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Pharmacist holding a Covid-19 test

Justin Richards, a pharmacist in Saco, Maine holds a sample of Abbott's BinaxNOW Covid-19 test on September 16, 2021. Richards said the store receives just 12 packages of the test per week on Mondays, and they sell out quickly. The pharmacy sells them for $39.79. (Photo: Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

Sanders, Khanna Demand Free Covid Tests for All Americans

"Widespread and affordable access to rapid tests will be an integral part of our country's public health response to the Omicron variant and through the duration of the pandemic."

Julia Conley

As the Omicron variant overwhelms healthcare systems across the country, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Ro Khanna are leading a call for the Biden administration to drastically expand its plans to distribute "one of the most effective tools the federal government has at its disposal"—rapid Covid-19 tests.

Sanders (I-Vt.), Khanna (D-Calif.), and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) led more than 40 Democrats in the House and Senate in writing to the White House Sunday, urging officials "to take additional, immediate steps to eliminate existing barriers to Covid-19 rapid tests and ensure robust access to free over-the-counter rapid tests throughout the country for the duration of the pandemic."

"We respectfully urge that you utilize the full scope of your executive power under [the] Defense Production Act to manufacture enough rapid tests to ensure that each American can take at least one rapid test per week."

Specifically, the lawmakers said, all Americans should have the ability to take at least one "surveillance" test per week, in keeping with the guidance of many public health experts—and the White House must immediately scale up test production to alleviate the nationwide shortage as well as removing financial barriers.

After initially scoffing last month at the idea of providing at-home tests to all Americans, as other wealthy countries have done, the Biden administration responded to intense pressure by announcing it would purchase 500 million rapid antigen tests and make them available to the public free of charge.

But the Omicron variant is spreading rapidly, with an average of 737,000 cases being reported per day in recent weeks, and with its "increased ability to spread to fully-vaccinated individuals," said the lawmakers, "far more testing capabilities are needed, and will be needed for the foreseeable future, as well as policies that ensure testing is easy, free, and accessible to everyone."

The variant has spread across the country amid a shortage of rapid tests driven by officials' and companies' failure to anticipate demand, according to some experts. When cases went down last spring, workers at Abbott Laboratories, the maker of the BinaxNOW rapid antigen test, were told to destroy the testing supplies and then laid off to save the company money—weeks before the Delta variant drove a new surge in cases.

The testing shortage has gotten so dire, the letter stated, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) latest guidance advising people to isolate for five days after testing positive says the "'best approach' is to conduct a rapid test toward the end of the five-day isolation period '[i]f an individual has access to a test and wants to test.'"

"The language used in the public health guidance from the administration itself is indicative of the significant barriers individuals face when trying to access or purchase Covid-19 rapid tests," wrote the lawmakers.

Sanders, Khanna, and their colleagues applauded President Joe Biden's recent commitment to using the Defense Production Act to scale up manufacturing of tests.

But to meet the demand and follow public health guidance recommending frequent testing throughout the country, the lawmakers said, "we would need roughly 2.3 billion tests per month—a figure several times the 500 million proposed by your administration."

"We respectfully urge that you utilize the full scope of your executive power under [the] Defense Production Act to manufacture enough rapid tests to ensure that each American can take at least one rapid test per week," they wrote.

Additionally, the lawmakers called for:

  • Additional steps, such as a national hotline, to make sure home test delivery is accessible to all, to supplement the White House plan to set up a website where people will be able to order free tests in the coming days;
  • A plan to make free rapid tests widely available in pharmacies, grocery stores, post offices, and other local businesses to meet "individuals where they already are"; and
  • A strategy to make it easier for private health plan enrollees to be reimbursed for over-the-counter tests.

"While the administration's new requirements that insurers reimburse individuals for at-home tests are critical, at-home kits cost approximately $14 to $34 and the reimbursement process can be time-consuming, which together may dissuade individuals or families who are struggling financially from purchasing these tests," wrote the lawmakers.

The letter was sent ahead of the administration's announcement of a new plan requiring insurance companies to reimburse their members for up to eight at-home tests per month, a proposal which could help some of the approximately 150 million Americans who have health insurance obtain tests for free at certain pharmacies.

But under the proposal, some companies will still be able to require members to file claims to get reimbursed, and in some cases people may still be charged the full price of a rapid test "if the test was purchased at an out-of-network site," according to the New York Times.

"We could be sending tests directly to every home in America, but we're forcing people to jump through bureaucratic hoops instead," tweeted healthcare advocate Kendall Brown.

The plan also leaves out more than 28 million Americans who do not have health insurance.

"The rapid spread of the Omicron variant over the past weeks suggests that Americans are in a dramatically more vulnerable position than we had anticipated being just last month," said Sanders, Khanna, and Schiff. "There is no time to waste, and widespread and affordable access to rapid tests will be an integral part of our country's public health response to the Omicron variant and through the duration of the pandemic."

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