Biden Admin Refuses to Make COVID Tests Free, Despite Omicron Surge

President Joe Biden's administration will not provide free at-home testing for COVID-19, despite the rapid spread of the new Omicron variant in the U.S. and similar free testing regimes in other countries.

Biden's winter plan to tackle COVID included a provision to allow the 150 million Americans with private health insurance to claim reimbursement from the cost of at-home tests from their insurers.

The president also announced on December 2 that free tests will also be made available to those without health insurance and would be provided "at thousands of convenient locations." Some 50 million tests will be distributed in this way.

While Biden said the bottom line of his approach was "this winter, you'll be able to test for free in the comfort of your home and have some peace of mind," his administration's policy still falls short of free testing provisions in comparable jurisdictions.

Countries including the U.K., Germany and South Korea provide at-home COVID tests free of charge.

In the U.K., people can order a box of seven lateral flow tests online for home delivery, though there have been some difficulties lately with ordering the tests from the government website in question. It is also possible to order tests and pick them up at a local pharmacy, while Germany recently reintroduced free testing amid a significant rise in cases.

Singapore announced in August that six free test kits would be sent to all households, and other countries have introduced similar measures.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki caused controversy on December 6 at a press briefing when she appeared to dismiss the idea of free at-home testing while touting the administration's policy.

"Our objective is to continue to increase accessibility and decrease costs," Psaki said. "And if you look at what we've done over the course of time, we've quadrupled the size of our testing plan, we've cut the cost significantly over the past few months, and this effort to push - to ensure - ensures you're able to get your tests refunded means 150 million Americans will be able to get free tests."

When she was asked whether the system was complicated, Psaki replied: "Should we just send one to every American?"

"Then what - then what happens if you - if every American has one test? How much does that cost, and then what happens after that?" she added.

Asked about the matter again on December 7, Psaki reiterated that the administration's goal was "ensuring that everyone in America has access to free testing, whether at a doctor's office, pharmacy, community testing site, or, now, at home."

She also indicated that the administration's position on free at-home testing had not changed, saying the administration's approach was "not to send everyone in the country a test just to send—to have millions of tests go unused where we know others can make use of them."

Establishing a free at-home testing regime would involve the federal government buying and distributing potentially hundreds of millions of tests and a Politicoreport on December 9 suggested that the administration is concerned about the spiraling cost of such a program and a large number of the tests going unused.

Introducing a U.K.-style system would likely necessitate seeking funding from Congress, which might not be forthcoming given tight margins in the House and Senate.

The Biden administration appears to be sticking to its guns on the testing policy ahead of an apparently imminent surge in the Omicron variant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned on Tuesday that the variant's prevalence has jumped sevenfold in the last week and could see a substantial peak by January.

The Omicron variant had already been detected in at least 38 states as of Thursday and while the Delta variant remains dominant, that could change.

"We expect the proportion of Omicron cases here in the United States to continue to grow in the coming weeks," CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said on Wednesday.

Newsweek has asked the White House for comment.

President Joe Biden Prepares to Speak
U.S. President Joe Biden prepares to talk about the Build Back Better legislation's new rules around prescription drug prices in the East Room of the White House on December 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. The administration will not provide free at-home COVID-19 tests for all U.S. households. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images