Arizona's largest COVID-19 tester may have to shut down from lack of CARES Act funding

Arizona's top tester of COVID-19 is nearing a shutdown because they say they've received no CARES Act funding from the state, but the lack of funding is seemingly about to change.

On Jan. 10, thousands of Arizonans were tested for COVID-19 at Embry Women’s Health testing sites. As the state's largest tester, they can handle up to 18,000 patients a day.

"We are the only entity that essentially built a McDonald’s in the middle of nowhere for a public good without any idea how we’re going to get paid on it," said Raymond Embry, CEO of Embry Health and TestNow.

Embry feared he'd have to close testing sites at the height of the pandemic because, he says, they couldn't pay the staff working there anymore.

"I simply don’t know how they’re going to receive a paycheck the week after next because I’ve given everything I have to support this effort," Embry said. 

Many of Embry’s 60 testing site locations throughout the state are 24/7, like the one at Phoenix College. Of the state's 3.4 million COVID-19 tests taken so far, Embry is responsible for nearly 25% of those tests.

Despite conducting a fourth of the state's tests, Embry says they haven’t received any CARES Act money.

"Many of them don’t realize how grave the situation is," Embry said. "Many of them believe - rightfully so - that operations through the state of Arizona is being funded by the CARES Act dollars that is coming into Arizona. But at the end of the day, that could not be further from the truth."

In a letter to stakeholders obtained by FOX 10, Embry Health says it may either have to close sites or start charging to stay open.

FOX 10 reached out to the governor’s office. They didn’t comment, but referred us to the Dept. of Health Services, which said in a statement:

"We have been in discussions with Embry about other potential ways to ensure that testing remains widely available to Arizonans. ADHS has no active contract with Embry. "

The department stressed that testing is reimbursed by health insurance providers, but Embry says it doesn’t cover the overhead costs. Plus, he says insurance reimbursement has been down 85% since May.

On Jan. 12, AZDHS says they're working with Embry to find a solution to keep testing open and available. But Embry says he hasn’t had any conversations with the state this week.

"We’re working to provide them with staffing resources and potential funding to identify like how we can help them," said Dr. Cara Christ, director of AZDHS.

Embry says the work they're doing is essential and believes it's only right to help in the pandemic, even without funding. "We believe the things we’re doing now are essential to the state of Arizona and Arizonans and we believe we’re doing what is right even though the financial resources have not been provided to us to do so."

Embry is hopeful about Christ’s comments and hopes AZDHS delivers on that it would keep the sites open.

Embry tells FOX 10 they won’t be able to make the next payroll so the timing here is very important. He said the rural locations are most at risk to keep open because they cost so much to keep open.

"It’s become abundantly clear that we cannot rely on a single government authority," Embry said.

The Phoenix mayor's office says they haven’t received a request for funding from Embry and said they’re set to meet next week on testing expansion, not closure.

"If they value the services we’re providing, things need to change," he said.

FOX 10 has reached out to some of the other municipalities where Embry has testing locations, but hasn’t heard back on if they would consider providing the federal funding they’ve received to keep the sites operational.

Dr. Will Humble with the Arizona Public Health Association says Embry shouldn’t have to fight for funding. "It makes no sense to me especially when there are millions of dollars of CARES Act money sitting in the bank ready for use for specifically these types of purposes."

He pointed to Embry’s response when the state faced massive testing challenges last summer, saying, "Well the cavalry came in and it was Embry and that’s who bailed us out in large part. They put their business model on the line and trusted the state to make responsible decisions."

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