Midweek update

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From the Omicron front, Live Science informs us about the so-called stealth Omicron variant.

A stealthy version of the omicron variant has been detected in the U.S., but so far, it makes up a very low proportion of the overall cases in the country.

This version of the variant, called BA.2, bears some genetic mutations not seen in the original omicron lineage, and some of these mutations lie in the spike protein, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Some preliminary data hint that BA.2 may be slightly more transmissible, but not more severe, than the original omicron, but it’s too early to interpret that data with any confidence.

In December, scientists reported that the original version of omicron had split into multiple sublineages, one of these being BA.2, Live Science previously reported. BA.2 bears a genetic quirk that makes it harder to track using PCR tests, so it’s been nicknamed “stealth omicron.” 

The New York Times tells us about a new study identifying four factors that may lead to “Long Covid“.

The researchers said they had found that there was an association between these factors and long Covid (which goes by the medical name post-acute sequelae of Covid-19, or PASC) whether the initial infection was serious or mild. They said that the findings might suggest ways to prevent or treat some cases of long Covid, including the possibility of giving people antiviral medications soon after an infection has been diagnosed. * * *

One of the four factors researchers identified is the level of coronavirus RNA in the blood early in the infection, an indicator of viral load. Another is the presence of certain autoantibodies — antibodies that mistakenly attack tissues in the body as they do in conditions like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. A third factor is the reactivation of Epstein-Barr virus, a virus that infects most people, often when they are young, and then usually becomes dormant.

The final factor is having Type 2 diabetes, although the researchers and other experts said that in studies involving larger numbers of patients, it might turn out that diabetes is only one of several medical conditions that increase the risk of long Covid.

From the Covid booster front

The COVID-19 booster drive in the U.S. is losing steam, worrying health experts who have pleaded with Americans to get an extra shot to shore up their protection against the highly contagious omicron variant.

Just 40% of fully vaccinated Americans have received a booster dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the average number of booster shots dispensed per day in the U.S. has plummeted from a peak of 1 million in early December to about 490,000 as of last week.

Also, a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that Americans are more likely to see the initial vaccinations — rather than a booster — as essential.

“It’s clear that the booster effort is falling short,” said Jason Schwartz, a vaccine policy expert at Yale University. * * *

As for why an estimated 86 million Americans who have been fully vaccinated and are eligible for a booster have not yet gotten one, Schwartz said public confusion is one important reason.

“I think the evidence is now overwhelming that the booster is not simply an optional supplement, but it is a foundational part of protection,” he said. “But clearly that message has been lost.”

The need for all Americans to get boosters initially was debated by scientists, and at first the government recommended only that certain groups of people, such as senior citizens, get additional doses. The arrival of omicron, and additional evidence about falling immunity, showed more clearly a widespread need for boosters.

But the message “has been lost in the sea of changing recommendations and guidance,” Schwartz said.

  • Speaking of confusion over boosters, Kaiser Health News reports that

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reached out to pharmacists Wednesday to reinforce the message that people with moderate to severe immune suppression are eligible for fourth covid shots.

The conference call came a day after KHN reported that immunocompromised people were being turned away by pharmacy employees unfamiliar with the latest CDC guidelines.

  • If you thought that the idea of mixing and matching Covid boosters was confusing, the National Institutes of Health reassureed us that

In adults who had previously received a full regimen of any of three COVID-19 vaccines granted Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, an additional booster dose of any of these vaccines was safe and prompted an immune response, according to preliminary clinical trial results reported in The New England Journal of Medicine. The findings served as the basis for recommendations by the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in late fall 2021 to permit mix-and-match COVID-19 booster vaccinations in the United States. Additional data from the ongoing Phase 1/2 trial, sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, are expected in the coming months.

From the Postal Service front, Govexec reports that

USPS, like the rest of the nation, has experienced a surge in COVID-19 cases from the omicron variant and thousands of workers are sick or quarantining each day. Still, the agency oversaw a largely successful holiday period and continues to ramp up its delivery of COVID-19 rapid tests on behalf of the administration. The Health and Human Services Department is reimbursing USPS for its costs, but the Postal Service has declined to disclose the terms of that arrangement. The mailing agency has kept on thousands of temporary staff to support the effort and is using its own facilities to stage the shipments. Tens of millions of tests have already gone out, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeff Zients said on Wednesday. 

