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Analysis

Oregon Wildfires Prompt HHS Emergency Declaration

By John Commins  
   September 16, 2020

The public health emergency loosens restrictions on HIPAA and EMTALA mandates, physician licensing, and self-referrals for providers operating 'in good faith.'

The wildfires sweeping through Oregon prompted the Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday to declare a public health emergency in the state.

The emergency declaration and waiver, which follow President Donald Trump's emergency declaration for the state, will give healthcare providers and suppliers more flexibility to meet the care needs of Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries affected by the wildfires, HHS Secretary Alex Azar said.

Among other things, the waiver loosens restrictions on the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), physician licensing, and on self-referrals for clinicians and hospitals operating "in good faith."

"We are working closely with Oregon health authorities and monitoring the needs of healthcare facilities to support their efforts to save lives and protect health during these dangerous wildfires," Azar said. "With this declaration and waiver, the Trump Administration is helping to ensure that Oregonians who rely on Medicare and Medicaid have continuous access to the care they need during this disaster and as communities recover."

The wildfires up and down the West Coast and the choking haze they've created have raised concerns about respiratory ailments for millions of people and the stresses that can create for healthcare systems; a concern exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Oregon's air quality index in many areas has been reported at or above 300 which can cause health problems even among otherwise healthy people.

HHS also sent an Incident Management Team to Oregon and regional emergency coordinators to the state's emergency operations centers to coordinate with state and local health and emergency response authorities.  

HHS also activated the National Disaster Medical System, including members from a Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team to provide technical assistance to state officials and Urban Search and Rescue Teams and specialists from the NDMS Victim Information Center Team.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will also share with state and local officials information on the numbers of Medicare beneficiaries who rely on electricity dependent medical devices and healthcare services such as home dialysis and home oxygen in the event that the fires threaten at-risk patients.

The HHS secretary has the authority to declare a public health emergency under the Public Health Service Act and Social Security Act. The declaration is retroactive to Sept. 8.

“We are working closely with Oregon health authorities and monitoring the needs of healthcare facilities to support their efforts to save lives and protect health during these dangerous wildfires.”

John Commins is a content specialist and online news editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

The wildfires on the West Coast have raised concerns about respiratory ailments for millions of people and the stresses that can create for healthcare systems.

Oregon's air quality index in many areas has been reported at or above 300 which can cause health problems even among otherwise healthy people.

HHS also sent emergency coordinators to the state's emergency operations centers to coordinate with state and local health and emergency response authorities.


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