The FEHBlog

Monday Musings

Today’s U.S. Supreme Court order list from its February 21 conference made no mention of the Texas v. U.S. cases (Nos. 19-840 and 19-841) concerning the Affordable Care Act’s constitutionality, one way or the other. This means that the Court will take up (or continue consideration of) the cases at a later conference. At this stage the Court is deciding whether to review the Fifth Circuit’s decision now or wait for further proceedings in the lower courts. The Court’s docket sheet states that the cases have been re-distributed for the February 28, 2020, conference.

The Federal Employees Dental and Vision Programs’ (“FEDVIP”) laws requires OPM to bid out all of the FEDVIP contracts every seven years. Currently OPM has contracted for 10 FEDVIP dental plans and four FEDVIP vision plans. Last week, OPM released its request for proposals for the next seven year FEDVIP contract cycle which begins on January 1, 2021. OPM states in the RFP document that it has capped the upper limit of dental plans at 12 and vision plans at 5. The deadline for submission of proposals is March 23, 2020. OPM expects to announce the successful contractors in May.

The Washington Post reports that the focal point of the national drug overdose crisis has shifted to the California and other western states. The drugs causing overdose deaths are principally two illicit drugs — fentanyl and methamphetamine.

In California, fatal drug overdoses over the previous 12 months increased 13.4 percent between July 2018 and July 2019, the last month for which the CDC has compiled provisional data — an additional 728 deaths.

Fentanyl delivers an immediate, powerful high but can also render the user unconscious and unbreathing almost instantly. * * * [San Francisco based harm reduction worker Kristen Marshall] noted that thousands of overdoses have been reversed by peers on the street who were supplied with naloxone as part of harm reduction efforts. For many years, San Francisco saw a growing population of drug users but had a strikingly low rate of fatal overdoses. But that was before fentanyl showed up.

In contrast, Illinois’ fatal drug deaths were down 8 percent, Pennsylvania’s down 10 percent, Michigan’s down 13 percent and Maine’s down 20 percent.

Weekend update

Congress is back at work on Capitol Hill this week. The FEHBlog did find an easy to read list of upcoming Congressional hearings on Congress.gov. The FEHBlog did not find any hearing relevant to the FEHBP coming up.

The FEHBlog is following news about the COVID-19 epidemic. The Wall Street Journal reports that the number of cases outside China is growing particularly in South Korea (602 cases) and Italy (155 cases). There are 34 cases in the U.S. In a Centers for Disease Control conference with the press last Friday, Dr. Nancy Messonnier explained that

We are making our case counts in two tables.  One only tracks people who were repatriated by the state department, and the second tracks all other cases picked up through U.S. public health network.  CDC will continue to update these numbers every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  We are keeping track of cases resulting from repatriation efforts separately because we don’t believe those numbers accurately represent the picture of what is happening in the community in the united states at this time.  As of this morning, when you break things up this way, we have 13 U.S. cases versus 21 cases among people who were repatriated [here].  The repatriated cases include 18 passengers from the “diamond princess” and three from the Wuhan [China] repatriation flights

The Wall Street Journal confirms the growing trend of large health insurers to offer their own primary care delivery services to their health plan members [previously documented by the FEHBlog].

“It’s very worrisome for hospitals,” said Chas Roades, a health-care consultant. “Suddenly, the plan you’re relying on for payment is also competing with you at the front end of the delivery system.”

Hospitals’ biggest concern may be the power that primary-care doctors have over where their patients go for care such as imaging scans and specialist procedures. Hospitals rely on doctors to direct patients to them for such services—one reason they have bought up physician practices. Insurer-owned clinics might refer patients away from certain hospital systems, cutting off important revenue. 

The FEHBlog in contrast is delighted with this trend which will hold down costs while improving health care quality. Competition itself is healthy. “’Health care has got to be more seamless and more integrated,” said Rob Falkenberg, chief executive of UnitedHealthcare’s California operation.” Agreed.

