Several states are requiring state-regulated health plans to cover COVID-19 telehealth with no cost sharing. | Image: fizkes / stock.adobe.com

State and federal efforts to improve access to COVID-19 testing, treatment

Elected bodies and state agencies are taking action to expand access to health coverage and treatment during the current pandemic.

Reviewed by our health policy panel.

The coronavirus pandemic has turned life on its head worldwide. And the fact that it’s a widespread health crisis is shining a light on the numerous cracks and flaws in the American health care system. But numerous new state and federal regulations have been implemented over the past few weeks that aim to improve Americans’ access to testing and treatment for COVID-19, the disease caused by this new coronavirus.

We’re using this page to keep track of the changes that affect health insurance coverage for medical care related to the pandemic, and will continue to update it as the situation evolves.

States open special enrollment periods to enroll uninsured

Many Americans who lose their jobs during the coronavirus crisis will be eligible either for Medicaid or for subsidized private plan coverage in the ACA marketplace.

Losing your job (and your coverage) due to the pandemic? Read these tips for finding affordable ACA-compliant health insurance.

Unlike most of the other developed countries that have been hit with the COVID-19 pandemic, a significant portion of the U.S. population has no medical insurance. (This would be far worse without the Affordable Care Act: A decade ago, before it was enacted, there were more than 46 million uninsured Americans, and that has since dropped to about 27 million people.)

Open enrollment for 2020 health plans ended several weeks ago, and open enrollment for most employers concluded late last year. But nearly all of the state-run health insurance exchanges have opened up special enrollment periods (SEPs) in response to the coronavirus pandemic. These are limited windows during which people who are uninsured can enroll in ACA-compliant health plans:

  • Rhode Island (enroll by April 15; coverage takes effect 1st of the month following enrollment date)
  • New York (enroll by April 15, on- or off-exchange; coverage takes effect April 1)
  • Nevada (enroll by April 15; April 1 effective date for enrollments completed by April 1, after that plans will take effect May 1 )
  • Connecticut (enroll by April 17; coverage takes effect April 1 for people who enroll by April 2; enrollments after April 2 will take effect May 1)
  • Vermont (enroll by April 17; enrollee can choose April 1 or May 1 effective date)
  • Minnesota (enroll by April 21; coverage takes effect April 1)
  • Colorado (enroll by April 30 (extended deadline); coverage takes effect April 1)
  • Washington State (enroll by May 8; coverage takes effect April 1 for people who enroll by April 8; enrollments after April 8 will take effect May 1)
  • Massachusetts (enroll by May 25; enrollments completed by April 23 will have a May 1 effective date; completed by May 23 will have a June 1 effective date, and completed by May 25 will have a July 1 effective date)
  • Maryland (enroll by June 15; enrollments completed by April 15 will have April 1 effective dates)
  • California (enroll by June 30; coverage takes effect the 1st of the month following the enrollment date)
  • District of Columbia (SEP isn’t related to COVID-19), but does allow uninsured residents to gain coverage

The special enrollment periods triggered by the coronavirus pandemic do not allow people with health insurance to switch to a different plan; they are designed to let uninsured people gain coverage. But people who have health plans that aren’t minimum essential coverage are considered uninsured, which means people will be able to switch away from coverage such as short-term health plans and healthcare sharing ministry plans and obtain ACA-compliant health insurance coverage instead.

The 38 states that rely on HealthCare.gov cannot issue their own special enrollment periods, as they do not run their own enrollment platforms. Several – MichiganNew Jersey, and Pennsylvania – have asked the federal government to open up a special enrollment period through HealthCare.gov. But as of March 31, the Trump administration has said they do not plan to open a special enrollment period on HealthCare.gov, and are instead “exploring other options.”

But it’s important to understand that there is always a special enrollment period available to people who lose their existing health insurance coverage, and Medicaid is a coverage option in the majority of the states when a household’s income drops below 138 percent of the poverty level. Here’s more about how to go about securing coverage if you’re facing the loss of your current health plan.

