A surge in the uninsured population from Medicaid redetermination could swamp some health systems that struggled to stay afloat during the pandemic. But experts say it could also translate into a financial boost for networks, if enough individuals find new sources of coverage.
Why it matters:
Even the temporary loss of coverage as states unwind their COVID-era Medicaid enrollment requirements means more people will go without checkups and other primary care, increasing the likelihood they’ll wait until they’re sick to seek help.
A key question is how many of the disenrolled will find new arrangements through workplace insurance or subsidized Affordable Care Act plans, both of which pay providers at higher rates than Medicaid.
Driving the news:
More than 170,000 people lost their Medicaid coverage in four states in April, and it’s not clear from state data how many of those people found new arrangements, reapplied successfully for Medicaid or remain uninsured.
An estimated 17 million children and adults could lose Medicaid coverage this year, after pandemic-era protections are rolled back, per a recent KFF survey.
Trinity Health, an 88-hospital health system operating in 26 states, estimates that Medicaid redetermination could result in a loss of $70 million to $90 million if disenrolled people don’t find other arrangements and the system has to provide them with charity care.
“It’s painful to watch; it’s not good for people and for our communities and those who are most vulnerable,” Dan Roth, chief clinical officer at Trinity Health, told Axios.
Emergency departments could fill up quickly if enough people who delay care wait for a health crisis to get help, said Ben Finder, director of policy research and analysis at the American Hospital Association.
He said other patients could cut pills in half or otherwise make medications last longer, “which can create cascading problems for folks.”
What we’re watching:
Redeterminations could change the payer mix in a revenue-positive way if patients go from Medicaid to employer-sponsored or ACA plans.
One Urban Institute report estimates that as many as 10.5 million patients could shift from Medicaid to employer-sponsored coverage or a marketplace plan.
This could boost payments to hospitals significantly, per Duane Wright, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst, since commercial payment rates for hospital services are on average 223% higher than Medicare payments.
Providers might be the first ones to inform patients who don’t know that their coverage has been terminated when they come in seeking care.
Health systems can create special teams to proactively reach out to Medicaid patients before they even come to the hospital, said Karen Shields, chief client engagement officer at Gainwell and former deputy director at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
“There is a moral and financial imperative for us to be good at this,” Shields told Axios.
The bottom line:
Most health systems have bounced back from a shaky 2022. But redeterminations, combined with inflation, supply chain problems and staffing shortages, could prove too much, especially during the colder months when respiratory viruses proliferate.
“Everyone is holding their breath watching for how this unfolds in each state,” Finder told Axios.
The national spotlight this week will be on the debt ceiling stand-off in Congress, the end of Title 42 that enables immigrants’ legal access to the U.S., the April CPI report from the Department of Labor and the aftermath of the nation’s 199th mass shooting this year in Allen TX.
The official end of the Pandemic Health Emergency (PHE) Thursday will also be noted but its impact on the health industry will be immediate and under-estimated.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) logged more than 104 million COVID-19 cases in the US as of late April and more than 11% of adults who had COVID-19 currently have symptoms of long COVID. It comes as the CDC say there’s a 20% chance of a Pandemic 2.0 in the next 2-5 years and the current death toll tops 1000/day in the U.S.
The Immediate impact:
The official end of the PHE means much of the cost for treating Covid will shift to private insurers; access to testing, vaccines and treatments with no out-of-pocket costs for the uninsured will continue through 2024. But enrollees in commercial plans, Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program can expect more cost-sharing for tests and antivirals.
That means higher revenues for insurers, increased out of pocket costs for consumers and more bad debt for hospitals and physicians.
At the state level, Medicaid disenrollment efforts will intensify to alleviate state financial obligations for Covid-related health costs. In tandem, state allocations for SNAP benefits used by 1 in 4 long-covid victims will shrink as budget-belts tighten lending to hunger cliff.
That means less access to health programs in many states and more disruption in low-income households seeking care.
The Under-estimated Impact:
The end of the PHE enables politicians to shift “good will” toward direct care workers, home and Veteran’s health services and away from hospitals and specialty medicine who face reimbursement cuts and hostile negotiations with insurers. The April 18, 2023 White House Executive Order which enables increased funding for direct care workers called for prioritization across all federal agencies. Notably, in the PHE, hospitals received emergency funding to treat the Covid-19 patients while utilization and funding for non-urgent services was curtailed. Though the Covid-19 population is still significant, funding for hospitals is unlikely in lieu of in-home and social services programs for at risk populations.
