President Joe Biden laid out his strategy for combating the Omicron and Delta coronavirus variants this winter on Thursday, including free and insurer-funded at-home COVID-19 testing and new international travel requirements.
According to administration officials, the US government will require private health insurers to reimburse their 150 million customers for the cost of over-the-counter, at-home COVID-19 tests, and will make 50 million tests available free through rural clinics and health centers for the uninsured.
However, reimbursement for tests will not begin until January, missing the critical holiday season when many families and groups gather indoors.
"We're going to fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion," Biden said at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, predicting an increase in infections this winter.
"The actions I'm announcing are ones that all Americans can rally behind, and they should bring us all together in the fight against COVID-19," he said.
The administration is urging all eligible Americans to get immunized or receive booster shots to combat the virus and protect against Omicron, which is rapidly spreading around the world. It intends to increase family vaccination sites and expand pharmacy availability.
Less than 60% of the US population, or 196 million people, have received full vaccinations, one of the lowest rates among wealthy countries. According to the administration, an additional 100 million people are eligible for boosters. Because of waning protection over time and the emergence of Omicron, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all vaccinated adults get a booster shot.
The US also intends to require all inbound international passengers, regardless of vaccination status, to be tested for COVID-19 within one day of departure. The deadline for wearing a mask on airplanes, trains, and public transportation vehicles has been extended until March 18.
The new plan will also improve care for COVID-19 patients by tripling the number of "surge response teams" that provide extra staff at overcrowded hospitals to 60 from the current level, according to Biden.
More medications "recommended by real doctors, not conspiracy theorists," he added, will be expedited.
The efforts to broaden testing and vaccinations come as the world faces new threats from the Omicron variant, and the United States faces a deeply entrenched, politically motivated anti-vaccination culture.
As the pandemic continues, fears about the variant have pounded financial markets, casting doubt on the speed of the global economic recovery.
The White House is considering additional restrictions and ways to increase testing and vaccinations based on the severity of the variant, according to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.
INSURERS WANT CLARITY
Psaki earlier told reporters that the Biden administration would clarify whether private health insurance companies would receive government funds to reimburse customers for over-the-counter tests when it issues guidance on the issue in mid-January.
Later that day, a White House official stated that the government will not reimburse private health insurers for the cost of at-home tests. According to the official, insurers were required to cover COVID-19 diagnostic testing "without any cost-sharing requirements during the public health emergency."
Additional free tests at healthcare clinics, according to Psaki, should be available as early as this month.
For those without private insurance, Biden stated that free tests would be available for pickup at thousands of convenient locations.
"The bottom line is that you'll be able to test for free in the comfort of your own home this winter and have some peace of mind," he said.
Cigna Corp, UnitedHealth Group, and CVS Health Corp are the three largest employer-based health insurers in the United States. Currently, the government reimburses insurers a set amount for most medically necessary COVID-19 tests performed in labs and medical offices.
According to Kristine Grow, a spokesperson for the insurance industry lobby AHIP, the industry is working with the administration to ensure the full impact of any testing plan is understood. Price gouging on these tests, higher premiums, and clear rules and guidance for implementation are all areas of concern, she says.
Morningstar analyst Julie Utterback believes the government's plan will result in a shift in the potential location of testing rather than a significant increase in costs for health insurers, assuming at-home tests are accepted as valid.
"From a policy standpoint, I see the logic in trying to keep infected people at home rather than forcing them to interact with people outside their household when they are experiencing symptoms," Utterback said.
According to Evercore ISI analyst Michael Newshel, the strategy could come at a significant cost to health insurers, as the coverage requirement could last through the first half of the year.
COVID-19 has killed over 786,000 people in the United States, including 37,000 in November alone.