New Mexico operates a state-run exchange but uses HealthCare.gov for enrollment (for now), which means the state cannot issue a special enrollment period. But New Mexico has opened up the state’s high-risk pool to residents who are uninsured, not able to obtain other health coverage, and who believe they may have COVID-19.

And Illinois is working to try to get a federal waiver approved that would allow uninsured COVID-19 patients to have coverage under the state Medicaid program.

Of the states that run their own exchange platforms, only Idaho has not yet opened a special enrollment period. Idaho officials have said this is because their “enhanced” short-term health plans are available year-round, although it’s important to understand that although these plans are much more regulated than normal short-term health plans, they are not ACA-compliant and do still involve some medical underwriting.

Federal law mandates full coverage of COVID-19 testing

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (H.R.6201), signed into law on March 17, requires nearly all health plans – including Medicare and Medicaid – to pay for COVID-19 testing, including the lab fees and the fees associated with the doctor’s office, urgent care clinic, or emergency room where the test is administered. For the duration of the COVID-19 emergency period, health plans cannot impose any cost sharing or prior authorization requirements for COVID-19 testing.

Numerous states had already implemented similar regulations, but states can only regulate fully insured health plans. The federal government had to step in to require self-insured plans to fully cover COVID-19 testing, and to address the issue in the states that hadn’t taken action on their own. 

H.R.6201 does not apply to short-term health plans, healthcare sharing ministry plans, or other health plans that aren’t considered minimum essential coverage. But Washington state’s COVID-19 testing requirements do apply to short-term health plans, requiring them to cover testing with no cost sharing, just like other health plans (North Dakota’s bulletin also applies to short-term plans, but it asks, rather than requires, insurers to waive cost-sharing for COVID-19 testing). Washington state has also expanded the no-cost testing guidelines to include tests for influenza, RSV, norovirus, and other coronaviruses, as long as they’re billed in conjunction with a diagnosis code related to COVID-19. Wyoming is also requiring health insurers to waive the cost of diagnostic testing for influenza and RSV.

Several insurers voluntarily waiving cost sharing for COVID-19 treatment

Although COVID-19 testing is now covered without any cost sharing on nearly all health insurance plans, the federal rules (and most state rules) still allow for normal cost-sharing (deductible, copays, and coinsurance) when people need treatment for the disease. Especially if treatment involves a hospital stay, people are likely to end up hitting their plan’s maximum out-of-pocket, which can be several thousand dollars, depending on the plans.

But several insurers are stepping up to voluntarily waive cost sharing for COVID-19 treatment. Anthem, UnitedHealthcare, Humana and Cigna have announced that their members will not have to pay any cost sharing for in-network treatment related to COVID-19, including inpatient care (this applies only through May 31 for Anthem, UnitedHealthcare and Cigna, although Human has not imposed an end-date). Humana no longer offers individual market coverage, but the announcement does apply to individual market enrollees who have coverage under an Anthem, Cigna or UnitedHealthcare plan.

Aetna has announced that they will waive cost-sharing for inpatient treatment of COVID-19, although this does not apply to their Medicare Advantage members.

Numerous regional and local health insurers have taken similar steps to reduce or eliminate cost sharing related to COVID-19, although many of them are focusing on telehealth as opposed to all treatment costs.

Insurers in Minnesota have agreed to waive cost-sharing for in-network hospitalizations.

It’s obviously beneficial for consumers when insurers opt to waive cost sharing related to COVID-19 treatment. But in the case of a hospital stay, the member’s out-of-pocket amount would have been a small portion of the total cost anyway, so the insurer would already have been covering nearly all of the total cost. By waiving cost sharing related to COVID-19, the insurers make it easier for people to obtain treatment, and also put themselves in a better position for potential financial assistance from the federal government.

Self-insured plans can opt to waive cost-sharing for COVID-19 treatment, but are not required to do so. The majority of workers with employer-sponsored coverage are in self-insured plans. Even if those plans are administered by Anthem, UnitedHealthcare, Humana, Cigna, Aetna, or a regional insurer that has opted to waive cost sharing for fully-insured plans, any decisions regarding cost-sharing adjustments on self-insured plans ultimately lie with the employer, as opposed to the insurer.

