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Insurers Continue to Waive Customer Costs for Virus Tests, Care (1)

May 29, 2020, 5:20 PM; Updated: May 29, 2020, 8:40 PM

Health insurance companies are extending practices that ensure beneficiaries can receive free Covid-19 testing and treatment during the pandemic.

At least five insurers, including Aetna and Cigna, have decided to lengthen the period for which they would waive out-of-pocket costs related to the coronavirus past the initial June 1 end date, according to America’s Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade group.

Blue Cross Blue Shield insurers will extend their cost-sharing waiver for Covid-19 testing and care “for at least as long as the public health emergency is in place,” Tess Thomson, spokeswoman for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, said in an email.

And UnitedHealthcare posted on its website Friday that it would waive cost-sharing for Medicare Advantage plan members for specified services for primary care providers and specialists at least until Sept. 30.

Insurers’ decisions on whether to continue to waive patient costs come as the nation begins to emerge from a months-long lockdown. Public health officials see widespread testing, as well as contact tracing, as critical to states being able to contain outbreaks. The respiratory ailment has claimed more than 100,000 lives in the U.S.

In most health insurance policies, enrollees must make out-of-pocket payments such as for annual deductibles and copays. Insurers initially moved to waive many of those cost-sharing payments after lawmakers and public health officials expressed fears that the costs could prevent people from getting tested or treatment for the coronavirus.

The public health emergency is set to expire July 25 but may be stopped or extended by the Department of Health and Human Services, Thomson said.

“Once there is no longer a public health emergency, we will evaluate the appropriate timeframe” for deciding when to end the cost-sharing policies, she said.

Insurers Face Criticism

Waiving out-of-pocket payments for virus-related testing and treatment was one of a number of actions health insurers took during the pandemic to help both consumers and providers. For example, UnitedHealthcare provided premium rebates and Blue Shield of California loaned $200 million to hospitals.

At the same time, many insurers have benefited so far from reduced claims due to deferred procedures and services, prompting some consumer groups to call for insurers to provide more assistance to enrollees.

Consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen criticized the health insurance industry for cost-sharing policies that it said were limited and confusing in a May report.

“The voluntary nature of these waivers means that insurers could renege on them at any time,” Public Citizen President Robert Weissman said in a statement. “Patients cannot and should not have to depend on the whims of insurance companies during the worst health care crisis in a century.”

AHIP spokeswoman Kristine Grow said in an email that insurers “are staying true to the commitment they made at the start of the Covid-19 crisis: That no one should hesitate to seek testing or treatment for Covid-19 because of concerns about costs.”

Public Citizen supports a government-run health care system, such as Medicare for All, and it called for passage of the Health Care Emergency Guarantee Act (H.R. 6906) by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). The bill would have the federal government cover the uninsured as well as all out-of-pocket costs for people with insurance during the public health emergency.

Public Citizen also called for enactment of the Medicare Crisis Program Act (H.R. 6674), by Jayapal, which would allow everyone receiving unemployment benefits to enroll in Medicare if they don’t have coverage.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, signed into law in March, requires insurers to provide free testing for the coronavirus, but there is no federal legislation requiring free treatment. The Trump administration is using hospital assistance funds under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to cover the uninsured for treatment.

(Updates fourth paragraph with UnitedHealthcare plans.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Sara Hansard in Washington at shansard@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Fawn Johnson at fjohnson@bloomberglaw.com; Brent Bierman at bbierman@bloomberglaw.com

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