Concerns mount as a U.S. reimbursement fund for testing and treating uninsured people for the virus shuts down claims.
As the White House asks Republicans in Congress for emergency aid to fight the coronavirus, the federal government said a fund set up to reimburse doctors to care for uninsured Covid patients “lacked sufficient funds” to stop requests for tests and accept treatments more.”
Some US healthcare providers are informing uninsured people that they can no longer get tested for the virus for free and will have to pay for the service.
Quest Diagnostics, which operates one of the largest networks of testing sites and laboratories in the United States, began notifying customers last week that reimbursement was no longer available, Kimberly B. Gorode, a spokeswoman for the chain, said Sunday.
Patients “are being told they can’t get it for free,” she said. Uninsured people now have to pay $125 to get tested at Quest Diagnostics, while other testing services can charge up to $195.
Customers enrolled in a private insurance plan or covered by Medicare or Medicaid are not affected, she said.
The federal uninsured Covid program was set up in 2020 to pay the medical bills of coronavirus patients without health insurance. Earlier this year, during the Omicron wave, the program allowed leading labs to run 500,000 tests a month for free for uninsured people, according to the American Clinical Laboratory Association.
In 2021, the program spent $130 million to compensate providers for testing, treating, and vaccinating uninsured individuals.
About 31.2 million Americans are uninsured, according to federal data in 2020. Uninsured individuals tended to be black or from low-income families.
The White House recently requested $22.5 billion in emergency Covid relief, but Republicans in Congress have said they will not approve another relief package unless the White House finds another way to allocate the funds procure, and the legislature was still struggling to break the impasse. An initial deal to use about $7 billion in state government coronavirus aid to pay for a smaller $15.6 billion package collapsed earlier this month when House Democrats and governors objected to recovering it money raised.
On Wednesday, the Federal Administration of Health Resources and Services stopped accepting requests for testing and treatment for uninsured patients. On April 6, the agency will stop reimbursement for vaccinations to uninsured individuals.
Senior federal health officials on Wednesday reiterated concerns about the impact of stalled funding amid the spread of BA.2, a highly transmissible omicron subvariant that accounts for about 35 percent of new U.S. cases, and a form of the virus known as version resembles that has prevailed the nation this winter.
Xavier Becerra, the health and social affairs minister, warned last week that reimbursements for tests would end.
“The continued execution requires the continued support of Congress,” he said, referring to President Biden’s recently released Covid response plan. “And at this stage, our resources are exhausted.”
Pharmacies operate 20,000 testing sites across the country, and as of this month, many have used federal emergency funds to provide testing and vaccinations for uninsured Americans.
“This puts healthcare providers in an extremely vulnerable position,” the National Association of Chain Drug Stores wrote in a recent letter to White House and Congressional leaders.
The funding cut “could create extreme confusion at the pharmacy counter,” the letter said, and “could lead to the tragedy of widening inequalities in access to much-needed care and patients forgoing care.”
The American Hospital Association called on Congress to release aid funds, describing the uninsured program as one of the services “essential to our country’s ability to respond to Covid-19.”
In some cases, county, state, or other federal programs may provide an alternative for uninsured individuals.