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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

In virus hotspot Florida, a family mourns — and worries about bills

Until the coronavirus crisis erupted, Germán Amaya worked at the luxury Fontainebleau hotel in Miami. But then he lost his job, and his health insurance — and eventually, his life.

Amaya died in a Florida hospital after a long battle with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The 55-year-old native of El Salvador left behind a devastated family that must now mourn, all while it confronts a mind-blowing hospital bill.

Amaya’s wife Glenda took him to the hospital on July 15. He had no pre-existing conditions. But he was having trouble breathing, and he had no insurance.

That was the last time she saw him.

“I cried to them, I begged them to please let me in, that I needed to see him, that I was his wife,” says the 46-year-old.

“I needed to be with him at that moment.”

Glenda was the first one in the house to contract the virus, in June.

Authorities in the Sunshine State had begun reopening the economy the month before, and she fell ill three weeks after reopening her small hair salon.

“Without realizing it, I got everyone in the house sick,” she recalls in her Miami Gardens home.

That includes her two children and her own mother, who is in her 70s.

The elderly woman and 11-year-old Azareth had mild symptoms. Glenda and her 16-year-old son, also named German, had intense fevers.

Amaya himself died on August 7, after more than three weeks in the hospital — and nine days in a coma.

“It all happened so quickly,” Glenda says.

Whopping bill

As the Amaya family battled the virus, Miami began emerging as a major hotspot.

Florida approaches the grim milestone of 10,000 deaths — only four other states have reached that point: New York, New Jersey, California and Texas.

The family also confronted a major hot button issue — how healthcare is paid for in America.

For the most part, employment dictates one’s insurance.

The United States is the only major developed economy where being unemployed — as millions have been since the crisis began — means losing health insurance coverage.

There are options, but most are cost-prohibitive for someone whose only income is unemployment benefits. The bureaucratic red tape also complicates getting the right care.

Amaya’s entire family depended on his income. Now, they are mired in financial uncertainty as well as sorrow.

“While they’re mourning his death, (they are) also coping with a tremendous financial burden,” said Wendi Walsh, an officer in Unite Here Local 355, a hospitality workers’ union.

The Amayas have “a huge medical bill… and also the cost of his funeral, and that’s the last thing that this family should be having to cope with right now while they’re mourning.”

A labyrinthine system

Amaya’s relatives say they cannot possibly pay what they fear will be tens of thousands of dollars owed to the hospital — or even the mortgage.

So far, they have not received a bill. It could arrive weeks or months down the road.

FAIR Health, a nonprofit organization that analyzes health care claims data, says that COVID-19 patients without insurance could end up with an average of $73,000 in debt.

Amaya was one of hundreds who lost their jobs at the Fontainebleau. He had worked there for 11 years as a banquet manager.

His family is angry and says the hotel did not make it possible for those laid off to get continued coverage under the federal COBRA law — a claim the Fontainebleau denies.

Its vice president of marketing, Josh Herman, also said the hotel “is not required to provide health benefits for laid-off workers, as is true of virtually all private employers.”

In any case, the premiums for COBRA coverage are high, especially for those out of work, explains Eneida Roldan, a professor and CEO of the Florida International University Health Care Network.

The unemployed could, however, take advantage of so-called Obamacare coverage, created by former president Barack Obama, for which premiums are subsidized.

“But it’s a complex system,” Roldan says. “Not everyone understands it and there is little information available that explains how to access it.”

For the Amayas, it’s already too late. They feel abandoned at their greatest hour of need.

“I feel very angry and disappointed,” says Amaya’s teenage son German.

“We had to fight to get to where we are, and we’re treated as if we don’t deserve what we have.”

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