An American man who was evacuated by the State Department from Wuhan, China — where his father-in-law died of the coronavirus this month — was forced to pay $2,200 for the flight and billed by a San Diego hospital for the six days he and his daughter spent in mandatory quarantine there, following an order from the CDC.
Frank Wucinski, who has lived and worked in China for 15 years, said in an interview on Friday that he was aware when he boarded the converted cargo plane in Wuhan with his three-year-old daughter Annabel that he would have to reimburse the United States government for the steep cost of the flight. But after they both tested negative for the virus and were released from the Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, Wucinski was shocked to receive a bill for the government-mandated stay there.
Because he works for a British cultural agency in China, Wucinski has health insurance there that does not cover costs in the U.S. He publicized the bill on a GoFundMe page he set up this month to help tide him over until he regains access to his bank account in China. His bank only issues one card per family, Wucinski said, and he had to leave it with his wife, Li, who stayed behind in Wuhan to care for her father. Li, who is a Chinese citizen, also contracted the virus but has now made a full recovery, Wucinski said. Still, she remains stranded in Wuhan and will not be able to join her husband and daughter until the lockdown to slow the spread of the virus is lifted.
After Wucinski drew attention to the bill, Ben Metcalf, a spokesman for the hospital, confirmed to The Intercept on Friday that it was issued, but said that it was sent to Wucinski in error. The hospital initially had trouble reaching Wucinski to let him know that he would not have to pay the bill, but Metcalf said that the hospital will ask the federal government to pay for the quarantine ordered by the CDC.
The incident highlighted how the American government’s response to a public health emergency, like trying to contain a potential coronavirus epidemic, could be handicapped by relying on a system built around private hospitals and for-profit health insurance providers. Last month, a man in Miami who returned from a work trip to China feeling sick went to a hospital to be tested for coronavirus. The test came back negative, but his high-deductible health insurance provider told him he would have to pay at least $1,400, the Miami Herald reported, and provide three years of medical records to prove that the flu he got was not related to a preexisting condition. Without producing the records, he would owe $3,270 for getting tested.
The CDC botched the testing process for another evacuee from China who was quarantined at a nearby hospital, UC San Diego Health. That woman was released after testing negative for the coronavirus, but had to be moved back into quarantine after the CDC discovered that her sample had been mislabelled and she did have the virus, which is now being called COVID-19 by the World Health Organization.
Wucinski was difficult to reach on Friday in part because he was bombarded with snarky messages on Twitter following an appearance on Fox News. During the interview with Fox, Wucinski coughed and took a drink from a water bottle he shared with his daughter, which led to a deluge of criticism on social networks from people who appeared to be unaware that both had tested negative for coronavirus.
Wucinski told The Intercept that he was more concerned with the high cost of securing health insurance for himself and his daughter during their emergency stay with family in Pennsylvania than with the heckling on Twitter. Still, he took a minute early Friday morning to retweet one comment sent his way which read: “Make sure we all vote so we don’t need to crowdfund just to be able to pay for our basic health care.”
The CDC and the State Department did not immediately respond to requests to comment, but The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Americans evacuated from China would be required “to sign a promissory note for the cost of the flight, which is expected to be many times the price of a commercial flight from China to the U.S.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boasted this week about what he called “America’s world-leading response to the coronavirus outbreak, not just at home, but abroad as well.”
Update: Feb. 29, 12:54 p.m. PT
A spokesman for Rady Children’s Hospital confirmed on Saturday that the staff there was prompted to review the bill sent to Frank Wucinski on Friday after a New York Times reporter, Sarah Kliff, contacted them to ask about it. Wucinski told The Times that even though the hospital was no longer asking him to pay for his stay in quarantine there, the ambulance company that brought him from the U.S. military base in San Diego to Rady, American Medical Response, charged him $2,598 for what’s typically a 15-minute drive. He was also charged $90 by the radiologists who read patients’ X-rays and are not employed by the hospital.
Correction: Feb. 28, 11:30 p.m. PT
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the hospital where a patient infected with the coronavirus was mistakenly cleared and released. It was UC San Diego Health, not Rady Children’s Hospital.