The long-awaited website of the White House for ordering free rapid tests for Covid-19 is finally up and running. New page, covidtests.gov, comes amid a shortage of rapid tests and a spike in Covid-19 cases caused by the omicron variant. While this new program is not flawless, flooding the country with readily available rapid tests could be a powerful tool in the fight against the pandemic.
Covidtests.gov is part of the White House plan to buy and distribute 1 billion rapid tests in the coming months. The ultimate goal of the new testing initiative is to make it easier for people to know if they have Covid-19 and, if necessary, isolate them to contain the spread of the virus. Technically, covidtests.gov wasn’t supposed to launch until January 19th, but the government posted “beta phase” version of the site before this date, which allows many people to order tests earlier. In a few hours after the launch, the beta version became the most popular government website by a wide margin.
While this represents an improvement over late last year, when rapid tests were not only very hard to find but also costly, the Biden administration’s new program has some caveats. First, each American household can only order four tests, regardless of how many people live there. And some people who have tried to order tests have already run into technical problems that may get worse as more users visit the site.
“Hopefully this is not a scenario where those who can get online first are the only ones who can get tests,” Lindsey Dawson, associate director of HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told Recode. Dawson added that the beta launch could help the new Covid-19 site avoid some of the pitfalls from the early days of Healthcare.gov.
Given the frenzy surrounding this new Covid-19 testing option, you probably have some questions about how to navigate the program. Let’s start with the basics of the site.
So this new website allows you to order free Covid-19 tests. How hard can it be?
The process is designed to be very simple. To order a series of four rapid antigen tests for your family, go to covidtests.gov, which explains that everyone with a residence address in the United States (and people living in foreign diplomatic and military outposts) is eligible for tests.
Once on the home page, click the bright blue “Order Free Home Tests” button and you will be redirected to a dedicated section of the US Postal Service website. (USPS is partnering with the Department of Health and Human Services to help with the logistics of the new program, and you can also start your order via the USPS website.) Fill out the form on the page with your name, delivery address and, if you wish, an email address confirmation, your email address. The page has a field with information about your order, including space for a dollar amount, but it doesn’t ask for credit card information. The dollar amount must remain at $0.00 throughout the order process.
After you complete this form, click the bright green “Apply Now” button and you should be taken to a new page that includes the USPS tracking number. If you have provided your email address, you will also receive an email with the same confirmation number. If you live in continental US, your tests will be shipped with USPS First Class Shipping. If you live in Alaska or Hawaii, within the United States, or at a diplomatic or military address abroad, your tests will be sent through Priority Mail. The site also has FAQ section it explains how to track your order and how to use the rapid tests once they’ve been delivered.
Don’t wait to order tests. As tests are expected to take between seven and 12 days to ship, the government encourages people to order tests online now rather than waiting until they develop symptoms or come into contact with someone who has Covid-19. It is hoped that soon everyone in the country will have their own mini stock of tests, which they can use if necessary.
Seems easy enough. What’s the catch?
There is no catch, but there are a few caveats to keep in mind.
The biggest limitation of Biden’s new free rapid test program is the four test limit, and there are currently no exceptions to this rule. While four tests may seem like enough for a small household, rapid tests work best when used consistently, and a single person may need more than one test to detect a case of Covid-19.
To prevent the same household from ordering more than four tests, the USPS website is designed to identify people who enter the same address for multiple orders. This may cause some people living in apartment buildings to see an error message saying that someone has already ordered tests for their address. If you encounter this problem, double check that you including a specific apartment or apartment number when completing the order form.
“Every launch of a website comes with a risk, in our view,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. briefing on Tuesday. “We can’t guarantee there won’t be one or two bugs.”
For those who do not have access to a computer or internet connection, the government has promised to create phone line, though it’s not clear when that will launch. This number will be the only option for ordering tests without visiting the online portal. You will not be able to go to the local post office and collect the samples in person.
What options do I have if I need more than four tests?
In addition to ordering tests from the new government website, you can still buy rapid tests from pharmacies and online – and you can get reimbursed for them. If you are a member of a private insurance plan, Medicaid, or a children’s health plan, you are eligible for a monthly reimbursement of at least part, if not all, of the cost of up to eight tests, according to new guide to insurance released by the Biden administration in January. If you don’t have insurance or rely on Medicare and need more than four tests provided by the federal government, you should look for free tests at state or local agencies.
If my private insurance covers rapid tests, how do I get reimbursed?
First things first: keep your receipt for any Covid-19 test you purchase. Also, how you get reimbursed for in-home rapid tests depends on what insurance plan you have and where you bought the test.
Some insurance companies partner with certain pharmacies so that their customers can get tested without going through the reimbursement process. If your plan does not do this, you should contact your insurance company for details on how to apply for reimbursement.
Some insurance companies have made the reimbursement process much easier than others. For example, if you have UnitedHealthcare, you can already take a free rapid test at any Walmart or Rite Aid pharmacy if you have an insurance card. If you have Kaiser Permanente, you can apply for reimbursement via website. If you have Cigna, you are faced with a more difficult process that involves filling out paper refund form to be mailed or faxed to the company. This Cigna reimbursement form is different from the forms you use for other claims.
Also, be aware that insurance companies may take some time. reimbursement systems for rapid tests will become fully functional. Some insurance companies may change their approach in the coming weeks and months.
Getting a rapid test still seems tricky. When will everything be easy?
The testing situation is improving, but not ideal. There are still many unknowns that have added even more uncertainty to an already very uncertain period of the pandemic. Even with this new federal government website, you don’t know for sure if your test will actually be delivered by the time you need it, or if you’ll have enough tests to detect a case of Covid-19 if you get sick.
However, covidtest.gov is a great way to stock up on supplies while you can, and the new insurance payouts – if you’re lucky enough to get them – are better than paying full price for home tests. Regardless of how you do it, you will probably benefit from having a few rapid tests on hand. And as the experts say, test early and test often. Things will get better.