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Information about the novel coronavirus (the virus that causes COVID-19) is constantly evolving. We will refresh our novel coronavirus content periodically based on newly published peer-reviewed findings to which we have access. For the most reliable and up-to-date information, please visit the CDC website or the WHO’s advice for the public.
We all have a lot to worry about during the coronavirus pandemic. Even if no one you know gets sick, you may deal with significant life shifts, like working from home, quarantining, or trying to keep up with all the changing guidelines. Worrying about how much a COVID test costs shouldn’t be another stressor, regardless of your health insurance situation.
The US government passed some legislation in 2020 to make sure that everyone who needs a test can get one, free of charge. Here’s what you need to know about the costs associated with getting tested and all the options when it comes to COVID-19 testing kits.
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How much does a COVID test cost?
If a healthcare provider decides you need a COVID-19 test, it’s usually free, whether or not you have health insurance. That’s true as long as it is from an approved healthcare facility or pharmacy, and the type of test you’re getting is FDA-approved.
You can also test for COVID-19 with an at-home test, either by prescription or over the counter. At-home tests might require payment upfront and the costs can vary significantly. Prices range from $12 to $150 so it may be important to check with your insurance provider about reimbursement options.
When it comes to tests ordered by a healthcare professional, free means no out-of-pocket costs, according to a law passed in 2020 called the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and CARES Act which was enacted to ensure that everyone who needed a test could get one (CMS, 2021). That means no copay or deductible. Insurance companies like UnitedHealthcare, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Aetna reiterate this on their websites. If a healthcare provider decides that you need another test at a future date, it should also be covered at no cost (CMS, 2020).
But this doesn’t mean you won’t get a bill for your COVID-19 test. If you get a bill, but your test was ordered by a healthcare provider, it might be a mistake. Contact your insurance company, or Medicaid, or Medicare (if you receive one of those services) to resolve the issue. One woman was charged a $50 copay for her test, but the fee was reimbursed after she informed her insurance provider (Kliff, 2020).
The cost of a rapid coronavirus test may differ from the cost of a PCR (molecular) coronavirus test. Also, you may need to pay for certain services a healthcare provider considers necessary before getting tested for COVID-19. For example, you may need a test for other upper respiratory infections first, which the CARES Act doesn’t cover. If that’s the case, your insurer would likely cover part of the costs associated with non-COVID-19 tests, but it’s best to check with them first to avoid any surprise charges. How much is covered and the bill you receive depends on your insurance company and health insurance plan, if you have one.
Your COVID-19 test also isn’t free if anyone other than a healthcare provider requests it. For example, if your employer requires you to get a COVID-19 test before returning to work, it isn’t covered by the FFCRA (CMS, 2020). Also, if you need a test to board a plane for international travel, that’s going to be an out-of-pocket charge as well. Your fee for a test in this situation again depends on your health insurance provider and individual plan.
You can use this tool to find a testing site near you that provides access to free testing (HRSA, 2020). COVID-19 tests that the FFCRA covers are also available at select pharmacies, including CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, and Walmart (HHS, 2020).
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At-home COVID-19 testing kits
For people who have mild symptoms or those who can’t get to a testing facility, at-home COVID-19 test kits, also called self-tests, are an option. One great thing about all at-home test kits is that you don’t need to venture out to a testing site and risk infecting others if you have COVID, or catching COVID from someone else. Depending on the test type, you will either be able to analyze your sample at home or send it to a lab for analysis (CDC, 2021).
There are different types of at-home testing kits. Some test for the virus from a nasal swab, and others use saliva. While it can be confusing to try to determine which type of test you should take, here are some basic rules: rapid (antigen) tests are quick and relatively reliable when it comes to identifying if you have COVID right now and are still contagious. They might give you a false negative (saying you don’t have COVID even when you do) if it’s early on in your infection. On the upside, the results are typically available in 10-30 minutes.
PCR tests are a little bit better at catching the virus, but they have to be processed by a special machine in a lab, so you can’t do the whole process at home and it can take 24-72 hours to get results (or even longer). Also, the test is so good at identifying the virus that it will be positive for a long time after you’re no longer contagious.
Several companies have made at-home test kits and at-home collection kits available, but they’re not all covered by the FFCRA. If you want to bill one of these tests to your insurance, you’ll need to choose one with Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA (CMS, 2020). The FDA lists the at-home test kits that are currently approved here (FDA, 2021).
Do I need a prescription to get an at-home testing kit?
Some at-home kits require a prescription. Some companies have telehealth online visits that ask you about your medical history and symptoms. If they determine that you’re eligible for the test, they can give you a prescription for it. Don’t worry, though—you’re not out of options if you can’t get a prescription.
