Long Covid medical costs average $9,500 in first six months, as patients become ‘health-system wanderers’

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Long Covid results in $9,500 of total average medical costs for workers and their employers in the six months following a diagnosis, according to a study by Nomi Health.

Long Covid is a chronic illness that can carry potentially debilitating symptoms, which may last for months or years. It can impact anyone who has an initial Covid-19 infection, regardless of age or health.

Up to 30% of Americans who get Covid have developed long-haul symptoms; that means as many as 23 million Americans have been affected, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The associated medical costs largely result from doctor visits, hospital stays and an increased likelihood of prescriptions for steroids, antibiotics and respiratory medications, among other things, according to Nomi Health’s study.

Long Covid patients are “health-system wanderers,” said Mark Newman, CEO and co-founder of Nomi Health. “They’re like nomads through the health-care system, trying to figure out ‘What’s wrong with me?'”

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The health system analyzed 20.3 million medical claims for 4.7 million workers with health insurance in the first half of 2022.

Its medical-cost estimate accounts only for workers who have received a long Covid diagnosis.

But getting a diagnosis can be a lengthy and costly process for many people. There isn’t a test that tells patients if they have long Covid, which means doctors often only conclude someone has it after a battery of tests ruling out other ailments. Since a cure remains unknown, treatment generally focuses on ongoing symptom management.

“There are diseases and conditions with a lot of obvious answers, and long Covid is not one of them,” Newman said.

In a separate study, Harvard University economist David Cutler estimated that long Covid costs patients $9,000 a year in medical expenses. As with Nomi’s estimate, Cutler’s is a total cost before accounting for health insurance cost-sharing and any out-of-pocket limits that may apply.

Patients with long Covid racked up $9,000 in additional average medical costs per person when compared to similar people who had Covid but didn’t have subsequent long-haul symptoms, Nomi Health found.

Medical expenses aren’t the only financial cost the afflicted might suffer. For example, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people are estimated to be out of work or have reduced their hours, resulting in lost earnings.

Nomi Health found employees with long Covid are 3.6 times more likely to miss work for medical reasons.

“This is an ongoing tax and burden on our society that we’ll be dealing with for decades,” Newman said.

Cutler at Harvard University estimated, based on confirmed Covid cases, that long Covid would cost the U.S. economy $3.7 trillion from increased medical spending, reduced earnings and reduced quality of life. That total cost is equivalent to that of the Great Recession, Cutler said, which prior to the pandemic-era recession was the worst downturn since the Great Depression.

Proactive strategies to help with medical costs

There are a few considerations that can help manage the financial fallout from long Covid.

“It’s so painful when you have an illness and all of a sudden you don’t have money coming in,” Carolyn McClanahan, a certified financial planner and medical doctor, told CNBC.

Workers who aren’t yet sick should sign up for disability insurance programs during their open-enrollment period at work, if their employer offers the benefit, McClanahan said.

Doing so can provide a financial buffer if someone must miss work for a short or extended period due to long Covid. Such group policies offer guaranteed coverage at low cost, but there are often exclusions and limitations worth reviewing.

People should also be mindful when choosing a health plan. For example, some plans carry lower monthly premiums but have bigger deductibles and other costs, as well as a skinnier network of doctors available to patients. Conversely, plans with higher monthly premiums may have smaller deductibles and out-of-pocket limits and a larger roster of specialists available to them, perhaps without a referral from a primary care doctor. Going out of a health plan’s network can carry significant costs.

Health plans with larger networks of doctors and specialists may serve a long Covid patient well, said McClanahan, founder of Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, Florida, and a member of CNBC’s Advisor Council.

“There are so many variables you have to consider,” she said.

Some aspects of health care, such as prescription drugs, are more expensive through insurance, which means it might benefit someone to shop around and use resources such as GoodRx, McClanahan said. For example, a drug for $100 through insurance might be $4 through the right pharmacy using a GoodRx coupon, she said.

While raiding retirement savings early is generally not 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 useful to talk to an accountant about these options, she said.

For example, a saver who’s under age 59½ generally owes a 10% tax penalty in addition to income taxes when withdrawing money from an IRA.

However, there’s an exception to that 10% penalty in some cases involving significant, unreimbursed medical expenses. Such people would have to document their medical expenses and would still owe income tax on that IRA withdrawal, McClanahan said.

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