Medicare will soon provide free at-home coronavirus testing

Medicare, which covers about 60 million Americans, will provide free rapid over-the-counter coronavirus tests starting in the spring, according to the federal agency Medicare and Medicaid.

The policy “would allow Medicare beneficiaries to take tests for free at the point of sale and without needing reimbursement,” the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said Thursday, adding that it would be the first time Medicare has covered the together. cost of an over-the-counter test.

The announcement follows weeks of outcry from lawmakers and health care advocates, who have argued that Medicare beneficiaries have been ignored in the administration’s effort to demand that private insurers cover medical expenses. tests.

Under the plan, which will also apply to Medicare Advantage beneficiaries, Medicare will pay eligible pharmacies and health care providers to offer the tests. The administration did not specify how many pharmacies would participate.

Enrollees will be able to take up to eight tests each month, the same number covered for privately insured Americans under a set of new requirements announced by the Biden administration last month.

The new Medicare program won’t begin until “early spring,” the administration said. The spike in cases caused by the already declining Omicron variant may have diminished significantly by then. Even so, testing could help Americans in possible future surges, perhaps driven by different variants, and as people begin to congregate more frequently with fewer cases of the virus.

Free tests covered by Medicare would go to some of the most vulnerable parts of the US population. The vast majority of Medicare enrollees are 65 or older; others are young people with disabilities.

Since new treatments for the virus must be administered early in infection to be effective, rapid case detection and identification are essential to their use.

After the Biden administration announced new guidelines for reimbursement for tests under private insurance plans, lawmakers called on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to expand coverage to Medicare enrollees. Frequent use of rapid tests, which typically cost around $10 each if paid out of pocket and are usually packaged in pairs, can be prohibitively expensive for many Americans.

“The cost of paying for tests and the time it takes to find free testing options are barriers that could discourage Medicare beneficiaries from getting tested, leading to greater social isolation and the continued spread of the virus,” said said Nancy LeaMond, an AARP official, in a statement Thursday congratulating the administration on the new policy.

The plan is the latest step in a patchwork of federal efforts to provide faster testing, after President Biden received a public slap in the face over a holiday testing shortage when cases of the Omicron variant surged. skyrocketed and the demand for testing skyrocketed. As the Biden administration searched for tests to buy, manufacturers rushed to meet demand from public and commercial buyers around the world.

The administration has already sent tens of millions of free rapid tests under a new Postal Service program, the White House said last week. Every US household can order four tests through this program at this time. At least 60 million households, nearly half the total number in the United States, have ordered tests from the program, which uses a website and hotline for orders. Like all Americans, those enrolled in Medicare are eligible to receive these tests.

The Biden administration said Thursday that Medicare enrollees can also still get free coronavirus tests at more than 20,000 community sites, and also when tested by health providers.

Christy J. Olson