President nominates an OPM Director

President nominates an OPM Director

OPM Headquarters a/k/a the Theodore Roosevelt Building

The Federal Times, Govexec, and Federal News Network all report on today’s announcement that the President is nominating Kiran Ahuja to be OPM Director. Ms. Ahuja led the President’s transition review team lead for the agency. “Ahuja has over 20 years of public service and philanthropy experience. She’s currently the CEO of Philanthropy Northwest, and she spent several years as a career civil rights attorney at the Justice Department.” Her nomination is subject to Senate confirmation. In due course, the President also is expected to nominate an OPM Deputy Director and an OPM Inspector General.

Healthcare Dive reports on the first confirmation hearing for the President’s nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra. Mr. Becerra “told senators on the health committee Tuesday morning he would continue work he did as California attorney general to combat anticompetitive practices in healthcare and go after providers that ‘unfairly jack up prices on patients.'” According to the report, Mr. “Becerra will be back in the hot seat Wednesday for his second confirmation hearing, this one in front of the Senate Finance Committee. That will be the committee voting on whether to send his nomination to the full Senate for a vote.”

Tomorrow, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee at 10 am and the Senate Budget Committee at noon each will hold a business meeting on whether to advance to the Senate floor the President’s nomination of Neera Tanden to be Director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Tomorrow at 10 AM, the House Oversight and Reform Committee will hold a hearing on “Legislative Proposals to Put the Postal Service on Sustainable Financial Footing.” The Committee Staff explains in a memorandum,

the Committee will hold a hybrid hearing to review legislative proposals to place the Postal Service on a more sustainable financial footing. The Committee will consider a discussion draft that includes several provisions to relieve the financial burdens under which the Postal Service is currently operating and to enhance transparency regarding performance. That draft is being circulated with this memo. The discussion draft includes provisions on Medicare integration [for Postal annuitants participating along with Postal employees in a separate program within the FEHB] , repealing a requirement for the Postal Service to pre-fund retiree health care, and service performance standards.”

Earlier today, the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on the availability of COVID-19 vaccinations. The hearing featured testimony from executives at the companies manufacturing those vaccines. Fierce Healthcare reports that “Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson execs say [at the hearing] they’re working all the angles on increasing COVID-19 vaccine production and expect to amp up weekly deliveries by tens of millions by the end of March.”  

In that regard, a friend of the FEHBlog pointed him to this NIH Director’s blog entry released today

For the millions of Americans now eligible to receive the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, it’s recommended that everyone get two shots. The first dose of these mRNA vaccines trains the immune system to recognize and attack the spike protein on the surface of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The second dose, administered a few weeks later, boosts antibody levels to afford even better protection. People who’ve recovered from COVID-19 also should definitely get vaccinated to maximize protection against possible re-infection. But, because they already have some natural immunity, would just one shot do the trick? Or do they still need two?

A small, NIH-supported study, published as a pre-print on medRxiv, offers some early data on this important question [1]. The findings show that immune response to the first vaccine dose in a person who’s already had COVID-19 is equal to, or in some cases better, than the response to the second dose in a person who hasn’t had COVID-19. While much more research is needed—and I am definitely not suggesting a change in the current recommendations right now—the results raise the possibility that one dose might be enough for someone who’s been infected with SARS-CoV-2 and already generated antibodies against the virus.

Encouraging news.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

The Wall Street Journal reports from Capitol Hill that

The House Budget Committee approved the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package Monday, setting up a vote in the full House later this week.

The Budget Committee on Monday officially fused together different portions of the legislation that had advanced earlier this month in nine different House committees. A full House vote is expected Friday or Saturday.

The bill moving through the House would provide $400-a-week unemployment benefits through Aug. 29, send $1,400 per-person payments to most households, provide billions in funding for schools and vaccine distribution, expand the child tax credit, broaden child-care assistance and bolster tax credits for health insurance. It would also increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour over four years, a point of division among Democrats.

