24 November 2021

'It's been a confusing 48 hours' says Health Minister: so are we paying for a COVID-19 test or not?

| Lottie Twyford
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The drive-through COVID-19 testing site at Kambah

It seems Canberrans will no longer need to pay for a COVID-19 test at a government-run clinic if they only need a text message to prove their results. Photo: Canberra Health Services.

Whether or not Canberrans need to pay for a PCR test for travel has again been thrown into doubt after Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt announced overnight that people would not be required to pay for a test for domestic travel.

As of this morning, it was Minister for Health Rachel Stephen-Smith’s understanding that anyone who requires a negative PCR test for domestic travel, but does not require a certificate or official documentation, can receive a free COVID-19 test at a government-run clinic.

If any documentation beyond a text message from the ACT Government is required, such as for international travel, the individual will be required to pay for it.

As of 8 am this morning, Ms Stephen-Smith told ABC Radio more work was needed to fully understand the implications of Mr Hunt’s announcement in the ACT.

Mr Hunt’s statement said the Commonwealth and States would jointly fund tests for people that require one under a public health order, such as a domestic travel requirement.

Speaking this morning, Mr Hunt said the joint arrangement had been threatened by Queensland for some days but was now back in order.

“[There’s] no change at our end and [the Commonwealth] pleased that Queensland has now agreed to continue doing what’s always been the case,” Mr Hunt said.

Currently, South Australia, Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia require travellers to return a negative PCR COVID-19 test 72 hours before entry under new border rules.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk had been pressuring the Commonwealth for some days to foot the bill for tests.

READ ALSO Face masks may stay for good, even after ACT COVID mandates wind down

Ms Stephen-Smith said some of the previous confusion had arisen because it was understood that people required more proof of a negative COVID-19 test than a text message alone to enter another state.

“State and Territory clinics don’t provide testing for people who require a certificate. Canberra Health Services has been charging people $112 if they require a certificate,” Ms Stephen-Smith said.

“But staff have also been turning some people away from testing centres if they say they only need to get tested for travel.”

She did not believe anyone needed a refund as it was her understanding only people who required a certificate to prove their COVID-19 negative test result had been charged $112 by Canberra Health Services.

It’s believed that arrangement will not change.

Then, Mr Hunt said this morning only a text message would be required as proof of a negative test to enter Queensland.

It’s understood one of the other major complicating factors in the ACT is that testing clinics are run by a variety of different providers including Canberra Health Services, Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service and Capital Pathology.

“It would be good to get the clarification from Minister Hunt about what he considers ‘government-run’ clinics,” Ms Stephen-Smith said.

She noted that the ACT Government had attempted to provide consistency around the criteria for testing at each clinic throughout the pandemic.

“It appears there is inconsistency around what can be funded by Medicare and what can be funded under the National Partnership.”

Ms Stephen-Smith herself admitted it had been “a confusing 48 hours”.

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Last week, the ACT Government was repeatedly unable to confirm if it was charging people $112 for a precautionary PCR test for travel purposes at its government-run clinics, despite reports of such received by Region Media.

When asked, Ms Stephen-Smith last week said the government’s approach had not changed and people had always been required to be symptomatic or classified as a contact to receive a free COVID-19 test.

She added she wasn’t aware of government-run clinics charging people for a test and said anyone who presented for a test but who was ineligible for one would be turned away and redirected to a private pathology provider.

In question time yesterday, Opposition spokesperson on business Leanne Castley questioned Ms Stephen-Smith on whether the government was considering making COVID-19 tests for travel free.

At the time, Ms Stephen-Smith said they were not, but took on notice a question about whether or not people were already being charged for the tests, before later telling the Assembly people were being charged.

She also questioned why Ms Castley, as the Opposition’s business spokesperson, would want the government undercutting a private provider by administering PCR tests for travel for free.

The Opposition has since slammed the government’s handling of the situation, claiming the Health Minister was “caught out plain and simple”.

As of 10 am, the ACT Government’s COVID-19 website still says a person will pay for a COVID-19 test if it’s required for domestic travel.

More to come.

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