COVID-19 testing not widely available to younger, healthy Coloradans

In light of federal action, testing may be free for many, but access remains limited

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Nearly a month into the spread of COVID-19 through Colorado, testing for the illness is prioritized for health-care workers, hospitalized patients, and a long list of other vulnerable groups.

At the bottom of the list: most everyday people who end up with symptoms and aren't seniors.

As testing kits and the protective equipment needed to apply them continue to be scarce, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reminded state residents that at-risk individuals need to be first in line.

“We are working hard to get the supplies and capacity to move to broader public testing, but until then our message remains the same: if you have only mild symptoms, self-isolate and don't wait for a test,” Scott Bookman, incident commander for the department, said in a March 30 news release.

The state recommends that health care providers prioritize testing in this order:

• Hospital patients and health-care workers.

• Patients in long-term care facilities or those in other residential settings, such as homeless shelters or prisons.

• Patients over age 65 and patients with underlying health conditions.

• First responders and critical infrastructure workers, such as those in the energy, water or agriculture sectors.

• People who work with vulnerable populations or in group residential settings.

• Other individuals.

Where testing is happening

The state has distributed 4,200 testing kits and protective equipment to local public health agencies in El Paso, Larimer and Mesa counties to test health care workers and first responders, according to the news release. More testing kits will be provided to local public health agencies once those supplies are received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

Meanwhile, an organization called the Colorado Unified Coordination Group is working on plans that local public health agencies can use to conduct their own community testing sites when more testing kits are available, the release said.

Since March 11, the Colorado National Guard's mobile testing unit and the state Public Health Department have completed tests on more than 800 people in Denver, Telluride, Pueblo and Salida, the department said in a March 23 release. The department and National Guard sent testing resources to Montrose March 23. The state's community testing effort first opened in Denver's Lowry neighborhood March 11.

In the state's April 2 update, which covered reports through April 1, officials had counted more than 3,700 confirmed or highly likely cases of COVID-19 across 51 counties, with 710 hospitalized, 97 deaths and more than 20,400 people tested. There had been 21 outbreaks at residential and non-hospital health-care facilities.

The daily updates can be found online at the state's website.

Testing now free for many

Because of recent federal legislation, people with any kind of private health insurance should have free access to the COVID-19 test — along with any doctor visits associated with getting the test — with no co-pays, deductibles or co-insurance charged, according to Vincent Plymell, assistant commissioner for the Colorado Division of Insurance.

That includes health insurance through employers or the individual market. Coloradans should check with their health-care provider to be sure, though.

For Coloradans with Medicare, all of the costs are covered if a doctor orders a COVID-19 test, according to the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

For members of Colorado's Medicaid program — Health First Colorado — and the Child Health Plan Plus (CHP+), all the costs of testing and the doctors' visits associated with getting tested are covered, according to Marc Williams, spokesperson for the state Department of Health Care Policy and Financing.  

What about the uninsured?

It's a bit more nuanced for people with no insurance, state officials say.

States have the option to enroll all uninsured individuals who qualify in Medicaid or the Child Health Plan Plus, including those enrolled in short-term plans and other plans that aren't considered coverage, according to Plymell. Under Medicaid, the state has applied for assistance from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to help the state pay for  testing and doctors’ visits associated with getting the test for uninsured individuals who were not previously eligible for Medicaid, according to Williams.

Those individuals would have their costs entirely covered as well if CMS approves the state's request, but the state's application has not yet been accepted or rejected as of April 2, according to Williams.

For uninsured patients, the federal legislation also appropriates $1 billion for the reimbursement of the costs for the COVID-19 testing and the doctor's visit associated with the test. Health-care providers must register with the National Disaster Medical System to submit claims for reimbursement for services for uninsured individuals, Plymell said, so Coloradans should check with their provider to be sure.

The state announced on April 2 that a special enrollment period for individual health insurance under the Affordable Care Act will be extended to run through April 30, according to a news release. The original period that was announced on March 19 was set to end April 3, the release said.

Mass testing

The governor wants to establish the capability for mass COVID-19 testing in Colorado to more accurately quarantine rather than shutting down large sections of society. Such an effort could take weeks or perhaps months to be ready, he has said.

Mike Willis, director of the state Emergency Operations Center, also said the timeline for broader testing isn't clear at this point.

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