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The Biden administration is handing COVID costs to the health care industry

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Biden's administration says it's time for the federal government to stop paying the cost of COVID. The Wall Street Journal is reporting the administration is meeting this week with drugmakers, pharmacies and state governments. So who pays instead? We're joined by Stephanie Armour, a health policy reporter at The Wall Street Journal. Good morning.

STEPHANIE ARMOUR: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: So I'm just thinking back through the pandemic. I've had vaccinations. I've had tests. Sometimes they are just free or they seem to be to me. Sometimes they'll charge it to insurance if I have insurance, but otherwise it would be free. How would that change?

ARMOUR: Well, basically, the reason that everything has been free at this point is because the federal government has been purchasing and buying the vaccines and treatments and allocating them to states and providers. So there's really been no cost. And what's going to happen - the change that's happening - and it's already underway - is it's going to shift to the more traditional health care industry and market. Insurers will be picking up the cost. And the uninsured - one of the big issues is, how will we maintain access? So you're going to see a real big change that's especially going to kick in after this fall booster season.

INSKEEP: OK. So for those of us who have insurance, this is just a normal deal. We're returning to the market economy, and we've bought insurance, and so we're covered in some way. But what does happen to the uninsured?

ARMOUR: That's a big question. We've got roughly 30 million people in the United States that don't have health coverage. And one of the issues that the Biden administration and the drugmakers are hoping to talk about at this meeting is what kind of systems can be set up to try to maintain some kind of access and equity, especially when you look at vaccines and the importance of maintaining boosters that people will need to keep having at this point. So that's one of the big question marks that's out there.

And there's other issues, too. It's not as easy as just pulling a switch. It's actually a really big lift because - think about it - the antivirals that have now been approved to treat COVID, they're approved by the Food and Drug Administration under what's known as an emergency use authorization. And basically, it means that they've done all the trials and are sure that it's a safe product, but it's different than a full approval. And Medicare and Medicaid, which are the federal insurance program, they do not cover antivirals that are approved under the emergency use authorizations.

INSKEEP: Oh. Could that also be true for people who have some kind of private insurance? The insurance company may say, we just don't cover that?

ARMOUR: Right. So that's one of the big issues they're going to have to look at, starting with this meeting, is what do they need to do? Is there a new way they need to get some kind of regulatory approval for these products in order to allow coverage from insurers or Medicare and Medicaid? So there's a lot of hurdles.

INSKEEP: Can we just take stock of how monumental an intervention this has been by the federal government, starting back in 2020, the government saying, we're going to pick up all the costs, we're going to pay everything because we need everybody or as many people as are willing and as many people as possible to be taken care of, vaccinated and treated? How huge an intervention has this been over the past couple of years?

ARMOUR: Oh, it's been tens of billions of dollars. There's been really nothing quite like it in terms of a mass vaccination campaign in the United States. It's truly been historic. And that's why the shift is so important in terms of how we move forward, especially you want to make sure that - one of the reasons that we've been able to do so well is we've had the federal buying power of the federal government. That has a lot of clout, and that's not going to be there as we move to this new system. So will we still get access?

INSKEEP: Stephanie Armour, health policy reporter for The Wall Street Journal, thanks so much.

ARMOUR: Oh, thank you so much. Appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.