Hospital, long-term care groups again petition Becerra to extend COVID-19 public health emergency

Industry provider groups are again asking Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra to extend the government’s COVID-19 public health emergency, which is set to expire April 16.

In a letter sent Monday, 10 national hospital and health system organizations acknowledged growing interest in ending the PHE due to the country’s ongoing decline in cases and hospitalizations.

However, the groups pointed to still-unvaccinated populations, such as the immunocompromised and children under five; potential future surges of COVID-19, potentially fueled by overseas increases due to an omicron subvariant; and lingering operational challenges including labor shortages and an influx of deferred care as reasons to maintain the declaration.

“We understand the desire to move on from the pandemic, as illustrated in recent Congressional letters and legislative action, and we too would like a return to focusing on non-pandemic related health care in our communities,” the groups wrote in Monday’s letter.

“Yet it is important to be prepared for potential disruptions to the health care delivery system. The PHE allows our members the flexibilities and resources to respond to the COVID-19 virus, while best serving our patients. As we move forward, we urge the administration to work closely with patients, providers and stakeholders to ensure access to care is preserved.”

Renewing the PHE declaration leaves the door open for HHS to implement several emergency response actions intended to reduce the burden on providers in a time of crisis. These include waiving certain requirements for government-run programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, loosening reporting regulations and providing additional emergency funding.

America’s Essential Hospitals, the American Hospital Association, the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Catholic Health Association of the United States, the Children’s Hospital Association, Federation of American Hospitals, the National Association for Behavioral Healthcare, Premier healthcare alliance and Vizient signed on to Monday’s letter.

Their plea came less than a week after a similar letter to the secretary from the American Health Care Association and the National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL), which represents more than 14,000 of the country’s skilled nursing centers and other long-term care facilities.

AHCA/NCAL’s letter highlighted the 400,000-plus workers who departed the long-term care sector since the beginning of the pandemic, which “has put our providers in an impossible situation either having to limit admissions or close their doors completely,” AHCA/NCAL President and CEO Mark Parkinson wrote.

While Becerra is only able to sign off on a single 90-day extension at a time, the group wrote that the pandemic “is far from over” and encouraged the secretary to continue renewing the PHE through the end of 2022. AHCA/NCAL also lobbied the federal government to prioritize long-term care when providing resources such as testing and novel therapeutics.

“If we have learned anything over the past two years, it is that the elderly are among the most vulnerable to this virus, and therefore, deserve the greatest support and highest prioritization,” Parkinson wrote. “Our caregivers have worked tirelessly day after day to protect and provide for their residents, and they need steady access to resources during this pandemic and moving forward.”

HHS has committed to giving the industry and government leaders at least a 60-day heads-up before it allows the COVID-19 PHE to conclude. That warning has yet to be sounded, suggesting the department is very likely to renew the PHE prior to April’s mid-month expiration date.

Beyond the extensions, providers, payers, states and legislators alike have pushed HHS for more clarity on how several pandemic-era allowances will be unwound. They’ve also asked the department for more time to prepare for an impending expiration, although Becerra recently told reporters that it would be “tough to give much more than 60 days” notice before ending the PHE.

Exacerbating provider groups’ concerns over the potential end of PHE support is the broader political dispute over the next round of pandemic funding. Lawmakers did not include the billions HHS hoped for in March’s $1.5 trillion spending package, forcing the administration to limit or shut down some of its national COVID-19 initiatives such as reimbursement for uncovered COVID-19 care.