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As the Omicron variant spiked COVID-19 cases across the region, many struggled to find testing options. At-home antigen tests became nearly impossible to find in stores, and lines at PCR testing sites often stretched for blocks.
But one company, TestSD, which set up COVID-19 testing sites at trolley stops throughout San Diego, seemed to be a quick and easy option.
That was until individuals encountered long wait times for results — sometimes as long as 13 days.
And for some, the results never came.
Krag Kirkland, who was tested at TestSD’s Santa Fe Station location in early January, said when he arrived at the site there was only one individual in line before him, and he was out in minutes. But now, nearly a month later, he still hasn’t received his results.
“They told me that they’d text me the results within 72 hours and then I just never received the results at all,” Kirkland said.
He got tested because he planned to spend time with an immunocompromised friend who he didn’t want to inadvertently expose.
“The fact that I didn’t get the results back kind of hampered those plans,” Kirkland said. “I was only willing to have them shove something up my nose if I got something in return, and I did not.”
The company blamed delays on the lab it hired to process samples. But it’s since acknowledged that it wasn’t living up to its promise and pulled back, temporarily, on the number of sites to get a handle on its delays. TestSD was just one of a few private contractors involved in providing testing sites at Metropolitan Transit System stations.
It’s too little too late for some.
Jacob Mandel was tested at a TestSD site the second week of January. The prior weekend, he’d hung out with a couple of friends who later tested positive for COVID-19.
Mandel learned of the testing program at trolley stops on social media. He decided to visit the 12th and Imperial station near his home.
When he arrived, he wondered if the TestSD site — crammed between pop-up tents hawking cell phones and insurance, a not uncommon sight downtown — was a scam. But a security guard assured him that it wasn’t, so he got in line.
“It was very easy,” said Mandel. “They just took my ID, they asked me a couple of questions, they took down my phone number and email address, and the guy who tested me told me that I should expect a phone call or email within three to five days.”
Mandel thought even the promised three-to-five-day turnaround time was too long to be useful. He asked for a card or something to prove he’d gotten a test but was assured that TestSD would reach out to him. He still hasn’t gotten his results more than 20 days later. He isolated at home until a friend brought him a rapid test.
“It definitely extended my time in quarantine or lockdown, because I didn’t get those results,” Mandel said. “This could have been a really, really great service. And it’s unfortunate that it didn’t seem to work out.”
Daniel Navarrete, chief operating officer for TestSD, said that shortly before the New Year the lab’s average turnaround time for tests was nearly one and a half days. But then the post-Christmas Omicron surge washed over San Diego, and TestSD saw a 500 percent increase in patients.
The company went from testing approximately 9,000 individuals in all of December to 8,000 from Jan. 3-7 alone.
Navarrete said when TestSD began to see longer turn-arounds for results, the lab assured the company it was working to remedy the situation.
“What appeared to happen here is that from one day to another their capacity was severely overrun and the lab failed to inform us of this,” Navarrete said.
Sterling Pathology National Laboratories, the lab TestSD hired, did not return a request for comment.
But a phone number connected to Sterling Pathology forwards calls to a recording that says the company is not accepting phone calls. The line instructs individuals to text their full name, date of birth, date of test, collection site and their preferred number or email to a separate number.
“We are working 24/7 in the laboratory to get your tests completed as soon as possible,” the recording says. “Thank you for your patience.”
After a week of delayed results, TestSD employees looked to another lab to begin processing their samples. But the holidays complicated the search. Many individuals were on vacation, and many labs weren’t actively taking new clients, Navarrete said.
“As soon as we realized the community demand was far outpacing the supply that our lab partners were committing to us, we made the decision to close several sites until we could make alternative arrangements,” said Roger Stellers, chief executive officer of both TestSD and its parent company Broadwell Health.
In the interim, TestSD said it provided rapid antigen tests to patients at their sites, started a paid social media campaign to get the word out, and set up a call center to help anyone affected by the delays.
But none of the individuals interviewed by Voice of San Diego said they knew of the existence of a call line or were notified by TestSD of the offer of a rapid antigen test.
Stellers said the company still did not know the exact number of individuals who hadn’t received results for tests administered by TestSD, but also that they were working to respond to everyone who hadn’t received results.
