Crisis talks were being held on Monday between German Health Minister Jens Spahn and state health ministers after it emerged that some companies offering free Covid-19 rapid tests – Schnelltests – could be giving false information to pocket extra cash.
Authorities have launched investigations after news reports claimed that some test centres were padding out their numbers to claim more money from the government.
In an effort to boost Covid-19 testing and allow for the reopening of some public facilities like restaurants, the German government made testing free several weeks ago, reimbursing companies up to €18 ($22) for each test conducted.
But a joint investigation by NDR and WDR public television and Süddeutsche Zeitung published on Friday found the system opens the door to widespread fraud.
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“They (test centres) just have to send the number of tests (carried out), without any proof, and they are wired the money soon after,” said the media investigation.
- Germany’s free Covid-19 testing system ‘opens up potential for fraud’
EXPLAINED: What you need to know about rapid Covid testing around Germany
As part of the effort, reporters counted the number of people who had come into the testing centres and then compared these numbers to what the establishments submitted to the government to get reimbursed.
According to the investigation, one centre declared 422 tests, when only around 100 people had come in. Another filed for reimbursement of 1,743 tests done in a single day, when only 550 people had come in.
Why are crisis talks being held?
In view of the suspicion of fraudulent activity at some coronavirus test sites, health ministers are planning stricter regulations.
Under the plans, test centres could be required to provide their tax identification number to the relevant physicians’ associations so that tax offices can reconcile billed tests with declared sales.
Centres could also be required to provide written confirmation from the health department that they are properly performing tests.
The participants of the health ministers’ meeting said that testing infrastructure with reputable providers was needed quickly in Germany.
The number of places offering free Covid-19 tests has grown hugely all over Germany in recent weeks, since the government introduced the free scheme. They are often situation in tents, corner shops or kiosks.
Meanwhile, people who want to offer free tests usually need few prerequisites to do so.
For instance, an online course on swab collection is sufficient in many places, and then an application to open a test centre can be submitted to the health department. This is usually approved without difficulty.
In the North Rhine-Westphalia region there are currently nearly 8,000 centres and the capital Berlin has at least 1,200.
Around 5.2 million free tests have been reported in Berlin since the beginning of March. Of these, just under 4.8 million were from privately operated test stations, the rest were in the Senate’s own test centres, a spokesman for the health department said on Monday.
Test centres are already being monitored by German health authorities following the media investigation.
Prosecutors raided a company in the northwestern city of Bochum on Friday, according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, while farther north in Lübeck, prosecutors have opened a fraud probe, the WirtschaftsWoche weekly said.
In Cologne, authorities carried out a surprise control of a testing centre, and the city of Münster has revoked the licence of a company that operates around 50 testing centres.
A spokesman for the Health Ministry told the three media outlets last week that while test centre operators do not have to submit data on the names of those tested or proof of purchase of the antigen tests to receive reimbursement, they do have to keep these records themselves until December 31st 2024, and may be subject to future audits.