Medicare, which covers roughly 60 million Americans, will provide free over-the-counter rapid coronavirus tests beginning in the spring, according to the federal government’s Medicare and Medicaid agency.
The policy would “allow Medicare beneficiaries to pick up tests at no cost at the point of sale and without needing to be reimbursed,” the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said on Thursday, adding that it would be the first time Medicare covered the whole cost of an over-the-counter test.
The announcement followed weeks of clamor from lawmakers and health care advocates, who argued that Medicare recipients had been passed over in the administration’s push to require private insurers to cover the tests.
Under the plan, which will also apply to Medicare Advantage beneficiaries, Medicare will pay eligible pharmacies and health providers to offer the tests. The administration did not say how many pharmacies would participate.
Enrollees will be able to get up to eight tests each month, the same number covered for privately insured Americans as part of a set of new requirements the Biden administration announced last month.
The new Medicare program will not begin until the “early spring,” the administration said. The surge in cases caused by the Omicron variant, already declining, may have waned considerably by then. Even so, the tests could help Americans in possible future surges, perhaps driven by different variants, and as people begin to congregate more frequently with fewer virus cases around.
The free tests covered by Medicare would go to some of the most vulnerable parts of the U.S. population. The vast majority of Medicare enrollees are 65 or older; others are younger people with disabilities.
Because new treatments for the virus must be given early in the course of infection to be effective, testing and identifying cases quickly is critical to their use.
After the Biden administration announced new guidelines for test reimbursement under private insurance plans, lawmakers called on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to extend coverage to Medicare enrollees. Frequent use of rapid tests, which typically cost around $10 each if paid for 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 needed 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, an AARP official, said in a statement on Thursday commending the administration for the new policy.
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The plan is the latest move in a patchwork of federal efforts to deliver more rapid tests, after President Biden received sharp public blowback over a shortage of the tests around the holidays, when cases of the Omicron variant skyrocketed and demand for the tests soared. As the Biden administration hunted for tests to purchase, manufacturers scrambled to meet the demand from public and commercial buyers across the world.
The administration has already mailed tens of millions of free rapid tests as part of a new Postal Service program, the White House said last week. Every American household can order four tests through that program for now. 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, Medicare enrollees are eligible to receive those tests.
The Biden administration said on Thursday that Medicare enrollees were also still able to get free coronavirus tests at more than 20,000 community sites, and also when tested by health providers.