Biden will end national covid emergencies in May

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President Biden told Congress on Monday that he will end national emergencies to combat the coronavirus outbreak on May 11, a move that will restructure the federal government’s response to the pandemic nearly three years after the virus first arrived in the United States.

The declaration came as Biden announced his opposition to efforts by House Republicans to end emergency declarations immediately, a move the White House said would cause chaos and hinder efforts to end the state of emergency in an orderly manner.

The expiration of the orders marks a new phase in the pandemic response, as U.S. officials prepare to eliminate some of the flexibility that was put in place during the pandemic’s earliest and worst days. Since then, most Americans have been fully vaccinated against the virus and life has largely returned to normal. Still, on average, more than 500 Americans die each day from the virus.

In 2020, the Trump administration declared both a national emergency and a public health emergency, set to expire on March 1 and April 11, respectively. In a notice to Congress on Monday, the White House said it wanted to briefly extend both emergency declarations before ending them on May 11.

The federal government has renewed the public health emergency every 90 days since it was first declared, and administration officials previously said they would give 60 days’ notice before ending the public health emergency.

“A sudden end to emergency declarations would create widespread chaos and uncertainty throughout the health care system — for states, for hospitals and doctors’ offices and, most importantly, for tens of millions of Americans,” the White House said in a statement Monday.

Among the most notable effects of ending the emergency, according to the White House, will be the end of Title 42, a public health measure that has limited the flow of migrants at the border. The Biden administration tried to end Title 42, but that action was held up in court. An administration official said that because Title 42 is a public health order, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has decided there will no longer be a need for the measure once the coronavirus is no longer a public health emergency.

But some House Republicans criticized the White House’s announcement Monday, arguing that Section 42 is not tied to the public health emergency and exists at the president’s discretion. Many in the Republican Party support keeping the Title 42 restrictions in place, saying health concerns provide reasonable grounds for restricting immigration.

“Any decision to end Title 42 is not tied to PHE,” Christopher Krepich, spokesman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement citing the public health emergency. “Only President Biden will be responsible for the decision to end Title 42.”

In addition, the emergency declaration allowed the Medicaid program to provide additional funding so that tens of millions of beneficiaries could maintain their Medicaid payments during the pandemic. Congress has ordered a freeze on that effort, and the White House has argued that ending it suddenly would cause chaos and hardship for recipients.

“Because of this uncertainty, tens of millions of Americans could be at risk of suddenly losing their health insurance, and states could be at risk of losing billions of dollars in funding,” the White House said.

Even if the House of Representatives votes to immediately end the state of emergency, the Democratic-led Senate is unlikely to consider such a move. However, the White House used the moment to announce its own intention to end the state of emergency, albeit gradually.

Pending the end of the public health emergency, Congress has already taken action to ease some of the impact of the move.

Congress extended telehealth benefits through 2024, for example. Lawmakers also closed a coverage loophole for Paxlovid, the antiviral pill used to treat covid-19, by allowing Medicare to cover oral antiviral drugs not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration until the end of 2024.

Administration officials say providing additional time before the emergency orders expire will help health systems and medical providers better prepare for the changes. The emergency status provided additional flexibility for health care providers in a variety of areas, including hospital bed capacity and billing procedures, and if those were to fall away, providers would have to make adjustments.

The pandemic defined much of the first year of Biden’s presidency, as his administration launched the largest vaccine campaign in American history and was forced to adapt to new and highly contagious variants. Since the start of the pandemic, more than 1 million Americans have died from the virus.

In recent months, many Americans have returned to something close to normal, putting aside their masks and attending the large gatherings that were eliminated during the height of the pandemic. But the polarizing debate about the pandemic continues to smolder, especially at times when vaccine uptake increases or a new variant emerges.

Many Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, have insisted from the start that the threat of the virus has been exaggerated, despite the death toll.

Most recently, they argued that the worst phases of the pandemic were over and attacked Biden’s ongoing response. They have criticized his administration’s mask and vaccine mandates and persistently called for an end to the federal government’s emergency powers, which they tend to portray as a power grab from Washington. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has scheduled a series of votes this week aimed at lifting the emergency.

“There is no ongoing covid-19 emergency that warrants the continuation of the national emergency declaration,” Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) said in a statement after introducing a resolution to end the declaration. “Cases are declining and most Americans are back to pre-pandemic normalcy. That hardly sounds like a country in a state of emergency.”

After the White House signaled it would let the emergency orders expire, Republicans took a victory lap and said the president caved to GOP pressure.

“I am pleased to see the White House follow the lead of House Republicans and announce that they plan to finally end the public health emergency and the Covid emergency declaration, following our announcement last week that we will vote this week to immediately end this outdated declaration,” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) said in a statement. “Instead of waiting until May 11, the Biden administration should join us now and immediately end this declaration.”

The ongoing debate over vaccinations, masks, school closures and other coronavirus measures is likely to figure in the upcoming presidential election, as potential Republican candidates such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signal they will take up the issue.

The end of the public health emergency will coincide with the end of other federal government actions, including vaccines, treatment and testing provisions that have been made available free to the public.

For most people with private or public insurance, vaccinations will continue to be free even after supplies purchased by the federal government run out, under provisions of the Affordable Care Act and other legislation that applies to Medicaid and Medicare beneficiaries.

States were given the option to provide temporary Medicaid coverage for vaccinations, tests and treatment to the uninsured by receiving a 100 percent federal match to cover those costs. Some countries did, but “it will go away [when the public health emergency ends]said Jen Cates, senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation. “Uninsured people who had access through this temporary option will no longer have that.”

Cates added: “To me, this is the biggest issue that the general public needs to think about. The uninsured and underinsured have no guaranteed access to covid vaccines, tests or treatments.”

The White House cited what it said would be other problems caused by the sudden end to the emergency. Hospitals and nursing homes that rely on the flexibility it provides will be “plunged into chaos” without enough time to retrain staff, it said.

In addition, hospitals and nursing homes that have relied on the flexibility provided by emergency declarations will be plunged into chaos without enough time to retrain staff and establish new billing processes.

Mariana Sotomayor contributed to this report.

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