Many pharmacies and other stores have posted signs on their front doors that read, “No COVID Testing.” And in early January, one major store in the country had a single proof for sale online for $49.99, according to Lindsey Dawson, deputy director of the Kaiser Family Foundation. That’s more than double what these tests have cost.
In addition to the coverage that insurers will provide, the federal government has launched covidtests.gov, a federal website where anyone in the United States who wants a rapid test at home can request one at no cost. The Government has bought 500 million tests and plans to buy another 500 million. Four proofs can be ordered for each address under this program, regardless of how many people live at the address. Proofs will be shipped for free 7-12 days after the order is placed.
What’s missing from the new evidence plan: Original Medicare coverage for seniors.
“At this time, Medicare cannot pay for home tests through this program,” a federal fact sheet outlining specific details of the plan says. Beneficiaries covered by Medicare Advantage plans should check with their plans to see if they will cover the cost of the test. Medicare beneficiaries will be able to get free tests at some community health centers or through the federal website. Officials at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) have not said why Medicare is not part of the free testing program.
However, Medicare advocates say beneficiaries shouldn’t rely on the federal website or community health centers. “If you order online, how long will it take to get tests to people who request them?” asks David Lipschutz, deputy director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy, “and what about people without internet access? This would still require an in-person trip or a willing family member or friend” to help them get the evidence.
Rapid home tests, also known as antigen tests, provide results in 15 minutes, compared to the several days it can take for results from polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, but PCR tests are generally considered more accurate. Rapid tests are usually sold in boxes of two.
Ten tips for getting tested at home:
- Can I get these free trials in a store starting January 15? Check with your health plan to see if it will pay for in-home tests directly if you pick them up in person at a pharmacy or other store. If you have that coverage, you can go to a store and get free trials.
- What if my plan requires me to pay in advance? Save your receipts and submit claims to your insurance company. Check with your plan to see if you can email a copy of your receipt or if you need to download a form and mail your proof of purchase.
- How much is an insurance company required to pay? It must reimburse you up to $12 per individual test, or the full cost of the test, if it is less than $12.
- Can I get a refund if I purchased a home test before January 15? Check with your insurer to see if they will pay for tests you purchased before the program started. Some states already offer free rapid tests to some or all of their residents, including Colorado, Maryland, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon and Washington. New York City offers free rapid response PCR tests.
- Will there be enough home tests for everyone who needs them? “At the moment, availability is very tight,” says Dawson at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “Manufacturing is a key piece for this to work.” Administration officials say they are working with manufacturers to speed up the production of tests.
- How many free trials can I get? You can get eight free individual tests per month per person enrolled in the health plan. That means if you have a family of five on your coverage, you can receive 40 free trials each month. Your plan must provide the same refund whether you purchase eight tests at once or at different times throughout the month.
- What if I want more than eight tests a month? You may be able to get them through the federal website or from community health centers that the federal government is providing tests to. The rules governing how many tests can be received by mail through the website have not yet been published.
- What if my employer requires me to be tested multiple times a week? Health plans do not have to cover testing for employment purposes. Find out if your employer will provide you with proof. You can also check online and order free trials on the federal government’s website once it’s up and running.
- What if I am a Medicare beneficiary? Federal authorities will provide up to 50 million free at-home tests to Medicare-certified health clinics and community health centers. If you’re enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan, check with that plan to see if it will pay for the tests. Medicare beneficiaries can also use the federal free trials website when it’s up and running.
- What if I don’t have insurance? You can get free tests by mail through the website that federal officials plan to launch this month or by going to a community health center.
Deborah Schoch contributes articles on health and science topics. A longtime journalist, she has most recently reported for AARP and The New York Times.