'Free' federal COVID-19 testing machines proving costly for nursing homes

The federal government has sent free rapid COVID-19 testing machines to 14,000 nursing homes across the country, but leaders of those facilities told The New York Times that the machines come with unexpected financial burdens and that they're still plagued by a shortage of testing supplies. 

The machines, made by Becton Dickinson, can give results in as little as 15 minutes. While nursing home leaders tell the Times that they're grateful for the free machines, they are still required to pay for their own test kits, and the machines are much less accurate than lab-based tests.

The government gave nursing homes enough test kits to last a few weeks, and some nursing homes have to pay about $32 to $100 per test after their initial supply runs out, leaders told the Times. Ben Unkle, CEO of Westminster-Canterbury on Chesapeake Bay, a nursing home in Virginia Beach, Va., told the Times he expects the costs of the test kits to add $875,000 to the $1 million in pandemic-related losses it expects this year.

"My initial happiness over the machines has quickly turned to disillusionment," he said. "At the moment we’re in testing hell." 

Mr. Unkle said the free machine his facility received came with 300 test kits, but he is required to test his 280 employees every week. BD told him it would be weeks before it could send more test kits, the Times reported.

Frequent testing is critical for nursing homes. COVID-19 has killed 77,000 nursing home residents and workers, and more than 40 percent of national fatalities come from nursing homes. 

Nursing homes that fail to meet daily reporting rules are subject to fines of $10,000. CMS has said it would exercise discretion before imposing the fines on nursing homes that make "good faith" efforts to meet the daily requirements. 

Federal health officials have acknowledged problems with the testing initiative and have asked for patience from facilities, the Times reports. 

On Sept. 28, HHS said the government would begin distributing millions of Abbott's rapid COVID-19 tests to states this week. But experts are concerned about the accuracy of the tests, and a typical nursing home would likely run through those supplies within a few weeks, according to the Times

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