Is the COVID-19 Vaccine Free if You're Uninsured?

Most health insurance plans in the U.S. will provide coverage for coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines with no cost-sharing for members, which means that people will not have to pay for the vaccine or its administration. But nearly 30 million Americans were uninsured in 2019, and that number has likely increased in 2020 as a result of the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you're in a situation where you don't have health coverage that will pay the cost of a COVID-19 vaccine, can you still get the vaccine at no cost? Probably, but you'll want to pay close attention to the details to make sure you don't get a surprise bill in the mail for a vaccine you assumed would be free.

Vials of COVID-19 vaccines

MarsBars/Getty Images

COVID-19 Vaccines for Uninsured Children

Once a COVID-19 vaccine is approved for use in children—and assuming the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) includes it in the Vaccines for Children (VFC) program—uninsured children will be able to receive it free-of-charge from providers that participate in the VFC program. The provider can bill families for vaccine administration in some circumstances, but cannot refuse to administer a vaccine due to a family's inability to pay the fee.

This program is specifically designed to ensure that children have access to vaccines, even if the family is unable to pay for vaccines and doesn't have a health plan that will cover the cost. And most U.S. pediatricians are participating providers in the VFC program.

COVID-19 Vaccines for Uninsured Adults

There is not a safety-net program to guarantee access to vaccines for uninsured adults—and adults are more likely to be uninsured than children. However, the government has provided funding to reimburse medical providers who administer COVID-19 vaccines to uninsured adults.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act (PPPHCEA), both of which were enacted in the spring of 2020, provided a total of $175 billion in federal funding for a Provider Relief Fund. This fund, which is operated by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), is also referred to as the HRSA Uninsured Program. It is being used to provide financial assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic to medical providers that participate in the Medicare and/or Medicaid programs. Some of the money in the Provider Relief Fund was earmarked to reimburse medical providers for the cost of vaccinating uninsured individuals.

Health Coverage vs. Health Insurance

The term "uninsured" can refer to people who have various types of health coverage that don't actually count as health insurance, such as fixed indemnity plans or health care sharing ministry plans; if your health plan doesn't cover the cost of the COVID-19 vaccine, it might be a plan that isn't technically health insurance.

The federal government is providing the vaccine to states at no cost, but the Provider Relief Fund will reimburse medical providers for the cost of administering the vaccine. As of November 10, 2020, a Kaiser Family Foundation report indicated that about $30 billion remained in the Provider Relief Fund, although additional money could be allocated as time goes on. If the fund is depleted and additional money is not allocated, however, there would be no more reimbursements to providers who provide COVID-19 services, including vaccines, to uninsured patients.

Since the early days of the pandemic, medical providers have been able to apply for reimbursement through the Provider Relief Fund for costs associated with COVID-19 testing and treatment for uninsured individuals, but they are not required do to so. In some cases, the patients were simply billed for the services instead. There are concerns that this could happen with the cost of administering the vaccine as well, even if the cost of the vaccine itself is covered by the manufacturer or the federal government. This could make uninsured Americans hesitant to seek out a vaccine due to financial considerations.

But the federal government has repeatedly stated that uninsured Americans should have access to zero-cost COVID-19 vaccines due to the existence of the Provider Relief Fund. So if you're uninsured and a provider is asking for payment for the vaccine, ask them about this program—or consider seeking out another vaccine provider who can utilize the Provider Relief Fund to ensure that you can be vaccinated without undue financial hardship.

If the medical provider does seek and receive reimbursement from the Provider Relief Fund for services related to COVID-19, they are not allowed to balance bill the patient. They are required to accept the amount that they receive under the Provider Relief Fund as payment in full.

What if You Receive a Bill for the COVID-19 Vaccine?

If you receive a balance-due bill from a medical provider for your COVID-19 vaccine after a portion of the bill has been paid by the Provider Relief Fund/HRSA Uninsured Program, HHS advises that you contact the medical provider to discuss the issue, as you should not be responsible for any charges at that point (unless you received additional services that were unrelated to COVID-19).

HHS also notes that if the provider doesn't obtain reimbursement from the Provider Relief Fund, the patient can be responsible for the entire bill. So again, it's important to ask up front whether the provider will seek reimbursement from the government for the cost of administering the COVID-19 vaccine.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Tolbert, Jennifer; Orgera, Kendal; Damico, Anthony. Kaiser Family Foundation. Key facts about the uninsured population. Updated November 6, 2020.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vaccine for Children (VFC) program. Updated February 18, 2016.

  3. Shen AK, Hughes IV R, DeWald E, Rosenbaum S, Pisani A, Orenstein W. Ensuring equitable access to covid-19 vaccines in the U.S.: Current system challenges and opportunities: analysis examines ensuring equitable access to covid-19 vaccinesHealth Affairs. November 19, 2020. doi:10.1377/hlthaff.2020.01554

  4. Health Resources and Services Administration. COVID-19 claims reimbursement to health care providers and facilities for testing, treatment, and vaccine administration for the uninsured. Updated November 2020.

  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Provider relief fund general information (FAQs). Updated December 4, 2020.

  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Answers to National Governors Association questions on vaccine distribution and planning.

  7. Schwartz, Karyn; Freed, Meredith; Cubanski, Juliette; Dolan, Rachel; Pollitz, Karen; Kates, Jennifer; Neuman, Tricia. Kaiser Family Foundation—COVID-19 Coverage. Vaccine coverage, pricing, and reimbursement in the U.S. November 18, 2020.

  8. Adler, Loren; Linke Young, Christen. USC-Brookings Schaeffer on Health Policy. The laws governing COVID-19 test payment and how to improve them. Updated July 13, 2020.

  9. Kopp, Emily. Roll Call. Doctors' fees may mean a "free" COVID-19 vaccine isn't free. Updated September 2, 2020.

  10. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Trump administration act to ensure coverage of life-saving COVID-19 vaccines & therapeutics. Updated October 28, 2020.

  11. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. CARES Act Provider Relief Fund: For patients. Updated October 5, 2020.