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Getting your insurer to reimburse you for at-home COVID tests requires some effort

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A stack of rapid at-home COVID-19 test kits is shown.

Although all insurers surveyed by the Kaiser Family Foundation offered reimbursement for at-home COVID tests, only about half had a network of preferred pharmacies or retailers. Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

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Free COVID tests from the federal government are starting to arrive in people’s mailboxes, while free N95 masks are starting to become available at pharmacies and grocery stores. 

Now, private insurers are required by the federal government to cover the cost of up to eight at-home rapid COVID tests per person per month.

When Zach Lipton learned he could get reimbursed for at-home COVID tests, he figured he might as well get some. 

“I ordered four boxes of them, which is eight tests. I got them in a couple of days in the mail,” he said.

Lipton is in his 30s and lives in San Francisco. Once the tests arrived, he went to his insurance company’s website to see how to get reimbursed.

“And you had to fill out a  PDF form, print it out. You had to cut the UPC box top codes off the test boxes, attach the receipt and mail it into a P.O. Box in Chico.”

Lipton just put all that in the mail the other day and has no idea how long it’ll take to get his money back.

Depending on your insurer, there are two ways to get at-home tests for free. One is what Lipton did: buy it yourself and submit for reimbursement. The other is called direct coverage.

In that scenario, “an insurer would set up a network of preferred retailers,” said Lindsey Dawson with the Kaiser Family Foundation. “And a consumer could go into one of those places — so a pharmacy, for example — and pick up a test without having to front the money.”

Dawson and her colleagues just surveyed a bunch of insurers and she said all of them will reimburse for at-home tests, but only about half have a direct coverage option right now.  

In theory, she said it’s easier to just walk into a pharmacy and get a test for free than to submit receipts and box tops. But in order for that to work, “you really need to have that test in-store. You can’t walk in and get a test for free if the test isn’t there.

And right now, that is still a big issue. Tests are becoming more available though.

“I’m swimming in piles of boxes around me,” said Dr. Kavita Patel, a primary care physician at a community health center in Washington, D.C.

Until recently, she barely had any tests to give away and tons of people asking. 

“It was like Willy Wonka’s golden ticket.” Now? It’s the opposite. “Literally every patient I saw yesterday, I said, ‘How many people live in the house with you. Six? Okay, here, here’s six boxes.'”

Right now, she said that is a lot easier than trying to help patients figure out how to get reimbursed through their insurance. 

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