Traverse City News and Events

From Medicaid To Telehealth, Here's What The End Of The COVID-19 Public Health Emergency Would Mean For Local Healthcare

By Craig Manning | Jan. 25, 2023

Next Tuesday, January 31, will mark three years since Alex Azar, then secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), officially declared COVID-19 a nationwide Public Health Emergency (PHE).

36 months and 12 renewals later, that federal PHE designation remains in place, though many healthcare experts predict it will lift this spring. The expiration of the PHE declaration would represent a major milestone in moving on from the pandemic that. But it also brings numerous implications for health insurance coverage, hospital operations, and more. The Ticker chatted with local healthcare professionals to find out what everyone should know about the PHE designation and its impending end.

A PHE is a mechanism allowed by the Public Health Services Act, wherein a sitting HHS secretary can take emergency actions to combat a public health risk. For instance, it was because of the PHE that the FDA was able to grant Emergency Use Authorizations for several COVID-19 vaccinations, before those vaccines received official FDA approval.

A PHE declaration lasts 90 days, though the designation can be extended by the HHS secretary following consultations with public health officials. So far, HHS has renewed the COVID-19 PHE every three months since January 2020. Most recently, on January 11, current HHS Secretary Xavier Becarra extended the PHE for a 12th time, citing “the continued consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Under this particular extension, the PHE will be in place until at least April 11.

Despite the renewal, chatter around ending the PHE has been growing louder. In December, 25 Republican governors sent a letter to President Biden asking the administration to end the PHE declaration. In the letter, the undersigned argued that “the emergency phase of the pandemic is behind us” and that the PHE was “negatively affecting states, primarily by artificially growing our population covered under Medicaid, regardless of whether individuals continue to be eligible under the program.” This situation, the governors concluded, “is costing states hundreds of millions of dollars.”

According to Mi Stanley, corporate director of special projects and communication for Traverse Health Clinic, the PHE effectively paused Medicaid redeterminations during the pandemic to prevent loss of health coverage. In other words, while new Medicaid enrollments have continued, disenrollments have ceased – which in turn has meant an ever-growing number of Medicaid enrollees.

With or without the PHE, Medicaid is now due for a shakeup. In December, Congress passed an omnibus spending bill that decoupled the Medicaid continuous eligibility policy from the PHE.

“Basically, throughout the PHE, states were not going through the process of redeterminations for beneficiaries of Medicaid,” Stanley explains. “But with the budget bill that was recently passed, Congress decided that – whether or not the PHE continues to get extended – starting on April 1, states have to begin the redetermination process for Medicaid. And that means that, for the first time in a couple of years, people are going to need to update their information. There are probably people who are currently on Medicaid who have never been through this process, because they got it during the PHE.”

Per Stanley, Traverse Health Clinic is currently making “a big push” to inform patients of the impending end to the continuous enrollment policy, and assist them in updating their information with the state. Nearly 50 percent of Traverse Health Clinic patients are Medicaid enrollees, and some could lose coverage when redeterminations kick back into play.

“We could end up with, at least for some period of time, an increase in the percentage of patients that we see who are uninsured,” Stanley notes. “As a community health center, we never turn anyone away for inability to pay or for being uninsured, and that would continue to be the case. But we also know that, when people don’t have health insurance coverage, they’re less likely to seek out preventive care.”

Stanley continues: “People losing coverage is certainly an outcome we wouldn’t want to see occur, so we plan to be focusing a lot of attention on the services we provide here to help people get healthcare coverage. And those services are free to anybody in the community. They don't have to be a Traverse Health Clinic patient. Anyone can call and ask for an appointment with our eligibility specialists, who can walk them through the application process to reapply or apply for Medicaid, or to apply for a Marketplace plan.”

In addition to continuous Medicaid coverage, the PHE also created a laundry list of waivers that, during the worst of the pandemic, helped hospitals deliver care by whatever means necessary. One waiver allowed hospital systems like Munson Healthcare to bring in traveling nurses that were licensed in other states. Another allowed hospitals to screen emergency department patients outdoors, in their cars or in tented areas, rather than inside the hospital proper. According to Gabe Schneider, who acts as director of government relations for Munson Healthcare, most of those waivers are no longer in use.

“In the Munson system, our COVID-19 hospitalizations have largely stabilized, which means we’re not relying much on those waivers provided by the PHE,” Schneider says.

The PHE waivers that Munson is still using, Schneider adds, mostly pertain to telehealth. The PHE gave providers much more leeway in the digital delivery of care, which Schneider says has been a huge boon to rural hospital systems. Those flexibilities were actually uncoupled from the PHE as well, with the aforementioned Congress omnibus spending bill extending “some of the more important telehealth flexibilities” to 2024. Munson Healthcare, which in 2022 “completed nearly 80,000 video visits,” per Schneider, is grateful for the extension

“About 10 percent of our visits across our eight hospitals continue to be completed by video,” Schneider says. “That includes 68 percent of our visits for sleep disorders, 66 percent of our visits for behavioral health, and 56 percent of our visits for infectious disease. Suffice to say, we’ve seen those PHE flexibilities [around telehealth] have a big impact on our ability to deliver care in a rural area. So, we’re glad to see those flexibilities extended to 2024, and it’s going to be on our radar to push Congress to permanently eliminate those telehealth restrictions in the future.”

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