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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Concerns rise as reimbursement fund for testing, treating the uninsured for virus stops taking claim

Loading a tray of test tubes into a P.C.R. analysis machine at a Quest Diagnostics lab in Indianapolis last month.

By Ellen Barry

As the White House pleads with Republicans in Congress for emergency aid to fight the coronavirus, the federal government said that a fund established to reimburse doctors for care for uninsured COVID patients was no longer accepting claims for testing and treatment “due to lack of sufficient funds.”

Some U.S. health care providers are informing uninsured people they can no longer be tested for the virus free of charge, 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, last week began to notify clients that the reimbursement was no longer available, Kimberly B. Gorode, a spokesperson for the chain, said Sunday Patients “are being told they can’t get it for free,” she said. Uninsured people will now have to pay $125 to be tested at Quest Diagnostics, while other testing services may charge up to $195.

Customers enrolled in a private insurance plan, or covered by Medicare or Medicaid, are not affected, she said.

The federal COVID uninsured program was established in 2020 to pay the medical bills of coronavirus patients who lack health coverage. Early this year, during the omicron wave, the program allowed leading laboratories to perform 500,000 tests a month free of charge to uninsured individuals, according to the American Clinical Laboratory Association.

In 2021, the program spent $130 million to reimburse providers for testing, treating and vaccinating uninsured people.

Around 31.2 million Americans are uninsured, according to federal data in 2020. Uninsured people were more likely to be people of color or from low-income families.

The White House recently requested $22.5 billion in emergency COVID aid, but Republicans in Congress have said they will not approve another aid package unless the White House finds another way to source the funds and lawmakers were still struggling to break through the impasse. An initial deal to use about $7 billion in state government coronavirus aid to help pay for a smaller, $15.6 billion package collapsed earlier this month when rank-and-file House Democrats and governors objected to clawing back that money.

On Wednesday, the federal Heath Resources and Services Administration stopped accepting claims for testing and treatment for uninsured patients. On April 6, the agency will stop reimbursing providers for vaccinating uninsured people.

Top federal health officials reiterated their concerns Wednesday about the impact of stalled funding amid the spread of BA.2, a highly transmissible omicron subvariant accounting for about 35% of new U.S. cases and a form of the virus similar to the version that swept through the nation this winter.

Xavier Becerra, the health and human services secretary, warned last week that reimbursements for testing were ending.

“Continued execution requires continued support from Congress,” he said, referring to President Joe Biden’s recently released COVID response plan. “And at this stage, our resources are depleted.”

Pharmacies operate 20,000 testing sites across the country, and, until this month, many have used federal emergency funds to provide tests and vaccinations to uninsured Americans.

“This places health care providers in an extremely tenuous position,” the National Association of Chain Drug Stores wrote in a recent letter to the White House and congressional leaders.

Cutting off funding “could create extreme confusion at the pharmacy counter,” the letter said, and “could result in the tragedy of increasing disparities in access to critically needed care and patients forgoing care.”

The American Hospital Association urged Congress to release relief 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 alterative for uninsured people.

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