Private Labs in South Africa Voluntarily Agree to Lower Prices for COVID-19 PCR Tests following Investigation by Country’s Competition Commission
In an out-of-court settlement, two commercial clinical laboratory companies also agreed to reduce their prices for rapid antigen tests as well
How clinical laboratory companies were pricing their COVID-19 tests caught the attention of government authorities in South Africa. Government agencies in that country are establishing what they view as fair clinical laboratory pricing for private COVID-19 PCR (polymerase chain reaction) and rapid antigen tests without turning to litigation or fines.
The Competition Commission (Commission) is an organization charged with reviewing and acting on business practices in South Africa. In a December 11, 2021, news release, the Commission said it had reached a “ground-breaking agreement” with two private laboratories—Ampath and Lancet—to reduce their COVID-19 PCR test prices from 850 South African rand (R850) to R500 (from US$54.43 to US$31.97).
Also effective are lower prices for rapid antigen tests, the Commission said in a separate December 23 news release.
COVID Test Prices ‘Unfairly Inflated’
The changes in PCR test prices in South Africa followed a formal complaint by the Council for Medical Schemes which alleged the private pathology labs [the term for clinical laboratories in South Africa] were “supplying” COVID-19 PCR tests at “unfairly inflated, exorbitant, and/or unjustifiable” prices, Daily Maverick reported.
According to the Daily Maverick, as part of the investigation, which began in October 2021, the Commission asked the private clinical laboratory companies for financial statements and costs of COVID-19 testing.
“We did, then, further interrogation in order to strip out what we saw was potentially padding the costing and unrelated costs. And on the basis of that, we came to the figure of R500,” James Hodge, told the Daily Maverick. Hodge is Chief Economist, Economic Research Bureau, and Acting Deputy Commissioner at the Competition Commission South Africa.
For its part, Lancet, Johannesburg, said in a statement that it “Appreciates the spirit of constructive engagement with the Commission which has resulted in an outcome that best serves the people of South Africa as they confront the fourth COVID wave. We are sensitive to the plight of the public and agree that reducing the COVID-19 PCR price is in best national interest.”
Clinical Laboratory Test Prices: Market Dynamics
So, were the prices too high? In the US, clinical laboratories are reimbursed considerably more by Medicare for COVID-19 testing (about $100), as compared to the South Africa private clinical lab prices.
Also, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) said in a statement that effective January 2021 it included in that rate an incentive of $25 to labs that provide results within 48 hours.
Medical laboratories are reimbursed $75 for a high throughput COVID-19 test when results are reported beyond 48 hours, CMS added.
Antigen Tests Prices Also Reduced
The Commission said that during its review of COVID-19 PCR test pricing it received a Department of Health Republic of South Africa complaint about prices for rapid antigen test pricing as well.
After another Commission review, PathCare, Lancet, and Ampath agreed to reduce prices for rapid antigen tests to a maximum of R150 or $9.74 (from a range of R250 to R350 or $16.28 to $22.79), a news release noted.
“The reduction of COVID-19 rapid antigen test prices will help alleviate the plight of consumers and widen accessibility and affordability of COVID-19 rapid antigen testing, which is a critical part of the initiatives to avoid escalation of the pandemic,” said Bonakele in the news release, which also stated that the Commission would receive financial statements from the three labs every few months.
The Commission also is reviewing a “large retail pharmacy chain’s” rapid antigen prices, which “follows a complaint lodged by the Department of Health (DOH), on December 14 2021, against service providers delivering COVID-19 Rapid Antigen tests in South Africa to consumers,” Cape Town Etc reported. The specific pharmacy chain was not identified.
Data Show COVID Plight in South Africa
More than 21.6 million COVID-19 tests have been offered by healthcare providers in South Africa, and 3.5 million cases were detected, according to the Department of Health, Republic of South Africa.
In January, The New York Times reported:
- 28% of South Africans are fully vaccinated.
- 33% of residents have had one vaccine dose.
- One in 17 people was diagnosed with COVID-19.
- One in 632 had died from the infection.
- COVID-19 deaths total 92,830.
Considering those data, one wonders if the South African government acted fast enough on test pricing.
For medical laboratory leaders, it’s important to recognize that not only are lab services in the spotlight during the COVID-19 pandemic, business practices and prices also are being monitored by officials in this country.
—Donna Marie Pocius