How much do at-home tests cost?
You can purchase some at-home tests over the counter without a prescription. Many at-home COVID-19 tests require payment upfront, which means you’d need to pay for it yourself and then file for reimbursement with your insurance provider. Prices vary, but on average, these tests cost between $12 to $150. There are some exceptions, like the LabCorp Pixel COVID-19 test. When ordering it online, you can choose to have the company bill your insurance directly, though that doesn’t always guarantee coverage (LabCorps, 2021).
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When should I get tested?
If you’re currently experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, have been in close contact (within six feet for 15 minutes or more) with someone with COVID-19, or if a healthcare provider tells you to do so, you should get tested (CDC, 2021).
If you meet any of these criteria, contact a healthcare professional, local urgent care center, or your state’s health department about what to do next to get tested (CDC, 2020).
You can also use the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) self-checker tool if you’re unsure about what to do (CDC, 2020). In addition, the government has created a tool that finds testing locations near you that the FFRCA and CARES act cover (HRSA, 2020). Free testing is also available at select pharmacies, including CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, and Walmart (HHS, 2020). Many of these pharmacies offer online screening tools to help you figure out whether you’re eligible for a COVID-19 test before you book an appointment.
- Aetna. (n.d.). COVID-19 Testing & Treatment FAQs for Aetna Members. Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://www.aetna.com/individuals-families/member-rights-resources/need-to-know-coronavirus/testing-treatment-information.html
- Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA). (2020, March 6). Blue Cross and Blue Shield Companies Announce Coverage of Coronavirus Testing for Members and Other Steps to Expand Access to Coronavirus Care. Retrieved January 12, 2021 from https://www.bcbs.com/press-releases/blue-cross-and-blue-shield-companies-announce-coverage-of-coronavirus-testing
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2020, August 06). State and Territorial Health Departments. Retrieved January 08, 2021 from https://www.cdc.gov/publichealthgateway/healthdirectories/healthdepartments.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021, August 2). COVID-19 Testing Overview. Retrieved September 08, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/testing.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021, August 16). Coronavirus Self-Checker . Retrieved September 08, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/coronavirus-self-checker.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021, August 2). At-Home Testing. Retrieved September 8, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/testing/at-home-testing.html
- Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). (2020, April 11). FAQS about families First Coronavirus Response Act and Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act Implementation part 42. Retrieved January 11, 2021 from https://www.cms.gov/files/document/FFCRA-Part-42-FAQs.pdf
- Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). (2020, April 11). FAQS about families First Coronavirus Response Act and Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act Implementation part 44. Retrieved September 8, 2021 from https://www.cms.gov/files/document/faqs-part-44.pdf
- Health and Human Services (HHS). (2020, December 28). Community-Based Testing Sites for COVID-19. Retrieved January 12, 2021 from https://www.hhs.gov/coronavirus/community-based-testing-sites/index.html
- Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA). (n.d.). Find a Health Center. Retrieved January 12, 2021 from https://findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov/
- Kliff, S. (2020, September 9). Coronavirus Tests Are Supposed to Be Free. The Surprise Bills Come Anyway. Retrieved January 17, 2021 from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/09/upshot/coronavirus-surprise-test-fees.html
- LabCorps. COVID-19 Test (At-Home Collection Kit). (2021, January 03). Retrieved January 12, 2021 from https://www.ondemand.labcorp.com/at-home-test-kits/covid-19-test-home-collection-kit
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- UnitedHealthcare. (n.d.). COVID-19 testing and treatment coverage. Retrieved January 12, 2021 from https://www.uhc.com/health-and-wellness/health-topics/covid-19/coverage-and-resources
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (2020, December 15). Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Authorizes Antigen Test as First Over-the-Counter Fully At-Home Diagnostic Test for COVID-19. Retrieved January 12, 2021 from https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-authorizes-antigen-test-first-over-counter-fully-home-diagnostic
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (2020, May 8). Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Authorizes First Diagnostic Test Using At-Home Collection of Saliva Specimens. Retrieved January 12, 2021 from https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-authorizes-first-diagnostic-test-using-home-collection-saliva
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- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (2021, September 7). In Vitro Diagnostics EUAs – Molecular Diagnostic Tests for SARS-CoV-2. Retrieved September 8, 2021 from https://www.fda.gov/medical-devices/coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19-emergency-use-authorizations-medical-devices/in-vitro-diagnostics-euas-molecular-diagnostic-tests-sars-cov-2
Yael Cooperman is a physician and works as a Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.