If it seems like the rich and famous are at the front of the line for any kind of coronavirus testing, it’s not a crazy assumption. Idris Elba and Charles Barkley were among the first celebrities in the U.S. to announce they were tested for COVID-19 as the general public waited for resources to become widely available. Just last week, Madonna declared she planned to “breathe in the COVID-19 air” after testing positive for antibodies — and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is still sorting out which coronavirus antibody tests are even accurate.
Yahoo Entertainment spoke with Dr. Abe Malkin, the founder and medical director of Concierge MD LA, to learn more about in-home services some stars are utilizing. His name might sound familiar, as he’s the doctor Joe Rogan hired to privately test guests coming on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast for COVID-19. The news sparked an online debate about resources for the wealthy, as there are many people still having trouble getting tested by physicians.
Speaking over the phone on Monday, Malkin explained what exactly he does, how he’s privately testing people and whether just anyone can really get a test. (Yes, for a price.)
Concierge MD LA is an in-home medical service providing house calls for members, but amid the pandemic the company has made its resources available to the public. Before COVID-19, Malkin’s visits around Los Angeles mainly involved general care visits, IV therapy and addiction medicine.
“But as you can imagine, lately everyone has been requesting COVID-related house calls or testing,” he said, adding, “That and addiction medicine. That’s one of the other areas of my practice, and unfortunately I’ve seen a lot of relapse because of the quarantine, and that’s become a bigger portion of my time.”
Concierge MD LA started to shift its focus to COVID-19 two months ago.
“In March we started doing the [coronavirus] swab testing, the nasal swab PCR testing. Now that the cases have dropped dramatically, people are requesting antibody testing, which is nice because it’s rapid, but also much more widely available,” he said.
However, Malkin revealed it was “extremely difficult” to get the swabs early on — whether you were famous or not.
“I think there’s a couple of factors there, obviously the government and FEMA… We had ordered 1,000 swabs early in March, which we were approved for, and our allocation was pulled,” he shared. “So we used a lot of speciality labs we had relationships with to get swabs. What happened was, as the weeks went on, they became slightly easier to get as the cases dropped and more companies started producing them, but ultimately it’s still somewhat difficult to get swabs.”
Malkin called it a “misperception” that only the wealthy can get tested but admitted that may have been the case early on.
“I think to some degree very early on [with] swab testing that may have been the case, but now there’s testing readily available, at least in Los Angeles,” he shared.
When it comes to antibody testing, Malkin explained tests are “more widely available because they’re produced by 90 or so different companies that are doing them.” (On Monday, the FDA announced companies selling coronavirus antibody tests must submit data proving accuracy within the next 10 days or be removed from the market.)
“The companies I use are ones I’ve had relationships with for years, so it’s not as if they were started overnight just to do antibody testing. They are labs that are doing many, many other things that have now added tests to their repertoire,” he said. “However, in-home testing — there hasn’t been any FDA-approved in-home tests. So the tests that we’re doing in-home are slightly different than the few companies that have gotten FDA approval for laboratory-based testing. Those tests are difficult to get for a laboratory setting.”
Malkin said you don’t need to be a celebrity to get a house call. He confirmed anyone who wants to get tested can do so through his company right now — but it’s not free. Here’s how it works.
Concierge MD LA is typically a service only provided for monthly members who pay an accessibility fee for a doctor to make house calls. However, Malkin’s company wants to do its part to flatten the curve, so COVID-19 rapid testing, antibody testing and other services are available to the public. After someone requests an appointment online or over the phone, that person is typically seen within 24 hours right now.
“We first determine what test is appropriate for them. For someone who is currently, actively having symptoms, we recommend a nasal swab test because that’s the best diagnostic test,” Malkin explained. “We send someone to your home, we swab your nose, we take it to the lab and you get results in 48 to 72 hours.”
Malkin continued, “For someone who’s not having symptoms and is just curious if they’ve had the virus in the past, we would recommend an antibody test. Now, there are two different kinds of antibody tests. There’s the finger stick test, which is rapid; it takes five to 10 minutes. Then there’s a lab draw test, where we draw your blood and send it to the lab. Technically they’re actually done the same way once they get to the lab, it’s basically the same type of processing, but it’s just blood from your vein as opposed blood from your finger. Some people prefer the vein versus the finger stick test if they’re willing to wait a couple of days. It really depends on the person’s goals and what kind of symptoms they’re having.”
Malkin hasn’t seen any studies that one way is more accurate than the other, but he said there’s a perception the latter is, “so we really want to offer people both options so they’re comfortable with the results.”
Now, just how much will this cost someone who wants to get tested at home?
“To have a medical professional, either a physician or a nurse, come to your house, we charge $299,” Malkin shared. “That includes the testing and everything, that’s an all-in price. That being said, we obviously understand that price is not accessible to some people, so we are very generous about giving discounts to people who can’t afford that cost.”
Concierge MD LA does not take insurance.
“But I know a lot of our clients are submitting super bills to insurance to get reimbursements up to 60 percent or so,” Malkin noted.
In the past two weeks, they’ve seen around 1,500 people.
“Our goal is basically to create an infrastructure across the country for medical professionals, and as the tests become better and better we’ll be able to employ those resources,” Malkin explained.
Ultimately, he wants people to get tested when they can.
“There’s free testing [in Los Angeles], doctors offices have it. I’m offering it, so I’m telling everyone who can get tested to get tested whenever they feel like it’s a necessity,” he emphasized. “Especially now that resources are more widely available.”