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HHS Officially Extends COVID-19 Public Health Emergency Again

January 14, 2021

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared a public health emergency. As part of that declaration, HHS made temporary policy changes to help healthcare organizations adapt to the emergency. These policy changes will remain in effect as long as HHS renews the public health emergency declaration.

Alex Azar, Secretary of Health of Human Services, officially renewed the public health emergency declaration on January 7, 2021. In Azar’s words,

“As a result of the continued consequences of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, on this date and after consultation with public health officials as necessary, I, Alex M. Azar II, Secretary of Health and Human Services, pursuant to the authority vested in me under section 319 of the Public Health Service Act, do hereby renew, effective January 21, 2021, my January 31, 2020, determination, that I previously renewed on October 23, 2020, my January 31, 2020, determination, that I previously renewed on April 21, 2020, July 23, 2020, and October 2, 2020, that a public health emergency exists and has existed since January 27, 2020, nationwide.”

When the public health emergency was initially declared on January 31, 2020, the declaration gave the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) permission to grant waivers to Medicare, Medicaid, and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) program requirements under Section 1135 of the Social Security Act. These waivers remain in effect until the end of the public health emergency. Although these waivers are granted at a federal level, states and territories may apply for flexibility to these programs under section 1135.

Flexibility for Medicare Telehealth Services 

For telehealth providers, the CMS 1135 waivers which have been initiated during the COVID-19 pandemic simplify the delivery of telehealth services. Some telehealth waivers include:

  • Eligible practitioners. The list of providers allowed to provide telehealth services has been expanded to include physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, and others.
  • Audio-only health services. Health practitioners are permitted to evaluate and manage patient conditions by phone as long as the communication system permits interaction between patient and provider.
  • Practitioner locations. During the public health emergency, practitioners are not required to be licensed in the state where they are practicing as long as they are licensed in another state.

Other waivers that affect healthcare providers include flexibility in classifications of hospitals, facilities, and clinics; types of care offered by certain agencies and facilities; rules regarding physical environments and resident grouping; training requirements that could pose risks during COVID-19, and more.

How to Protect Patient Safety During the Public Health Emergency

Although CMS waivers make it easier for providers to administer healthcare and for patients to access services during the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare organizations who fail to provide their own safety and compliance requirements could endanger their patients unknowingly.

Public health emergency waivers expedite obtaining access to healthcare in high-demand situations; however, less stringent requirements may also make it easier for patient safety risks to go unnoticed. For example, a healthcare organization may hire a provider from another state without realizing their out-of-state credentials are restricted or revoked since they are not required to be licensed in the state where they are practicing during the public health emergency.

That’s why many healthcare organizations rely on credentials verification organizations to help mitigate those risks. Verisys verifies provider licenses against all state licensing boards throughout the nation, as well as screens for federal exclusions, so even during public health emergencies like COVID-19, Verisys can ensure that your providers are qualified and competent to practice. The real-time provider data Verisys provides can keep your patients and your practice safe, even during a public health emergency.

Juliette Willard Written by Juliette Willard
Healthcare Communications Specialist
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