The Stafford Act — What Is It and How Does It Work?
President Uses Little-Known Act to Declare National Public Health Emergency over Coronavirus
On Friday, March 13, President Trump declared a national emergency due to the escalating public health risks associated with the coronavirus (COVID-19). To make that declaration, the president relied on the authority granted in the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, a federal law enacted in 1988 and used in the past primarily to authorize assistance to state and local governments during and after natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. What is the Stafford Act and how does it define a national emergency? What does it allow the federal government to do?
The Stafford Act
The Stafford Act, named for Vermont Senator Robert T. Stafford, is an amended version of the Disaster Relief Act of 1974. It’s one of more than 100 laws that give the president the power to declare that a national emergency exists. The Stafford Act allows the federal government to provide technical, logistical, financial, and other assistance to state and local governments in locations determined to be disaster areas. The Stafford Act defines an “emergency” as any event requiring federal assistance to supplement state efforts to save lives, protect public health and safety, protect property, or avoid a potential catastrophe.
With the COVID-19 declaration, the entire country has been designated a disaster area, so resources will be available nationwide. All relief efforts will be coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Under the provisions of the Stafford Act, the governor of a state must ask the federal government for a presidential declaration of a state of emergency. That may be done only after the governor has implemented his or her state’s emergency response plan. With respect to the COVID-19 crisis, the governor of the state of Washington, Jay Inslee, asked Vice President Pence to petition the President for the declaration after Washington experienced more than 30 deaths from coronavirus.
What the Declaration Under the Stafford Act Means
The president’s declaration of a national state of emergency makes up to $40 billion of aid available to state and local governments. The aid can potentially come in a variety of forms, including individual assistance, public assistance, hazard mitigation, and pandemic coverage.
With respect to pandemic coverage, the Stafford Act allows, among other things:
- The creation of emergency medical facilities;
- The provision of emergency medical treatment; and
- The provision of water, food, medicine, and other supplies to affected areas.
The public assistance available under the Stafford Act is shared with state and local governments, with the federal government paying 75% of the cost. Federal funds can be used to pay for emergency work, building materials, search and rescue, evacuation, medical care, food, water, and shelter.
The specific provisions of the coronavirus declaration under the Stafford act will allow the United States Department of Health and Human Services to do the following:
- Permit telehealth services, so doctors can conduct remote visits and check-ins;
- Waive requirements regarding federal licensing for medical professionals, so that doctors can cross state borders to provide care;
- Allow hospitals to add additional staff and provide additional office space;
- Waive limits that critical access hospitals put on beds or length of hospital stay;
- Allow hospitals to transfer a patient to nursing home care without a minimum three-day-stay; and
- Waive some federal rules that limit the extent of care hospitals can provide.