Updated: May 24, 2024

What You'll Pay in Health Care Costs for an Infectious Disease

Ebola care costs will likely prove too prohibitive for anyone who comes down with the dreaded disease. How much would it cost if you contracted Ebola?
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Clearly, Ebola was on everyone’s mind 2014-2016. If you typed “ebola” into Google search, and 258 million search results pop up in a fraction of a second. Compare that with only 79 million for ISIS or just 21 million for George Clooney.

Aware that the last recent big outbreak had already claimed more than 4,000 lives, including Thomas Eric Duncan, the first victim of the disease in the United States, many people no doubt were seeking information about Ebola’s first signs and symptoms and the statistical likelihood that they might contract the disease. Strangely (or perhaps not so strangely), there is another subset of people out there trying to figure out how they might cash in on the virus by investing in the companies that make the hazmat suits, surgical masks, hand sanitizers and experimental drugs that will serve as the first defense against the disease. For example, sales of DuPont’s Tyvek protective suits surged 233 percent and sales of 3Ms particulate respirators have shot up 4,004 percent since the outbreak.

For me, however, I just want to know how much it would cost if I contracted Ebola or some similar horrific disease. Would I be able to withstand the disease financially? Ebola care cost is clearly on my mind.

Cost of traveling to a treatment center: $200,000

If I contracted the disease in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Senegal or some other other West African nation where the vast majority of Ebola cases have been reported, I wouldn’t spare a second arranging for a medical evacuation back to the states (where the level of care and treatment is higher). That’s because on average Ebola victims die within seven to 10 days from the onset of symptoms. Symptoms can appear anywhere from two to 21 days after being infected.

The only trouble is, medevac care is super expensive. It’s easy to see why. First, many international carriers have suspended flights to West Africa until the outbreak is under control. So, there aren’t a lot of flights available. High demand and lack of supply drives up the price.

Second, if you do manage to find a plane, you won’t be flying coach. You’ll likely be quarantined and flying alone in a specially outfitted plane. It’s not as if you're flying back with a broken leg.

While the U.S. Embassy can help you arrange your flight back home, don’t expect any financial help. They are not your mom and dad. No, you’ll have to pay on average about $200,000 to get back to the states.

Since few people carry that kind of pocket change, if you survive Ebola (about half do), on your next visit, you should consider purchasing medevac insurance before your next global junket. And here’s the good news, after searching several travel insurance sites, such as FrontierMEDEX, MedJetAssist and Squaremouth, the cost of obtaining air evacuation assistance after experiencing an unforeseen event (which I think Ebola would still clearly qualify for), is not prohibitively expensive or a deal breaker, whether you plan your stay involves a couple of weeks or a year. Prices were about $350 for a single traveler to West Africa. That certainly beats $200,000.

Cost of drug treatment: a lot

So far, no one has come up with a cure for the Ebola virus.  As far as I know, an experimental drug your team of physicians might want you to ingest is no more effective than a couple of aspirin or a dose of antibiotics.

Still, if your physician, who is responsible for keeping you alive, suggests that you try a new specialty drug, are you going to say no? Just because a drug hasn’t been tried on man, mice or monkeys is no reason not to give your nod of approval. As the Ebola survival rate is about 50 percent, you’re pretty much over a barrel.

All things considered, you should feel good about about approving your experimental drug therapy. Just don’t ask about the price. That news alone could send you to an early grave.

For example, lately, there’s been an uproar over Sovaldi (sofsbuvir), a new treatment for hepatitis C. That 12-week treatment, at $1,000 per pill, costs $84,000.

Currently, the most expensive drug, at $440,000 annually, is soliris, which is prescribed to treat a blood stem cell disorder that destroys patients’ red blood cells, making them susceptible to infection, severe anemia and blood clots. (The reason new drugs cost so much is that about 95 percent of all experimental drugs fail; when there is a breakthrough. it costs about $5 billion to bring that one new drug to market.)

So, there’s no telling how expensive an effective drug treatment for ebola will cost. Whatever the final cost, few people or families will be able to pay it without assistance. And the current health care insurance trend is to have families share a greater percentage of their prescription drugs costs.

