Midweek update

Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

In this morning’s New York Times, columnist David Leonhardt writes

Omicron appears to be in retreat, even if the official national data doesn’t yet reflect that reality. Omicron also appears to be mild in a vast majority of cases, especially for the vaccinated. This combination means that the U.S. may be only a few weeks away from the most encouraging Covid situation since early last summer, before the Delta variant emerged.

If that happens — and there is no guarantee it will, as Katherine Wu of The Atlantic explains — it will be time to ask how society can move back toward normalcy and reduce the harsh toll that pandemic isolation has inflicted, particularly on children and disproportionately on low-income children.

When should schools resume all activities? When should offices reopen? When should masks come off? When should asymptomatic people stop interrupting their lives because of a Covid exposure? Above all, when does Covid prevention do more harm — to physical and mental health — than good?

These are tricky questions, and they could often sound inappropriate during the Omicron surge. Now, though, the surge is receding.

Yes, indeed. Helen Branswell, writing in STAT News, offers an array of expert opinions on what could be next on the COVID front.

John Moore, a virologist at Weill Cornell Medical College, said a post-Omicron decrease in transmission “is certainly a plausible scenario,” suggesting it might take until late February or early March for most of the country to get there. But equally possible, he suggested, is that another variant will emerge, with the transmissibility of Omicron but without its reticence to replicate in the deep lungs [like Alpha and Delta did].

“This is where it’s all so freaking difficult. There are scenarios. You don’t know what the future’s going to hold. All these people who say ‘This is what’s going to happen.’ Well, this is what they think might happen, if they’re being honest,” he said.

While the situation remains unsettling, the FEHBlog thinks that Mr. Leonhardt’s thinking is on the right track.

From the masking front, the Wall Street Journal reports that

The Biden administration on Wednesday announced plans to make 400 million N95 masks available for free at pharmacies and community health centers across the country.

The move comes as President Biden has stepped up the federal government’s response to a nationwide surge in Covid-19 cases triggered by the highly transmissible Omicron variant. Some scientists and doctors have said popular single-layer cloth masks may not be sufficient to protect against Omicron and called on the administration to expand access to high-filtration masks such as N95s.

The nonsurgical N95 masks will start to be available at pharmacies and community health centers late next week and the program will be fully up and running by early February, the White House official said. The masks will be sourced from the Strategic National Stockpile, the nation’s safety net of medical-equipment supplies. * * *

Three masks will be available per person, the official said, to ensure broad access. Most of the pharmacies that are part of the federal pharmacy vaccine program will distribute the masks, the official said.

Following up on yesterday’s post on distribution of the Pfizer and Merck Covid pills, the New York Times offers a reporter’s saga of tracking down the Pfizer treatment for her ailing mother.

The fact that the process was so hard for a journalist whose job it is to understand how Paxlovid gets delivered is not encouraging. I worry that many patients or their family would give up when told “no” as many times as I was.

I was also reminded that even a “free” treatment can come with significant costs.

The federal government has bought enough Paxlovid for 20 million Americans, at a cost of about $530 per person, to be distributed free of charge. But I spent $256.54 getting the pills for my mother. I paid $39 for the telemedicine visit with the provider who told my mother that she would need to visit in person. The rest was the Uber fare and tip. Many patients and their families can’t afford that.

President Biden recently called the Pfizer pills a “game changer.” My experience suggests it won’t be quite so simple.

FEHB and other health plans hopefully are looking into helping their members navigate this complicate process.

From the COVID vaccine mandate front, Fierce Healthcare reports

All 50 states are now subject to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ (CMS’) healthcare workforce mandate after a federal court tossed Texas’ lawsuit and preliminary injunction contesting the requirement.

Today’s dismissal comes less than a week after the Supreme Court removed a stay of the federal government’s industry-wide vaccine requirement in 24 states that opposed the policy. The Biden administration filed an appeal of Texas’ injunction the following day.

Although CMS’ requirement may now be enforced across the country, the agency has set varying compliance deadlines reflecting whether its initial interim final rule was enjoined in a particular state.

Healthcare Dive adds

Healthcare workers in the 24 states that legally challenged the requirement will now be on a different vaccine deadline than the rest of the nation. For these states, healthcare workers must be fully inoculated by March 15, CMS confirmed with Healthcare Dive.        

But for the healthcare workers in the other 25 states and D.C., which were not a part of the litigation, workers will need to be fully vaccinated by Feb. 28, per CMS.         

From the healthcare business front —

Healthcare Dive tells us that

UnitedHealth reiterated its 2022 enrollment targets for Medicare Advantage on Wednesday, easing recent concerns that rising competition could hamstring future growth in the fruitful market.

The forecast was released along with its fourth-quarter and full-year 2021 results. The Minnetonka, Minnesota-based healthcare behemoth also reported no serious change in utilization trends despite skyrocketing COVID-19 case counts due to the highly infectious omicron variant.

UnitedHealth beat Wall Street expectations on both earnings and revenue in the fourth quarter, with revenue of $73.7 billion, up 13% year over year, thanks in part to the outsized growth of its health services business Optum. Net earnings of $4.2 billion were almost double the $2.4 billion in profit brought in at the same time last year.

Healthcare Dive adds that

Antitrust regulators said Tuesday they are looking to modernize merger guidelines in an effort to crack down on tie-ups amid a flood of merger filings that has more than doubled in the past year.

Leaders of the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice are launching a review of the current guidelines that are used to detect and analyze potentially unlawful mergers. Those policing guidelines have not been updated in 12 years, potentially excluding realities of a modern economy, leaders said.

To bring the guidelines up to date, the FTC and DOJ are calling on the public to submit information and new evidence, about the potential effects of mergers so the agencies can ultimately beef up tools to block anticompetitive deals.

From the Rx coverage front —

  • Drug Channels offers five takeaways from the Big Three PBM’s exclusion lists.
  • The Congressional Budget Office released a report titled “Prescription Drugs: Spending, Use, and Prices.”

In general healthcare news —

  • The American Medical Association discusses what drives Black maternal health inquities in the U.S.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have spent years making sure that their meditation app, called the Healthy Minds Program, passes clinical muster and delivers positive outcomes. Designing studies to test the app’s efficacy led Simon Goldberg, an assistant professor at UW, to confront the mountain of thousands of studies of different mobile mental health tools, including apps, text-message based support, and other interventions.

Researchers had taken the time to synthesize some of the studies, but it was hard, even for someone steeped in the science like Goldberg, to draw definitive conclusions about what works and what doesn’t. So Goldberg teamed up with a few other researchers and took a step back to see if they could put order to the work collected in these meta-analyses — a kind of deep meditation on the existing research inspired by UW’s meditation app.

The meta-review, published on Tuesday in PLOS Digital Health, examined 14 meta-analyses that focused specifically on randomized control trials for mental health interventions, including treatments for depression, anxiety, and smoking cessation. In total, the review included 145 trials that enrolled nearly 50,000 patients. The review found universal shortcomings in study design, leading the researchers to write that they “failed to find convincing evidence in support of any mobile phone-based intervention on any outcome.”

Ruh roh.

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