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Public health after the emergency ends

Policy crossroads and the end of the public health emergency due to COVID-19

This is part of a three-part series on significant implications of the end of the Public Health Emergency (PHE). 

The Biden administration has announced that the COVID-19 pandemic Public Health Emergency (PHE) declaration will expire on May 11, 2023. The end of the declaration and other changes in federal policy have significant implications for state Medicaid programs, including the end of a 6.2% increase in the regular federal medical assistance program (FMAP) matching rate for states and continuous enrollment requirements put into place early in the pandemic. This means that an estimated 4-14 million Americans, especially including women and children, will need to engage in state processes for re-certification to continue their Medicaid benefits and states will lose their enhanced matching.

While state have been planning for these changes, collectively referred to as “PHE Unwinding,” the public health implications of these shifts have received little attention. As millions of Americans lose Medicaid benefits, as a result of “PHE Unwinding,” public health departments nationwide are likely to face additional demands and pressures that are also critically important for states to consider. State public health agencies that have spent the last several years responding to the COVID-19 pandemic are now entering a new phase. During the CMS-recommended 12-month period that states have to complete their redeterminations, public health agencies may see increasing numbers of individuals who were previously eligible for Medicaid and other safety net services seeking access to public health programs. Public health officials also may be called on to address the community health impacts of the newly uninsured or those who have lost other benefits, such as enhanced Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) dollars for food. Addressing challenges may require significant attention of Community Health Workers or other workforces engaged across public health and healthcare and take precedence over other public health priorities. All of this will be happening at a time when public health officials are being called on to re-imagine their infrastructure needs, including reconfiguring and modernizing their data systems.

Public health agencies planning for this immediate future may benefit by taking a systems approach to PHE unwinding and considering a few key variables in their planning—

1.The end of the PHE may rapidly increase demand for public health safety net programs.

Medicaid provides coverage for the sickest and most vulnerable. As redetermination processes leave some without insurance and other benefit programs like SNAP return to pre-pandemic coverage, historically marginalized and medically at-risk populations will be disproportionately impacted. This may result in increased demand for safety net programs usually found in public health departments that serve the under and uninsured, such as the Breast and Cervical Cancer Prevention Program (BCCP) that provides cancer screening for women, and Vaccines for Children (VFC) which provides required immunizations to school-age children who otherwise lack access. Programs such as the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and perinatal home visiting programs that serve families with limited economic resources may also see increased numbers of eligible families. Health departments can quantify these increases by assessing their populations, estimating increases, and using their existing data to determine which communities and geographic areas are likely to exhibit the greatest needs, and then share this information with policymakers.

2. Unwinding may represent an opportunity to educate legislators and policymakers on the connection between Medicaid utilization and public health programs.

As states see decreases in federal matching for their Medicaid programs, policymakers will look for opportunities to fill gaps in the state share of operating these programs. Public health programs, which are usually run with a combination of state dollars and federal grants, are often looked at as potential sources to fill gaps in Medicaid program costs. Moreover, public health officials may be able to move upstream of these discussions by ensuring that states are maximizing the federal Medicaid match (FMAP) on any public health services that can be billed to Medicaid, including using waivers and state plan amendments to cover services such as maternal home visiting or tobacco cessation under Medicaid, thus stretching grant and state dollars further while covering more individuals. While public health has long discussed the benefits of calculating and sharing the long-term return on investment of public health services, officials may also wish to consider utilizing risk stratification strategies to identify short-term cost savings and cost avoidance to other state programs of the services offered by public health departments. At the local level, health departments are often closely involved in the delivery of services that keep children in school, adults at work, and protect people in hospitals and nursing homes from health care acquired infections. All of these services have immediate benefits to state and local economies.

3. New funding for public health infrastructure, data modernization, and workforce development represents an opportunity to drive collaboration between public health, Medicaid, and other sectors.

As a part of the American Rescue Plan, state public health agencies have received funding from CDC to strengthen their infrastructure to ensure that communities have the people, services, and systems to promote and protect public health. The grants are intended to allow states to focus on increasing the size and diversity of the public health workforce; modernize data systems; and ensure states can demonstrate the foundational capabilities of public health. CDC has affirmed its expectation that states will prioritize collaboration and organizational partnerships as part of these efforts. As state public health agencies use these federal investments to impact programs that reach priority populations and improve health outcomes, several opportunities to reach disadvantaged populations and improve their health outcomes become apparent. For example, public health agencies working collaboratively with state departments of education could lead to partnerships around school-based clinics or workforce training programs, while engaging with the private healthcare and laboratory sectors on data and disease surveillance seems promising. Health departments should start now to in preparation for the flurry of activity that will be sparked in the wake of the PHE. This might involve reaching out to potential partners or organizing town-hall-style” active listening sessions with citizens to meet people where they are and better understand the needs of the community they serve.

HMA and HMA companies will continue to analyze the public health implications of the Medicaid Unwinding and the end of the PHE. We have the depth and breadth of expertise to assist with capacity building, data collection and management, and population health analysis.

If you have questions on how HMA can support your agency before or after the end of the PHE, please contact:

Jean O’Connor, Managing Principal
Morgan Wilson, Research Associate

Meet the HMA blog contributors

Morgan Wilson

Morgan Wilson

Salt Lake City, UT