To fill the gap in COVID-19 coverage, the Biden administration announced Thursday that Medicare beneficiaries will soon be able to obtain free over-the counter tests.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced that Medicare will provide up to eight free medical tests each month starting in the spring. These tests will be available at participating pharmacies as well as other locations. These tests will be available for Medicare’s “Part-B” outpatient benefit, which 9/10 enrollees have signed up for.

The administration ordered private insurers to provide free coverage for up to eight home tests per month to those on their plans. Officials stated at the time that they were still working out how to deal with Medicare. This program covers over 60 million people. Most of these people are 65 years old or older, making them more susceptible to severe coronavirus infection.

Medicare benefits are governed through a variety of laws and regulations. Officials said that they were able arrange for coverage of COVID-19 over-the-counter tests using the legal authority of the program to run demonstration programs about innovative ways to deliver healthcare. This is the first time Medicare has paid for an over-the counter test.

Officials said that Medicare Advantage will provide free COVID-19 testing for those who have it. This private insurance option covers approximately 4 out 10 Medicare enrollees. As an supplemental benefit, Medicare Advantage plans already provide coverage for COVID-19 testing over-the counter.

AARP praised Medicare for its decision and stated that it would closely monitor the rollout. Nancy LeaMond (Vice President of the advocacy group for older persons) stated in a statement that “the cost of testing and the time required to find free options for testing are barriers that could discourage Medicare beneficiaries” from getting tested.

Rapid tests and PCR tests

New policy emphasizes so-called rapid testing, which provides results at home in just 15 minutes. The tests are used by many families before they get together for special occasions, or when grandparents travel to visit grandkids from another state. In their marketing, some test-makers make it easy for older adults to use the tests.

Medicare will also continue to cover more specific lab-based PCR tests at a reduced cost. However, these must be ordered by a physician or authorized health care professional.

Prior to Thursday’s announcement Medicare enrollees had options for free at-home testing. These will continue to be available even though the new policy takes effect. You can request four free home tests through, or pick up free tests from libraries and senior centers that provide them.

As the Omicron wave gained momentum, December saw a shortage of at-home tests in pharmacies. Some consumers still find this to be the case. The White House is attempting to offer 500 million free tests, and to greatly increase production capacity. However, results can vary depending on where they are located and what community they are in.