Texas health officials announced Thursday they have requested federal funds to expand coverage for coronavirus testing for the uninsured.
Congress voted last month to make temporary funding available to pay states’ full costs for providing testing to people who lack health insurance, but states had to opt into it.
Texas has more than 5 million uninsured residents, or about 18% of its population, a higher rate than any other state. Experts have warned that barriers keeping uninsured patients from accessing COVID-19 testing or treatment could hinder the containment of the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
In the month since the federal funding became available, a diverse group of health care interests has urged Gov. Greg Abbott to tap into it. A letter signed by more than 50 advocacy groups called on state leaders to “avoid the dangerous public health consequences if a large share of the population were left out of testing and tracking of the disease.”
“Obviously, having funding for testing is not the same as having tests, but it is an important piece of the puzzle,” said Anne Dunkelberg, a health policy expert for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which signed on to the letter.
The health commission is “working to ensure that, to the extent possible, coverage is effective retroactively to March 18,” Texas Health and Human Services Commission spokeswoman Christine Mann said in an email.
The funding would also reimburse uninsured patients’ doctor visits associated with COVID-19 testing, Mann said.
Clinics serving low-income and uninsured Texans have paid private labs, such as Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp, for the bulk of tests they’ve ordered.
Legacy Community Health in Houston was paying about $50 per test, said Jessica Michan, a spokeswoman for the clinic. Because of limited resources, it was only offering testing to symptomatic patients who are older than 65 or who have underlying health conditions, Michan said.
“It’s expensive,” said José Camacho, executive director of the Texas Association of Community Health Centers. “It’s more than we’re used to paying” for other lab work.
He said community health centers, like other health care providers, have seen about half as many patients as normal as people are urged to stay home to limit the spread of the disease. As a result, they’ve faced financial hardships and have had to shutter some campuses.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act directed Medicaid, the state-federal health insurer for the poor and disabled, to fully fund coronavirus testing for the uninsured with federal dollars. The law also set aside $1 billion in public health disaster funds for testing the uninsured, including those who are not eligible for Medicaid health coverage, such as undocumented immigrants and some lawful permanent residents.
The Medicaid funding lasts as long as the U.S. has declared a period of public health emergency over the coronavirus, according to the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.