Biden Administration’s Rapid-Test Rollout Doesn’t Easily Reach Those Who Need It Most

Biden Administration’s Rapid-Test Rollout Doesn’t Easily Reach Those Who Need It Most

In the past week, the Biden administration launched two programs that aim to get rapid covid tests into the hands of every American. But the design of both efforts disadvantages people who already face the greatest barriers to testing.

From the limit placed on test orders to the languages available on websites, the programs stand to leave out many people who don’t speak English or don’t have internet access, as well as those who live in multifamily households. All these barriers are more common for non-white Americans, who have also been hit hardest by covid. The White House told KHN it will address these problems but did not give specifics.

It launched a federally run website on Jan. 18 where people can order free tests sent directly to their homes. But there is a four-test limit per household. Many homes could quickly exceed their allotments — more than a third of Hispanic Americans plus about a quarter of Asian and Black Americans live in households with at least five residents, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by KFF. Only 17% of white Americans live in these larger groups.

“There are challenges that they have to work on for sure,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

Also, as of Jan. 15, the federal government requires private insurers to reimburse consumers who purchase rapid tests.

When the federal website — with orders fulfilled and shipped through the United States Postal Service — went live this week, the first wave of sign-ups exposed serious issues.

Some people who live in multifamily residences, such as condos, dorms, and houses sectioned off into apartments, reported on social media that if one resident had already ordered tests to their address, the website didn’t allow for a second person to place an order.

“They’re going to have to figure out how to resolve it when you have multiple families living in the same dwelling and each member of the family needs at least one test. I don’t know the answer to that yet,” Benjamin said.

USPS spokesperson David Partenheimer said that while this seems to be a problem for only a small share of orders, people who encounter the issue should file a service request or contact the help desk at 1-800-ASK-USPS.

A White House official said 20% of shipments will be directed every day to people who live in vulnerable ZIP codes, as determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social vulnerability index, which identifies communities most in need of resources.

Another potential obstacle: Currently, only those with access to the internet can order the free rapid tests directly to their homes. Although some people can access the website on smartphones, the online-only access could still exclude millions of Americans: 27% of Native American households and 20% of Black households don’t have an internet subscription, according to a KHN analysis of Census Bureau data.

The federal website is currently available only in English, Spanish, and Chinese.

According to the White House, a phone line is also being launched to ease these types of issues. An aide said it is expected to be up and running by Jan. 21. But details are pending about the hours it will operate and whether translators will be available for people who don’t speak English.

However, the website is reaching one group left behind in the initial vaccine rollout: blind and low-vision Americans who use screen-reading technology. Jared Smith, associate director of WebAIM, a nonprofit web accessibility organization, said the federal site “is very accessible. I see only a very few minor nitpicky things I might tweak.”

The Biden administration emphasized that people have options beyond the rapid-testing website. There are free federal testing locations, for instance, as well as testing capacity at homeless shelters and other congregate settings.

Many Americans with private health plans could get help with the cost of tests from the Biden administration reimbursement directive. In the days since its unveiling, insurers said they have moved quickly to implement the federal requirements. But the new systems have proved difficult to navigate.

Consumers can obtain rapid tests — up to eight a month are covered — at retail stores and pharmacies. If the store is part of their health plan’s rapid-test network, the test is free. If not, they can buy it and seek reimbursement.

The program does not cover the 61 million beneficiaries who get health care through Medicare, or the estimated 31 million people who are uninsured. Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program are required to cover at-home rapid tests, but rules for those programs vary by state.

And the steps involved are complicated.

First, consumers must figure out which retailers are partnering with their health plans and then pick up the tests at the pharmacy counter. As of Jan. 19, however, only a few insurance companies had set up that direct-purchase option — and nearly all the major participating pharmacies were sold out of eligible rapid tests.

Instead, Americans are left to track down and buy rapid tests on their own and then send receipts to their insurance providers.

Many of the country’s largest insurance companies provide paper forms that customers must print, fill out, and mail along with a receipt and copy of the box’s product code. Only a few, including UnitedHealthcare and Anthem, have online submission options. Highmark, one of the largest Blue Cross and Blue Shield affiliates, for instance, has 16-step instructions for its online submission process that involves printing out a PDF form, signing it, and scanning and uploading it to its portal.

Nearly 1 in 4 households don’t own a desktop or laptop computer, according to the Census Bureau. Half of U.S. households where no adults speak English don’t have computers.

