Affordable Coronavirus Tests Are Out There, if You Look


Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced that it would soon require private health insurers to reimburse consumers for the cost of at-home coronavirus tests. It was a step toward improving access to the tests, which remain more expensive in the United States than in Europe, where they are often distributed for little or no cost.

But the Biden plan has not yet gone into effect, and the cost of repeated rapid tests, which begins at $7 per test, can quickly add up.

“It still is too expensive for the typical American household to be rapid testing everyone in the household every week,” said Zoe McLaren, a health policy expert at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

With the holidays fast approaching, are there ways to reduce the financial burden of testing? There are, but they may require both legwork and luck, experts said.

Not yet. The administration has said that it plans to issue its rules for reimbursement by Jan. 15, and the plan will go into effect sometime after that.

The administration has already said that the plan will not provide retroactive reimbursement for tests that have already been purchased, which means that any tests you buy for the holidays will not be covered.

“That reimbursement plan is not going to really help us over the holidays, when obviously the risk of transmission is highest,” Ms. McLaren said.

Still, since the final rules have not yet been issued, there is “certainly no harm” in saving the receipts from any tests you buy in the next month or so, just in case, said Sabrina Corlette, the co-director of the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. But you should not count on being reimbursed, she said.

The process and requirements for reimbursement are still unclear; people should wait for more information from the Biden administration and insurers in January, experts said.

Not necessarily, although your ability to find free tests may depend on where you live and work — and how much time and effort you’re willing to devote.

Last week, for instance, Vermont issued its own mandate requiring insurers to cover the cost of at-home tests. The rule is retroactive and will apply to all tests purchased on Dec. 1 or after. Other states may ultimately issue similar rules — another reason to save your receipts.

In addition, some employers offer free tests for employees on-site, supply free rapid tests to take home or provide health plans that cover the cost of at-home testing.

“Most of our members have been proactively covering home testing already,” said Elizabeth Mitchell, the chief executive of the Purchaser Business Group on Health, a coalition of large companies that provide health benefits to their employees.

She recommended that people reach out to their benefits or human resources department to find out what testing resources they offer.

Because the insurance reimbursement plan applies only to those who have private insurance, the Biden administration has also announced that it will be distributing 50 million free tests to community-based health organizations.

Some states are also distributing free tests to residents, although the specific plans vary. For instance, on Monday Massachusetts announced that it would distribute two million rapid tests to residents of 102 towns with high poverty rates. Colorado residents can order tests online. Maryland is distributing tests through local health departments, while Ohio is giving them out at libraries.

But availability may be limited, and it can be tricky to determine how to obtain the tests.

“This highlights the challenge,” said Lindsey Dawson, an associate director at the Kaiser Family Foundation who has studied the availability of rapid tests. “An individual would really have to do a bit of legwork to assess where they are.”

Ms. Dawson suggested that people start by contacting their local health departments to ask whether and where free tests might be available.

Some school districts, including those in Chicago and San Diego, are reportedly distributing free test kits for students to use before they return from winter break.

Many of the mass testing sites turned into vaccination sites or shut down entirely. But many localities still have smaller public testing sites. Tests at these sites are generally free, as are those that are ordered by a health care provider. “Insurance companies are required to cover those and waive any cost sharing,” Ms. Corlette said.

But be aware that doctors’ offices and public testing sites generally administer P.C.R. tests, which are performed in a laboratory and can take a day or more to process.

Some localities do have sites that promise quick results. New York City, for instance, runs “Covid Express” testing sites throughout the city, promising to return P.C.R. results in 24 hours or less. Most residents receive their results the same day, the health department says. The tests are available by appointment only but are free for all New Yorkers.

Here, again, the local health department is likely to be your best resource — consider reaching out to ask whether they have any free public testing sites that return results quickly.

Start early and shop around. Because the availability of tests, especially free tests, is likely to be limited, start looking for them as soon as possible, experts advised.

And if you do need to buy tests, you may have to visit more than one store or site to find them, especially if you are looking for a specific test or price point.

“And what you find today might not be available tomorrow or even later this afternoon,” Ms. Dawson said, noting that the window for ordering tests before the holidays was also closing. “So people might want to think about acting sooner rather than later.”


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