A second unknown is this: As the ranks of the uninsured and under-insured swell, and as affordability looms as a primary concern among voters and employers, provider unpaid medical bills and “bad debt” increases are likely to follow.
Hostility over declining reimbursement between health insurers and local hospitals and medical groups will intensify while the biggest drug manufacturers, hospital systems and health insurers launch fresh social media campaigns and advocacy efforts to advance their interests and demonize their foes.
Loss of confidence in the system and a desire for something better may be sparked by the official end of the PHE. And it’s certain to widen antipathy between insurers and hospitals.
In this month’s Health Affairs, DePaul University health researchers reported results of their analysis of the association between hospital reimbursement rates and insurer consolidation:
“Our results confirm this prior work and suggest that greater insurer market power is associated with lower prices paid for services nationally. A critical question for policy makers and consumers is whether savings obtained from lower prices are passed on in the form of lower premiums. The relationship to premiums is theoretically ambiguous. It is possible that insurers simply retain the savings in the form of higher profits.”
What’s clear is health insurers are winners and providers—especially hospitals and physicians—are likely losers as the PHE ends. What’s also clear is policymakers are in no mood to provide financial rescue to either.
In the weeks ahead as the debt ceiling is debated, the Federal FY 2024 budget finalized and campaign 2024 launches, the societal value of the entire health system and speculation about its preparedness for the next pandemic will be top of mind.
For some—especially not-for-profit hospitals and insurers who benefit from tax exemptions in favor of community health obligations– it requires rethinking of long-term strategies to serve the public good. And it necessitates their Boards to alter capital and operating priorities toward a more sustainnable future.
The pandemic exposed the disconnect between local health and human services programs and inadequacy of local, state and federal preparedness Given what’s ahead, the end of the Pandemic Health Emergency seems ill-timed and short-sighted: the impact will further destabilize the health industry.
PS: Saturday, the Allen Premium Outlets, (Allen, TX) was the site of America’s 199th mass shooting this year:
this time, 8 innocents died and 7 remain hospitalized, 4 in critical condition. Sadly, it’s becoming a new normal, marked by public officials who offer “thoughts and prayers” followed by calls for mental health and gun controls. Local law enforcement is deified if prompt or demonized if not. But because it’s a “new normal,” the heroics of EMS, ED and hospitals escapes mention. Medical City Healthcare is where 2 of the 8 drew their last breaths while staff labored to save the other 7. At a time when hospitals are battered by bad press, they deserve recognition for work done like this every day.
In a matter of months, ChatGPT has radically altered our nation’s views on artificial intelligence—uprooting old assumptions about AI’s limitations and kicking the door wide open for exciting new possibilities.
One aspect of our lives sure to be touched by this rapid acceleration in technology is U.S. healthcare. But the extent to which tech will improve our nation’s health depends on whether regulators embrace the future or cling stubbornly to the past.
Why our minds live in the past
In the 1760s, Scottish inventor James Watt revolutionized the steam engine, marking an extraordinary leap in engineering. But Watt knew that if he wanted to sell his innovation, he needed to convince potential buyers of its unprecedented power. With a stroke of marketing genius, he began telling people that his steam engine could replace 10 cart-pulling horses. People at time immediately understood that a machine with 10 “horsepower” must be a worthy investment. Watt’s sales took off. And his long-since-antiquated meaurement of power remains with us today.
Even now, people struggle to grasp the breakthrough potential of revolutionary innovations. When faced with a new and powerful technology, people feel more comfortable with what they know. Rather than embracing an entirely different mindset, they remain stuck in the past, making it difficult to harness the full potential of future opportunities.
Too often, that’s exactly how U.S. government agencies go about regulating advances in healthcare. In medicine, the consequences of applying 20th-century assumptions to 21st-century innovations prove fatal.
Here are three ways regulators do damage by failing to keep up with the times:
1. Devaluing ‘virtual visits’
Established in 1973 to combat drug abuse, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) now faces an opioid epidemic that claims more than 100,000 lives a year.
One solution to this deadly problem, according to public health advocates, combines modern information technology with an effective form of addiction treatment.
