So you need a COVID test.
Hopefully not right now, because this story won’t help you much there. If your need to know is urgent, get thee to one of Colorado’s free COVID-19 testing locations or to another testing provider.
But say you need a test … eventually. There are now at least three ways you can get COVID rapid tests at home at no cost to you. And, better yet, you can make orders through all three programs concurrently, essentially adding the benefits together. This will allow you to stockpile to your heart’s content for those moments when you want to do a double-check before going to visit grandma or to figure out what might be going on with that stuffy nose.
Here is what you need to know to claim your free tests.
The information in this story is up-to-date as of Jan. 25, 2022.
What kind of tests are we talking about here?
The three programs we’ll go over cover antigen rapid tests. These tests do not require a lab. You administer them yourself.
The tests are pretty good at detecting when you’re contagious with COVID-19, but less good at just detecting whether you’ve been infected. And they’re a little less good at detecting the omicron variant than they are at detecting earlier variants. But, especially when stacked on top of each other — for instance, taking two rapid tests spaced two days apart — they are about the best most of us regular folks can do to stay on top of whether we’re infected.
Why are there now three programs to deliver tests?
Free COVID tests is an idea so nice, the government implemented it thrice. Basically, there’s a lot of federal COVID money and regulatory muscle floating around trying to solve the problem of how to improve virus testing in the country.
Hence, we’ve ended up with three programs in Colorado — one in which the federal government mails tests to your home; another in which the federal government requires health insurers to send you or reimburse you for tests; and a third program in which the state sends you COVID tests.
I just want the easiest program to navigate. Which one is that?
The federal government’s test-mailing program has won raves for how easy the website is to use.
Basically, just go to COVIDtests.gov, click the big, blue “Order Free At-Home Tests” button, fill in your contact information at the U.S. Postal Service website it redirects you to, and then click the green “Check Out Now” button.
How many times can I do that?
Just once. The feds are shipping out four free at-home tests per household. So multiple people in your household can’t each get four tests. It’s four tests per address.
What if I live in an apartment building?
The USPS apparently has a pretty good database on which addresses are multifamily housing — in other words, which addresses might contain multiple households.
But some hiccups did arise when people from different households ordered tests for addresses that weren’t marked as multifamily housing in the USPS system. If that happens to you, the postal service says you should file a service request online or call its help desk at 1-800-ASK-USPS (1-800-275-8777).
Can the feds deliver on this program?
Maybe! The website has been live for only a week. The government said when it launched the program that it would take seven to 12 days to ship the tests out, so we’ll know soon.
What’s the next-easiest program? How does it work?
The state’s program is basically just like the federal government’s program. You go to a website — in this case covidathometesting.colorado.gov — and fill in your contact information.
The website will make you sign in, using either your Gmail account or through a profile you create, and then also promise that you are a resident of Colorado and that you will report your test results to the state. After that is some more form-filling and verifying before you hit the button to order tests.
The tests will be delivered by Amazon, and the state will later send you a follow-up email with tracking details.
Can the state handle all these orders?
Colorado’s program distributing tests to anyone who orders them has been up and running since September. The program, which is federally funded, receives about 95,000 tests from manufacturer Abbott each week, and the state has also recently added more tests from maker iHealth.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment says it receives between 5,000 and 22,000 test orders per day. It saw a surge of test requests over the holidays, and that has pushed the turnaround time back. The agency now says it may take two weeks for Coloradans to receive their order.
Why did you save the insurance-based program for last?
Because it’s by far the toughest to navigate — at least for some folks.
First, you have to be covered by private health insurance or by Medicaid. If you’re covered under Medicare, no luck for you here. The program is actually banned from covering self-administered diagnostic tests, so Medicare beneficiaries must get their free tests through the other two programs.
Next, while some insurers are working with retailers to provide their members free tests now, most are currently reimbursing you only for the cost of the tests — which means you first have to find a test in a store, then you have to use your own money to pay for it, and then you have to file a claim for reimbursement through your insurer.
So what’s the benefit of this program?
The upside to the insurance-based program is that it covers more tests than the other two combined. Insurers are required to cover eight at-home COVID tests per covered person per month. That’s nearly 100 tests per year.
All right, how does it work?
It depends on your insurance company, and the best thing to do is to check their website and look for links that direct you to testing or at-home testing resources.
For instance, UnitedHealthcare, which has about 25% of the state private insurance market, says its members get the test kits free if they use a “preferred retailer,” or can submit receipts to the insurer if they buy from a different list of retailers. Like many payers, UnitedHealthcare is setting its reimbursement limit at $12 each or $24 for the common two-packs.
Kaiser Permanente, with about 600,000 patients in Colorado and around 30% of the private insurance market, will reimburse members for rapid home antigen tests they have bought on their own. It will also make sure future kits are free at retailers. Kaiser Permanente is working with retailers to accept Kaiser members’ cards at no cost.
Kaiser will also distribute kits through the dozens of clinics and offices it operates around Colorado, a spokesman said.
How do I submit a claim to my insurer?
Since most of us usually have our health bills submitted for us by a doctor or hospital, this part can be tricky. But it’s basically like filing a claim with your auto or home insurer. You go to the company’s website, log into your account and provide receipts, proof of purchase or whatever else is requested and hit submit.
Here’s a list of relevant links for information provided by various insurance carriers. Some of these pages require a bit of scrolling to find what you’re looking for, but they’re a starting place:
What if I’m covered by Medicaid?
Medicaid is perhaps the largest player in the Colorado coverage market, with more than 1.5 million clients for the health insurance program jointly financed by the state and federal government.
Medicaid officials say they will not try to distribute test kits on their own, leaving that to the state and federal free-by-request programs. But members with Medicaid or Child Health Plan Plus cards can get free kits from any pharmacy that participates in Medicaid, spokesman Marc Williams said.
“We are not able to reimburse members for tests they may have purchased out of pocket,” Williams said. The state Medicaid FAQs on the program are here.
The state will cover 15 tests per member, per month. Williams noted that number is tests, not kits — many of the kits come with two tests each.
Staff writer Michael Booth contributed to this report