States go above and beyond

Some states have regulations that go even further than H.R.6201, for plans that are regulated by the state:

Treatment with no cost sharing

  • New Mexico requires health plans to waive cost sharing for medical services related to COVID-19, pneumonia, and influenza.
  • Massachusetts requires health plans to provide COVID-19 treatment with no cost sharing, although it only applies to care obtained in a doctor’s office, urgent care clinic, or emergency room.
  • Minnesota asks, but does not require, insurers to fully cover the cost of testing and to “limit or eliminate” the cost of treatment. But the guidance also clarifies that Gov. Tim Walz’s administration is asking lawmakers to step in to make this a requirement.

Lawmakers in some states are working to address health coverage for COVID-19 from a legislative perspective. Examples are Ohio’s H.B.579, Minnesota’s H.F.4416, and Michigan’s H.B.5633. These are all recently introduced bills that have not yet received a vote.

Meanwhile, numerous legislatures across the country have suspended their sessions as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, so it’s unclear how much can be accomplished legislatively at the state level.

Telehealth with no (or reduced) cost sharing

Several states are requiring state-regulated health plans to cover COVID-19 telehealth with no cost sharing. (In some cases, these rules apply to all telehealth services, not just services for COVID-19.):

All three insurers that offer plans in Montana’s exchange are voluntarily waiving cost sharing for telehealth services.

Other states are asking insurers to waive cost sharing for telehealth, but have stopped short of requiring it:

During the COVID-19 emergency, the federal government has relaxed the regulations that apply to telehealth services. Several states have also taken action to make telehealth easier to access, including requirements that health insurers provide at least the same level of coverage for telehealth that they do for in-person visits, allowances for audio-only telehealth visits, permitting out-of-state telehealth services, etc.

Numerous states have issued rules designed to make it easier for medical professionals to provide telehealth services and for patients to access it — including telehealth services for medical care that’s not related to COVID-19:

IRS, HHS relax rules for HSA-qualified plans, catastrophic plans

HSA-qualified high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) have to follow strict rules laid out by the IRS. With the exception of preventive care, these plans are not allowed to pay for any services before the minimum allowable deductible is met. (The IRS sets that amount, too.)

But as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the IRS is relaxing the rules: HDHPs can pay for COVID-19 testing and treatment pre-deductible and the plan will continue to be HSA-qualified, which means enrollees can continue to contribute money to their HSAs. Under state and federal rules, HDHPs are currently required to cover COVID-19 testing without any cost sharing. In most states, the plans can impose their normal cost sharing rules for treatment, although plans that opt to pay for certain COVID-19 treatment pre-deductible will not lose their HSA-eligible status.

Catastrophic plans have somewhat similar restrictions: Other than preventive care and three primary care visits per year, they cannot pay for enrollees’ medical expenses until the plan deductible is met, and the deductible is equal to the annual maximum out-of-pocket established each year by HHS.

But in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, HHS has relaxed those rules. Insurers that offer catastrophic plans are allowed to alter their benefits in order to provide pre-deductible coverage for testing and treatment related to COVID-19.

34 states utilize Medicaid waivers to improve access to services

Under Section 1135 of the Social Security Act, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) can waive certain Medicaid, Medicare, and CHIP rules during times of emergency. Once President Trump declared a nationwide state of emergency, states were able to make use of 1135 waivers in order to improve access to medical services during the emergency period.

As of the end of March, CMS has approved 1135 waivers for 34 states. The states have asked for varying provisions, including suspension of prior authorization, allowing out-of-state providers to be reimbursed by the state’s Medicaid program, and allowing services to be provided in alternate facilities. These 1135 waivers have thus-far been approved for:

States appeal to insurers to prevent policy terminations

The ACA allows for a three-month grace period for people who receive premium subsidies in the exchange. But for those who aren’t getting subsidies – which includes everyone who buys coverage outside the exchange – the grace period is generally only one month long.

