End of free COVID-19 tests for uninsured Americans

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Americans without health insurance will now begin to see some of the free COVID-19 testing options disappear, even if they have symptoms.

Quest Diagnostics, one of the nation’s largest testing companies, told ABC News that patients who do not have Medicare, Medicaid or a private health plan will now be charged $125 ($119 and $6 medical expenses) when they use one of its QuestDirect PCR Tests either by ordering a kit online or by visiting one of Quest’s 1,500 or major retail outlets that administer the tests, such as Walmart or Giant Eagle.

More than 30 million Americans had no insurance in the first half of 2021, according to CDC estimates.

This week, federal funding to cover the cost of COVID-19 testing and treatment for uninsured Americans officially dried up; any further cash injections are contingent on Congress passing the White House’s request for billions more for COVID aid, which is still stalled.

Quest has begun notifying its customers and partners that they can no longer expect to be reimbursed for uninsured claims, except for additional funding from Congress.

Uninsured patients who want or need a COVID-19 test and get it at one of Northwell’s GoHealth Urgent Care Clinic sites will now be charged between $120 and $195 for a PCR test, depending on plus accrued external lab fees for processing the test.

Northwell Health is New York State’s largest healthcare provider. It has 55 urgent care sites across the state.

Patients requiring a COVID-19 test who don’t have insurance and go to one of Statcare’s 13 emergency clinics across New York will now be charged $100 for a PCR test.

For some of the large retail pharmacies, things are still in flux.

Walgreens told ABC News that no firm decision has yet been made. The company said it awaits further guidance from the White House and federal agencies and remains “hopeful for a path forward that ensures uninterrupted access to COVID-19 services.” CVS told ABC News it was “fully confident” a solution would be found between Congress and the administration.

But unless Congress agrees to additional funding for COVID-19, it’s likely companies will have to either absorb the cost of uninsured customers or start billing them.

Meanwhile, groups such as the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, which represents major retail pharmacies and supermarkets such as CVS, Costco Wholesale, Hy-Vee and Albertsons, have sounded the alarm over the issue and pushed the Biden administration and Congress to make things right.

“Any premature cut in funding that divides access to care threatens to disintegrate the robust, equity-focused response to the COVID-19 pandemic that has so far saved more than a million lives,” wrote the NACDS in recent letters to the White House as well as the Senate and House leadership.

With funding for the uninsured expiring, the support structure to provide equitable access to testing and treatment for COVID-19 is “in imminent danger,” the group wrote, warning that cutting funding “could creating extreme confusion at the pharmacy counter” and “resulting in the tragedy of growing disparities in access to essential care and patients forgoing care.”

To promote equitable access to COVID-19 care for vulnerable groups, it is necessary to ensure that sick people receive the treatment they need in time, because antiviral therapies such as monoclonals or Paxlovid must be taken in a short time period. So getting treatment depends on getting tested within this limited window, to receive what is already a dwindling supply of free treatments. Getting tested on time also depends on the ability to pay for the service, which is not a given, especially for low-income families.

“Loss of access, following the expiration of COVID-19 care programs, could undermine the country’s broader and more comprehensive response efforts, and NACDS agrees that inaction at this pivotal time could set back the country, leaving the country less prepared and may cost the nation more lives,” the letter read.

The American Clinical Laboratory Association — the national trade association representing some of the major clinical laboratories responsible for diagnosing COVID-19 (including Quest and LabCorp) — is also causing concern.

“Undoubtedly, the depletion of these funds will threaten access to testing for the most vulnerable Americans at a critical time in our country’s response effort,” wrote Tom Sparkman, senior vice president of government affairs. and CAWA policy, to House and Senate leaders this week.

Sparkman told ABC News in an interview Wednesday that the funding cuts for the uninsured are two steps backwards in the progression of the pandemic.

“We are still in a public health emergency. We are not out of the woods yet – we don’t want to start dismantling parts of the response. We must remain strong and vigilant, and unsecured funding is a critical piece of that,” Sparkman said. “It’s extremely concerning.”

“We can’t start rolling the rug out,” he said. “To not learn from past surges – to maintain a higher level of surge capacity for testing, to keep those lines hot and available – I think that would be a mistake.”

ABC News’ Alex Stone reports:

ABC News’ Cheyenne Haslett and Anne Flaherty contributed to this report.

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