Arizona's largest COVID-19 testing provider closes dozens of sites after federal funding for uninsured ends

It's about to get much more expensive for the uninsured to be tested for COVID-19.

Since funding was not passed by lawmakers in Washington, one thing is no longer possible as a result – reimbursing providers for testing people who are uninsured.

"We are extremely distraught and disappointed because, for the first time in the pandemic, we do not have confidence in one of the most crucial tools available which is testing," said Raymond Embry, the CEO of Arizona's largest COVID-19 testing provider, Embry Health.

Embry said he was concerned about this because 50% of patients at Embry are uninsured. The funding officially ended March 22.

Embry Health expects to see fewer people coming in for testing as a result, which means they are closing the sites and fewer people will get tested. "If patients stop getting tested, we are not going to know what is going on, and we are going to be caught off guard," Embry said.

For the last six weeks, Embry says statewide, it's testing 3,000 people a day.

The White House previously announced it's running out of money to cover testing for people who are uninsured after Congress got rid of the proposed $22.5 billion in pandemic funding. This comes as cases and hospitalizations continue to drop in Arizona and some testing sites have no wait time.

Embry began paying out of pocket for uninsured patients, but that's also come to an end and a PCR or antibody test now will cost $100 as of April 5.

"Providing services without guaranteed payment from the federal government, Embry Health, Embry Laboratories, and the other laboratories we work with such as Sonora Quest, is taking decisive leadership steps to ensure we don't stop testing the uninsured. We are going to take the financial risk of continuing to provide this testing to parents, even the uninsured patients, while funding is sorted out in Washington," Embry previously said.

Because the government has already given out so many at-home testing kits, Will Humble, Executive Director for the Arizona Public Health Association, doesn't consider free access to testing sites a top priority right now.

"I just don't see testing being a huge issue because the rapid antigen tests are in such good supply, they are still free, you can order up to four, and they don't have an expiration date," Humble said.

On April 5, Embry says he sent a letter to Congress saying, in part, "I am writing to ask for your support to continue funding the HRSA program to ensure Arizonans and Americans have access to reliable and effective COVID-19 testing. Numerous studies have shown that easy access to affordable or free COVID-19 testing is our best defense to controlling the pandemic. Now more than ever, we are in dire need of the HRSA program to continue protecting the public. If Congress does not approve the current deal approved by the Senate, it is the same as declaring victory over COVID-19, and I think we can all agree the war is far from over."

Ending funding for uninsured people will majorly impact those living in rural parts of Arizona, including Page, Naco, Benson and Safford.

He goes on to say that the lack of funding also impacts the thousands of employees who were hired during the pandemic.

"Embry has offered employment to more than 2,000 Arizonans throughout the pandemic who served as essential front-line healthcare workers when the economy was shutting down due to the virus. We must keep this resource available to defeat and control this pandemic truly. Reinstatement of funding to the HRSA program is vital to the health and safety of millions of Americans, especially our communities here in Arizona. Providing affordable and accessible healthcare for all is crucial to our community and us, and we hope you see the importance of our vision," Embry said.

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