Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana and some other major health insurance providers in the state are waiving fees for coronavirus testing to encourage people to seek medical help if they suspect contracting COVID-19.

Companies have been announcing waivers individually in recent days, but CEOs of major health insurance companies such as UnitedHealth, Anthem and Humana, along with the leaders of industry trade groups like the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, met with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence Tuesday to underscore commitments that coronavirus tests will be covered.

"We want the American people to know that they are covered through private insurance, they are covered through Medicare, Medicaid, and there will be no surprise billing,” Pence said.

While people who suspect they've been sickened by the virus should not delay calling a doctor, insurance experts say consumers should still call their insurance plan as a follow-up to learn what medical services are fully covered and which ones may involve an out-of-pocket cost. 

A test for the virus is only part of diagnosing and treating a patient. Other tests and scans may be needed, not just the coronavirus test. And if a patient requires treatment for viral illness, that would involve additional costs.

“The industry is not a monolith,” said Karen Pollitz of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. “We don't have a rule yet that says all insurers must do ‘x,' so flip your insurance card over and call the 800 number.”

Forty-five people have been tested for COVID-19 in Louisiana; there are three presumptive positive cases in Orleans Parish. There is no approved antiviral treatment at this time for COVID-19. Hospitals across Louisiana have been screening patients for coronavirus and referring appropriate cases for formal testing.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana, alongside 35 other independent Blue Cross operators across the country, said that it plans to cover any "medically necessary diagnostic testing for COVID-19, where it is not covered as part of the U.S. Public Health Service response." This only applies to the company's commercial members, or those with employer- sponsored insurance. 

Next week, there are expected to be COVID-19 tests available through private reference labs, which Blue Cross expects to cover 100% without deductible or co-pay whether done in or out of network. 

Blue Cross and Blue Shield, through its Louisiana Health Service and Indemnity Co., had about 38% of the Louisiana group insurance market in 2018, according to the Louisiana Department of Insurance. The group insurance policies are often those provided by employers. The Blue Cross HMO plan accounted for another 11% of the market. 

Blue Cross also is waiving early medication refill limits for routine medicine prescriptions. 

Not every test suggested by health care providers is approved by the CDC, so in that case, Blue Cross would not cover it.

"Some providers are using a respiratory pathogen panel; … it will be covered but with our usual deductible and co-pay polices," according to Blue Cross and Blue Shield Louisiana. 

That panel is a test which is meant to also detect other potential respiratory disease viruses. The company is authorizing other services related to COVID-19, but those would also be subject to existing insurance plan coverage.

Members also still pay for doctors visits and telemedicine appointments. 

Unitedhealthcare Insurance Co. had 13.5% of the state market, while Humana Health Benefit Plan of Louisiana had 8.4% and Vantage Health Plan encompassed 2.3% of the group insurance market. 

The companies also are major players in the individual market, along with the Medicaid and Medicare insurance markets in the state. 

UnitedHealth Group decided to waive all member copays, coinsurance and deductibles for COVID-19 diagnostic testing for any commercial insurance members and also Medicaid and Medicare recipients. 

Humana also is waiving any out-of-pocket costs related to COVID-19 testing and telemedicine access until June. That includes its Medicare Advantage and Medicaid plans, in addition to employer-sponsored health insurance. 

Vantage Health Plans expects to cover any medically necessary tests related to COVID-19, will streamline approvals for coronavirus services and extend more access to prescriptions in addition to waiving the co-pay for telemedicine services. 

Last week the government announced that federal programs like Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, and children's health insurance would cover coronavirus testing.

With older people considered a high-risk group for COVID-19 — the illness caused by the virus — Medicare is reminding the public that diagnostic lab tests ordered by a doctor are generally covered at no charge under program rules.

But copays and deductibles apply for outpatient imaging tests such as CT scans, and hospital stays are also subject to a deductible.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

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Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivara contribute to the report from Washington, D.C.

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