Senator Says Legislation She Authored & Executive Actions Would Protect People In Minnesota, Across Nation From Out-of-Pocket Costs for COVID-19 Tests

WASHINGTON, D.C. [1/5/21]—U.S. Senator Tina Smith (D-Minn.) has been working to make coronavirus (COVID-19) testing free for all Americans since the start of the pandemic, and today she outlined a number of steps Congress and the Biden-Harris administration should take to achieve this goal.

Last year, Sen. Smith authored the Free COVID-19 Testing Act, which was successfully included in a larger COVID-19 relief package passed in March. However, Americans are still being stuck with medical bills for COVID-19 testing. In addition to authoring legislation like the Stop COVID-19 Test Surprise Medical Bills Act and the Suppress COVID-19 Act, Sen. Smith is now urging the Biden-Harris administration to take executive action and to conduct a comprehensive review of existing rules and guidance to ensure people in Minnesota and across the country have access to free testing.

“Today, COVID-19 cases are surging across the country. In this moment, it is essential that we finally move to implement a national testing strategy to address this public health crisis. With this letter, I would like to draw your attention to the persistent testing challenges that face our nation and express my interest in working with you to address these problems,” wrote Sen. Smith to President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. “…We know that testing is essential for getting control of this pandemic and safely reopening our economy, and cost should not be a deterring factor. According to experts, a robust national testing strategy is our most effective, least costly tool that can suppress COVID-19 while maintaining economic growth and saving lives. I know that you share this value and recognize the critical role of COVID-19 testing. Your seven-point plan to beat COVID-19 starts by ensuring that all Americans have access to regular, reliable, and free testing.”

Sen. Smith concluded her letter to President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris with: “My hope is that you will continue to prioritize COVID-19 testing charges in your plan to beat the COVID-19 pandemic.  I stand ready to work with you to accomplish our shared goal of protecting all Americans from out-of-pocket costs for their COVID-19 tests.

You can access full text of the letter below:

President-elect Joseph R. Biden                                 Vice President-elect Kamala Harris

Biden-Harris Transition                                              Biden-Harris Transition

Herbert C. Hoover Building                                       Herbert C. Hoover Building

1401 Constitution Ave NW                                        1401 Constitution Ave NW

Washington, DC 20230                                              Washington, DC 20230

Dear President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris:

Congratulations again on your election to become the next President and Vice President of the United States.  I am delighted to work with the Transition Team and the Biden-Harris Administration.  We have important work to do, beginning with getting the COVID-19 pandemic under control.  I am confident that, under your leadership, the nation will rise to the enormous challenge of this moment.  

Today, COVID-19 cases are surging across the country.  In this moment, it is essential that we finally move to implement a national testing strategy to address this public health crisis.  With this letter, I would like to draw your attention to the persistent testing challenges that face our nation and express my interest in working with you to address these problems.    

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have focused on making COVID-19 testing widely available and free to all Americans.  To this end, my legislation, The Free COVID-19 Testing Act, which provides testing with no out-of-pocket charges, was enacted as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) on March 18, 2020I advanced this legislation because we know that testing is essential for getting control of this pandemic and safely reopening our economy, and cost should not be a deterring factor.  According to experts, a robust national testing strategy is our most effective, least costly tool that can suppress COVID-19 while maintaining economic growth and saving lives.  I know that you share this value and recognize the critical role of COVID-19 testing.  Your seven-point plan to beat COVID-19 starts by ensuring that all Americans have access to regular, reliable, and free testing.

Unfortunately, Americans are still getting stuck with medical bills for their COVID-19 tests.  An analysis by the New York Times found that individuals are being charged up to $2,718 for “out-of-network” tests and related office visits, and 2.4 percent of COVID-19 tests result in some charges being passed on to patients.  A separate Politico analysis revealed that insurers were receiving charges for COVID-19 tests of up to $2,315 in Oklahoma and as high as $6,496 in Texas.  Though these charges don’t always result in bills for patients, Americans may end up paying for these higher costs in the form of higher insurance premiums in future years.   

Congress intended to protect Americans from charges for their COVID-19 tests and associated office visits, but we still have a long way to go to ensure that no American is charged for a COVID-19 test.  Through a combination of legislative and executive solutions, I believe we can protect all Americans from COVID-19 testing charges. 

I have introduced legislative solutions to protect Americans from COVID-19 testing charges.   First, my bill, the Stop COVID-19 Test Surprise Medical Bills Act, would clarify that health insurers cannot refuse to cover the full cost of or delay access to a COVID-19 test on the basis of whether the test was ordered by a physician, whether the individual seeking a test had symptoms, or whether an individual seeks a test multiple times.  My bill would also direct the Departments of Health, Labor, and Treasury to issue guidance to clarify the process for submitting claims for COVID-19 tests and related office visits so that individuals do not receive charges.  Finally, my bill would strengthen price transparency requirements intended to prevent price gouging for COVID-19 tests by requiring The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to survey providers of COVID-19 tests and issue a public report, highlighting which providers are charging prices that substantially exceed the average cash price.

Second, my bipartisan bill with Senator Cassidy, the Suppress COVID-19 Act, would provide the federal resources that states need to suppress COVID-19.  All states would receive $20 billion in federal funding to procure tests and testing supplies.  States would be eligible for an additional $5 billion incentive pot of funding for joining interstate compacts or regional agreements to procure tests.  Such agreements would stop states from competing against one another, provide guaranteed contracts for manufacturers, drive down prices, bring more innovative tests online, and evenly distribute tests.  Finally, all states would receive $25 billion in funding to do the work of testing, tracing, isolating cases, and modernizing data systems.  Federal funding for testing will help states expand access to free COVID-19 testing through community-based testing sites, pop-up testing sites, and other partnerships to suppress the virus through surveillance testing.  

Aside from these legislative proposals, I believe there are several executive actions the Biden-Harris Administration can take to clarify Congressional intent to protect patients from out-of-pocket charges for COVID-19 tests, regardless of their insurance status, and regardless of the reason they are seeking a test.  For instance, the Trump Administration’s guidance implementing the free testing provisions of the FFCRA contained several loopholes that have left patients facing unexpected bills for testing, and in some cases, not being able to afford a test at all.  Furthermore, your Administration can help clarify when the government, private health insurance plans, employers, or other entities should pay for COVID-19 tests and that patients should not be held responsible for these charges.  I urge you to conduct a comprehensive review of existing rules and guidance on testing, with an eye toward taking actions to provide clarity and eliminate loopholes that have left too many Americans without access to the free testing that Congress intended in enacting the FFCRA

My hope is that you will continue to prioritize COVID-19 testing charges in your plan to beat the COVID-19 pandemic.  I stand ready to work with you to accomplish our shared goal of protecting all Americans from out-of-pocket costs for their COVID-19 tests. 

Sincerely,

Issues