COVID Is Here To Stay. Let's Stop Pretending Those 'Free Tests' Are Free.

The cost of 'free' tests is really going up when you look at insurance premiums.


The consensus among scientists and lawmakers after two years of pandemic mayhem is that COVID-19 is officially endemic. That's good news for those of us looking to move on with our lives, but it also means it's time for society to make some changes. Let's start with doing away with free COVID tests. 

Free testing did help us get the pandemic under control, but now it's driving health care spending to new levels and ruining families' economic prospects as a result. After all, free tests aren't free—they're funded by taxes and fast-rising insurance premiums.

Under the two COVID-19 emergency measures passed by Congress, private insurers have been required to cover tests ordered by health care providers, with few exceptions. PCR tests cost over $100 without insurance, but generally, insurance companies pay much more for them. Cameron Kaplan from California reported that his insurance disbursed $1,140 a month for his daughter's weekly tests. Last year, my insurance paid more than $300 for a test. 

Contrast this with the fact that, in 2019, half of Americans spent less than $375 worth of health care services total. By just getting two PCR tests during the pandemic years, 50 percent of Americans are spending more on health care than they usually would in a year.

Just last month, the Department of Labor required private insurers to cover eight at-home tests per month. Being privately insured under this new rule means people are eligible for a new benefit worth $1,152 a year. All those tests could come without out-of-pocket costs, but insurance has to pay for them somehow. High insurance price hikes are likely to come at the worst possible time as the average yearly insurance premiums for families already reached $22,000 in 2021.

Critics were quick to point out that seniors were left out of this mandate, so a few weeks later, CMS mandated coverage of tests for Medicare beneficiaries.

Coverage mandates made some sense at the beginning of the pandemic, but they're now outdated and simply unaffordable, especially if COVID is here to stay.

Testing for endemic diseases such as strep throat and pneumonia allows health care providers to provide appropriate treatment. But testing for COVID-19 is fundamentally different since it served as a way to justify quarantining and contract tracing. If COVID is endemic and poses a low risk to the vast majority of the population, quarantining is obsolete, and testing is largely unnecessary. That also means schools, employers, and other social institutions should drop any testing mandates they have in place.

Admitting COVID-19 is endemic is also admitting that the vaccine wasn't the panacea that the polio or smallpox vaccines were in their time. At this point, it's common knowledge that while COVID-19 vaccines do shield those infected against severe illness and death, when it comes to transmission and infection, they're not all that helpful.

Choosing to get vaccinated is primarily choosing to protect your own health and avoid an expensive and dangerous stay in the hospital. In short, the vaccine acts as insurance, and the benefits accrue to the vaccinated person. It makes sense for those who find vaccination worth it to pay for it themselves.

Instead, taxpayers have been funding tests and vaccines, and it's been a boon to the health care industry. From the very beginning, testing labs tapped into contact tracing systems to drive up testing volume and revenue, because for each positive case, close contacts would get tested too. Curative, a health care startup that launched in January 2020, grossed an estimated $1 billion from taxpayers and patient premiums in just its first year from COVID testing and vaccine distribution. The testing industry's financial situation only improved after rapid tests—which have a high rate of false-positive results—became widespread. 

Then there's Pfizer, which went from being the least-trusted pharmaceutical company in the country to being a prestigious global brand amassing $7.8 billion in revenue from its COVID vaccine last year in the U.S. alone—a meteoric rise funded entirely by taxpayers. The company expects to earn $54 billion on COVID vaccines and treatments worldwide this year. That's more than its revenue on all products in 2019.

If COVID is here to stay, then it's time to give people control over how they handle it. If people want to get more vaccines and tests, let them pay for it. It should be up to patients whether or not they want to spend the money—not to the government, which has the power to force the hands of insurance companies, making everyone pay in the end.