Midweek Update

From Capitol Hill —

The Wall Street Journal reports

Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) agreed to back a package aimed at lowering carbon emissions and curbing healthcare costs while raising corporate taxes, marking a stunning revival of core pieces of President Biden’s economic and climate agenda that the West Virginia Democrat had seemingly killed earlier this month

The deal, negotiated privately between Messrs. Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) since the start of last week, would raise roughly $739 billion, with much of the revenue coming from a 15% corporate minimum tax and enhanced tax enforcement efforts at the Internal Revenue Service, as well as projected savings from allowing Medicare to negotiate some prescription-drug prices.

Of that new revenue, roughly $369 billion would be spent on climate and energy programs, with another $64 billion dedicated to extending healthcare subsidies for three years for some Affordable Care Act users. The bill would dedicate the rest of the new revenue toward reducing the deficit, according to a summary provided by Messrs. Schumer and Manchin. * * *

The deal will still need the support of almost every other Democrat in Congress. Passing the agreement into law will test Mr. Schumer and the ability of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) to convince an ideologically diverse group of lawmakers to accept a deal announced by one of the party’s most conservative members. 

The announcement of a deal on Wednesday appeared to catch other Democrats off guard.

The Hill informs us

The House passed a bill Wednesday to expand telehealth services that were first introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The legislation, titled the Advancing Telehealth Beyond COVID–19 Act, passed in a 416-12 vote. Eleven Republicans and one Democrat objected to the measure. Two Republicans did not vote.

The measure seeks to continue a number of telehealth policies established under Medicare that were first implemented at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. If passed by the Senate and signed into law, the provisions would continue through 2024.

Fierce Healthcare adds

A key House panel advanced legislation to create an electronic prior authorization process for Medicare Advantage plans and several other reforms.

The House Ways and Means Committee unanimously advanced on Wednesday the Improving Seniors Timely Access to Care Act of 2022. The legislation has more than 300 co-sponsors and wide support across the healthcare industry.

From the Omicron and siblings front, Medpage Today asks “Can I boost with Novovax?”

While the Novavax shot is not yet authorized by the FDA as a booster, several experts told MedPage Today it could be headed that way.

“Probably the best niche now for Novavax’s purified protein vaccine is as a booster strategy for mRNA vaccines,” Paul Offit, MD, of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who served on the FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) on Novavax, told MedPage Today.

Robert “Chip” Schooley, MD, an infectious disease expert at the University of California San Diego who has served on VRBPAC in the past, said since there “aren’t many people left who have been neither vaccinated nor infected … it will likely be mainly used as a booster.”

NPR Shots tells us

The Biden administration may scrap plans to let more younger adults get second COVID-19 boosters this summer. Instead, officials are trying to speed up availability of the next generation of boosters in the fall, NPR has learned.

The new strategy is aimed at trying to balance protecting people this summer with keeping people safe next winter, when the country will probably get hit by yet another surge.

But the possible shift is being met with mixed reactions. The Food and Drug Administration could make a final decision by the end of the week. 

The dilemma facing the FDA is that the immunity many people have gotten from getting vaccinated or infected has been wearing off. At the same time, the most contagious version of the virus to emerge yet — the omicron subvariant BA.5 — is making people even more vulnerable.

So as COVID is starting to become more serious than a cold or flu again, most people younger than age 50 aren’t eligible for fourth shots — second boosters — to protect themselves. In response, the FDA was considering opening up eligibility for second boosters for all adults.

But letting more people get boosted with the original vaccine now could interfere with plans to boost them with updated, hopefully more protective vaccines in the fall to blunt the toll of the winter surge. 

It’s quite a conundrum for the experts.

From the monkeypox front

  • NPR provides a helpful FAQ on the disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has expanded access to vaccines, tests, and treatments for monkeypox, agency officials said in a webinar Tuesday.

The CDC expects to release more than 750,000 doses of the JYNNEOS vaccine from its strategic stockpile within days, said panelists at the Clinician Outreach and Communication Activity (COCA) call.

In addition, by working with commercial labs, the agency has expanded US testing capacity and streamlined requirements for administering the antiviral tecovirimat, they said.

Encouraging news from the HIV front. The Wall Street Journal reports

A 66-year-old man in Southern California and a woman in her 70s in Spain are the latest in a small group of people who appear to have beaten their HIV infections, providing researchers new clues to a possible cure at a time when Covid-19and other crises are slowing progress against the spreading virus.

