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Free at-home COVID tests to be handed out to Medicare beneficiaries this spring

WASHINGTON — Starting this spring, Medicare beneficiaries will be able to get up to eight over-the-counter COVID-19 tests per month at no cost.

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced Thursday that eligible pharmacies and participating organizations will begin distributing the tests in the coming months to individuals on either original Medicare or in Medicare Advantage plans.

"There are a number of issues that have made it difficult to cover and pay for over-the-counter COVID-19 tests," the agency said in a statement. "However, given the importance of expanding access to testing, CMS has identified a pathway that will expand access to free over-the-counter testing for Medicare beneficiaries."

Under the plan, Medicare will pay participating pharmacies and organizations for at-home COVID-19 tests that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Medicare participants will then be able to pick up the tests at those locations once the program launches in the early spring.

The change of policy follows weeks of pushback from lawmakers and various advocacy groups after the White House began requiring private health insurance companies to cover the cost of eight at-home COVID-19 tests per month, but didn't provide the same requirement for Medicare.

Medicare isn't actually allowed to pay for self-administered diagnostic tests under the law that determines what the government-run health insurance program can and cannot do.

Medicare participants are, however, covered for PCR and rapid antigen testing done in a laboratory.

Medicare recipients also have the option of ordering at-home tests for free from the website the federal government launched in late January, COVIDtests.gov, or picking up tests from thousands of locations that are distributing them for free to the general public.

CMS on Thursday continued encouraging people in the Medicare program to get at-home tests through those avenues until the new program launches.

New Jersey Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell, who urged the Biden administration to find a way to provide Medicare beneficiaries with free at-home tests, lauded the announcement.

​​"Medicare recipients make up nearly one-fifth of all Americans. As the covid virus continues to ravage our country, it makes no sense that some of our most vulnerable neighbors were on the hook to test themselves at home," Pascrell said in a statement. "The Biden administration has made a commonsense decision to provide eight at-home tests per month to Medicare beneficiaries at no cost."

Pascrell and California Democratic Rep. Scott Peters sent a letter to the Biden administration in January calling on the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services to find a way to provide free tests to people in the program.

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Laura Olson/States Newsroom

A home COVID-19 test kit.