A look at COVID-19 testing, costs on the peninsula

Jun 16, 2020

Credit CDC

The only surefire way to know if you have COVID-19 is through a test. But if you are coughing, sneezing, and have a fever, some of the most common symptoms of the disease, it may not be as easy as walking up and asking for a test, and like a lot of things in healthcare, it may not be clear what it costs.

In general, you need a doctor’s order to be tested. As the pandemic has gone on, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have broadened the identified symptoms of COVID-19 to run a wide gamut. A doctor can make a recommendation for you to be tested and send you to a testing location in the area. If you don’t have symptoms, the current state guidance is to be tested if you’re going into a health care facility for another procedure, if you’ve been in close contact with a person who has tested positive, or living in a joint living facility, among a few other recommendations.

The Soldotna Professional Pharmacy on Marydale Avenue, just up the street from the library, opened up a drive-in testing site last week. Soldotna Professional Pharmacy owner Justin Ruffridge said right now, it’s only for symptomatic people who have insurance. It’s by appointment only.

"We use what’s called a self-swab," he said. "The nasal swab doesn’t go in as deep as it does with the nasopharyngeal swab, the downside is you do have to swab the sides a little longer. … it’s a little more comfortable for people to do, plus it keeps our staff safe since they’re not having to go directly up to people’s cars and test them."

He said they hope to include uninsured people in the future, but right now they’re being referred to the public health office. The site is just a sample collection—they send the samples away to a lab, like many other testing locations. Ruffridge said he’s seen prices for tests range between $70 and $150.

"The cost is actually relatively reasonable because all you’re paying for in this case is the time of somebody to administer or help administer the test and the cost of getting it to the lab," he said. "I don’t think it’s an expensive fee, but for somebody for whom money might be tight right now, where even a little bit is tough— that’s why we want to get that uninsured program up and running as soon as possible."

Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, passed by Congress in March, all insurers have to cover COVID-19 tests with no cost-sharing. So people with insurance should pay nothing for the tests. However, the act doesn’t require providers to charge nothing for the tests. At Central Peninsula Hospital, the cost for testing is about $70 if the hospital is able to get it processed at the state’s lab, says Bruce Richards, the government and external affairs manager for the hospital. It’s more if the hospital has to send it to a different lab, as it’s had to do to get the tests processed efficiently.

The state is encouraging everyone to self-monitor and be tested if you start showing symptoms. However, anyone traveling is also encouraged to get a test before they go, and travelers have to get one when they enter the state. Those are covered by a testing voucher provided by the state, which covers one test if the person is uninsured, but it adds more people to the testing queue.

Add that to the out-of-state workers coming in, like in seafood plants, who have to be tested. Seafood processors are having to take on the cost of getting those samples collected. Clinton Bennett, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, says the state isn’t charging for processing tests, but the contractor collecting the samples might. The state is working on ways to minimize costs for businesses that have to test their employees regularly, and encourages them to find contractors who charge reasonably. He also says communities could use their CARES federal relief money to help offset that cost.

If you’re experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, the CDC’s guidance call ahead to a doctor who can help you find a place to be tested, and isolate until you can be tested.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@kdll.org.