From the COVID-19 front:

  • The Hill reports that “Johnson & Johnson said Monday [February 22] that it plans to have enough doses of its vaccine for more than 20 million Americans by the end of March if its vaccine is authorized by the Food and Drug Administration.”
  • The Wall Street Journal informs us that

The Food and Drug Administration said Monday it will quickly analyze any vaccine booster shots against Covid-19 variants such as those from South Africa and the U.K., and won’t require further large clinical trials of the new shots’ effectiveness.

The agency issued new guidance for vaccine manufacturers as it looks to establish speedier procedures to deal with virus mutations that could worsen the pandemic. Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock said in a statement the agency is seeking ‘efficient ways to modify medical products that either are in the pipeline or have been authorized for emergency use to address emerging variants.’”

  • Federal News Network points out that federal agencies have been issuing new COVID-19 safety plans for employees and visitors. Here is a link to OPM’s plan.

Healthcare Dive informs us that “The Biden administration [officially] nominated Chiquita Brooks-LaSure as CMS administrator Friday [February 19]. A press release touted her more than 20 years of experience in health policy and previous work guiding the ACA through passage and implementation.” This position requires Senate confirmation. The White House sent her nomination to the Senate today.

Health Payer Intelligence discusses a Health Action Council and UnitedHealth Group report about the following five conditions other than COVID-19 that fuel costs for employer sponsored health plans: (1) asthsma, (2) diabetes, (3) hypertension, (4) back disorders, and (5) mental health / substance use. Check it out.

Earlier this month, the Health Care Cost Institute announced

the launch of its new health care claims dataset for research. The new dataset is more than 25% larger than the original HCCI dataset, containing more than 1 billion claims per year for more than 55 million people who receive health care coverage from their employers. Researchers will initially have access to data from 2012 to 2018, with 2019 and 2020 information being added as soon as possible. The data is sourced from Aetna/CVS, Humana, Kaiser Permanente and more than 30 non-profit health plans included in the Blue Health Intelligence® national dataset , enabling researchers to conduct analysis at the national, state, and sub-state level. HCCI’s patient-, provider-, and payer-deidentified dataset contains comprehensive diagnostic, procedure, site of care and cost information, including payments made by insurers as well as what patients pay out of pocket. 

“This rich new claims data enables the critical research and reporting that will be needed in the coming years, to understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and other challenges facing the health care system as the US approaches spending 20% of GDP on health care,” said Niall Brennan, President and CEO of HCCI. “HCCI is a critical national resource for researchers, policymakers, employers, journalists, and the public to understand trends in health care access, spending and utilization.”

Good luck.

Weekend update

Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate are attending to committee and floor business this coming week. The House is expected to vote on the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief budget reconciliation bill this week. The Hill provides access to the text of the “mammoth” legislation here.

From the COVID-19 front —

  • On Thursday February 26, “[t]he [Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory] committee will meet in open session to discuss [emergency use authorization] EUA of the [single dose] Janssen Biotech Inc. [a/k/a Johnson & Johnson] COVID-19 Vaccine for active immunization to prevent COVID-19 caused by SARS-CoV-2 in individuals 18 years and older.” This committee’s meetings on the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were held on Thursdays as well, and the FDA EUA approval was issued within 48 hours after those meetings. The only turmoil was in the Pfizer hearing because Pfizer sought and received EUA for people beginning at age 16. That was a helpful move in terms of getting colleges back open in the fall.
  • Medicity News reports that the FDA late last week approved consumer purchase of the Everywell COVID-19 test without a prescription. “Users swab their nose and send in the sample, which is then processed at one of Everlywell’s partner labs. It takes one to two days to get results from the rt-PCR test. If users have a positive or an undetermined result, they’re contacted by a clinician. On Everlywell’s website, tests are priced at $109 — generally more costly than most antigen test alternatives. The company also plans to partner with retailers to sell it over the counter.”
  • NPR Shots now offers a website for COVID-19 vaccine hunters.
  • The Kaiser Family Foundation offers a COVID-19 vaccine site that covers a number of significant topics, including vaccine hesitancy, distribution, and messaging.

In other healthcare news, Kaiser Health News reports that

The federal government has penalized 774 hospitals for having the highest rates of patient infections or other potentially avoidable medical complications. Those hospitals, which include some of the nation’s marquee medical centers, will lose 1% of their Medicare payments over 12 months.

