A federal program that offered uninsured people access to free COVID-19 care has run out of money, but health officials said this week that there will still be options for those without insurance.
“Do not be deterred,” state epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin said during a public science session Wednesday. “Even without insurance, free COVID-19 services will still be available from some providers.”
As of March 23, the Health Resources and Services Administration stopped accepting COVID testing and treatment claims from health care providers for uninsured patients, and effective Tuesday, the agency won’t be accepting vaccine administration claims for uninsured folks either, citing a “lack of sufficient funds,” according to a notice posted on the HRSA website.
The lack of funding is due to a standoff between Congress and the White House, which has asked the legislative body for $22.5 billion in additional funds for COVID response, the Associated Press reported earlier this week.
The Uninsured Program has existed since Trump administration, and reimburses hospitals, clinics, doctors and other service providers for COVID care to the uninsured, the AP reported.
McLaughlin said Wednesday that alternative resources include Medicaid enrollment, HealthCare Marketplace coverage and finding a health center through the Health Resources and Services Administration website at hrsa.gov. Free at-home kits can also be ordered from covid.gov/tests.
“Many libraries, community centers, schools and other public venues continue to hand out free tests, and you can also check our testing locator map and call ahead,” he said.
Kenai Public Health will still be offering free COVID testing and vaccine administration to uninsured patients. Tami Marsters, a public health nurse at the clinic, said the center is one of the “safety nets” of the community.
“It won’t affect us,” she said. “We’ll still be doing testing and shots at no charge.”
Kenai Public Health works on a sliding scale for uninsured patients, and she said as of now, the center won’t change its policies. The center is also still handing out free at-home test kits.
Derotha Ferraro, a spokesperson with South Peninsula Hospital in Homer, also confirmed via email Friday that uninsured patients will still be able to get free testing and vaccine administration.
Justin Ruffridge, a pharmacist and the owner of Soldotna Professional Pharmacy, said his clinics are adapting to the HRSA announcement.
“They announced it very quickly,” he said of the change.
In addition to Soldotna Professional Pharmacy, Ruffridge also operates a COVID vaccine clinic at the “Y” intersection of the Sterling and Kenai Spur highways.
He said the “Y” will still be offering free COVID vaccines to all patrons through the end of April, when the facility was already scheduled to close after its year in service.
At Soldotna Professional Pharmacy, Ruffridge said, the clinic has other funding set aside for free COVID testing for uninsured patients. Eventually, he said, there might be an administration fee for a COVID vaccine at the pharmacy, but currently the facility will work with uninsured folks.
“The good news is that we have less uninsured people in this area than would maybe be apparent,” Ruffridge said. “The ones that we do (have), we always work with.”
Craig Ambrosiani, the executive director of the Seward Community Health Center, said the clinic will also continue to offer free services for uninsured patients for a few more weeks.
“We’re not going to change anything until the end of April,” he said. “We’re going to write it off to our own charity program until the end of April, and that will give us time to get announcements out to folks.”
At the beginning of May, Ambrosiani said, the health center will start billing a COVID vaccine administration fee of around $40. But, he said, the center also participates in fee-waive programs for folks based on their financial and insurance statuses.
“We’re here to take care of our community, and we weren’t ready this quickly to just throw out a change like this to people,” he said.
For more assistance, state officials are encouraging people to contact their local public health centers.
Kenai Public Health can be reached at 907-335-3400. The state public health number is 907-465-3150, and the state COVID hotline can be reached at 907-646-3322.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach reporter Camille Botello at firstname.lastname@example.org.