The threat of a coronavirus outbreak has pushed North Carolina into waiving state caps on hospital beds.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Thursday, March 12, temporarily lifted a regulation requiring hospitals to get state permission to add beds. The rule said hospitals couldn’t add more than 10% of their licensed bed capacity without state approval. The department’s decision made the first crack in the state’s Certificate of Need laws in decades, despite the legislature’s yearly attempts to overhaul the state caps on medical buildings and equipment. 

DHHS waived the regulation “to allow the hospital to provide temporary shelter and temporary services to adequately care for patients that may be stricken by COVID-19.” North Carolina had 17 confirmed coronavirus cases Friday, March 13, and Gov. Roy Cooper expects to see “many more.” Cooper declared a state of emergency Tuesday. 

Now hospitals can temporarily add and relocate beds into any space that meets federal safety requirements. The rule change targets patients infected with coronavirus, and patients who need to be moved to accommodate an influx of coronavirus patients.

Experts feared CON laws would slow hospitals’ ability to treat patients if a coronavirus outbreak overwhelmed the state’s health care system. 

Before NCDHHS suspended the rules, hospitals couldn’t add or relocate acute care beds without applying for a CON. Applying for a CON can cost as much as $500,000, and the state board which grants CONs doesn’t meet for months. 

The State Health Coordinating Council — which approves CON applications — doesn’t meet until June. The Acute Care Services Committee meets in April.

“If it gets to a situation where a hospital, big or small, would need to make quick decisions on the amount of beds they need, they don’t have to worry about getting permission from the state,” said Jordan Roberts, John Locke Foundation healthcare policy analyst.

Hospitals will have to submit requests in writing, and DHHS will review whether the request is “necessary for public health and safety.”