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The COVID-19 health emergency ends today. Here’s what that means for free testing.

The U.S. COVID-19 public health emergency ends on May 11, and so will free testing for many Americans. Here's how to stock up on free rapid tests right now.
Covid-19 Home Tests
The U.S. public health emergency for COVID-19 is ending May 11, 2023, which will change how many Americans have been paying for COVID-19 testing.John Tlumacki / Boston Globe via Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

More than three years after the coronavirus pandemic began, the United States will end its COVID-19 emergency declaration — along with certain benefits it ushered in for millions of Americans.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration announced that the federal COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE) would expire at 11:59 p.m. on Thursday, May 11, 2023.

Although most states have already lifted COVID-19 restrictions and many Americans have embraced a so-called return to normal, the end of the emergency phase marks a major shift in the country's response to COVID-19 moving forward.

The PHE expiration date comes on the heels of another major pandemic milestone. On May 5, the World Health Organization declared that COVID-19 was no longer a global health emergency, a status it held since Jan. 30, 2020, NBC News previously reported.

However, WHO Director-General Dr. Adhanom Ghebreyesus emphasized that even if the global emergency is over, the global threat of COVID-19 is not.

Infections are down significantly in the U.S., but new weekly cases are still hovering over 75,000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The new Arcturus omicron XBB.1.16 subvariant, which has mutations that make it highly transmissible and immune-evasive, is also spreading around the country, TODAY.com previously reported.

Testing remains an important tool to curb transmission and treat patients early to prevent severe disease or complications. There are two types: PCR tests, most often performed in a laboratory, and rapid antigen tests, which can be self-administered at home. Both of these have been low-cost or free for most Americans since 2020, but that will soon change.

The emergency declaration allowed Congress to extend funding, flexibilities and waivers, which changed the way healthcare was delivered. When the PHE ends, many of these will end, as well.

Here's what you can expect to change in the near future around COVID-19 testing, according to experts.

Can I still get free COVID-19 tests from the government?

Yes, but time is quickly running out. The end of the public health emergency will mean the end of free COVID-19 testing for most people, according to experts, though coverage will vary by insurer and state.

Until 11:59pm on May 11, people can still take advantage of testing benefits from the government under the PHE. “We’ve got a few more days to stock up so if you can get more tests, you should do that now,” says Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, tells TODAY.com.

Right now, anyone who has health insurance — whether it’s an individual plan purchased through the marketplace, employer-sponsored or Medicare part B — is eligible for eight free at-home COVID-19 tests per month, Carmen Balber, executive director of Consumer Watchdog, tells TODAY.com. These can be purchased online or in-store from most pharmacies or major retailers with the cost covered either upfront or through reimbursement, TODAY.com previously reported.

Additionally, every U.S. household is still eligible to order four free rapid tests by mail (if their last order was before Dec. 15, 2022) through the U.S. Postal Service at COVIDTests.gov.

State Medicaid programs are also currently required to cover the cost of FDA-authorized at-home COVID-19 tests, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. And uninsured people can continue to access free at-home tests at thousands of community clinics, participating pharmacies or other Health & Human Services sites, says Balber.

The shelf life of rapid at-home COVID-19 tests ranges from four to 24 months, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “I encourage people to check the expiration date on tests they have at home, then go to the FDA site and validate whether those tests’ expiration dates have been extended,” says Benjamin.

After May 11, at-home tests will likely cost you

The government's mail-order COVID tests program and requirement for insurance companies to cover COVID-19 tests without cost-sharing, both for over-the-counter and laboratory tests, will end on May 11, according to HHS. People who pay for Medicare part B will also lose the guarantee of free eight at-home COVID tests a month.

At-home tests may still be free if your insurer chooses to continue coverage moving forward, the experts note. “The administration is still trying to encourage the insurers to do it at no cost, but it will ultimately depend on them,” says Benjamin.

Balber points out she hasn’t seen any public statements from major U.S. health insurers regarding whether they will continue coverage for COVID tests, but we will learn more in the coming months.

People who use Medicaid, however, can continue to access free COVID tests through September of 2024, says Balber, adding that after this coverage may vary depending on the state.

Uninsured individuals will be required to pay for at-home tests, unless they can find free ones from a community site or clinic, the experts note. Most COVID-19 tests are capped at about $12 each or $24 for the two-pack, says Balber, adding that she does not expect the price to change.

Free COVID tests after the public emergency ends

Although free testing is no longer guaranteed after May 11, people may still be able to find free or low-cost tests through local nonprofits, churches, libraries, schools, workplaces or other sources, the experts note. Check with your county health department or local pharmacies find out if someone in the community is still providing free tests, Balber says.

“Dependent on supply and resources, the U.S. government may continue to distribute free COVID-19 tests from the Strategic National Stockpile through the United States Postal Service, states, and other community partners," the HHS noted on its site.

The HHS added that the CDC is working to ensure access to free testing for uninsured individuals through participating pharmacies and community-based sites. And people on Medicaid will still have access to free tests through September 2024.

“I‘m just concerned about those people being a bit confused about where they get their care and how they get tested now,” Benjamin says.

Will PCR testing still be free?

Before May 11, 2023, insurance providers were required to cover the cost of PCR COVID tests ordered by a health care provider without cost-sharing. After May 11, 2023, health insurers will be able to decide whether to continue to do so, per HHS.

Some Medicare beneficiaries will still be guaranteed free PCR tests without cost-sharing when the tests are ordered by a provider, according to HHS, but the experts note that there still could be some cost-sharing involved. "People need to be aware that lots of places are going to charge them for going to the doctor, so they’ll end up paying the visit copay even if the test itself is free," says Balber.

Medicaid beneficiaries will continue to have PCR COVID tests covered through September 2024, per HHS.

If your private insurer chooses to continue to cover PCR testing, they could implement more limitations or require out-of-pocket payments, says Benjamin. Speculating, Benjamin says insurers may, for example, only fully cover COVID-19 testing if a person is symptomatic, but not for those just testing proactively before certain activities like seeing grandparents.

"My expectation is it will depend on your insurance, but if you’re not feeling well, you can get a COVID test just like other lab tests (like flu, for example), and they’ll probably cover it," says Benjamin.

Most uninsured individuals will have to pay for PCR tests — which can cost a few hundred dollars — unless they are being administered for free by a clinic or health center, NBC News previously reported. The HHS has said the CDC is taking steps to provide free testing for this group. (A program adopted by 15 states that gave uninsured people access to free COVID-19 testing through temporary Medicare coverage also ends on May 11, according to KFF.)

Are COVID-19 vaccines and treatments still free?

Access to COVID-19 vaccines and certain treatments, such as the antiviral Paxlovid, will generally not be affected, per the HHS.

Right now, COVID-19 vaccines are still 100% free to everyone in the U.S., including uninsured individuals. Any vaccine recommended by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) is considered a preventive health service by most insurers, per HHS, and fully covered with no copay.

COVID-19 vaccinations are also fully covered for Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries, the experts note.

“The federal government has said that for people who are low-income and uninsured, they’re going to come up with a mechanism to try to provide therapeutics,” says Benjamin.

The amount of cost-sharing and out-of-pocket expenses for COVID-19-related treatment or hospitalization will ultimately depend on the insurance plan and coverage, the experts note.

The transition out of the emergency phase of COVID-19 and the expiration of funding, flexibilities and waivers is expected to be a gradual process over the course of months.