Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Roll Call reports

The Senate on Thursday took a major step toward broadening America’s commitment to take care of sick veterans, passing a bill to offer new health care and tax-free disability benefits to as many as 3.5 million veterans on an 84-14 vote.

Under the legislation written by Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., and ranking member Jerry Moran, R-Kan., the Department of Veterans Affairs would consider a veteran with any of 23 conditions, ranging from brain cancer to hypertension, who was deployed to a combat zone during the wars in Iraq or in Afghanistan automatically eligible for care at government cost, based on the presumption that exposure to toxic chemicals in the war zone caused the ailments.

The House must now pass the revised bill before President Joe Biden can sign it, which seems likely. The legislation largely mirrors, and slightly expands on, a House bill by Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., that passed 256-174 in March. Biden issued a statement at the time saying he supported the measure.

Under current law, veterans who believe toxic exposure during their service caused them to develop a disease can have trouble proving it, even when the linkage is known. So it’s likely that many veterans are denied care and disability benefits they deserve, advocates say. The new law, at a projected cost of $278.5 billion over 10 years, shifts the calculus, meaning the government will now pay for the care of veterans whose sickness is tied to their service, as well as others whose ailments might not be.

Because the federal government employs many veterans, this bill will reduce benefits costs for the FEHB Program once it becomes law.

From the Omicron and siblings front, the Wall Street Journal informs us

Many people are embarking on a summer of vacations, concerts and weddings put off during the height of the pandemic. Covid-19 is still finding ways to disrupt some of those plans.

Covid-19 isn’t causing acute illness and death on the scale it once did, thanks in part to protection built up by vaccines and prior infections.  * * *

The U.S. is logging some 100,000 known cases a day, and many more are being detected via at-home tests health departments don’t track. This is a stark difference from a year ago, when U.S. cases sank below 12,000 a day, the lowest level since the first surge, as vaccinations rose and many hoped the virus was in retreat.

The era of 12,000 cases a day was over when Delta and then Omicron arrived and will remain around until Omicron departs.

From the Rx coverage front —

STAT News tells us

In a notable move, the Federal Trade Commission put drugmakers and pharmacy benefit managers on notice that the agency will “ramp up enforcement” of any “illegal bribes and rebate schemes” that make it harder for patients to access lower-cost medicines.

The new policy statement noted the FTC plans to scrutinize rebates and assorted fees for signs that these payments are violating antitrust and consumer protection laws. As part of that effort, the agency expects to monitor lawsuits and file its own legal briefs in cases where it can provide assistance in analyzing illegal practices that may raise prescription drug prices.

“Today’s action should put the entire prescription drug industry on notice: when we see illegal rebate practices that foreclose competition and raise prescription drug costs for families, we won’t hesitate to bring our full authorities to bear,” said FTC Chair Lina Khan in a statement. “Protecting Americans from unlawful business practices that are raising drug prices is a top priority for the Commission.”

While the end of Omicron is not in the offing, the end of prescription drug rebates appears to be getting closer. However, the federal government should not put the kibosh on rebates unless the drug manufacturers agree to maintain the economic equities by offering price reductions equivalent to the rebates.

In other FTC news, BioPharma Dive reports

Drugmaker acquisitions of all sizes could receive closer scrutiny in the future if the Federal Trade Commission follows the advice of experts who spoke at a two-day agency meeting on market concentration and anticompetitive conduct.

The experts, mostly economists and other antitrust regulators, warned that some drugmakers have gained unfair market power due to the breadth of their product portfolios, allowing them to negotiate for preferred or even exclusive status on insurers’ coverage lists and thereby squeeze out competitors.

Taken together with the FTC’s plans to investigate the practices of pharmacy benefit managers, the meeting signals the Biden administration may take a tougher line on monopolistic practices in an effort to spark competition and target drug pricing.

From the Food and Drug Administration front, BioPharma Dive notes that

An experimental and closely followed drug for Alzheimer’s disease has failed a key clinical study, dealing yet another blow to the prevailing theory on how to treat a neurodegenerative illness that affects millions of people.

The drug’s developer, Roche, along with Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, the Phoenix-based organization helping lead the study, announced the negative results Thursday. After years following a family believed to be genetically predisposed to the disease, researchers found no significant difference in cognition or the ability to store and retrieve new memories between participants who received the drug and those who got placebo.

The failure is an upset not only to Roche, which hopes to follow its rival Biogen in getting an Alzheimer’s therapy approved for market, but also to the wider Alzheimer’s research field. For years, a protein called beta amyloid has been at the center of efforts to treat the disease. But every drug designed to block this protein, including Biogen’s, has faced setbacks. Roche’s announcement may therefore add to concerns that this protein isn’t the best research target.

In other drug research news, Walgreens announced “the launch of its clinical trial business to redefine the patient experience and increase access and retention in sponsor-led drug development research. Walgreen’s flexible clinical trial model combines the company’s vast foundation of patient insights, partner-enabled health and technology capabilities and in-person and virtual care options to break through barriers to engaging broader and more diverse communities.”

In U.S healthcare news, the American Medical Association completed its annual meeting. The AMA offers highlights from the session here.

Also, the Commonwealth Fund released its 2022 Scorecard on State Health System Performance.

Hawaii and Massachusetts top the 2022 State Scorecard rankings, based on overall performance across 56 measures of health care access and quality, service use and cost, health disparities, and health outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The lowest-performing states were Mississippi, Oklahoma, and West Virginia.

The National Institutes of Health disclosed

From 2000-2019 overall life expectancy in the United States increased by 2.3 years, but the increase was not consistent among racial and ethnic groups and by geographic area. In addition, most of these gains were prior to 2010. This is according to a new study funded by the National Institutes of Health that examined trends in life expectancy at the county level. The study was led by researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, Seattle, in collaboration with researchers from NIH and published on June 16th in The Lancet.

MedCity News reports “Online healthcare marketplace Sesame closed a $27 million Series B funding round on Tuesday, bringing its total funding to $75 million. David Goldhill, CEO of the New York City-based startup, said the company is ‘an Expedia for medical care’ because patients can buy the care they want directly online, without the middleman of an insurance company.”

From the federal employee benefits front, Govexec delves into the impact of cost of living adjustments on federal employee retirement benefits.

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