Thanks to the Covid-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE) declaration, telehealth use skyrocketed during the pandemic. Out of necessity, regulators relaxed previous telemedicine restrictions, allowing more patients to access medical services remotely while enabling doctors to prescribe controlled substances, including buprenorphine, via video visits.
For people battling drug addiction, buprenorphine is a “Goldilocks” medication with just enough efficacy to prevent withdrawal yet not enough to result in severe respiratory depression, overdose or death. Research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that buprenorphine improves retention in drug-treatment programs. It has helped thousands of people reclaim their lives.
But because this opiate produces slight euphoria, drug officials worry it could be abused and that telemedicine prescribing will make it easier for bad actors to push buprenorphine onto the black market. Now with the PHE declaration set to expire, the DEA has laid out plans to limit telehealth prescribing of buprenorphine.
The proposed regulations would let doctors prescribe a 30-day course of the drug via telehealth, but would mandate an in-person visit with a doctor for any renewals. The agency believes this will “prevent the online overprescribing of controlled medications that can cause harm.”
The DEA’s assumption that an in-person visit is safer and less corruptible than a virtual visit is outdated and contradicted by clinical research. A recent NIH study, for example, found that overdose deaths involving buprenorphine did not proportionally increase during the pandemic. Likewise, a Harvard study found that telemedicine is as effective as in-person care for opioid use disorder.
Of course, regulators need to monitor the prescribing frequency of controlled substances and conduct audits to weed out fraud. Furthermore, they should demand that prescribing physicians receive proper training and document their patient-education efforts concerning medical risks.
But these requirements should apply to all clinicians, regardless of whether the patient is physically present. After all, abuses can happen as easily and readily in person as online.
The DEA needs to move its mindset into the 21st century because our nation’s outdated approach to addiction treatment isn’t working. More than 100,000 deaths a year prove it.
2. Restricting an unrestrainable new technology
Technologists predict that generative AI, like ChatGPT, will transform American life, drastically altering our economy and workforce. I’m confident it also will transform medicine, giving patients greater (a) access to medical information and (b) control over their own health.
So far, the rate of progress in generative AI has been staggering. Just months ago, the original version of ChatGPT passed the U.S. medical licensing exam, but barely. Weeks ago, Google’s Med-PaLM 2 achieved an impressive 85% on the same exam, placing it in the realm of expert doctors.
With great technological capability comes great fear, especially from U.S. regulators. At the Health Datapalooza conference in February, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Robert M. Califf emphasized his concern when he pointed out that ChatGPT and similar technologies can either aid or exacerbate the challenge of helping patients make informed health decisions.
Worried comments also came from Federal Trade Commission, thanks in part to a letter signed by billionaires like Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak. They posited that the new technology “poses profound risks to society and humanity.” In response, FTC chair Lina Khan pledged to pay close attention to the growing AI industry.
Attempts to regulate generative AI will almost certainly happen and likely soon. But agencies will struggle to accomplish it.
To date, U.S. regulators have evaluated hundreds of AI applications as medical devices or “digital therapeutics.” In 2022, for example, Apple received premarket clearance from the FDA for a new smartwatch feature that lets users know if their heart rhythm shows signs of atrial fibrillation (AFib). For each AI product that undergoes FDA scrutiny, the agency tests the embedded algorithms for effectiveness and safety, similar to a medication.
ChatGPT is different. It’s not a medical device or digital therapy programmed to address a specific or measurable medical problem. And it doesn’t contain a simple algorithm that regulators can evaluate for efficacy and safety. The reality is that any GPT-4 user today can type in a query and receive detailed medical advice in seconds. ChatGPT is a broad facilitator of information, not a narrowly focused, clinical tool. Therefore, it defies the types of analysis regulators traditionally apply.
In that way, ChatGPT is similar to the telephone. Regulators can evaluate the safety of smartphones, measuring how much electromagnetic radiation it gives off or whether the device, itself, poses a fire hazard. But they can’t regulate the safety of how people use it. Friends can and often do give each other terrible advice by phone.
Therefore, aside from blocking ChatGPT outright, there’s no way to stop individuals from asking it for a diagnosis, medication recommendation or help with deciding on alternative medical treatments. And while the technology has been temporarily banned in Italy, that’s unlikely to happen in the United States.
If we want to ensure the safety of ChatGPT, improve health and save lives, government agencies should focus on educating Americans on this technology rather than trying to restrict its usage.
