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Fayetteville health panel raises concerns over end of federal pandemic emergency declaration and its impact on low-income households

by Stacy Ryburn | April 13, 2023 at 3:11 a.m.
Melissa Snider (right), paramedic with Central EMS, and Levi Turner, emergency medical technician, on July 20, 2021, prepare to give a driver a covid-19 vaccination shot during a weekly St. James Missionary Baptist Church Food Pantry at the Squire Jahagen Arts and Outreach Center located at 115 S. Willow Avenue in Fayetteville. The city's Board of Health on Wednesday cited concerns over disproportionate impacts on low-income residents associated with the end of the federal public health emergency on May 11. (File photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Fayetteville's Board of Health on Wednesday discussed the disproportionate impact the end of the federal covid-19 public health emergency may have on low-income residents.

There were two federal declarations made at the onset of the pandemic. One that declared a national emergency ended Monday after President Joe Biden signed a congressional resolution. A separate public health emergency is set to end May 11.

Once the public health emergency ends, pharmacists and doctors no longer will administer covid-19 vaccines, tests and medications for free or at discounted rates, said Dr. Marti Sharkey, Fayetteville's public health officer. Vaccine manufacturers will charge doctors per dose, and the cost will be passed down to patients. Patients with adequate health insurance likely will have the cost covered, much like with flu shots, but those with no or inadequate insurance will have to pay for the shot, she said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will soon likely approve an additional bivalent covid-19 booster for elderly and at-risk people, Sharkey said. Next fall, a new vaccine likely will become available to the larger public to combat the latest strain of covid-19, she said.

Free covid-19 tests through the mail will end, Sharkey said. Doses of Paxlovid, the antiviral medication developed by Pfizer to alleviate covid-19 symptoms, will likely cost more, she said.

The omnibus spending bill Congress passed earlier this year decoupled an April 1 deadline to terminate Medicaid coverage related to the pandemic from the emergency declaration. Arkansas set a six-month time frame from that date to process those terminations.

Medicaid patients have to renew their eligibility annually, but that requirement was paused during the federal public health emergency. That means some residents may soon lose coverage, the board heard.

Dr. Gary Berner, chief medical officer with Community Clinic, said his clinic has already started to see patients losing coverage, but it isn't yet clear if that's because of the April 1 deadline. The clinic will continue to see patients regardless of insurance status or ability to pay, he said.

"We have a lot of fear in terms of the depth and number of people who will be affected with the loss of their ARKids or Medicaid insurance," Berner said.

As that happens, emergency room visits may become more frequent, straining hospital resources, Berner said. Or, people without coverage may hold off on seeking care, turning treatable conditions into something more serious, he said.

Dr. Stephanie Ho, physician with Vector Health and Wellness, said she wasn't sure whether the state Department of Health will provide vaccines or medications related to covid-19 for low-income residents.

"It's definitely going to pose an issue of equity," she said.

Print Headline: Health panel mulls emergency’s end


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