Talking Points

Biden bungles at-home COVID tests — again

In a series of tweets this week, the Biden administration announced its latest plans to increase access to at-home, over-the-counter tests for COVID-19. The plans don't make a whole lot of sense.

To begin with, the administration appears to think it's reasonable to force insurance companies to reimburse Americans for the cost of such tests, an approach that not only costs those companies money (making rate hikes more likely down the road) but also puts the onus on individual Americans to keep receipts and gather, fill out, and mail in forms in the hope of ultimately receiving a check. That's hardly the simplest or easiest approach to ensuring people don't have to bear the burden of paying for tests.  

Why not simply make the tests available for free? There's a sort of pandemic precedent in how the Internal Revenue Service was directed to start sending monthly payments to parents of children aged 6 to 17 once the American Rescue Plan, including its expanded Child Tax Credit, was passed last March. Of course, distributing a physical product is more challenging than direct depositing money to checking accounts. But the principle should be the same: If the tests are important, the government should be making them available as widely, quickly, easily, and cheaply as possible.

That's no doubt why the administration, in a separate plan President Biden announced in a speech three weeks ago, is also purchasing 500 million tests "to distribute for free to Americans who want them." That sounds great, at least until you realize that in a country of 330 million, that's fewer than two tests per person. Then there's the fact that, although we're already deep into the Omicron surge, with cases numbers growing massively and deaths beginning to rise as well, the website where people can request the tests (which will be mailed) hasn't even launched yet. This sounds like too little, much too late.

The administration's additional plan to provide 50 million free, at-home tests to community health centers and rural clinics, like its intention to establish more than 20,000 free community-based pharmacy testing sites, sounds promising, but also quite complex and time-consuming. Will either be off the ground before the current variant has run its course? If other variants follow Omicron, all of this could prove helpful down the road. But it's hard to see how it can do much to address the current wave.

It's understandable that Biden's team originally assumed the vaccines would have put the pandemic behind us by now. But between the rise of the Delta variant during the summer and fall and now the Omicron surge, that early summer optimism has been outdated for a long time. The administration clearly dropped the ball on at-home testing months ago and is now scrambling to catch up. It should expect political consequences to follow bungling this bad.