At-home COVID test kits will be free next month, but drugstores already running low on supplies

COVID-19 home testing kit

The rise of the omicron variant as many Americans are traveling for the holidays has led to shortages of at-home COVID test kits.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

As Christmastime travel ramps up and the new omicron variant surges across the US, at-home COVID-19 test kits are in high demand: Retailers like CVS, Walmart, Walgreens and Amazon have put limits on how many shoppers can purchase. 

According to Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, at-home antigen testing still works to detect omicron. But, Wachter tweeted Wednesday, “We should’ve been working on making these tests free & accessible for months, as many other nations have done.”

The good news is, starting in early 2022, over-the-counter rapid COVID-19 test kits will be available for free for everyone. Under a plan announced by President Biden this month, starting January 15 health insurance companies will be required to reimburse Americans for rapid COVID-19 antigen tests, which can cost more than $25 for a pack of two.

For those without insurance, or who rely on Medicaid or Medicare, the administration has also pledged to purchase 500 million at-home rapid tests this winter “to be distributed for free to Americans who want them,” according to a White House briefing. A website will be set up where you can order kits delivered to your home free of charge, though it hasn’t been launched yet.

In his lengthy Twitter thread, Wachter expressed concern about the timing of Biden’s testing strategy, “while welcome, is too little and too late.”

We’ll continue to update this story as we learn more details, including how exactly to order free kits or be reimbursed by your insurance carrier. Also, here’s the latest on how to choose a booster shot and Pfizer’s COVID antiviral pill, which the pharmaceutical company says can reduce the risk of hospitalization or death from the virus by up to 89%. 

Read more: Clever COVID booster shot trick: Text this number for free rides, easy appointments

When will free COVID-19 home test kits be available?

The White House has said it will issue reimbursement guidelines by January 15.

“Typically when an administration issues guidance like this, the requirement is in effect the same day,” Sabrina Corlette, a research professor with the Center on Health Insurance Reforms, told CNET. “It’s considered the agency’s interpretation of what it believes is an existing rule.”

Most insurance companies already have a mechanism in place to receive requests for reimbursements, Corlette said. “The question is can they be amped up for the kind of volume we’ll expect to see from drugstores.”

“Right now there’s not a real incentive for healthcare companies to help members get their money back,” she added. “It might be on the administration to require them to make it easier or appear more prominent on their site.”

The plan is not expected to be retroactive, but Corlette advised consumers to hold onto proof of purchase for kits bought during the holidays anyway. “I don’t expect the [government] to make this retroactive, but it can’t hurt to shove those receipts in a drawer somewhere, just in case.”

Some states, including Vermont, have already mandated insurers to start paying for at-home kits. Others — such as Washington, New Hampshire, Maryland and New Jersey — have started distributing free test kits to residents. Earlier this month, Massachusetts announced plans to hand out 2.1 million tests across dozens of municipalities. 

If you don’t live in any of those states, check with your employer: Private companies have begun offering reimbursement options for at-home tests, as well.

Once the White House plan does take effect, anyone with insurance will be able to submit a receipt or other proof of payment for reimbursement after buying a test. The process is similar to visiting an on-site testing facility and submitting your bill to your provider.  
It’s still unclear if retailers will submit the bill to insurance providers themselves, as many do when you pick up a prescription. We’ll update this story as we learn more.

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Where can I get an at-home COVID-19 test?

At-home rapid COVID-19 tests are available at pharmacies like Walgreens, CVS and Walmart. You can also buy them online at Amazon, and through the websites for the stores listed above. (It’s unclear, however, if or how you can claim the kits on your insurance if you buy online.)

But because omicron’s arrival has led to a run on kits, many retailers, including all the ones listed above, are currently limiting how many you can buy at one time. Amazon is limiting shoppers to 10 kits, CNN reported. Walmart is also capping online purchases to eight per order, but is letting individual stores determine the maximum for in-store purchases. 

Acknowledging some stores may be out of stock completely, CVS has instituted a limit of six COVID kits per customer. Walgreens has capped both online and in-store purchases to four.

In response to the shortage, manufacturers have increased production and the FDA has been approving new tests at an unprecedented speed: ACON Laboratories says it will be able to produce more than 100 million Flowflex COVID-19 Home Test kits per month by the end of 2021, and more than 200 million by February.

Starting in January 2022, the White House will also make hundreds of millions of free at-home test kits available via a special website. We’ll update this feature when that URL becomes public.

What if I don’t have health insurance?

For those without insurance, or who are on Medicaid or Medicare, the president said COVID-19 test kits will be available at “thousands of locations” nationwide. 

In a Dec. 2 announcement, the Biden administration promised to distribute at least 50 million free kits to community health centers and other organizations. On December 21, the administration further pledged to purchase 500 million kits “to be distributed for free to Americans who want them.”

What should I do if my at-home test shows I’m positive for COVID?

If you take an at-home kit and it says you’ve tested positive for COVID-19, it’s recommended that you turn your results in to your health care provider and isolate for 10 days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

For more information, here’s the latest on the federal vaccine mandate and everything you need to know about the Moderna booster shot.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

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