Kaiser Permanente is bringing back its cost waivers for Hawaii members who need medical care for Covid-19 as the state scrambles to deal with rising coronavirus-related hospitalizations.

Along with many other health insurance companies, Kaiser imposed a waiver for Covid-related costs on April 1 to help patients better afford care.

The company chose to end that on July 31, as part of a nationwide policy shift. But the change came just as Hawaii cases were skyrocketing.

“In light of the current surge and to align with the Hawaii market, Kaiser Permanente Hawaii will return to a zero dollar cost share for Covid-19 treatment,” company spokeswoman Laura Lott said Thursday. “Patients will not have to pay copays for Covid-19 care or procedures.”

On Friday, 362 Covid patients filled Hawaii hospitals — more hospitalizations in a single day than at any other point in the pandemic. The state also reported 845 new cases as well as four more deaths, with the test positivity rate on Oahu reaching 9%.

Inside view of Straub Medical Center’s tent outside the Emergency room during Covid-19 surge.
Straub Medical Center set up this tent outside the emergency room to triage Covid-19 cases as Hawaii hospitalizations surge. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The Queen’s Medical Center in West Oahu is so packed with patients that Jason Chang, president of Queen’s, said the hospital declared an internal state of emergency. They’re shifting staff there and are asking ambulances to take patients with less severe illnesses elsewhere when possible. 

Chang urged Covid patients to call the Queen’s hotline at 808-691-2619 if they have questions, and said anyone who shows up at the emergency room in West Oahu with a broken ankle will wait a long time. 

“This has been a preventable situation,” he said. “We are asking everybody to please get vaccinated. This weekend if there is an event you are invited to, please do not go.”

Kaiser’s decision to cover Covid as a regular illness — where patients pay for their own co-pays — followed similar decisions by health insurance companies like Aetna. The change went into effect on Aug. 1 nationwide.

The reinstatement of waivers for Kaiser members’ Covid costs in Hawaii is effective immediately and will continue through the end of the public health emergency, Lott said.

Queen’s Medical Center President Jason C. Chang holds a press conference announcing that they are announced an internal state of emergency due to Covid-19 surge. August 20, 2021
The Queen’s Medical Center President Jason Chang says the facility in West Oahu is so packed with patients that it declared an internal state of emergency. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Catherine Pirkle, an associate professor specializing in health policy and management at the University of Hawaii Manoa, said she’s very happy to hear of Kaiser’s decision because health care costs can deter patients from seeking care.

That might ultimately worsen patient outcomes and put more pressure on Hawaii hospitals if coronavirus patients delay going to the doctor, she said.

“If people are seeing that it’s going to cost them something or cost them a lot, they try to wait it out. That’s a very logical response,” she said, adding that Hawaii’s high cost of living and relatively low wages don’t help.

Making all Covid-related medical care free can help patients understand that “if they end up in the hospital they don’t have to worry about going bankrupt,” Pirkle said.

Higher health care costs can also exacerbate racial disparities, she said, noting that non-Hawaiian Pacific Islanders and Filipinos have been disproportionately killed by the virus in Hawaii.

Reinstating co-pays doesn’t affect everyone equally,” she said. 

Kaiser’s decision to reinstate cost waivers comes as hospitals across the Hawaiian islands grapple with record high numbers of coronavirus cases largely due to the aggressive delta variant.

The new cases reported Friday, including 548 on Oahu, 162 on the Big Island, 97 on Maui, 26 on Kauai, three on Molokai and nine people diagnosed out of state, pushed Hawaii’s total since the pandemic began early last year to 54,443.

In all, there have been 562 deaths related to the virus. Nearly 62% of the state’s population has been fully vaccinated against Covid, but about 90% of those hospitalized are unvaccinated.

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