Stellers, in a Jan. 28 statement, offered his “sincere and heartfelt apologies” to anyone affected by the delay or lack of results.
“You placed your trust in us to give you what you needed, and the fact that we were unable to deliver what you expected and deserved amounted to a disappointing failure on our part,” Stellers wrote.
He also sought to dispel any rumors that Broadwell had been “unjustly enriched” by the events, writing that “Broadwell incurred significant expenses associated with increasing our staffing capacity and expanding our testing sites to meet the surge’s demands, but was not reimbursed or compensated for testing results that failed to materialize.”
MTS confirmed it did not pay Broadwell for its services. According to contracts reviewed by VOSD, Broadwell Health actually agreed to pay MTS between $1,000 and $2,000 a month to operate at trolley stations.
Navarrete said TestSD, and its parent company Broadwell Health, set up the testing operation because they simply saw a need for more accessible testing.
“Our main goal … here is to make testing more accessible, especially to underserved populations,” Navarrete said. “To make sure that people don’t have to wait long.”
But Navarrete also said the company submits information gathered from patients at testing sites for reimbursement through Medicare for individuals with medical insurance and to the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration for individuals without insurance.
Both entities reimburse testing providers $75 dollars per test administered, with an additional $25 if the test results are returned within 2 days.
That puts the potential reimbursement value of the 8,000 tests performed by TestSD between Jan. 3-7 as high as $600,000.
Stellers said that due to delays in claims processing, no reimbursements have been processed yet for any December or January tests.
But he did say that Broadwell plans to submit reimbursement claims for all tests in which results were processed, even those that took longer than a week.
Navarrete added that requests for reimbursement were often denied.
Broadwell Health was founded in 2016 by El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells. It has been in the news of late because of its connections to a network of clinics that was the subject of a criminal investigation into the organization’s Medicare billing practices.
In October 2020, several locations of the Borrego Community Health Foundation, a nonprofit clinic network meant to provide healthcare to patients in rural communities, were raided by state and federal agents.
The San Diego Union Tribune reported in January that the former CEO of the foundation, Bruce Hebets, offered Wells a job as a staff psychologist in 2016.
Wells passed on the job but decided to found Broadwell Health to provide outsourced mental health professionals to the foundation. The company has since grown to serve several other nonprofit clinics and, more recently, has ventured into COVID-19 testing with TestSD.
Wells told VOSD that he’s not actually involved on the TestSD side of things, and serves only as clinical director of Broadwell’s behavioral health business.
The investigation into Borrego Health centers around potentially fraudulent billings for dental services, which are unrelated to Broadwell’s behavioral health work.
On Jan. 3, six days after Navarrete said TestSD first started seeing lab delays, Mark Olson, director of marketing and communications for MTS, went on KUSI’s Good Morning San Diego to tout the partnership.
He said TestSD sites may be experiencing longer than anticipated lines but didn’t mention delayed results.
In fact, Olson said the first notice MTS received about delays was Jan. 4, the day after his KUSI appearance, and seven days after Navarrete said TestSD first began to see delays.
MTS received nine complaints about results through its call center. The agency said it referred individuals back to TestSD’s website.
When asked about the vetting process for this contract, Olson said that Bricehouse Station LLC, another outside company, is responsible for overseeing the leasing of tenant space on MTS properties. He said Bricehouse collected and verified documents, including a business license, license for COVID testing and insurance documents from Broadwell Health.
Since the snafu, TestSD has gradually reopened test sites they’d shut down when demand exploded. According to its website, the company still has locations open Monday through Friday at the Santa Fe Transit, 12th & Imperial, Old Town, Iris and Otay Mesa transit centers.
“COVID testing at transit centers can be a great resource for MTS passengers,” Olson said. He added that “testing can continue on MTS property as long as results can be delivered in a timely manner.”
Stellers acknowledged that TestSD had not lived up to its commitment to patients, but also sought to assure community members that it had learned from the experience.
“Bottom line, we were unprepared for the unexpected demand, but we were not alone in that,” Stellers wrote. “We’ve taken measures to make sure this does not happen again and we will continue to improve our quality of service to everyone we serve.”