Medicare opens access to free at-home COVID-19 tests

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration, seeking to close a frustrating gap in COVID-19 testing coverage, announced Thursday that people with Medicare will be able to get free over-the-counter tests much more easily in the coming weeks. .

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said Medicare will cover up to eight free tests per month, starting in early spring. The tests will be distributed at participating pharmacies and other locations. They will be available to people who receive Medicare’s “Part B” outpatient benefit, which about 9 in 10 enrollees enroll in.

Last month, the administration ordered private insurers to cover up to eight home tests per month free of charge for people on their plans. Officials said at the time they were still trying to figure out what to do about Medicare, which covers more than 60 million people, most aged 65 or older and more vulnerable to serious illnesses from heart disease. coronavirus.

Medicare benefits are governed by a slew of murky laws and regulations, and officials said Thursday they were able to arrange over-the-counter COVID-19 testing coverage using the program’s legal authority to conduct demonstration programs on innovative ways to deliver health care. care. This is the first time Medicare has covered an over-the-counter test at no cost to beneficiaries.

People with Medicare Advantage, a private insurance option that covers about 4 in 10 Medicare enrollees, will also have access to free COVID-19 testing as part of their plans, officials said. Medicare Advantage plans may already cover over-the-counter COVID-19 testing as an additional benefit.

AARP welcomed Medicare’s decision and said it would closely monitor the rollout. “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 continued spread of the virus,” Nancy LeaMond, vice president of seniors group advocacy, said in a statement.

The new policy focuses on so-called rapid tests, which deliver results at home in around 15 minutes. Many families use the tests before getting together for special occasions or when grandparents travel from out of state to see grandchildren they haven’t been able to play with for months due to isolation of COVID-19. Some testers feature seniors directly in their marketing.

Medicare will also continue to cover more accurate PCR lab tests free of charge, but these must be ordered by a licensed clinician or healthcare professional.

Before Thursday’s announcement, Medicare enrollees had options to get free home tests, and those will remain available while the new policy takes effect. These options include requesting four free tests for home delivery through or picking up free tests at community locations such as libraries or senior centers that distribute them.

Home testing was extremely rare in pharmacies as the omicron wave gained momentum in December, and some consumers find that is still the case. However, an all-out White House campaign to provide 500 million free tests and dramatically increase production capacity is starting to show results, though they may vary by community and pharmacy location.


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