On January 31, 2020, the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services declared the outbreaks of COVID-19 caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus constituted a nationwide public health emergency. The public health emergency lasted for a period of 90 days and due to the continued consequences of COVID-19, the public health emergency was extended on April 21, 2020 for a further 90 days, effective April 26, 2020.
The extension of the public health emergency was set to expire on July 25, 2020. On July 23, 2020, HHS Secretary, Alex M. Azar II, officially extended the nationwide public health emergency for a further 90 days.
“Today I signed a renewal of the COVID-19 national public health emergency declaration. The Administration will continue its whole-of-America response to ensure Americans can get the care they need throughout the pandemic,” explained Secretary Azar on Twitter on July 23.
Several changes have been enacted due to the public health emergency to help healthcare providers manage outbreaks of COVID-19 and provide care to their patients. These changes include the temporary removal of telehealth restrictions to expand access to virtual visits, waivers of Section 1135 to help healthcare providers better respond to COVID-19 cases, a requirement for health insurers to cover medically necessary COVID-19 tests, and the provision of funding and regulatory relief for healthcare providers such as the 20% Medicare inpatient add-on payment.
The HHS’ Office for Civil Rights previously announced multiple notices of enforcement discretion for HIPAA noncompliance related to good faith uses and disclosures of protected health information, which are only in effect for the duration of the public health emergency. The extension of the public health emergency will see those waivers remain in effect.
The extension of the public health emergency was expected, with the HHS indicating in June that the continued high number of cases in the United States would likely see the public health emergency extended once again. The renewal of the declaration provides clarity to hospitals, healthcare providers, and health insurers that COVID-19 policies, waivers, funding and relief will continue for a further 90 days.