A public health emergency was declared in Texas this week by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Acting Secretary Norris Cochran due to recent winter storms that left millions without power.
President Joe Biden had already declared an emergency in the state last week. However, the HHS designation will free up the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to offer healthcare providers and suppliers more flexibility to address the disaster. These actions are retroactive to Feb. 11, 2021, and will allow waiver or modification of certain legal requirements to guarantee healthcare items and services can be made available to those in need, without penalty for providers.
“As communities across Texas are facing the aftermath of severe winter weather that is unusual for the area, we are ready to provide critical support,” Cochran said. “The public health emergency declaration and Social Security Act waiver will help ensure our department’s continued ability to protect access to healthcare – particularly for those with Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. HHS stands ready to assist the state of Texas to get aid to those individuals and families most impacted by these storms.”
At its peak, the storm left more than 4 million Texans in the cold. While the number of people without power was down to approximately 197,000 by Friday last week, some 12 million people remained under boil water notices, according to the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality. The storm caused at least 20 deaths in Texas by week’s end.
As a result of this chaos, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response and CMS announced plans to provide the state with planning data for its health department. This data would allow it to better address the potential needs of Medicare beneficiaries who rely on electrically powered medical equipment and home health services.
Simultaneously, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration activated the Disaster Distress Helpline to provide a 24 hour, seven days per week toll-free crisis counseling and support line for those struggling with emotional distress as a result of the disaster. They warned that stress, anxiety, and other depression-like symptoms are common reactions to similar events.