The penalties, based on patients who stayed in the hospitals anytime between mid-2017 and 2019, before the pandemic, are not related to covid-19. They were levied under a program created by the Affordable Care Act that uses the threat of losing Medicare money to motivate hospitals to protect patients from harm. * * *

“The all-or-none penalty is unlike any other in Medicare’s programs,” said Dr. Karl Bilimoria, vice president for quality at Northwestern Medicine, whose flagship Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago was penalized this year. He said Northwestern takes the penalty seriously because of the amount of money at stake, “but, at the same time, we know that we will have some trouble with some of the measures because we do a really good job identifying” complications.

Other renowned hospitals penalized this year include Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles; UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco; Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Tufts Medical Center in Boston; NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in New York; UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside in Pittsburgh; and Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

There were 2,430 hospitals not penalized because their patient complication rates were not among the top quarter. An additional 2,057 hospitals were automatically excluded from the program, either because they solely served children, veterans or psychiatric patients, or because they have special status as a “critical access hospital” for lack of nearby alternatives for people needing inpatient care.

Cybersecurity Saturday

Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash

Cyberscoop reports that

The White House has a message for America: it’s going to take a long time to sort through the fallout from the massive espionage operation spurred on by the SolarWinds breach uncovered late last year.

Deputy National Security Advisor for Cyber and Emerging Technology Anne Neuberger stressed during a White House briefing Wednesday [February 17] that the way the suspected Russian hackers infiltrated a SolarWindsnetwork management software update with malicious code has made it more difficult for federal investigators to track down the details of the compromise.

Meritalk adds that

Officials from the Defense Department (DoD) and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) said [on Friday February 19] that creating more effective defenses against sophisticated cyberattacks of the type used in the SolarWinds Orion hack may require further adoption of zero trust security concepts.

That was the news from Bob Kolasky, who heads CISA’s National Risk Management Center (NRMC), and Stacy Bostjanick, director of the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) Policy Office for DoD’s under secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, who spoke during an online event organized by AFCEA International.

Both officials also discussed the growing likelihood that the CMMC security model will migrate in some form from its present use in ensuring minimum cybersecurity standards in the defense industrial base (DIB) to further areas of Federal government contracting. * * *

Zero trust security concepts incorporate much more rigorous and frequent evaluations of user and endpoint identities to allow access to networks. Kolasky agreed that something closer to a zero trust concept would be useful in that regard.

Discussing how to prevent software exploits, he suggested “really putting extra controls in place on things that have high levels of access, because that is where the risks are.” He continued, “that is where you go closer to zero trust,” adding, “you can’t go zero trust everywhere . . . but you can where the risk is higher.”

From the healthcare interoperability front, Healthcare Dive interviews the Don Rucker, National Coordinator for Health IT during the Trump Administration, and Fierce Healthcare interviews his successor Mike Tripathi.

From the HIPAA Privacy Rule front, the HHS Office for Civil Rights announced earlier this month the fifteenth and sixteenth settlements of HIPAA Privacy Rule individual right to access patient records cases.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID-19 Case Tracker website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 14th week of 2020 through the 7th week of this year (beginning April 2, 2020 and ending February 17, 2021; using Thursday as the first day of the week in order to facilitate this weekly update):

and here is the CDC’s latest overall weekly hospitalization rate chart for COVID-19:

The FEHBlog has noticed that the new cases and deaths chart shows a flat line for new weekly deaths  because new cases greatly exceed new deaths. Accordingly here is a chart of new COVID-19 deaths, which is a lagging indicator, over the period (April 2, 2020 through February 17, 2021):

Finally here is a COVID-19 vaccinations chart for the past month which also uses Thursday as the first day of the week:

The Wall Street Journal reports tonight that

Efforts to vaccinate the world’s population against Covid-19 got a boost Friday after research showed that some vaccines provide strong, one-dose protection, and that one of the vaccines can now be stored in normal freezers instead of ultra-cold ones.

The vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE generates robust immunity after one dose, according to new research out of Israel, and further data showed that the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca PLC vaccine similarly prevented Covid-19 when doses were spaced three months apart.

