In a remarkable exchange from the second day of a House hearing on the coronavirus, Rep. Katie Porter, a Democratic from California, grilled the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday until he verbally—though reluctantly—committed to providing free coronavirus tests for all Americans, regardless of whether they have insurance.
The questioning came before the House Oversight and Reform Committee during a hearing in which the CDC director, Robert Redfield, joined Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, in answering questions about the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
To launch her line of questioning, Porter quizzed Redfield on the individual costs—a complete blood test, a metabolic panel, two flu tests, an emergency room visit—involved in an individual getting tested and tallied the numbers up on a whiteboard. She came up with a sum of $1,330, excluding possible medical isolation. “Fear of these costs are going to prevent people from being tested, from getting the care they need, and from keeping their communities safe,” she said. “Dr. Redfield, do you want to know who has coronavirus and who doesn’t?”
When Redfield agreed he didn’t want just “rich” Americans to get tested, she cited a federal code. “This provides—the director may authorize payment for the care and treatment of individuals subject to medical exam, quarantine, isolation, and conditional release.” After Redfield said he was familiar with the code, she pressed on. “Dr. Redfield, will you commit to the CDC right now using that existing authority to pay for diagnostic testing free to every American regardless of insurance?”
Redfield attempted to dodge the question and said he could ensure “everyone can get the care they need.”
“No, not good enough,” she cut across. “Dr. Redfield, you have the existing authority. Will you commit right now to using the authority that you have, vested in you under law that provides in a public health emergency for testing, treatment, exam, isolation, without cost? Yes or no?”
Redfield again tried to avoid answering directly, instead promising to “review it in detail.”
“No,” Porter said. She asked again.
“What I was trying to say is the CDC is working with HHS now to see how we operationalize that,” Redfield said. Porter then, essentially, wore Redfield down:
PORTER: Dr. Redfield, I hope that that answer weighs heavily on you. Because it is going to weigh very heavily on me and on every American family.
REDFIELD: Our intent is to make sure every American gets the care and treatment they need at this time of this major epidemic and I’m currently working with HHS to see how to best operationalize it.
PORTER: Dr. Redford, you don’t need to do any work to operationalize it. You need to make a commitment to the American people so they come in to get tested. You can operationalize the payment structure tomorrow.
REDFIELD: I think you’re an excellent questioner, so my answer is yes.
Porter did not hesitate to take Redfield on his word. “Excellent,” she said. “Everybody in America, hear that. You are eligible to go get tested for coronavirus and have that covered regardless of insurance.”
One thing that should be noted, though, is that Redfield could not ensure that there would be enough tests available to cover everyone who needs one. It’s also unclear what, exactly, the CDC could cover. It’s possible, for example, that it could just include the actual tests and not the emergency room visit, which is typically the most expensive part of the testing process.
For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to this discussion about the cascading shutdowns in the sports world in response to the global pandemic.