A top federal health official has indicated that the COVID-19 public health emergency declaration will likely stay put throughout 2021 — securing a critical tool for long-term providers to help them manage the crisis and provide high-quality care for residents. 

HHS Acting Secretary Norris Cochran in a letter to state governors last week signaled that the emergency declaration will likely remain in place for the entirety of 2021 and added that “when a decision is made to terminate the declaration or let it expire, HHS will provide states with 60 days’ notice prior to termination.” The letter was first reported by Inside Health Policy, while a copy of the letter was published by Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute. 

“This is encouraging news from the administration and gives providers and states some long-term clarity. The public health emergency declaration has proven critical in equipping providers with the tools and resources, such as increased Medicaid funding for states, necessary to manage COVID-19 and ensure high-quality care in this unprecedented environment,” the American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living said in a statement to McKnight’s Long-Term Care News on Monday. 

Cochran noted the declaration offers predictability, stability and several flexibilities for states during times of crisis. 

“Among other things, the PHE determination provides for the ability to streamline and increase the accessibility of healthcare, such as the practice of telemedicine,” Cochran wrote. “The goal is to ensure to the maximum extent feasible that, in an emergency area during an emergency period, sufficient health care items and services are available to meet the needs of individuals receiving Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP and that providers that furnish such items and services can be reimbursed for them and exempt from sanctions, absent fraud or abuse.” 

He also noted that the 6.2% FMAP (Federal Medical Assistance Percentage) increase is also tied to the duration of the public health emergency and by extending the declaration it ensures “increased budgetary stability and predictability during this challenging time.” 

“In light of the PHE extension, you can expect the continued use of other emergency authorities, including Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act declarations and emergency use authorizations (EUA) for diagnostics, treatments and vaccines. The Department will consider the use of any available flexibility to aid states in their response to this PHE,” Cochran wrote. 

HHS in mid-January announced plans to extend the public health emergency due to COVID-19 through April. AHCA/NCAL in the past has stressed the importance of extending the declaration so “healthcare providers can continue to offer the most efficient and effective care possible during the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.”

“That declaration has proven critical in equipping hospitals and health systems with the tools and resources necessary to manage the COVID-19 surge and ensure high-quality care in this unprecedented environment,” Mark Parkinson, AHCA/NCAL President and CEO, wrote in a letter to HHS in late December. 

“The challenges that our members have faced — rapid bed capacity increases, overnight telehealth system overhauls and implementation and PPE acquisition — have been nothing short of extraordinary. However, with your help, SNFs and ALCs have used every tool at their disposal to respond to this unprecedented challenge,” he added. “Without your action and the impact of the public health declaration, these challenges would have been exponentially more difficult to overcome, which is why we are asking for continued action from HHS moving forward.”