3. Preventing doctors from helping more people
Doctors can apply for a medical license in any state, but the process is time-consuming and laborious. As a result, most physicians are licensed only where they live. That deprives patients in the other 49 states access to their medical expertise.
The reason for this approach dates back 240 years. When the Bill of Rights passed in 1791, the practice of medicine varied greatly by geography. So, states were granted the right to license physicians through their state boards.
In 1910, the Flexner report highlighted widespread failures of medical education and recommended a standard curriculum for all doctors. This process of standardization culminated in 1992 when all U.S. physicians were required to take and pass a set of national medical exams. And yet, 30 years later, fully trained and board-certified doctors still have to apply for a medical license in every state where they wish to practice medicine. Without a second license, a doctor in Chicago can’t provide care to a patient across a state border in Indiana, even if separated by mere miles.
The PHE declaration did allow doctors to provide virtual care to patients in other states. However, with that policy expiring in May, physicians will again face overly restrictive regulations held over from centuries past.
Given the advances in medicine, the availability of technology and growing shortage of skilled clinicians, these regulations are illogical and problematic. Heart attacks, strokes and cancer know no geographic boundaries. With air travel, people can contract medical illnesses far from home. Regulators could safely implement a common national licensing process—assuming states would recognize it and grant a medical license to any doctor without a history of professional impropriety.
But that’s unlikely to happen. The reason is financial. Licensing fees support state medical boards. And state-based restrictions limit competition from out of state, allowing local providers to drive up prices.
To address healthcare’s quality, access and affordability challenges, we need to achieve economies of scale. That would be best done by allowing all doctors in the U.S. to join one care-delivery pool, rather than retaining 50 separate ones.
Doing so would allow for a national mental-health service, giving people in underserved areas access to trained therapists and helping reduce the 46,000 suicides that take place in America each year.
Regulators need to catch up
Medicine is a complex profession in which errors kill people. That’s why we need healthcare regulations. Doctors and nurses need to be well trained, so that life-threatening medications can’t fall into the hands of people who will misuse them.
But when outdated thinking leads to deaths from drug overdoses, prevents patients from improving their own health and limits access to the nation’s best medical expertise, regulators need to recognize the harm they’re doing.
Healthcare is changing as technology races ahead. Regulators need to catch up.
As the U.S. prepares to end the COVID-19 public health emergency, hospitals are facing a major cut in Medicare payments used to treat patients diagnosed with the disease.
Since January 2020, hospitals nationwide have received a 20 percent increase in the Medicare payment rate through the hospital inpatient prospective payment system to treat COVID-19 patients — that policy ends May 11.
The sunsetting of the three-year policy is a key concern for the AHA because of its financial implication for hospitals already struggling with increased labor costs and inflation.
From January 2020 to November 2021, payments for the 1 million traditional Medicare patients hospitalized with COVID-19 totaled $23.4 billion, or more than $24,000 per patient, according to lobbying and law firm Brownstein.
The end of the policy also has the potential to increase medical costs for patients hospitalized with COVID-19. If patients must pay higher costs for COVID-19-related services, they may be less inclined to get tested or even seek treatment.
“It means there will be less testing in this country, and likely less treatment because not everyone can afford it,” Jose Figueroa, MD, assistant professor of health policy and management at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Time Jan. 31. “Will this change the trajectory of the pandemic? It’s something we are going to have to watch.”
As of Feb. 8, the nation’s seven-day COVID-19 case average was 40,404, a 1 percent decrease from the previous week’s average. The rate of decrease has slowed in the last two weeks — the CDC’s last weekly report published Feb. 3 reported a 6.7 percent drop in cases.
The seven-day hospitalization average for Feb. 1-7 was 3,665, a 6.2 percent decrease from the previous week’s average and down from an 8.4 percent drop in cases a week prior.
President Joe Biden last night highlighted several healthcare priorities during his State of the Union address, including efforts to reduce drug costs, a universal cap on insulin prices, healthcare coverage, and more.
In his speech, Biden acknowledged the progress the country has made with COVID-19 over the last few years.
“Two years ago, COVID had shut down our businesses, closed our schools, and robbed us of so much,” he said. “Today, COVID no longer controls our lives.”
Although Biden noted that the COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE) will come to an end soon, he said the country should remain vigilant and called for more funds from Congress to “monitor dozens of variants and support new vaccines and treatments.”
