Monday Roundup

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From the Omicron front, the Labor Department’s Employee Benefit Security Administration has released guidance for health plans and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has released guidance for consumers on the President’s mandate that health plans cover over the counter COVID tests for their members.

Basically, under this mandate guidance, if a health plan offers its members an online program to obtain the OTC Covid tests at no cost (for the test or shipping), then the plan can limit out of network reimbursement of OTC Covid tests to the lesser of the actual price or $12 per test. (Binax and Quickvue include two tests in a package. Consequently the maximum reimbursement for one package would be $24.)  

If a health plan plan does not offer such an online program, then it must reimburse member claims in full. (There is an section in the EBSA guidance on FWA issues.)

The guidance also allows the health plan to limit coverage of OTC Covid tests to eight tests per member / belly button per month.

The mandate takes effect this coming Saturday January 15. That’s not a lot of time for implementation. Also, in this regard, ECRI has issued a report on the usability of COVID at home antigen test kits.

On the COVID vaccine front, Medscape informs us that

The FDA on Friday shortened the time that people who received Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine need to wait for a booster — from 6 months to 5 months.

That means Americans 18 years old and older who received their second shot of the two-dose Moderna vaccine at least 5 months ago can now get a third dose.

“The country is in the middle of a wave of the highly contagious Omicron variant, which spreads more rapidly than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus and other variants that have emerged,” Peter Marks, MD, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said in a statement. * * *

On Friday afternoon, Rochelle Walensky, MD, the director of the CDC, said she also approved of shortening the timeline for the Moderna booster dose, according to CNN. The CDC’s vaccine advisory committee recommended the FDA’s decision, and she signed off on it.

Last Wednesday, the government authorities approved the same six to five month reduction for the Pfizer vaccine.

Medscape adds that

Some Americans with a weakened immune system who face high risks for severe COVID-19 become eligible this week to receive a fourth dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

The CDC endorsed a third dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines for moderately and severely immunocompromised people on Aug. 13, which is considered part of their first immunization series rather than a booster shot.

In October, the CDC said moderately and severely immunocompromised people could receive a booster shot, or a fourth dose of the vaccine, 6 months after their third dose.

But the CDC last week shortened the timeline to 5 months for a booster shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. That means immunocompromised people could begin signing up for a fourth shot later this week,  The New York Times reported.   

Bloomberg reports that

Pfizer Inc. is developing a hybrid vaccine that combines its original shot with a formulation that shields against the highly transmissible omicron variant, the drug giant’s top executive said. 

While research continues, Pfizer will evaluate the new hybrid formulation against an omicron-specific shot, and determine which is best suited to move forward by March, Chief Executive Officer Albert Bourla said at the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference on Monday. Pfizer will be ready in March to approach U.S. regulators for clearance of the modified vaccine and bring it to market, and it has already begun production, Bourla said.

Speaking of the JPMorgan Healthcare conference, being held this week, Fierce Healthcare offers a full report on other news from that event from earlier today.

Also, the FEHBlog suggests that his readers check out this week’s episode of Econtalk in which host Russ Roberts chats with Wall Street Journal reporter Greg Zuckerman about his recent book on the development of the COVID vaccines.

From the COVID treatment front, Bloomberg reports that

U.S. regulators may decide within a week or two whether to approve a shorter course of Gilead Sciences Inc.’s Covid-19 drug remdesivir that could be used for patients outside the hospital, Chief Executive Officer Daniel O’Day said in an interview.

A five-day course of the infused drug is already a mainstay for hospitalized Covid patients. Gilead has applied for U.S. clearance of a three-day course that could be used in the outpatient setting, after a big trial last year showed it could sharply reduce hospitalizations in at-risk patients. * * * Officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration “are working really collaboratively with us, quickly with us,” O’Day said in the interview. “Everything is moving really fast.” * * *

An an infused drug, remdesivir is more complicated to administer than the Pfizer Inc. Covid pill Paxlovid. But Gilead has an abundance of supply on hand, O’Day said in the interview. By contrast, supplies of Pfizer’s drug are limited in the short term as the company ramps up supply. * * *

Meanwhile, O’Day said that Gilead is working hard to develop a chemical cousin of remdesivir that could be given as a pill. That oral drug is about to begin human trials. If it works, it could be combined with other drugs to treat Covid, he said.

In interesting Medicare news, Healthcare Dive explains that

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra has instructed CMS to reassess its recommendation for Medicare premiums this year after Biogen cut the price for its controversial Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm in half.

CMS in November published a historic 14.5% hike in monthly premiums for outpatient care in 2022 — the program’s largest premium increase ever. One of the factors regulators cited for the increase was uncertainty over the cost of Aduhelm, a new and pricey drug that has raised eyebrows for unclear effectiveness.

It’s an unusual step for HHS, given the plan year has already begun, and comes just days before a CMS deadline to issue a draft decision that will shape Aduhelm coverage nationwide.

Given Medicare’s shaky financial position, one wonders why the HHS Secretary is interested in turning away additional revenue.

STAT News adds

Biogen cut the price of Aduhelm nearly in half from $56,000 a year to $28,200 in December following disappointing sales, a price some still maintain is higher than necessary. Despite the pharma giant’s high hopes for the drug, other healthcare operators have proved less certain of its efficacy.

A number of health systems have said they wouldn’t prescribe the drug to patients. Meanwhile, most major payers are waiting on CMS to issue a national coverage determination before deciding whether to cover the expensive drug.

CMS is currently hammering out a single, nationwide policy for all amyloid-targeting treatments for Alzheimer’s, which purport to slow dementia by reducing clumps of plaque in the brain. * * *

Another major variable is which patients will be eligible to receive Aduhelm, which is still unknown. Medicare is scheduled to release a draft coverage decision that could make or break the drug’s future by Wednesday. Officials are not supposed to consider a drug’s cost in deciding whether to cover it for Medicare beneficiaries.

The final coverage decision, which is scheduled to be released by April 12, could cause significant changes in how much Aduhelm could cost the Medicare program, depending on how much patient access is restricted by diagnostic test results, which physicians could prescribe the drug or other limitations.

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