As the COVID-19 public health emergency declaration winds down, the Biden administration has begun phasing out relief measures provided to the public during the pandemic.
The national declaration went into effect on Jan. 31, 2020, at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than 3,600 lives in El Paso County. An estimated tens of thousands more suffer from long COVID-19 in El Paso, long-term symptoms that range from mild to debilitating.
More than 50,000 people in the El Paso area also filed unemployment claims in 2020 during the first wave of pandemic job losses. In response to the national crisis, the federal government passed various health measures, from additional SNAP allowance to automatic Medicaid extension to free COVID-19 testing and vaccination.
By CDC standards, El Paso is now at a low COVID-19 community risk level, according to the county monitor. With the emergency declaration set to end on May 11, the Biden administration has begun rolling back certain health benefits. Here’s what’s changing:
Emergency SNAP allotment ends
The emergency allotment for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program expired this month. SNAP helps low-income families purchase food and non-alcoholic beverages at grocery stores, convenience stores and farmers markets. More than 151,000 people in El Paso County were eligible for SNAP benefits in February.
Previously, eligible people could receive the maximum amount of SNAP benefit for their household size, or at minimum an extra $95 per month, regardless of their income. A family of four could receive the maximum of $939 in SNAP money, for example.
Each SNAP household will now see at least a $95 reduction in their monthly food stamps, but some families will see a much steeper drop. The expiration comes at a time when food banks are already struggling with high demand, but a shortage of both supply and volunteers.
Medicaid extension expires soon
Automatic Medicaid renewal will end on March 31. Typically, those enrolled in Medicaid – the government health insurance program for low-income people – must renew their coverage every year. Those who no longer qualify or do not fill out the application are removed. For new mothers, the Medicaid for Pregnant Women program in Texas only covers two months after childbirth.
During the pandemic, anyone enrolled in Medicaid was granted continuous coverage. This was a boon for mothers seeking postpartum health care, as complications can occur later than the two-month period.
More than 208,000 people, including children, in El Paso County are enrolled in Medicaid, according to the latest data from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.
To avoid losing benefits, people should renew their coverage online at YourTexasBenefits.com or by calling 211. Those who lose Medicaid eligibility can seek other options, such as insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act. Children could also qualify for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP.
Free COVID-19 testing to end for many
The end of the public health emergency declaration will also bring government-funded COVID-19 tests, including laboratory-based PCR testing, to an end for many. The government will also stop subsidizing Paxlovid, the antiviral drug that reduces the risk of hospitalization or death.
This will likely hit people without health insurance the hardest – an estimated 23% of El Paso’s population is uninsured, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Uninsured people will have to pay out of pocket for over-the-counter or laboratory tests, as well as Paxlovid treatment. Uninsured children will have free access to the COVID-19 vaccines through the federal Vaccines for Children program. Uninsured adults can access free vaccines through Moderna’s patient assistance program, the company announced earlier this year.
Both uninsured adults and children can also access free vaccines at Immunize El Paso while the supply lasts. A spokesperson for Immunize El Paso said the organization is waiting on state guidance for covering the cost of vaccines when that supply runs out.
Most insured people will continue to have access to COVID-19 vaccinations without out-of-pocket costs, according to a government factsheet.
As far as testing goes, right now everyone with private insurance and Medicare can get reimbursed up to eight free home tests a month. Every household, regardless of insurance status, can also order four free tests from the national stockpile. This mailing program may end because of lack of funding.
After May 11, private insurance will no longer be required to cover home tests and out-of-pocket costs will vary by plan. Medicare beneficiaries enrolled in Part B will continue to have coverage for laboratory-conducted COVID-19 tests when ordered by a provider, but will not have access to free home tests. Medicaid enrollees will continue to have COVID-19 testing and Paxlovid treatment covered until Sept. 30, 2024.