Coronavirus (Covid-19) and the tests: At-home tests are hard to find, and there’s some price gouging

Filed Under: Costs, Health plans, Patients

QuickVue At-Home test

By Jeanne Pinder and Virginia Jeffries

At-home Covid tests are very hard to find. And the prices are spiraling up, despite promises by city, state and federal governments in the United States to make them available for free.

At-home tests out of stock. Photo by Virginia Jeffries
Tests out of stock (pc Virginia Jeffries)

New York Health + Hospitals, the New York public housing entity, is passing out free boxes of BinaxNow tests at various testing sites across the city. But if you’re trying to buy the test kits in your local drugstore, you’re likely out of luck — or very lucky, if you happen to get to a store just as a delivery is being made.

In Brooklyn, N.Y., on Dec. 24, a free at-home test event turned into a free-for-all at a corner on Flatbush and Church Avenues, where distribution of tests was advertised widely, and people converged on the site. Police were called; videos suggested havoc, The New York Post reported.

Facebook and other social media are carrying reports on the availability of Binax tests are breathless and contradictory: “Walmart.com has binaxnow in stock for $14. Hurry! Limit 8,” one woman wrote. An hour later, another wrote “Just tried. Gone.” Another: “I just bought two Binax at Walmart” — but by the time I read them and clicked over, a couple of hours later, Binax was out of stock at Walmart online.

Making Covid tests available for free

The Biden administration is promising to make tests available — but the picture is not pretty.

At-home test limit. Photo by Virginia Jeffries
Test limit (pc Virginia Jeffries)

“The Biden administration has pledged to make more free tests available, and reimburse some of the ones people nab off shelves. But those benefits won’t kick in until after the new year, leapfrogging the holidays,” The Atlantic wrote. “And only people with private insurance will qualify for reimbursements, which are not always easy to finagle. If anything, the gross inequities in American testing are only poised to grow.”

And if you can test and find yourself positive, obviously, that makes it clear you should quarantine. But if you can’t find a test, you may, well, go out into the world and seek a test, either from a testing site or a retail story selling an at-home kit … thereby spreading the virus.

 

As Bob Wachter, the USCSF Department of Medicine chair, tweeted: “Good news: our tests – both PCR & antigen – still work fine w/ Omicron. Bad news: these too will be in enormously short supply when we need them most – …(14/25)”

“as a tool to create a safe space for a get-together or in workplace/school. Biden’s announcement of 500M tests in Jan, while welcome, is too little & too late. We should’ve been working on making these tests free & accessible for months, as many other nations have done.(15/25) 

Peach Medical Sourcing, a high-priced provider, charging $39.99 online for the BinaxNow test that Amazon sells for $23.99 when it’s in stock, had popups on its page on Sunday announcing that someone just bought the tests — an inducement for you to buy, considering that others are doing so.

Trying  to buy MOLECULAR Covid tests online

Excited to read that molecular PCR tests (not the easier and cheaper antigen tests) were available online, by The Washington Post story on the Detect.com test, I went to try to buy some of these new tests. Sorry, sold out! I had to leave my email address. They emailed: “Due to high demand for the Detect Covid-19 Test™, we are temporarily out of stock. Additional but limited quantities of tests will be available on 12/26 at 12:00 noon EST.”

One test and one “hub” can be bought for $75, at a special rate, the site says. The hub can be re-used, apparently, and additional tests are $49. Exactly at 12 noon on Dec. 26, I went to the site, but I was initially not able to buy, and called customer service to complain. At 12:06, I made it through and put the test and hub package in the shopping cart, then added three more tests. I had checked out by 12:08. I went back at 12:12 to see the situation, and they were sold out.

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Another molecular testing company was mentioned, Cue Health. I went to buy some of theirs, and found that the minimum was three for $225. Pricey, but market research!  I tried to set up an account, but the site refused to allow me to do so — it kept rejecting my password choice. Oh wait, you have to buy 3 tests and a reader for $474. Hm, extremely pricey. Maybe another time.

