COVID assessments are sometimes free. These Pittsburghers have been disillusioned in sudden prices. – PublicSource

Mary Tremonte, an artist who lives on the north side, creates works of art in a shared studio. The small group agreed to do monthly COVID-19 tests to feel safer.

Their understanding, like many others, was that COVID tests should be free to save lives.

For two tests she conducted in December and January, she received a bill from her UPMC insurance company for $ 237.50 in early April. This filled her with a mixture of thorny emotions.

“Shock, anger, frustration,” said Tremonte. “Obviously I wouldn’t have gotten a test if I knew I’d be charged $ 100 for it.”

While the CARES Act contains provisions designed to reduce costs for people applying for COVID tests, anyone insured can still be charged if the test is not recommended by their doctor. People without insurance can also be charged on the recommendation of a doctor.

A September 2020 article in the New York Times reported that insurance did not fully cover the cost of the test 2.4% of the time. While federal dollars were intended for auditing uninsured individuals, providers are not legally required to use these funds.

Both UPMC and Highmark have charged customers for tests that are not recommended by doctors. This means that residents of the Pittsburgh area had to bear unexpected costs and make careful decisions about where – or sometimes – to get a test.

Caitlyn Arroyo-Myers’ husband heard of possible COVID exposure from its manufacture in June last year. The couple from Washington, Pennsylvania decided to have it tested at MedExpress. They had no co-payment and were not billed for their Highmark insurance.

Then, in October, they needed another test, so the couple went back to MedExpress, where they were both advised to get tested.

“And she says, ‘OK, so that’s $ 50 from each of you,” Arroyo-Myers said. I said,’ This isn’t our first COVID test and we weren’t charged the last time. Can you tell me ‘Why are we being charged now?’ And she said, “Oh, it just has to be a change in policy,” said Arroyo-Myers, “which wasn’t really an answer.”

About two weeks later, the couple received a bill in the mail: $ 50 for the man’s first test from June.

“They didn’t ask us to pay anything until after our second appointment, our second test, months later,” said Arroyo-Myers.

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MedExpress will bill patient insurance for tests, and then the insurance company will decide how much it will cover on the bill, according to the MedExpress website.

Peter Shankman, a New Yorker who hosts a popular lifestyle podcast about ADHD, tweeted in late February that he’d paid $ 305 four times to get a test for his daughter when she returns to school.

“Highmarks customer response? “You should go to a free clinic.” WT actually F? “he wrote in the tweet.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute, I thought these should be free?’ And they say, “Well, not from us”

The official Highmark Twitter account replied to Shankman, apologizing for the telephone response and promising to help him “find cheaper, more convenient alternatives” in the future.

“We also agree that billing hundreds of dollars to get a prescription for a COVID-19 test is outrageous, and it is perfectly fair to question such a bill,” Highmark tweeted Likewise.

Highmark didn’t respond to an email query from PublicSource, but according to its website, Highmark only covers doctor-recommended tests, and doctors can only recommend a test if they think you are showing symptoms of COVID.

UPMC has a similar policy that covers free testing when recommended by a licensed healthcare provider for individual diagnosis or treatment. Anyone with UPMC insurance who is billed for such tests should contact UPMC for a possible claim, a spokesman wrote to PublicSource.

Connor Hayes, 27, travels the country between California, where he goes to law school, and Mt. Lebanon. To get back to school last August, he got a test from CVS. His UPMC insurance billed him $ 39.

“I just assumed it was a public health crisis,” said Hayes. “It was capitalized, all costs related to a test visit would be covered.”

He called to file a complaint on the grounds that COVID testing should be free and eventually had the bill removed.

“I have enough credit in my checking account that I could have paid for it if I needed it, but it was kind of a principle,” said Hayes. “I want to make sure people get as many COVID tests as possible.”

For uninsured residents like 49-year-old Uptown Verna Frison, the cost is ubiquitous. After calling MedExpress, she learned that a test there would cost more than $ 200, she said.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute, I thought these should be free?’ And they say, “Well, not from us,” said Frison.

Frison eventually went to a vacant clinic in East Liberty. The Allegheny County Health Department has a permanent, free testing clinic in McKeesport and has offered free testing in other locations during the pandemic. Allegheny County residents can also dial 211 for information about tests.

And so it should be, said Frison.

“I think they should be free,” she said, “and I thought it was all part of the money that was given for the pandemic.”

Matt Petras is a freelance writer and educator based in the Pittsburgh area. He can be reached at or on Twitter @mattApetras.

This story has been verified by Megan Gent.

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