The Inflation Reduction Act
Biden highlighted several provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which passed last year, that aim to reduce healthcare costs for millions of Americans.
“You know, we pay more for prescription drugs than any major country on earth,” he said. “Big Pharma has been unfairly charging people hundreds of dollars — and making record profits.”
Under the IRA, Medicare is now allowed to negotiate the prices of certain prescription drugs, and out-of-pocket drug costs for Medicare beneficiaries are capped at $2,000 per year. Insulin costs for Medicare beneficiaries are also capped at $35 a month.
“Bringing down prescription drug costs doesn’t just save seniors money,” Biden said. “It will cut the federal deficit, saving tax payers hundreds of billions of dollars on the prescription drugs the government buys for Medicare.”
Caps on insulin costs for all Americans
Although the IRA limits costs for seniors on Medicare, Biden called for the policy to be made universal for all Americans. According to a 2022 study, over 1.3 million Americans skip, delay purchasing, or ration their insulin supply due to costs.
“[T]here are millions of other Americans who are not on Medicare, including 200,000 young people with Type I diabetes who need insulin to save their lives,” Biden said. “… Let’s cap the cost of insulin at $35 a month for every American who needs it.”
With the end of the COVID-19 PHE, HHS estimates that around 15 million people will lose health benefits as states begin the process to redetermine eligibility.
The opioid crisis
Biden also addressed the ongoing opioid crisis in the United States and noted the impact of fentanyl, in particular.
“Fentanyl is killing more than 70,000 Americans a year,” he said. “Let’s launch a major surge to stop fentanyl production, sale, and trafficking, with more drug detection machines to inspect cargo and stop pills and powder at the border.”
He also highlighted efforts by to expand access to effective opioid treatments. According to a White House fact sheet, some initiatives include expanding access to naloxone and other harm reduction interventions at public health departments, removing barriers to prescribing treatments for opioid addiction, and allowing buprenorphine and methadone to be prescribed through telehealth.
Access to abortion
In his speech, Biden called on Congress to “restore” abortion rights after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year.
“The Vice President and I are doing everything we can to protect access to reproductive healthcare and safeguard patient privacy. But already, more than a dozen states are enforcing extreme abortion bans,” Biden said.
He also added that he will veto a national abortion ban if it happens to pass through Congress.
Progress on cancer
Biden also highlighted the Cancer Moonshot, an initiative launched last year aimed at advancing cancer treatment and prevention.
“Our goal is to cut the cancer death rate by at least 50% over the next 25 years,” Biden said. “Turn more cancers from death sentences into treatable diseases. And provide more support for patients and families.”
According to a White House fact sheet, the Cancer Moonshot has created almost 30 new federal programs, policies, and resources to help increase screening rates, reduce preventable cancers, support patients and caregivers and more.
“For the lives we can save and for the lives we have lost, let this be a truly American moment that rallies the country and the world together and proves that we can do big things,” Biden said. “… Let’s end cancer as we know it and cure some cancers once and for all.”
Biden commended the fact that “more American have health insurance now than ever in history,” noting that 16 million people signed up for plans in the Affordable Care Act marketplace this past enrollment period.
In addition, Biden noted that a law he signed last year helped millions of Americans save $800 a year on their health insurance premiums. Currently, this benefit will only run through 2025, but Biden said that we should “make those savings permanent, and expand coverage to those left off Medicaid.”
Advisory Board’s take
Our questions about the Medicaid cliff
President Biden extolled economic optimism in the State of the Union address, touting the lowest unemployment rate in five decades. With job creation on the rise following the incredible job losses at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is still a question of whether the economy will continue to work for those who face losing Medicaid coverage at some point in the next year.
The public health emergency (PHE) is scheduled to end on May 11. During the PHE, millions of Americans were forced into Medicaid enrollment because of job losses. Federal legislation prevented those new enrollees from losing medical insurance. As a result, the percentage of uninsured Americans remained around 8%. The safety net worked.
Starting April 1, state Medicaid plans will begin to end coverage for those who are no longer eligible. We call that the Medicaid Cliff, although operationally, it will look more like a landslide. Currently, state Medicaid regulators and health plans are still trying to figure out exactly how to manage the administrative burden of processing millions of financial eligibility records. The likely outcome is that Medicaid rolls will decrease exponentially over the course of six months to a year as eligibility is redetermined on a rolling basis.
