Medical Examiner

Uninsured Americans Could Be Faced With a Slew of New COVID-19 Expenses

Funding for more critical supplies is stalled in Congress. Here’s how much tests, treatment, and vaccines could cost out of pocket.

A light blue surgical masks covers a 10, 20, 100, and 1 dollar bill fanned out on a wooden table.
The pandemic might get a lot pricier for individuals. Bermix Studio/Unsplash

Keeping yourself and others safe during a pandemic can be rather expensive, from purchasing masks to covering hospital expenses. It’s about to get pricier: Soon, Americans might be individually paying out of pocket to access critical medical tools that the government had covered or subsidized.

Federal funding for measures to fight the COVID-19 pandemic is currently stalling in Congress, meaning that some Americans are going to have to go it alone to an even greater extent. The COVID-19 Uninsured Program stopped accepting reimbursement claims for testing and treatment on March 22, citing the current funding stalemate in Congress. They’ll also stop accepting claims to reimburse vaccine administration on April 5 if Congress can’t come to an agreement. (And if you’ve already submitted a claim and gotten a confirmation, that doesn’t guarantee you’ll actually be reimbursed.) Currently, the government cannot pay for monoclonal antibody treatments either and says that they do not have money to cover second booster shots for everyone.

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If you’re uninsured, then the costs of testing and treatment can be quite high. Here’s what uninsured Americans can expect to pay without support.

PCR testing: Quest Diagnostics told ABC News that a nonsubsidized PCR test could cost $125 for an uninsured American. That adds up quickly: If you get tested once a week, whether because of work policy or a series of exposures, that’s about $500 per month.

The $125 figure is actually on the lower end of what a PCR test can cost out of pocket. As Consumer Reports reported back in January, PCR testing can be kind of a wild west. Depending on what service you use, the average cost per test is about $130 with insurance … and more than $185 without. The highest price Consumer Reports mentions is upward of a thousand dollars. If you’re uninsured, you’re going to want to do your homework and call the company ahead of time to make sure you’re not surprised by how much you pay. If they refuse to tell you, get tested somewhere else.

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Home rapid testing: The cost of home testing also varies by which test you decide to get. The Abbott BinaxNOW test can cost $20 to $24 for a pack of two tests. The Quidel QuickVue test costs $24 for a pack of two as well. Finally, the iHealth test costs $18 for a pack of two. Now would be a good time to order a free pack of four home tests from the federal government (each household can place two orders).

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Vaccines: The government still has a supply of vaccines, which are provided for free—but the vaccines themselves aren’t the only cost associated with getting the shot. Currently, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services is reimbursing providers about $40 for each shot of the vaccine they administer to cover the labor involved.

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And what’s the cost for the vaccine if Americans are left to pay for doses of the vaccine themselves—say, if there’s another variant or if additional booster doses are recommended? Jessica Justman, an associate professor of medicine in epidemiology at Columbia University, told me that while it’s hard to imagine federal support completely evaporating in the near future, the cost to consumers could be around what the companies are charging wealthier countries per dose. (A BMJ report says that the United States is paying about $15 per dose for Moderna, $19.50 per dose for Pfizer. Fierce Pharma reports that Johnson & Johnson is pricing their vaccine at $10 per dose.) However, there’s no guarantee that this will hold true if consumers are to be expected to pay for their own vaccines.

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Like so many aspects of medical care, it’s difficult to just ask a provider or manufacturer for a sticker price—though I tried. Pfizer told me that this is a question for the government. Neither Moderna nor Janssen (the vaccine development arm of Johnson & Johnson) responded to my requests before the publication of this article. The Food and Drug Administration told me to ask the Department of Health and Human Services, which also did not respond to my requests. CVS said that “We are fully confident the administration and Congress will find a solution to help ensure people without insurance continue to have access to COVID-19 testing, vaccines and treatment.” Walgreens told me something similar.

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Treatments: Monoclonal antibody treatments can be pretty expensive, but up until now, the U.S. government has been paying for them. It’s unclear how much bebtelovimab, a monoclonal antibody made by Eli Lilly, costs per infusion, but its predecessor (which has since been discontinued due to lack of effectiveness against omicron) cost $1,250 per dose. (Eli Lilly did not respond to my request for a number on how much bebtelovimab costs before this article’s publication.) Sotrovimab, a GlaxoSmithKline monoclonal antibody, costs $2,100.

Antiviral treatments aside from antibody treatments are currently provided free of charge, but that status is also at risk due to the congressional stalemate. The government paid about $530 per treatment course of Paxlovid, Pfizer’s COVID pill. Molnupiravir, Merck’s less popular COVID pill, cost the U.S. government about $700 per treatment course.

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