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Free coronavirus testing, millions in federal aid announced for New Mexico

Following a temporary ban on large public gatherings and warnings from officials about the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in New Mexico, two programs were announced Friday to help the state cope with the potentially deadly illness.

Forcing insurers to provide free testing and treatment is one of them.

In response to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's declaration of a public health emergency earlier this week, state Superintendent of Insurance Russell Toal issued an emergency rule prohibiting insurers from imposing cost sharing — including copays and deductibles — for testing and care services related to the virus.

The move also covers pneumonia, influenza and "any disease or condition that is the subject of a public health emergency," according to a press release from the governor's office.

Symptoms of COVID-19 can include fever, coughing and breathing trouble. Many develop only mild symptoms. But some people, often those with other medical complications and the elderly, develop more severe symptoms, including potentially fatal cases of pneumonia.

Toal's rule does not apply to large employers who "self-insure," meaning those employers can decide which benefits to offer their members and how much they must pay when obtaining medical care, the release says. A self-insured health plan is one in which employers pay for their workers' health benefits.

"During this emergency, we can’t afford to place barriers between New Mexicans and the tests and treatment they need," Lujan Grisham said in a prepared statement, urging employers who self-insure to follow the guidelines put in place for insurers by Toal's office.

Also on Friday, U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, along with U.S. Representatives Ben Ray Lujan, Deb Haaland and Xochitl Torres Small, announced that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will distribute more than $6 million to New Mexico as part of the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act.

The federal bill appropriates $8.3 billion to help states, localities, territories and tribes across the country to speed planning and readiness for COVID-19 preparedness and response, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It was signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 6.

As part of the bill, New Mexico will receive $6.4 million to combat the illness, $5.9 million of which is coming as part of the CDC's Public Health Crisis Cooperative Agreement. Another $500,000 is coming as part of the Centers' Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity agreement, intended to support disease control efforts.

While the COVID-19 has no known cure, several organizations around the world are working to develop a vaccine. Though no vaccine is available, those infected can still recover by managing the illness's symptoms as the virus runs its course.

State health officials this week enlisted Albuquerque-based medical testing company TriCore Reference Laboratories to screen patients who may have the illness.

Working in conjunction with the New Mexico Department of Health, TriCore is only offering tests to those who have a physician referral. It takes 24 hours to get test results, TriCore Chief Medical Director Karissa Culbreath said.