Hospitals want COVID-19 public health emergency to go beyond October

The timing is important, because the government has pledged to provide 60 days notice before ending the emergency. Health systems say waivers under the emergency have been critical to care for patients.

America’s hospitals are pushing President Biden’s administration to continue the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency beyond October.

The American Hospital Association sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to urge the administration to continue the emergency. If the emergency expires in October, hospitals would face severe hardships in caring for patients, Rick Pollack, the AHA's president and CEO, wrote in the July 29 letter.

“Now is not the time to eliminate these vital flexibilities,” Pollack wrote. “Hospitalizations and deaths are again on the rise given the B.A.5 variant, and there is a real possibility of additional surges in the fall and winter – along with a possibly difficult flu season.”

We strongly urge you to continue the COVID-19 PHE set to expire in October and allow for significant stakeholder engagement to create a smooth transition out of the pandemic,” he added.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services agreed to a 90-day extension of the emergency on July 15, meaning it would continue until the middle of October. But there’s a reason hospitals and health systems are making the case for another extension now.

The administration has repeatedly said that it would provide 60 days of notice if the public health emergency is going to be allowed to expire. If the Biden administration is going to move to end the public health emergency, the health department would notify states and health agencies in the middle of August, based on that 60-day pledge.

The public health emergency offers hospitals and health systems more flexibility in treating patients with COVID-19 and also dealing with the financial stress of the pandemic. Under the emergency, the government has offered waivers allowing health systems and hospitals to expand telehealth and hospital-at-home programs.

In addition, the government has provided more aid to states to Medicaid under the public health emergency. When the emergency ends, 5 million to 14 million people could lose Medicaid coverage, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The American Hospital Association surveyed its members about the impact of ending the public health emergency and the loss of key waivers. The vast majority of health system leaders said hospitals would pay the price.

  • 93% said their hospital would be affected if the waivers ended, with 60% describing the impact as significant;
  • 89% said they rely on the waivers to deliver necessary care;
  • 78% said the waivers provide vital support in managing staffing issues and shortages;
  • 72% said rolling back the waivers would significantly affect their patients’ access to health coverage.

The number of patients being treated in hospitals for COVID-19 remains far below the peak seen in the winter, but hospitalizations have risen in the past few months. The 7-day average of COVID-19 hospitalizations is just over 36,000 for the week of July 23-29, up about 12,000 on May 1, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In addition to treating COVID-19 patients, health systems are seeing more patients who postponed seeking care during the pandemic and now can’t wait any longer, Pollack wrote in the letter to the Biden administration.

“Our providers also are experiencing sicker patients with more critical medical needs due to delays in seeking care during the Delta and Omicron surges,” Pollack wrote.

“Moreover, hospitals continue to be challenged by supply chain disruptions, increasing expenses due to labor, supplies and inflation, changing guidance regarding vaccines and therapeutics, dramatic increases in the demand for mental and behavioral health, and, most importantly, by significant shortages of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, therapists and other health care personnel,” he continued.

Hospitals have received billions in federal aid to sustain them during the pandemic. But health systems have complained that the government hasn’t provided sufficient funds during the wave of patients from the Delta and Omicron variants.

“We haven’t received a dime for Delta and Omicron,” Pollack said at the AHA Leadership Summit last month. The association is pressing the government for more support.