Boston.com: CDC head pledges to cover uninsured’s coronavirus costs, after pressure from Ayanna Pressley and Joe Kennedy

March 12, 2020
In The News

Frustrations remain about the sluggish rollout and availability of coronavirus testing in the United States. However, following pressure from Massachusetts Democrats, among others, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said for the first time Thursday that the costs of testing and treatment for COVID-19 would be covered for people without health insurance.

Robert Redfield made the pledge during a House oversight committee hearing Thursday, after Rep. Ayanna Pressley said the agency’s online coronavirus webpages did not provide sufficient guidance for the roughly 30,000 residents in her Boston-area district who do not have insurance.

“It doesn’t really address the realities of living uninsured,” she said. “If I am a symptomatic hotel worker who is pre-diabetic, uninsured, and lacks the savings to cover the costs of testing and treatment, what specific guidance do you have for me?”

In response, Redfield praised the question and said President Donald Trump’s administration recognized the importance of addressing financial challenges that individuals might face. Pressed by Pressley, he said the “costs of testing will be covered.”

“And what about treatment?” the Massachusetts congresswoman added.

“Costs of treatment will be covered,” Redfield said, adding that the CDC would “do our best to clarify” that information online.

“I will get as much information as I can on that website and keep it updated,” he said.

Experts estimate that around 28 million people in the United States do not have health care coverage, and that more than 40 million are underinsured, meaning their insurance does not cover their full medical expenses. In a letter Wednesday, Reps. Joe Kennedy III and Pramila Jayal urged the Trump administration to “guarantee” that all costs related to COVID-19 would be covered for both groups.

“People will avoid or delay necessary care if they fear that such services may result in a bill that may potentially bankrupt them,” the two Democrats wrote. “This only exacerbates the problems and enables the spread of COVID-19.”

Later during the hearing Thursday, Redfield said the CDC would cover the costs of treatment for the coronavirus regardless of a patient’s insurance coverage, after Rep. Katie Porter, a California Democrat, echoed the concerns about costs and said he should use his existing authority as director to create a payment structure.

“You need to make a commitment to the American people so they come in to get tested,” Porter said, after repeatedly pressing Redfield for a straight answer.

“I think you’re an excellent questioner, so my answer is yes,” he replied.

Kennedy told Boston.com in a statement Thursday afternoon that he welcomed Redfield’s commitment, but stressed the need to make sure the administration follows through on that promise.

“Covering all costs associated with testing and treatment is the best way to ensure people seek care and critical to mitigating this pandemic spreading within our shores,” the Massachusetts congressman said. “If this Administration has decided to fully cover those costs, that is a welcome development, but we must hold them accountable and ensure that statement remains true for all patients, especially those who are un- and underinsured.”

As The Washington Post reported Thursday afternoon, House Democrats were also in the midst of negotiations with the Trump administration on an economic relief bill in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The legislation proposed by the House would require federal coverage for free coronavirus testing, including for the uninsured, which the Trump administration has reportedly opposed.

Pressley says the “swift passage” of the bill is important to ensure that those resources would be provided.

“This is a public health crisis and we must confront it with every tool at our disposal,” she said in a statement to Boston.com.

“Coronavirus testing and treatment must be affordable and available to everyone to prevent the further spread of the pandemic,” Pressley added. “While CDC Director Redfield committed to covering the costs of both testing and treatment, I have little faith in this administration to make good on their promises.”

Separate from the issue of costs, lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle have voiced frustrations with the sluggish pace at which coronavirus testing has been rolled out in response to the pandemic in the United States, especially compared to other countries. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified during the House oversight hearing Thursday that labs are not yet set up to process a high volume of tests, according to CNBC.

“That is a failing,” Fauci said.

At the local level, Massachusetts officials announced earlier this month that health insurers in the state would be required to completely cover the costs of COVID-19 testing and treatment for those already enrolled in their programs — including not charging co-pays or deductibles for those services. And on Wednesday, the Massachusetts Health Connector announced that it was reopening enrollment through April 25 to allow uninsured residents to apply for coverage and take advantage of the policy.

“The coronavirus represents a significant and growing public health threat, and the Massachusetts Health Connector is committed to making sure residents have access to testing, treatment and other related services as necessary,” Louis Gutierrez, the executive director of the Massachusetts Health Connector, said in a statement. “With 97 percent of residents covered, almost everyone in Massachusetts understands the ongoing value and need for coverage, but if anyone is considering signing up now, we encourage them to do.”

As of Thursday, state officials said there were at least 108 cases of the disease in Massachusetts, most of which were traceable to a Biogen conference last month in Boston.