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Getting insurance to reimburse you for a purchased COVID test can be a hassle

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

The federal government is trying to make at-home rapid COVID-19 tests more accessible. This week, two new initiatives launched - a government website to send free tests directly to Americans who sign up and a new requirement for people with insurance to be reimbursed for tests they buy at the pharmacy.

NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin says, for that part to work for you, it might help to have a fax machine.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: No, seriously, some of the major insurers' official guidance is this. Buy tests at the pharmacy. Keep the receipt. Print out a form. Fill it out. And...

(SOUNDBITE OF FAX TRANSMITTING)

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: ...Fax it to get reimbursed. Or mail it. Either way, it's a lot of hassles that a lot of Americans won't do, especially people without a printer or the time to figure out the process.

CYNTHIA COX: In fairness to insurance companies, they did not have a ton of lead time here.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That's Cynthia Cox of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.

Yes, the Biden administration announced this plan in December.

COX: But they did not include all of the details in that announcement. Insurers only received guidance a few days before they were expected to have a process in place.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Cox and her colleagues just reviewed how each of the 13 insurance companies with a million or more members were handling this process.

COX: About half have already set up a direct coverage process where you can just show up at the pharmacy and get the COVID test for free without having to pay anything up front, and the other half of the largest insurers are requiring people to go through a reimbursement process.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: UnitedHealth Group is one insurer with a direct option. You can get free tests at the pharmacy counter at Walmart, Sam's Club or Rite Aid. Other insurers, like Cigna, are requiring a printed form to be mailed or faxed. Kaiser Permanente has an online form you can fill out for reimbursement. By the way, to figure out what the process is for your insurer, you're supposed to make a call to the number on the back of your insurance card - more hassles.

Cox says, don't lose heart.

COX: Several insurers indicated that this is just their initial process but to stay tuned and that they'll try to set up something that's easier on consumers in the long run.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She points out, regardless, none of this helps very much if there aren't any tests to buy. They are still in short supply. There are signs taped to lots of pharmacy doors saying, sorry, no home tests in stock.

Mara Aspinall, a professor at Arizona State University who closely tracks the COVID-19 test supply, says the situation has improved over the last few months.

MARA ASPINALL: While many manufacturers are expanding their capacity, the ability to get those tests in retail has not materially changed.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She says that isn't likely to get better until the end of February or March.

This week, President Biden conceded that the administration should have done more on testing earlier. But he said they're doing more now. And the new website covidtests.gov seemed to roll out relatively smoothly this week. The government will begin sending out 500 million tests by the end of January and has announced plans to buy another 500 million after that.

ASPINALL: I do applaud the administration on doing that (ph) plus the insurance reimbursement. Plus, several states have their own initiatives. The reality is we need all of those.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She says, next, the government should be thinking about an Operation Warp Speed for testing to figure out a better strategy for ensuring tests are available and affordable. She says it's not too late.

Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAKAYA MCCRAVEN'S "BUTTERSCOTCH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.