Thursday Stats and More

Happy Festivus, dear readers. Because the FEHBlog won’t be posting on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, he has moved up the COVID Stats report to today’s post. Therefore, the FEHBlog also wishes you a Merry Christmas

Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID Data Tracker and using Thursday as the first day of the week, here is the FEHBlog’s latest weekly chart of new COVID cases for 2021:

Bloomberg notes that

The omicron variant’s case rate has now exceeded the worst days of the first delta-fueled wave, and more cities and countries are imposing precautions. But there’s more research showing it to be less severe than previous mutations. That said, two doses and a booster of the vaccine most widely used around the world isn’t enough to fight off omicron. China’s Sinovac shot didn’t produce sufficient levels of neutralizing antibodies, research found. Another study however showed a third dose of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, like that of Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, significantly boosts protection against the variant. 

Here’s the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new COVID deaths which has operated within the same range for the past three months:

Finally, here’s the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new COVID vaccinations distributed and administered from the 51st week of 2020 through the 51st week of 2021:

The number of COVID vaccines, including boosters, topped 500,000,000 today according to the CDC. 71% of Americans aged 12 and older are fully vaccinated and over one third of Americans aged 18 and older are boostered.

David Leonhardt in his New York Times’ Morning column offers an array of convincing statistics showing the importance of being fully vaccinated and boostered against COVID.

STAT News reports that

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday granted emergency authorization to Merck’s molnupiravir, an antiviral pill shown to reduce hospitalization and death in cases of Covid-19, but only in cases where other FDA-authorized Covid treatments are not accessible or clinically appropriate.

The approval comes a day after the FDA authorized an antiviral pill from Pfizer for much broader use in patients as young as 12. 

“Today’s authorization provides an additional treatment option against the COVID-19 virus in the form of a pill that can be taken orally. Molnupiravir is limited to situations where other FDA-authorized treatments for COVID-19 are inaccessible or are not clinically appropriate and will be a useful treatment option for some patients with COVID-19 at high risk of hospitalization or death,” Patrizia Cavazzoni, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said in a statement.

A Merck spokesperson said Merck is ready to ship hundreds of thousands of courses of treatment within days of authorization and 1 million courses over the next few weeks in the U.S. Ten million courses are ready to be packaged and distributed worldwide.

Bloomberg adds its perspective on the FDA’s EUAs of COVID pills yesterday and today.

The U.S. has cleared its first two Covid-19 treatment pills. Now comes the hard part: deciding who should get one. Merck’s molnupiravir was authorized Thursday by the Food and Drug Administration for use in some infected adults at high risk of severe illness. The U.S. will soon have 3 million courses of it available. Meanwhile, Pfizer’s Paxlovid, authorized earlier this week, showed stronger clinical trial data. But it will only be available in limited quantities at first, as Pfizer takes months to ramp up manufacturing. Regulators are signaling they prefer Pfizer’s pill, but concede Merck’s drug is better than nothing. Regardless, availability may depend on which state you live inDavid E. Rovella

In the linked article Bloomberg explains that

Just like Covid-19 testing sites and vaccines, Covid-19 treatment pills will be in short supply for months until production can increase.

The federal distribution to states will be based on population, and it will likely be up to doctors to prescribe Pfizer Inc.’s Paxlovid. The National Institutes of Health said it will release recommendations on how to allocate treatments.* * *

“Product will be limited at first and ramp up significantly in the coming months,” the department [of Health and Human Services] said. “An initial 65,000 courses of Paxlovid will be made available for shipment to states and territories and will begin arriving at dispensing sites by the end of December.”

The U.S. will have 265,000 Pfizer courses by the end of January and 10 million courses by July. It will also have 3 million of Merck & Co.’s Covid pill, developed with partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP, by the end of January.

Doctors will be looking for the Merck and Pfizer pills to fill a gap for high-risk patients, who until now have been treated with monoclonal antibody therapies to keep them from needing hospital care.

Some of the most widely used antibody treatments from Eli Lilly & Co. and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. appear far less effective against omicron than earlier variants because they target regions on the virus’s spike protein that have changed during its evolution.

In No Surprises Act (“NSA”) news —

  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released FAQS for out-of-network providers who may be impacted by the NSA which takes effect on January 1, 2022.
  • The FEHBlog has been looking more deeply into the federal independent dispute resolution (“IDR”) process under this law. The IDR process allows an out-of-network provider with claims subject to the NSA to negotiate its payment with the health plan and if unsatisfied bring the payment issue to baseball arbitration using a CMS approved arbitrator. CMS has posted a list of the five currently approved organizations certified to conduct IDR arbitrations. The FEHBlog checked out a couple of these organizations and found out that at least two of them also are CMS approved independent review organizations (“IRO”) which decide health plan claim disputes under the Affordable Care Act. (In the FEHBP OPM acts as the IRO.)
  • The FEHBlog also learned that out-of-network providers who obtain patient consent to waive their NSA rights cannot access the IDR process on that consenting patient’s claims. Health plans will need to be on the lookout for the provider’s notice that the NSA rights waiver has been accepted by the patient / plan member. Here is a link to the consent form. In these cases which the FEHBlog expects to be relative few in number, the plan would pay the out-of-network provider using the ACA emergency care rules or the plan allowance for non-emergency services.
  • Generally only providers, e.g., primary surgeon, lead oncologist, who manage the patient’s care can seek patient consent to waive NSA rights. Ancillary providers, e.g., anesthesiologists, radiologist, pathologists, hospitalists, are locked into using the IDR process. This was a sound decision by the ACA regulators. Kaiser Family Foundation offers a useful compendium of these rules.
  • What’s more, Thompson Reuters reports that

HHS has released instructions for reporting data under a transparency provision included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (CAA , Division BB, Section 204), which requires group health plans and insurers to annually report prescription drug and health care spending, premiums, and enrollment information to the government

OPM has required FEHB carriers to comply with this reporting requirement via OPM’s reporting authority under the FEHB Act, 5 U.S.C. Sec. 8910. This strikes the FEHBlog as a bit of a stretch as Congress did not apply NSA Section 204 to the FEHBP in the NSA law and Section 8910 contemplates carriers providing reports to OPM. When FEHB carriers find themselves obligated to submit reports to HHS, a separate law outside the FEHB Act vests that authority in the other agency, e.g., Section 111 Medicare eligibility reporting to CMS. In any event, the enforcement deadline for the 2020 and 2021 reference year reporting under Section 204 is December 27, 2022.

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