In the marketplace, there is a false presumption that all 15 million Medicaid members will seamlessly transition to commercial or exchange health plans. However, families with a single head of household, women with children under the age of six, and families in both very rural and impoverished urban areas will be less likely to have access to commercial insurance or be able to afford federal exchange plans. Low unemployment and higher wages could put these families in the position of making too much to qualify for Medicaid, but still not making enough to afford the health plans offered by their employers (if their employer offers health insurance). Even with the expansion of Medicaid and exchange subsidies, it, is possible that the rate of uninsured families could rise.
For providers, this means the payer mix in their market will likely not return to the pre-pandemic levels. For managed care organizations with state Medicaid contracts, a loss of members means a loss of revenue. A loss of Medicaid revenue could have a negative impact on programs built to address health equity and social determinants of health (SDOH), which will ultimately impact public health indicators.
For those of us who have worked in the public health and Medicaid space, the pandemic exposed the cracks in the healthcare ecosystem to a broader audience. Discussions regarding how to address SDOH, health equity, and behavioral health gaps are now critical, commonplace components of strategic business planning for all stakeholders across our industry’s infrastructure.
But what happens when Medicaid enrollment drops, and revenues decrease? Will these discussions creep back to the “nice to have” back burners of strategic plans?
Last week the Biden Administration announced that the federal COVID public health emergency (PHE) will expire on May 11. While the recent Omnibus law will lessen the impact, the graphic above highlights several important provisions for providers which are currently set to end with the PHE.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) will no longer provide hospitals with a 20 percent inpatient payment boost for treating traditional Medicare patients hospitalized with COVID. The cost of COVID testing and treatments will shift from the federal government to consumers as private and public insurers can charge for tests and care, while the uninsured will bear the full costs of COVID vaccines and treatment.
Medicare’s current flexibilities around skilled nursing facility (SNF) admissions will end, as it reinstates the three-day prior hospitalization rule for SNF transfers, and ceases paying for SNF stays beyond 100 days.
The end of the PHE also means that providers willno longer be able to prescribe controlled substances virtually, without an initial in-person evaluation. This is especially significant given the volume of mental health and substance abuse treatment that shifted to telehealth across the course of the pandemic.
While the Drug Enforcement Agency has been working on regulations to address this, a proposed rule has not yet been released. Together, these changes amount tolower payments for health systems, COVID cost exposure for patients, and fewer flexibilities for providers managing care, even as thousands of patients are still being hospitalized with COVID each week.
In his second State of the Union speech on Feb. 7, President Joe Biden made it clear that the Administration is moving into the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic—one in which the threats of disease and death are considerably diminished, and therefore no longer require the resources and urgent allocation of funds that the previous two years have.
“While the virus is not gone…we have broken COVID’s grip on us,” Biden said. “And soon we’ll end the public health emergency.”
But health experts say now is not the time to let down our collective guard on SARS-CoV-2. “I don’t believe the virus has gotten the memo that the pandemic is winding down,” says Dr. Jeffrey Glenn, director of the Stanford Biosecurity and Pandemic Preparedness Initiative.
“There is a disconnect between the broad perception that the pandemic is behind us, and focusing on getting back to life as it was pre-pandemic,” says Wafaa El-Sadr, founder and director of the International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs (ICAP) at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “But the reality is that we still continue to have substantial transmission and deaths due to COVID in the U.S., and we are in a situation where the virus will be with us for a long time.”
Even when the emergency states end, therefore, the pandemic will not be over, they and others say.
One reason is that the definition of a “pandemic” is primarily based on the breadth and speed of a virus’ spread, and the amount of the world affected by a pathogen. It’s only partially related to the severity of disease caused by a virus like SARS-CoV-2, or even the amount of immunity a population may have against it.
By that main criterion, COVID-19 is still very much with us, with around 200,000 new cases and 1,000 deaths a day globally. The latest Omicron variants quashed any hope of the pandemic ending any time soon. While they do not cause more serious infections than past variants, they have mastered the challenge of hopping more efficiently from one infected person to another.
