Officials in cities and towns in the state both praised and rebuffed a medical firm that was among the first to provide coronavirus testing in Connecticut, but has come under criticism for billing related to those tests.

The New York Times reported this week that patients throughout Connecticut and Westchester County received insurance company reports outlining hefty charges for tests from Murphy Medical Associates, a Greenwich-based practice.

Dr. Steven Murphy — the group’s head physician — set up coronavirus testing sites in Greenwich, Stamford, New Haven, Darien, Stratford and New Canaan, among others.

Attorney General William Tong’s office said it has received complaints about the firms’s billing and is investigating.

Officials in Stamford, where Murphy also owns North Stamford Medical Associates, said the city has received no complaints from residents about Murphy’s billing, but has stopped promoting his services in response to the Times article. Stamford continues to contract with Murphy Medical to provide testing for city employees.

New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker credited Murphy with providing essential services to the city during the early pandemic’s darkest days. But Elicker also said the city decided to stop partnering with Murphy about a month ago, in part because of concerns over billing.

The Times article, which states the paper examined insurance documents from 11 subjects tested by Murphy, says those people were later shocked to see how much the doctor’s group had charged their insurance provider.

Several patients said Murphy checked not just for coronavirus, but a wide swath of potential respiratory problems. On top of that, the medical firm charged hundreds for calling people to tell them test results, according to the newspaper.

The combined charges often reached into the thousands.

In a statement released Wednesday, Murphy vigorously defended his firm’s actions.

“We are confident that the tests we run to identify the novel coronavirus are appropriate and, indeed, best meet the appropriate standard of care,” he said.

From “time to time” the firm runs samples against a much wider array of pathogens — including SARS — which is more expensive, but provides “myriad benefits” to patients, he said.

Outbreak

In early March, when most people were still trying to determine if there was a difference between “coronavirus” and “COVID-19,” Murphy Associates began providing drive-thru testing during which people never left their cars.

New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker said Murphy stepped up at a crucial, frightening point early in the pandemic when others were not yet prepared to deal with the illness.

Darien First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said in a statement that Murphy “filled a critical void” while testing was scarce in small towns and labs had long turnaround times.

Shortly after the outbreak, Murphy’s team had testing sites established in many places throughout the state.

The contract between the Stamford and Murphy Medical Associates states that all billing would be submitted to a patient’s health insurance provider. Under the contract, Murphy charges “$100 for the first PCR test and $75 per additional test (per person)” with no balance bill to either the patient or the city.

In Darien, Stevenson said the Times article raised enough concern to convince officials to look for a different testing partner.

“The Town of Darien is exploring alternate testing options as we recognize the importance of this service to our community,” Stevenson said. “We expect to make an announcement very soon.”

Westport also used Murphy for several weeks at the beginning of the pandemic, hosting drive-thru testing on Tuesday mornings at one of the middle schools.

The town stopped working with Murphy in April though after demand at the testing sites tapered off and residents began reporting high bills, Westport First Selectman Jim Marpe said.

“We were hearing of charges that were greater than $1,500,” he said.

By that point, more testing options were available, he said.

Legal

The state might soon weigh in on the matter, according to the Attorney General’s office.

“We can confirm we have received complaints and have an active, ongoing investigation,” said Elizabeth Benton, a spokeswoman for the attorney general.

Stevenson, Darien’s first selectman, said the extent of the medical group’s testing should be more apparent up front.

“While information about testing services and associated prices is likely available through Dr. Murphy’s office,” Stevenson said, “it isn’t prominent when registering to be tested. A greater level of transparency is essential in building patient-physician trust.”

Murphy in his statement said, “We are in the process of reviewing and updating our website and registration materials to better communicate our testing services and process to patients.”

He also said his firm stands behind its practices.

Murphy Medical Associates is currently suing one insurance provider, Cigna, for its refusal to reimburse some of his billing claims. The Murphy practice claims Cigna owes “more than $4.6 million” for “over 4,400 members or beneficiaries.”

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