Maggie Muldoon had never heard of Medbar until she saw a $49 charge from the company show up on her credit card bill a couple of weeks ago. Upon searching her email spam folder, she found that she had a recent message from the company, which provides COVID-19 testing services. It informed her she had been billed for a test she got at Liberty Chemists in Flatbush — more than a year ago, in June 2021.
“I used to have to get tested for work all the time,” said Muldoon, a Sunset Park resident who works for a nonprofit. “I've been tested from random trucks on the side of the road and so many different places, and I've never had this happen.”
Muldoon is one of several New Yorkers calling out Medbar for randomly charging them for COVID-19 tests they thought would be covered by their insurance. The charges are appearing months after the fact. Gothamist spoke with four Brooklynites who shared receipts showing they received belated charges from the company.
Medbar has 17 one-star Google reviews, 15 of which describe similar experiences to Muldoon. In several cases, reviewers indicated that the company not only tried to bill them for costs that were allegedly not covered by their insurance — but also charged their bank accounts or credit cards directly without their authorization. “I had to cancel my debit card because they kept trying to charge me,” one reviewer wrote this month.
Medbar says it’s not doing anything illegal, though. The company said in a statement that patients signed an agreement when they got swabbed saying they would pay any fees not covered by their insurance — and had to enter their credit card information as a condition of getting tested.
Medbar, headquartered in the Trump Building in Manhattan’s Financial District, popped up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a profile on the company from February 2021. Founder and CEO Eva Sadej told Pix 11 at the time that her other company, a mobile dental service called Floss Bar, was no longer viable when the pandemic hit. So, she pivoted to COVID-19 testing, and Medbar began offering the service at pop-up clinics, pharmacies and other sites.
The company accepts insurance. But it has recently been sending patients notices saying they agreed at the time they got tested to pay for any costs their insurance didn’t cover — fine print that those who spoke to Gothamist said they didn’t remember signing.
The federal CARES Act, signed into law in March 2020, aimed to ensure that COVID tests were free for patients by protecting them from copays or other forms of cost sharing. Those rules are still in place as long as the federal state of emergency around COVID-19 is ongoing.
But the legislation largely put the burden on the insurance carrier to cover the full cost of testing, said Sabrina Corlette, co-director of the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy. If the insurance carrier fails to do so, she said, there aren’t any restrictions on providers “balance-billing” patients – billing a patient for the amount their insurance didn’t cover.
Before federal funding ran out, some testing companies largely avoided dealing with patients’ insurance by instead seeking reimbursement for their services from the federal Provider Relief Fund set up during the pandemic. “Generally, physicians and other providers accepting these funds are prohibited from balance-billing patients for COVID-19 testing and care,” the American Medical Association concluded in a brief on the subject.
But Medbar never relied on those federal funds, said Ronen Yair, general counsel and chief compliance officer for the company.
In a statement, Yair said, "Insurers failing to pay for a patient’s COVID-19 tests is not the fault of Medbar, but an unfortunate reality in the insurance industry that affects all businesses in the COVID-19 testing space … In compliance with law, Medbar rightfully seeks payments from patients for their patient portions, provided that such patients expressly agreed to personally pay such amounts.”
In Muldoon’s case, her insurance company, Aetna, received two separate charges for COVID-19 tests on the date she got swabbed at Liberty Chemists. One of the charges was for $200 and Aetna paid only $45.23, according to insurance statements shared with Gothamist. The other was for $194.94 and Aetna declined to pay any of it.
Muldoon said she reached out to Aetna and was told the bill from Medbar had already been settled. Aetna did not respond to a request for comment from Gothamist about Medbar’s COVID testing fees or the fact that the company was balance-billing Aetna members.
Max Pearl, a Brooklyn writer, said he unwittingly came into contact with Medbar when he went to get tested at Altru Chemists, a pharmacy near where he lives in Greenpoint.
“I didn't even know what Medbar was because I go to my local pharmacist,” Pearl said. “I actually really like these guys. It's like a mom and pop.”
Altru Chemists posted on Facebook on June 17th that it was aware some customers were getting charged by Medbar. The pharmacy said it had cut ties with the company, which had been providing their COVID-19 testing services early in the pandemic.
“Altru Chemists has stopped our business partnership with MedBar as of March 2021,” the post said. “Since that time, we have performed COVID-19 PCR testing at no cost with no hidden disclosures or balance billing to our patients. Please don't feel discouraged from using our pharmacy for your future COVID-19 testing needs.”
Altru Chemists declined to comment for this story because the company said it is involved in arbitration with Medbar. Liberty Chemists did not respond to a request for comment.
Patients feel scammed
Medbar took money out of Pearl’s bank account twice last month — first $27 and then $132 — each time citing COVID-19 tests administered in January 2021. The company also sent Pearl an email saying, “We regret to inform you that your insurance carrier … has not furnished a complete payment for the COVID-19 test you took at one of our locations.”
In his case, Pearl said it seemed Medbar had the wrong insurance information on file for him.
Pearl shared messages from Medbar insisting he had already signed off on the charges.
“It just seemed so obviously scammy,” he said.
But Medbar said in its statement that the company never indicated COVID tests would be free.
“The statement regarding the patients’ financial responsibility was clearly shown in Medbar’s portal and consent forms,” Yair wrote.
Both Pearl and Muldoon were able to get a refund from Medbar after fighting the charges. But not everyone went to that trouble.
“I tried, through my credit card, to dispute the charges, but it didn't work, so I ended up paying,” said Arnaud Mondoulet, who was recently charged a total of $144 by Medbar for two COVID tests that took place in January 2021. “At the end of the day, the time that I would spend to get the $150 back, is it even worth it?”
Muldoon said she is currently involved in an investigation into Medbar by the New York attorney general. The attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Have you had a similar experience with Medbar or another COVID-19 testing provider? Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.