WASHINGTON — President Obama has declared H1N1 flu a national emergency, clearing the way for legal waivers to allow hospitals and doctors' offices wider leeway to handle a surge of new patients, administration officials said Saturday.
The president will grant Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius the power to authorize the waivers as individual medical facilities request them, officials said.
White House officials downplayed the dramatic language, saying the president's action did not stem from a new assessment of the dangers posed to the public by the flu.
Instead, officials said the action provides greater flexibility for hospitals that may face a surge of new patients as the virus sweeps through their communities.
"The H1N1 is moving rapidly, as expected. By the time regions or health care systems recognize they are becoming overburdened, they need to implement disaster plans quickly," White House spokesman Reid Cherlin said Saturday.
"This is much more than a formality — with this proclamation the president has now firmly established that H1N1 constitutes a national emergency, and not just a public health emergency," James Hodge Jr., a professor of health law and ethics at Arizona State University, wrote in an e-mail.
"Broader powers of the federal government are now authorized to respond to the emerging outbreak," Hodge wrote. "In short, the stakes just got raised with this proclamation."
The waivers authorized by the president still require individual requests by the hospitals, Cherlin said.
If granted a waiver, hospitals would be freed from some regulations that guide their behavior during normal operations. Cherlin provided the following example: "Requirements under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act would prohibit hospitals from certain rapid-triage or sorting activities and prevent the establishment of off-site, alternate care facilities that could offload emergency department demand," he said.
Public health experts praised the move, saying it was an important precautionary step that could help hospitals and other first responders care for large numbers of sick people as the outbreak continues.
"We know a number of hospitals are already experiencing high but manageable loads. It's not a stretch to imagine that hospitals could be strained," said Jennifer Nuzzo of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Biosecurity.