New Rule Raises Question: Who’ll Pay for All the Covid Tests?

Spurred on by rising Covid cases and the spread of the Delta variant, a wave of large employers announced this week the same rule for unvaccinated workers: they must undergo regular surveillance tests. The new requirement raises a sensitive question: who pays for these coronavirus tests?

Doctors typically charge around $ 50 to $ 100 for testing, so the cost of weekly testing could add up quickly. Federal law requires insurers to take over the testing in full if ordered by a health care provider, but routine workplace testing is exempt from this provision.

“It’s really up to the employer,” said Sabrina Corlette, research professor at Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms. “You can request that employees pick up the invoice.”

Employers have taken a number of approaches to date, from paying all costs to paying full freight for unvaccinated workers.

The US government will pay for the coronavirus testing of its unvaccinated workers, said Karine Jean-Pierre, the deputy press secretary for the White House, at a press conference on Friday.

President Biden announced rules on Thursday that equate to a two-tier system for the country’s four million federal employees. Those who do not get vaccinated have to distance themselves socially, wear face covering and comply with travel restrictions. Those who get vaccinated do not have such requirements.

Unvaccinated people also have to undergo regular coronavirus tests. Each federal agency will develop a plan for testing its unvaccinated workforce. The cost and procedures of each agency’s testing protocols depend on the number of unvaccinated people who need to be monitored.

“The agencies will implement this program themselves and are therefore responsible for further development,” said Jean-Pierre.

Employers taking a different approach include Rhodes College in Tennessee: Unvaccinated students, faculty, and staff pay a fee of $ 1,500 per semester to cover costs associated with a weekly coronavirus testing program.

Rhodes, a small humanities college, estimates three-quarters of its employees are vaccinated. She is still collecting information about the vaccination rate of her 2,000 students and is urgently calling for vaccinations. However, it is waiting for full approval of the vaccines by the Food and Drug Administration before it becomes mandatory.

Updated

July 30, 2021, 7:36 p.m. ET

“It’s not a punishment,” said Meghan Harte Weyant, the college’s vice president for student life. “For students who want to return to campus unvaccinated, they have to cover their costs. This is to ensure that students who are vaccinated do not have to bear these costs. “

Other employers allow workers to partake in the cost of coronavirus testing. MGM Resorts, which owns many Las Vegas hotels and casinos, will charge a $ 15 co-payment for testing at an on-site clinic for unvaccinated workers, several news outlets reported last week. Employees also have the option of being tested by an external provider.

MGM Resorts did not respond to a request from the New York Times for comment on the new policy.

These different approaches could provide a number of options for jobs still deciding who and how much pays for coronavirus testing of unvaccinated workers.

New York and California started testing the requirements for unvaccinated government employees this week, but neither has indicated who is paying for the service. None of the governor’s press offices responded to a Times request for comment.

Many states and cities still have free coronavirus testing sites that they started earlier in the pandemic. Long Beach, California, announced this week that testing on unvaccinated city workers is required. In a statement to the Times on the new rule, the city said workers “will be able to take their mandatory tests for free at the Long Beach Department of Health” when the requirement goes into effect in mid-August.

However, many Americans also get tested in doctor’s offices and pharmacies, which usually bill the patient and their insurance company for the service.

Understand the state of vaccine mandates in the United States

Federal law requires insurers to fully cover coronavirus tests ordered by health care providers, which means that the doctor cannot claim a deductible or co-payment for the service. Rules written by the Trump administration and continued in the Biden administration excluded routine workplace testing from this requirement.

In practice, insurers often do employer-mandated tests – a doctor’s bill is hard to tell if a workplace ordered treatment – but they could start reviewing cases of patients who suddenly become eligible for the same benefit every week to have.

“If they start seeing a significant number of people having these tests done every week or twice a week, they would be empowered under federal law to say that this looks like and doesn’t cover routine workplace tests,” said Professor Corlette from Georgetown.

This means that unvaccinated workers who need to self-test may have to pay their own fees. Some patients have faced surprising medical bills for coronavirus testing, which can range from a few dollars to over $ 1,000.

Some of these bills were the result of an employer-prescribed test. Over the past year, The Times asked readers to submit their medical bills for coronavirus tests and treatments, and reviewed several cases of surprising charges for a workplace test.

That includes Marta Bartan, who needed a coronavirus test last summer to return to a job as a hair colorist in Brooklyn. The Times reported that she received a $ 1,394 bill from a hospital that operates a drive-through site.

“I was so confused,” she said at the time. “You go in to do a Covid test, expecting it to be free. What could they have billed me $ 1,400 for? “

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