That said, the Affordable Care Act now caps annual out-of-pocket prescription costs at $6,350 for an individual and $12,700 for a family. These limits aren’t exactly a death sentence. So, if I get Ebola, provided I can afford the plane ticket back to America, I just might survive, unless the cost of my hospital stay proves too costly.

Cost of hospital stay: $10,000 a night

Hospital overnights are considerably more expensive than spending a night at your local Holiday Inn. Today, your average daily stay costs $10,000. No wonder so many people opt for outpatient procedures. With Ebola, however, you don’t get the option to recuperate at home, and the isolation unit you’ll be placed in will likely cost more than $10,000 a day.

Hearing this figure, you should not be surprised that medical problems contribute to more than 60 percent of all bankruptcies in the United States. The same 2008 Harvard University study also found that more than three-quarters (77.9 percent) had health insurance at the start of their bankrupting illness.

Nobody wants to go bankrupt or be labeled a deadbeat, so what if I did the responsible thing and took out what is called Critical Illness Insurance? Certainly, that would be a noble gesture, right? But that’s about all it would be.

You see, Ebola or a similar devastating disease is just too big for that kind of stop-gap insurance. If I were 40 and seeking a cash benefit of $10,000, I would have to pay between $180 and $200 a year. A female, age 50, might pay $350 a year to purchase $20,000 coverage a year. These payouts might cover the cost of having your appendix out, but they will certainly prove inadequate against such a formidable, money-sapping disease like Ebola.

Plus, critical illness insurance often covers only certain conditions, such as a heart transplant, a coronary bypass, angioplasty or a major organ transplant. I doubt you'll see Ebola listed in the fine print of your health benefits package. I, however, did see that some critical illness insurance packages covered kidney failure, which was comforting news as renal failure is one of the byproducts of Ebola.

But I concluded that expecting critical illness insurance to cover you financially in the event you get Ebola is like expecting a band-aid to stanch the bleeding when what you really need is tourniquet.

Cost of long-term disability: $5,000+

Of course, this frenzy over Ebola also got me thinking about long-term disability insurance.

Even though, I’m not of medicare age, I was glad to see that medicare will cover you in full for days up to 60 days that you are in the hospital. For days, 61-90, you pay a daily coinsurance. Medicare pays for up to 60 additional days in your lifetime with a high daily coinsurance, after you have consumed your 90 days of hospital coverage in a benefit. After you use up your 60 lifetime reserve days, Medicare will no longer pay for any coverage until you start a new benefit period. Thus, the key to economic survivability is not to drag your illnesses out!

Next, I sought the help of some long-term disability calculators. One exceptional one was Calcxml.com. My thinking was even if Ebola or some other dreaded disease doesn’t kill you, it could knock you out for two, three or four years. I mean, do you just bounce back from Ebola and go on your merry way?

For my purpose, I ran three different scenarios, one as a man of 60, one at 50, and one at 40 seeking long-term disability insurance. I assumed I would need $50,000 of care annually (in today’s dollars) when I reached 65, and I would need that care for three years. I further assumed 3 percent annual inflation rate and a tax bracket of 25 percent.

  • For age 60, I was told I would need a total of $179,160. To self-insure, I could set aside $28,286 annually or a lump sum of $126,299 today and let it accumulate interest until needed.
  • For age 50, I learned I would a need total of $240,766. To self-insure, I could save $9,206 per year or set aside a lump sum of $94,779 today and let the interest accumulate until needed.
  • For age 40, I would need need a total of $323,583. To self-insure, I would need to save $5,249 per year or I could set aside a lump some today of $71,126 and let the amount  accumulate interest until needed.

Ebola is just too big a financial monster

Ebola should be dreaded nearly as much for the economic devastation it causes as for the death and destruction it has brought to so many.

I applaud the United States and other partner nations for now bringing the fight to Africa because nations and individuals alike simply do not have the economic resources to confront a pandemic.

However much I might try to prepare for the financial toll Ebola would exact, I just don’t see the numbers ever adding up. Prevention is the key to winning this victory, not more financial planning.