By Jay Hancock and Hannah Norman

May 7, 2021

Pamela Valfer needed multiple covid tests after repeatedly visiting the hospital last fall to see her mother, who was being treated for cancer. Beds there were filling with covid patients. Valfer heard the tests would be free.So, she was surprised when the testing company billed her insurer $250 for each swab. She feared she might receive a bill herself. And that amount is toward the low end of what some hospitals and doctors have collected.

Hospitals are charging up to $650 for a simple, molecular covid test that costs $50 or less to run, according to Medicare claims analyzed for KHN by Hospital Pricing Specialists (HPS). Charges by large health systems range from $20 to $1,419 per test, a new national survey by KFF shows. And some free-standing emergency rooms are charging more than $1,000 per test.

Authorities were saying “get tested, no one’s going to be charged, and it turns out that’s not true,” said Valfer, a professor of visual arts who lives in Pasadena, California. “Now on the back end it’s being passed onto the consumer” through high charges to insurers, she said. The insurance company passes on its higher costs to consumers in higher premiums.

As the pandemic enters its second year, no procedure has been more frequent than tests for the virus causing it. Gargantuan volume — 400 million tests and counting, for one type — combined with loose rules on prices have made the service a bonanza for hospitals and clinics, new data shows.

Lab companies have been booking record profits by charging $100 per test. Even in-network prices negotiated and paid by insurance companies often run much more than that and, according to one measure, have been rising on average in recent months.

Insurers and other payers “have no bargaining power in this game” because there is no price cap in some situations, said Ge Bai, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who has studied test economics. When charges run far beyond the cost of the tests “it’s predatory,” she said. “It’s price gouging.”

The data shows that covid tests continue to generate high charges from hospitals and clinics despite alarms raised by insurers, anecdotal reports of high prices and pushback from state regulators.

The listed charge for a basic PCR covid test at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles is $480. NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital lists $440 as the gross charge as well as the cash price. Those amounts are far above the $159 national average for the diagnostic test, which predominated during the first year of the pandemic, at more than 3,000 hospitals checked by HPS.

That’s the amount billed to insurance companies, not what patients pay, Cedars spokesperson Cara Martinez said in an email.

“Patients themselves do not face any costs” for the tests, she said. “The amounts we charge [insurers] for medical care are set to cover our operating costs,” capital needs and other items, she said.