What the End of the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency Will Mean for Employers
The current COVID-19 public health emergency declaration has now been in place for more than two years – since January 2020. While a new wave could cause its extension, it will most likely end this summer.
Several policies that grant health care providers and payers extended authorities and flexibilities have been tied to the public health emergency, meaning these policies will go away when the public health emergency ends. But the health system has grown used to these extended authorities, and large employers need to be prepared for the potential impact of these policy shifts.
Several policies that will have a direct impact on large employers and other purchasers when the public health emergency ends are described below.
Discretion on HIPAA enforcement: To increase access to telehealth and ease the burden on providers, telehealth can be delivered on non-HIPAA compliant platforms. This discretion on HIPAA enforcement will end with the public health emergency. Most employers have moved to HIPAA-compliant platforms as the pandemic has stretched on, but those who have not will need to ensure all telehealth vendors are HIPAA-compliant when the public health emergency ends.
Waiver of Medicare site-of-service and benefits rules: The waiver of Medicare site-of-service and benefits rules is also tied to the public health emergency. While this does not have a direct impact on employers, some follow Medicare rules on site-of-service and benefits. It is important for employers who do to be aware that the waiver will end with the public health emergency.
State licensure flexibilities: One of the challenges with telehealth is that physicians will have to be licensed in the same state as the patient receiving care. Some states have created significant new licensure flexibilities to improve access to telehealth providers, though not all states have tied those flexibilities to the public health emergency. To the extent employers are using telehealth providers who are in a different state from employees, they should investigate if their state licensure flexibilities will end with the public health emergency and adjust policies accordingly.
Pre-deductible coverage: The CARES Act of 2020 allowed for coverage of telehealth services pre-deductible in high-deductible health plans. Many employers have chosen to take advantage of this option because it provides better access to care for their employees. This provision, which does not fall under the public health emergency, expired in December 2021 but was just renewed effective April 1 and will end on December 31, 2022. While some policymakers have signaled their intent to make the provision permanent, the on-again, off-again nature of the expiration and renewal has created a sense of “whiplash” for employees and employers. Employers must decide whether they will re-enact this policy with its currently limited duration.
Enhanced federal match and continuous coverage: To reduce the rates of uninsured people during the pandemic, two Medicaid changes were put into effect – an enhanced federal match rate and a continuous coverage requirement. Both will go away when the public health emergency ends, and it is expected that more than 10 million people will lose Medicaid coverage. As people lose coverage, employers should be prepared for a possible increase in the number of people seeking employer-sponsored insurance.
Enhanced subsidies: Although not tied directly to the public health emergency, in response to COVID-19, enhanced subsidies were implemented in the individual market to help uninsured people get and stay covered during the COVID-19 pandemic. These subsidies expire on December 31, 2022. If the public health emergency and Medicaid provisions end in July, enhanced subsidies may enable people losing Medicaid coverage to purchase inexpensive coverage on Affordable Care Act health insurance exchanges. When the enhanced subsidies in the individual market expire, it is expected that there will be an increase in people joining employer-sponsored insurance coverage, in particular partners of employees already enrolled.