With the explosion of the highly transmissible omicron variant, more Californians find themselves seeking tests wherever they can find them. State and local testing sites offer free COVID-19 tests, but they are swamped, forcing people to seek private pop-up clinics.
Quick results often come with hefty upfront costs: Some clinics charge nearly $300 for a rapid PCR test.
Although state and federal regulations require COVID tests to be free or covered by health insurance, people often have to pay upfront, and the amount is unaffordable for many Californians.
Those who can’t afford to pay will often have to wait hours in line at local and state free testing sites, and then sometimes wait days for the lab results.
“There is a requirement that testing be free, but there is no requirement of how fast those test results need to be returned,” said Shira Shafir, a UCLA professor of epidemiology. “With this omicron surge, some people are again waiting four to five days for those lab results and at that point those results are essentially useless.”
Adding to the demand for quick results is that certain places demand proof of testing within a time frame of 24 to 72 hours. People need them to visit nursing and senior homes, return to day care programs or board flights to Hawaii or overseas.
Pop-up sites at California’s international airports charge upfront. At San Francisco International Airport, a rapid test is $275. At Los Angeles International Airport, a rapid PCR test with results in one hour costs $199. According to one LAX provider, Clarity Mobile Venture, debit or credit card payments are required, although a receipt is provided for insurance reimbursement. At San Diego International Airport, the cost is $135 to $165, and at Long Beach Airport, a test with 1.5-hour results costs $250.
At the Lakewood clinic where Santucci went, costs range from $129 for a rapid antigen test with one-hour results to $299 for a PCR test with two-hour results. The clinic also advertises a free standard PCR test with results in two or more days.
“With rapid tests, what people may be paying for is the guarantee of quick results,” said Shafir. “The test site is not always pitching it that way.”
PCR and antigen tests are both used to diagnose COVID-19; antigen tests can yield faster results but PCR tests are more sensitive to detecting the virus so they are considered more accurate.
Health experts say getting results quickly is vital to protecting people and avoiding long quarantines, but rapid tests have long been in short supply.
Save your receipts
Californians have an array of places where they can be tested: a hodgepodge of pharmacies, community clinics, government mass-testing sites and private pop-up sites. Many of these are free, but they are booked for weeks. Some pop-up testing sites charge upfront, creating confusion as to why, since testing is supposed to be free.
At most pharmacies and doctor's offices, providers do not charge people directly. Instead, they collect insurance information so they can be paid. But some private testing clinics charge individuals, who are then responsible for seeking reimbursement from an insurer. Claims can be filed online or sent to the insurer by mail.
But it’s not always a guarantee that they’ll get their money back.
Stacy Santucci is covered by Medicare, which covers people with disabilities. Rebecca said she did not receive a receipt after her sister’s test, but she had an email confirmation from the testing provider, Covid Clinic. When Rebecca called her sister’s Medicare plan, she was advised to print the email and send it in by snail mail, but there was no assurance she’d be reimbursed because the printed email might not suffice.