Midweek update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

From Washington, DC

  • The Department of Health and Human Services informs us,
    • “On Monday, February 5, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra met virtually with pharmacy CEOs, including Walgreens, CVS, Walmart, and pharmacy leaders, to discuss COVID-19 therapeutics commercialization. Secretary Becerra reconvened pharmacy leaders as a follow-up to his larger meeting with pharmacies, pharmacy benefit managers, and insurers on January 9, 2024.
    • “During the call, Secretary Becerra made it clear that no patient should be charged hundreds of dollars for Paxlovid at the pharmacy counter – stressing the importance of pharmacist education and clear communication to patients. Secretary Becerra re-iterated the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to equitable access to COVID-19 therapeutics, reminded pharmacy leaders of the pathways for access that HHS negotiated with Pfizer, and made it clear that HHS would continue to engage with pharmacist leadership as needed.
    • “While HHS is no longer managing the distribution of COVID-19 therapeutics since they transitioned to the commercial market, the Biden-Harris Administration has been closely monitoring the therapeutics commercialization process and remains committed to equitable access to lifesaving COVID-19 therapeutics, including Paxlovid. Thanks to the pathwaysthat HHS negotiated with Pfizer, all individuals on Medicare and Medicaid can receive Paxlovid for free through 2024 and individuals who are uninsured can receive Paxlovid for free through 2028. * * *
    • “To learn more about Paxlovid access, go to Pfizer’s PAXCESS Website
  • Health Payer Intelligence points out a KFF study on how various types of payer cover COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines post-public health emergency.
  • The American Hospital Association News tells us,
    • “The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services yesterday released FAQs clarifying coverage criteria and utilization management requirements for Medicare Advantage plans under its final rule for calendar year 2024, which includes provisions intended to increase program oversight and create better alignment between MA and Traditional Medicare. Topics addressed by the FAQs include medical necessity determinations; algorithms and artificial intelligence; internal coverage criteria; post-acute care; the two-midnight benchmark for inpatient admission criteria; prior authorization; and enforcement.”
  • STAT News adds,
    • “In recent months, the federal government has repeatedly told Medicare Advantage insurers that they cannot use artificial intelligence or algorithms to deny medical services the government routinely covers.
    • “But in finalizing a rule to that effect, it also stepped into a thicket of questions from insurers about a technology that is especially difficult to pin down: What is AI? Can it be used at all to make decisions about the coverage of older patients? If so, how?
    • “This week, the federal agency that oversees Medicare sought to boil it all down into a simple directive: Put the circumstances of the individual patient first, and your algorithm second.
    • “An algorithm that determines coverage based on a larger data set instead of the individual patient’s medical history, the physician’s recommendations, or clinical notes would not be compliant” with federal regulations, the government wrote in a memo to Medicare Advantage insurers on Tuesday.”
  • Health plans were using algorithms in claims processing long before AI exploded on the scene. On a related note, Health IT Analytics explores the benefits of predictive analytics in healthcare.
  • The FEHBlog noticed this entry on the OMB Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs website.
AGENCY: OPMRIN: 3206-AO43Status: Pending ReviewRequest EO Meeting
TITLE: Postal Service Reform Act; Establishment of the Postal Service Health Benefits Program 
From Reginfo.gov
  • This notice pertains to OPM’s effort to finalize the interim final rule establishing the Postal Service Health Benefits Program issued April 6, 2023. OIRA review is the last step in the regulatory process before publication of this “final, final” rule in the Federal Register. OPM had project publishing that rule this month.
  • Drug Channels discusses
    • the latest National Health Expenditure (NHE) data, which measures all U.S. spending on healthcare.
    • As you will see, retail and mail prescription drug spending remain a consistently small share of the $4.5 trillion that we spend on U.S. healthcare. 
    • And contrary to what you might read, drug spending growth was *not* driven by purportedly “skyrocketing” drug prices. In reality, nearly all drug spending growth occurred due to growth in the number of people treated, prescriptions dispensed, and other nonprice factors.

