In the wake of some of the worst storms our country has ever faced, as seen in the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey, in Texas, Hurricane Irma, in Florida, and now Hurricane Maria, in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, it is important to understand some of the actions the United States federal government can take to assist victims of Mother Nature. How broad is the federal government’s authority? Who is that authority bestowed upon? Well, one such mechanism is the declaration of a Public Health Emergency by the Secretary of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) under Section 319 of the Public Health Service Act (“PHSA”).

Under Section 319 of the PHSA, the Secretary of HHS is empowered to declare a public health emergency, after consulting with public health officials, when the public is faced with either a (1) disease or disorder; or (2) public health emergency exists, including, but not limited to, an epidemic or bioterrorist attack.  Upon making such a declaration, the Secretary of HHS is authorized and empowered to “take such action as may be appropriate to respond to the public health emergency, including making grants, providing awards for expenses, and entering into contracts and conducting and supporting investigations into the cause, treatment, or prevention of a disease or disorder.” The Secretary’s expanded authority is not perpetual and only remains in effect for 90 days, or until the emergency ceases to exist if sooner than 90 days, with the option of a one-time renewal for an additional 90 days that can be made on the basis of new or the same facts underlying the initial declaration. However, once a declaration, and any renewal, if applicable, is made, the Secretary of HHS must inform the Congress, in writing, within 48 hours.

Practically speaking, what actions can the HHS Secretary take? Some discretionary actions include, but are not limited to: (1) waiving certain prescription and dispensing requirements under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act; (2) waiving or modifying particular requirements under Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act; and (3) appointing temporary personnel for up to one year. These actions, in addition to others, help bring emergency relief to those in need.

On September 19, 2017, now former Secretary of HHS, Tom Price, declared a Public Health Emergency under Section 319 of the PHSA for the benefit of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands following the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria, and stated, in his press release, that “[d]eclaring a public health emergency for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands will aid in the department’s response capabilities – particularly as it relates to ensuring that individuals and families in those territories with Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) maintain access to care.”  While this declaration is limited in scope, the actions authorized thereunder will help start the long recovery for the people who reside in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Please kindly consider how you can get involved to help the people who have been negatively impacted by the devastation caused by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.