AUSTIN (KXAN) — Before freelance writer Pam LeBlanc set off for a cool assignment following a group of paddlers from the tip of South Padre Island to the Louisiana border, the team agreed they should all get tested for COVID-19.
One of the paddlers suggested going to the drive-thru clinic set up outside the Austin Emergency Center’s Mueller location on East 51st Street.
“They took a picture of my driver’s license and my insurance card,” said LeBlanc. “And then I had a test — which was not fun at all by the way –and afterword I didn’t think anything of it. I went home.”
The test came back negative, and the trip was a success.
But this week LeBlanc said she got two letters from her insurance company explaining two different claims from the out-of-network provider that totaled over $5,000.
Then came an email with an itemized list of what AEC billed her insurance for — and the grand total was even higher: $6,400.
“[I thought] surely this cannot be for a single drive-through COVID test,” said LeBlanc. “They stuck a swab in my nose and it was done.”
When LeBlanc looked closer at the itemized explanation of benefits from UnitedHealthcare she noticed there were seperate charges from AEC for a Legionnaires disease test, a human herpesvirus 6 test, a blood culture for infection, and an ER visit.
LeBlanc said she never had a single drop of blood drawn. Another person who went on the paddling trip was tested at the same place, did not use insurance and told her he was charged $199 out-of-pocket right there on the spot.
LeBlanc’s husband said he called UnitedHealthcare, and they told him to take it up with AEC. When he called the AEC Mueller location, he said they gave him a separate number for its billing department. There was some relief when they called that number.
“They basically said that’s not the final bill, don’t worry,” said LeBlanc.
But when LeBlanc asked for an itemized list of charge from AEC, she said she was told it would be another six to eight weeks before they could provide the documentation.
At this point, LeBlanc is not sure if there was just an honest mistake, but has no doubt there’s a problem.
“Something is wrong, something is wrong with the system when this happens,” said LeBlanc.
LeBlanc she called the AEC Mueller office again after we reached out, and a woman assured her not to worry about the charges, and said they will sort it out.
Friday afternoon, UnitedHealthcare told KXAN it is waiving cost share for COVID-19 related testing and treatments, and are looking into LeBlanc’s case.
While they didn’t know the exact circumstances and could not talk about specifics due to patient privacy, they did say there has been a bigger issue with some providers using incorrect coding for COVID-19 testing when billing insurance companies.
A spokesperson for Austin Emergency Center told KXAN in an email Friday night it was UnitedHealthcare that made the mistake:
“We just learned this evening that United Healthcare used the wrong code, making the patient think we were charging for blood draws that we did not do. The lab just spoke to the patient and explained it was a United Healthcare error and they will correct it with the insurance company Monday morning.”