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Staying Alive

CityMD Will Back Down on COVID-Test Billing, Attorney General Says

A letter from the New York Attorney General's office says the medical clinic chain will stop hounding people who received COVID tests for payment, and will reimburse those who have already paid.

2:40 PM EST on January 19, 2023

(Eden, Janine and Jim / Flickr)

The ongoing saga of CityMD's effort to badger New Yorkers into paying for long-ago COVID test visits that were supposed to be free in the first place has taken another turn, according to a January 12 letter from the New York State Attorney General to one test recipient who complained about the unexpected bill.

"CityMD has agreed to cease billing and collection activity for COVID-19 testing-related visits during March 2020 through December 2022," the letter reads. "In addition, they are removing any balances on patient statements and/or processing a refund if applicable for any payments made related to CityMD testing visits."

"CityMD further advises that they have reached out directly to affected consumers to inform of the above information," the letter continues, advising its recipient that if she hasn't heard from CityMD or received a refund by February 15, she should contact the Attorney General's office again.

The letter Helene Purcell received from the Attorney General's Office (Helene Purcell)

Helene Purcell, who received the letter today after filing a complaint with the Attorney General's office October 5, told Hell Gate she has not yet had any communication from CityMD about its new policy, though the hectoring collection emails she was receiving from the company stopped in October, the same day she filed her complaint.

CityMD did not respond to a request for confirmation that it will cease pursuing collections for people who received COVID tests through last year, and will refund people who have already paid. But a December statement on the company's website announces that "we are removing balances on patient statements and/or processing a refund for any payments made related to CityMD COVID-19 testing visits. Patients have been contacted to inform them they are not responsible to CityMD for any portion of the claim."

"CityMD began releasing patient statements in June 2022 based on feedback from insurance plans," the statement continues. "After continued coordination with insurance carriers and review of related guidance, CityMD is recalling COVID-19 testing-related bills and removing any related balance from patient accounts." One might wonder whether the interest of the New York Attorney General in CityMD's billing methods had any influence on this abrupt backpedal, but the statement is mum on this question.

Also, CityMD apologizes, which is nice, and says "it is our privilege to deliver care to our patients." FYI though, bestie, as soon as it's not illegal to do so, "CityMD may resume collection of applicable co-payments and deductibles for COVID-19 testing-related services."

A spokesperson for the Attorney General's office confirmed that the office had sent notices of CityMD's assurances to people who have filed official complaints with the office, but declined to answer questions about any ongoing investigation.

Purcell was in graduate school in the winter of 2020, and getting ready to head home to visit her family. Public health officials were advocating for COVID testing for people who were planning on traveling to see loved ones, but the campus medical clinic at Purcell's school, where she'd been doing her COVID testing up until then, was already closed for the holidays.

"So I went to the CityMD on 181st Street in Washington Heights and waited with the rest of the people, and got the test, and throughout the whole process there was no suggestion you'd be charged," Purcell told Hell Gate. "They took my insurance information, and I remember a notice came a while later that my insurance had paid them something, and I never heard from CityMD about it again, so I assumed it was taken care of."

It wasn't until September of last year, nearly two years later, that CityMD began bombarding Purcell with collection notices for an unpaid $208 balance for her single test visit, she said. As with numerous other New Yorkers, CityMD had billed her not only for a test, but for a $300 office visit, which her insurance had declined to fully reimburse, leaving her to pay the balance. Purcell called her insurance company, who told her that because so much time had elapsed since the test, it was too late to contest the insurance decision. She was responsible for any remaining charges.

"So I called CityMD like a thousand times," Purcell said. "Most times it was for over an hour, with nobody picking up. And I was continuing to get past-due notices! I was getting frustrated. I looked on Twitter and I saw your article and Caroline Lewis's article, and it was relieving to see that this was not just me."

Someone online suggested filing a complaint with the Attorney General's office, which Purcell did. Today's notice from the Attorney General's office is a relief, she said. "$208 is a lot to me, but it's also not going to put me under," she said. "But that was just one test! I thought of everyone who was with me on line that day, waiting to get tested, some of them from the community who maybe had been going there for lots of tests through the pandemic, thinking they were free."

Now, Purcell has little sympathy for CityMD.

"It's just such a completely shady move, after two years of not saying anything to me, as they were planning on getting acquired, keeping it on their books as accounts receivable," she said. "I'm glad they're sticking it to CityMD, and I'm glad I didn't pay the bill. It's one of those frustrating events where corporations just take control and it seems like there's nothing you can do as an individual. I'm glad that this is one time where it seems like something good came out of it."

Updated (1/19/23, 4:18 p.m.): This story has been updated with comment from the Attorney General's office, and with reference to a CityMD statement.

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