By RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR
WASHINGTON (AP) — When the end of the COVID-19 pandemic comes, it could create major disruptions for a cumbersome U.S. health care system made more generous, flexible and up-to-date technologically through a raft of temporary emergency measures.
Winding down those policies could begin as early as the summer. That could force an estimated 15 million Medicaid recipients to find new sources of coverage, require congressional action to preserve broad telehealth access for Medicare enrollees, and scramble special COVID-19 rules and payment policies for hospitals, doctors and insurers. There are also questions about how emergency use approvals for COVID-19 treatments will be handled.
The array of issues is tied to the coronavirus public health emergency first declared more than two years ago and periodically renewed since then. It’s set to end April 16 and the expectation is that the Biden administration will extend it through mid-July. Some would like a longer off-ramp.
Transitions don’t bode well for the complex U.S. health care system, with its mix of private and government insurance and its labyrinth of policies and procedures. Health care chaos, if it breaks out, could create midterm election headaches for Democrats and Republicans alike.
“The flexibilities granted through the public health emergency have helped people stay covered and get access to care, so moving forward the key question is how to build on what has been a success and not lose ground,” said Juliette Cubanski, a Medicare expert with the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, who has been researching potential consequences of winding down the pandemic emergency.
Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance program for low-income people, is covering about 79 million people, a record partly due to the pandemic.
But the nonpartisan Urban Institute think tank estimates that about 15 million people could lose Medicaid when the public health emergency ends, at a rate of at least 1 million per month.
Congress increased federal Medicaid payments to states because of COVID-19, but it also required states to keep people on the rolls during the health emergency. In normal times states routinely disenroll Medicaid recipients whose incomes rise beyond certain levels, or for other life changes affecting eligibility. That process will switch on again when the emergency ends, and some states are eager to move forward.