The findings could boost arguments in favor of delaying the second dose of the two-shot vaccine, as the U.K. has done. They could also have substantial implications on vaccine policy and distribution around the world, simplifying the logistics of distribution.

Pfizer and BioNTech said they have asked U.S. regulators to allow their vaccine to be stored and transported at temperatures consistent with standard freezing, around minus 20 Celsius, following successful internal stability testing. Similar filings were being prepared in other countries. 

Should Pfizer’s request be granted by regulators, it would mean its vaccine would vastly expand access in rural regions around the world, as well as pharmacies and physician offices, according to industry experts and officials.

The New York Times has a great article on combatting COVID-19 alarmism and the Society for Human Resource Management discusses the uncertain legal state of employer offers of COVID-19 vaccination incentives to their employees in an effort to overcome vaccine reluctance.

In federal personnel news –

  • OPM announced to FEHB carriers today the promotion of Laurie Bodenheimer to Associate Director, Healthcare and Insurance. Ms. Bodenheimer has served as acting Director of Healthcare and Insurance for the past two and half years. The FEHBlog notes that under federal law, 5 U.S.C. § 1102(d)

There may be within the Office of Personnel Management not more than 5 Associate Directors, as determined from time to time by the Director. Each Associate Director shall be appointed by the Director.

So congratulations Laurie for your well deserved appointment.

  • Fierce Healthcare reports that “President Joe Biden has chosen Obama administration veteran Liz Fowler to lead the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI), which has authority to shape key payment models, according to a report in Politico.” This powerful position does not require Senate confirmation.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

In a welcome spurt of cautious optimism, Bloomberg reports this evening

The U.S. vaccine supply is poised to double in the coming weeks and months, according to an analysis by Bloomberg, allowing a broad expansion of doses administered across the country. * * * A review of drugmakers’ public statements and their supply deals suggests that the number of vaccines delivered should rise to almost 20 million a week in March, more than 25 million a week in April and May, and over 30 million a week June. By summer, it would be enough to give 4.5 million shots a day.  * * * The analysis assumes drugmakers will meet their new delivery targets — not a guarantee in a year-old pandemic where much has gone wrong.

The FEHBlog’s bet, for what it’s worth, is that Bloomberg’s analysis proves correct.

The urgency of rapid COVID-19 vaccine distribution is reinforced by the Centers for Disease Control’s report today that U.S. life expectancy dropped by one year during the first six months of last year.

For perspective, take a look at the American Medical Association’s interview of John Barry, the author of the Great Influenza. To wit –

In 1918, people didn’t buy the government’s take on the pandemic. They saw what was happening. The disease was much more virulent, killing between 50 million and 100 million people. That would be between 225–450 million people today after adjusting for population. In Philadelphia, Barry said, priests would drive horse-drawn carts down the street calling for people to bring out their dead.

Mr. Barry urges truth telling by all parties holding public trust. By the way, the Great Influenza is fascinating reading.

In regulatory news —

  • Fierce Healthcare informs us that “President Joe Biden has chosen Chiquita Brooks-LaSure to lead the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), according to a report in The Washington Post.” This post requires Senate confirmation.
  • The National Law Journal reports that “The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced last Friday that it was withdrawing two proposed rules regarding the incentives employers can provide their employees as part of a wellness program without violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). Originally, the proposed rules had stated that, for the most part, employers could offer only “de minimis” incentives for employees participating in a wellness program—incentives that potentially could apply to employees receiving a coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine. With the withdrawal of those rules, employers have little guidance in terms of what incentives, if any, they may offer employees”
  • The Health and Human Services Inspector General announced a court ordered delay in effective date of the Trump Administrations’ rule banning prescription drug rebates in Medicare Part D (but not the FEHBP) to January 1, 2023.
  • The Internal Revenue Service issued guidance implementing the following cafeteria plan changes created by the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021. The new law

Provides flexibility with respect to carryovers of unused amounts from the 2020 and 2021 plan years;

Extends the permissible period for incurring claims for plan years ending in 2020 and 2021;

Provides a special rule regarding post-termination reimbursements from health FSAs during plan years 2020 and 2021;

Provides a special claims period and carryover rule for dependent care assistance programs when a dependent “ages out” during the COVID-19 public health emergency; and

Allows certain mid-year election changes for health FSAs and dependent care assistance programs for plan years ending in 2021.

