The latest US measure to step up covid testing excludes millions of people

Imperfect timing.
Imperfect timing.
Image: Reuters/Hannah Beier
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The White House announced that insurance companies and health plans will have to cover the cost of up to eight over-the-counter at-home covid tests per individual, starting this Saturday (Jan. 15). “This is all part of our overall strategy to ramp-up access to easy-to-use, at-home tests at no cost,” US health secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement.

But millions of people—including the uninsured and those on Medicare—are not eligible to get tests reimbursed under this latest measure.

Medicare won’t cover at-home covid tests

Under the plan announced yesterday, people covered by private insurance or a group health plan will be able to purchase at-home rapid covid-19 tests for free or submit receipts to their insurer for reimbursement. US president Joe Biden’s administration also wants to incentivize insurers to work with preferred pharmacies and retailers to cover the costs of the tests up-front, rather than require patients to pay out of pocket.

The new measure doesn’t include the estimated 31.1 million uninsured people living in the US, nor most of the 61.5 million (pdf) Americans enrolled in Medicare, the federal health insurance plan for seniors and people with disabilities. For now, they will have to rely on other types of covid testing covered by the government. Some Medicare Advantage plans, which are more comprehensive, may cover the cost of at-home tests.

Over the past two years the US government has offered covid-19 laboratory testing to most individuals—including the uninsured (pdf) and those on Medicare—at no cost. But even as more pharmacies began stocking rapid at-home covid tests, the federal government was slow to make them widely available. Though frequent testing is seen as an effective measure to contain coronavirus spread, rapid at-home covid tests in the US typically cost anywhere from $9 to $24, and have been going for as high as $80 as pharmacies battle supply-and-demand issues.

More people in the US should have access to free at-home rapid tests later this month, when the Biden administration has said it will make 500 million test kits available to anyone who wants them. The Department of Health and Human Services also says it’s providing up to 50 million at-home tests to community health centers and Medicare-certified health clinics to distribute to patients free of cost.

By the time these tests reach everyone who needs one, though, the first wave of the omicron variant will likely have already peaked. But at the very least, manufacturers and public health officials may now be better prepared for the next coronavirus variant.