The federal government needs to require that Medicare pay for rapid at-home COVID-19 tests for the tens of millions of older Americans who have been hit hardest by the pandemic, AARP says in a letter to the chief of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
The requirement that private health insurers pay for up to eight over-the-counter at-home tests each month for those insured under their plans does not apply to Medicare. “Not having a similar requirement for Medicare is a glaring omission and is unacceptable to AARP and the over 64 million Medicare beneficiaries,” Nancy LeaMond, AARP executive vice president and chief advocacy and engagement officer, says in a Jan. 25 letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra.
Medicare officials have said enrollees can take advantage of a new federal website that allows all Americans to order four free at-home tests per household. These free tests are also available at community health centers. But, LeaMond writes, “given the limited number of tests available through this option, and the need especially for people on Medicare, we strongly urge additional efforts to make no-cost tests available directly to Medicare beneficiaries.” A spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) said the agency "is exploring ways" that Medicare can cover the over-the-counter tests. "We recognize testing remains a critical tool to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and we are committed to providing resources to keep Medicare beneficiaries safe and healthy," he said.
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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), of the more than 2,000 Americans who are dying from COVID every day, about 3 out of 4 are age 65 or older. LeaMond’s letter says that the lack of Medicare coverage for tests “maintains barriers for older Americans — one of the most vulnerable populations — and prevents them from having the same access to no-cost tests as people with private insurance.”
The barriers to older Americans needing to test for the virus include a heavy financial burden for the typical Medicare beneficiary who has an annual income of under $30,000 a year. Currently, Medicare beneficiaries can get a free COVID test only if a health care provider orders the test and it’s done by a laboratory. Typically, these are PCR tests and it usually takes several days to get a result. The rapid antigen test that can be self-administered at home provides results in 15 minutes.
In addition, without Medicare coverage for the over-the-counter tests, beneficiaries must rely on the federal website or community sites. The government will only mail out four tests per household. “It is clear that regular testing is a crucial part of managing the spread of the virus,” LeaMond says.
Dena Bunis covers Medicare, health care, health policy and Congress. She also writes the “Medicare Made Easy” column for the AARP Bulletin. An award-winning journalist, Bunis spent decades working for metropolitan daily newspapers, including as Washington bureau chief for the Orange County Register and as a health policy and workplace writer for Newsday.