CDC director commits to COVID-19 testing for all Americans, regardless of insurance coverage

Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testifies during the House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on Coronavirus Preparedness and Response on Thursday, March 12, 2020. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield said all Americans, regardless of whether they have insurance, will be able to be tested without charge after a back-and-forth with California Rep. Katie Porter during a congressional hearing on the novel coronavirus.

Redfield said his agency is working to make sure that uninsured Americans can get tested for coronavirus if it’s medically needed.

About 28 million Americans are uninsured. Porter, a Democrat from California, pressed Redfield on their predicament Thursday at a congressional hearing. Porter said the Health and Human Services department has the legal authority to pay for health costs.

“Will you commit to the CDC right now using that existing authority to pay for diagnostic texting free to every American regardless of insurance?” Porter asked.

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“Well, I can say that we’re going to do everything to make sure everybody can get the care they need,” Redfield replied.

“Nope, not good enough,” Porter interjected. “Dr. Redfield, you have the existing authority. Will you commit right now to using the authority that you have vested in you under law that provides in a public health emergency for testing, treatment, exam, isolation without cost — yes or no?” Porter asked.

“What I’m going to say is I’m going to review in detail with the CDC and the department,” Redfield said, before Porter cut him off again.

“No, no.” Porter said, going on to cite a letter she wrote, along with two other congresswomen, and sent to Redfield last week. “We quoted that existing authority to you and we laid out this problem,” Porter said. “We asked for a response yesterday. The deadline and the time for delay has passed. Will you commit to invoking your existing authority under 42 CFR 71.30 to provide for coronavirus testing for every American regardless of insurance coverage?” Porter asked.

READ THE LAW: This is 42 CFR 71.30 in the federal register, cited by Rep. Katie Porter 

“What I was trying to say is that CDC is working with HHS now to see how we operationalize that,” Redfield said.

“Dr. Redfield, I hope that that answer weighs heavily on you,” Porter said. “Because it is going to weigh very heavily on me and on every American family.”

“Our intent is to make sure every American gets the care and treatment they need at this time in this major epidemic, and I am currently working with HHS to see how to best operationalize it,” Redfield repeated.

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“Dr. Redfield, you don’t need to do any work to operationalize,” Porter said. “You need to make a commitment to the American people so they come in to get tested. You can operationalize the payment structure tomorrow,” Porter said.

“I think you’re an excellent questioner, so my answer is yes,” Redfield said.

“Excellent,” Porter said. “Everybody in American hear that: You are eligible to go get tested for coronavirus and have that covered regardless of insurance,” Porter said, urging people who feel ill to call their doctors first and follow CDC guidelines, but not to let a lack of insurance keep them from getting tested for the new virus.

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The law cited by Porter, 42 CFR 71.30 in the federal register, reads in part, "Payment for care and treatment shall be in the Director's sole discretion and subject to the availability of appropriations."

While it was not immediately clear how the process for CDC covering the charges for COVID-19 testing for uninsured Americans would be handled, community health centers are a go-to source of primary medical for uninsured people, and in many states Medicaid will extend emergency coverage to people who qualify.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.