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Some COVID-19 Tests Come With 'Criminal' Prices, Experts Say, So Get Tested For Free Instead

A photo shows samples ready for COVID-19 testing at a Kansas laboratory.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen
Kansas News Service
A photo shows samples ready for COVID-19 testing at a Kansas laboratory.

Plenty of places offer free testing with no health insurance or official ID required. This eliminates the risk of a wrestling match with your insurer later.

A year into the pandemic, COVID-19 testing has become easier to get — just not necessarily cheaper.

If you go to the right locations, though, you can get a test for free instead of shelling out $100 or more.

For Kansas, sites that offer free testing are listed online, complete with information about wait times and booking.

You don’t have to show any ID or insurance. That eliminates the risk of a wrestling match later over billing.

Price tags matter, even when insurance pays

Late last year, the Kansas Insurance Department warned the public that a lab in Johnson County was billing about $1,000 per test.

Even if an insurance company picks up the tab, when costs run high, it boomerangs back to customers in the form of higher premiums.

The Johnson County lab later dropped the price — but it remains in the hundreds of dollars.

National experts have called out laboratories for charging prices so high — sometimes even thousands of dollars. They also argue that many labs charging less than that still ask too much.

Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, says labs typically collect more than $100 for a molecular test, even though many spend a very small fraction of that to run one.

“That’s criminal,” he said in a briefing with reporters last month. “People should not be profiting at the moment, or at least not excessively profiting off of this pandemic.”

At-home tests often cost that much, too

Drug stores and labs increasingly market directly to consumers, offering DIY kits.

At-home molecular tests can cost more than $100. Read the fine print: Some require a prescription. Some don’t. Some sellers bill your insurance. Others take your money and tell you to contact your insurance company for reimbursement.

Unless you’re certain that your insurer will pony up, that could leave you on the hook for a product you could have gotten free of cost.

The AARP says more molecular tests will come on the market soon in the $50 range. At-home antigen tests cost even less.

A quick refresher on test methods

Molecular tests are more sensitive — often called the “gold standard” — but generally take longer.

Mina explains there’s another trade-off: Molecular tests are so sensitive, that they can catch leftover snippets of vanquished virus from an old infection. So a positive result can happen even when you’re no longer sick or contagious.

By contrast, a positive result on an antigen test means you are sick right now.

Harvard answers more questions about coronavirus tests here, including antibody testing, a third method that checks your blood for immune responses to a past coronavirus infection.

Many people can get free antibody testing by donating blood to the American Red Cross.

If you think you were billed wrongly for a test

Congress passed legislation to protect people against bills for COVID-19 tests in many situations.

But not everyone follows the rules. For example, the Kansas Insurance Department says one state employee got charged a fee for a COVID-19 test that should have been free.

If you got a bill for a COVID-19 test, you may have fallen into a loophole that allows a hospital or clinic to bill you. Or, the bill may in fact violate federal law. You can turn to the Kansas Insurance Department for help sorting out whether the bill was legit or not.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health and education for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

I'm the creator of the environmental podcast Up From Dust. I write about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. My goal is to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.
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