Midweek Update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

Late this afternoon, the Senate approved the compromise FY 2021 continuing resolution (H.R. 8337) by a vote of 84-10. The President is expect to sign the bill into law tonight. The bill provides continued funding for the federal government through December 11. Congress will hold a lame duck session following the national election on November 3 to consider next steps on FY 2021 appropriations.

This bill includes two provisions relevant to the FEHBP:

  • Section 2401 caps any increase to the Medicare Part B premium at 25% of what it otherwise would be for 2021. Presumably this cap only applies to the basic Part B premium and not to the increased premiums paid by high earners. In any event it should help encourage annuitants to join or stay enrolled in Part B. CMS should be announcing Medicare Part B and other traditional Medicare cost sharing amounts later in October.
  • Section 138 allows OPM, “which is still grappling with its own funding shortfall after the governmentwide security clearance business transferred to the Defense Department last year, to tap into the trust funds it oversees to keep its own operations going.” How would this impact the FEHBP? Section 8909 of the FEHB Act imposes a 4% surcharge on net to carrier premiums. 75% of that surcharge is deposited in a contingency reserve for the carrier which acts like a premium stabilization fund. The remaining 25% of that surcharge is available to cover OPM costs of FEHB administration to the extent appropriated by Congress. Congress typically appropriates only 1/4 of the administration fund to OPM and the balance per Section 8909 is deposited into the FEHB plan contingency reserves based on enrollment. It appears to the FEHBlog that this new law has given OPM the authority to tap into that surplus that otherwise would have been available to the FEHBP carriers. This is not the only such trust fund available to OPM.

The Wall Street Journal and the Hill report that the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin will continue to discuss a compromise fourth COVID-19 relief bill tomorrow. The two leaders met today for 90 minutes and they hope for more progress tomorrow.

On the COVID-19 front —

  • The U.S. National Science Foundation discusses how it has been funding small businesses in the fight to control COVID-19. “Startups nationwide responded with creativity and a diversity of experiences to create innovative technology solutions in the COVID-19 crisis,” said Andrea Belz, director for the Division of Industrial Innovation and Partnerships. “NSF-funded solutions have the potential to make a significant impact in the fight against COVID and future pandemic threats.” That’s encouraging.
  • Forbes reports on a deal between startup tech company doc.ai and major health and Blue Cross licensee Anthem. “One of the products that Anthem is offering its members through doc.ai is called Passport, which helps employees safely return to in-person work during the Covid-19 pandemic. An employer decides on the parameters and each morning the employee answers a self-assessment that determines whether or not the app generates a unique barcode to enter the office building. But the key here is that the protected health information is never sent to the employer—it stays on the employee’s phone—and all the employer sees is whether the QR code was issued. De Brouwer likens it to “soft contact tracing,” where privacy comes first. The data is never uploaded to a server, but stays on the mobile device.” Also encouraging
  • In not so encouraging but understandable news, MedPage Today reports that “Overall frequency of alcohol consumption among adults ages 30-80 increased 14% versus 2019, with increases of 17% for women, reported Michael Pollard, PhD, of RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California, which administers the survey, and colleagues. * * * ‘Health systems may need to educate consumers through print or online media about increased alcohol use during the pandemic and identify factors associated with susceptibility and resilience to the impacts of COVID-19,’ Pollard and co-authors wrote.”

On the healthcare fraud front, the HHS Inspector General announced today

The Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) Office of Inspector General, along with our state and federal law enforcement partners, participated in a health care fraud takedown in September 2020. More than 345 defendants in 51 judicial districts were charged with participating in health care fraud schemes involving more than $6 billion in alleged losses to federal health care programs. Since 2016, HHS-OIG has seen a significant increase in “telefraud”: scams that leverage aggressive marketing and so-called telehealth services. The conspirators include telemedicine company executives, medical practitioners, marketers, and business owners who scammed hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting patients in their homes.

Wow.

In miscellaneous news —

  • HHS created a Hospital Price Transparency website today three months before the final rule takes effect on January 1, 2021.
  • HHS also announced today “five cooperative agreements to health information exchange organizations (HIEs) to help support state and local public health agencies in their efforts to respond to public health emergencies, including disasters and pandemics such as COVID-19.” These HIEs provide a vital framework for sharing health information.
  • “The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the Multi-State Information Sharing & Analysis Center (MS-ISAC) have released a joint Ransomware Guide that details practices that organizations should continuously engage in to help manage the risk posed by ransomware and other cyber threats. The in-depth guide provides actionable best practices for ransomware prevention as well as a ransomware response checklist that can serve as a ransomware-specific addendum to organization cyber incident response plans.” Check it out.
  • Health Payer Intelligence helpfully reports on a surprise billing study published in the American Journal of Managed Care which finds that

More than 10% of health plan spending is attributable to ancillary and emergency services that commonly surprise-bill. Reducing payment for these services by 15% would reduce premiums by 1.6% ($67 per member per year), and reducing average payment to 150% of traditional Medicare rates—the high end of payments to other specialists—would reduce premiums by 5.1% ($212 per member per year). These savings would reduce aggregate premiums for the nation’s commercially insured population by approximately $12 billion and $38 billion, respectively.

The study is based on claims data from major health insurers housed in the Healthcare Cost Institute.

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