Buyer beware: COVID tests are not always free and can cost hundreds of dollars

ORLANDO, Fla. — In the last month, Eyewitness News has received emails and calls from residents suddenly getting bills for COVID-19 tests.

While COVID-19 tests at government-run sites are available without cost, private clinics can charge hundreds of dollars, and depending on insurance, you may get stuck with the bill.

“The best thing you can do is go and get your testing done at a government site where the test will be paid for by the government. If you can’t do that, then you should try and find a site that is in-network with your insurance provider,” said Sabrina Corlette, a research professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. “Those are the two best ways to make sure you don’t receive an unexpected bill.”

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Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, passed in 2020, private clinics are allowed to charge what is known as a “cash price” so long as that price is advertised on their website. In addition, private labs and clinics are allowed to add additional fees to the bill.

“The bill that Congress passed was supposed to protect people even if they were out of network. The challenge has been that we’ve seen some of these providers tack on extra fees, like facility fees, or in the case of some emergency departments, emergency fees,” Corlette said.

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Those fees can quickly add up, and if insurance doesn’t cover the bill, then the cost falls on the patient. The problem could get worse as many employers are requiring COVID-19 tests for unvaccinated employees, which is something insurance is not obligated to cover.

“If you are not going to get vaccinated and you’re going to take the option of getting the test instead, you are going to have to pay for that,” said Dr. Jay Wolfson, a public health expert with the University of South Florida. “That can be whatever the cost is wherever you go.”

Another issue for those seeking a test is that the cost is going up, according to the trade association representing health insurers.

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“On average, a COVID-19 test in the commercial market costs $130,” David Allen, an AHIP spokesperson, said in a statement to Eyewitness News.

“The new data demonstrates that the share of tests charging 50% to 100% above the average costs has doubled (from 18% to 36%) between early in the pandemic and more recently during the current public health emergency.”

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