PROVIDENCE — The House Wednesday approved legislation that would prevent health insurers from instituting cost-sharing for services related to COVID-19 for as long as the state of emergency remains in effect.
Some of these services also includes COVID-19-related emergency services, inpatient services, office visits and hospital stays.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. David Morales, a Providence Democrat, also prohibits health insurance companies from requiring copayments, coinsurance, or any out-of-pocket deductible for COVID-19 testing or the vaccine— even after the state of emergency.
“Protecting the health and safety of all Rhode Islanders, especially working people, should be our top priority. There should not be any financial barriers standing in the way of someone who thinks that they have COVID-19 from accessing testing or treatment,” said Morales after the bill passed.
The bill, which had more than 20 co-sponsors in the House, was filed after the state’s largest health insurer announced that it would stop its full coverage of COVID-19 treatment.
Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island sent an email in mid-March to its 415,000 members that it would end its no-cost coverage of treatment for COVID-19 on March 31, which was still weeks before most Rhode Islanders were even eligible for their first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine under the state’s vaccine timeline. After discussions with Governor Dan McKee and state Health Insurance Commissioner Patrick Tigue, the insurance company reversed course.
“More recently, a year into the pandemic, with vaccines becoming more widely available, we felt it was appropriate to let the cost sharing waiver expire as had been planned,” a statement from the insurance company read at the time.
During that same week, Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island put out a statement that said it would continue to fully cover expenses related to COVID-19 treatment.
But at the time, the catch for both insurers is that they would continue full coverage “for the duration of the state of emergency.”
Elizabeth McClaine, Neighborhood’s vice president of commercial products, said in a prepared statement sent to the Globe that the insurer has “no plans” to begin charging co-payments on testing or vaccines.
“We have no plans to begin charging copayments on testing or vaccines and regard the COVID-19 vaccine in the same manner we do other state supplied vaccines, which do not require coinsurance,” said McClaine Wednesday night. “Our expectation is that the COVID-19 vaccine will become a state supplied vaccine in the near future.”
She did not say if Neighborhood planned on charging co-payments for any other COVID-19 related services that this bill would prohibit the insurer from charging for.
A spokesperson for Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island could not be immediately reached for comment.
While Governor Charlie Baker recently ended Massachusetts’ state of emergency order this past week, McKee extended Rhode Island’s until July 9. It first went into effect in March 2020 at the start of the coronavirus pandemic and was signed by former Gov. Gina Raimondo.
Globe reporters have asked McKee previously if he was extending state of emergency orders because thousands of Rhode Islanders would lose their full insurance coverage for COVID-19 treatment otherwise, but he said it was because the pandemic was still “ongoing.”
As of Wednesday night, more than 56 percent of eligible Rhode Islanders (including children as young as 12) have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. More than 67 percent of Rhode Island adults over the age of 18, who largely became eligible to receive the shot on April 19, are fully vaccinated.
While more state residents continue to get vaccinated, the number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have continued to decrease. However, certain towns and populations have been labeled as vaccine “cold spots” by the state’s health department. New data by the state health department recently revealed that two communities have the state’s lowest vaccination rates, which are Woonsocket and Tiverton.
“While we are fortunate to be one of the leading states in terms of vaccination rates, this pandemic is not over by any means, and we put our progress at risk if we relax the measures that have encouraged people to get tested, treated and vaccinated,” said Morales. “We are still in an emergency and we need all insurers to stay on board and continue to be committed partners in our effort to overcome this pandemic and minimize the impact it is having on our communities.”
The legislation will now go to the Senate, which passed companion legislation sponsored by Sen. Alana DiMario, a Narragansett Democrat, on June 1.