This notice also provides additional relief with respect to mid-year elections for plan years ending in 2021. 

OPM Call Letter Released

OPM Headquarters a/k/a the Theodore Roosevelt Building

Happy OPM Call Letter Day. The call letter is OPM’s call for 2022 benefit and rate proposals from FEHB carriers. Here’s the letter’s summary:

OPM maintains its focus on improving quality and affordability in the FEHB Program, as well as supporting the Biden Administration’s priority focus on health care access and equity. We expect FEHB Carriers to continueto offer forward-thinking proposals that focus onthe strategicprioritiesdescribed in this Call Letter. Our quality initiatives for the 2022 plan year relate to the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health and substance use disorder services, opioids, and prior authorizations for prescription drugs. We also remain focused on enhancements to price and quality transparency, as well as addressing surprise billing and low-value care. We are encouraging FEHB Carriers to expand coverage of certain medical foods for those affected by Inborn Errors of Metabolism (IEM), and to cover fertility preservation related to infertility caused by medical treatment (iatrogenic infertility).

The FEHBlog has provided links to topics that he does not routinely cover. The proposals are due on May 31, 2021. Good luck carriers.

On the COVID-19 front, MedScape encouragingly reports that

Researchers know by now the available COVID-19 vaccines prevent people from getting COVID around 95% of the time. But the million-dollar question remains: Are people less likely to spread the illness after they get the vaccine? According to preliminary data, the odds are good.

“The looming question is, if the person who’s been vaccinated gets infected, does that person have the capability to transmit it to another person,” Anthony Fauci, MD, the White House COVID-19 Response Team’s chief medical adviser, said during a White House briefing Wednesday. “Some studies are pointing in a very favorable direction.”

Fauci cited studies from Spain and Israel published this month, showing the amount of viral load — or the amount of the COVID-19 virus in someone’s body — is significantly lower if someone gets infected after they’ve been vaccinated, compared with people who get infected and didn’t have the vaccine. Lower viral load means much lower chances of passing the virus to someone else, Fauci says.

“There’s a direct correlation with viral load and transmission,” he says. “In other words, higher viral load, higher transmissibility; lower viral load, very low transmissibility.”

Also, the Department of Health and Human Services announced today “new actions to expand COVID-19 testing capacity across the country. These actions will improve the availability of tests, including for schools and underserved populations; increase domestic manufacturing of tests and testing supplies; and better prepare the nation for the threat of variants by rapidly increasing virus genome sequencing.”

From Capitol Hill, this Congressional Budget Office report to the House Ways and Means Committee on the COVID-19 budget reconciliation bill provides a useful overview of the healthcare and employee benefit proposals in the bill. The Speaker intends to pass the $1.9 trillion relief measure by the end of this month.

Health Payer Intelligence discusses a recent Health Affairs article positing that “whether care is affordable for members depends on more than just pricing; affordability is also tied to how clustered healthcare events—and, by extension, healthcare spending—are in a single year.”

The conclusion of this study has clear implications for payers. When members skip care due to affordability, they miss key preventive care services which can result in higher healthcare spending downstream in the members’ healthcare journeys. During the pandemic, payers have waived primary care costs in order to incentivize members to continue receiving care for this very reason. The researchers called on payers, employers, and lawmakers to explore methods for spreading members’ healthcare costs out over time [e.g. monthly deductibles rather than annual deductibles, low copays for essential medicines like insulin].

As we reach the end of the 4th Quarter 2020 financial reporting season, Healthcare Dive summarizes the reports from major health insurers.

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Happy Mardi Gras!

As the FEHBlog has noted, the FEHB Program has unique demographics compared to other employer sponsored health plans because the federal government offers generous FEHB annuitant coverage to its employees. FEHB enrollment is roughly 52% active employees and 48% annuitants. The average age of federal and postal employees is late forties and the FEHBlog understands that average age of an FEHB enrollee is sixty. (OPM offers detailed demographic statistics on its workforce but not on its retirement system members. No complaints, just stating a fact.)

