Uninsured Americans Now Being Charged For COVID Tests

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Uninsured Americans Now Being Charged For COVID Tests
The federal program that was reimbursing health care providers for COVID costs has run out of money.

Catching COVID is bad enough, but a bout with the virus could soon cost you if you're uninsured.

A federal program that covered the cost of COVID treatment, testing and vaccines for uninsured Americans is no longer accepting new claims.

Unless Congress provides more funding, some hospitals and health care providers say they might have to start charging for those services.

"It is possible also that some uninsured individuals may actually now receive some bills for some of the care that was previously covered or the testing services that they were accessing," said Molly Smith, vice president for public policy at the American Hospital Association.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the program run by the Health Resources and Services Administration has reimbursed health care providers over $20 billion, with nearly 62% covering reimbursements for COVID testing.

A COVID test can run from $20 to as much as $850, depending on the test.

It's unclear what the out-of-pocket cost for a vaccine would be. Currently Medicare reimburses providers $40 per shot.

"We are very worried that any further sort of barriers to people kind of getting their vaccines is going to further harm our efforts to get everybody for whom it's safe and who is eligible to get vaccinated," said Smith. 

And a serious case of COVID can lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars in hospital charges.

Without insurance, patients could end up footing the bill, and experts warn the gap in coverage for COVID care will fuel more inequity in the health care system.

"We've seen persistent disparities by race and ethnicity, and those who are people of color in this country are more likely to be uninsured. So, it kind of connects and suggests that we would start to see more of those disparities once those programs are no longer available," said Jen Kates, director of global health and HIV policy at Kaiser Family Foundation.

A plan to approve $10 billion in additional pandemic funding remains stalled in Congress. Even if lawmakers strike a deal, the amount is only a fraction of what the White House says is needed. And it's unclear if any of the funding would go to programs to help the uninsured.

"Every dollar we requested is critical to both our domestic and global response," said Jeff Zients, former White House COVID-19 response team coordinator. "HHS, under the secretary, will work through how to best deploy these very limited resources to satisfy the most urgent of the urgent needs."