How Much Should It Cost to Get Tested for COVID-19?January 6, 2022
Rapid antigen tests sometimes fail to detect COVID-19 early on, or in someone without any symptoms. They may also be less sensitive in detecting the omicron variant, the FDA said in late December.
The most precise gauge of COVID-19 is a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test, with an estimated 98 percent accuracy. But because these tests require processing on expensive lab machinery, they take longer and cost more.
In a PCR test, a small amount of DNA is extracted, typically via a swab inside your nose or from saliva. Then a healthcare worker mixes the DNA with various substances and uses a machine called a thermal cycler to heat and cool the sample 20 to 40 times to produce millions of copies of the original DNA. By amplifying the DNA, the PCR process can detect even tiny amounts of RNA sequences unique to COVID-19.
The test kits themselves are not expensive—$29 from test maker Abbott, according to spokesperson Kim Modory. But the machines to process the results typically cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to several hundred thousand dollars, with the high-end models handling many samples at the same time.
Processing the samples can take from less than an hour to a few hours, but you will usually have to wait a day or two for your results. That’s because labs prefer to run many samples at the same time, much as you usually run a dishwasher full of pots and plates rather than with a single bowl and spoon after breakfast.
“If you went in and said, ‘Oh my God, you know, you drew my specimen at three o’clock this afternoon, and it takes you, let’s say, 2 to 4 hours to run it through the machine, I should have my result by eight o’clock,’” says Birenbaum at the National Independent Laboratory Association. “Well, if they just took your specimen and ran it through the machine, yeah. But they’re waiting for other specimens. And so they might not run it until midnight, when they get the other specimens with it. And that just makes the whole system more efficient.”
Outside analysts say that it is hard to name a standard fair price for a COVID-19 test when factoring in rent, staff, insurance, utilities, and other operational expenses. It is “difficult to answer because people will claim to have lots of sunk costs and admin expenses they need to recoup, but $200 plus is not the right price,” says Niall Brennan, president and CEO of the Health Care Cost Institute, which studies claim data from four participating insurers.
Gregory Price, PhD, a professor of economics at the University of New Orleans, uses a cost-benefit analysis when looking at test prices. “If the test costs $200, but not knowing one is infected results in more than $200 in costs (e.g., out-of-pocket medical costs, lost wages, and even death), paying $200 for a COVID/PCR test is a sound decision,” he says.
Others point to the price Medicare pays labs for PCR tests as a fair baseline: $75 plus an extra $25 if the lab returns more than…