Zients added the administration opted against using USPS to distribute 400 million N95 masks from the National Stockpile because its alternative approach—sending them to pharmacies and other locations to give to customers for free—is quicker. The masks have already reached many facilities and Americans are picking them up. 

From the hearing aid front, Roll Call reports on the state of the Food and Drug Administration’s efforts to craft a rule allowing hearing aids to be sold over the counter, a Biden Administration initiative. Suffice it to say that nothing is simple.

From the healthcare business front, Healthcare Dive tells us that

The fourth quarter results for Indianapolis-based Anthem were mixed, analysts said. The financial results released premarket Wednesday beat Wall Street expectations on earnings, but missed on operating revenue.

Higher-than-expected coronavirus-related costs driven by the omicron variant — most notably in December — were “more than offset” by lower utilization of non-COVID-19 care, CFO John Gallina told investors on a Wednesday morning call.

Anthem’s commercial business had the highest costs relative to baseline, driven by factors like children becoming eligible for COVID-19 vaccines and the omicron surge. Medicare was next in line, followed by Medicaid, which actually ended the quarter slightly below baseline, Gallina said. The CFO noted he expects that theme to continue in 2022.

The payer’s medical loss ratio, the percentage of premiums invested back into patient care, was 89.5% in the quarter, in line with analyst forecasts and up sequentially from the third quarter’s 87.7%, which was much lower than analysts had expected. The fourth quarter of the year typically has a higher MLR, even notwithstanding pandemic pressures.

What’s more Fierce Healthcare informs us that

The number of accountable care organizations participating in the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) modestly increased to 483 this year compared with 477 for 2021, sparking new worries from advocates over the future of the program.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services released new figures Wednesday that show the patient population being served by ACOs has slightly grown. The new data come as the Biden administration released a strategic refresh last year for its payment models with the intent of getting every Medicare beneficiary in an accountable care relationship by 2030. * * *

ACO advocates have been concerned about a decline in overall participation that has been occurring in the MSSP in recent years. There were 517 ACOs participating in 2020, which was up from the 519 that operated in 2019. However, that’s down significantly from the 561 that participated in 2018.

The National Association of ACOs (NAACOS) has previously called for CMS to make it easier for organizations to take on financial risk. The group criticized a Trump-era program called “Pathways to Success” that requires ACOs to take on financial risk much earlier in the process.

NAACOS has also called for greater predictability in ACO benchmarks that set the spending and quality targets ACOs must meet to qualify for shared savings as well as increases in such shared savings rates.

From the mental health parity front, Health Payer Intelligence digs into yesterday’s government report on health plan compliance with the federal mental health parity law.

EBSA conducted a review from April 16, 2021 to October 31, 2021 that assessed 156 payers on their non-quantitative treatment limitations, a parity compliance measure that often poses challenges to payers. * * *

Out of all of the comparative analyses that EBSA received, not a single payer provided all of the information that the review requested in the initial submission.

As a result, the administration sent out 80 letters to payers requesting more information. Twelve of the letters went to payers that had already received a letter from EBSA notifying them that they had submitted insufficient information and seeking the requested details.

EBSA still has not announced any final determinations. However, after this back and forth with payers, EBSA accrued enough information to find 30 health plans in non-compliance on a total of 46 NQTLs.

Three major issues stood out to EBSA as the administration assessed NQTL compliance.

First, the administration found that many health plans and issuers were not prepared for compliance. * * *

Second, the initial comparative analyses perpetuated a historic trend of providing insufficient data due to five types of errors. * * * [For example] payers did not perform a comparative analysis before designing their NQTLs, so the NQTLs were unlikely to meet EBSA’s standards.  * * *

Finally, despite lack of preparation and a range of errors that led to a fragmentary picture of the NQTLs and their applications, EBSA found that some plans could receive an initial determination even for an incomplete analysis. Hence, 30 plans have already received initial determinations of non-compliance.

As EBSA continues the determinations, the administration recommended changes to Congress that would enhance enforcement of the mental health parity compliance law, promote access to coverage, and standardize compliance regulations.

The FEHBlog recommends reading the entire article. As the FEHBlog mentioned yesterday, the mental health parity law could be made simpler and more effective but that outcome is just not in the cards at least currently.

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