From the public health and medical research,

  • The Washington Post offers an opinion piece by former CDC Director Thomas Frieden about the public health importance of treating hypertension.
  • The Post also provides background on stomach cancer, the disease that cause country singer Toby’s Keith’s death earlier this week.
  • The National Institutes of Health announced,
    • In a recent study of the brain’s waste drainage system, researchers from Washington University in St. Louis, collaborating with investigators at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), a part of the National Institute of Health (NIH), discovered a direct connection between the brain and its tough protective covering, the dura mater. These links may allow waste fluid to leave the brain while also exposing the brain to immune cells and other signals coming from the dura. This challenges the conventional wisdom which has suggested that the brain is cut off from its surroundings by a series of protective barriers, keeping it safe from dangerous chemicals and toxins lurking in the environment.
    • “Waste fluid moves from the brain into the body much like how sewage leaves our homes,” said NINDS’s Daniel S. Reich, M.D., Ph.D. “In this study, we asked the question of what happens once the ‘drain pipes’ leave the ‘house’—in this case, the brain—and connect up with the city sewer system within the body.” Reich’s group worked jointly with the lab of Jonathan Kipnis, Ph.D., a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. * * *
    • Together, the labs found a “cuff” of cells that surround blood vessels as they pass through the arachnoid space. These areas, which they called arachnoid cuff exit (ACE) points, appear to act as areas where fluid, molecules, and even some cells can pass from the brain into the dura and vice versa, without allowing complete mixing of the two fluids. In some disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, impaired waste clearance can cause disease-causing proteins to build up. Continuing the sewer analogy, Kipnis explained the possible connection to ACE points:  
    • “If your sink is clogged, you can remove water from the sink or fix the faucet, but ultimately you need to fix the drain,” he said. “In the brain, clogs at ACE points may prevent waste from leaving. If we can find a way to clean these clogs, its possible we can protect the brain.”  
  • Medscape lets us know,
    • “Dry January has come to an end — at least for those who jumped on the trendy post-holiday no-booze wagon.
    • “The benefits of drinking less alcohol are well documented. A systematic review of 63 studies, for example, found that reducing or giving up alcohol reduced people’s risk for hospitalization, injuries, and death. The lifestyle change also improved people’s physical and mental health as well as their quality of life.
    • “When it comes to cancer risk, however, the benefits of quitting or cutting back on alcohol remain much less clear, according to a new report from the cancer agency of the World Health Organization (WHO).
    • “After reviewing dozens of studies, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that, for most alcohol-related cancers, there is limited evidence to support a link between eliminating or reducing alcohol consumption and lowering of cancer risk.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Healthcare Dive relates,
    • “Citing elevated medical costs, CVS Health on Wednesday cut its 2024 outlook despite posting better revenue and earnings than Wall Street had expected in the fourth quarter.
    • The massive healthcare conglomerate now expects to bring in at least $8.30 in adjusted earnings per share this year, compared to prior guidance of $8.50.
    • “CVS is the latest insurer to post 2024 guidance below investors’ expectations, after Humana released a disappointing earnings outlook last month.”
  • and
    • “Amazon is cutting hundreds of jobs across One Medical and Amazon Pharmacy, the company confirmed on Wednesday.
    • “The goal of the cuts is to “realign” resources to meet the divisions’ goals, Amazon Health Services SVP Neil Lindsay said in an email to staff shared with Healthcare Dive. The company is not disclosing the number of employees or what roles are being impacted by the cuts.
    • “Affected employees will receive financial support and benefit continuation, as well as the opportunity to apply for new roles at Amazon, according to Lindsay. Amazon is not on a hiring freeze and will continue to hire providers and employees for One Medical and Amazon Pharmacy.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review notes,
    • “More than a quarter of the top U.S. hospitals for patient experience fall under Providence’s umbrella, according to a new ranking from PEP Health
    • “The Minneapolis-based AI platform extracts behavioral insights data from patient comments shared on multiple social media and review platforms. To rank the top U.S. hospitals for patient experience in 2024, PEP Health gathered and analyzed more than 30 million online patient reviews shared between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2023.  * * *
    • “On average, the top 30 scored 30% higher in continuity of care, 22% higher in attention to physical and environmental needs, and 17% higher in fast access than their peers. 
    • “Hospitals belonging to Renton, Wash.-based Providence excelled on more than half of the assessment metrics, according to PEP’s report. Although eight of the top 30 hospitals were prefixed with “Providence” — and another, Swedish Medical Center-First Hill in Seattle, is an affiliate — the system could still show improvement in communication and emotional support, per the AI company.”
  • Per BioPharma Dive,
    • “Amgen is a global pharmaceutical company worth more than $160 billion. Nine of its marketed medicines are blockbuster products by annual sales.
    • “Yet, on a Tuesday conference call discussing Amgen’s fourth quarter earnings, all Wall Street analysts wanted to talk about was an experimental drug that only just cleared the first stage of human testing.
    • “More than half of the questions asked by analysts were focused on AMG 133, a promising treatment for obesity that’s drawn attention as a potential competitor to in-demand weight loss medicines from Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly. While Wall Street often overlooks the present to focus on the future, the intense interest in a drug years away from the market was noteworthy.”
  • Milliman has made available its
    • “sixth annual Milliman Multiemployer Health and Welfare Study, which analyzes financial disclosures for multiemployer health and welfare plans, also known as Taft-Hartley plans. This year’s report includes data for 1,226 plans covering approximately 4.6 million members as of 2021, the most recent year for which data is available. The average plan could pay about one year and three months of benefits and expenses with its net assets, a decrease of approximately one month from 2020.”