Senators Share Summary of Their Investigation, Urge U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to Improve National Testing Infrastructure

WASHINGTON, D.C. [12/09/20]—Today, U.S. Senators Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) shared a summary of the findings from their investigation into our nation’s testing capacity and the availability of pediatric testing. Sens. Smith and Warren—both members of the Senate Health Committee—sent their findings to Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar and made recommendations to improve the nation’s testing infrastructure.

“Together, our findings reveal significant gaps in COVID-19 testing capacity, exacerbating the ongoing public health threat. Addressing these problems will require aggressive federal government action,” wrote Sens. Smith and Warren in their letter to Sec. Azar. “We have previously called for dedicated federal funding and a national testing plan to ensure that everyone who needs a COVID-19 test can access one quickly and easily.” 

You can access text of the letter here. Sens. Smith and Warren also shared the following recommendations with Sec. Azar:

  • Invoke the Defense Production Act to make sure testing labs and providers have access to the supplies needed to conduct tests and that supplies are reaching the communities that need them;
  • Clarify testing payment rules so that patients and providers can more clearly understand when third-party payers, the government, or other responsible parties should provide reimbursement for various types of COVID-19;
  • Provide guidance on appropriate procedures for testing children, including education and outreach so retail providers can offer pediatric testing services more widely; and
  • Work with independent pharmacies to address supply chain issues and provide greater access to tests so that they are able to participate in the HHS Community-Based Testing Sites program. 

In August of this year, Sens. Smith and Warren wrote to five of the largest COVID-19 testing labs about each company’s capacity to process diagnostic tests and deliver timely results. The responses to these letters showed that surges in the summer months strained the labs’ capacity. They experienced supply shortages, and they also experiences confusion about payment and reimbursement.

Additionally, after reports of families having difficulty getting COVID-19 testing for young children, in October Sens. Smith and Warren wrote to retail providers in the HHS Community-Based Testing Sites partnership for information about pediatric testing policies and expanding testing to more age groups. The responses showed that the main barrier to expanding pediatric testing is the providers' use of “self-swab” test kits. These kits are difficult for kids and caregivers to use, and it’s also difficult for independent pharmacies to get the tests needed to take part in the HHS program. After Sens. Smith and Warren’s letters, Walgreens said it would start offering tests for children as young as three years old. Rite Aid said it would offer testing for children as young as 13.

And back in April, Sens. Smith and Warren led 44 of their colleagues in calling on Vice President Mike Pence, Head of the White House Coronavirus Taskforce, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to conduct an inventory of the national COVID-19 diagnostic testing suppy, release date on testing results, and provide a clear plan and timeline for addressing future shortages and gaps in the testing supply chain. Vice President Pence and the Trump administration did not take these actions.

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