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

The end of this program — which launched in the early days of the pandemic — makes it tougher for the nation’s 31 million uninsured residents to contend with Covid-19. While some access to free services continues, many uninsured Americans will now have to shell out money to get a coronavirus test or receive treatment if they are sick.

Vaccinations should still be provided free of charge since the federal government pre-purchased all the vaccines, said Jennifer Tolbert, associate director for the Program on Medicaid and the Uninsured at the Kaiser Family Foundation. Providers have been able to apply for reimbursement for administering the shot.

The federal program’s cessation is expected to hit more than just the uninsured, especially if the US experiences another Covid-19 surge.

“Some patients will end up not getting these lifesaving vaccines, treatments or being able to identify if they have had any type of exposure, which is going to harm these vulnerable individuals and impact our nation’s safety and protection against Covid-19,” said Audrey Richardson, 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 supplemental Covid-19 funding last month, the White House asked for $1.5 billion to replenish the program for the uninsured.
However, the $15.6 billion package that the House failed to include in the federal spending bill last month did not specifically include more funding for the uninsured. On Thursday, lawmakers struck a bipartisan deal “in principle” for an even narrower $10 billion Covid-19 aid proposal, according to Utah GOP Sen. Mitt Romney.
Several industry groups representing providers are pushing lawmakers to revive the effort, especially as cases of the BA.2 subvariant of the Omicron variant rise in Europe and Asia.

“Without question, the exhaustion of these funds will threaten access to testing for the most vulnerable Americans at a critical time in our nation’s response effort,” Thomas Sparkman, senior vice president for government affairs and policy at the American Clinical Laboratory Association, wrote in a letter to congressional leaders last month.

The White House has also flagged other federal Covid-19 response efforts that will suffer without additional money, including purchasing more vaccines, monoclonal antibody treatments and preventive treatments for the immunocompromised. The federal government will also have trouble sustaining testing capacity.

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

Curtailing the spread

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

The goal was to make sure those without health coverage could obtain care, which would also help stop the virus’ spread.

More than 50,000 providers have been reimbursed a total of just under $19 billion by the program as of early March, according to Martin Kramer, spokesman for the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, which runs the uninsured fund. Since early 2022, the agency has been receiving about 1 million claims a day and paying out about $500 million a week.

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

Millions of Americans have benefited from the program, Kramer said, noting it has served a critical role during the pandemic.

“Costs for these services can really add up for someone without insurance, depending on the treatment and care they need,” he said. The program’s end “will increase the disparity in access to critically needed health care and will put additional burdens on safety net providers.”

Charging fees or stopping service

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

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

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

Meanwhile, Curative, a health care startup, stopped testing those without insurance in certain states — including Florida and Texas — where the uninsured comprise a significant share of…

Read More: As federal Covid-19 funds dry up, many uninsured lose access to free tests,

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