What Removing COVID's 'Public Health Emergency' Status Means For You

Be prepared for a few changes in policy and government-provided tools. Here's what we know so far.

The Biden administration announced that the COVID-19 national and public health emergencies will come to a halt on May 11. The emergency declaration, which was enacted by former President Donald Trump in 2020 and renewed every 90 days, helped the government provide tools — like tests, vaccines and treatments — to Americans and funding that supported our health care system throughout the public health crisis.

The announcement, made on Jan. 30, puts an end to many benefits we’ve come to rely on for our COVID-19 needs. Come summer, many people will have to start paying out of pocket for COVID-related care that used to be free under the emergency declarations. While many benefits will end in May, others, like telehealth coverage, will be extended through 2024.

We’re still learning about the ways people will be affected by the declaration’s end and will have more answers in the coming months.

“It will be important for people to check with their health care providers and health plans to understand moving forward what is covered and not covered by their plans,” said David Souleles, director of the masters in public health program at the University of California, Irvine.

Here’s what we know so far about the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency and what it means for you:

Expect tests, shots and treatments to get more expensive

One of the biggest perks of the emergency declaration has been free COVID-19 vaccines, test kits and treatments. Throughout the pandemic, people covered by private insurance plans and public plans like Medicare and Medicaid have been able to get up to eight COVID-19 tests each month for free.

Uninsured individuals were also able to access tests through President Joe Biden’s at-home test program, which offered batches of four free tests to households via the U.S. Postal Service. Certain treatments, like the antiviral Paxlovid and monoclonal antibodies, were also fully covered for people with Medicaid and Medicare. The end of the declaration will mark the end of federal funding for these free resources.

“With the expiration of the declarations, those costs will shift to private insurance and government health plans, or out of pocket for those without coverage,” Souleles said.

When the emergency declaration ends in May, testing services and antiviral drugs will no longer be completely free for most Americans, according to Dr. Robert Amler, dean of the School of Health Sciences and Practice at New York Medical College and a former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official.

COVID-19 will soon be handled like other seasonal infectious diseases. The shots will continue to be free for most Americans. For example, in a normal flu season, people with health insurance can get the vaccines for free by a provider in their network, but uninsured folks have to pay anywhere from $25 to $110 for the shot at local pharmacies.

When it comes to treatment coverage and PCR tests ordered by a health care provider, it will likely depend on the type of coverage people have and their copay requirements. Tamiflu, the antiviral used for the flu, can be fully or partially covered by private insurers, depending on the plan — so the same will likely be true for COVID-19 treatments.

You’ll also have to pay for at-home COVID-19 tests. If you’re on Medicaid, you’ll be able to access free tests (including at-home kits) and treatments until 2024. Amler said many local jurisdictions will likely have programs in place that cover the costs of tests and shots.

“Those without health care coverage or otherwise having trouble accessing care or treatment will want to reach out to their local public health departments for referrals to community clinics or other providers who can assist with care to those without health care coverage,” Souleles added.

One thing to note: Many of the treatments and test kits were made available to the public though emergency use authorization — a type of approval given to expedite the availability of drugs and vaccines during a public health emergency. The end of the emergency phase will not affect access to these products, Amler said.

Test and treatment coverage may change after the COVID-19 public health emergency status goes away.
Photographer, Basak Gurbuz Derman via Getty Images
Test and treatment coverage may change after the COVID-19 public health emergency status goes away.

Health insurance enrollment and telehealth access could change

If you’re on public health insurance, you may want to check in with your provider because some people may get booted off their plan. During the pandemic, the federal government pumped funds into Medicaid to ensure vulnerable Americans would remain covered — but that’s about to change.

“When the continuous enrollment requirement ends, it is likely that millions of people may be terminated from coverage as states resume their routine redetermination processes where Medicaid beneficiaries have to reapply and have eligibility verified for continued coverage,” Souleles said.

Additionally, Medicare has been billing people the same amount for out-of-network and in-network COVID-related care. This benefit will also end when the declaration ends, Souleles said. During the national emergency, private insurers had to be more flexible with COBRA enrollment and premium payment deadlines, but that will no longer be the case two months after the emergency declaration ends in May.

We’ll also start to see telehealth coverage slowly phase out. Because telehealth has been crucial in helping many people access care during the pandemic — particularly those with behavioral health needs or in rural areas — coverage of telehealth services for Medicare users won’t end abruptly on May 11, but will be extended to December 2024. Telehealth coverage will vary from state to state for people with Medicaid.

Though the emergency declaration is officially set to end on May 11, Amler said the date could change, as has often happened with deadlines during the pandemic. The government will also continue to share additional ways that the end of the emergency will affect our daily lives. Because protections have been put in place and amended and extended at different times, benefits are going to unwind on various timelines.

“It’s going to be confusing for quite a while,” Amler said. So, stay tuned, and in the meantime, if you have any specific questions, contact your local health department or health insurance company.

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