Tuesday Tidbits

From Washington, DC

  • Federal News Network informs us
    • “Agencies don’t have to worry about a 1% sequestration on discretionary funds kicking in for a few more months.
    • “The Office of Management and Budget says the requirement to reduce discretionary spending under the Fiscal Responsibility Act (FRA), signed into law in June, wouldn’t take effect until “after full year appropriations are enacted, or April 30, whichever comes first.”
    • “OMB will take no action on Jan. 1, 2024, and no additional action should be taken by agencies to reduce impacted discretionary funding, even though a short-term continuing resolution will be in effect at that time,” OMB wrote in frequently asked questions on 2024 discretionary spending sent to agencies on Dec. 22. “If any discretionary appropriation account remains on a short-term CR past April 30, OMB is required to issue a final sequestration report that compares the annualized appropriation levels provided by all discretionary appropriations bills under current law as of April 30 against the [FRA’s] section 102 interim spending limits. A breach of the section 102 spending limits would require OMB to order a sequestration to bring the current law discretionary appropriations in line with those interim spending limits.”
  • Govexec identifies the federal agencies with the greatest increases and decreases in employee morale in 2023 according to OPM’s 2023 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.
  • Fedweek offers a summary of OPM’s current regulatory activities.

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “Immune-boosting drugs have revolutionized cancer care. Now doctors are experimenting with cutting them off.  
    • “Immunotherapies unleash the immune system on tumors. They have extended the lives of people with melanoma, lung and bladder cancers. They have also been a boon for drugmakers, generating global sales of $44 billion in 2022, according to Leerink Partners analysts. 
    • “But some patients are getting more of the drugs than they need, exposing them to side effects and costs they could avoid without risking their cancer recurring. Preliminary research suggests taking the drugs at a lower dose or for a shorter period could be sufficient, but drugmakers haven’t funded the studies needed to confirm the findings. 
    • “We don’t know when to stop,” said Dr. Jedd Wolchok, an oncologist focused on melanoma at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. * * *
    • “Recalibrating care toward less treatment is a fraught undertaking. Drug companies won’t fund studies exploring whether patients can do as well with less of their products, doctors said. Some doctors and patients worry about pulling back before exhausting their best chance to beat the disease.
    • “There was this dogma that more is better,” said Dr. Mark Ratain, an oncologist at the University of Chicago. 
    • “He is trying to recruit cancer patients to study whether they could do as well with less of Merck’s Keytruda or Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Opdivo, so-called immune checkpoint inhibitors. After three years, he has found just 60 of the 260 patients he wants, and most medical centers have declined to join the trial. “It was going to be difficult to convince people,” he said.”
  • Beckers Payer Issues interviews Kofi Essel, MD, Elevance Health’s first food as medicine program director. Dr Essel “sat down with Becker’s to discuss how Elevance is building a food as medicine strategy intended to eventually touch and improve the lives of its more than 47 million members nationwide.” Check it out.
  • MedPage Today tells us,
    • “The 988 lifeline routes callers to a network of more than 200 state and local call centers that are financially supported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), as well as state and local governments. In its first year, according to a July press release from SAMHSA, the lifeline answered nearly 5 million calls, texts, and chats from people looking for help with suicide, mental health, and substance use-related crises; that’s 2 million more contacts than the lifeline received in the previous 12 months, when it was a 10-digit phone number. (That 10-digit number — 800-273-8255 — is still in operation.)
    • “So far, 1.5 years in, things seem to be going well overall, said Michele Gilbert, MPH, senior policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. “Luckily, the implementation of 988 has seen some real success,” Gilbert said in a phone interview. “A lot of the operations have gone relatively smoothly.”
    • “Debbie Plotnick, MSS, executive vice president for state and federal advocacy for Mental Health America, agreed. “We have seen tremendous increases in the number of people who call, and even more importantly, what has improved dramatically is the wait time to speak to an actual human being,” she told MedPage Today. “Going back a couple of years, it could have been up to, like, 2 minutes, and now it’s within 30 or 40 seconds that you are actually connected to a live human being.”
    • “That decrease in wait time may not sound like a lot, but it’s actually “huge,” Plotnick said. “If you’re at the point where you’re going to hurt yourself and you don’t know if anybody in the world cares, 2 minutes can really feel like an eternity. But now calls are being answered very quickly.” She also praised the lifeline’s addition of text and chat options, as well as special lines for veterans, for Spanish speakers, and for LGBTQ+ callers.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Beckers Hospital Review points out,
    • “The median hospital operating margin rose to 2% in November after holding steady at 1.6% in September and October, but escalating expenses — including rising drug costs — remain a concern as 2023 draws to a close, according to a Dec. 21 report from Syntellis Performance Solutions, which includes data from more than 1,300 hospitals.
    • “U.S. hospitals began the year with a median operating margin of -0.9%, but that figure has steadily increased and looks set to end the year at a healthier level around the 2% mark in December. November was the ninth consecutive month of positive operating margins. 
    • “While the median hospital margin remains far below pre-pandemic levels, it has shown significant progress in recent months as hospitals continue their recovery after more than a year of negative results. 
  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “Drug company Bristol-Myers Squibb struck a $4.1 billion deal to buy  RayzeBio in a bet on a re-emerging cancer drug technology.
    • “RayzeBio develops radiopharmaceutical drugs, which use targeted forms of radiation that are delivered directly to cancer cells. Earlier products using the technology struggled commercially, but further research led to another wave of promising therapies that can attack tumors while limiting damage to surrounding healthy cells.  * * *
    • “Bristol said the RayzeBio deal is slated to close in the first half of 2024.”
  • and
    • AstraZeneca has agreed to buy Gracell Biotechnologies for a transaction value of $1.2 billion, as part of the former’s efforts to grow its cell therapies business.
    • The acquisition will help grow AstraZeneca’s pipeline of cell therapies for potential treatment of cancer and autoimmune diseases.
    • The transaction is expected to close in the first quarter of next year, AstraZeneca said.