Doctors caring for the man said they haven’t found any human immunodeficiency virus that can replicate in his body since he stopped antiretroviral drug therapy in March 2021 after a transplant of stem cells containing a rare genetic mutation that blocks HIV infection. He was given the transplant for leukemia, for which people with HIV are at increased risk. Details of his case were made public Wednesday and will be presented at a large international AIDS conference in Montreal that opens Friday.

“He saw many of his friends and loved ones become ill and ultimately succumb to the disease and had experienced some stigma associated with having HIV,” she said. His success “opens up the opportunity potentially for older patients to undergo this procedure and go into remission from both their blood cancer and HIV.

Also from the medical research front, STAT News informs us

[F]or several years, a small New Haven, Conn.-based startup has quietly been building technology to move the needle on suicide rates among the people at highest risk: those with a history of attempts or who have suicidal thoughts and have expressed a strong desire to die.

The company, called Oui Therapeutics, has raised roughly $26 million from high-profile investors like CVS Health Ventures and First Round Capital to develop and launch an app designed to train people how to quell their suicidal impulses. It pulls from in-person therapy methods that have shown dramatic reductions in suicide attempts — nearly 60% — in a randomized trial of soldiers at high risk. * * *

If the research bears out and the app secures buy-in from regulators, it could become a powerful tool in curbing suicide, which kills over 45,000 people in the U.S. each year. Oui is part of a broader constellation of efforts — including a new national suicide prevention hotline number and the development of prevention frameworks like Zero Suicide — in recent years that aim to address rates that have risen stubbornly high.

Fingers crossed for both worthy efforts.

From the Medicare front, Beckers Hospital Review reports

CMS updated its Overall Hospital Quality Star Ratings for 2022, giving 429 hospitals a rating of five stars.

CMS assigned star ratings to hospitals nationwide based on their performance across five quality categories. This year:

* 192 hospitals received a one-star rating

* 692 hospitals received a two-star rating

* 890 hospitals received a three-star rating

* 890 received a four-star rating

* 429 received a five-star rating

The article lists all of the five star hospitals by state.

From the U.S. healthcare business front, Healthcare Dive tells us

Humana raised its profit estimates for the full year after reporting lower than expected medical costs during the second quarter.

“The lower utilization trends and lack of COVID headwinds seen to date, give us confidence in raising our full year adjusted [earnings per share] guide,” Humana CFO Susan Diamond said Wednesday on a call with investors.

Humana’s net income increased 18% to $696 million for the second quarter as the Louisville-based insurer recorded increased revenues of $23.6 billion amid enrollment growth in both Medicare and Medicaid.

The insurer noted lower inpatient utilization among Medicare members for Q2.

But the lower-than-anticipated inpatient utilization has been partially offset by higher unit costs, Diamond said. * * *

The company’s total medical membership of 17.1 million was up 0.8% year over year.

As the company continues on its value creation plan to trim $1 billion in costs, Humana said it will restructure its organization into two distinct units as it looks to simplify the company’s overall organization.

Revcycle Intelligence reports on how healthcare spending varies by region and payer type.

There is substantial variation and low correlation in healthcare spending across Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance plans within different US regions, a study published in JAMA Network Open found.

The US spends around $3.8 trillion per year on healthcare funded by Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurers. However, spending and healthcare utilization are rarely the same for all three payers. * * *

Healthcare spending per beneficiary varied across payers. The mean private insurance spending per beneficiary was $4,441, while the Medicare mean was $10,281, and the Medicaid mean was $6,127 per beneficiary. The overall mean for the three payers was $5,782 per beneficiary.

Medicaid had the most variation in spending per beneficiary across the [241 hospital referral regions] HRRs, with a coefficient of variation of 0.233, according to the study. Private insurance had a coefficient of variation of 0.160 and Medicare had a coefficient of variation of 0.126.

Medicaid and private insurance plans likely saw more variation in spending than Medicare because Medicare relies on regulated payments to hospitals, while Medicaid and privately insured prices are generally determined by the region’s market.

In addition to spending variation among the payers individually, there was low spending correlation within regions across all three payers.

For example, the correlation coefficient between HRR level spending was 0.020 for private insurance and Medicare, 0.213 for private insurance and Medicaid, and 0.162 for Medicare and Medicaid.

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