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Legal Authority of the Secretary

Disclaimer: This webpage is intended to provide general information about the HHS Secretary’s legal authorities to prepare for and respond to public health and medical emergencies and is not intended to provide specific legal advice or guidance. This information does not provide an exhaustive list of the HHS Secretary’s legal authorities to prepare for and respond to public health and medical emergencies. Individuals should always seek the advice of an attorney with any questions they may have regarding a legal matter.

The HHS Secretary has legal authority to take action to prepare for and respond to public health and medical emergencies under several statutes, primarily including the Public Health Service (PHS) Act; Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act; and the Social Security Act. Various other legal authorities may also authorize the HHS Secretary to respond to public health and medical emergencies.

In general, the legal authority of the HHS Secretary for each of the following circumstances is:

In addition to his regular authorities, the HHS Secretary may be authorized or directed to take other actions when the President declares a major disaster or an emergency under the Robert T. Stafford Act or an emergency under the National Emergencies Act.

The President may declare a major disaster under the Stafford Act when a natural catastrophe (i.e., hurricane, tornado, earthquake, etc.) or, regardless of cause, any fire, flood, or explosion causes damage that in the determination of the President is of sufficient severity and magnitude to warrant major disaster assistance to supplement the efforts and available resources of states, local governments, and disaster relief organizations in alleviating the damage, loss, hardship, or suffering caused thereby.  The Stafford Act also authorizes the President to declare an emergency when, in the determination of the President, federal assistance is needed to supplement state and local efforts and capabilities to save lives and to protect property and public health and safety, or to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe.

The Stafford Act authorizes a multitude of Federal agency actions in response to a major disaster or emergency, such as the following:​

  • Issuance of warnings
  • Mobilization of emergency support teams
  • Authorization of federal use of state and local government services and facilities
  • Hiring temporary personnel
  • ​Limiting liability of volunteer health care professionals to the laws of the State to which the provider has been deployed to respond to the disaster or emergency and in which care is provided​
  • Distributing food, medicine, and supplies
  • Coordinating with private sector disaster relief organizations
  • Overseeing mass feeding
  • Coordinating hazard mitigation
  • Use, donation, or lending of federal equipment, supplies, facilities, or personnel to state and local governments*​
  • Provide crisis counseling (only in response to a major disaster)​​

The President may also declare a National Emergency under the National Emergencies Act, specifying which statutory authorities available for use in an emergency will be exercised.

* The HHS Secretary has other authorities that may permit him to take similar actions even in absence of a public health emergency declaration.