Even though the pandemic is far from over, many health experts agree that ending the U.S. national emergencies is justified at this point. When these measures were first implemented in 2020, most people were immunological sitting ducks for the virus. The declarations were designed to devote financial resources and personnel to controlling the impact of infections on the population’s health as much as possible by shoring up the health care system and later by providing free vaccinations. U.S. officials decided to end the national and public health emergencies in May primarily because most people have either been vaccinated or have recovered from an infection (or both), so the population’s immunity stands at a higher level. COVID-19 cases—both overall and the severe kind—have declined considerably since those early days.
But the continuing stream of infections means that the virus is still reproducing and churning out mutations. So far, those variants haven’t caused more serious disease—but that’s purely by chance, which makes public health experts uncomfortable with declaring victory just yet. Even though COVID-19 cases are no longer inundating most hospitals, that means it’s time to rethink the COVID-19 response, not abandon it.
The best way forward at this point is to refine and target COVID-19 services to optimize the chances of controlling the virus where it may be causing the most health problems. “I think we need to move away from universal guidance on vaccines and boosters and mitigation measures where everybody gets the same guidance, to a more differentiated and tailored approach based on the different characteristics—both socioeconomic and clinical—of different groups of people,” says El-Sadr. “We are at a different moment in the pandemic, so the moment is now for a different message.”
That message isn’t to put COVID-19 completely behind us, but to move forward armed with the lessons we’ve learned from our experience—the most important of which is never to underestimate SARS-CoV-2.
On the eve of a scheduled House vote on a bill that would immediately end the federal public health emergency (PHE), the Biden administration announced Monday that both the PHE and the COVID national emergency will end on May 11. With the Omnibus legislation passed at the end of December, Congress already decoupled several key provisions once tied to the PHE, including setting April 1st as the date on which states can resume Medicaid redeterminations, and extending key Medicare telehealth flexibilities.
However, once the PHE ends,various other provider flexibilities will expire: hospitals will no longer receive boosted Medicare payments for COVID admissions, and the cost of COVID tests, vaccines, and treatments will shift from the government to insurers and consumers.
The Gist: While previous Congressional action addressed some pressing provider concerns, the end of the PHE will still bring big changes.
The healthcare system will soon be responsible for covering, testing, and treating COVID like any other illness, even as the virus continues to take the lives of hundreds of Americans each day.
Many patients may soon find it difficult to access affordable COVID care, and many health systems will see an increase in uncompensated care, exacerbating current margin challenges. COVID remains an urgent public health concern in need of a coordinated strategy.
The rate decline was highest among those who had incomes between 100% and 200% of the federal poverty level. Those in traditionally uncovered demographies, such as people who are Latino, American Indian/Alaska native and those who don’t speak English, saw larger gains in coverage.
Half of the top 10 states for coverage gains expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act between 2019 and 2021. The leading state, Maine, reached a 7.1% uninsured population in 2021, dropping from 10.2% in 2019. Officials shifted to a state-based exchange for the 2022 plan year.
“Many of the areas with the greatest coverage gains since 2019 had higher than average uninsured rates in 2021, suggesting progress in narrowing geographic disparities but still with substantial gaps remaining; the lack of Medicaid expansion in 11 states plays a key ongoing role in coverage disparities across states,” the report authors wrote.
The state with the largest increase in uninsured people was Alabama, which reached 12.5% in 2021 compared to 12.1% in 2019.
In addition to Medicaid expansion, other policies that helped those receive coverage include increased premium tax subsidies under the American Rescue Plan.
Also helping is the Medicaid continuous coverage provision, which has barred states from kicking people off rolls during the COVID-19 public health emergency.
That policy is set to end in April, however. Researchers have said that as many as 15 million to 18 million people could be affected.
States are taking some steps to help those eligible remain in the program. Most states plan to update enrollee mailing addresses and follow up with those people when action is recovered to maintain coverage, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation report.
Forty-one states said it will take up to 12 months to process renewals, KFF said.
Over 1.8 million more people enrolled in marketplace coverage compared to last year — a 13% increase, and the most amount of plan selections of any year since the launch of the ACA marketplace a decade ago, according to the CMS. The record-breaking enrollment numbers include 3.6 million first-time marketplace enrollees.
However, some coverage protections rely on the federal COVID-19 public health emergency status, which will expire without an extension in mid-April. Medicaid enrollment numbers are expected to drop at the end of the public health emergency, with as many as 18 million enrollees projected to lose Medicaid coverage, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.