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HHS extends COVID-19 public health emergency declaration until April

This action marks the fourth time HHS has extended the declaration that has paid parity for telehealth and continues reporting waivers.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

HHS Secretary Alex Azar HHS Secretary Alex Azar

The public health emergency surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic was set to expire the day after President-elect Joe Biden takes the oath of office, but the Department of Health and Human Services has extended the emergency declaration for another 90 days. The extension is effective January 21 and extends into April.

WHAT'S THE IMPACT?

The last time HHS extended the PHE was in October. This action marks the fourth time HHS has done so since January 31, 2020, when the agency introduced waivers that suspended several federal oversight and reporting requirements.

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Few areas of healthcare have exemplified the impact of this move more than telehealth. Since the beginning of the pandemic, more providers have been able to bill Medicare for telehealth services, which include audio-only services. 

The waiving of certain reporting requirements, meanwhile, has helped hospitals – and especially intensive care units – to better deal with the swell of coronavirus patients who have flooded their doors through multiple surges and spikes in caseloads.

In December, the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living sent a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar saying that the public health emergency should be extended until certain criteria are met, including improvements to the supply chain, which are needed to meet the increased demand for personal protective equipment that keeps frontline healthcare workers safe.

The agencies also said they want to see the number of laboratory tests administered in the U.S. to hit 500,000 per day, and the number of new coronavirus test results lower than 5,000 per day for at least 14 days. They also want to see the number of patients in ICU beds hit fewer than 5,000 per day for 14 days and no more than 10% of such patients in any one city or region before the public health emergency is declared over.

The AHCA also wants to see the number of COVID-19 deaths per day to hit fewer than 500 for 14 days, and for vaccine administration to hit or exceed the roughly 70% needed for herd immunity before the emergency expires.

The current extension pushes the PHE declaration until the end of April.

THE LARGER TREND

Also in December, the American Hospital Association asked President-elect Joe Biden to extend the public health emergency, citing many of the same factors. The AHA requested that providers be allowed to retain provider relief fund dollars by allowing for any reasonable method of calculating COVID-19-related lost revenue, movement of targeted distributions within a system and use of funds for increased staffing costs.

The letter also urged the new administration to protect the 340B drug savings program and require that private plans eliminate administrative and financial barriers to coverage for COVID- 19 testing and treatment.

Azar first declared the PHE on January 31, 2020, following the World Health Organization's decision to declare the coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern.

Twitter: @JELagasse
Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com

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