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This undated file photo provided by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows CDC's laboratory test kit for the new coronavirus. (CDC via AP, File)

Tennessee's biggest health insurer said Friday it will waive all member co-pays and cost sharing on FDA-approved testing for the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19), but it's not clear how much those tests could cost.

"We are committed to helping slow the spread and impact of this new coronavirus," said Dr. Andrea D. Willis, senior vice president and chief medical officer for Chattanooga-based BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. "If a BlueCross member needs to get tested, we don't want them to worry about the cost."

However, BlueCross spokesman John Hawbaker said in an email, "it's too early to know" the estimated cost of a COVID-19 test.

"There are a limited number of tests available in the state, and we haven't been asked to pay for one yet. At this point we're continuing preparations and trying to help put our members' minds at ease," Hawbaker said.

BlueCross' coverage decision applies to members in insured group, individual, Medicare Advantage and Medicaid plans. Employers who offer self-funded plans have the option to include COVID-19 testing as a preventive benefit without cost-sharing for their employees.

As of Friday afternoon, there had been a total of 15 tests for COVID-19 conducted at the Tennessee State Laboratory and two tests conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to Department of Health spokeswoman Elizabeth Hart. She said in an email that those two tests not conducted in Tennessee were sent directly to the CDC prior to the state's ability to test.

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This 2012 file photo shows BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee in Chattanooga. / Staff file photo

At this time, Tennessee has one confirmed case of COVID-19. All other tests returned negative, and Hart said she is unable to provide the number of tests that are currently pending.

(MORE: Coronavirus test results negative for contacts of first Tennessee case)

Vice President Mike Pence assured Americans this week that lab tests for coronavirus would be covered by private and government health insurance; however, that promise appears to be less than airtight.

The bottom line: Medicare, Medicaid and "Obamacare" insurance plans will cover the tests, officials said Thursday. Major insurers also said they will cover such tests. But people with employer-provided insurance should check with their plan, because copays and deductibles may apply. State health departments will test for free.

"It's a common type of test, just like you get a swab for strep throat," Seema Verma, head of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told reporters on Capitol Hill. "I think private insurance companies, it does depend on coverage. But like I said, this is something that is commonly covered."

Doctors and insurers stress that patients potentially exposed to coronavirus should not avoid getting tested because of concerns about potential costs.

The board of directors of an industry group that represents big insurance companies said Thursday that member plans will cover tests ordered by a doctor. "We will take action to ease network, referral, and prior authorization requirements and/or waive patient cost sharing," America's Health Insurance Plans said in a statement.

Translation: Call your insurance plan to see what particular steps it's taking and whether you qualify for no-cost testing.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673. 

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