Fierce Healthcare reports that Oscar Health has creating a $3 per prescription formulary of about 100 popular prescription drugs and insulin. The formulary went into effect on January 1, 2020 for about half of Oscar’s health plan members. The other half if covered by Medicare or live in certain states like New York which have not approved the formulary. The article explains that

Oscar was able to price the drugs so low through plan design.“The price we pay to acquire the drug for our members has not changed,” [Oscar spokesperson Jackie] Kahn said. “Instead, we chose to have our members pay $3 and we are covering the rest.”

TGIF

The U.S. Supreme Court was scheduled to consider the cert petition in the Texas v. United States case (Nos. 19-840, 19-841) at today’s conference of the justices. That case of course concerns the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. If the Court decides to accept cert / review the lower court decision in a prominent case like this, the order frequently is announced on the same day. The Supreme Court, however, released no orders today. The Court is scheduled to issue orders at 9:30 am. The FEHBlog will be keeping watch.

The FEHBlog drove up to Long Island today to visit with family. On the way, he pondered OPM’s performance measure for its FEHB operations — “Percent of FEHB enrollees in quality affordable plans.” The FY 2017 result was 74.2% and the FY 2018 result was 70.9%. The FY 2020 result will be announced next month. Why the drop from one year to the next? Why doesn’t OPM explain how quality and affordability are measured for this purpose? By the way OPM’s target was 72% for FY 2020 and is 73% for FY 2021.

In other news –

  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services yesterday “issued a proposed rule in the Federal Register which proposes a three-year extension and changes to the episode definition and pricing in the Comprehensive Care for Joint Replacement (CJR) Model.” “This proposed rule proposes to change certain aspects of the CJR Model, including incorporating outpatient hip and knee replacements into the episode of care definition, the target price calculation, the reconciliation process, the beneficiary notice requirements, gainsharing caps, and the appeals process. Additionally, to allow time to evaluate the proposed changes, the rule proposes to extend the length of the CJR Model for an additional three years, through December 31, 2023, for certain participant hospitals. “
  • Today, the Department of Health and Human Services “released a comprehensive strategy to reduce the regulatory and administrative burden related to the use of health IT, including EHRs.” “”The taxpayers made a massive investment in EHRs with the expectation that it would solve the many issues that plagued paper-bound health records,” said CMS Administrator Seema Verma. “Unfortunately – as this report shows – in all too many cases, the cure has been worse than the disease. Twenty years into the 21st century, it’s unacceptable that the application of Health IT still struggles to provide ready access to medical records – access that might mean the difference between life and death. The report’s recommendations provide valuable guidance on how to minimize EHR burden as we seek to fulfill the promise of an interoperable health system.”

Good luck with those efforts.

Thursday Miscellany

Fedweek noticed another tidbit in the agency’s FY 2021 budget that’s worth noting :

OPM is seeking authority from Congress to offer federal employees what it calls “voluntary benefits” such as short-term disability insurance, prepaid legal plans, emergency short-term childcare, and personal accident insurance.

The purchasing employee or annuitant would be responsible for paying 100% of the premiums for these coverages. What’s more the FEHBlog knows that prepaid legal plans cannot be offered on a pretax basis like FEDVIP can.

In other news,

  • Milliman posted an interesting infographic on various aspects of organ transplantation in the U.S. Average wait times are up and survival rates are down. That’s puzzling.
  • Healthcare Dive reports that “The [federal] Health Information Technology Advisory Committee on Wednesday unanimously approved its second annual report to Congress on the state of health IT landscape, recommending fixes to improve the electronic access, exchange and use of medical information.”
  • The Centers for Disease Control announced today that this year’s flu vaccine is having an efficacy rate of 45%.
  • Health Affairs offers an interesting study on the impact of administrative costs on U.S. healthcare spending.