In an effort to prevent coverage terminations at a time when many Americans are facing income instability, several states are asking or requiring state-regulated insurers to be more flexible with how they handle late premiums:

  • Georgia is prohibiting health insurers from canceling policies for non-payment of premiums until further notice. Delaware and Louisiana have the same requirement, for the duration of the public health emergency. West Virginia is not allowing policy cancellations that are attributed to “adverse circumstances resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
  • Louisiana is prohibiting policy cancellations for the duration of the emergency period, and also requiring insurers to extend policies that would otherwise be subject to renewal conditions (such as underwriting or premium adjustments). This rule applies to short-term health plans, as long as they are renewable policies. Not all short-term plans offer renewals, but for those that do, the emergency rule requires the plan to simply extend coverage for the duration of the emergency period (ie, an extension of the existing policy, rather than a renewal, which means out-of-pocket costs would not reset). If and when the policy hits its maximum allowable duration, however, it would terminate.
  • Arkansas has implemented a 60-day ban on insurer termination of policies due to non-payment of premiums if the policy holder has been diagnosed with COVID-19. The 60-day window is backdated to March 11, which is the day the governor declared a state of emergency. Insurers are allowed to require proof of diagnosis.
  • Mississippi is also banning policy cancellations based on non-payment of premiums. The moratorium began March 14, and continues for 60 days.
  • California and Connecticut are asking all types of insurers to offer at least a 60-day grace period for premiums. Iowa, Indiana, and Missouri are asking health insurers to allow 60-day grace periods.
  • Ohio is requiring insurers to offer a 60-day grace period for premiums. Ohio is also requiring insurers that offer employer-sponsored plans to allow an employer to keep employees on their health plan even if the employees’ hours drop below the normal minimum requirements.
  • Washington is requiring individual and small group plans to have premium grace periods of at least 60 days.
  • Colorado is requiring small and large group insurers to offer premium grace periods and waive late fees, and is prohibiting them from canceling group policies for non-payment of premiums.
  • Oklahoma is telling insurers to implement a 60-day grace period for overdue premiums. And if a person is diagnosed with COVID-19, an Oklahoma insurer cannot terminate the policy holder’s coverage for at least 90 days – even if the person is unable to return to work or pay their health insurance premiums.
  • Missouri is “strongly encouraging” insurers to offer a 60-day grace period for overdue premiums.
  • Wisconsin is asking health insurers to allow businesses to keep furloughed workers (and those with reduced hours) on their company-sponsored health insurance plans.
  • Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin are asking insurers to be as flexible as possible in terms of premium due dates and grace periods in order to avoid policy terminations.

As is the case with any state regulations, these rules only apply to health plans that are regulated by the state insurance department. So self-insured plans, direct primary care plans (in states that have exempted them from insurance oversight), healthcare sharing ministry plans (in states that exempt them from insurance oversight), and any other non-state-regulated plan would not have to comply with these rules. But they can comply voluntarily and many will likely opt to do so.

Several states take additional actions that address the pandemic

States can take a variety of other actions to address the pandemic. Here are some examples:

  • Arkansas has temporarily suspended the requirement that a pharmacy customer provide a signature when picking up medications. This is an effort to prevent the spread of the virus via shared pens, styluses, and tablets.
  • California is directing insurers to implement protocols that will ensure access to prescription drugs and telehealth services throughout the duration of a shelter-in-place order.
  • New Jersey is covering the cost of COVID-19 testing for uninsured residents who receive a test at a hospital or Federally Qualified Health Center.
  • North Carolina’s insurance commissioner is requesting that insurance agencies be considered essential businesses, and thus remain open in the event of a shelter-in-place order in the state.
  • Vermont has suspended routine medical provider audits by insurers and pharmacy benefits managers, in order to allow medical providers to focus on caring for their patients.
  • North Dakota is asking all insurance brokers and agents to limit contact with clients to online and phone interactions, as opposed to any in-person visits.

Louise Norris is an individual health insurance broker who has been writing about health insurance and health reform since 2006. She has written dozens of opinions and educational pieces about the Affordable Care Act for healthinsurance.org. Her state health exchange updates are regularly cited by media who cover health reform and by other health insurance experts.

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