices, dental offices and other medical establishments, and have places to complain if you find a suspect fee on your bill, like in my home of DC. Yet, that won’t stop medical officials in the meantime, from charging whatever they want, with little oversight

It bears repeating that the medical field is full of heroes: especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. But, maybe check with your dentist about what your bill might look like before sliding into that chair.