The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has extended support for providers during the ongoing pandemic, renewing the COVID-19 national public health emergency declaration. This 90 day extension takes effect on Oct. 23 and unlocks key flexibilities at the federal and local levels to aid counties in their ongoing efforts to respond to the coronavirus pandemic — and extends Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements that were set to expire.

Of particular import to behavioral health and human services  providers is the expansion of telehealth capabilities through temporary rules and waivers authorized by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. These changes allow for more types of services to be offered via telehealth, which has become a crucial tool for serving vulnerable residents during the pandemic. Telehealth is a major component of virtual care, which behavioral healthcare organizations have rapidly adopted as traditional face-to-face interactions became less practical or desirable amid the pandemic.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar announced this third extension of the emergency declaration, which was first made Jan. 27 and then renewed April 21 and July 23. It will next be up for renewal in late January 2021.

The National Council for Behavioral Health heralded the announcement, saying, “This was a result of the National Council’s tireless efforts to raise awareness about the need for increased support for mental health and addiction recovery organizations.”

Relief Fund Payments

In related news, HHS has opened its application portal for the new Phase 3 Provider Relief funding, which allows healthcare providers to apply for relief fund payments for healthcare-related expenses or lost revenue attributable to COVID-19. The portal is open through Friday, Nov. 6, but HHS encourages agencies to apply as soon as possible to expedite payments. Behavioral health providers and organizations may be eligible to apply even if they were deemed ineligible for previous distributions.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic recession have negatively affected many people’s mental health and created new barriers for people already suffering from mental illness and substance abuse disorders,” says the Kaiser Family Foundation, which found in a poll in mid-July that 53% of adults in the United States reported a negative impact on their mental health as a result of coronavirus-related stress and worry.

Qualifacts+Credible, whose CareLogic and Credible Behavioral Health electronic health record (EHR) systems are designed specifically for behavioral health and human services organizations, welcomes the recent double shot of good news from HHS, which should provide a boost to the behavioral health and human services community nationwide as it strives to serve clients during a time of increased need.

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