Dec 3, 2021 - Health

A reality check on free at-home COVID tests

At-home COVID-19 test boxes from Quidel and Abbott are on a table.
Abbott and Quidel each make at-home COVID-19 tests. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Biden administration's decision to require health insurance companies to cover the cost of at-home COVID-19 tests is part of a national effort to more easily identify infected people and stunt the spread of the virus this winter.

Reality check: Millions of people who are uninsured or are covered by Medicare and Medicaid weren't included in the announcement, and the redemption of a "free" test still requires insured people to pay upfront.

Details: Federal agencies will release guidance by Jan. 15 that will explain how this policy will work.

  • The White House said insured people who buy at-home COVID tests "will be able to seek reimbursement from their group health plan or health insurance issuer and have insurance cover the cost during the public health emergency."
  • The Biden administration also will distribute 50 million tests to community health clinics and rural sites, available for free.

Between the lines: The 50 million free tests will help some of the uninsured, those on government insurance programs and people who otherwise can't afford the tests.

  • But those tests won't cover everyone, and the structure of America's private health insurance system doesn't guarantee insured people will get at-home tests for free either.
  • Based on the White House's language, the onus will be on people to buy tests at stores or pharmacies, assuming there are enough tests.
  • People then will have to submit receipts to insurers and wait an indefinite amount of time to get reimbursed. There's always a chance a claim could get erroneously denied or stalled.
  • This sounds similar to mail-in rebates, a process that consumers hate and often don't complete.

What they're saying: America's Health Insurance Plans, the lobbying group for insurers, said in a statement that companies will ensure "that everyone has access to affordable diagnostic testing ... and that clear rules and guidance allow these efforts to be implemented effectively."

The bottom line: "You really want the at-home tests available for cheap at the point-of-sale," tweeted Loren Adler, a health policy expert at the Brookings Institution.

Go deeper