CHICAGO — A state legislator is pushing for more oversight of COVID-19 testing sites after a series of scandals highlighted issues with the pop-ups and their labs.
Block Club has revealed three Illinois testing companies — which had hundreds of locations throughout the United States and have received a combined $506 million from the federal government — are facing federal and state investigations after issues at their labs and numerous complaints from customers. One of the companies, the Center for COVID Control, and its lab have been sued by two states and are being investigated by the FBI.
Rep. Fred Crespo, a Democrat representing portions of northwest suburban Cook County, said he was inspired by the stories to create bills that could rein in pop-ups and labs to ensure Illinoisans are treated well and get accurate results — and the government isn’t wrongly billed for tests.
The legislation — a package of four bills proposed so far — is focused on the pop-up testing businesses that have proliferated during the pandemic.
“I always thought these were testing sites that were somehow sponsored or worked with the state,” Crespo said.
But the legislator looked into the sites and learned the pop-ups are considered businesses that have little to no regulation. The labs they work with fall under the purview of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. It wasn’t clear what state agency should be regulating and responding to issues with testing pop-ups, he said.
Crespo “realized we had a problem,” he said.
“COVID has forced a paradigm shift on how we do things nowadays: how do we purchase or buy things, how we go to restaurants, how do we teach, how often or how do we meet,” he said. “But it appeared to me that, when it came to the testing sites … it seemed like [the state was] using a pre-COVID framework to deal with these testing sites, where we’ve had paradigm shifts in everything else.”
One of the bills would regulate how and when customers would be notified of their results. A frequent complaint of customers at the pop-ups is that they aren’t getting results or they’re delayed so long the results are useless.
“People are making decisions based on those results: whether they can go back to work, whether they have to isolate, whether they can travel or not,” Crespo said.
That bill would also require the pop-ups to be licensed under the federal government and Illinois Department of Public Health, Crespo said.
Another of the bills would set standards of training for the workers who collect samples from customers and conduct rapid tests at the pop-ups. At the minimum, workers would have to follow the “scope and practice of the FDA” when it comes to performing the tests, keeping distance from customers and handling the samples, Crespo said.
Many pop-up customers have also complained about those aspects of testing at the sites, saying workers didn’t wear masks or gloves, didn’t stay 6 feet away, didn’t collect their sample correctly or didn’t tell customers how they could properly collect their own sample. Health inspectors have also cited some pop-up sites for not performing rapid tests correctly.
One of the bills also deals with insurance, ensuring a person’s private insurance information is gathered correctly and the government isn’t unnecessarily billed.
The two lawsuits targeting the Center for COVID Control and its lab — which has received more than $155 million from the federal government — have alleged its employees wrongfully billed the government for tests done on people with insurance.
Another bill would provide $3 million to the Illinois Department of Public Health so it could create and operate a hotline where residents can share complaints and allegations of misconduct about the pop-ups and labs that process COVID-19 tests.
“I’m not suggesting we get rid of these sites,” Crespo said. But it “should be public-private partnerships. … We just need to make sure we get rid of the bad players and make sure we have a robust infrastructure where people can go and get tested.”
The Governor’s Office and Illinois Department of Public Health did not immediately respond to questions about the proposed legislation. Gov. JB Pritzker previously has called for the Illinois Attorney General’s Office to shut down “fly-by-night” testing pop-ups.
“I think we need more tools, and we can do that by just setting those standards,” Crespo said. “And if they’re not complying, then the [Attorney General’s Office] can kick in.
“This is most definitely a priority.”
The problems with testing pop-ups have come to a head in recent weeks.
In December, as Omicron surged, officials urged people to get tested before gathering for holidays. But city- and state-run testing sites — of which there were just three in Chicago — were full, appointments were booked up at health clinics and at-home tests were sold out.
Hundreds of Block Club readers have reported issues with the sites, with problems ranging from unmasked workers and dirty pop-ups to people being told not to provide their insurance information and getting someone else’s result — or never getting a result at all.
Like many parts of the pandemic, the proliferation in pop-ups has been “unprecedented,” Allison Hoffman, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who is an expert on health care law and policy, previously told Block Club.
State and federal regulators are in “unchartered territory” and trying to “catch up in real time” with businesses like the testing pop-ups, Hoffman said.
There have long been federal and state rules about how labs that conduct testing are run — but many of the COVID-19 pop-ups operating now simply collect a person’s sample and then send it to a lab.
In Illinois, that’s meant the pop-ups are largely unregulated, with officials relying on labs — which are regulated, and thus know what consequences they could face— to only work with pop-ups they think are reputable.
That’s where there’s a gap in regulations, Hoffman said.
Another concern: Many people are starting testing pop-ups without a background in health care. For example, the couple behind the Center for COVID Control chain previously ran an axe-throwing lounge.
Folks who don’t have that background in health care many not fully understand the scope of what is regulated — like people’s private information and biological samples — and what they’re required to do, Hoffman said.
“Ideally, regulations cover everything — but I don’t fault the regulators for not having imagined this world and thought how to regulate it in advance,” Hoffman said.
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