We tried to get free at-home COVID tests on the first day they became available. We were not successful.

reporters with at home test kits that were not immediately reimbursed by insurance
"Save your receipt" is what the cashiers told us at Walgreens. Some insurance companies are partnering with "preferred" pharmacies to offer home test kits at no upfront cost.Aria Bendix, Hilary Brueck / Insider
  • On Saturday, insurance companies were slated to start reimbursing at-home COVID-19 test kits — 8 tests per customer per month.

  • We checked out how it worked in California and New York and found many pharmacies didn't have any tests in stock.

  • The 2 stores that had tests didn't reimburse on the spot.

On Saturday, the US government began requiring private insurance companies to cover the cost of 8 home COVID-19 test kits per person per month.

But that doesn't mean you can necessarily pop down to your nearest pharmacy and get 8 free tests to go.

We visited two pharmacies in New York and four in California on Saturday, and got different results at every place we went.

We were unable to get any tests paid for upfront through our insurer, and ended up having to submit requests for reimbursement through the mail.

"Preferred" pharmacies aren't supposed to charge upfront, but we were out of luck

When the Department of Health and Human Services announced the new requirement on Monday, it stressed that the new rule "incentivizes insurers to cover these costs up front," so that consumers don't have to pay for their tests out of pocket. Instead, insurers are setting up some programs that allow people to get the over-the-counter tests directly through "preferred" pharmacies "with no out-of-pocket costs."

"Most consumers with private health coverage can go online or to a pharmacy or store, buy a test, and either get it paid for up front by their health plan, or get reimbursed for the cost by submitting a claim to their plan," HHS said.

The reality is that insurance companies may only have one "preferred" retailer at which you can receive free test kits with no out of pocket costs. Or, they may have none.

For example, United Healthcare, the largest insurance company in the US, only reimburses tests upfront at Walmart Pharmacies. If you don't live near a Walmart Pharmacy, or decide to shop somewhere else, you have to pay for the test kit upfront, save your receipt, and submit it for reimbursement. The maximum allowed reimbursement is $12 per test ($24 for a 2-pack).

But at two Walmart Pharmacies in California, the pharmacists weren't aware that a reimbursement program for United-insured customers existed. One of the pharmacists said the store's COVID-19 rapid tests had been sold out for weeks. The other store hadn't received any rapid test shipments in days.

Anthem, another large US insurer, is allowing some members to order tests kits directly through their website, at no cost. But as for the federal reimbursement program, the company says its still "finalizing" the plans.

Save your receipt

photo of abbot binax now test kit with receipt on top. insurance is supposed to reimburse 8 tests a month, but it appears not to be an on-the-spot system.
Insurance is supposed to reimburse 8 tests a month starting Saturday, but it appears not to be an on-the-spot system.Hilary Brueck/Insider

Just one pharmacy that Insider visited on Saturday had heard of the federal reimbursement program.

At a local, independent pharmacy in Brooklyn, the pharmacist said he was aware that the program was starting today, but had recieved no guidance or information about it, and was planning to inquire with insurance companies next week as to whether any might cover the tests upfront for their members at his store.

A Duane Reade/Walgreens in New York recommended saving your receipt and submitting it to insurance.

At a Walgreens in Orange County, California, the pharmacist recommended calling your insurance company. (The pharmacy had posted a sign saying at-home COVID-19 tests were out-of-stock, but a worker managed to find a handful of FlowFlex tests behind the counter. The tests are in such short supply that customers were limited to two per person.)

An employee at a CVS in Orange County wasn't sure how to reimburse at-home tests, either. The store had a supply of 300 rapids tests as of 8 a.m. local time this morning, she said, but the tests had sold out within the hour. The store also hadn't received a shipment of Abbott's BinaxNOW, one of the most widely available rapid tests in the US, in roughly a month, the employee said.

The real way to get a free test kit

walmart covid test
The reporter at a Walmart in Orange County, California.Aria Bendix/Business Insider

If you don't live near a "preferred" pharmacy and don't want to pay out of pocket for a test kit, there is a federal website coming online next Wednesday, COVIDtest.gov, which will send people free test kits through the mail.

Households will be able to order up to 4 COVID-19 tests kits each, but beware they may take 1-2 weeks to be delivered, so it's best to order ahead.

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