Weekend update

Photo by Tomasz Filipek on Unsplash

The FEHBlog is back in DC for the workweek. So let’s get started with news from the Washington, DC, front,

  • The continuing resolution funding the federal government expires on Friday, November 17.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “House Speaker Mike Johnson (R., La.) unveiled a two-step short-term spending proposal that would keep money flowing to federal agencies into early next year, in a bid to stave off a partial government shutdown late [this] week. 
    • “* * * According to a document obtained by The Wall Street Journal, if the two-step plan doesn’t pass, House Republicans will turn to what they call a full-year continuing resolution, keeping spending flat—although it would contain “appropriate adjustments to meet our national security priorities.” * * *
    • “The announcement marks a major test for Johnson, who now needs to sell the plan to House Republicans, a group that has been hard to unify on federal spending. Republicans have a 221-212 majority, with Rep. Gabe Amo of Rhode Island, a Democrat, yet to be sworn in after winning an open seat.”
  • OPM.gov reminds us that the Federal Benefits Open Season begins at midnight November 13. The Open Season ends on December 11, 2023.
  • MedPage Today notes,
    • A proposed federal policy aims to protect older Americans from contracting HIV by offering free preventive medication, the latest effort to catch up to much of Europe and Africa in stemming the spread of the virus.
    • Under the plan from the Biden administration, Medicare would cover patients’ full cost of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) drugs, which prevent HIV transmission. The drugs would be free in pill form and — for the first time — as long-acting injectables through the government insurance program designed for those 65 and older. Those 50 and over make up half of all people in the U.S. already living with HIV.
  • The FEHBP and other group health plans have been covering PrEP since at least 2020.
  • The Washington Post informs us,
    • Publishing in the journal Health Affairs, researchers looked at data from the Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA) program, zeroing in on physician density and mortality. Introduced in 1965, the HPSA program designates areas in need of more physicians and offers bonuses, loan repayment, visa waivers, higher reimbursements and other benefits to doctors who choose to practice and serve Medicare patients in specific communities.
    • “The researchers analyzed outcomes in HPSAs and areas without the designation between 1978 and 2015, matching 844 shortage counties with similar counties with enough providers. Using a variety of statistical methods designed to sift through dense demographic factors, the analysis yielded few clues that HPSA leads to higher physician numbers or reduces deaths. Some small effects were seen, but the changes were statistically insignificant, the researchers write.”

From the public health and medical/drug research front,

  • STAT News tells us,
    • [Novo Nordisk (Novo0] in August had announced that in this trial, called Select, Wegovy reduced the overall rate of major heart problems — heart attacks, stroke, or cardiovascular-related death — by 20%. That finding, which was the primary outcome the trial set out to study, was stronger than many were expecting and led Novo’s stock to surge.
    • Novo’s obesity drug Wegovy notably cut the risk of heart attacks in a landmark cardio-vascular trial that affirms the treatment offers health benefits beyond weight loss. * * *
    • But details of the study, including risk reductions for each specific heart complication, were not released until Saturday when they were presented here — before a standing-room-only crowd — as the first major session of the American Heart Association conference. 
    • The overall 20% risk reduction in heart problems translated to 15 complications prevented for every 1,000 patients treated.
    • Wegovy specifically cut the rate of heart attacks by 28% among patients who were already taking statins and other medications to prevent heart problems, according to the results, simultaneously published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The drug also reduced the rate of cardiovascular-related deaths by 15% and strokes by 7%.
  • Per NPR Shots,
    • “For the first time, researchers have produced evidence that gene-editing can cut high cholesterol, a major risk factor for the nation’s leading killer.
    • “Preliminary results from a study involving ten patients born with a genetic condition that causes very high cholesterol found that editing a gene inside the liver can significantly reduce levels of “bad cholesterol.”
    • “The experimental treatment needs to be tested on more patients who would be followed for much longer to confirm the approach is safe and effective. But the results are being hailed as a potential landmark proof-of-concept that could eventually provide a powerful new way to prevent heart attacks and strokes.
  • The New York Times reports,
    • “A new antibiotic, the first to be developed in decades, can cure gonorrhea infections at least as effectively as the most powerful current treatment, a large clinical trial has found. The drug, zoliflodacin, is taken as a single dose, and it has not yet been approved for use in any country.
    • “But the drug was developed in a way that experts hope will make it widely accessible and will prevent widespread drug resistance. * * *
    • “Pharmaceutical companies have largely abandoned antibiotic development as unprofitable. The development of zoliflodacin represents a new model: G.A.R.D.P., which is funded by many Group of 20 countries and the European Union, developed the drug in collaboration with an American pharmaceutical company called Innoviva Specialty Therapeutics.
    • “The nonprofit sponsored the Phase 3 trial of the drug. In exchange, it holds the license to sell the antibiotic in about 160 countries, while Innoviva retains marketing rights for high-income countries. 
    • “I’ll go out on a limb and say that’s probably the only way in which we develop antibiotics going forward, because the old model is simply not going to work,” said Ramanan Laxminarayan, a senior research scholar at Princeton University who chairs the G.A.R.D.P. board.”
  • Nature adds,
    • “To forestall resistance to zoliflodacin, the drug is being developed only as a treatment for gonorrhea and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). However, it will be up to regulatory and public health agencies to decide when and how the drug can be used.
    • “New diagnostics will also be important, says Teodora Wi, an STI specialist at the World Health Organization in Geneva. Tests that can rapidly distinguish gonorrhea from other STIs should be more widely available in the near future, but those able to identify drug resistance are further off. National surveillance programs for antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea could also guide the responsible use of zoliflodacin, Wi adds.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Forbes reports,
    • “Weight loss prescriptions Wegovy, Rybelsus and Saxenda—along with diabetes drug Ozempic, often used off label for weight loss—are driving health costs for employers up by more than $300 per insured worker this year, new data from benefits consultancy Aon says.
    • These GLP-1 drug costs are expected to boost healthcare spending through 2025, increasing from $324 per insured member this year up to $500 per insured health plan member in two years, new data from the benefits consultancy Aon says. By comparison, annual spending on such prescriptions in 2021 was $96 per member, Aon data shows.
    • “Employees, too, can expect higher co-payments, deductibles and premiums deducted from their paychecks because employers almost always shift part of their total premium costs onto workers, though this can vary widely depending on employer.
    • “Aon’s analysis comes from its Aon Rx claims data from nearly 500 employers and their 4.4 million health plan members. Aon said weight loss prescriptions Wegovy, Rybelsus and Saxenda have led the growth, with health spending contributions from Ozempic, which is approved to treat diabetes but is often prescribed off label by physicians for weight loss.”
  • Big money.