By Leslie Small

Though many health insurers have removed cost barriers related to testing patients for the new coronavirus that’s sweeping the globe, they largely haven’t pledged to waive out-of-pocket costs for severely sickened members who require hospitalization. A new analysis suggests that the cost of caring for those patients could be steep for members and health plans alike, but experts tell AIS Health it may be too early to say what that will actually mean for commercial insurance markets.

According to the analysis, from the Peterson Center on Healthcare and the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), the average total cost — combining employer-plan spending and patient out-of-pocket costs — for a pneumonia-related hospital stay “with major complications and comorbidities” was $20,292 in 2018. For a stay “with complications or comorbidities,” the average cost was $13,767, and for patients without complications, the price tag was $9,763. Looking at out-of-pocket costs alone, the average cost for patients with major complications or comorbidities was $1,300.

But those estimates can only tell us so much about the financial impact of the pandemic, KFF Executive Vice President for Health Policy Larry Levitt said during a March 18 web briefing with reporters.

“We have some information about what the cost for each patient will be, but we have very little information yet about how many patients there may be,” Levitt said in response to a question from AIS Health. “And that’s the big area of uncertainty — how widespread the infection will be and how many people will become severely ill and require hospitalization. So insurers at this point are running blind on how much the total cost may be.”

Generally, regulators do not permit health insurers to recoup prior-year losses through premium increases, “so insurers are going to be focusing a lot on what the ongoing cost” of the coronavirus outbreak could be when pricing their products, Levitt said.