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Insurance regulator to issue warning on virus-test billing

SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico’s top insurance regulator is putting medical providers on notice that people cannot be charged for coronavirus testing after reports that residents have been required to pay for rapid-result tests.

Insurance Superintendent Russell Toal said Wednesday that his office is preparing an administrative bulletin to ensure testing costs are not passed directly on to consumers, as state health officials push for robust testing to track infection rates and new strains of COVID-19.

Toal said the Office of the Superintendent of Insurance has received reports and complaints of people being charged in excess of $100 for testing services that should be free. The extent of the improper billing is unclear.

“We’ve got some providers out there that are charging individuals for so-called rapid tests,” Toal said. “The new guidance from the federal government makes it really clear that those federal tests are to be covered without a charge to the patient.”

The Biden administration in February issued guidance on 2020 emergency pandemic legislation that restricts cost-sharing with patients for coronavirus testing under a broad range of circumstances.

New Mexico officials this week described steep declines in new confirmed infections, hospitalizations and deaths because of the virus. Still, state Human Services Secretary David Scrase said they are monitoring variants and stressed the importance of testing as a way to keep tracking the virus.

The seven-day rolling average for tests administered is hovering around 11,800 — well above a benchmark of 5,000 per day set by the state for re-opening the economy.

New Mexico health officials say more vaccine doses are needed from suppliers if New Mexico wants to meet a new mandate for applying at least one shot to all teachers by the end of March.

Many New Mexico school districts have opted not to dramatically increase in-person learning despite approval from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Some have opened on a limited basis, allowing students to attend in-person based on the availability of teachers who volunteer.

Albuquerque Public Schools is among those that have faced pressure to reopen under a hybrid plan. Lawyers recently leveled accusations of civil rights violations by the district on behalf of thousands of students who cannot return to in-person learning.

The district on Wednesday announced a deal with the Public Education Department to resume school athletics as soon as March 22. The school board also voted to allow students who want to return to do so two days a week as long as Bernalillo County meets the state’s benchmarks for positivity rates and per-capita cases.

“Even when we are in hybrid, I remind everyone that remote, digital instruction remains the primary mode of instruction for students both in the building and at home. We’ll have part of the student body at home, so the remote instruction does still occur,” said APS Superintendent Scott Elder.

Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said in a statement that the department is open to “innovative options” and that the Albuquerque district’s plan marks a first step toward getting all students back for in-person learning.

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