The Washington Post wrote: “But these tests don’t come cheap. At Cue, a reader costs $249 (it too is compatible with future tests for other diseases), with a three-pack of covid tests running $225. A more premium “subscription,” with full-time access to a doctor by videolink, costs an extra $50 to $90 per month.

“Insurance does not pay for at-home molecular tests,” The Post wrote. “But Rothberg says he expects Detect’s price to drop once the firm’s scale increases. (The company says it is producing tens of thousands of tests each week and hopes to soon reach into the millions.) ”

(Update: While looking at the F.D.A. page for emergency use authorizations for molecular tests, I noticed that Amazon has just received an EUA for four at-home RT-PCR tests, including one specifically marked as “direct to consumer.” See page here.)

Price-gouging on Covid tests on eBay

In the New York City and Los Angeles metro areas, our research has found that test kits at Walgreens are running between $20 and $25 for a set of two. But some opportunists are trying to get more than double that.

At Home Test Receipt. Photo by Virginia Jeffries
At-home test receipt (pc Virginia Jeffries)

Of course eBay is home to a lot of sellers at high prices. On Wednesday afternoon, a seller named Nessuhisang had two boxes at $120 total (That’s $60 for a box of 2!). Rideman was offering four boxes for $220. Ncmf8836 had four boxes for $250, and eBay helpfully told me Wednesday afternoon that one was sold in the last hour.

Officials are aware of price-gouging. “New York Attorney General Letitia James today issued a consumer alert to New Yorkers concerning potential price gouging of over-the-counter coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) testing products for at-home use, as well as other in-demand essential products. Today’s alert comes in light of a surge of COVID-19 cases due to the Omicron variant, which has resulted in the rise of New Yorkers seeking to use at-home testing kits before gathering with friends and loved ones for the holidays,” said a press release from James’s office on Dec. 21.

 

Help paying for at-home tests

At the moment, the millions of Americans having to rely on at-home Covid tests are having to bear the entire cost out of pocket. While $25 per test may not seem like a lot, consider having to spend $100 for a family of four and keep in mind that most of us will have probably have to test multiple times before the omicron surge gets under control.

Although still quite vague, there has been a murmur about help from Washington. Earlier this month, President Joe Biden said people with insurance would be able to file for reimbursement for at-home tests. The White House confirmed that on a telephone press briefing Monday night, saying the policy would go into effect by mid-January but it was not clear whether people would be able to submit receipts from January on or that they would be able to submit receipts from earlier purchases.

And in September, the IRS released a memo stating that the cost of at-home Covid-testing “is an eligible medical expense that can be paid or reimbursed under health flexible spending arrangements, health savings accounts, health reimbursement arrangements, or Archer medical savings accounts.”

The same document added that the costs of personal protective equipment, including “masks, hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes, for the primary purpose of preventing the spread of COVID-19 are eligible medical expenses that can be paid or reimbursed under health FSAs, HSAs, HRAs, or Archer MSAs.” Further information is available on IRS.gov.

What you can do in buying an at-home test

It’s complicated out there. What can you do?

  • Read this post of ours and use the information here to judge what’s an appropriate cost for an in-home test.
  • Check to make sure that if you are thinking about buying a test, that test is authorized by the FDA at least under an Emergency Use Authorization.
  • Google. If the manufacturer is not on this list, that’s a clue to you. I myself bought BinaxNow tests, made by Abbott, and then Quidel tests. Also when the Quidel tests were out of stock, I bought IHealth. That was approved on Dec. 22. How do I feel about that? Not excellent.
  • Is your city or state offering the test? That’s a good bonafide that the provider has some authority in this area. If not, be careful.
  • Is the price too high or too low? Is the offer too good to be true? Be careful.
  • Is someone offering a test on a street corner, a farmers market or other non-health-care location?  Be careful.
  • Does it look like a “high-end” testing provider? If they’re charging a lot, that may be a signal that they’re not authentic.
  • Some of the tests have a “use-by” or expiration date. Be mindful of that.

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