Today HHS’s Agency of Healthcare Research and Quality issued a fascinating report titled “Concentration of Healthcare Expenditures and Selected Characteristics of High Spenders, U.S. Civilian Noninstitutionalized Population, 2018.” Here are the report’s highlights:

  • In 2018, the top 1 percent of persons ranked by their healthcare expenditures accounted for about 21 percent of total healthcare expenditures, while the bottom 50 percent accounted for only about 3 percent.
  • Persons ages 65 and older and whites were disproportionately represented in the top spending tiers.
  • Inpatient hospital care accounted for 36 percent of spending for persons in the top 5 percent of the spending distribution.
  • About three-quarters of aggregate expenses for persons in the top 5 percent of spenders were paid for by private insurance or Medicare.

In 2018, the top 1 percent of persons ranked by their healthcare expenditures accounted for 21 percent of total healthcare expenditures (100 minus 79 percent; figure 1), with an annual mean expenditure of $127,284 (figure 2). The group within the top 1 percent is defined as persons who spent $72,212 or more during the year. Cut points for additional percentile groups are shown in table 1 [immediately below]. The top 5 percent of the population accounted for 48.3 percent of total expenditures (100 minus 51.7 percent), with an annual mean expenditure of $58,609. The bottom 50 percent accounted for only 3.2 percent of total healthcare expenditures. Every person in this group spent less than $1,317 during the year (table 1), with an average annual expenditure of $384 (figure 2).

Percentile of population2018 Expenditure
Top 1%$72,212 or more
Top 5%$26,355 or more
Top 10%$14,651 or more
Top 30%$3,776 or more
Bottom 50% Less than $1,317

But given the FEHB’s demographics, this figure particularly caught the FEHBlog’s eye:

Figure 4: Percentage of persons by age group and percentile of spending, 2018

Age groupOverall percentageBottom 50%Top 50%Top 10%Top 5%
0–1722.630.614.56.45.8
18–4435.243.227.320.818.9
45–6425.420.130.733.436.3
65+16.86.027.539.439.0

It is a credit to OPM and the FEHB carriers that they are able to hold premiums rather stable.

On the COVID-19 vaccination front —

  • NPR updates us with encouraging COVID-19 vaccination distribution statistics.
  • Federal News Network tells us that “The Biden administration’s Safer Federal Workforce Task Force has new details on how agencies should handle [COVID-19 vaccination] leave, labor unions and mask mandates during the ongoing pandemic.”
  • The Centers for Disease Control now offers guidance on how to arrange COVID-19 vaccinations for home-bound individuals.

Healthcare Dive reports on CVS Health’s fourth quarter 2020 earnings report. The headline is that CVS Health’s payer arm Aetna plans to return to the Affordable Care Act marketplace for 2022.

CVS’ fourth quarter revenue of $69.6 billion, up 4% year over year, was mostly due to growth in the benefits segment. Healthcare benefits reported quarterly revenue of $19.1 billion, up 11% year over year, driven primarily by membership growth in Medicaid and Medicare products and partially offset by a drop in commercial membership and COVID-19 costs.

As of the end of 2020, CVS covered 23.4 million lives. Despite fluctuating membership and utilization due to COVID-19 over the course of last year, overall utilization in the fourth quarter was generally back to normal, executives said. The company’s medical loss ratio, a marker of how much it’s reinvesting in patient care, was 86.7% in the quarter, compared to 85.7% same time last year.

JDSupra includes this employment law article titled “Employees Starting to Receive the COVID-19 Vaccine – Now What?” which is worth a gander in the FEHBlog’s opinion.

Happy Presidents’ Day

Mount Rushmore

It turns out that MountVernon.org takes offense at the use of the designation Presidents’s Day because the official federal holiday is Washington’s Birthday. The FEHBlog expects that it would be a bigger deal if George Washington had not been our first President.

On the COVID-19 vaccine front —

  • The Wall Street Journal reports that

A study by Clalit, Israel’s largest healthcare provider, showed a 94% drop in symptomatic Covid-19 infections among 600,000 people who received two doses of Pfizer’s vaccine.

