As It Happens

Uninsured U.S. cancer patient with COVID-19 says $50K hospital bill might bankrupt her

Danni Askini had to fight tooth and nail just to get tested for the coronavirus. Now she's fighting to cover the cost of her treatment.

Public health nurse Danni Askini was between jobs when she was hit with the coronavirus

Danni Askini is an unemployed public health nurse and cancer patient who contracted COVID-19 and ended up with a $34,000 US bill for her medical expenses. (Submitted by Danni Askini)
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Transcript

Danni Askini had to fight tooth and nail just to get tested for the coronavirus. Now she's fighting to cover the cost of her treatment.

Askini, a cancer patient and public health nurse in Boston, was between jobs when she contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus spreading rapidly through the U.S. and around the world.

It took her three emergency room visits and strong advocacy by her doctors to get tested for the disease. When all was said and done, she ended up with bills totalling $35,112 US ($50,022 Cdn).

"It's very overwhelming and scary. I'm just recovering from lymphoma and it just feels like such a huge setback for me," Askini told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump signed a bill into law making the COVID-19 test free for everyone who is eligible to get it. But that won't apply retroactively to Askini, who was tested before the bill became law.

But even with the test covered, medical expenses for those who contract the disease are expected to top $20,000 ($28,411 Cdn) per patient, according a recent analysis by Peterson-Kaiser Family Foundation Health System Tracker. Even those with employer insurance could pay $1,300 ($1,872 Cdn) out of pocket, the public health think-tank concluded. 

About 27.5 million Americans do not have health insurance, according to the latest numbers available from the U.S. Census Bureau

3 trips to the ER

Askini says she first started noticing symptoms at the end of February. She had chest pain, shortness of breath, and rising blood pressure.

On the advice of her oncologist, she went to the emergency room at the Massachusetts General Hospital on Feb. 29. Doctors there stabilized her blood pressure and sent her home. 

On March 1, she was back in the ER with a fever, a bad cough and a sore throat. She asked for a COVID-19 test. But at that point, health officials were only testing patients who had been outside the country. 

Askini hadn't travelled abroad, she said, but she did attend a conference in Boston with people from all over the world.

What's more, her medical history means she's immunocompromised and therefore, at a greater risk of severe symptoms or even death from COVID-19. 

"There was some discussion, but there were no tests," she said. "They treated me for pneumonia and sent me home ... and I just continued to get worse."

A woman wears a mask outside Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston on March 14. (Michael Dwyer/The Associated Press)

By the time she returned to the ER on March 5, Askini says she had a severe fever, could barely breathe and was coughing up bloody mucus. 

"I had childhood asthma, really severe childhood asthma, and this was much worse than that," she said.

"I've never felt so afraid. And it causes you a deep sense of panic when every time you try to breathe, then you immediately cough and you can never catch a full breath. It's very scary."

Finally, on the third visit, she got tested — thanks to the doctors who fought for her.

"The doctors were really insistent," she said. "They were literally yelling on the phone and I could hear them through the isolation door yelling at the [Centers for Disease Control] and the Department of Public Health."

Five days later, she got the results. She had COVID-19. 

'I'll have to declare bankruptcy'

Askini says she's now starting to feel better thanks to the antiviral treatment she was prescribed. But she says she had to do most of her recovering at home because she couldn't afford the hospital stay.

"I think I should have probably been admitted, but the fact that I didn't have insurance did factor into that," she said.

Now she's facing down the bill. The COVID-19 test itself cost $907 US ($1,215), and the rest came from her treatment, medications, and time spent in hospital in isolation.

She's planning to apply for Medicaid, the U.S. social insurance program for low-income people, to help cover the cost. She says the only reason she hasn't already done so is that she and her husband were planning to move to Washington D.C. to find work.

"I just happened to get caught right at the moment that I was moving," she said.

They're more interested in dollars and cents than people's lives.- Danni Askini, COVID-19 patient 

If she's not eligible for Medicaid, she says she'll apply for charity care from the hospital. But that's not guaranteed either.

"I'll have to declare bankruptcy otherwise. There's just no way," she said.

"I'm a public health nurse and social worker, and I just don't make enough money in the U.S. to pay off this kind of debt."

Trump calls for Americans to get back to work by Easter 

Infections are climbing rapidly in the U.S., with confirmed cases surpassing the 55,000 mark as of Tuesday, and the death toll approaching 800.

U.S. senators are planning to vote Wednesday on a $2-trillion bipartisan package of legislation to alleviate the devastating economic impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic, hoping it will become law quickly.

The governors of at least 18 states have issued stay-at-home directives affecting about half the U.S. population. 

But Trump and some other Republicans have called for Americans to get back to work as quickly as possible, with the president insisting the U.S. be "opened up, and just raring to go" by Easter. 

"We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself," Trump said, referring to the economic impact of widespread shutdowns. 

Texas Lt.-Gov. Dan Patrick, 69, told Fox News on Monday that he and many other elderly people would be willing to sacrifice themselves to keep the economy strong for their grandchildren.

People over 65 are at a greater risk of dying from COVID-19, but young people can — and have — come down with severe cases. 

"What they're saying is so devoid of the facts on the ground," Askini said.

"They don't have any compassion and empathy. And they're not thinking about the millions of people that are going to be impacted by this virus and the many people who've already died."

Her own with battle the virus has left her with permanent damage to her lungs and heart, she said.

"They're more interested in dollars and cents than people's lives. And it's shocking to me as somebody who's now, you know, going to have a permanent disability from this virus."


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview with Danni Askini produced by Jeanne Armstrong.

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