The consensus building among health experts is that we’re going to be in pandemic mode for the foreseeable future. On Capitol Hill, top disease expert and White House advisor Anthony Fauci today told lawmakers on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that daily new cases could surpass 100,000 new infections per day if the outbreak continues at its current pace. With COVID-19 spikes occurring in the South and West of the country, there are renewed concerns about reopening for business.
For Community Health Centers on the frontlines, the long game has to be about sustainably fighting community spread with a host of uncertainties that include a giant question mark about long-term funding, adequate workforce, supplies, protective gear and skyrocketing jobless claims that will likely trigger the loss of health insurance for millions of people. There is also the matter of the Public Health Emergency declaration scheduled to expire on July 25th.
NACHC was among the provider groups urging the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to extend the Public Health Emergency declaration for several months. Some notable policies connected to the public health emergency include the Medicare inpatient 20% add-on payment for COVID-19 patients, increased federal Medicaid matching rates, requirements that insurers cover COVID-19 testing without cost-sharing, and waivers of telehealth restrictions.
In a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar, NACHC President and CEO Tom Van Coverden underscored the critical importance of the extension:
“The pandemic continues to affect communities across the country, and, without an extension of the emergency, health centers’ patients risk even more serious illness, delayed care, and worsening chronic conditions. Further, the role that each health center plays as an integral component of a system of care will likely place an added strain on hospitals around the country…
We cannot begin to imagine the additional strain our health centers would have faced without this emergency declaration, which is why we are asking that you continue this declaration for the months, and possibly year, ahead during which health centers will continue to respond to the virus.”
HHS has indicated in press reports it will extend the declaration by another 90 days. The stakes are high for health centers, particularly with regard to telehealth. The CARES Act relaxed several telehealth restrictions so health centers could pivot more easily to safely screen patients, but those reimbursement policies will end with the public health emergency determination.