House investigates HHS' hurricane preparedness and response
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is investigating how HHS prepared for and responded to recent hurricanes that ravaged several states and territories in recent weeks.
In a letter to HHS dated Wednesday, the committee specifically asked the agency how it provided aid to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands after hurricanes Irma and Maria. Some congressional lawmakers have worried that the territories received different treatment than Texas, Florida and other states in the South in the wake of the storms.
The committee requested that HHS send any documents or communications related to threat assessments, mitigation measures, emergency preparedness or other contingency plans in the case of a hurricane striking Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands from before Sept. 5.
The lawmakers also sought correspondence from between Sept. 5 and Oct. 4 about any steps taken to prepare those territories for hurricanes Irma and Maria.
The CMS has issued waivers allowing out-of-state licensed physicians to seek reimbursement for any care they provide to hurricane victims. The agency also suspended some conditions of participation and certification requirements for healthcare providers in the area so beneficiaries will have sufficient access to medical care.
An HHS spokesman didn't respond to a request to comment on the letter. However, Dr. Robert Kadlec, HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response, told reporters Thursday that Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands received comparable responses to Florida, Texas and other states.
HHS personnel were deployed to the states and territories ahead of the hurricanes so they would be ready to help patients. Once the storms passed, additional employees were brought in.
There are more than 600 HHS medical personnel in Puerto Rico, where agency staff is helping to provide both care and supplies.
Puerto Rico has had unique challenges in the hurricanes' aftermath. HHS has had to help clear roads and air landing areas to bring supplies to the island, Kadlec said.
The territories have also faced issues enrolling out-of-state providers into their Medicaid programs, a necessary step so they can care and get paid for treating patients.
"As you can imagine, communication with the Medicaid agency has been intermittent and we are still working through precise operational issues with the PR and the USVI to determine if they will opt to do this, and if so, how to effectuate payment for services," the CMS said in a notice posted Wednesday.
Providers have been encouraged to retain records of the services provided to Medicaid beneficiaries.
The House committee did not give HHS a deadline to respond to its inquiries.
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