PROVINCETOWN — A long-running legislative effort to secure free asymptomatic Covid testing for many classes of frontline workers — particularly those employed in health care, restaurants, and retail and hospitality businesses — has passed both houses of the state legislature and is now being reviewed by Gov. Charlie Baker.
If the governor signs the bill, insurance companies would be required to pay for asymptomatic testing for those workers throughout the state. Under current law, insurance companies are required to pay for testing only for people with symptoms, and for the close contacts of known cases, even though it has been well established that people without symptoms can spread Covid.
Expanding testing to the asymptomatic has been an ongoing challenge, and this legislation aims to eliminate any financial obstacles by covering such tests with insurance.
“I knew from talking to my constituents that testing resources for asymptomatic people was a problem,” said state Rep. Sarah Peake of Provincetown, who authored the provision. The four industries that were called out in her amendment — health care, restaurants, retail, and hospitality — together account for the lion’s share of employment on the Outer Cape, particularly in the summer months.
According to the Cape Cod Commission’s Covid-19 Data Dashboard, those industries together account for 82 percent of Provincetown’s July employment in a normal year, 61 percent in Truro and Wellfleet, and 51 percent in Eastham.
Peake’s amendment is not limited to workers in those four industries, but it does specifically include them.
“I drafted and filed this provision with my many constituents in mind who go to work every day (but are often overlooked), like grocery store workers, restaurant staff, and retail workers, who have faced too many challenges getting tested even though they are exposed to the general public every day through their work,” said Peake. “I look forward to the regulations being promulgated, so we can move forward with no-cost-to-the-patient testing.”
Peake’s amendment was adopted by the state House of Representatives in July, but it was attached to a larger health-care bill, and only on Dec. 22 did the House and Senate reconcile their competing health-care bills and release a final legislative text. The final version of the bill passed both chambers of the legislature this week, and Gov. Baker has 10 days to sign or reject it.
The current legislative session ends on Jan. 5, and there has been a flurry of final votes on major bills as the deadline approaches.
Peake’s amendment, now called Section 70, gives the Baker administration authority to work out the details of this expanded testing. The state dept. of health and human services could write the guidelines narrowly, citing limited availability of tests or limited capacity for processing them — or it could write them broadly, perhaps by making greater use of less expensive rapid tests that don’t require laboratories.
“Now, my work begins again with outreach to drafters of the regulations, so they don’t gut the whole idea,” said Peake. “The insurance companies … tried to weaken and torpedo this effort. They can well afford to cover these costs.”
Whether they will, though, and on what terms, is now in the governor’s hands. Section 70 could make way for free testing for the majority of working people here — or, if the administration chooses to minimize it, it could add up to something less comprehensive.
In the meantime, a temporary free asymptomatic testing program that began on Dec. 23 continues at Outer Cape Health Services in Provincetown, Wellfleet, and Harwich Port. The state has given OCHS a free supply of BinaxNOW rapid tests, which it has approved for symptomatic and asymptomatic people. This free testing program ends Jan. 10; call 508-905-2888 to make an appointment.