HHS has renewed the COVID-19 public health emergency, extending key regulatory flexibilities such as Medicare telehealth reimbursement and higher rates for COVID-19 hospitalizations through April. The 90-day extension of the public health emergency, effective January 21, 2021, will help hospitals and health systems battle the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in their communities, HHS Secretary Alex Azar said on Twitter on January 7.
- This is the fourth time HHS has renewed the COVID-19 public health emergency, with the last being in October. The public health emergency, first enacted on January 31, 2020, implemented a number of blanket waivers and regulatory flexibilities for healthcare providers to deliver fast, flexible care to infected patients while maintaining access to care for those without the novel coronavirus.
- Increased telehealth coverage for Medicare beneficiaries was a key flexibility HHS has offered providers through the public health emergency. The department has added over 200 telehealth codes that are reimbursable during the public health emergency, including emergency department visits, initial inpatient and nursing facility visits, and discharge day management services.
- The department has also granted providers more flexibility with where they provide care to patients and waived certain reporting requirements for the duration of the emergency. The waivers and regulatory flexibilities have been critical to provider response efforts to COVID-19, especially since the number of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths continue to increase across the country.
- But healthcare providers are also calling on HHS to make certain flexibilities and waivers part of the permanent regulatory landscape in healthcare. For instance, providers have urged the department to keep telehealth payment parity even after COVID-19 cases go down and can be managed by providers.
- States have started to pass legislation making telehealth payment parity or payment at all permanent, but providers are calling for HHS to set the example and make telehealth a key part of Medicare coverage. For now, blanket waivers and other regulatory flexibilities will last until April when the HHS Secretary will have to reassess the state of COVID-19 in the country.