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Plans are moving forward at the US Department of Health and Human Services to prepare for the end of the nation’s Covid-19 public health emergency declaration in May.
On Thursday, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra sent a letter and fact sheet to state governors detailing what exactly the end of the emergency declaration will mean for jurisdictions and their residents.
“Addressing COVID-19 remains a significant public health priority for the Administration, and over the next few months, we will transition our COVID-19 policies, as well as the current flexibilities enabled by the COVID-19 emergency declarations, into improving standards of care for patients. We will work closely with partners including state, local, Tribal, and territorial agencies, industry, and advocates, to ensure an orderly transition,” Becerra wrote in a draft of the letter obtained by CNN.
“In the coming days, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) will also provide additional information, including about the waivers many states and health systems have adopted and how they will be impacted by the end of the COVID-19 PHE,” he wrote. “I will share that resource with your team when available.”
Declaring a public health emergency in the United States means that certain actions, access to funds, grants, waivers and data – among other steps – can happen more quickly in response to the crisis for the duration of the emergency. A declaration lasts 90 days – unless HHS ends it – and may be renewed.
On January 30, the White House announced its intention to end the Covid-19 national and public health emergencies on May 11, signaling that the administration considers the nation to have moved out of the emergency response phase.
Becerra had agreed to give governors a 60-day notice to prepare for the end of the emergency. Thursday’s letter was sent 90 days ahead of the emergency’s planned end.
“We are having ongoing conversations about what else we need to do in the next 90 days to ensure a smooth transition. I can tell you that every one of our agencies has been working hard on this plan,” an HHS official told CNN. “We’re going to have a series of additional materials that will go out, as well as a series of conversations over the coming days and weeks.”
The end of the public health emergency will affect some Medicare and state Medicaid flexibilities provided for the duration of the emergency. This includes waivers like the requirement for a three-day hospital stay before Medicare will cover care at a skilled nursing facility.
“We’ve been working closely with the governors on the public health emergency. This is a combination of both federal flexibilities that we allow, and the states are often the ones who are using those flexibilities,” the HHS official said.
“Just about every aspect of the pandemic response, I would say, has been in partnership with our state partners. And so, I think they have been, frankly for months now, the ones that we have been going to and the ones that we publicly committed to notifying in advance of changes to the public health emergency declaration.”
But the emergency’s end will not impact the authorizations of Covid-19 devices, including tests, vaccines and treatments that have been authorized for emergency use by the US Food and Drug Administration.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the FDA has issued about 15 times as many emergency use authorizations as it did for all other previous public health emergencies, Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf said Wednesday in a joint hearing of the House Oversight and Investigations and Health subcommittees.
“Today, we’ve issued EUAs or provided traditional marketing authorizations to over 2,800 medical devices for Covid-19, which is 15 times more EUAs than all other previous emergencies combined,” Califf said. He added that the effects of the end of the emergency declaration will be “modest” because the “EUAs are independent of the public health emergency, so we can keep them going as long as we need to.”
The emergency is slated to end May 11. “What happens on May 12? On May 12, you can still walk into a pharmacy and get your bivalent vaccine,” Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, wrote on Twitter last week.
He said that at some point, probably in the summer or early fall, the Biden administration will transition from federal distribution of Covid-19 vaccines and treatments to purchases through the regular health care system – but that’s not happening quite yet.
Overall, there are additional Medicaid waivers and other flexibilities that states and territories have received under the public health emergency. Some of those will be terminated. But state Medicaid programs will have to continue covering Covid-19 testing, treatments, and vaccinations without cost-sharing through September 30, 2024.
The end of the public health emergency declaration means Medicare beneficiaries will face out-of-pocket costs for over-the-counter home Covid-19 tests and treatment. However, people with Medicare will continue to have no cost for medically necessary lab-conducted Covid-19 tests ordered by their health care providers.
Covid-19 vaccinations will continue to be covered at no cost for all Medicare beneficiaries.
Those with private insurance could face charges for lab tests, even if they are ordered by a provider, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Vaccinations will continue to be free for those with private insurance who go to in-network providers, but going to an out-of-network providers could incur charges once federal supplies run out.
And the privately insured will not be able to get free at-home tests from pharmacies and retailers anymore unless their insurers choose to cover them.
Americans with private insurance have not been charged for monoclonal antibody treatment since they were prepaid by the federal government, though patients may be charged for the office visit or administration of the treatment, according to Kaiser. But that is not tied to the public health emergency, and the free treatments will be available until the federal supply is exhausted. The government has already run out of some of the treatments so those with private insurance may already be picking up some of the cost.
The uninsured had been able to access no-cost testing, treatments and vaccines through a different pandemic relief program. However, the federal funding ran out in the spring of 2022, making it more difficult for those without coverage to obtain free services.
Also, the “ability of health care providers to safely dispense controlled substances via telemedicine without an in-person interaction is affected; however, there will be rulemaking that will propose to extend these flexibilities,” according to the letter’s fact sheet.
One of the most meaningful pandemic enhancements for states is no longer tied to the public health emergency. Congress severed the connection in December as part of its fiscal year 2023 government funding package, which state Medicaid officials had urged lawmakers to do.
States will now be able to start processing Medicaid redeterminations and disenrolling residents who no longer qualify, starting April 1. They have 14 months to review the eligibility of their beneficiaries.
As part of a Covid-19 relief package passed in March 2020, states were barred from kicking people off Medicaid during the public health emergency in exchange for additional federal matching funds. Medicaid enrollment has skyrocketed to a record 91 million people since then.
A total of roughly 15 million people could be dropped from Medicaid when the continuous enrollment requirement ends, according to an analysis the Department of Health and Human Services released in August. About 8.2 million folks would no longer qualify, but 6.8 million people would be terminated even though they are still eligible, the department estimated.
Many who are disenrolled from Medicaid, however, could qualify for other coverage.