The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the new influx of money to the states on May 18. In a news release outlining the initiative, the HHS said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will deliver $10.25 billion to states, territories, and local jurisdictions to expand testing capacity and testing-related activities.
To qualify for the additional funding, governors or “designee of each State, locality, territory, tribe, or tribal organization receiving funds” must submit to HHS its plan for COVID-19 testing, including goals for the remainder of calendar year 2020, to include:
“Number of tests needed, month-by-month to include diagnostic, serological, and other tests, as appropriate;
“Month-by-month estimates of laboratory and testing capacity, including related to workforce, equipment and supplies, and available tests;
“Description of how the resources will be used for testing, including easing any COVID-19 community mitigation policies.”
Funding Should Go Directly to Clinical Laboratories, Says ACLA
The American Clinical Laboratory Association (ACLA), argues the funding needs to go directly to clinical laboratories to help offset the “significant investments” labs have made to ramp up testing capacity during the pandemic.
“Direct federal funding for laboratories performing COVID-19 testing is critical to meet the continued demand for testing,” ACLA President Julie Khani, MPA, said in a statement. “Across the country, laboratories have made significant investments to expand capacity, including purchasing new platforms, retraining staff, and managing the skyrocketing cost of supplies. To continue to make these investments and expand patient access to high-quality testing in every community, laboratories will need designated resources. Without sustainable funding, we cannot achieve sustainable testing.”
Some States Are Increasing Testing, While Others Are Not
Since the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in January, the United States has slowly but significantly ramped up testing capacity. As reported in the Washington Post, states such as Georgia, Oklahoma, and Utah are encouraging residents to get tested even if they are not experiencing coronavirus symptoms. But other states have maintained more restrictive testing policies, even as their testing capacity has increased.
“A lot of states put in very, very restrictive testing policies … because they didn’t have any tests. And they’ve either not relaxed those or the word is not getting out,” Ashish Jha, MD, MPA, Director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told the Washington Post. “We want to be at a point where everybody who has mild symptoms is tested. That is critical. That is still not happening in a lot of places.”
On May 18, Quest announced it had performed approximately 2.15 million COVID-19 molecular diagnostic tests since March 9 and had a diagnostic capability of 70,000 test each day. The company said it expected to have the capacity to perform 100,000 tests a day in June.
LabCorp’s website lists its molecular test capacity at more than 75,000 tests per day as of May 22, with a capacity for conducting at least 200,000 antibody tests per day. Unlike molecular testing that detects the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, antibody tests detect proteins produced by the body in response to a COVID-19 infection.
As states reopen, and hospitals and healthcare systems resume elective surgeries and routine office visits, clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups should begin to see a return to normal specimen flow. Nonetheless, the federal government should continue to compensate laboratories performing COVID-19 testing for the added costs associated with meeting the ongoing and growing demand.
“We need to deliver five million tests per day by early June to deliver a safe social reopening,” the report’s authors state. “This number will need to increase over time (ideally by late July) to 20 million a day to fully remobilize the economy. We acknowledge that even this number may not be high enough to protect public health. In that considerably less likely eventuality, we will need to scale-up testing much further. By the time we know if we need to do that, we should be in a better position to know how to do it. In any situation, achieving these numbers depends on testing innovation.”
The report is the work of a diverse group of experts in economics, public health, technology, and ethics, from major universities and big technology companies (Apple, Microsoft) with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.
Under Harvard’s Roadmap plan, massive-scale testing would involve rapid development of:
Streamlined sample collection (for example) involving saliva samples (spit kits) rather than deep nasal swabs that have to be taken by healthcare workers;
Transportation logistics systems able to rapidly collect and distribute samples for testing;
Mega-testing labs, each able to perform in the range of one million tests per day, with automation, streamlined methods, and tightly managed supply chains;
Information systems to rapidly transmit test results; and
Technology necessary to certify testing status.
“The unique value of this approach is that it will prevent cycles of opening up and shutting down,” Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America, said in the statement. “It allows us to mobilize and re-open progressively the parts of the economy that have been shut down, protect our frontline workers, and contain the virus to levels where it can be effectively managed and treated until we can find a vaccine.”
Is Expanding Clinical Laboratory Testing Even Possible?
But is such a plan realistic? Perhaps not. When questioned by NBC News about the timeline for “broad-based coronavirus testing” that was suggested as part of the Trump Administration’s three-phase plan to reopen the states, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, said, “We’re not going to be there. We’re not going to be there in May, we’re not going to be there in June, hopefully, we’ll be there by September.”
In recent weeks, however, US testing capabilities have improved. Quest Diagnostics, which had come under fire for its testing backlog in California, announced it now has the capacity to perform 50,000 diagnostic COVID-19 tests per day or 350,000 tests per week with less than a two-day turnaround for results. “Our test capacity outpaces demand and we have not experienced a test backlog for about a week,” Quest said in a statement.
CDC ‘Modifies’ Its Guidelines for Declaring a Person ‘Recovered’ from COVID-19
Furthermore, the CDC modified its guidance on the medical and testing criteria that must be met for a person to be considered recovered from COVID-19, which initially required two negative test results before a patient could be declared “confirmed recovered” from the virus. The CDC added a non-testing strategy that allowed states to begin counting “discharged” patients who did not have easy access to additional testing as recovered from the virus.