Midweek Update

Thanks to a Govexec.com article, the FEHBlog ran across the joint General Services Administration / Office of Personnel Management Fiscal Year 2021 budget justification for the benefit of our Congress. OPM’s FEHBP discussion may be found on pages 69-70 and its FEHBA legislative proposals may be found on 30 of the OPM section of the document. The OPM Inspector General budget discussion begins on page IG-24 of the document. The FEHBlog is waiting for OPM to release the revised FEHBA language for its FEHBA legislative proposal, which is a retread from the FY 2020 budget proposal. (No such detailed language was released last year.)

Federal News Network reports that “an estimated 200,000 military family members and retirees would lose their ability to get health care through military hospitals and clinics under a ‘rightsizing’ plan the Defense Department sent to Congress on Wednesday.” The details may be found in this plan document. This proposal if implemented would impact the FEHB because many military retirees are active federal employees / FEHB enrollees. Thank you veterans for your double service to our Country. The FEHBlog will keep an eye on this one too.

Finally, Healthcare Dive calls attention to a new trend:

  • Private equity firms acquired 355 physician practices from 2013 to 2016, accounting for a total of 1,426 sites of care and more than 5,700 physicians, according to the latest research in JAMA.
  • Acquisitions accelerated each year over that time period, from just 59 acquisitions in 2013 to 136 in 2016.
  • Off the 355 acquisitions, the most targeted area was anesthesiology with 69 practices acquired, followed by emergency physicians at 43, the report published Tuesday showed.

As noted in the article, these investors in turn are pressing for surprise billing proposals that would keep out of network practices profitable.

Tuesday Tidbits

The Office of Personnel Management released today its 2019 report on the outcome of Health Care Quality, Customer Service, and Resource Utilization measures (“QCR”) applied to the FEHB plan carriers. The good news is that “A significant number of FEHB carriers demonstrated improvement across a number of QCR measures showing that efforts to improve care and customer service are producing positive results.” The FEHBlog can tell you that carriers put a lot of effort into boosting these scores.

The chart from this report that most impressed the FEHBlog is the chart on page 5 showing steady improvement in the diabetes type 2 control measure. In the FEHBlog’s view, credit for that improvement principally belongs to the plan members who confront this disease by following their doctor’s advice and health plan input.

The FEHBlog also wants to readers to know that yesterday’s FEHBlog tirade was directed at the CMS civil monetary penalty proposal and not at the FEHB plans members with primary Medicare A and B coverage. Those members go along way toward controlling everyone’s FEHBP premiums by picking up Part B. Coordination of benefits with Medicare is a major and necessary part of the carrier’s workload and in the FEHBlog’s experience they pay close attention to it just like the QCR scores.

Express Scripts has issued its annual 2019 Drug Trend report. Fierce Healthcare reports that “[Cigna’s] pharmacy benefit manager found that medications for inflammatory conditions such as psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis drove 43.7% of spending, by far the highest among the different classes.” This report always is interesting reading.

It’s also worth calling readers’ attention to HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s (“AHRQ”) TAKEheart Initiative which was launched in the Spring of 2019.

Currently, only 1 in 5 of eligible patients with serious cardiac conditions enroll in cardiac rehabilitation (CR), which has been shown to improve health and prevent hospital readmissions. TAKEheart takes aim at these missed opportunities by spreading two evidence-based practices shown to boost rates of CR referral of eligible patients. These strategies involve automatically referring patients to CR through electronic health record prompts and ensuring that a staff member or lay navigator helps coordinate the patient’s referral process.

Recently, TAKEheart reached an important milestone. We’ve recruited the first of two waves of 50 hospitals and have begun the training and support needed for implementing automatic electronic referral to CR as well as care coordination.

That good news to hear in American Health Health MonthP.

Monday Musings

Federal News Network offers a useful report on the President’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget priorities for the federal workforce. Particularly in an election year, the President’s budget proposal is principally a political document. Now let Congress do its job.

