- In some cases, testing for the novel coronavirus is free, but you could still be on the hook for other medical costs related to testing or hospital visits.
- Widespread testing of people at risk for coronavirus infection is needed to avoid rapid spread of the virus.
- The uninsured and underinsured are the ones most likely to think twice before going to the hospital or doctor’s office for a coronavirus test.
After a slow rollout of coronavirus testing in the United States, the Trump administration is trying to ramp up the country’s testing capacity.
But experts say people’s concerns about unexpected medical bills related to coronavirus testing could deter many people from being tested or seeking medical care if they develop symptoms.
Widespread testing of people at risk for coronavirus infection is needed to avoid rapid spread of the virus.
“It’s in our interest to have a uniform identification of [COVID-19] cases. This is about more than just personal healthcare, it’s about public health,” said Dr. Robert Amler, dean of the School of Health Sciences and Practice at New York Medical College and a former chief medical officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Millions of Americans already struggle to pay their medical bills, including
And because most deductibles reset at the beginning of the year, people with high deductibles could end up paying thousands of dollars before their insurance covers any of their medical costs.
The uninsured and underinsured are the ones most likely to think twice before going to the hospital or doctor’s office for a coronavirus test. And understandably so.
Recent reports have surfaced of people racking up thousands of dollars in medical costs after going to the hospital with a possible coronavirus infection or after being released from a mandatory U.S. government quarantine.
Since these reports came out, the federal and state government, along with health insurers, have moved forward with changes to make coronavirus testing free or less expensive.
But given the country’s patchwork healthcare system, the costs related to coronavirus testing and treatment are still not clear. Here’s what we know so far.
How much will coronavirus testing cost?
The cost of having a coronavirus test done depends on which lab runs the test and what health insurance you have.
Tests completed by a CDC, state, or city public health laboratory are free to patients. These labs, though, are expected to run only a small fraction of the tests.
Tests run at private or academic labs aren’t free, which means they could bill your health insurer — who could then bill you — for the cost of the test. If you’re uninsured, you’d be billed directly, possibly for the entire cost.
Certain insurers are making the test more affordable for members. Earlier this week, Vice President Mike Pence announced that Medicare and Medicaid would cover the entire cost of the test.
Pence also said the tests would be deemed “essential health benefits,” meaning they must be covered by most insurance plans.
However, even if they’re covered, the costs may still fall to the patient if they haven’t yet met their deductible, if they have a copay, or if they have certain insurance plans that are no longer required to provide essential health benefits.
The board of the industry group America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) said in a statement that its member insurers would “ease” or “waive” cost-sharing for the test. They didn’t offer specifics on what that meant.
However, one of AHIP’s members, Cigna, later announced that it would waive all copays and cost-sharing for the test.
Some states have also ordered insurers to waive copays and deductibles for coronavirus testing, including New York, Nevada, Washington, and California.
These restrictions, though, may not apply to plans offered by larger employers.
If you think you may have the coronavirus, you can check with your insurance company before getting tested.
You can also call your doctor to see whether you can come in for a test directly and not risk a trip to the emergency room, which could lead to a hefty bill.
You can also call your state or local health department to see whether they provide the test for free.
What about other medical costs?
Even if the coronavirus test itself is free, you could still be on the hook for other medical costs related to testing or treatment.
Business Insider laid out some of these other costs. They can include the cost of a visit to the emergency department or urgent care center. It can also include the cost of other blood tests, including flu testing.
The cost of these other medical services depends on your insurance, as well as whether you’re going to a facility that’s in your policy’s network. If you’re uninsured, the healthcare facility will often try to bill you for the full amount.
Even if you originally go in to be tested for the coronavirus, you could incur costs not directly related to the virus.
One of the stories circulating on social media about the high cost of coronavirus testing involves a man who returned to Miami from China with “flu-like symptoms.”
Worried that he might have coronavirus, he went to the emergency department for testing.
The initial cost of his visit was $3,270.
However, this was for the visit and testing for other upper respiratory pathogens, including the flu, which he tested positive for. He was not tested for coronavirus.
Recent legislative efforts may help offset the costs of some of these other medical expenses.
President Trump signed a bill last week providing $8.3 billion in emergency funding to combat the coronavirus outbreak.
It’s not clear whether any of this funding would offset medical costs related to coronavirus treatment. But Democrats plan to introduce a bill that would make Medicaid cover coronavirus testing and treatment for all Americans.
Many health plans have copays and deductibles, which are designed to deter people from overusing the medical system.
But in the case of public health issues like the coronavirus outbreak — or even vaccination for influenza or the measles — this is the opposite of what needs to happen.
“You certainly want the population to be well vaccinated,” Amler said, “and you don’t want copays or deductibles to be impediments to people getting the vaccines that all good public policy dictates they should have.”
David W. Hutton, PhD, associate professor of health management and policy at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, thinks making the coronavirus test free would encourage people to get tested, although it’s not clear how much.
Still, he says the public health benefits of free testing are clear.
“I think it is really valuable for us to know how many people are infected,” Hutton said, “and it’s valuable for people to be tested so they can self-isolate to reduce transmission of the novel coronavirus.”
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