Health groups urge Biden administration to maintain COVID-19 public health emergency

The American Hospital Association, American Medical Association, AARP and others argue the emergency declaration provides critical tools to fight the virus and protect the public.

Some of America’s largest healthcare organizations are pressing President Biden’s administration to continue the COVID-19 public health emergency.

The emergency declaration began in 2020 and was extended again last month, but it is slated to expire in mid-July. The declaration offers providers and federal agencies more flexibility in battling the pandemic.

Healthcare leaders have said they are worried this is the last extension. The timing is critical, because U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra has said he would give about 60 days notice before ending the emergency.

So healthcare advocacy groups are making the case now.

In a joint letter, 16 healthcare groups, including the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association, and the AARP urged the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to continue the emergency. They cited the recent rise in COVID-19 cases in the letter, which was sent May 10.

“We request that the Administration maintain the public health emergency (PHE) until it is clear that the global pandemic has receded and the capabilities authorized by the PHE are no longer necessary,” the letter stated. “This will help prevent any future surges from threatening the health and safety of patients and the ability of health care professionals to care for them.”

When the public health emergency expires, many states will be making new determinations about who is eligible for healthcare coverage. As many as 15 million Americans, including 6.7 million children, could lose coverage, the healthcare groups stated.

Under the emergency declaration, the Food and Drug Administration has utilized emergency use authorizations for vaccines, treatments and tests.

Providers have also valued the waivers during the emergency that have made it easier to deliver care. Hospitals and health systems can more quickly expand capacity to treat COVID-19 patients and care for other patients as well.

With the emergency declaration, health providers have been able to take advantage of telehealth far more than ever before.

Earlier this year, lawmakers and the White House agreed to extend telehealth waivers for about five months after the expiration of the public health emergency. Still, healthcare leaders have pressed Washington for reforms allowing permanent access to telehealth, including the ability to prescribe medications remotely.

In a separate letter, the Medical Group Management Association also urged the Biden administration to continue the public health emergency, citing concerns over telehealth. The five-month telehealth extension beyond the emergency doesn’t go far enough, the MGMA said.

“The 151-day extension does not address telehealth payment parity, interstate licensure, or HIPAA compliant platforms. These are all flexibilities that still currently hinge of the PHE remaining in place,” the MGMA wrote.

Healthcare groups have been pressing Becerra and the health department to provide more notice. In March, Becerra told reporters the agency would provide as much notice as possible but said it would be “tough to give much more than 60 days,” Fierce Healthcare reported.

The MGMA said the government needs to give more notice. “If you intend not to renew the PHE, we are concerned that a 60-day notice before ending it is not enough time to sufficiently wind down flexibilities that have been in effect for over two years,” the MGMA stated.

While COVID-19 cases are far below the peaks seen at the beginning of the year with the Omicron variant, cases have been rising in recent weeks. The average number of daily new cases is 84,000, a 58% increase over the last 14 days, according to The New York Times.

Even that increase may not give the full picture. Health officials have said government case totals are a less reliable indicator of the spread of COVID-19, since many Americans are testing at home and aren’t notifying state or local health agencies if they test positive.

The AHA, AMA and other groups pointed out the Delta variant led to an unexpected spike in COVID-19 cases in July and August of 2021.

So far, COVID-19 hospitalizations remain well below record highs, but they are rising. The current 7-day average in coronavirus hospitalizations nationwide is 14,104, up from 12,291 the previous week, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (The peak 7-day average topped 146,000 in January.)

“Advancements in surveillance have observed rapid variant mutations and while public health experts acknowledge that current variants are not leading to excessive hospitalizations at this time, they also assert that new variants absolutely could,” the AHA and other health groups wrote in their May 10 letter.

“We need to be ready should a future variant elude the protection of our current vaccines and ensure that the health care system is prepared as we head into this fall’s flu season.”