How the End of the COVID Federal Public Health Emergency Could Impact You

May 11 marks the end of the Federal public health emergency. Here’s how it could impact vaccines, hospitals, COVID tests and telehealth services.

How the End of the COVID Federal Public Health Emergency Could Impact You (Annie Spratt via Unsplash)

The Biden Administration will end the national COVID-19 public health emergency on Thursday. The declaration provided a lot of free medical care, implemented waivers, and restructured many hospitals. Here are some of the effects this will have on American healthcare.

Vaccine Availability

Despite the national public health emergency ending, Americans will still have access to free COVID vaccines after May 11 regardless of whether or not they have health insurance. But it won’t be guaranteed.

When the COVID vaccine came out, the U.S. government bought $25.3 billion worth of doses from Moderna and Pfizer. If and when these supplies run out, vaccines must be commercially purchased. Although, the cost of vaccines will likely be covered by most insurance companies and Medicare. As of now, supplies are expected to last sometime between the summer or fall.

In one of Pfizer’s public ID calls, Pfizer’s Global President for Hospital Business, stated, “We believe a potential U.S. list price between $110 and $130 per single dose vial [of a COVID vaccine] for adults reflects the value of the vaccine and as well the thresholds for what would be considered a highly cost-effective vaccine.”

These prices would make the COVID vaccine less accessible, especially to those whose insurance doesn’t cover vaccines or are uninsured. There is worry that these prices could discourage people from getting vaccines. The hope is that by the time governmental vaccine supplies become unavailable, COVID vaccines will no longer be in high demand.

Free COVID Tests

Starting in January of 2022, private insurance companies were required to reimburse up to eight over the counter home COVID tests per month per person insured. This requirement will end when the public health emergency is no longer in place, and insurance companies will have the choice to continue reimbursing the tests. Some companies may impose a higher limit on the number of tests per month, and others may end the reimbursement plan entirely. 

So far the details of insurance companies’ policy changes are unclear, but the removal of the mandate will shift the cost burden on to patients. Unfortunately, this will likely reduce the number of people testing for COVID because taking a test in person can be time consuming and expensive. CNN reported that around a quarter of people who used the free tests provided by the government wouldn’t have tested otherwise. Since many people experience mild to no symptoms with a COVID infection, the lack of detection could result in more infections and inaccurate data collection about cases.

However, there will be some ways to access free tests past the end of the public health emergency. The Center of Disease Control and Prevention has a program called “Increasing Community Access to Testing,” which aims to increase access to testing for people who are uninsured or living in areas of high social vulnerability, and it will remain in place and continue to provide access to some individuals.

Telehealth Services

With the federal public health emergency in place, medical patients are given more options and flexibility with telehealth services, which are virtual appointments with health-care providers. This created opportunities for people to seek essential health care quickly and easily.

Luckily, many of the changes to telehealth policies will remain in place — some have been extended to December of 2024 and other changes are permanent. Many of the changes that will stay in place apply specifically to patients with Medicare, a federal health insurance for people over the age of 65 in the United States. These include eliminating restrictions for geographic areas so that patients can see providers in any state and allowing for telehealth visits to take place within the home instead of in a health-care facility.

The policies for private insurance companies may vary, but some have continued to offer expanded access to telehealth.

Hospital Restructuring 

For the past few years, the Department of Health and Human Services implemented waivers giving a lot more flexibility to healthcare providers in treating their patients. For example, they allowed nurse anesthetists to do procedures without supervision of physicians. And the definition of “direct supervision” was changed to allow phone calls rather than a physical presence. This allowed hospitals to use fewer staff for more types of care and stretch their resources.

However, with the public health emergency coming to an end, so will these waivers. This means hospitals will need more providers working more hours, which of course, will stretch already slight budgets. Patients could expect to pay more for procedures and medical care. Fortunately, individual states can apply to continue using the waivers, meaning in some states, this won’t be a problem.

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