Becerra shoots down giving more than 60 days notice on ending COVID-19 public health emergency

Giving more than 60 days notice that the COVID-19 public health emergency will end is going to be difficult, as states and lawmakers have pressed for a longer heads-up, according to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra.

The secretary spoke with reporters Friday during a press conference that included remarks on the status of unwinding the public health emergency (PHE) and how the agency’s COVID-19 relief efforts will be impacted if Congress doesn’t approve additional funding. 

The healthcare industry and states are waiting to find out when the PHE will end and with it the loss of key flexibilities for telehealth reimbursements and the start of eligibility redeterminations for Medicaid. 

The current PHE is scheduled to expire April 16 and will likely be extended again for 90 days. HHS has promised to give at least a 60-day notice when the PHE will expire for good. 

However, Republicans in Congress, payer groups and states have asked for more advance notice to get ready for the unwinding of the PHE. Several hospital groups have also asked for more notice as they must prepare for the end of the PHE’s requirement that Medicaid programs not disenroll beneficiaries. 

Becerra conceded, though, to reporters that it is “tough to give much more than 60 days” notice. 

“After we extend it each time, we start the process of reviewing it again,” he said. “We are going to give everyone as much advance notice as we can.”

He said the decision to end the PHE will be based on conditions on the ground and where the science is heading on the pandemic. 

“At the end of the day, is America stressed? Do we find we are not yet ready to cope under the normal regime of laws that we have with COVID?” Becerra said. “If COVID still poses a threat and if we retract those authorities that let us do telehealth in ways that we have not been able to do before, do we let COVID surge again?”

Call for more money

HHS officials warned during the press conference that it does not have enough money to buy a fourth round of booster doses for all Americans if Congress does not pass more relief funding. 

“We certainly know we don’t have adequate resources should a fourth dose be needed for all Americans,” said Andrea Palm, deputy secretary of HHS. “We know that when it comes to monoclonal antibodies we will run out in the May time frame depending on demand.”

HHS had asked Congress for more than $20 billion in relief funding, but that has been whittled down to roughly $15 billion.

However, lawmakers did not include the funding in a must-pass omnibus spending bill earlier this month after demands from Republicans that the COVID-19 relief dollars be offset by other cuts. Republicans have questioned the need for more funding and wanted additional details on the money already allocated. 

The White House warned earlier this week that starting March 22 it will no longer process claims to reimburse providers for testing and treatments for uninsured patients for COVID-19. It will no longer reimburse vaccination claims starting April 5.

Officials said there was $20 billion left in the Provider Relief Fund, which has been used by HHS to reimburse providers for uninsured COVID-19 costs. But officials warned most of that money is already committed.

“The bulk of that is because while we make an announcement for a distribution, [Health Resources and Services Administration] goes through their due diligence validating those claims,” said Norris Cochran, acting assistant secretary for financial resources for HHS. “Money that reflects as un-obligated is actually fully committed in most cases.”

Becerra also noted that the agency wanted to be realistic with providers about the uncertainty of getting their uninsured claims reimbursed.

“We want to be responsible,” he said. “We don’t want to give any provider this unrealistic expectation. We don’t want them to believe that if they apply and have a legitimate claim that we are still going to have money to provide them with a reimbursement.”

Becerra added that HHS wasn’t even sure that if a provider submits their claims by the March 22 deadline it will have funding, “because we don’t know what claims will come in, what size they are and how legitimate they are. We want to make it clear to folks that the resources have been depleted.”