Beyond Obamacare: Local franchises offer cheaper medical lab tests

by Shari Rudavsky

Source: Bloomberg Business

Dec. 24--Until she lost her job and health insurance, Karen Bruce never thought twice about visiting hospital or commercial laboratories for the regular blood tests she needs to monitor her level of blood-thinning medication. Once she had to pay for the tests herself, however, she needed an alternative.

Bruce, who lives on Indianapolis' Southside, found it at a Greenwood storefront, Any Lab Test Now.

A national chain, Any Lab Test Now offers a variety of medical tests, including lipid panels, paternity tests, drug tests and tests for sexually transmitted diseases, at a fraction of what most hospital and other major laboratories charge for the service.

In the past four years, Bruce estimates, Any Lab Test Now has saved her hundreds of dollars. At Any Lab Test Now, she pays about $20 a test, much less than what the hospital lab charged.

"For people who are unemployed and don't have insurance, it's just a nice way to have done what you need to be done without it being expensive," said Bruce, 52.

That's precisely the idea behind the company. Launched in 1992 in Atlanta, Any Lab Test Now started offering franchises in 2007. Now, the company has more than 150 locations across the United States, including four in Central Indiana.

Eventually the company hopes to have as many as 500 locations across the nation, said Clarissa Bradstock, chief executive officer of Any Lab Test Now.

Average clients tend to turn to the company for cheaper alternatives to mainstream medical testing facilities, said Jim Adams, who co-owns the Avon and Greenwood sites with his wife, Kristi. With the increasing popularity of high-deductible plans, business has grown in recent years, he said.

"The patients we're able to help the most are the patients who do not have health insurance," he said.

Even those who have health insurance may still balk at the high cost of lab tests done in a more traditional laboratory setting. Others may take advantage of having direct access to tests that can include food sensitivities and vitamin D testing.

The rise of the Internet and so-called health care consumerism, in which patients do not necessarily follow without question the recommendation of physicians, also has spurred business, Bradstock said.

"Our tagline is take control of your health. You can be in the driver's seat," she said.

Similar companies have made headlines. Theranos, based in Palo Alto, Calif., partnered with Walgreens in Arizona to offer cheaper direct access testing, though plans to extend the service nationally have been put on hold.

Consumers welcome an opportunity to know the cost of tests upfront, said Devon Herrick, a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis, a nonprofit think tank in Dallas.

"It's people being curious and being proactive and wanting to have more power in deciding whether they want to go to the doctor or not," said Herrick, who has used the service. "It's the leading edge of a trend of people taking more control of their health care."

Still, he cautioned that direct access testing has downsides. The lab tests could take the place of a doctor's visit for a person who needs a professional opinion or assistance. Or people might waste money on a test they don't need.

For the Adamses, who live in Franklin, Any Lab Test Now offered the perfect opportunity to open their own business. Jim, a parademic, and Kristi, a nurse, had been looking for a franchise, ideally one that had connections to the medical field.

Most of the other options they found required a physician's oversight. Not so with Any Lab Test Now. They opened their first location in 2009. Two years ago, after seeing many clients from Plainfield, Avon and the surrounding area, they decided to open a second location in Avon.

Now, they run 200 to 300 tests a week.

For the most part, their business consists of middle-class families who earn $70,000 to $75,000. Some of those in this tax bracket want to save money, while others have sufficient disposable income to spend money on informational tests such as for food sensitivity.

Any Lab Test Now can charge less per test because it does not have to pay as much overhead or handle insurance, Kristi Adams said.

The savings get passed on to consumers, who pay $20 to $50 for many of the most common tests run. Basic complete blood count, or CBC, tests, prostate specific antigen tests and lipid panels each cost $49, according to the website. The cost of having such tests run in a hospital or commercial lab vary widely depending on the facility, one's insurance plan and other factors.

"All the pricing is upfront. There are no surprise bills in the mail, no additional fees," Kristi Adams said.

Most tests are not performed on site but go out to larger labs for processing. Results come back within a day to a few days, depending on the test.

Patients can ask to have the results sent to their doctors or directly to them.

Pre-employment drug testing and random drug testing constitute another part of the business for many of the franchises, Bradstock said. While larger companies partner directly with the larger national laboratories such as Quest for these services, many smaller companies of 1,000 or fewer employees turn to Any Lab Test Now for employee testing.

Those patients might go only once to Any Lab Test Now, but others, such as Henry Karwowski, now routinely turn to the company for all their labs. His doctor doesn't mind. In fact, when Karwowski told him about the difference in price, his physician was amazed.

The 69-year-old Southside retiree first found Any Lab Test Now a few years ago after a hospital laboratory test reported he had an elevated value on a prostate test. Because the jump was so pronounced, about tenfold, he immediately questioned the validity and wanted to go elsewhere for verification.

A test at Any Lab Test Now confirmed that his PSA level was normal, and Karwowski was sold. Not only is the service cheaper, he also feels treated more like an individual and finds it more efficient.

"I get all of my tests done there because I like to promote the idea of freedom, people getting their own labs and taking responsibility for health and dignity," he said. "The time and money and dignity that it provided kept me there."

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