The vaccinated group was also 92% less likely to develop severe illness from the disease, according to the study. It compared 600,000 people who got the vaccine with a group of the same size and similar medical histories that didn’t.

Clalit said the study, which was carried out with a team from Harvard University, included 430,000 people who were between 16 and 59 years of age, and 170,000 who were over 60. It was the first of its kind to show such a high level of efficacy for Pfizer’s vaccine for those aged 70 and higher due to the limited scope of the clinical trials.

  • Federal News Network reports that “To date, the Pentagon vaccinated a little more than 800,000 employees. Since Dec. 14, DoD received about one million doses and delivered about 996,000 of them to military installations. DoD spokesman John Kirby said Thursday [February 11] on a call with reporters that the efficiency rate of delivered vaccines to getting them in arms is around 82%.”

The U.S. Postal Service has also reached out to employees, alerting them that they should be eligible for vaccine doses once their states get to the Phase 1B, essential worker stage. In a message to workers last month, USPS encouraged its staff to seek the vaccine by any means available. They cautioned their employees against waiting to get a shot through their workplace. Still, behind the scenes postal management is working with states and other jurisdictions receiving vaccine distributions to set up mass vaccination events at their large plants. To date [last Friday February 12], however, the agency has announced no such plans and employees have voiced frustrations with the lack of communication and sense that they have been left to their own devices. A USPS spokesman recently told Government Executive it was working toward a “standardized priority opportunity” for its workers in conjunction with federal, state and local stakeholders.

In other news —

  • The special enrollment period for the ACA marketplace began today for “consumers in the 36 states that use the HealthCare.gov platform * * * and will continue through Saturday, May 15. At least 13 States plus the District of Columbia, which operate their own Marketplace platforms, have decided to offer a similar opportunity.” USA Today provides more information on the state marketplaces.
  • Health Payer Intelligence discusses at length “How Payer Forecasting Is Shifting Towards Real-Time Data Analytics.”
  • Employee Benefit News discusses the following four workplace policies that employer should be re-evaluating in 2021 —
  • Human Resources policies and procedures
  • Risk management – measurement, management and mitigation
  • Training, education and development
  • Workplace culture

Weekend update

Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

Happy Valentines Day.

In the coming week, the Senate is on a State work period and the House of Representatives remains engaged in committee work. Fierce Healthcare reports that last Thursday

The House Ways and Means Committee voted 24-18 along party lines Thursday to approve a section of a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package that includes the [two year long Affordable Care Act] subsidy boost. * * * [Also [t]he House Energy and Commerce Committee released legislation aimed at expanding Medicaid coverage and eligibility. * * * The legislation now moves to the House Budget Committee, which will roll it into the final package and send to the House floor [later this month].

On the COVID-19 vaccination front —

Students as young as first grade [age 6] might be able to get vaccinated against COVID-19 by September, White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci predicted in an interview published by ProPublica on Thursday.

Fauci cited clinical trials now underway in the U.S. from vaccine developers Pfizer and Moderna to test the safety and efficacy of the doses in children. He had said previously that the Food and Drug Administration might allow for vaccinations in American children “by the time we get to the late spring and early summer.” 

  • The Wall Street Journal reports that

Walmart Inc., the U.S.’s largest retailer and private employer, is set to become one of the biggest distributors of the Covid-19 vaccine as the federal government enlists retail pharmacies to accelerate what has been a choppy rollout.

Last week, 21 retail chains and pharmacy networks started administering those doses, including CVS, Walgreens, Kroger and grocers in all 50 states. The government initially plans to give around a million doses a week directly to pharmacies. Around 200,000 of those are going to Walmart, a spokeswoman said.

That is in part because out of the roughly 5,000 U.S. stores under the company’s Walmart and Sam’s Club banners, about 4,000 are located in what the federal government defines as medically underserved areas.

  • The Washington Post informs us about volunteer COVID-19 vaccine hunter who are helping the elderly get their protection. Bravo.
  • According to the CDC’s COVID-19 vaccine tracker, over six million doses COVID-19 vaccines were administered from February 11 through February 13. 38,292,270 Americans have receive their first dose and another 14,077,440 have received both doses of either the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccine. We are likely only two weeks away from the single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine joining this portfolio.