by Emma Freer
Originally published by Texas Medical Association on February 7, 2023.
After nearly three years and 11 extensions, the Biden administration recently announced the COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE) will finally expire May 11, fulfilling its commitment to give states at least 60 days’ notice of its expiration.
“If the PHE were suddenly terminated, it would sow confusion and chaos into this critical wind-down,” the Executive Office of the President wrote in a Jan. 30 statement.
Still, the end of the PHE has significant consequences for Texas physicians and their patients.
The federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act temporarily increased federal Medicaid matching dollars by 6.2% for states that agreed to maintain Medicaid coverage for anyone enrolled in the program from March 2020 through the end of the PHE.
That included Texas, where more than 2.5 million residents, predominantly postpartum women, and children, benefited from continuous Medicaid coverage.
These matching dollars will phase out between April and December, according to a provision in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023, a $1.7 trillion spending package that President Joe Biden signed into law on Dec. 29, 2022.
To continue to receive these funds through the end of the year, states must comply with certain federal requirements, including agreeing not to terminate enrollment based on returned mail due to an incorrect address.
In the meantime, state Medicaid officials have a plan for unwinding this coverage, but it requires redetermining millions of patients’ Medicaid eligibility in just eight months. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) will begin sending notices in March reminding patients to update their information.
The Texas Medical Association has met regularly with HHSC over the past year to provide input on the state’s plan with the goal of achieving as smooth a transition as possible. Despite progress, such as streamlining the ways in which Medicaid patients can complete their eligibility applications, TMA remains very concerned about a looming coverage cliff.
Fortunately, the end of the PHE coincides with some recent policy developments, including increased federal funding for navigators – community organizations that connect eligible consumers to federal marketplace health plans – and extended subsidies for the same plans. TMA experts say these changes could help some Texans who lose Medicaid coverage enroll in a different plan.
The Consolidated Appropriations Act also makes permanent an option for states to provide 12 months of continuous Medicaid coverage to postpartum women.
TMA would like to see the Texas Legislature take advantage of this option, one of the association’s top priorities this session.
Moreover, the law requires states to provide 12 months of continuous Medicaid coverage to children, beginning Jan. 1, 2024. TMA is urging HHSC to align this provision with its redetermination process to minimize the burden on families and to prevent gaps in care.
In addition, the Consolidated Appropriations Act extended certain pandemic-era telehealth flexibilities for Medicare patients through 2024, disentangling them from the status of the PHE. These flexibilities include:
Waiving geographic site restrictions, which allow patients to access care from their homes; and
Allowing physicians to use audio-only telehealth services.
TMA and others in organized medicine recently wrote a letter to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), requesting the agency issue an interim final rule to align its telehealth policies and timeline (to expire 151 days after the end of the PHE) with those in the Consolidated Appropriations Act. Not doing so, they wrote, could create “an unintended barrier to vital health care services, as well as potential confusion” among clinicians and patients.
Prior to the act’s passage, CMS made permanent the same telehealth flexibilities for Medicare patients accessing mental and behavioral health services as well as coverage of video-based mental health visits at federal qualified and rural health centers.
Finally, the PHE’s end means physicians not using a HIPAA-compliant platform for telehealth will need to switch to one by May 12.
Physicians can refer to CMS’ fact sheet regarding PHE waivers and flexibilities for more information.
For more detailed coverage on how the end of the PHE will affect Texas physicians and patients, check out the January/February issue of Texas Medicine magazine.