August 26, 2020
HHS Secretary Azar declares Public Health Emergency in California due to wildfires
Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar today declared a public health emergency in California due to wildfires, following President Trump’s major disaster declaration for the state. The public health emergency declaration and related waiver give the HHS Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services beneficiaries and their healthcare providers and suppliers greater flexibility in meeting emergency health needs created by the wildfires.
“We are working closely with California health authorities and monitoring the needs of healthcare facilities to provide whatever they may need to save lives and protect health during these dangerous wildfires,” Secretary Alex Azar said. “With this declaration and waiver, the Trump Administration is helping to ensure that Californians who rely on Medicare and Medicaid have continuous access to the care they need during this disaster and as communities recover.”
Currently, wildfires across the state of California have destroyed more than 1.3 million acres of land and forced more than 129,000 residents to evacuate their homes. Air quality and extensive smoke produced by the wildfires can present a significant health threat for people with asthma and other lung conditions and can increase demands on the healthcare system, a particular concern as healthcare providers respond to COVID-19 cases in the state.
HHS has deployed regional emergency coordinators (RECs) to emergency operations centers in California to coordinate with state and local health authorities and emergency response officials. RECs serve as HHS’ primary representatives for emergency response and recovery throughout the country at the regional level and work with federal, state, local, tribal and territorial officials and healthcare representatives to plan for public health and medical emergencies.
Data and tools available through the HHS emPOWER Program, a partnership between ASPR and CMS, is supporting California counties in this emergency response. The program provides valuable information on the number of Medicare beneficiaries who rely on electricity dependent medical equipment and certain healthcare services, including dialysis and home oxygen, to help anticipate, plan for and respond to at-risk needs in potentially impacted areas.
In addition, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Disaster Distress Helpline is available to assist residents in the impacted areas in coping with the stress of the wildfires. The Disaster Distress Helpline provides immediate 24/7, 365-days-a-year crisis counseling and support to people experiencing emotional distress related to natural or human-caused disasters.
This toll-free, multilingual, and confidential crisis support service is available to all residents in the United States and its territories. Stress, anxiety, and other depression-like symptoms are common reactions in disasters. Call 1-800-985-5990 toll free or text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor.
In declaring the public health emergency in California and authorizing flexibilities for CMS beneficiaries, Secretary Azar acted under his authority in the Public Health Service Act and Social Security Act. These actions and flexibilities are retroactive to Aug. 14, 2020.