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Insurers in Montana waive virus test fees; state receives more tests

Insurers in Montana waive virus test fees; state receives more tests

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Four insurance companies, covering more than 450,000 Montanans total, will waive fees around testing for the disease on at least some customers, Montana Commissioner of Securities and Insurance Matt Rosendale announced Tuesday.

"Hundreds" of more tests are now available in Montana, according to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, and some nursing homes moved to follow recommendations from national assisted-living organizations aimed at keeping the disease at bay.

There were still no reported cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, in Montana on Tuesday afternoon, even as the number of people tested inched upward, according to DPHHS. The total number of people tested — all with negative results — rose from 11 to 21, while just three people remained under monitoring, the agency reported.

According to Rosendale's office, insurers will make the following changes:

  • Montana Health CO-OP, insuring about 19,500 Montanans, will waive all consumer out-of-pocket costs, including co-pays and deductibles, related to physician-advised testing for COVID-19.
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana, insuring about 300,000 residents, will not require prior authorization and will not apply member co-pays or deductibles for testing to diagnose COVID-19 when medically necessary and consistent with Centers for Disease Control guidance.
  • PacificSource Health Plans, covering 45,000 Montanans, will waive all member financial responsibility around co-pays, co-insurance, and deductibles for COVID-19 testing related at in-network facilities, and is working with federal regulators to determine if it can extend this coverage to the company’s Health Savings Account (HSA) members.
  • Allegiance Life & Health Insurance Company, covering 89,000 Montanans, says its customers will have access to COVID-19 testing prescribed by health practitioners, and will waive co-pays, coinsurance or deductibles for customers. Allegiance is starting up a customer resource center specifically dedicated to help customers with any administrative barriers related to coronavirus-related claims.

While Colorado recently imposed new requirements for that state’s insurers, these steps were adopted voluntarily, and Office of the State Auditor and Office of the Commissioner of Securities and Insurance spokesperson Kyle Schmauch wrote in an email that “we’re glad to see that they’re taking proactive measures to cover coronavirus testing costs without a government mandate.”

It’s not yet clear whether everyone with one of these companies’ plans will have access to these benefits. Schmauch wrote that the firms’ Montana clients “include self-funded employer plans, where the insurer is just the plan administrator.”

“The insurers are reaching … out to their self-funded plans asking how they’d like to proceed on coronavirus testing, but ultimately that decision is up to each self-funded plan, not the insurer,” he said. “That’s one reason why it’s important for Montanans to work with their specific medical provider and insurer if they need to get tested for the virus.”

***

Not everyone needs to get tested for the virus, the Missoula City-County Health Department stated in its own press release Tuesday morning.

“There is a lot of confusion among the public about testing for COVID-19, mostly around the expectation that anyone can get a test,” said Cindy Farr, incident commander for the county’s response team, explaining that her agency and local hospitals had received several calls regarding testing for COVID-19. “It’s not as simple as testing everyone in the community.”

The Health Department stated the current test does not screen people for their risk or exposure to the virus; it can only diagnose someone with COVID-19 who is showing symptoms. In addition, with only 200 individual tests initially available for testing statewide, health providers have had to work judiciously in determining whom to test.

"We need to work effectively with the resources we currently have,” Farr said. “Right now, the best tool we have in our community is prevention. Wash your hands, avoid close contact with people who are sick and disinfect surfaces frequently. If you do exhibit symptoms of fever, coughing or shortness of breath, call your medical provider first and stay home except when seeking medical treatment.”

Jon Ebelt, spokesperson for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, wrote in an email that since the first 200 tests were provided to the department, “we have received more from (the federal Centers for Disease Control), and have hundreds left. We continue to test daily, and report test results daily online. As we move forward, we’ll be able to ask CDC for more.” Any patient who meets the testing criteria, he wrote, is isolated with supportive care either at home or in a hospital.

One concentration of the virus in the United States is a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, where 18 residents died. The American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, both industry groups, announced recommendations for nursing homes and assisted-living facilities to guard against the coronavirus. They include: restricting entry, limiting visitors and outside excursions for residents, screening visitors for respiratory ailments and possible contact with the disease; and requiring hand-washing upon entry.

In Missoula, “we’re taking some additional precautionary measures,” said Shana Klinge, executive director of Edgewood Memory Care. She said that facility, which has 25 residents, does not permit entry to anyone with respiratory ailments or who has traveled internationally in the last 14 days. It has also canceled visits from outside organizations, and restricted residents’ transportation to medical appointments. Klinge said that Edgewood planned to hold an all-staff training Wednesday that would reinforce the importance of hand-washing and other basic sanitation practices.

Kyle Flint, house manager of At Home Assisted Living, said that East Missoula facility has implemented similar screening for visitors. Flint predicted that “as it gets closer, we will go to pretty much a full-on lockdown status,” with transportation being restricted to doctors’ appointments.

Mark Beckman, head of the Montana High School Association, which manages this week’s state basketball tournaments in Missoula, Butte, Bozeman and Billings, referred people to the organization's website — www.mhsa.org — for posted health and safety information for attendees. No games had been affected as of Tuesday afternoon.

Around the world, the outbreak is taking an economic toll as travel and large-scale events get canceled or scaled back. But that uncertainty means one sector is doing just fine.

“We’ve seen a slight uptick in ammo sales these past few weeks,” said Danen Brucker, a sales employee at Axmen Firearms south of Missoula. He said ammunition sales typically rise in an election year, but the increase is early this time.

“I actually had people concerned more about the economy as a whole” than the coronavirus itself, he said. With customers concerned about everything from “small shortages to full-on economic collapse,” it’s become time to stock up.

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