HHS declares public health emergency in the wake of Hurricane Harvey

CMS has waived document requirements to ensure medical facilities can deliver care to displaced individuals.
By Beth Jones Sanborn
11:43 AM
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Medicare patients in Hurricane Harvey

Texas National Guardsmen assist residents affected by flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey onto a military vehicle in Houston on Aug. 27. Army National Guard photo by Lt. Zachary West.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service has declared a public health emergency in the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation in Texas.

The agency will give providers greater flexibility in treating patients in emergency situations, as many Medicare beneficiaries have been evacuated to neighboring communities whose hospitals and nursing homes have no record of their medical history or needs, or even verification that they are in fact a Medicare beneficiary, said HHS Secretary Tom Price.

In response, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has waived certain document requirements to ensure that medical facilities can proceed with delivering care to these individuals.

"CMS activated teams on the ground in Texas who are working with state and local officials to make sure that our beneficiaries, many of whom are some of our most vulnerable citizens, have access to the life-saving treatments they need," CMS Administrator Seema Verma said in a statement. "We will continue to work with those in affected regions to ensure that states, providers and facilities have all of the resources they need to ensure access to care." 

Though Harvey is now a tropical storm, areas in his path remain besieged by flooding and other issues. HHS has provided emPOWER data to public health officials in Texas and Louisiana on the number of Medicare beneficiaries in each impacted area who depend on “life-maintaining and assistive equipment,” ranging from oxygen concentrators to electric wheelchairs. The data also shows people who rely on dialysis, oxygen, and home health services. 

“These citizens are among the most vulnerable in their communities and most likely to need life-saving assistance in prolonged power outages,” HHS said.

Teams of doctors, nurses, and other health care providers from as far away as California, North Carolina and Connecticut have been put in place, as well as placing additional National Disaster Medical System teams on alert from Tennessee, Florida, Alabama, Colorado, Utah, Arkansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington. 

HHS has moved two 250-bed Federal Medical Stations to Seguin, Texas, to help provide care in that area, and another two 250-bed Federal Medical Stations are in place in Baton Rouge and ready to be deployed. Additional Federal Medical Stations are available in Dallas for patient care in Texas. The stations will be staffed by U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps officers.

HHS remains in regular contact with Texas and Louisiana health officials. 

Twitter: @BethJSanborn
Email the writer: beth.sandborn@himssmedia.com