How to save money on pricey rapid COVID-19 PCR tests

Jan 4, 2022

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If you tried to get a COVID-19 test in recent weeks, there’s a good chance you didn’t have much luck.

A surge driven by the omicron variant has testing facilities and hospitals strained. In New York City, where I live, it’s not uncommon to see blocks-long lines for COVID-19 testing.

Even if you can get a test, be prepared for a wait. Some locations are reporting turnaround times between five and seven days. Unfortunately, that probably won’t work if you’re trying to get a test for travel, as many international destinations require tests to be taken within a specific time frame before departure.

Fortunately, there are rapid PCR tests, which promise the accuracy of a PCR test with the turnaround time of a rapid antigen test. But they aren’t cheap. Here’s why you’ll likely pay a small fortune for one – and how you can save money on your next test.

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Why rapid PCR tests are so expensive

(Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)

First, you’re probably familiar with a regular PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test, considered the “gold standard” of COVID-19 testing. You’re also likely familiar with rapid antigen tests, which check for proteins on the surface of the virus to see if you’re currently infected with COVID-19.

But if you’re having trouble finding either test or can’t wait days for results, there’s another option.

To cope with travel demand, some testing facilities have introduced “rapid PCR tests,” where you can receive your results after just 30 minutes. These tests ​are still the most reliable for detecting active COVID-19 infections. But they can cost you hundreds of dollars.

Rapid PCR tests are expensive for a very simple reason: Demand.

Often, these tests are marketed to busy travelers in a hurry who don’t want to wait for results or risk not getting them in time for travel. And, given how difficult it’s been to get COVID-19 tested lately, demand is only bound to increase.

Because of this, many facilities charge out of pocket for expedited processing and not to your insurance or through the CARES Act. The result is a vast divide between the price for regular PCR testing (which is often covered by insurance) and rapid PCR tests. Additionally, many insurance companies don’t cover COVID-19 testing for travel purposes, so some facilities only accept self-pay.

Where to find a rapid PCR test

(Photo by RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

If you decide a rapid PCR test is right for you, you’ll want to find a facility that offers the service. Here are some rapid PCR testing options nationwide and whether they accept insurance:

  • COVIDCheck in San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Denver. Results in six hours for RT-PCR tests. Cost: $349 (not billed to insurance).
  • Complete Health Partners in Nashville, Tennessee. Results in 30 to 45 minutes. Cost: $250 (not billed to insurance).
  • DMCovid-19 Test offers travel PCR testing by housecall nationwide in all states except Alaska and Hawaii; it also has nine physical locations. Cost: Price varies by location and whether it’s in-home or in the office (not billed to insurance)
  • Elite Medical Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. Results in 24 hours. Cost: $250 (not billed to insurance).
  • Frontage Laboratory in Exton, Pennsylvania (35 minutes from Philadelphia). Offers COVID-19 tests for travelers within six hours. Cost: $203 for an RT-PCR test (You may submit a receipt to your insurance company to be reimbursed at a minimum of $100).
  • Medical Offices of Manhattan in New York City, New York. Same-day results. Cost: $175 for the test, which doesn’t include doctor consultation. (Self-pay, but the consultation is covered by most major insurance providers).
  • Saguaro Bloom in Scottsdale, Arizona. Offers 24-hour and 90-minute turnaround for RT-PCR testing. Cost: $299 for 90-minute turnaround and $149 for 24-hour turnaround. (Self-pay, but 24-hour turnaround option can be submitted to insurance).
  • Test Well in Reno, Nevada, and South Lake Tahoe, California. Offers RT-PCR tests for travel with guaranteed same-day results. The cost is $149 for travel purposes (but you can file a claim with your insurance for reimbursement).
  • Urgent Medical Care and MRI in Jersey City, New Jersey. Results in an hour or less only for travelers who need documentation. Cost: $300 (not billed to insurance).
  • Venistat Mobile Labs in New York, New York. Offers RT-PCR test results in less than 24 hours. Cost: $125 when using insurance, $190 without insurance.
  • WeTestU in San Diego, California. Offers mobile RT-PCR testing for travel. Cost: $159 for 24-hour turnaround, $199 for 24-hour turnaround, $259 for same-day (eight hour) turnaround, $329 for a one-hour turnaround. (Not billed to insurance, but the facility will provide you with an invoice to send to your insurance for reimbursement.)
  • Worksite Labs offers PCR test results guaranteed within 24 hours near 20 U.S. airports. Cost: $90 (and U.S. insurance is accepted for standard and express tests).

How to save money on a rapid PCR test

(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As you can see above, the convenience of rapid PCR testing can quickly become expensive, especially if you’re on a budget or traveling with family who all need a COVID-19 test. But there are ways to save money on a potentially expensive cost.

File an insurance claim

Generally, your health insurance plan won’t be much help until you submit for reimbursement, so you’ll have to fork up the money for a rapid PCR test upfront. But before you bill your insurance, you’ll want to make sure the testing facility gives you an invoice, or superbill, that includes two very important codes.

WeTestU, a testing service in San Diego, says travelers should seek reimbursement by forwarding the order invoice that includes the diagnosis and CPT test codes. A diagnosis code is used in medical billing to describe a patient’s medical condition. A CPT code, a five-digit numeric code, is used to describe a patient’s medical procedures.

Find a promo code

Everyone loves a good discount, and facilities like Elite Medical Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, have offered discounts on testing services in the past. There’s no discount at the moment, but it may be helpful to check back frequently or bookmark web pages of facilities you plan to visit if you expect to frequently require rapid PCR testing.

Bottom line

Rapid PCR tests are expensive, and the likelihood of prices decreasing is slim, especially as the omicron variant spreads and travel demand increases. However, visiting a cheaper facility, finding a discount code and remembering to always bill your insurance for the service are easy ways to bring the cost down.

Featured photo by Jackyenjoyphotography/Getty Images

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