On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki gave her best effort at selling the Biden administration’s big plan for dealing with the Omicron variant and the ongoing holiday surge, which is still being largely driven by the Delta variant.
This plan is “free testing,” by which Psaki and the administration mean reimbursements. In practice, this looks like buying your $20-25 two-pack of COVID tests at Walgreens and then getting to spend hours on the phone with Aetna while they grill you on if you actually needed the COVID test, in hopes of that you’ll get your money back in two or three months. And that’s only if you have employer-provided health insurance or a plan you bought on the Obamacare marketplace; right now Medicare and Medicaid recipients won’t get this benefit, nor will people who don’t have health insurance. Also, the Treasury Department has until January 15 to issue the rule mandating insurers to cover the cost.
Psaki then chastised a reporter who asked a simple question: “It’s kind of complicated, though. Why not just make [tests] free and have them available anywhere?”
“Should we just send one to every American?” Psaki said. “What happens if every American has one test? How much does that cost and what happens after that?”
As the reporter pointed out, other countries already provide these tests. In the United Kingdom, you can order a PCR testing kit to be sent to your home by using the National Health Service website or calling a number. You can also walk into any pharmacy and grab a box of five or seven and then walk out without paying, because, again, they’re free. Students are asked to test twice weekly. It hasn’t solved the pandemic in the U.K., but considering COVID-19 deaths have plummeted since vaccinations began—and have remained relatively low even during successive waves—something is working.
Some states, such as Colorado and North Carolina, have offered something like this at various points during the pandemic. In North Carolina, the state partnered with Labcorp (if there’s no public-private partnership involved, does it even exist?) to provide 35,000 free at-home tests, expanding eligibility to all North Carolinians in June. (After publication, a spokesperson from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services told Discourse Blog in an email that nearly 43,000 testing kits had been distributed throughout the state this year.)
It’s abundantly clear as we head into a second holiday season of the pandemic that free, readily available, and accessible testing is of equal importance to fighting the pandemic as vaccinations. That was the case before the appearance of a new variant that could (though it’s unclear to what extent) more easily evade immune defenses such as vaccines and prior infections than previous variants, but it’s even more so now. But going to get an on-site test, while much easier than it was in the early days of the pandemic, is still an endeavor in a lot of places. Considering the lines that some sites saw shortly before Thanksgiving, it’s likely going to be even worse in the coming weeks.
What Psaki’s comments make clear is that our shoddy healthcare system — designed solely to enrich private insurers and provide employers with leverage over their workers — will never be able to reposition itself as one whose goal is providing the best possible healthcare.
After a certain point, by which I mean the willingness to ignore the problem and hope it goes away, it doesn’t even really matter who’s in the White House. Whenever a public health crisis requires a coordinated national response, there will be obstacles that are unnecessary but inherent to having a system like ours. The dilemma is that even after five years of talking about Medicare for All, mainstream political discourse about American healthcare is disproportionately concerned with cost and short-term financial feasibility rather than providing care and building a system to last which actually works for people.
Getting people tested right before they travel for holiday gatherings, and potentially stopping them from exposing their family members, is the single best way to mitigate severe illness and pressure on the healthcare system. Whatever Psaki might think of the political and economic cost of shipping free tests to people on demand—without even requiring fax copies of your last three tax returns, the horror!—it’s probably cheaper than filling more hospital beds unnecessarily, and a hell of a lot more humane.
Update 12/8: This post has been updated with statistics provided by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services on its at-home testing collection program.