Why government payment for coronavirus testing is essential

The cost of healthcare doesn’t just protect the patient, but potentially it protects all of us from the spread of disease. Paying that cost should be a matter of social importance.

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Image Credit: AP Photo/John Minchillo

We are faced with a pandemic that promises to infect millions of people and kill thousands of those. What must we do to reduce the risk to all of us?

The most important thing is to isolate those who are infected by the disease. Fine: that means that we need to determine who has the virus and who doesn’t. How do we do that? Fortunately, we have a test. And how much does that test cost? “Medicare has released the prices of COVID-19 tests: $35.92 for the tests developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and $51.33 for all other commercial tests.

“The bottom line: These are the prices that labs bill Medicare. Most health insurers have waived copays for coronavirus tests, meaning you won’t have to pay anything upfront. If you receive bills for any amount, especially if they are higher than these prices, you should appeal.”

Then you also have to pay for the doctor to give you to test and evaluate the results. And if you go to an emergency room to get the test, there’s the cost for the facility.

At the end of the day, you could be paying $100 or more. And there are plenty of people in the U.S. who have no insurance and cannot afford the out of pocket expense.

Notice one thing: the fact that a person gets coronavirus and is not quarantined isn’t just a cost to the patient. It’s a cost to everyone else. Because if the patient isn’t safely quarantined, there’s a substantial risk that he’s going to pass the disease on to others. If he just goes home and his family tries to care for him, there’s a risk that the family members will get the disease. And the family members will go out into the street, buy groceries, and do normal, everyday things, and meanwhile pass the disease on to other members of the population.

The goal for the society is to make sure to test every person who appears to have the disease. If the test is positive, then someone has to care for the patient, in way so that the disease is not transmitted to the caretaker and to other people.

Let’s take an example: Joe the Barber, who is unmarried and lives by himself in a rented room in a house downtown. He doesn’t have a lot of money. He comes down with symptoms that might be caused by coronavirus. Is he going to take the infectious disease test? Maybe. Or maybe he’s put it off and go out with his buds for a Friday night beer. And meanwhile he stops off at his apartment and speaks briefly to his landlady. In other words, there’s a decent chance that he might infect one of his beer buddies or the landlady.

As a society, we want to make sure that Joe doesn’t hesitate in getting tested. If it’s going to cost $100 for the test, the doctor, and the facility, we want to be certain that Joe goes out and gets it.  

And if he’s tested positive and is told to quarantine himself, then what? He won’t be working for two weeks, and if he does come down with the disease, who’s going to take care of him? His mother? His girl friend? His landlady? None of these people are experts, and all are putting themselves at risk of catching the disease and then putting others at risk. How do we prevent the disease from spreading.

If you’re one of those people who doesn’t believe in universal healthcare, you may not believe that any of Joe’s costs should be covered by the society. But if they aren’t covered by the society, then he may not take the test at all. Or he may go through quarantine in an unsafe manner and thereby cause the disease to spread.

In other words, the cost of healthcare doesn’t just protect the patient, but potentially it protects all of us from the spread of disease. Paying that cost should be a matter of social importance.

The trouble is, we didn’t take that into account, and now we’re in the soup.

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