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story.lead_photo.caption In this file photo customers enter a Walmart store at 406 S. Walton Blvd. in Bentonville. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff) - Photo by Flip Putthoff

Health insurer Humana is expanding access to covid-19 testing at hundreds of new drive-through sites at Walmart stores, as well as offering at-home tests to members.

The initiatives come amid reports of hours-long waits for tests in new hot spots like Houston as coronavirus cases surge in many southern and western states.

While testing in the U.S. has expanded dramatically, the rate at which people are getting positive results is outstripping the rise in numbers tested, indicating the virus is spreading faster than the country can find it.

Setting up test sites in big-box-store parking lots was a high-profile goal of the Trump administration's response to covid-19. Walmart Chief Executive Doug McMillon appeared with President Donald Trump at a news conference on testing in April. Almost 123,000 people have been tested at Walmart sites. Humana hasn't set a goal for how many members it hopes to test, just that anyone who wants one can get one, CEO Bruce Broussard said in an interview.

"It's our job to make this as simple as possible and lower the uncertainty in this abnormal time," Broussard said.

Testing began in a handful of Walmart locations in Kansas in recent weeks, said Mona Siddiqui, Humana senior vice president of clinical management. They expect to offer tests at about 50 Walmarts this week and eventually around 500 locations, she said.

"There's a lot of questions that patients have around, Where's the right place to go? How do I get there? Is the test covered?" Siddiqui said.

Humana is working to simplify testing for its members, who are largely senior citizens on government-funded Medicare Advantage health plans, Broussard said.

This initiative will be available at Walmart's neighborhood markets. They're smaller than supercenters and discount stores, typically about 42,000 square feet, or about the size of a traditional supermarket. Walmart has 686 neighborhood markets in the U.S.

While Humana developed the program for its members, it's expected that tests will be available to other Walmart customers at its neighborhood markets as well. The two companies have been partners since 2010, developing initiatives including prescription drug plans.

Humana members will use on online symptom checker based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidelines to evaluate whether they qualify for a test. People with symptoms or exposure to others with the virus will then have the option of a drive-through test or one done at home.

Both tests will be self-administered, and wouldn't require the swab to go as far back in the nose as other covid-19 tests do. The kit would include a cotton swab that the person would insert in each nostril. The swab would then be sealed in a plastic bag and mailed to LabCorp for processing.

For the drive-through tests, pharmacists will hand customers the kit and observe as they swab themselves in drive-through. Customers will seal the kit and put it in a drop box, so the sample doesn't enter the pharmacy. Quest will process those tests.

Humana, like other insurers, has waived co-pays for covid-19 testing and lifted some other cost-sharing requirements for members. Medicare Advantage, Medicare supplement, Medicaid, and employer group plans members -- about 6.7 million as of the end of March -- are eligible for the new tests. Those who are only covered by its prescription drug, dental and vision plans don't qualify, nor do Tricare military beneficiaries.

The initiative was in the works before the latest spike in cases, Broussard said. Humana doesn't expect the pandemic to abate any time soon, he said, and the company is working to reduce uncertainty for its members.

"We've also felt that there would be spikes that would come, geographically, nationally," he said. "I think we will continue to see those spikes be with us for some time."

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