The Biden administration extended the US coronavirus public health emergency, now more than two years old, for another 90 days on Wednesday. The move will maintain a range of health benefits received by some of the most vulnerable Americans during the pandemic, including access to coronavirus testing and telehealth services.
The decision to extend the emergency was expected, public health experts said, even as senior federal health officials said the country was now in a favorable position, with fewer people hospitalized with Covid-19 in recent times. time than at any time since the early weeks of the pandemic.
The Department of Health and Human Services pledged early in President Biden’s term to give states at least two months’ notice before allowing the emergency declaration to expire. Some governors asked for even more time to prepare. The last extension postpones the expiration to mid-July.
Republican lawmakers called on the administration in February to stop prolonging the emergency, which was first declared by the Trump administration, saying its continuation at a time when the crisis was ebbing amounted to an excess of power by the government.
Since then, a highly transmissible version of the virus, the Omicron subvariant known as BA.2, has become the dominant form among new US cases, which have started to multiply again. As of Tuesday, the country averaged more than 31,000 new cases a day, an increase of 8% over the past two weeks, according to a New York Times database.
New York City and Washington, D.C., are among areas where recent increases have been larger than the country as a whole, although case numbers have not approached the peaks seen during the winter surge of ‘Omicron. Reported cases may to some extent be an understatement of the true spread of the virus, as access to home testing has increased and the results of such tests are often not reported to state health officials.
Public health experts say the emergency declaration has offered a lifeline to people who might otherwise have lost their health coverage. A key provision allowed people covered by Medicaid, which saw record enrollment levels during the pandemic, to stay in the program without going through the usual administrative checks – and even if their income had exceeded the normal eligibility cap. .
Juliette Cubanski, deputy director of the Kaiser Family Foundation who has researched and written about the effects of the public health emergency, said the extension announced on Wednesday means the US healthcare system has at least a few more months to go. plan when his protections might end. The emergency declaration, she said, “gave us a tremendous sense of security in an otherwise very precarious and uncertain time.”
“While we cannot live in a state of public health emergency forever, there is still some uncertainty about whether we are ready as a health system to do without the flexibilities” that he offer, Ms. Cubanski said.
Private insurers and Medicare will continue to cover the cost of home virus testing as long as the public health emergency remains in effect.
The ED has significantly helped Medicare beneficiaries in other ways, including expanding eligibility for telehealth appointments at a time when some doctors’ offices were temporarily closed, leaving older and more vulnerable people struggling to see doctors in person or hesitant to take the risk. If the emergency declaration lapsed, many Medicare beneficiaries who did not live in rural areas or enroll in Medicare Advantage plans could have lost access to telehealth services.
“It meant the ability to access care that otherwise would have been inaccessible,” Ms. Cubanski said. The use of telehealth, she added, has “saved people the serious health consequences they might have otherwise suffered.”
The emergency declaration also allowed hospitals to receive a 20% increase in Medicare payment rates for treating Covid-19 patients, at a time when many providers were facing crippling financial pressures.
Margot Sanger Katz contributed report.