As if a global pandemic and the absence until recently of a national strategy for dealing with it wasn’t enough to generate fear, uncertainty, and doubt, now we’re hearing about exorbitant costs for COVID-19 testing.
Viral posts on social media claim costs as high as $2,315 to $3,000 per test. Some of these rumors have been debunked, but there is still reason for concern that the poor and uninsured are being slapped with surprise costs for COVID-19 testing.
The price of getting tested in America varies widely, depending on your location, insurance status, and coverage. By understanding your legal rights and doing some local research, you can often find more affordable options. In this article, we’ll help you understand who pays for COVID-19 testing and how to access low-cost or free testing.
COVID Insurance Coverage
Two pieces of legislature in 2020 were passed to help during this pandemic:
- The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) requires certain employers to provide their employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19.
- The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) was created to provide emergency assistance and health care response for individuals, families, and businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both the FFCRA and the CARES Act require comprehensive private health insurance plans to cover COVID-19 testing without cost sharing to insured patients.
So your insurance company has to pay 100% of the cost of your COVID test—but only if COVID-19 infection is suspected due to symptoms or recent exposure to someone who has tested positive.
If this is the case for you, be sure to check with your insurer to confirm your coverage and find an in-network provider to order the test.
But if you’re asymptomatic / not exposed (and you don’t want to lie to your doctor about it), your insurance may not cover COVID testing, and you’ll either need to pay out of pocket or find free testing. This includes testing for reasons like travel, visiting, or even return to work.
Does your employer have to pay for a COVID test?
When employees are asked to work under circumstances involving the risk of exposure, don’t their employers have to pay for regular testing? Sadly, in America, the answer is no. And the short reasons are a) they don’t have to, and b) in many cases, they can’t afford to.
It’s true that some employers do pay for regular testing of non-symptomatic people. Some workers, such as healthcare workers, government workers, sports teams, and some educators already get regular testing through their workplaces.
But there’s no legal requirement that they do so. And because such testing is generally not covered by insurance, they must pay out of pocket to do so. And for the many small and medium businesses already struggling to survive in a pandemic economy, footing the bill for testing that’s not deemed medically necessary is an impossible burden.
In fact, many employers actually have a disincentive to test employees, because finding a positive result means sending the infected person and everyone they’ve been in contact with home—not to mention the costs of closing and disinfecting the space.
So many employers slide the responsibility and the cost of testing over to their workers. And this leaves many workers scrambling to find their own solutions for getting tested on the regular.
How much is a covid test without insurance?
So if you aren’t insured, or your insurance won’t cover the testing you need, what to do? You can either find free testing, if it’s accessible in your area, or pay for it out of pocket.
When comparing testing options, here are some questions to consider.
- How soon can you get tested?
Testing is usually a matter where time is of the essence. If the free test site takes a week for an appointment, you might need to pay out of pocket.
- What is the turnaround time for results?
You need to be able to get results within three days maximum, and to isolate before and after testing for best results.
- What kind of test is available?
The gold standard of testing is the PCR test which tests for the virus in your system at that moment. Antibody tests are not able to diagnose current infection. To learn more about the different kinds of tests see this helpful blog that sums it up quite well.
How to find low-cost and free covid testing
Many cities and counties offer free and low-cost community testing, often without requiring symptoms or a doctor’s referral. You may also be able to access affordable next-day local testing in your area.
Costs for community testing range from free to low cost. Some clinics will bill your insurance if you have it, while others charge a fee. Be sure to confirm the cost before making an appointment.
In California, you can use this interactive map to find testing near you. This map includes both free and for-cost options, so be sure to click through to the website for the testing location to confirm the cost.
You can also find information about community testing on the website for your county or state. This page has a list of states, with links to community clinics (called health centers) and each state’s health department.
Here are some helpful sites to find community testing in the Bay Area:
Many pharmacies are now offering COVID-19 testing at select locations. Walmart has partnered with the HHS to provide free and low-cost testing. RiteAid has partnered with Project Baseline, a testing initiative which offers free testing across the Northeast and West Coast.
- If you are not in California, COVID-19 testing is available at no cost, regardless of your health insurance status.
- If you are in California, you will be asked to provide your health insurance information to schedule an appointment. Most health insurance plans will cover the full cost of testing, at no expense to you.
Check in with your local pharmacy chain to see if you qualify for their free or low-cost program.
If you’re paying out of pocket
If you are willing to pay out of pocket, you have options at a range of prices and levels of service.
Urgent care centers
“Doc in a box” clinics such as ZOOM+Care provide on-demand medical care on a fee-for-service model.
- Cost for an office visit plus COVID test ranges from $175–250.
- Lab cost may be billed separately from doctor visit.
- Results are generally available in three to five days.
At-home PCR testing
At-home sample collection kits for PCR testing enable you to access a highly accurate PCR test from the safety and comfort of your home. Products like Pixel from LabCorp and LetsGetChecked involve collecting a sample with a nasal swab and sending it away to be analyzed.
- Between shipping and results reporting times, the window for relevant and timely data may be smaller or the same, compared to traditional PCR testing.
- Costs range from $100–150.
- These are intended for use where COVID is suspected, so you may need to fill out a questionnaire or have a virtual chat with a doctor before you can receive the kit.
- They typically promise results in two to three days once they receive your sample, so add on a couple of days for the mail.
- Some companies can bill your insurance or, if you are uninsured, they can utilize federal funds to cover the cost on your behalf.
At-home rapid testing
These tests also involve collecting a sample at home, but instead of mailing it off to a lab, you see results within minutes via a color-changing indicator, like a home pregnancy test. While these antigen tests are less sensitive and accurate than PCR tests, many are hoping they can be a pandemic game-changer once widely available.
- Costs range from $30–50.
- Results are available within minutes.
- Rapid antigen tests are less likely to accurately diagnose current COVID infection than PCR tests.
To be frank, the fact that Americans cannot access free and low-cost testing unless it’s deemed “medically necessary” is a national scandal. Imagine how much better our economy and mental health could be if we had access to frequent testing to help us return to work safely or put visiting relatives at ease. Lack of leadership and ignorance have created a culture of scarcity around testing.
With a vaccine on the horizon and President Biden’s ambitious plan to boost the nation's testing capacity, there is light at the end of the tunnel. But right now, we’re still in the tunnel. Biden’s plan to push rapid antigen tests, increase testing centers, and expand lab test processing is a better plan than we’ve seen from the previous administration, but can he—meaning we as a nation—pull it off?
Until now, our healthcare system has failed to live up to its promises on COVID testing. And until that changes, our health and safety are ultimately in our own (hopefully well-washed) hands.