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Getting a COVID-19 test in Texas may become even more difficult for the uninsured as funding expires


Community-based health clinics are worried that getting a COVID-19 test will be even more difficult for the uninsured, especially after a major source of funding ended last week.

A similar deadline looms for money for the administration of vaccines for the uninsured.

“They’re scrambling to figure out ‘how do we pay for this?’” said Jana Eubank, executive director of the Texas Association of Community Health Centers. “Are we going to have to stop providing community-wide events, stop sending our mobile vans out to communities … and really just try to prioritize our patient population first?”

Eubank said community-based clinics have about 1.6 million patients in Texas, and about 40% lack health insurance. In some counties the percentage without insurance is much higher.

The April 5 cutoff for a vaccine fee for the uninsured has Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins telling people to get vaccinated now.

“Many people get their shots from Walgreens, CVS, and other places. If you’re considering getting a shot at one of those places — or anywhere — I’d suggest this is another reason to hurry,” Jenkins said at a recent meeting of the commissioners court.

He said the COVID-19 shot itself would still be free, but administering it costs $40. That’s something Jenkins said county commissioners could decide to cover for the uninsured at county-run locations, but private health care companies are less likely to absorb that cost.

And the price of a COVID-19 PCR test can be up to $100, Jenkins said.

The Biden Administration wanted to include $22.5 billion for COVID-19 services in a broader bill to fund the government. Lawmakers in Congress were unable to agree on continuing the funding, and ultimately the COVID funds were stripped from the larger package.

Democrats hope to pass the money in a stand-alone bill, but some Republicans are insisting on cuts elsewhere to offset any new pandemic spending.

COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations have been in decline, but health officials say the money is needed in case a new variant leads to an increase in cases, as has happened in the past.

“Waiting to provide funding once we’re in a surge will be too late,” the White House said in a fact sheet about the loss of funding.

Ending it is causing the Dallas County-based community health clinic Los Barrios Unidos to draw down on other grants to pay for COVID-19 care. They are also handing out free at-home tests they have in stock.

“I think all of us in the community health center world are just, like, reeling,” said Sharon Davis, the clinic’s chief medical officer. “There was very little notice.”

Leaders at Los Barrios, however, said the clinic is generally doing okay because they have other funding sources.

“It will still be business as usual,” said CEO Leonor Marquez. “We will just have less money coming in.”

Other clinics may face a more serious financial crunch.

Eubank said a clinic director in El Paso said that testing and vaccinating people at the same rate would cost them about $80,000 — money they now won’t have.

Jenkins noted the high number of uninsured people in Texas and Dallas County means this could leave residents more exposed than in states where state officials have expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

The Census Bureau’s Small Area Health Insurance Estimates said that in 2019, 20.7% of Texans under 65 years old had no health insurance — and 25.1% of Dallas County residents did not. The uninsured rate for the United States was 10.8%.

Got a tip? Email Bret Jaspers at bjaspers@kera.org. You can follow Bret on Twitter @bretjaspers.

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Copyright 2022 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Bret Jaspers is a reporter for KERA. His stories have aired nationally on the BBC, NPR’s newsmagazines, and APM’s Marketplace. He collaborated on the series Cash Flows, which won a 2020 Sigma Delta Chi award for Radio Investigative Reporting. He's a member of Actors' Equity, the professional stage actors union.