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Medicare will soon start covering the cost of at-home Covid tests

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Frederic J. Brown | AFP | Getty Images

Medicare beneficiaries will be able to get at-home Covid tests at no cost beginning early this spring, the government announced Thursday.

The initiative comes after Medicare was not part of a Biden administration mandate that private insurers cover the cost of over-the-counter tests — up to eight per enrollee per month. The planned change in coverage means all Medicare beneficiaries — including those on Advantage Plans — will be entitled to the same.

About 63.3 million people are enrolled in Medicare. Most of the beneficiaries, 55.1 million, are age 65 or older, and the rest are generally younger with permanent disabilities. In other words, it’s a population that generally is at higher risk for severe illness from Covid.

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Retail prices for over-the-counter at-home Covid tests can range from as little as $10 to hundreds of dollars. Tests at laboratories can run considerably more. Under the mandate already in place, insurance companies are required to reimburse their enrollees at a rate of up to $12 per individual test (or the cost of the test, if less than $12).

While Medicare’s coverage of the at-home tests won’t start until spring, there are ways for beneficiaries to get free tests in the meantime.

For starters, you can order four for free through Covidtests.gov, a new government website that launched in January. The site, which is available to all households, requires you to provide only your name and address; no insurance information is needed.

“That’s an option that all Medicare beneficiaries can tap to get access to free at-home testing,” said Juliette Cubanski, deputy director of the program on Medicare policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Additionally, there are Medicare-certified health clinics, as well as community health centers, where the at-home tests can be picked up for free.

For beneficiaries who are enrolled in a Medicare Advantage Plan, it’s worth checking whether the plan is already covering at-home tests, Cubanski said.

And, of course, beneficiaries can still access free testing outside their home at one of more than 20,000 testing sites where lab-based PCR tests, rapid PCR tests and rapid antigen tests are available.

Also, if a doctor or other authorized health-care provider orders it, there is no cost-sharing for the test. Otherwise, beneficiaries are allowed to get one lab test for free per year without a doctor’s order.

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