The Mississippi Insurance Department announced that major carriers will waive the cost of medically necessary coronavirus testing if ordered by a health care professional.

Mississippi is ramping up protections and preparations for the coronavirus as neighboring states confirm new cases. Officials have tested 20 people for the virus with zero cases confirmed as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the Mississippi Department of Health, which began testing for the virus that causes COVID-19 in its own laboratory last week.

As insurers waive fees, most Mississippians shouldn’t receive bills for coronavirus testing, according to the the state’s insurance department.

“The MID has communicated with most health insurance carriers in Mississippi and each carrier has a contingency plan in place to deal with increased claims, member questions, and other communications,” said Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney on Monday in a statement.

The Mississippi Insurance Department announced that major carriers will waive the cost of medically necessary coronavirus testing if ordered by a health care professional. The major carriers confirmed by MID include: employee-based insurers, such as Aetna and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi; Ambetter and Molina that offer plans through the Affordable Care Act federal insurance marketplace; and Medicaid managed care organization United Healthcare. The statement reiterates that customers should check their plans thoroughly to ensure coverage. A Medicaid spokesperson confirmed that the test will be covered for recipients.

Vice President Mike Pence announced last week that diagnostic testing would be considered an “essential health benefit,” and therefore should be covered by private, ACA, Medicaid and Medicare plans. Not all private plans are ACA-complaint however, and only plans sold though the federal marketplace must guarantee coverage of essential health benefits, like prescription drugs, maternity and childbirth care, and lab services.

Diagnostic testing under short-term insurance plans, which the Trump administration recently allowed as an alternative to comprehensive coverage, remains unclear. Around 1,500 Mississippians have signed up for a single short-term carrier, Golden Rule that is run by United, since 2018. United confirmed with Mississippi Today that coronavirus testing is covered for its short-term customers.

As for the more than 300,000 folks in Mississippi without insurance, it’s unclear how they will access tests if needed. About half of those without insurance in the state currently fall in the “coverage gap,” earning less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level and would qualify for Medicaid under federal expansion. Currently, tests must be authorized by health care providers and cannot be accessed by the general public. The state’s hospital and community health center associations did not return calls for comment. Both hospitals and clinics represent the front lines of testing.

State Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney

Diagnostic testing for the new novel coronavirus confirms a person has the COVID-19 respiratory disease, spread person-to-person through close contact, as well as cough and sneeze droplets. So far Mississippi doesn’t have any confirmed cases out of the 20 samples tested.

Across the nation 647 cases have been confirmed across 36 states since the disease appeared in the U.S., first detected in Washington state, and 25 have died. Most cases are clustered in Washington, California and New York, and the deaths are concentrated among older and ill people. Worldwide, more than 109,000 cases have been reported across 105 countries, claiming 3,809 lives since late 2019. Both the World Health Organization and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services call the virus a public health emergency.

Testing is ramping up across the U.S. as of this week, but confusion about the disease, testing and protocol persist. Due to problems with initial testing kits rolled out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in February, testing got off to a slow start. Last week, the Federal Drug Administration lifted testing restrictions, allowing state and private labs to test in-house, bypassing the previous need for CDC to handle all tests. Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp have recently begun offering testing to providers, but neither returned calls for comment about sliding scale or waived test fees for people without insurance.

The state health department has the capacity to test in-house, but is currently still using its original CDC test kit that provided 225 individual tests. Of those, these tests are being analyzed for free, according the health department.

CDC warns that elderly people and those with compromised immune systems are at the highest risk of getting sick from COVID-19 and advises avoiding crowds, stocking up on supplies and limiting travel. There is currently no vaccine to prevent the disease, but the CDC advises the best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed in the first place by washing hands thoroughly often and avoiding contact with public surfaces.

For live updates from the CDC, click here:

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Erica Hensley, a native of Atlanta, has been working as an investigative reporter focusing on public health for Mississippi Today since May 2018. She is a Knight Foundation fellow for our newsroom’s collaboration with local TV station WLBT and curates The Inform[H]er, our monthly women and girls’ newsletter. She is the 2019 recipient of the Doris O'Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship. Erica received a bachelor’s in print journalism and political science from the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a master’s in health and medical journalism from the University of Georgia Grady College for Journalism and Mass Communication.