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As federal Covid-19 funds dry up, many uninsured lose access to free tests and vaccines

The end of this program – which was launched at the start of the pandemic – is making it harder for the country’s 31 million uninsured people to cope with Covid-19. While some access to free services continues, many uninsured Americans will now have to shell out money to get tested for coronavirus or receive treatment if they are sick.

Vaccinations should still be provided free since the federal government has pre-purchased all vaccines, said Jennifer Tolbert, associate program director on Medicaid and the uninsured at the Kaiser Family Foundation. Providers were able to request reimbursement for the administration of the vaccine.

Termination of the federal program is expected to affect more than the uninsured, especially if the United States experiences another surge of Covid-19.

“Some patients will end up not receiving these life-saving vaccines, treatments or being able to identify if they have been exposed to any type, which will harm these vulnerable people and affect the security and protection of our country against Covid-19,” Audrey said. Richardson, a policy analyst at Families USA, a consumer health advocacy group.

Asking Congress for more money

As part of its request for $22.5 billion in additional Covid-19 funding last month, the White House requested $1.5 billion to replenish the program for the uninsured.
However, the $15.6 billion package that the House did not include in the federal spending bill last month did not specifically include more funding for the uninsured. On Thursday, lawmakers reached a bipartisan agreement “in principle” for an even narrower $10 billion Covid-19 relief package, according to Utah GOP Senator Mitt Romney.
Several industry groups representing vendors are pushing lawmakers to revive the effort, especially as cases of the BA.2 subvariant of the Omicron variant increase in Europe and Asia.

“Undoubtedly, the depletion of these funds will threaten access to testing for the most vulnerable Americans at a critical time in our nation’s response effort,” wrote Thomas Sparkman, senior vice president for business. governance and policy at the American Clinical Laboratory Association. a letter to congressional leaders last month.

The White House also flagged other federal Covid-19 response efforts that will suffer without additional money, including purchasing more vaccines, monoclonal antibody treatments and preventative treatments for the immunocompromised. The federal government will also struggle to maintain testing capacity.

Additionally, the country’s ability to identify emerging variants and support global vaccination and treatment efforts will be reduced, according to the Biden administration.

Limit the spread

Congress created and funded the uninsured Covid-19 program as part of several coronavirus relief programs it passed in 2020. The effort also draws on money allocated in the American Rescue Plan Act, which was signed into law in March 2021.

The aim was to ensure that people without health insurance could get care, which would also help stop the spread of the virus.

More than 50,000 providers were reimbursed for a total of just under $19 billion by the program in early March, according to Martin Kramer, spokesman for the Federal Health Resources and Services Administration, which runs the program. uninsured fund. As of the start of 2022, the agency receives around 1 million claims per day and pays around $500 million per week.

About 61% of reimbursements have been for testing, about 31% for treatment and less than 9% for administering vaccines, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Millions of Americans have benefited from the program, Kramer said, noting that it has played a vital role during the pandemic.

“The costs for these services can really add up for someone without insurance, depending on the treatment and care they need,” he said. Ending the program “will increase the disparity in access to much-needed health care and place additional burdens on safety net providers.”

Charge a fee or stop the service

Some providers have already announced that the uninsured will have to pay for Covid-19 tests now.

Quest Diagnostics, one of the nation’s largest commercial labs, has begun charging uninsured Americans who order tests through QuestDirect between $70 and $125, depending on the type, according to company spokeswoman Kim Gorode. Those who go to a doctor who orders a test through Quest Diagnostics will pay $100.

The company received about $488 million in reimbursements for testing from the uninsured fund, according to the CDC database and confirmed by Quest.

Meanwhile, health care start-up Curative has stopped testing people without insurance in some states — including Florida and Texas — where the uninsured make up a significant portion of its patients and where it doesn’t. have no other repayment terms in place. It provides testing in 34 states.

Curative has received nearly $587 million in refunds, according to the CDC. Asked about the figure, the company said there was not enough data on the agency’s website to confirm its accuracy.

For Embry Health, the end of the reimbursement program could mean the closure of the vast majority of the company’s 300 Covid-19 testing sites in seven states, CEO Raymond Embry said. It began suspending operations at 60 locations in Arizona starting April 1.

About 50% of its customers are uninsured.

The company, which received about $54 million in reimbursements from the federal program, is now testing a total of about 2,200 people a day, Embry said. That’s down from a high of 46,000 during Omicron’s peak earlier this year.

The company was continuing to provide free testing to uninsured people on Friday, even though the federal program stopped accepting new applications on March 22, Embry said. But he can’t do it forever.

He fears it will be harder for the uninsured to get tested, just as Omicron’s highly contagious BA.2 subvariant has become the dominant strain in the United States.

“Patients need to feel confident about getting tested, and the only price acceptable to them is free. It has to be free,” Embry said.

Free tests still available

Although harder to find, free tests are still available for the uninsured.

CVS said people without coverage can continue to receive free Covid-19 tests or vaccinations at its pharmacies.

The chain received $38 million for testing and $475 million for vaccines from the federal program, according to the CDC. CVS referred questions about the accuracy of the data to the Health Resources and Services Administration, which did not immediately return a request for confirmation.

Many states, municipalities and community health centers still offer free testing.

For example, the New York City Department of Health continues to provide free testing and vaccines to uninsured people, as well as those who are covered, at mobile sites, local clinics, hospitals owned by the city and other places. The effort is funded with money from multiple public sources, including city, state, and federal governments.

Another option for the uninsured: Order up to two sets of four free at-home Covid-19 tests from the federal government at Covidtests.gov.

Advocates and healthcare providers, however, worry that uninsured people may become more reluctant to seek medical services now that the reimbursement program is ending.

“We certainly wouldn’t want someone who doesn’t have coverage at this point to see this information about this program disappear and think they wouldn’t have access to care,” said Molly Smith, vice president of the policy group for the American Hospital Association.

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