With the persistence of the omicron variant and a shortage of rapid home COVID-19 tests, the state opened access Friday to 500,000 tests with $12 million in federal pandemic money. When these are gone, it will restock.
But unlike the 1.55 million tests it gave out for free via websites in November and December, and free tests going to pharmacies for Medicare beneficiaries, those tests will cost $11.29, — a little more than in retail pharmacies – when in stock. And they will only be available at the state’s 67 liquor stores and nine Doorway stores, sites that help people in crisis seek help with addictions. The cost includes a 4 cent administration fee per liquor store test.
“It’s just one more option for residents,” Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette told executive advisers last month before approving the use of federal money to buy 1 million home tests. “A lot of times people look for tests at CVS or Walgreens just to have them in the medicine cabinet just in case,” she said.
The state chose liquor stores because they have the capacity to store tests and are located throughout the state. The state will use the money it collects from sales of the tests for other COVID-19 response efforts. And commercial insurance companies and Medicaid will reimburse the cost. Uninsured people can ask Medicaid to cover the cost of testing by going to nheasy.nh.gov and clicking on “COVID-19 Group.”
Flowflex tests come one in a box, not two like the state-provided tests last year.
Even with a price tag and limited sales sites, the ability to get at-home testing will be good news for those who couldn’t find it locally or online. But the program raises concerns for others.
That includes Kristine Stoddard, New Hampshire’s senior director of public policy at the Bi-State Primary Care Association, who worries about costs and where to buy. While the gates will make testing more easily accessible to those seeking treatment, these sites and liquor stores aren’t necessarily options for recovering people — or the general public, she said.
“We appreciate that the state is working hard to improve access to testing supplies and normalize the idea of testing,” Stoddard said. “However, cost is one of the biggest barriers to accessing healthcare services, including COVID-19 testing. We believe that COVID-19 testing supplies should be free to all Granite Staters and as widely available as possible.
She said she would like to see expanded access not only to people in the recovery community, but also to people who are homeless and housebound. “We hear daily from New Hampshire health centers that patient demand for COVID-19 testing remains extraordinarily high, in part because schools in their communities need more test kits,” Stoddard said. “At this critical juncture in the pandemic, we need to break down barriers to care, not erect them.”
Kate Frey, vice president of policy for New Futures, whose advocacy around health and wellbeing includes substance use disorders, was relieved to see liquor stores weren’t the only sales site given that these are the liquor store locations that have been promoted in the state listings.
“While it’s important that these tests are widely available to the public, we also need to think about the impact on people who have a substance use disorder,” she said. “It is good to know that testing is also available at Doorways, as much of the initial messaging focused on availability only at liquor stores. I hope this is highlighted in the continued marketing of the program and perhaps other purchase opportunities should be considered in the future.
Jake Leon, spokesman for Health and Human Services, said the state is selling the tests at cost rather than providing them for free for several reasons.
He said approval of the state plan by the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee, which had to sign with the Executive Council, required the tests to be sold at cost. Additionally, he said, the tests were purchased with federal COVID-19 funds with limits.
Selling the tests will allow the state to reuse pandemic aid to meet future needs as the pandemic continues to create challenges, he said.
Locally, CVS and Target sell the tests for less than the state, around $10 and $8, respectively. Leon said the availability resulted in slightly higher costs for state testing.
“The department organized a bidding process to procure tests from vendors who could make the tests available to people immediately,” Leon said. “The supplier offering the lowest price for immediately available tests has been selected. Comparable tests recently seen in pharmacies are sporadically available from manufacturers and are restricted to pharmacies under their existing contracts. In order to buy tests in bulk and make them immediately available, the state had to pay a little more.
The 850,000 free test kits the state provided for free last year, via an online order form, were so popular they were gone in less than 24 hours.
The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced Thursday that it will make free home testing available to Medicare beneficiaries this spring through pharmacies and other locations it has not identified.
In January, the Biden administration made four free at-home tests available to anyone through an online order form. Orders are supposed to ship within seven to 12 days, but the site warns that there may be delays: “Due to high demand, we are fulfilling orders as tests come in. available.”
This story was originally posted by New Hampshire Bulletin.