Another company is now managing Anchorage’s COVID-19 tests. What changes does this bring?

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A private company is now handling COVID-19 testing in Anchorage: Capstone Clinic, a Wasilla health care provider that has evolved during the pandemic to become the state’s largest testing presence.

The move to Capstone from Visit Healthcare, the municipal contractor in testing since July 2020, came suddenly this week with little public notice.

The Anchorage Health Department closed the city’s busiest location at the Loussac Library on Wednesday – on the same day, Capstone opened a new site on C Street next to the Anchorage District Health Center .

City health officials say the city chose to privatize using Capstone to save money.

The test contract with Visit cost the city $ 34.2 million between July 2020 and this month, according to Department of Health Director Joe Gerace.

“The city is pulling out of city-funded testing activities,” Gerace said in an interview on Friday. “We let private equity operations take over. “

Visit Healthcare was contracted by the municipality at $ 98 per test. Officials said they paid those costs up front and then were compensated by the federal government, a process that could take months.

Various city officials and members of the assembly said the city hoped to reduce the cost of the tests. The Bronson administration temporarily cut testing in October after funding ran out before the Anchorage assembly approved adding more than $ 2.6 million to resume the program until November.

COVID-19 testing will remain free for everyone, whether they have insurance or not, Capstone and city officials said.

Switching to Capstone isn’t expected to make much of a difference to the public as long as turnaround times and accessibility remain the same, according to state pharmacist Dr Coleman Cutchins, responsible for COVID-19 testing for the Department of Alaska Health and Human Services.

Most test results in the state come back within 24 hours, including with Visit Healthcare or Capstone, Cutchins said.

“There are standard processes involved,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who the entrepreneur is or who operates him. “

Capstone, which operates several clinics in Mat-Su, also holds multi-million dollar state contracts to perform coronavirus testing at airports in Alaska including Ted Stevens Anchorage International, Ketchikan and Juneau as well as at the ‘University of Alaska Anchorage.

The company also conducts private testing statewide in communities such as Wasilla, Kenai, Tok, Dillingham, and Dead Horse in Prudhoe Bay.

Capstone used to send test samples to commercial labs, but has since expanded its Wasilla plant to process its own on-site tests to reduce turnaround times, company officials said.

Capstone was testing at two former Visit Healthcare Anchorage sites on Friday, as well as a new traveler site in Alaska Park, near the airport.

Capstone was not “selected” over other companies to do the job, Gerace said on Friday. “It just turned out that they were the one who might have stepped in.”

He said the municipality began researching testing alternatives in July “given that Visit would not lower its rates” by testing from $ 98 to $ 65 which can be reimbursed by a federal program administered through the Administration of health resources and services.

Representatives from Visit Healthcare did not return a request for comment.

Capstone operates as a private entity not under contract or otherwise linked to the municipal health department, according to company officials.

“We opened our new locations as a business operation,” Capstone director Matt Jones said in an email. “There is no contract, oversight or partnership with the Municipality and Capstone.”

Unlike Visit, Capstone charges medical insurance companies if patients have insurance, Jones said in an interview on Friday. If they don’t, the company bills the reimbursement through the Health Resources & Services Administration.

“Whatever we get reimbursed for these is what we accept,” he said. “There is never a charge for out-of-pocket or uninsured people. “

The company already has $ 1.3 million in unreimbursed testing at its Anchorage sites, Gerace said. Capstone did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation of this information.

Along with C Street, the company operates Visit Healthcare’s former Eagle River test site and Alaska Park location targeting travelers.

The Alaska Park site is needed because the Capstone test site in the airport has been moved behind security, he said. State Medical Officer of Health Dr Anne Zink said this week the airport site is attracting people with symptoms of COVID-19 – “We don’t want this to be a wide spread event” – but also a higher number of travelers this holiday season has led to the need for more space than the old location near the baggage claim offered.

Visit still operates a test site at Changepoint Church off Minnesota Drive in Anchorage, at least until mid-December. Jones said Capstone is still working on moving to that location once they leave.

But Visit’s location at Muldoon Community Assembly will close, he said. Capstone “is looking to move to Tikahtnu” but is still working on the rental process.

Unlike Visit, Capstone has to pay rent at its facility because it is a commercial enterprise rather than a municipal contractor, Jones said.

Another difference is that any decision that needs to be made about closing test sites or reducing hours now rests with Capstone rather than the municipality.

“There is obviously a point where the number of tests drops to the point where it no longer becomes profitable,” Jones said, adding that the decision became more problematic without a contract.

“With a contract, you can still have money whether the tests take place or not,” he said. “With (a private operator) it’s a bit riskier but we want to keep it going for the community and make sure everyone is always protected.”

The change comes as the face of testing changes. City, state, and federal authorities are working to make rapid home testing more available. The City Health Department, for example, has offered to distribute rapid tests to about a quarter of the more than 400 adult living facilities and care centers around Anchorage, spokesman Robert McNeily said.

Travelers at Anchorage Airport can now receive take-home tests through a state pilot program. The Biden administration announced this week that private health insurance plans will soon reimburse people who purchase over-the-counter rapid home tests.

Cutchins noted that Alaskans “must accept that tests will not be the same forever” and also that getting vaccinated against the virus decreases the demand for testing.

“As we get higher immunization rates and more options for rapid home tests… we don’t need large drive-thru sites as much,” he said. he declares.

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