Following concerns about costs, clinics now offering low-cost or free COVID-19 testing

Staff at Evanston Community Health Center administer coronavirus tests during a drive-thru event on Tuesday, May 19. (COURTESY PHOTO/Uinta County Public Health)

EVANSTON — Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, officials and public health experts have repeatedly stressed the importance of testing as a key component of controlling the pandemic and returning to some semblance of normalcy. However, during the early weeks of the pandemic testing materials were scarce and testing was therefore restricted to individuals falling into very strict categories.

Testing capacities have now expanded greatly, and the Wyoming Department of Health has announced on multiple occasions that testing in Wyoming is now available to anyone experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. As with any visit to a healthcare provider or diagnostic screening, however, there may be costs involved. After receiving reports from individuals who had made use of the drive-thru screening at Evanston Regional Hospital and subsequently received Explanation of Benefits (EOB) documents from their private insurance with charges listed well in excess of $1,000, the Herald reached out to find out exactly what following public health advice and being tested would cost individuals and where such testing could be obtained.

When contacted in late May, Uinta County Public Health Nurse Manager Kim Proffit said staff in her office had been contacted by concerned residents regarding the costs referenced in those EOBs for testing at ERH and what that might mean for those without private health insurance. Proffit said, “As a public health professional, I am very concerned about the availability and cost of testing in Uinta County. It is imperative that we boost our testing numbers — it is the key strategy moving forward, and therefore it is important that there be an affordable (if not free) avenue for people to get tested. I am very concerned that the options for local testing may not be within reach for a lot of our population, and I do feel that it is my duty to work to find solutions.”

Proffit stressed she had been working with local healthcare providers and with the Department of Health and Human Services to secure testing materials and training on how to provide free testing for uninsured individuals and submit statements to HHS for reimbursement, as well as working with providers to secure low-cost and accessible testing for those in Uinta County. Thankfully, both the affordability and accessibility of testing for local individuals have improved dramatically.

One local healthcare facility providing testing is Evanston Community Health Center (ECHC), which is offering curbside testing, with samples sent to the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory. A statement from ECHC said patients must have a standard office visit prior to being tested, which is typically done through telehealth at the present time. During that visit, providers look for possible other sources of symptoms, including allergies, lung disease, sinus infections and more.

The ECHC statement also said COVID-19 related expenses should be covered at 100% for insured patients and patients without insurance may receive the exam and related testing at no charge. “Our ultimate goal is to ensure each patient receives high-quality care at the most affordable price, so we order only those tests necessary to assess each patient’s condition … patients receive information about which options are most beneficial for them and how much these will cost.

“After COVID-19 was recently diagnosed in the community, we realized it was critical to the public’s health that affordable testing be made available to all, including those who otherwise would be unable to afford it,” reads part of the statement, which also notes that ECHC partnered with Wyoming Public Health to provide no-cost screening for the individuals and contacts of a recent confirmed case in a child who had been attending the Evanston Child Development Center.

Herald staff also reached out to ERH concerning testing and particularly the EOBs received by some individuals. While the actual COVID-19 testing is performed at no cost to individuals by the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory, there were still individual costs related to telehealth visits and laboratory screening to rule out other causes of illness, for which individuals and private insurance may have received statements or bills.

ERH CEO Cheri Willard said in a statement that practices and processes surrounding COVID-19 screening at ERH have changed since late April, which should result in greatly decreased costs.

“COVID-19 tests were in short supply in March and April,” reads the statement. “Wyoming State Lab had strict and narrow priority testing guidelines. Even when those guidelines started to expand and outside reference labs also became available, processing times for COVID-19 tests often exceeded a week or more.

“In light of these challenges, and because illnesses like flu and strep were also common during this time, physicians may have ordered a diagnostic test that could identify close to two dozen other respiratory infections from a single patient sample and provide results in 90 minutes or less. While the test would not specifically identify COVID-19, this test provided patients and medical professionals with key information to help identify appropriate treatments. It was in line with the recommended standard of care at the time. … Though COVID-19 test costs are now covered by individual and group insurance plans, costs for these earlier tests, including lab processing and provider fees, were submitted to an individual’s insurance company to process accordingly.”

Willard said ERH is now offering on-demand curbside testing to help increase access to COVID-19 testing in the community. Whereas previously, individuals concerned about possible infection needed to call a provider and be referred for testing, individuals can now self-refer for testing from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

“This on-demand curbside testing has been created to eliminate barriers and increase access to COVID-19 testing. A $25 collection fee is covered in full by most insurance and uninsured patients will be billed to the government according to new guidelines sent out by the federal government,” said Willard.

“By self-referring, patients decline to meet with a primary care provider about their symptoms. We will send their sample directly to the Wyoming State Lab for processing. If the patient would like to speak with a primary care provider, they also have the option of a virtual telehealth visit from their vehicle.”

Willard said a standard doctor visit co-pay will apply to telehealth visits and testing is also available after hours and on weekends in the ERH emergency department; however, “standard ER hospital and physician charges apply” for those visits.

The curbside testing and fees now in place at ERH are comparable to those in nearby Sweetwater County. Deb Sutton, Sweetwater Memorial Hospital Public Information Officer, said curbside testing is available at that facility from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekends. Sutton said a telehealth visit is not required to be tested, however, a provider order is necessary. She also said private insurance covers costs for the testing itself and testing is free for the uninsured.

As with the statement from ECHC, ERH CEO Willard’s statement referenced the importance of testing.

“As public health officials across the country have reiterated, increased access to testing means faster identification and isolation of COVID-19 cases,” reads Willard’s statement. “Caring for our community is our first priority. Like hospitals across the country, we are addressing the challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. We have been fortunate to experience very few COVID-19 cases … but fear and anxiety in our community remains high as concern about contracting the virus continues.”

Additionally, ECHC again reminded residents to continue to adhere to public health guidelines, emphasizing the possibility that COVID-19 is still circulating in the community.

“Evanston Community Health Center strongly supports community-wide precautions, including social distancing, frequent handwashing, sanitizing commonly touched surfaces and the judicious use of face coverings.”

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