Coordinating benefits when group health plan members have coverage under more than one plan is complicated. Nothing is more complicated than coordinating group health plan benefits with Medicare, and FEHB plans have to do a lot of this work due to the large number of Medicare eligible annuitant members, some of whom remain employed while most are retired. The FEHBlog could go on and on. See Section 9 of your plan brochure.

About ten years ago, Congress passed a law colloquially known as Section 111 which requires group health plans, among others, to report demographic information to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”) in order to facilitate coordination of benefits. Now in its infinite wisdom CMS has decided to move forward with a proposed rule to impose civil monetary penalties on Section 111 reporting entities, including FEHB plans, for certain Section 111 errors. More details are available in this CMS fact sheet.

Bear in mind that larger FEHB plans in particular are under OPM Inspector General scrutiny for the accuracy of their Medicare coordination of benefits efforts. Moreover, the carriers, not the federal government, are on the risk for the FEHBP coverage. In short, Medicare coordination of benefits creates enough headaches for FEHBP carriers without the added risk of civil monetary penalties. How about a little comity between CMS and OPM? (E.g. Because OPM does not seek to penalize CMS for its COB goofs, CMS should not penalize FEHBP for their COB goofs.) The public comment deadline on the proposed CMS rule is April 20.

In a bit of hopeful news, Health Payer Intelligence discusses a successful Horizon New Jersey Blue Cross initiative to apply value based pricing to pediatricians. “If value-based care in pediatric healthcare truly is the future of value-based care, payers need to leverage strong provider relationships to establish effective pediatric quality measures in order to improve their pediatric value-based care performance, Horizon’s executive vice president for healthcare management and transformation Allen Karp illuminated.” Yes indeed.

Finally, on the disease front, HHS reports that

U.S. hospitals saw a 40 percent increase in the rate of Medicare beneficiaries hospitalized with sepsis [an extremely dangerous infection] over the past seven years, and in just 2018 had an estimated cost to Medicare of more than $41.5 billion according to an unprecedented study by researchers from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Researchers determined that the increase in sepsis was not due to the growing number of American seniors enrolling in Medicare. From 2012 through 2018, the U.S. saw a 22 percent increase in the Medicare enrollment rates but a 40 percent increase in the rate of sepsis-related hospital admissions among beneficiaries.

Most patients with sepsis arrived at the hospital with the condition, rather than developing sepsis in the hospital, a possible indicator of success for CMS efforts to reduce hospital-based cases of sepsis. However, two-thirds of these sepsis patients had a medical encounter in the week prior to hospitalization. This finding represents an opportunity for improved education and awareness among patients and healthcare providers, as well as the need for diagnostics to detect sepsis early.

Let’s get going with those efforts.

Also the FEHBlog learned that the Centers for Disease Control has issued interim guidance on COVID-19 for businesses and employers which also is probably good advice for controlling the flu. The FEHBlog appreciates the CDC’s work as should we all.

Mount Rushmore

Presidents’ Day Weekend Update

Congress is out of town this coming week following the Presidents’ Day holiday.

Healthcare Dive provides a helpful review of large publicly traded health insurer fourth quarter 2019 financial results. “Every major payer reported an uptick in their medical cost ratios and many boasted of increased enrollment.”

The FEHBlog admires Kaiser Health News for its sensible approach to reporting on the COVID-19 epidemic in China. The Wall Street Journal’s numbers column yesterday provided interesting insights into calculating the contagion factor of diseases, known as R naught, and in particular COVID-19. Kaiser Health News points out that

It’s not surprising that mortality rates [# of deaths / # of infections] for the coronavirus [COVID-19} vary dramatically, based on where diagnoses were made, Schaffner said. For example, a report Monday from the Imperial College of London found a mortality rate of 18% for cases detected in Hubei, where only patients with unusual pneumonia or severe breathing problems were being tested for the virus. Outside China, health officials test anyone with a cough and fever who has visited Hubei — a much larger number — producing a mortality rate of 1.2% to 5.6%.

