Xavier Becerra, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has renewed the COVID-19 public health emergency for a further 90 days.
Earlier this month, the American Hospital Association (AHA) wrote to Becerra to request an extension to the public health emergency. The AHA said the extension was necessary to ensure healthcare providers can continue to offer the most efficient and effective care to patients, and that an extension was necessary to ensure the section 1135 waivers remain in effect.
The AHA said many hospitals are still struggling to provide care to patients as a result of the pandemic and are having to deal with high numbers of hospitalizations, shortages of medical equipment and drugs, and supply chain problems. The challenges have been made worse by high numbers of staff absent from work due to illness and the pandemic has taken its toll on staff, many of whom are absent due to burnout. The AHA also said staff shortages in many states have risen dramatically in recent weeks and the challenges due to the pandemic would certainly continue beyond January 16, and will most likely continue for the rest of the year. The AHA also wrote to President Biden to request a 12-month extension to the nationwide public health emergency under the National Emergencies Act.
The nationwide COVID-19 public health emergency was declared by the former HHS Secretary Alex Azar on January 27, 2020, who renewed the public health emergency four times, as has Becerra. The HHS has issued several waivers under section 1135 of the Social Security Act, which remain in effect for the duration of the public health emergency.
The HHS’ Office for Civil Rights issued a waiver that temporarily eased HIPAA restrictions for telehealth. No enforcement actions will be taken against healthcare providers over the good faith use of remote communication technologies such as Zoom, Facebook Messenger, and Google Hangouts for the provision of telehealth services. Use of those platforms would not normally be permitted under HIPAA.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has also issued temporary measures for the duration of the public health emergency to make it easier for people enrolled in Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to receive telehealth services. There has also been a temporary expansion of telehealth services to allow Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) and Rural Health Clinics (RHCs) to serve as distant telehealth sites and provide telehealth services to patients in their homes. The easing of the restrictions is now certain to continue for a further 90 days.
The HHS has also confirmed that states will be provided with 60 days’ notice of any termination or expiration of the public health emergency.