Rep. Katie Porter gets CDC chief to agree to pay for coronavirus testing

Robert Redfield
Posted at 6:59 PM, Mar 12, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-12 20:27:18-04

(CNN)- Democratic Rep. Katie Porter successfully pressed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief during a congressional hearing on Thursday to agree that the agency will pay for testing for the novel coronavirus.

The exchange came after President Donald Trump, while addressing the nation on Wednesday night, incorrectly implied that coronavirus patients could access free treatment. Many insurers have said they will pick up the cost of coronavirus testing for some policyholders, but not the treatment -- and a test or treatment that is covered is not necessarily free.

I also did the legal research: the Administration has the authority to make testing free for every American TODAY.

I secured a commitment from a high-level Trump official that they’d actually do it.

— Rep. Katie Porter (@RepKatiePorter) March 12, 2020

"Dr. Kadlec, for someone without insurance, do you know the out-of-pocket cost of a complete blood count test?" Porter, a California Democrat, asked Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, who said that he did not.

Porter, who is known for her incisive questioning of witnesses, then asked Kadlec whether he knew the prices of several medical services that could be associated with a coronavirus test, writing down her own figures for each service on a whiteboard she had brought to the House Oversight Committee hearing. All of his guesses were slightly to significantly above the amounts that Porter cited.

"This is like 'The Price Is Right,' " she said, writing down the different figures for a grand total of $1,331.

"Fear of these costs are going to keep people from being tested, from getting the care they need and from keeping their communities safe," Porter said, citing statistics on how many Americans cannot afford unexpected medical expenses, "and we have a $1,331 expense, conservatively, just for testing for the coronavirus."

Porter then turned her attention to Dr. Robert Redfield, the head of the CDC, asking him, "Do you want to know who has coronavirus and who doesn't?"

"Yes," Redfield replied.

"Not just rich people, but everybody who might have the virus?" Porter asked.

He responded, "All of America."

The cost of coronavirus testing became more of an issue last week when the test kits started becoming available in commercial and hospital labs. Prior to that, the CDC was picking up the tab for testing in public health labs.

Porter then pressed Redfield on whether he was familiar with 42 CFR 71.30, reading aloud the statute, which states that the CDC "director may authorize payment for the care and treatment of individuals subject to medical exam(ination), quarantine, isolation and conditional release."

"That I know about and my office did tell me that, I just didn't know the numbers, ma'am, congresswoman," Redfield said.

Porter then asked, "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 responded, "Well, I can say that we're going to do everything to make sure everybody can get the care they need --"

"Nope, not good enough," Porter interjected, reclaiming her time and reiterating the question, "yes or no?"

Redfield replied, "What I'm going to say is, I'm going to review it in detail with CDC and the department --"

"No, reclaiming my time," Porter interjected, citing a letter that she and other Democratic lawmakers had written him on the issue "one week ago" requesting a response by Wednesday -- before reiterating her question again.

"What I was trying to say is that CDC is working with HHS now to see how we operationalize that," Redfield replied.

"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," she said.

He responded, "Our intent is to make sure that every American family gets the care and treatment they need at this time in this major epidemic and I am currently working with HHS to see how to best operationalize it."

"Dr. Redfield, you don't need to do any work to operationalize," Porter continued. "You need to make a commitment to the American people so they come in to get tested. You can operationalize the payment structure tomorrow --"

"I think you're an excellent questioner, so my answer is yes," Redfield said. CNN has asked the CDC for comment on how this commitment will work going forward and how Americans -- particularly the uninsured -- can access this benefit. It is unclear whether Redfield was committing to pay only for the coronavirus test itself or also for visits to the emergency room or doctor's office and for other tests.

"Excellent! Everybody in America hear that -- you are eligible to go get tested for coronavirus and have that covered, regardless of insurance," Porter said. "Please -- if you believe you have the illness, follow precautions, call first, do everything the CDC and Dr. Fauci -- God bless you for guiding Americans in this time -- but do not let a lack of insurance worsen this crisis."

Redfield responded, "And I would just like to echo what you said: It's ... very important (to) public health that ... those individuals that are in the shadows can get the health care that they need during this, the time of us responding to this outbreak."