As Congress Bickers Over Pandemic Relief, Flight Attendant's Life Is in a Holding Pattern

by Emmarie Huetteman

Kaiser Health News

Thursday December 17, 2020

Troy Muenzer has seen the damage that COVID can do. A flight attendant who was diagnosed with a "suspected" case of the deadly virus, Muenzer, 32, endured months of lingering breathing problems; hefty, unexpected medical bills; lost wages, then furlough; and, earlier this month, the loss of his health insurance.

Last week, his bank account was hacked, causing him to lie awake one night worrying he wouldn't be able to get back all that 2020 has taken. "From everything that's happened this year, it just seems like it's never-ending," he said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Congress passed several relief bills to help the country's companies and its workforce: business grants and loans, paycheck protection for furloughed workers, one-time stimulus checks for taxpayers, expanded unemployment benefits. Much of the aid is set to expire by year's end, if it hasn't already.

This week, Muenzer's furlough checks will stop coming. His monthly unemployment check is not enough to cover food and rent. He gave up his health insurance earlier this month because he could no longer afford the premium.

A little over two months ago, just before cutting his hours from few to none, his employer — a major airline — told him Congress could save his job. But lawmakers have shown they can't, or won't, put partisan politics aside to help the millions of Americans like Muenzer suffering the devastating impacts of the pandemic.

The chances for another round of pandemic relief before the end of the year look grim. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has signaled that Republicans could not accept a $908 billion bipartisan compromise written by moderates. Last spring, House Democrats introduced a proposal more than three times larger that they said was necessary to tackle the pandemic. Congress approved its last substantial relief bill nearly eight months ago.

Muenzer first got blindsided by COVID-19 in March. He was on a business trip, and as he got ready for bed in his hotel room, he began having trouble breathing. A former college football player who normally ran near his home by Lake Michigan, he lay awake, short of breath and terrified he would die in his sleep.

When the pandemic first gripped the nation, he had taken what precautions he could but was not permitted to wear a mask while working crowded flights. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not recommend that Americans wear masks in public until April 3, but Muenzer was already sick.

Muenzer notified his employer that he had COVID symptoms and isolated himself at home. A telehealth doctor told him he needed in-person medical attention, but he was afraid he couldn't afford it. He was already burning through his sick days.

Meanwhile, on April 14, with COVID cases exploding in cities like New York and San Francisco and among close-quartered groups like nursing homes and prisons, McConnell announced the Senate would extend its already weeks-long recess on the advice of public health officials. The day before, Democratic leaders said the House would do the same.

Congress had just passed a record $2 trillion stimulus package, its third relief measure. With House Democrats calling for more, including worker protections and medical leave, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican minority leader, said it was too soon to talk about more aid. "I wouldn't be so quick to say you have to write something else," he said, according to NPR. "Let's let this bill work."

Muenzer did benefit from those early interventions. He received the one-time $1,200 stimulus check. But it barely made a dent in the wages he had lost being out sick, let alone once passenger demand cratered and the airline reduced his hours.

His employer was one of many companies that accepted help from the government on the condition they would temporarily hold off on furloughing employees. Muenzer was furloughed Oct. 1.

Muenzer has been receiving unemployment since then. But the extra $600 Congress gave the unemployed early in the pandemic expired long before that, and his monthly $1,200 unemployment check is not enough to cover his rent in Chicago, let alone food or medical care.

The relief legislation also required Muenzer's private insurance plan to cover testing to detect or diagnose COVID-19 without Muenzer being required to pay anything. But that didn't work.

The day the Senate extended its recess, Muenzer was so short of breath that he went to Northwestern Memorial Hospital's emergency room. There, health care workers in full protective suits examined him and administered a chest X-ray. Diagnosed as "suspected COVID" and sent home to quarantine for 14 days, he did not get a COVID test.

With those critical diagnostic tests in short supply across the country at that time, they were reserved for seniors or patients with serious health conditions.

Muenzer received a bill for $108.59 for that emergency room visit, which he paid. Then another arrived, this one for $806.85 for the chest X-ray and other emergency room charges. Such billing problems were not unusual in the early days of the pandemic. Because COVID tests were not administered widely, patients like Muenzer lacked the official COVID diagnosis that required the medical system to zero out patient charges.

"I went to the COVID testing sign," Muenzer said. "Then I didn't even get tested and still got billed all that money."

Muenzer was fortunate: A local television reporter heard about his problems and called the billing department herself. Though he had been fighting the bills for weeks, that day, the hospital returned Muenzer's calls, blaming the problem on a coding error and assuring him his bills would be covered. But the hospital never returned his first payment.

When the payroll protection program's conditions expired on Oct. 1, thousands of pilots, flight attendants like Muenzer and other airline employees — whose hours had already been trimmed — were furloughed. Muenzer said they were told the airline may be able to hold onto them a little longer, if Congress could pass another relief bill.

Indeed, Congress had considered legislation that would specifically bail out the airline industry. Muenzer watched as lawmakers debated bills that could have saved his job. But he did not overtly root for the legislation to pass. "It felt almost selfish," he said. "Everybody's hurting."

Muenzer's employer will stop sending him furlough pay on Dec. 15. Because it was calculated by averaging his pay for the past year, and his pay is based on flight hours, it wasn't much. And given he has barely worked since he began feeling sick in March, his average work hours dropped significantly. He has tried to find a new job, but no luck yet.

But he feels lucky because he received furlough pay at all. He feels lucky because the hospital reduced his COVID testing bill to just $109. He feels lucky because he has family who can help him.

His company has assured its furloughed employees that they hope to bring them back in waves next year, if a vaccine is successful, if customer demand goes up again and if Congress can pass a relief bill.

That's a lot of ifs at the moment — especially that last one, with Congress at a partisan logjam over a new COVID stimulus bill as it also tries to close out business for the year. Republicans are pushing for broader protections for businesses that could be sued if workers or customers become infected with the coronavirus. Democrats are pushing for funding for state and local governments battling the pandemic. Some lawmakers are also pushing for another round of one-time, $1,200 stimulus checks.

Even the bipartisan compromise would boost unemployment by only $300 a week through April. But it also includes support for the transportation sector, including airlines.

When he isn't drowning out his anxieties watching Netflix, he keeps a close eye on Congress, "praying for something to happen." It has been "very stressful, to say the least," he said, "to feel like your life depends on the decisions of people in political power."

Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.