A KHN reporter checked the websites of several top private insurers and didn’t find information from any of them on alternatives for customers who don’t have computers, don’t speak English, or are unable to access the forms due to disabilities.

UnitedHealthcare and CareFirst spokespeople said that members can call their customer service lines for help with translation or submitting receipts. Several other major insurance companies did not respond to questions.

Once people make it through the submission process, the waiting begins. A month or more after a claim is processed, most insurers send a check in the mail covering the costs.

And that leads to another wrinkle. Not everyone can easily deposit a check. About 1 in 7 Black and 1 in 8 Hispanic households don’t have checking or savings accounts, compared with 1 in 40 white households, according to a federal report. Disabled Americans are also especially likely to be “unbanked.” They would have to pay high fees at check-cashing shops to claim their money.

“It’s critically important that we are getting testing out, but there are limitations with this program,” said Dr. Utibe Essien, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “These challenges around getting tests to individuals with language barriers or who are homeless are sadly the same drivers of disparities that we see with other health conditions.”

KHN Midwest correspondent Lauren Weber contributed to this report.

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As billionaires grow richer, children go to sleep hungry

As billionaires grow richer, children go to sleep hungry

(RNS) — The devastating COVID-19 health crisis has become an economic crisis for millions of people — but not for everyone. Last year, families across the United States struggled to put food on the table and balance the responsibilities of childcare and work (assuming they still had a job), but the wealthiest people in our country only got wealthier.

That wealth has not trickled down to families who are struggling to pay their rent, feed their children and create an economically secure quality of life.

The American Rescue Plan — the COVID-19 relief bill passed in March — expanded eligibility for two of the most vital anti-poverty programs we have. It made the Child Tax Credit fully refundable, fixing the gap that excluded families in poverty from receiving the same benefits as their higher-earning counterparts.

It also expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit for workers without children, young workers ages 19-24 and older workers over age 65.

Both adjustments put more money into the pockets of low-income people who were previously ineligible — many of them frontline workers in the pandemic. But these payments will expire on Dec. 31 if Congress does not extend them.

These tax credits work, and, not surprisingly, they are wildly popular. The Child Tax Credit provides a lifeline of economic support to families nationwide who need money to pay for daycare, groceries, utilities, rent, and health care bills that pile up nonstop. This is money being pumped back into local economies coast to coast right now, creating a virtuous economic cycle of helping people in need and local business.

Recently, I spoke with Barbie Izquierdo on the value of programs like these. An advocate and consultant who eloquently gives voice for food justice based on her personal experience, Barbie told me that despite all her work — sometimes full time, sometimes part time, often working more than one job — she “would still come home to an empty fridge.” Her story is shared by hundreds of thousands of families across our country.

To this day, the tax credits are one of the primary barriers keeping Barbie from falling back into poverty as she raises her 14- and 16-year-old children as a single mother. “(They) help you catch up and it alleviates some of the burden of being reminded that you’re poor. They’ve definitely helped me on many occasions,” she explained. “Who knows if I would be here today if I didn’t have that help?”

Since July, millions of families have been receiving Child Tax Credit checks each month. The latest government data indicates that these robust federal programs have put a dent in poverty, which has cascading benefits for children now and in their future — if we can keep these programs in place past the end of the year.

As Congress continues to negotiate additional recovery legislation, we have a historic opportunity to permanently invest in the future of our children. Congress should seize this moment to not only give immediate help to tens of thousands of their constituents but also to strengthen our country’s future.

Specifically, we must adjust the tax code that bends over backward for the extremely wealthy while treating those who struggle every day to afford food and housing as a burden. The more Congress can raise in revenue, the bigger the opportunity we have to address poverty and hunger while investing in our children. It takes real political will to require corporations and the wealthiest among us to pay their fair share. But we expect nothing less.

As a Quaker, my faith and practice encourage me to treat every person as a beloved child of God, which means I am called to do all I can to foster a more equitable, ethical world in which every person can flourish.

I believe Congress wants to help families in need, to ensure a better world for all. This is their opportunity to support the full refundability of the Child Tax Credit. This is the political moment when we can make transformational change in our country.

