The high prices of home COVID-19 tests are hitting the wallets of American families who need it to return to school and work – if they can find it to buy.
A restaurant worker in New York City said she paid an acquaintance double the retail price in a sidewalk swap for a test kit. A Missouri mother said she was rationing her last two pack if her children were showing severe symptoms. Another parent keeps their daughter home from school, where tests are required before returning after the holidays, until an in-person date later this week, as the $ 80 price tag she has seen in online community groups was too high.
Digital markets are listing BinaxNOW kits – which include two tests – for up to $ 75, about three times what they cost at many major retailers. In a December statement warning of price hikes, New York Attorney General Letitia James said two-priced packs typically between $ 14 and $ 25 sell for up to $ 70 per package.
“The danger in health care is that for any product that saves lives, it is vulnerable to price hikes” because most people would pay anything to save the life of a loved one, he said. epidemiologist and health economist Eric Feigl-Ding in a series of tweets. about the high prices of home tests.
This desperation comes as COVID-19 cases hit record highs in the United States, contributing to long lines at test sites and skyrocketing demand for home kits. The United States has largely left the production and sale of the tests to the private market, which is not in abundance.
While the updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations do not require people to test negative before returning to work after contracting the virus, some employers require this step from their workers anyway, adding on demand. At the same time, parents say they aim to have tests on hand because they fear their children will catch the virus in school.
The situation has led some to take unconventional avenues to obtain tests. The employee of a New York City restaurant group said she and her colleagues recently paid $ 180 for four test kits following potential exposure to COVID-19. She got the tests from someone who got them free from her employer. She said she felt scammed but paid because she needed it.
Melanie Gall, a musician in New York City, said she recently paid $ 37 at an independent drugstore for a QuickVue kit, which includes two tests and sells in chains for around $ 24. This was after she “charmed” her way up the store list to call customers when the tests were in stock.
Gall said the only way it was safe to work in the studio with other musicians was for everyone to test regularly, which was easy before the Omicron Wave. âThey were so readily available that we didn’t think about storing them like we were during the London Blitz days,â she said.
The relative scarcity of tests in the United States stands in stark contrast to the situation in some European countries, where they are free and easy to find. “In many other countries, home testing is much more ubiquitous, much more varied across brands, and has less cost,” Amesh Adalja, senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, said in an email. . âThe more affordable and accessible the tests, the more frequently they will be used. “
President Joe Biden said last month that 500 million free home tests would be sent to Americans’ doors, but they have yet to arrive. The administration previously made deals with big retailers like Walmart Inc. and Kroger Co. to sell tests at lower prices, but that deal just expired. Some cities give out free tests, but they run out quickly.
So, at least for now, American consumers face an unpredictable test market where prices are sometimes frustrating and even prohibitive.
Online medical device retailer WeShield, which sells BinaxNOW kits for around $ 50, says its own suppliers have recently increased their prices by more than 100% due to extremely limited availability. Two weeks ago, WeShield was selling the same kits at lower prices than the big drugstore chains charge.
“We had to make the choice not to sell any tests, to sell at a significant loss that would bankrupt our business, or to offer test kits at market price and let our customers decide if they want to buy.” , said CEO Michael Sinensky. in an email.
âWe are always supplied and have to continually adjust prices up or down depending on availability and prices for us,â he added.
While testing is considered a qualifying medical expense that can be paid for through flexible health spending arrangements or health savings accounts, this does not apply if you purchase it from someone else.
And it’s unclear exactly how or if people like Gall will be able to get reimbursed by private insurance for over-the-counter testing. The White House has said advice on this will come this month.
Companies like WeShield recognize that adding more testing – whether from the White House or accelerated production from private companies – will ease supply pressure and lower prices. Progress has already been made: The Biden administration announced more than $ 3 billion to expand rapid virus testing last fall, and said this week that more than 200 million per month are now available, against around 50 million per month in September.
For its part, Abbott Laboratories, which makes the BinaxNOW kits, said in an emailed statement that it performs 70 million tests per month, with the intention of exceeding that. The company says it has not increased the price of its test since its launch, although prices at retailers may have increased, as under the now expired Walmart and Kroger deal.
Kelsey Butler, Bloomberg News