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Finding a Free COVID Test Without Insurance Just Got Harder. Here's How to Get One

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A woman wearing a pink shirt and a long flowing black skirt walks past a sign saying "no cost to you COVID-19 testing"
A person walks past a COVID-19 testing location. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

Starting Wednesday, March 23, the federal program that’s been funding COVID testing and care for people without health insurance has ended.

This means that finding a test if you’re uninsured just became a little more complex.

Until now, the providers of COVID tests and care could bill the COVID-19 Uninsured Program from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) for the costs of giving these services to uninsured folks. This change — which was announced only one week ago, on March 16 — means COVID testing sites can no longer bill the federal government for testing uninsured people. In some cases, this means they’ll no longer be able to provide those services to people without insurance.

With the potential of another COVID surge ahead from the new BA.2 omicron variant, it’s important to know how your testing and care options might have changed if you don’t have health insurance. Keep reading for what you need to know.

Your county will almost certainly still offer you a free COVID test with no insurance

While private providers are most affected by this change because they are now unable to bill the federal government for COVID tests for uninsured people (more on that below), your Bay Area county is most likely unaffected by this change. So far, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Sonoma and Marin counties all have confirmed to KQED that there’s no change in their ability to offer uninsured folks free COVID testing.

This is because counties usually draw their funding for testing and vaccination from other sources. For example, a spokesperson for Contra Costa County said that its Board of Supervisors "allocated funding from the American Rescue Plan Act for health services for COVID-19 activities, including supporting vaccination and testing services for the community."

This means that if you need a COVID test quickly, and don’t have health insurance, going to a county-sponsored site might be your most reliable route.

Use the links below to find your county's community testing sites:

Other testing sites might have stopped offering free COVID tests for uninsured people

Now that providers can no longer claim the costs of testing uninsured folks for COVID from the federal government, you might find that the testing site down the street from you has stopped offering free tests to people without insurance. But different testing providers are handling it in different ways.

Some sites may continue offering free COVID tests to those without insurance. In the Bay Area, the provider Virus Geeks promises that now that the HRSA funding has ended, they will cover the costs of free testing for uninsured people. "Everyone who does not have insurance is welcome to get testing at any of our sites for free," said Virus Geeks CEO Frank Lee in an email.

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Virus Geeks has sites across the Bay Area, including in San Francisco, Oakland, Redwood City and San Pablo. The full list of Virus Geeks testing centers is available here.

Other testing sites may now ask you to pay an out-of-pocket fee to get a test if you don’t have health insurance. Total Testing Solutions, for example, says they will "be moving to self-pay testing, but are doing our best to keep it as low as possible," and offering rapid testing for $49 or virtual testing [at-home tests done with the assistance of a testing expert provided through a video call] for $25.

Some testing sites may make changes to their eligibility criteria for uninsured people. This includes Test the People, which has sites in Oakland and San Francisco where — starting Friday, March 25 — only uninsured people who have COVID symptoms will be able to get a free COVID test.

Craig Rouskey, CEO of renegade.bio which operates Test the People, estimates that currently 16% to 20% of people using the program's sites are uninsured. As of Friday, these patients without insurance will be asked to attest to having symptoms before getting their test.

Rouskey says that Test the People is "currently reaching out to our partners in public health and nonprofit sectors to support the testing of asymptomatic uninsured individuals," and that focusing on testing symptomatic people will allow the organization to at least "sequence those positive results from symptomatic people and help track the next variants of concern, which is really where we're going with the pandemic."

All of this is to say: Getting a COVID test without insurance from a noncounty testing site has now become far less straightforward. So we strongly advise that you check the provider’s website before heading to their testing site — because you might find that if you don’t have insurance, they might charge you for the test, or not provide it at all.

Find a noncounty testing site near you.

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You can still get free at-home COVID tests from the federal government via USPS

You can order up to eight free at-home COVID-19 antigen tests online from the federal government and the United States Postal Service. Previously, the federal government only provided four free tests per household but, as of March 7, people who have already received their original can make a second order.

The tests and shipping are completely free of charge. Find out more about ordering your free COVID at-home tests via USPS.

Sign up for California's Uninsured Group program

California is still covering tests for some residents without coverage through the COVID-19 Uninsured Group program, managed by the Department of Health Care Services. Thanks to state legislation from 2020, the program offers free COVID-19 testing, hospital care and treatment to anyone in California who doesn't have insurance.

Any uninsured person can apply to the program, regardless of income or immigration status. Once you're enrolled, you can receive COVID-19 testing and treatment from any Medi-Cal provider for free across California.

The catch: To enroll, "you first have to find a medical provider in your community that has been designated by the state as a qualified provider," explains David Kane, senior attorney with the Western Center on Law and Poverty — and you can't submit the application yourself.

The COVID-19 Uninsured Group program application is available online, and you can fill it out yourself — but it can only be submitted to Medi-Cal through that qualified provider (QP). There are dozens of QPs across the Bay Area that can help you file your application so it reaches Medi-Cal. You can find an interactive map of all the QPs in the Bay Area, along with their contact information here.

"Once you find a qualified provider, that provider has to know how to process an application," Kane said. He added that because this program is not as widely known, unfortunately some qualified providers may be unfamiliar with how to file an application.

Kane acknowledges that the burden of explaining what the Uninsured Group program is should not be placed on the patient, but adds that there are several options available if someone calls a provider who is not aware that this resource exists.

"Patients should tell a provider they are uninsured, or underinsured, and need coverage to access this care and that they know specifically about the COVID-19 Uninsured Group program, and ask to be enrolled in that program," he explained.

Kane says that if the provider insists they still don't know what you're talking about or that you're not eligible for the program, you should either:

  • Request to speak to someone who works at that provider who is informed about this resource.
  • Reach out to another qualified provider.
  • Contact the Health Consumer Alliance, an advocacy group that supports Californians seeking health coverage and offers free legal aid.

"This program exists for people who need it," Kane said. "Just about everybody [who's uninsured] in California is eligible. So be persistent until you are enrolled." Read a FAQ on the state's COVID-19 Uninsured Group program.

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