( Diane Randallis the general secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a national, nonpartisan Quaker lobby for peace, justice, and the environment. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

 

Biden authorizes new refugee funds, fends off criticism from aid groups

Biden authorizes new refugee funds, fends off criticism from aid groups

Hundreds of people gather near the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2021. The U.S. military and officials focus was on Kabul’s airport, where thousands of Afghans trapped by the sudden Taliban takeover rushed the tarmac and clung to U.S. military planes deployed to fly out staffers of the U.S. Embassy, which shut down Sunday, and others. (AP Photo)

by Jack Jenkins & Emily McFarlan Miller (RNS)

WASHINGTON (RNS) — President Joe Biden has authorized an additional $500 million to aid refugees from Afghanistan, pushing through the funds as the White House fends off suggestions it failed a moral test to aid those fleeing the war-torn country.

Biden approved the funds in a memorandum Monday (Aug. 16) to meet “unexpected urgent refugee and migration needs,” drawing the money from the United States Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund.

The memo, addressed to the U.S. secretary of state, stressed the funds were for “the purpose of meeting … (the) needs of refugees, victims of conflict, and other persons at risk as a result of the situation in Afghanistan.”

The president of Jewish refugee resettlement group HIAS (founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), Mark Hetfield, said the move was expected and the fund exists “precisely for this type of situation” — referring to the effort to evacuate Afghans desperate to leave the country after it fell to the Taliban over the past week.

The White House did not immediately respond to questions about how the new funds will be used.

At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that seven C-17 aircraft left Afghanistan over the past 24 hours, carrying 700 to 800 passengers, most of them a “mix” of people from other countries and Afghans seeking a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, with the U.S.

Psaki also reiterated the claim that “a good chunk” of SIV applicants “did not take advantage of those visas and depart” before the Taliban took control of Kabul, as the president asserted in his Monday address on Afghanistan — although she did not specify how many.

On Monday, in response to Biden’s address, leaders of several faith-based refugee groups disputed this account, saying they spent months urging the White House to expedite the evacuation of Afghans who aided the U.S. government during its 20-year presence in the country.

“We have been in touch with countless SIV recipients who have been desperate to leave Afghanistan for months and have not been able to due to insufficient financial resources and inadequate flight accessibility through international organizations,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, head of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said on Monday.

Similarly, Hetfield described Biden’s assertion as a case of “blaming the victim.”

Afghan government collapses, Taliban seize control: 5 essential reads

On Tuesday, faith-based groups continued their pressure on the White House to help U.S. allies and other vulnerable Afghans, including Christians and other religious minorities.

Among them, the Evangelical Immigration Roundtable sent a letter to Biden signed by leaders from World Relief, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Latino Evangelical Coalition.

“As Christians, we believe that each person is made with intrinsic value in the image of God, and we cannot treat any person’s life as expendable. Our government has a particular obligation to those who are now facing threats upon their lives due to their service to the United States, and to go back on our commitment to them would be a moral failing with reverberating consequences for decades to come,” the letter read in part.

Emily McFarlan Miller reported from Chicago.

 

“America Is Not Racist”-A Prophetic Reflection

“America Is Not Racist”-A Prophetic Reflection

West side of the Capitol Building at Capitol Hill in Washington DC. Daily photos in the afternoon, good for late autumn, winter and early spring illustration

On the night before President Joe Biden’s 100th Day in office, he gave a speech to a joint session of the United States Congress. This speech was intended to be an opportunity to talk about the president’s accomplishments in his first one hundred days in office, as well as policy proposals for the future. For the past 55 years, after the president gives a speech to a joint session of Congress, there is a response from a member of the opposing political party. In the case of President Biden, a Democrat, the opposition response came from Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina. Both speeches were filled with appealing rhetoric, rehearsal of recent party of achievements, and promises about possibilities for the future given that party’s leadership. However, for many African Americans who watched these two addresses, the discussions of racism stood out most. President Biden called white supremacist terrorism as the most lethal form of racism in the nation right now. Senator Scott talked about how he experienced the pain of discrimination when he pulled over for no reason and followed in a store. Both made statements that stole headlines for Black audiences.

For President Biden, it was:

 

“We have a giant opportunity to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. Real justice. And with the plans I have outlined tonight, we have a real chance to root out the systemic racism that plagues American life in so many ways.”

For Senator Scott, it was:

“From colleges to corporations to our culture, people are making money and gaining power by pretending we haven’t made any progress. By doubling down on the divisions we’ve worked so hard to heal. You know this stuff is wrong. Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country.”

The contrast was stark. A white man holding the highest office in the land spoke openly about the problem of systemic racism, and a Black man, who is the first non-white senator from his state since reconstruction, said America is not a racist country. Both men believe Americans must work together to overcome issues, including racism. But their visions for the extent of the work and the approach to the work are radically different. How should we respond as Black Christians to this politicization of the sin of racism?

