How to get the free at-home Covid tests promised by White House

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Tens of millions of Americans should soon have access to free at-home Covid tests.

The White House made the announcement amid fears of a new variant of the coronavirus. Cases of the variant, called omicron, have already popped up in California, Minnesota, Colorado and New York.

Other countries have already made the takeaway tests free. For example, British citizens can order packs of rapid tests to be sent to their homes at no charge from a government website.

Although Americans have been able to get free Covid tests with their doctors and at hospitals, they've had to pay for at-home tests, which usually run from around $15 to $40.

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Health experts expressed optimism about the new policy.

“It's a step toward making these tests more available to individuals, but there could still be barriers,” said Lindsey Dawson, an associate director at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

It's unclear exactly when the new coverage will kick in, and previous tests you've bought likely won't be eligible for reimbursement, Dawson said.

Details of the new plan are thin, with the Biden administration promising more guidance by mid-January. But here's what we know as of now.

Who's eligible?

The White House has said that the 150 million Americans who have private health insurance will be eligible for full reimbursement after they buy at an-home Covid test.

That includes people insured by their employer as well as those who've bought a plan on the Affordable Care Act's Marketplace, Dawson said.

The new rules don't apply to those on Medicaid and Medicare, although that could change, and those on Medicare with private insurance may be covered.

Short-term or health-care sharing plans typically won't have to cover them, either, said Sabrina Corlette, co-director of the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy.

Can I get any test?

Experts said we'll have to wait for more guidance from the government to know which will be covered, but they expect that most at-home tests available at pharmacies will be included under the policy.

How do I make sure I get reimbursed by my insurer?

You'll likely have to put in some legwork to get repaid, Dawson said.

Many people may not even be familiar with their provider's reimbursement policy. (You can start learning about it by contacting your plan.)

Keep your receipt, said Caitlin Donovan, a spokeswoman for the Patient Advocate Foundation

“Your normal receipt should be fine — I've even printed out receipts from Amazon — and then you would have to send it in,” said Donovan, adding that insurers generally have a reimbursement form they want you to fill out.

“Insurers will generally have a physical mailing address,” she said. “They may also have an option for e-submission, meaning you can upload it to their site or email it in.”

To send in a more straightforward receipt, Donovan recommends asking the cashier to ring the tests up separately from additional purchases.

Corlette hopes the government's guidance in January requires insurers to reimburse people within a certain timeframe.

“Some companies can take a long time to cut those checks,” Corlette said.

At-home Covid tests are also an eligible expense for flexible savings accounts and health savings accounts.

What if I don't have insurance?

If you don't have insurance, or if you're covered through Medicaid and Medicare, the White House said it's doubling the amount of free tests it distributes across community centers to 50 million, from 25 million.

You should be able to find one of these centers at your state or local health agency's website, Corlette said.

When should I use an at-home test?

Dawson cited some of the most common circumstances in which people may want to take a test: They've come into contact with someone diagnosed with Covid, they're displaying symptoms of the virus or they're expected to attend a high-risk event, such as a big family gathering.

Can I use an at-home test for traveling purposes?

Most takeaway tests purchased at, say, your local Walgreens won't provide results you can use before a flight or cruise. However, there's at least one at-home test the CDC has approved, according to travel site The Points Guy.

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