KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Since the pandemic began, nearly 30 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and more than half a million have died in the last year.

But what many people have not talked about are the staggering medical bills run up by those who had the virus. One local survivor is sharing their story of how she accumulated more than $500,000 in medical charges.

She had health insurance through her employer, but not enough to cover all of her expenses. She’s applied for workers’ compensation claiming she was exposed to the virus at work. But the Tennessee Workers’ Comp Bureau denied her claim saying there “is no evidence (she) was exposed at work.”

Keniethea Tadlock isn’t sure whether or not she’ll ever regain good health again after contracting COVID-19. The 45-year-old grandmother depends on oxygen to breathe and a dozen prescription pills daily to function.

On Sept. 22 of last year, Keniethea’s husband rushed her to the Emergency Room at Jefferson Memorial Hospital. For more than three weeks she struggled for her life.

“I almost died,” Keniethea Tadlock said. “I am, I’m very lucky to be here…. my organs started shutting down. I went sepsis in the hospital that caused the organs to start shutting down.”

She read from the hospital’s diagnosis document: “It says COVID, acute respiratory failure, sepsis, and organ failure… I was dying. They didn’t expect me to live. They said, they gave me 48 hours and I was going to expire.”

“Little did we know that 28 days later would be how long it took for her to come back home,” said Steve Blankenship, Keniethea’s husband.

Married two months before contracting the virus last year, Keniethea says she was rarely ill.  

“Before COVID, I was good, I was up and running like a normal 44-year-old woman,” she said. “Now… I can’t even play with my grandkids. I’ve got three beautiful grandkids, I can’t do that.”

Acting as her caregiver, Steve makes sure his wife’s oxygen machine functions properly.

“There is no guarantee that she will ever be able to work again from what the doctor is saying,” Steve Blankenship said.

Ms. Tadlock worked at a regional propane gas supply company for two years and believed she had adequate health insurance. She said her company-based insurance covered initial medical expenses but then maxed out. However, her expenses continued to accumulate.  

“I have… thousands upon thousands of dollars in medical bills,” she said. ‘…A grand total of four-hundred thousand dollars… That is AFTER the insurance. It started over six-hundred thousand (dollars).”

Hoping for financial protection, Steve sent paperwork to the state’s Workers’ Compensation Bureau. Keneithea claims she was exposed to the virus at work after she said a fellow employee tested positive. The response from the state was not what they expected.

The letter states, “No evidence that injured worker was exposed to COVID-19 at work.”

“The burden of proof is on her to prove she got COVID at work before they would do anything,” Steve Blankenship said.

Protected under the government’s Family and Medical Leave Act, Keniethea’s disability income expires on March 24. After that, there is no income.

“I’m not going to have any money after the 24th. I can’t afford it now. They only give me 349 dollars a week, is what short-term disability is,” she said.

Steve has had to dip into his savings to chip away at their ever-growing medical expenses. Already debt collectors have been calling, demanding the couple to pay their bills.

“There is nothing in line for people like me to pay that bill for me,” Keniethea said.

Keniethea has appealed the Workers’ Compensation denial of her claim — now she waits for a hearing that is set for May 4.

WATE 6 On Your Side contacted Ms. Tadlock’s employer. Blossman Gas of Mississippi says it cannot comment on personnel matters.

Insurance experts say with COVID-19, you need to understand the ins and out of your healthcare coverage. You will want to know things like:

  • What does your insurance cover?
  • Does your coverage pay for state-of-the-art medications?
  • If you go on a ventilator, what will it cover, and for how long?
  • Does your plan treat COVID-19 hospitalization differently than other hospitalizations?

These are questions that are being asked across the country.