Isaiah offers us both challenge and hope in Isaiah 29, as we face the complexity of confronting racism in the United States. The first thing is to acknowledge that God is not looking for great speeches from us. He is looking for true faithfulness. The Lord was disappointed in Israel for saying they loved Him, but their actions showed the opposite. The United States has a history of being hypocritical when it comes to race; it is a clear contradiction that the same Constitution that guarantees equality and freedom to its citizens makes African Americans 3/5 of a human, denies rights to everyone except white land-owning men, and appropriates land taken from American Indians. As a country, we have made amendments to our Constitution, passed legislation to create a more just and equitable society, and had celebrations to recognize the contributions of different cultures. But we often live in denial or outright embrace our historic sins as a nation. We have yet to truly repent for how racism has harmed our nation.

Isaiah calls out the sins of Israel, and then prophesies a day when the Lord’s truth and justice will reign. Isaiah speaks to God’s judgment on the status quo oppression of the vulnerable in the nation, and God’s ultimate redemption of His people. Isaiah assures us that even our intelligence and wisdom are nothing compared to God’s ultimate wisdom. However, we temporarily solve problems that pale in comparison to God’s desire for His children. God’s promise of His Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven is greater than anything we could imagine. God wants to use His people to speak honestly about the sin in the world, and also His hope for the world.

Isaiah says:

“For when they see their many children and all the blessings I have given them, they will recognize the holiness of the Holy One of Jacob. They will stand in awe of the God of Israel” (Isaiah 29:23, NLT).

It is God’s work in our lives, and especially how we impact the next generation, that will cause others to recognize His glory, and His wisdom that will cause others to want to learn His ways. We must do the work to make our nation more just, while having the humility to never mistake our human work as God’s ultimate justice (Micah 6:8). We must build a more just world for our children and the next generation. The sin of racism is a problem we must all confront, but the ultimate justice flows from God. Let us be humble as we continue to seek God’s justice on earth as it is in heaven.

Electionland 2020: Florida Felon Voting, Election Websites, DOJ Policies and More

Electionland 2020: Florida Felon Voting, Election Websites, DOJ Policies and More


This article originally appeared on ProPublica.org, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. 

New From ProPublica

In Florida, the Gutting of a Landmark Law Leaves Few Felons Likely to Vote

State officials don’t know how many felons are registered or eligible to vote. So we did our own analysis and found only a very small percentage of them will be able to cast ballots this election. Some could face prosecution if they do. Read the story from The Tampa Bay Times and ProPublica.

DOJ Frees Federal Prosecutors to Take Steps That Could Interfere With Elections, Weakening Long-standing Policy

In an internal announcement, the Justice Department created an exception to a decadeslong policy meant to prevent prosecutors from taking overt investigative steps that might affect the outcome of the vote. Read the story.

The Justice Department May Have Violated Attorney General Barr’s Own Policy Memo

In a memo from May, the attorney general reminded Justice Dept. prosecutors to avoid partisan politics. Then a U.S. attorney in Pennsylvania announced an election investigation that had partisan overtones. Read the story.

Your Guide to Voting in Illinois

Everything you need to know about local election deadlines, what the pandemic has changed and casting your ballot so it counts. Read the story.

Vote by Mail News

  • The Postal Service is reporting some of its worst mail delays since operations bogged down in July and August, according to internal documents filed in federal court. The on-time delivery of first-class mail ― which includes absentee ballots and other election materials ― fell 4.5% over a two-week period this fall, but deliveries of magazines and marketing mail were not affected. USPS hasn’t explained the disparity. (CNN)
  • Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an order that will limit drop-off locations for absentee ballots to just one per county. Partisan poll watchers will also be allowed to monitor those sites, Abbott said, in an effort to “ensure greater transparency.” (Texas Tribune)
  • After losing a court appeal, Ohio’s secretary of state said counties can now each install more than one ballot drop box, but the new boxes can only be placed at county election headquarters. (Cincinnati Enquirer)
  • A Rochester, N.Y. printing company defended its political leanings and blamed a computer glitch for misprinting ballot return envelopes for thousands of voters in Brooklyn and Long Island. (Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, The City)
  • North Carolina’s Board of Elections is telling voters to ignore more than 11,000 ballot applications that were pre-filled with incorrect information and mailed out by a third-party vendor. (WBTV)
  • Thousands of voters in Gwinnett County, Ga., are waiting longer than usual for their absentee ballots after the county enlarged its envelopes as part of a court settlement. The envelopes now feature larger font and clearer instructions, but take extra time to process. (Atlanta Journal Constitution)
  • The head of elections in Volusia County, Fla., said it’s perfectly legal to seal ballot envelopes with tape, after some first-time mail voters struggled with the adhesive strip. (Daytona Beach News-Journal)
  • But the town clerk in Cottage Grove, Wisconsin, warned that taped envelopes could be flagged as suspicious or fraudulent. A state elections spokesman clarified that usually applies to ballots that have clearly been reopened, then taped shut. (Herald-Independent)
  • Michigan election officials will be allowed to start prepping ballots on the morning of Nov. 2, ahead of the official count on Election Day. (WNDU)
  • Voters in the remote community of Torrey, Utah are trying to figure out how to cast ballots in the state’s mail-in election after their only post office shut down. (The Spectrum)
  • More than 25 states use “signature matching” in an effort to verify ballots against existing registration files and prevent fraud. But even when multiple judges or software programs are deployed, the results can vary widely. One elections expert said consistency is key. (The New York Times)

