Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Representative Lois Capps (D-CA) introduced legislation to guarantee emergency treatment for victims affected by a major public health disaster, regardless of their health insurance status or ability to pay. The Public Health Emergency Response Act (PHERA), first introduced by Durbin and Capps in July 2008, would make certain every American could receive the medical treatment they need in the immediate aftermath of events such as hurricanes, terrorist attacks or pandemic flu outbreaks even if they are not covered by health insurance.
"The Public Health Emergency Response Act would make it easier for uninsured victims to seek medical care and ensure that health care professionals can be reimbursed for treating them," said Durbin. "Whether the emergency is a hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast, floodwaters in the Midwest, or an international flu outbreak, those affected should have the assurance that the U.S. government will assist them in their time of need. People who don't may not seek care, leaving themselves vulnerable to worsening health conditions and exacerbating the situation on the ground. This measure would help save lives and ensure a functioning health care system for whatever lies ahead."
"As we face the serious challenges of the emerging H1N1 flu outbreak we are once again reminded of the importance of having a strong public health safety-net," said Rep. Capps, a public health nurse and Vice-Chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Health. "Whether it's a terrorist attack like 9-11, a hurricane or a widespread infectious disease outbreak, no one should hesitate to seek care for themselves or their children because of a fear of medical costs. In a time of acute crisis, the risks are too big to let Americans simply fend for themselves and ask hospitals and localities to pick up the tab."
"During an infectious disease outbreak, no patient should have to worry that they'll be turned away when they need care. The current swine flu emergency reinforces this need," said Jeff Levi, PhD, Executive Director of TFAH. "Due to the recession, uninsured rates are higher than ever, yet public health officials are urging anyone with flu-like symptoms to seek care. It all just doesn't add up and we need a better solution. PHERA would ensure that treatment is available for all Americans, including the uninsured, because when it comes to infectious disease, if one infected person can't get treatment, we are all more vulnerable. In addition, hospitals and health providers shouldn't have to worry whether they'll be compensated for providing care to individuals in need in an emergency. Trust for America's Health thanks Sen. Durbin and Rep. Capps for their continuing leadership on this issue, especially at this time of uncertainty in our country."
Today's bill would allow the Secretary of Health and Human Services to trigger a temporary (90 day) emergency health benefit for uninsured and otherwise qualified individuals affected by a disaster. By providing these temporary health benefits, the bill would help save lives, guard the general public from contracting communicable diseases, and save hospitals and localities from operating in the red as they keep up with a sudden surge in demand.
The legislation would not use Medicare, Medicaid or SCHIP funding, instead it relies on a fund already available to the HHS Secretary known as the Public Health Emergency Fund. Funding would be authorized for an education campaign about the availability of the benefit, but further funding would not be necessary until Congress appropriated funds during a declared public health emergency.
The temporary benefit established through this bill would remove a disincentive for uninsured individuals to promptly seek medical care. Any delay in seeking care could result in lives lost, particularly during an infectious disease outbreak when immediate identification and isolation are necessary to limit the spread of disease, and delay in seeking care could render treatment ineffective. By helping to reduce the burden of uncompensated care, PHERA would help ensure the solvency and continuity of our health care system during a catastrophic emergency.