Health insurers say they'll waive coronavirus testing fees; Trump, Congress weigh payroll, industry aid



WASHINGTON (March 10, 2020)—Major health insurance companies will waive copayments for novel coronavirus testing, Vice President Mike Pence said at a briefing with firm executives and President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday.

"While the risk to the average American of contracting the coronavirus remains low, we want a full partnership with industry and give the American people all the information they need to avoid contracting or spreading the coronavirus," said Pence, who's chairing the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

The companies at the table—which insure nearly 240 million Americans through private insurance and support of Medicare and Medicaid, according to Pence—will also extend coverage for treatment in benefit plans and telemedicine while avoiding surprise billing.

"We have been very focused on ensuring access to care and that cost is not an issue for people to have the testing appropriately done," Gail Boudreaux, president and CEO of Anthem Inc., said. "So we're pleased that we're able to continue to expand this access."

Telemedicine options aim to aid the country's vulnerable senior population, allowing them to receive the necessary care without visiting a hospital or their doctor.

"I would just like to say as a large servicer of Medicare, that we are very oriented to the aging population, and most importantly, how do we make it as easy as possible for them to receive their tests," Humana CEO Bruce Broussard said.

Over 8,500 specimens have been tested for the coronavirus in the United States since Jan. 18, while the number of cases ticks up across the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Almost 650 cases have been confirmed so far, and 25 people have died from the virus across the 36 U.S. jurisdictions that have been affected.

Some healthcare professionals and members of Congress have expressed worry that not enough tests are available nationwide.

"We are very worried about the president's incompetence and lack of focus on fighting the spread of coronavirus," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, told reporters. "We believe that his lack of focus is hamstringing efforts to address this public crisis and inflicting pain on the stock market."

Pence said an additional 4 million tests are expected to be distributed this week on top of the more than 1 million that are ready at CDC and U.S. Public Health Labs.

Members of Congress grilled CDC Director Robert Redfield about the shortage of testing at a House Appropriations Committee labor and health subcommittee hearing. Redfield pointed out the growing capacity for testing now that clinical laboratory networks LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics can administer them.

"We have slowed the spread of COVID19 through the United States as a consequence of the positive impact of the investment in public health that there has been at the federal, state, local and tribal level," Redfield said in his testimony.

As cases of the coronavirus multiplied, schools and universities announced plans to close or move to remote teaching, airlines continued cutting schedules and major events—like Washington's Gridiron Spring Dinner, an annual gathering of media and political people—were canceled.

Both former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, who are vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, announced they were scrubbing planned rallies.

And Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League issued a joint statement that they were closing their team locker rooms to reporters because of the virus threat.

The administration and Congress also are exploring potential economic aid to industries that will be hit hard by a major consumer slowdown.

Trump said his administration is working closely with the cruise line and airline industries as people are canceling their travel plans, instead opting to stay home to lessen their chances of coming in contact with the virus.

"They're taking very strong steps in terms of people going on and going off. But they're spending a lot of money and they are working very hard…So we are working very closely with them," the president said at the briefing. "We're helping them. They're two great industries, and we'll be helping them through this patch."

Congress has been working on an economic package to alleviate financial strains caused by coronavirus response.

The president, accompanied by National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow and Treasury Sec. Steven Mnuchin, pitched a temporary payroll tax cut to Senate Republicans on Tuesday afternoon. He had no updates to share on the path forward following the meeting.

"We just had a great meeting. Tremendous unity in the Republican Party," Trump said. "And we're working on a lot of different things. We've also had some very good updates on the virus. That's working out very smoothly."

Mnuchin also met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, to identify "common ground" on legislative efforts that would support people affected by the virus.

Pelosi told reporters that the "nature of it was pleasant" and that conversations will continue.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said after the meeting that he'd let the pair handle a bipartisan agreement.

"The secretary of the treasury is going to have ball control for the administration and I expect that will speak for us as well," McConnell told reporters. "We're hoping that he and the speaker can pull this together."

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