As COVID-19 case counts fade from the headlines and people return to their pre-pandemic routines, rheumatologists and rheumatology professionals may be wondering what “the end” of COVID-19 is going to look like for them. Much of that answer lies in the status of the federal emergencies that have been declared in response to COVID-19.
These emergency proclamations have had a major influence on healthcare operations over the past three years. As the emergency provisions come to an end, rheumatologists and rheumatology professionals must be aware of how their practices will be affected. If you are confused by which emergency means what and which emergency ends when, you’re not alone. This article gives you the groundwork to analyze the steps you need to take and when you need to take them.
The National Emergency is over, & the PHE is still in place until May 11.
2 to Watch
Two of the main emergencies to be aware of are the Public Health Emergency, or PHE, declared by the Department of Health and Human Services on Jan. 31, 2020, and the COVID-19 National Emergency, declared by former President Trump on March 13, 2020. On Jan. 31, three years after the PHE was declared, President Biden announced that both of these emergencies would end on May 11, 2023.
While this seemed like a popular plan, giving adequate time for everyone to prepare, Congress moved ahead with a joint resolution, H.J.Res.7, which would end the National Emergency as soon as it was signed into law. After passing the House and Senate, President Biden signed the bill into law on April 10—despite his opposition to it. A separate bill, H.R. 382, which seeks to end the PHE, passed the House of Representatives, but the Senate has not yet voted on it.
Where does that leave rheumatologists and rheumatology professionals? The National Emergency is over, and the PHE is still in place until May 11.
The National Emergency seemed to be the source of much of the authority for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to make changes that rheumatologists and rheumatology professionals have implemented during the pandemic. However, the CMS released a statement on its website assuring stakeholders that the end of the PHE would not be affected by the passage of H.J.Res.7. The CMS still anticipates the PHE will end on May 11, 2023, and the waivers and flexibilities currently in effect as a result of authority granted during the COVID-19 pandemic will remain in place until the end of the PHE.
To our knowledge, no one has publicly disputed the CMS website statement that the waivers and flexibilities will continue until May 11, but rheumatologists and rheumatology professionals should be working to bring operations into compliance as soon as possible.
For example, as noted above, it appears that the CMS is taking the position that the Stark Law Blanket Waivers put in place during the PHE will remain in effect until the termination of the PHE. If the PHE were to end early via H.R. 382, the Stark Law Blanket Waivers would immediately terminate. Similarly, the HHS Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has exercised enforcement discretion regarding certain HIPAA requirements while the PHE remains in effect. Although certain identified waivers and flexibilities will stay in place after the PHE is terminated, many end immediately. In the event the PHE ends before May 11, rheumatologists and rheumatology professionals could find themselves immediately out of compliance with certain Stark Law, HIPAA or other provisions.
Countdown to May 11
If not already doing so, rheumatologists and rheumatology professionals should determine whether their organizations are prepared for compliance post-PHE, and should review policies and procedures to work diligently toward a successful transition to a post-PHE era.
Regardless of when the PHE actually ends, rheumatologists and rheumatology professionals should consider May 11 the final deadline (except as otherwise stated) because the actions and statements from Congress and the White House seem to signal that there will be little appetite to extend COVID-era policies past that date.
A healthcare attorney can assist practices in identifying changes that will need to be made to operations, as well as when those changes must be enacted.
Emily Johnson, JD, is a nationally recognized attorney, author and speaker with McDonald Hopkins LLC. Email her at [email protected].