County may end free COVID-19 testing

Debate to be held on March 2

County may end free COVID-19 testing
(Source: Houston Dept. of Health via CNN)

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Pima County is considering whether to end free testing for the coronavirus because state reimbursements for the testing have fallen short.

There have been 600,000 tests in Pima County since April. 65% of them paid for by Pima County but with the understanding that the cost will be reimbursed by money from the federal government specifically for testing.

That money, $418 million, was appropriated by Congress and delivered to the state January 14, 2021.

The state began distributing the money after Pima County and other counties began to complain. But Pima County has been the most vocal.

“The state is playing games,” according to Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. “We are the only county in Arizona that has done that many tests for our residents.”

The state released $100 million last week to all 15 counties based on population.

Pima County’s share was $14 million, enough to pay through February.

But that’s only a third of what the county feels it needs to pay for its free testing, which could top $41 million.

“Just as a point of comparison, in Maricopa County most of the tests are not administered by their county health department, they’re administered by the state government,” said District 1 Supervisor Rex Scott. “So we’ve incurred significant costs that none of the other counties have.”

Which is why Pima County now says it will consider whether to continue with the free testing.

Without funding from the state to cover the costs, the county will be forced to use general fund money which is used for county services like the Sheriff’s Department.

“We need to be responsive to the needs of our constituents during this health crisis and providing free testing is a way of doing that” said Scott. “But we’ve been doing it always with the understanding we were going to be reimbursed for those costs.”

At its March 2, 2021 meeting, the Supervisors along with the County Administrator will discuss whether the program needs to be ended.

It will be the Board’s decision with input from county health officials.

“If all of a sudden, we quit testing, let’s say the whole county quit testing, it would look like Covid went away,” said Dr. Theresa Cullen, the Pima County Health Director.

That would set back the county efforts just at a time when cases and numbers are falling.

A lack of testing would make controlling the spread difficult because it would end the ability to contact trace.

“If we test you, and you are positive, we work with you to isolate, we work with your contacts to quarantine and we do decrease the rate of transmission that way,” Dr. Cullen said.

Without free testing, the costs to the consumer would be $120 out of pocket or a bill to the insurance company, if in fact the consumer is insured.

The state has apparently, according to Scott, told the county it will have a budget for the rest of the $318 million by the middle of March, long after the county debate.

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