Coronavirus tests are supposed to be free. Some Texans are still being saddled with large bills.

Mark Sonego at his apartment on May 11, 2020. | by Robin Jerstad for The Texas Tribune Robin Jerstad for The Texas Tribune

(Texas Tribune) – The symptoms hit Pamela Shaw in mid-March. She was coughing and couldn’t get enough air. She felt achy. It was unlike any cold or flu she had ever experienced.

Worried, she called a hospital hotline to see if she could get tested for the new coronavirus, and the woman who answered the phone insisted she call an ambulance and go to the emergency room.

All Shaw wanted was a coronavirus test. Instead, she got a battery of screenings to rule it out, she said — and later a bill for at least $1,440.

“It would have been so easy just to give me a test right then,” said Shaw, 61, an Elgin resident. “I was there. I was having symptoms.”

Tests for the virus, which typically involve a painful swab up the nose, are often advertised as free. Congress directed most insurance companies to cover test costs for insured patients in March and has promised to reimburse providers for testing those who are uninsured.

But experts say there are gaps in the protection, including for people like Shaw, who sought a test early in the pandemic, or those who went to a doctor and left without being screened for the virus. Not only could they be on the hook for the cost of the visit, like a co-pay or emergency room facility fee, but also any diagnostic procedures used to check for ailments besides COVID-19.

With a nationwide shortage of test supplies, clinicians have been encouraged to rule out illnesses, like the flu, before testing for the coronavirus.

That’s what happened to Shaw.