How And When You Can Get a Free, At-Home COVID Test

Here's what we know.

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Free, in-person or drive-thru COVID-19 testing is widely available across the state of Illinois.

And while at-home COVID-19 tests are also available at many pharmacies like Walgreens and Walmart, those tests are not free -- with an average test costing around $25.

But earlier this month, President Biden detailed a new winter COVID mitigation plan requiring private insurers to cover the cost of at-home COVID-19 tests and make them completely free.

However, certain restrictions apply, and some of the details around the plan are vague.

Here's what you should know.

How do I get a free, at-home COVID test?

The White House last week said 150 million Americans who have private health insurance will be eligible for full reimbursement after they buy at an-home COVID test.

That includes people insured by their employer as well as those who've bought a plan on the Affordable Care Act's Marketplace, said Lindsey Dawson, an associate director at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The new rules however don't apply to those on Medicaid and Medicare, although that could change, and those on Medicare with private insurance may be covered.

It's unclear exactly when the new coverage will kick in, and previous tests you've bought likely won't be eligible for reimbursement, Dawson said.

Overall, details of the new plan are vague, and the Biden administration has promised more guidance by mid-January.

Are there different at-home tests? Which one can I get, and where can I get one?

Experts expect that most at-home tests available at pharmacies will be included under the policy, but additional details haven't been released.

Testing kits are available at drugstores without a prescription, and a box with two tests typically costs about $25. Swabs, testing solution and instructions are included.

Adults and teens can test themselves. An adult can test a child as young as 2.

Most tests require swabbing about a half inch inside both nostrils, so it may tickle but doesn't hurt. Tests generate a positive result if a viral protein is detected in your sample.

How can I make sure I get reimbursed?

Keep your receipt, said Caitlin Donovan, a spokeswoman for the Patient Advocate Foundation.

"Your normal receipt should be fine — I've even printed out receipts from Amazon — and then you would have to send it in," said Donovan, adding that insurers generally have a reimbursement form they want you to fill out.

"Insurers will generally have a physical mailing address," she said. "They may also have an option for e-submission, meaning you can upload it to their site or email it in."

To send in a more straightforward receipt, Donovan recommends asking the cashier to ring the tests up separately from additional purchases.

The Biden administration has not yet released further information regarding a timeframe of how long it may take for reimburse people who order a test.

What if I don't have insurance? What if I have Medicaid or Medicare?

If you don't have insurance, or if you're covered through Medicaid and Medicare, the White House said it's doubling the amount of free tests it distributes across community centers to 50 million, from 25 million.

You should be able to find one of these centers at your state or local health agency's website.

What's the difference between at-home tests and home collection tests?

Home collection tests involve taking a sample from your home and then sending it to a lab for results.

At-home tests allow for results from a sample and results are available within minutes.

Should I use an at-home test before gathering for the holidays, or traveling?

Some of the most common circumstances in which people may want to take an at-home test is if they've come into contact with someone diagnosed with COVID, they're displaying symptoms of the virus or they're expected to attend a high-risk event, such as a big family gathering.

“We will be using rapid tests to doublecheck everybody before we gather together,” says Dr. Emily Volk, president of the College of American Pathologists, who is planning a holiday meal with six vaccinated family members. “We’ll be doing it as they come in the door.”

Most takeaway at-home tests purchased at Walgreens won't provide results you can use before a flight or cruise. Check the CDC guidelines to see which COVID-19 tests are approved if you need one before you travel.

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