Election Website Issues

  • Pennsylvania’s voting website crashed for more than 40 hours this weekend. (Philadelphia Inquirer)
  • One third of county election websites in Kansas and Missouri are not secure, according to an analysis by The Beacon. (The Beacon)
  • Technology failures with Florida’s online voter registration tool has frustrated people trying to register to vote. The website crashed on the last day to register for the Nov. 3 election. State officials blamed a misconfigured computer server for the glitch. (Miami Herald, AP)
  • Florida officials responded by extending the registration deadline by one day, while an advocacy group filed a lawsuit to buy voters more time. (WMFE, Tallahassee Democrat)

In-Person Voting

  • On Monday, Detroit opened 23 satellite centers for early voting, plus seven absentee ballot drop boxes, after problems with its August primary. (WZXY)
  • As the GOP prepares to field 50,000 carefully trained election volunteers, the president’s rhetoric continues to raise concerns over voter intimidation. The Republican effort will reportedly station monitors at traditional polling places alongside early voting sites and ballot drop boxes. (The New York Times, Reuters)
  • Election administrators, law enforcement and federal officials are increasingly concerned about the possibility of disruptions, or even violence, on Election Day. (The New York Times, The Washington Post)
  • Georgetown Law created fact sheets on each state’s laws about private militia groups and what to do if they are at a polling place or registration drive. The Giffords Law Center has published a state-by-state guide to the laws around voter intimidation and having firearms at the polls (Georgetown Law, Giffords Law Center)
  • Iowa unveiled an updated voter registration form which reflects an August executive order that restored voting rights for thousands of felons in the state. (Des Moines Register)
  • In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, libraries are serving as early voting sites, hosting ballot drop boxes and providing a place for voters to get help registering, requesting an absentee ballot and more. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
  • At least 33 states are asking voters to wear masks at the polls this year and are contending with how to respond when voters refuse. (ABC News)
  • For voters who decline to wear a mask inside their polling place, Connecticut plans to provide a curbside option. (The Middletown Press)
  • The Broward County, Florida, commission is urging its election supervisor to separate maskless voters. (Sun Sentinel)

The Latest on Misinformation

  • Unfounded comments by President Donald Trump about corruption at the polls in Philadelphia prompted city officials to prepare for possible voter intimidation on Election Day. (Philadelphia Inquirer)
  • Nearly every claim about mail-in voting made by Trump during the first presidential debate was partially or completely inaccurate, according to a fact check by CNN. (CNN)
  • False beliefs about election fraud are largely fueled by political elites and conservative-leaning mass media outlets repeating Trump’s claims, without framing it as disinformation, according to a new working paper. (Berkman Klein Center)
  • Michigan’s secretary of state asked the state’s attorney general to investigate a GOP press release making allegations about an unlocked ballot drop box, claiming the party is spreading misinformation. (Detroit News)
  • Alabama’s secretary of state told voters to ignore voting mailers from a third party group in Texas telling them that they’re not registered to vote. (AL.com)
  • Officials from Pope County, Arkansas warned voters to beware of a phone scam asking people for their social security number in order to receive a vote-by-mail ballot. (Arkansas Democrat Gazette)
  • Two conservative operatives were charged with felonies for robocalls aimed at dissuading Detroit residents in majority-Black areas from voting by mail. (Associated Press)

The Latest Lawsuits