Under the non-test-based strategy, a person may be considered recovered if:
At least three days (72 hours) have passed since recovery, defined as resolution of fever without the use of fever-reducing medications;
Improvement in respiratory symptoms (e.g., cough, shortness of breath); and,
At least seven days have passed since symptoms first appeared.
For now, however, the focus will likely remain on testing for those who are infected, rather than for finding those who have recovered. As of May 30, the COVID Tracking Project reported that only 16,495,443 million tests had been conducted in the US, with 1,759,693 of those test showing positive for COVID-19. That’s closing in on the 10% “test-positivity rate” recommended by the WHO for controlling a pandemic, but it’s not quite there.
As testing for COVID-19 grows exponentially, clinical laboratories should anticipate playing an increasingly important role in the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Recent studies exploring the economics behind the high price of US healthcare independently point to the price of labor, goods, services, administrative costs, and pharmaceuticals as primary reason why the US spends almost twice as much as peer countries on healthcare
It is regularly reported that the cost of healthcare in the United States is notably more expensive that in most developed nations. Overutilization of medical services in this country is often given as a reason why this is true. But the findings of a new research study suggest that the reason healthcare in the US is expensive is not due to overutilization. Rather, it is because of the much higher prices American patients pay for services, including clinical laboratory testing.
This recent study contradicts the claims of some experts who say overutilization is to blame for the high cost of healthcare in the United States. The research was conducted by researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in Seattle and the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. They attribute the overarching factor in high healthcare costs not to high utilization of services—such as clinical laboratory and anatomic pathology testing—or increased rates of illness.
Instead, the researchers found that it’s simply a matter of higher prices for healthcare delivered in this nation, compared to other healthcare systems around the globe. This is what makes America’s healthcare system so expensive. And, lacking financial incentives for stakeholders to lower prices, these researchers suggest that continued high costs could negatively impact providers’ quality of care.
High Cost of Diagnostic Services, including Medical Laboratory Testing
Joseph L. Dieleman, PhD, Assistant Professor at IHME and lead researcher on the investigation, stated, “After adjustments for price inflation, annual healthcare spending on inpatient, ambulatory, retail pharmaceutical, nursing facility, emergency department, and dental care increased by $933.5 billion between 1996 and 2013—from $1.2 trillion to $2.1 trillion.”
Data produced by the study identified one overlying factor in increased spending—increased prices. According to Dieleman, health spending in 2015 “reached $3.2 trillion and constituted 17.8% of the US economy.”
In an editorial response to Dieleman’s investigation, also published in JAMA, Patrick H. Conway, MD, MSc (above), President and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina in Durham, stated that “the United States is on an unsustainable growth path in terms of healthcare costs and must get costs under control.” He added that data from Dieleman’s study has important implications for quality of healthcare, which may include medical laboratory diagnostics. (Photo copyright: Duke University.)
Price Spirals and Artificial Price Hikes: No Real Incentive for Regulation
Pricing for medical care is notoriously opaque. Patients are often unaware of the cost of services until the bill arrives. This lack of transparency prevents patients from comparing prices between healthcare providers and medical laboratories.
To try and create some cost transparency for consumers, Conway noted that some states, such as Maryland and Vermont, have adopted multi-payer payment models or all-payer rate settings. However, there could be resistance to such reforms, according to some experts.
Lemer uses the cost of a routine blood test as an example, stating that when providers raise costs of such tests, “insurers can charge higher premiums, while also boosting the value of their 20% share,” which goes “towards administrative costs and profits.”
Lemer argues that the deck is stacked against consumers, and that the medical loss ratio “encourages insurers to ignore providers” artificial price hikes,” while attracting customers “with the promise of steep discounts through their PPO plans.” The resulting affect is what Lemer calls a “price spiral” that’s difficult to escape.
In comparison to 10 other high-income countries the US spends “approximately twice as much,” Papanicolas noted. She added that despite the higher spending in the US, the nation “performs poorly in areas such as healthcare coverage and health outcomes.”
To illustrate the difference in average costs, Papanicolas and colleagues listed “comparison prices” on a series of healthcare services between countries in 2013. For example, the price of a single computed tomography (CT) scan varies widely:
$279 (Netherlands); and,
The high prices of clinical laboratory (AKA, pathology laboratory in Australia) diagnostics have already caused a sharp decline in the use of important imaging utilization and are at risk of affecting other aspects of clinical pathology, such as anatomic pathology (histopathology in AU) services.
PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Health Research Institute’s annual medical cost report predicts 2018 medical costs will rise by 6.5% and that “price continues to be a major driver of healthcare costs” that are outpacing the economy. PwC recommends “increasing collaboration across the industry” to address the growing issue of rising medical costs and shift the burden of cost away from patients.
Clinical Laboratories Contribute to High Costs
Although US healthcare cost is a topic of intense conversation, little change may come if there is no incentive to change. Each of the recent JAMA published articles ends on the same repeated note: a plea for active debate among policy makers, healthcare providers, patients, insurers, and politicians, with the goal of decreasing healthcare costs, without sacrificing patient care.
This is also true for clinical laboratory and anatomic pathology stakeholders, which are critical aspects of the healthcare continuum, and therefore, contribute to the overall financial burden on healthcare consumers.