Coronavirus Tests Are Supposed to Be Free. The Surprise Bills Come Anyway.

Coronavirus Tests Are Supposed to Be Free. The Surprise Bills Come Anyway.

The New York Times is investigating the costs associated with testing and treatment for the coronavirus and how the pandemic is changing health care in America. You can read more about the project and submit your medical bills here.

Sarah Goldstone got a coronavirus test in Massachusetts after her health insurer said it was “waiving cost sharing for Covid-19 testing-related visits.”

Amanda Bowes, a health policy analyst in Maryland, got hers because she knew a new federal law should make coronavirus testing free for insured patients like her.

Kelly Daisley had one after seeing New York City’s ads offering free tests. “Do it for them,” says one bus shelter ad near her home, showing a happy family.

All three were surprised when their health insurers said that they were responsible for a significant chunk of their bills — in Ms. Daisley’s case, as much as $2,718.

“I had seen so many commercials saying there is testing everywhere, it’s free, you don’t need insurance,” said Ms. Daisley, 47, who was tested at an urgent care center three blocks from her Brooklyn apartment. “If I had to pay it off, it would clear out my savings.”

For months, Americans have been told not to worry about the costs of coronavirus tests, which are crucial to stopping the pandemic’s spread. “It is critical that Americans have peace of mind knowing that cost won’t be a barrier to testing during this national public health emergency,” Medicare’s administrator, Seema Verma, said in April.

Congress passed laws requiring insurers to pay for tests, and the Trump administration created a program to cover the bills of the uninsured. Cities and states set up no-cost testing sites.

Patients’ bills suggest that the rules aren’t always being followed. Insurers have, for example, applied co-payments and deductibles to the tests, claim documents show.

Ms. Bowes, from Maryland, was especially surprised to be charged a $50 co-payment for a coronavirus test at an urgent care center. She knew from her work as a health policy analyst for the National Association of Attorneys General that this wasn’t supposed to happen.

“I was really shocked when I got the bill,” she said. “It felt wrong, and I was angry especially because we were being billed before even receiving our results.” After protesting the fee to her insurer, the charge was reversed and covered.

Some patients found that insurance covered the test but denied payment for other services that went with it: another billing decision that could violate federal law.

One mother in California was surprised that her daughter’s coronavirus test was fully covered but that a $49 “after hours” fee was not — the clinic said it provided tests only in the evening, so as to not infect other patients.

Insurers have told some patients they are responsible for out-of-network charges, even though federal law appears to require insurers to at least partly cover them. This includes Ms. Goldstone from Massachusetts, who went for a test after experiencing mild coronavirus symptoms.

UnitedHealth paid $160 for her coronavirus test, but denied the $250 doctor visit that went with it, stating that her plan did not come with out-of-network benefits.

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