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HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania legislature unanimously voted Wednesday to extend dozens of regulatory waivers put into place last year to help health-care providers fight COVID-19.
Without action, the waivers would have expired Thursday, potentially exacerbating ongoing staffing crises in hospitals and long-term care institutions, which are again facing rising COVID-19 cases. Health-care workers and their advocates had warned any lapse in the relaxed rules would have renewed administrative burdens and made fighting the ongoing pandemic more difficult.
Wednesday’s action will keep the waivers in place until March 2022 while the legislature considers a number of bills that would make the regulatory suspensions permanent. Gov. Tom Wolf will sign the bill.
“The governor is thankful the legislature engaged the administration and stakeholders and ultimately agreed with most of the administration’s recommendations on extending COVID-19-related waivers that are still in use,” spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger said.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Wolf approved nearly 100 waivers to ease some of the rules governing health-care workers and ensure as many professionals as possible were on the ground in hospitals, vaccination clinics, and long-term care facilities.
The temporary changes were made under a disaster declaration that later became a target for legislative Republicans unhappy with the administration’s business closures.
Buoyed by two successful constitutional amendments that curtailed the executive’s power, the GOP-controlled General Assembly ended Wolf’s emergency order in June, while allowing the waivers to remain in place until Sept. 30.
Under the bill passed Wednesday, all suspensions under the Department of Health, Department of Human Services, and the Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs will remain in place until March unless Wolf and the agencies decide to terminate them sooner.
Among the waivers extended are those allowing out-of-state practitioners to treat patients in Pennsylvania, permitting retired or lapsed professionals to return to medicine, and expanding who can give a vaccine.
The waivers also allow patients to access care via telemedicine, which as of now is neither allowed nor prohibited in Pennsylvania law, creating a gray area for health-care providers and insurance companies.
Lawmakers have introduced bills in both the House and Senate to provide rules and regulations surrounding telemedicine, but past efforts have broken down over partisan disagreements. Wolf vetoed a telemedicine bill last year because it would have prevented health-care providers from prescribing abortion-inducing medicine.
As a number of other bills that would make regulatory suspensions permanent await consideration, two removing administrative barriers for physician assistants passed Wednesday.
The Joint State Government Commission is studying the impact of the waivers and which should stay in place to remove barriers to employment in the state. Glenn Pasewicz, executive director of the committee, said a report should be out by late October.
Separately, lawmakers on Wednesday directed various state agencies to post a report listing which waivers were and were not extended by Nov. 1.
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