WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama declared the swine flu outbreak a national emergency Oct. 24, giving his health chief the power to let hospitals move emergency rooms offsite to speed treatment and protect noninfected patients.
Administration officials said the emergency declaration was a pre-emptive move designed to make decisions easier when they need to be made. Officials said the move was not in response to any single development.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius now has the authority to bypass federal rules when opening alternative care sites, such as offsite hospital centers at schools or community centers if hospitals seek permission.
Some hospitals have opened drive-thrus and drive-up tent clinics to screen and treat swine flu patients. The idea is to keep infectious people out of regular emergency rooms and away from other sick patients.
Hospitals could modify patient rules -- for example, requiring them to give less information during a hectic time -- to quicken access to treatment, with government approval, under the declaration.
It also addresses a financial question for hospitals -- reimbursement for treating people at sites not typically approved.