Retire Better: What the end of the government’s COVID emergency could cost you
Goodbye and good riddance.
The COVID-19 national and public health emergencies that have been in effect for the past three years will come to an end on May 11. That’s good news—a sign that the pandemic which has taken more than 1.1 million lives is no longer an official crisis.
The bad news is that the vast majority of Americans—those covered by private insurance plans, and the 100 million-plus who are on Medicare and Medicaid—may have to start paying for any COVID-19 testing and treatment they’ll need in the future.
Read: Biden to end U.S. COVID emergencies on May 11, but more than 500 people are still dying every day
Why has it been free for the last three years? Because since the pandemic began, the federal government has covered COVID-19 tests and vaccines. Everyone was taken care of: citizens covered by private insurance, Medicare and Medicaid—the last two categories covering more than 100 million Americans, according to the Census Bureau.
Uninsured Americans—sadly, about 31 million men, women and children—were taken care of as well, that is until a federal program to help them ran out of money last April. As if often the case for this large group—about one in 11 of our fellow citizens—they’ve had to fend for themselves.
Those covered by Medicare and private insurance have been able to get up to eight at-home tests per month from retailers for free. Medicaid has also picked up the cost of at-home tests, though states have had different levels of coverage.
“People will have to start paying some money for things they didn’t have to pay for during the emergency,” said Jen Kates, senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF). “That’s the main thing people will start to notice.”
So let’s get right to it. What’s this going to cost?
The public health emergency that has been in place for three years has meant a gusher of federal cash for hospitals, which have been getting a 20% increase in Medicare’s payment rate for treating COVID-19 patients. In addition, Medicare Advantage plans (essentially a hybrid between Medicare Parts A and B, which provide inpatient/hospital coverage and outpatient/medical coverage, respectively), have been required to bill COVID patients receiving out-of-network care at the same rate as cheaper, in-network facilities.
Once the emergency officially ends—again May 11—Medicare beneficiaries will be looking at out-of-pocket costs for at-home testing and all treatment. In other words, if you think you might have COVID and get a test on your own, you’ll pay. If you get a test ordered by a healthcare provider, it will likely continue to be covered.
Vaccines themselves will continue to be covered by Medicare.
And Medicaid? States that receive Medicaid funds will still cover COVID-19 tests if ordered by a physician. Vaccines will also continue to be provided for free. But certain out-of-pocket costs may be borne by patients.
It’s a good thing that vaccines themselves will continue to be covered for Medicare and Medicaid patients. That’s because Pfizer and Moderna say that commercial prices of their COVID-19 vaccines will probably be between $82 and $130 per dose – some three to four times what the federal government has paid, according to Kaiser.
Since the health emergency was declared three years ago, both the Trump and Biden administrations banned states that were receiving additional COVID aid from dropping people from Medicaid rolls. It’s one reason Medicaid enrollment has soared since 2020, and now covers some 90 million people.
But the looming end of the COVID emergency means that some 15 million people could soon be dropped from Medicaid, CNN reports, based on an analysis by the Department of Health and Human Services. The HHS analysis estimated that 8.2 million people could be booted because they no longer qualify, while an additional 6.8 million would be terminated—even though they are still eligible.
As part of a COVID-19 relief package passed in March 2020, states were barred from kicking people off Medicaid during the public health emergency in exchange for additional federal matching funds. Medicaid enrollment has skyrocketed to a record 90 million people since then, and millions are expected to lose coverage once states began culling the rolls.
Meanwhile, because the pandemic devastated the economy in 2020—erasing some 22 million jobs in February and March of that year alone—the Trump administration boosted the federal food stamp program. It got a further boost last year by the Biden administration. But the end of the COVID emergency apparently will mean a scaling back of these expanded benefits, is certain to put additional strain on lower-income households.
The concern going forward is the timing of these reduced benefits for these vulnerable Americans—just as talk of a recession mounts. Although lower than a decade ago, the poverty rate in the United States has begun to inch up again, according to the Census Bureau.
What might happen now that Uncle Sam is poised to trim assistance for the neediest among us?