In personnel news

  • The Federal Times reports that U.S. Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director Margaret Weichert will return to the private sector [in mid-March] to work as the managing director of commercial practice for Accenture. Deputy Director Weichert contemporaneously served as acting OPM director for around 18 months of her 30 months at OMB.
  • Fierce Healthcare reports on leadership changes at Cigna’s Express Scripts prescription benefit manager unit.
  • Drugstore News reports on leadership changes at CVS Health’s Caremark prescription benefit manager unit.

Good luck to them all.

TGIF

The Health Care Cost Institute has released its 2018 healthcare cost and utilization report.

Average employer-sponsored insurance (ESI) spending rose to $5,892 per person in 2018, according to the Health Care Cost Institute’s annual Health Care Cost and Utilization Report, which analyzes 2.5 billion medical claims to inform the public about trends affecting approximately 160 million U.S. individuals with employer-sponsored insurance. This spending growth outpaced 2017’s growth due to continued price growth combined with an uptick in utilization.

“Prices, spending, and out-of-pocket costs continue to rise for the 160 million Americans with employer-sponsored health insurance,” said Niall Brennan, president and CEO of HCCI. “Higher prices for medical services continue to drive most spending increases, but in 2018 we also saw an uptick in utilization for the first time in several years. If these price and utilization trends continue, we expect spending growth to stay on an upward trajectory in the coming years.”

Despite recent increases in utilization, rising prices were the primary driver of spending growth over the 5-year study period. After adjusting for inflation, spending rose by $610 per person between 2014 and 2018. “Higher prices for medical services were responsible for about three-quarters of overall spending increases between 2014 and 2018, after inflation,” said Jean Fuglesten Biniek, report co-author and senior researcher at HCCI.

Shocker. (-;

Becker’s Hospital Review lists the 20 most expensive prescription drugs in our country according to the prescription drug discounter, Good Rx. Topping the list is “Amryt Pharma’s drug, Myalept, used to treat lipodystrophy, with a list price of $71,206 per month.” The Children’s Hospital of Philadephia explains that

Lipodystrophy is a rare disorder that affects how the body stores and uses fat. Children with lipodystrophy may have little or no body fat. Instead, fat builds up in places it shouldn’t, like the blood and internal organs. This can lead to diabetes and other health problems.

Lipodystrophy can be inherited, which means the condition is passed down from the parents and it can develop at any time in life. Lipodystrophy can also be acquired without a known genetic cause.

Three medical directors of major health plans have explained in the Washington Examiner why heath plan prior authorization practices are smart medicine. They don’t have to convince the FEHBlog but their article may be helpful to health plans in rebutting physician complaints.

Thursday Miscellany

The FEHBlog visited a large radiology practice in Washington DC today for a routine test. The desk attendant asked the FEHBlog to fill out a brief novel coronavirus questionnaire, e.g., have you travelled to China recently etc. The FEHBlog wondered why they weren’t asking about the flu. It occurred to the FEHBlog that the practice’s employees are vaccinated against the flu but not the coronavirus. In any event, Stat News, a Boston Globe service offers an interview with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about efforts to avoid the novel coronavirus spreading in the U.S.

Healthcare Dive offers a simple side by side analysis of the three bipartisan surprise billing proposals under House of Representatives consideration. Thanks.

Health Payer Intelligence discusses four Social Determinant of Health barriers that health plans are seeking to remove in order to improve access to care. The publications deems those barriers to be

the lack of behavioral and mental healthcare, difficulty in obtaining transportation to healthcare appointments, cost barriers to medication adherence, and access to medical care sites—both physical and virtual.

In a bit of related good news, the CDC reports that

The percentage of all persons who were in families having problems paying medical bills in the past 12 months decreased 4.5 percentage points from 19.7% in 2011 to 15.2% in 2015 and then decreased 1.0 percentage point from 2015 through 2018 (14.2%).

Govexec.com discusses the bipartisan effort underway in Congress to correct some oversights in the new paid family leave law for federal employees. The bill is HR 5885. That program takes effect October 1, 2020.