Dec. 2—Anchorage's busiest COVID-19 testing site, at the Loussac Library, closed abruptly Wednesday and was replaced at a new location operated by a different company on a nearby vacant lot by the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center.
The sudden shutdown came as city health officials announced changes in the way the municipality handles COVID-19 testing.
Longstanding testing contractor Visit Healthcare is being replaced by Capstone Family Medicine, a Wasilla-based company that operates medical clinics but also scores of COVID-19 testing sites around the state, including at airports and in local communities.
"Capstone is now in charge of testing as it's the more efficient and cost effective option," Anchorage Health Department spokesman Robert McNeily said in an email Wednesday afternoon.
Testing remains free, municipal officials said.
"Testing is not going away," Anchorage Health Department director Joe Gerace said during a meeting Wednesday, pointing out the city was adding a testing site in West Anchorage. "... There's still no cost."
A primary reason for the switch is that Capstone will be able to bill health insurance for testing, something Visit Healthcare doesn't do, according to Anchorage Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia, co-chair of the Health Policy Committee, who talked with Gerace after the meeting.
"Visit is not really set up to do the same kind of billing that Capstone is, and that's the main issue," Perez-Verdia said. "They want to move to an organization that can bill insurance."
Free testing will still be provided to people without insurance, he said.
"You get tested regardless, but they would now also have the opportunity to bill for it," Perez-Verdia said.
A spokesman for the mayor's office confirmed free testing is still available and that the city switched providers in order to bill insurance.
Visit Healthcare learned Tuesday that the Loussac site was closing the next day, according to Chris Koone, the company's operations chief. Municipal officials told him traffic issues and a lack of funding factored into the decision, Koone said.
The Loussac site, which administered 5,600 tests last month, was more than twice as busy as any other municipal testing site, he said.
It wasn't immediately clear why the transition occurred so abruptly.
Capstone now "technically" runs seven testing sites in the city, according to McNeily. The company already operates state testing locations at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Four sites currently operated by Visit Healthcare are being "phased out" for five Capstone sites, he said: an Eagle River site that switched over last week; the new Loussac replacement at 4810 C St.; a popular Changepoint Church site; a Muldoon area testing site; and a new site at Alaska Park near the airport.
The sites will switch to Capstone's hands by mid-December, McNeily said.
A Capstone representative did not respond to questions Wednesday.
The testing change was announced the same day the omicron variant of the coronavirus was first detected in the United States. There is no indication omicron has arrived in Alaska, where daily new case counts and hospitalizations are declining after surging through the fall to the point the state in early October enacted crisis standards of care to relieve pressure on overwhelmed hospitals.
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Now two of three Anchorage hospitals — Providence Alaska Medical Center and Alaska Regional Hospital — are out of crisis mode.
In an interview Wednesday, McNeily, the city health department spokesman, said the municipality might consider reducing testing levels if COVID-19 transmission levels continue to drop. The reproduction rate of the virus is now below one, meaning each case infects fewer than one person.
That trend could change, he continued, "but the rate has continued to fall over the last several weeks. The AHD remains cautiously optimistic about the future because the local hospitals are out of crisis care standards."
Generally, health experts say broad access to testing is important regardless of hospitalizations, which are delayed markers for the presence of the virus. Testing tracks the spread of the virus — especially with the potential for a new variant to start circulating — but also prompts early treatment that helps slow new cases that could eventually lead to hospitalizations.
Along with the municipal sites, free testing is also available at Walgreens Pharmacy locations in Anchorage.
Testing for people without symptoms is also available at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, though as of Wednesday that location was moved behind security, for ticketed passengers and badged employees only.
Gerace also announced Wednesday that the municipality is shifting from a city funding model to a federal one.
Municipal officials say they'd like to rein in the costs of the testing program. Under Visit Healthcare, each test cost around $100. Testing is reimbursable by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but the city has to cover costs for up to a year, Gerace has said.
The city in October cited short funding as a reason to cut back free testing during the summer-fall COVID-19 surge. The assembly later approved a $2.65 million request from the Bronson administration that fully restored testing levels through November.
Anchorage Assembly member Meg Zaletel, health policy committee vice chair, said the health department announcement came as a surprise and she was still trying to get more information.
"I don't know much yet. The (health department) description wasn't very informative," Zaletel said Wednesday morning. "They had previewed wanting to find a more cost effective model for treatment. I'm not familiar with what they've switched to, but the fact that they made a change to try to reduce costs is not surprising."
It wasn't immediately clear why the city switched testing in Midtown from the familiar, popular site at the Loussac Library to an empty lot on C Street.
Corey Allen Young, spokesman for the mayor, said the decision to move the site was made between Capstone and the city and was for "better access."
"At the Loussac there is kind of a logjam there. I've seen it every time I've pulled in for Assembly meetings," Young said. The new site, next to the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center, provides "just a little bit more space," he said.
Young did not comment as to why the site was moved without widespread public notice, and referred the Daily News to the health department.
The switch to a new location and vendor is "really disruptive," Perez-Verdia said.
"That's one of the problems ... this may be more efficient from their perspective. And certainly the opportunity to bill (insurance) I think is good," he said. "But we need to be able to communicate this really well so people know what's going on and why."
At least one Anchorage resident took to Twitter to share her struggles with the testing transition Wednesday.
Jenny-Marie Stryker, who's fully vaccinated against COVID-19, decided to get tested after she noticed a stuffy nose and headache. Stryker checked the municipal testing website and saw the Loussac was closed for testing. She drove to the University of Alaska Anchorage testing site but it was also closed.
At the C Street site, it was 5 or 10 minutes before anyone even came out, and that was just to tell her a broken generator was delaying tests. Stryker eventually got tested, though it took nearly an hour.
"Long enough for me to write that Twitter thread," she said.