TAMPA (WFLA) – Many Americans are finding out that what’s supposed to be a free COVID-19 test is sometimes anything but.

When two employees at Camp Tampa fitness center tested positive for COVID-19 in June, the owners asked other employees to get tested just to be safe.

Nearly three dozen of them, who went to Tampa General Hospital, ended up with medical bills as a result. At least one employee who was uninsured got a bill of nearly $1,200.

“I was shocked, but I thought we missed something, because we heard it was free,” said Jeff Cogell, a fitness instructor and Camp Tampa coach. “And when I got to the site, they said it was free.”

Tampa General Hospital said it is not a community testing site, so people who show up there specifically to get tested will be charged an emergency room visit.

But the experience of these employees is not abnormal – even for people who have insurance and didn’t visit an ER.

“This is a surprise medical bill, particularly when Congress passed two bills that mandate testing for COVID-19 is free, the antibody test should be free, and any related doctor visits,” said Lisa Gill, an health care investigative reporter for Consumer Reports. “What may not be covered are any additional tests that a doctor may order, for example x-rays, scans or bloodwork that may not be directly related.”

Gill gave 8 On Your Side several tips to avoid getting stuck with a big testing bill.

  • Go to a doctor that’s in-network — or verify you’re at a *free* COVID-specific testing site
  • If you get a bill — don’t pay it right away. Instead, call the provider and make sure they have all your personal medical information correct, and they’ve submitted the charges to your insurance
  • Then call your insurance to make sure they’ve received the correct charges from the provider
  • Unless you’re sick or have symptoms, try to avoid the emergency room
  • If you don’t have insurance, ask the provider if they will bill to the CARES Act Provider Relief Fund that was setup by Congress