Hospitals will have more leeway thanks to H1N1 emergency declaration

HHS now will be able to give hospitals more leeway in how they handle any incoming surges incoming patients thanks to President Obama's declaration last week that the H1N1 swine flu is a national U.S. emergency. Under the emergency declaration, HHS can make use of provisions in section 1135 of the Social Security Act, which lets HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius waive a wide variety of regulations under Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP and EMTALA.

For example, Sebelius can now relax EMTALA rules, which will allow hospitals to engage in rapid patient triage and sorting activities otherwise not allowed.  Her office also can waive EMTALA provisions that would block hospitals from establishing off-site, alternate care facilities, which could be used to treat H1N1 patients, or otherwise relieve emergency department demand.

Hospitals also will be able to request waivers, allowing them to transfer patients more easily between EDs and inpatient wards, releasing them from both EMTALA and HIPAA regs, and allowing flexibility on other requirements (such as Critical Access rules) which affect how long patients can be in a hospital bed on average.

Not only does Obama's announcement help hospitals, it may have done more than any other public step could have to encourage consumers to get the H1N1 vaccination. This weekend, with the emergency announcement in place, members of the public immediately began thronging urgent care centers to request the vaccine. (Whether they will be able to find it in stock is another story.)

To learn more about the declaration:
- read this CDC announcement
- read this Washington Post piece

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