Media reporting on disparities in COVID-19 test billing sparks renewed calls for increased transparency in medical laboratory test charges

Recent media reports of massive disparities in the prices charged for COVID-19 lab tests throughout the United States have citizens and law makers alike again calling for increased transparency in clinical laboratory test charges.

One recent example involves the New York Times (NYT), which after learning that Austin-based Gibson Diagnostic Labs (GDL) of Irving, Tex., billed a patient $2,315 for one COVID-19 test, questioned the disparity in coronavirus testing charges. The article, titled, “Most Coronavirus Tests Cost About $100. Why Did One Cost $2,315?” brought unwanted attention to the Texas clinical laboratory.

On July 16, the NYT reported that GDL, “has run some of the most expensive coronavirus tests in America.” In addition, the paper reported that health insurance companies have paid GDL $2,315 for individual COVID-19 tests, but that in “a couple of cases,” the price rose to $6,946. However, that higher amount resulted “when the lab said it mistakenly charged patients three times the base rate.”

In response to the NYT report, GDL released a statement that said, “In April 2020, a commercial insurer doing business with Gibson Diagnostic Labs inquired about the company’s pricing practices regarding COVID-19 testing. In response to the inquiry, the company conducted an internal review and identified commercial claims that were billed incorrectly by the company’s third-party biller. Because this incident did not meet our standards of quality, service, and compliance, the company terminated its relationship with the third-party biller.”

Gibson Diagnostic Labs (above) in Irving, Texas, recently drew the attention of the New York Times after, according to GDL, its third-party biller accidentally used an incorrect CPT code causing one COVID-19 test customer to receive a bill for $2,315. Further, the NYT reported that “[GDL] billed 117 tests at that price and had 23 of the claims paid in full. Some insurers paid partial reimbursements or sent back no money at all.” In a statement, GDL said it has corrected the mistake and reimbursed all affected parties. (Photo copyright: Dylan Hollingsworth/The New York Times.)

GDL Blames Third-party Biller for Errors

Responding to questions from Dark Daily, GDL provided details that were not previously reported. In an email, GDL said it worked closely with a NYT reporter by providing information about the incident, but that the reporter left out key information.

GDL also said that after the NYT’s inquiry, the lab reviewed its billing systems and learned that the CPT code for 23 COVID-19 commercial claims were transposed as a result of human error, resulting in payments totaling $53,255. The review also showed that the lab’s third-party biller had insufficient systems in place to prevent such errors.

“Upon learning this, we made the decision to terminate our contract with our third-party biller,” GDL said. “Finally, within 24-hours of identifying the billing error—and prior to the story being published—we rebilled all the claims, refunded payments to the respective payers, and followed up with each payer to ensure receipt of the corrected claims.

“Immediately after the claims were rebilled, we contacted all 205 patients who may have received an incorrect EOB [explanation of benefits], explained what happened, and apologized,” GDL stated.

Going forward, GDL said it will require its new biller to conduct regular audits each quarter and to maintain certain levels of automation and staffing to manage higher volume without disruption. GDL also said it regrets the disruption and inconvenience the billing error caused to its clients and patients.

Lessons for Clinical Laboratories

For clinical laboratories, there are at least four lessons that can be learned from GDL’s experience:

  • First, labs should be aware of how their own charges for all tests compare with what other labs charge, particularly when charging patients for high-profile tests, such as those for the new coronavirus. What Medicare and other payers charge for these tests has been reported widely, so that many patients are likely aware of the reasonable and customary charges for such tests.
  • Second, clinical labs may want to note that charging high prices for these tests could lead health insurers to increase their scrutiny of lab charges. The NYT article quoted Angela Meoli, a senior vice president at Aetna, saying, “We’ve seen a small number of laboratories that are charging egregious prices for COVID-19 tests.”
  • Third, coverage in the NYT often leads other publications to cover the same story. In this case, Kaiser Health News (KHN) and other news organizations have reported on what GDL charged and linked that story to their coverage of surprise medical bills.
  • Fourth, GDL recommends responding appropriately to journalists’ inquiries. However, lab should be aware that, even then, the news media may not report the facts as labs would prefer.

All of these lessons are important during the COVID-19 pandemic, because newspapers and other news organizations have encouraged consumers to submit copies of their lab tests and other bills. Such examples of charges above normal rates often generate unwanted coverage for hospitals, health systems, healthcare providers, and in this case, a clinical diagnostic laboratory.

All of this may be academic for those clinical laboratory managers and pathologists who scrupulously follow appropriate laws and guidelines for coding, billing, and collecting for clinical lab tests of all types—not just the COVID-19 test. But, year after year, there are individuals who operate certain clinical laboratories and who are willing to push their compliance with long-established laws and regulations for short-term profit. When these abusive lab practices surface and attract the attention of both federal prosecutors and national news media, it is the entire clinical laboratory profession that gets characterized in negative ways.

Certainly, many medical laboratory professionals would agree that the system of enforcing federal and state laws and pursuing obvious cases of fraudulent practices involving clinical lab testing leaves much to be desired. However, there are already several examples of federal prosecutors charging lab owners and managers for violating fraud and anti-kickback statutes in their marketing of COVID-19 tests. Hopefully the national news media will be effective in spotting illegal practices involving COVID-19 testing and bring more transparency to the lab testing marketplace.

—Joe Burns

Related Information:

Public Statement from Gibson Diagnostic Labs

Most Coronavirus Tests Cost About $100. Why Did One Cost $2,315?

Coronavirus Testing Costs Provide Perfect Example of Flaws Baked into America’s Health System

Why Your Coronavirus Test Could Cost $23—Or $2,315

Some Labs Charging Insurers ‘Egregious’ Amounts for COVID-19 Tests, Aetna Says

From Mid-March, Labs Saw Big Drop in Revenue