Thursday Miscellany

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In the wake of the Democrat victories in the Georgia Senate elections, Katie Keith in the Health Affairs blog provides her insightful thoughts on what a Democratic Congress means for the Affordable Care Act.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation offers for our consideration five experts reflecting on the health equity implications of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

When Medicare pricing changes the healthcare industry takes notice.

  • The American Hospital Association reports today that ” The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has recalculated the Medicare [Part B] Physician Fee Schedule payment rates and conversion factor for calendar year 2021 to reflect changes effective Dec. 27 under the Consolidated Appropriations Act. The new conversion factor is $34.89, which is 3.3% less than the CY 2020 conversion factor of $36.09 but more than the $32.26 conversion factor finalized in the PFS final rule, which would have represented a 10.2% net decrease in PFS payments for CY 2021. This change affects what FEHB plans pay for Medicare prime annuitants. Also where an annuitant over 65 does not pick up Medicare Part B, fee for service FEHB plans pay for doctors services using Medicare Part B payment rates.
  • Beckers Payer Issues reports that “A change in how Medicare pays laboratories for COVID-19 diagnostic tests took effect Jan. 1 * * * Medicare lowered the base payment for COVID-19 tests that use high-throughput technology to $75. Labs can get an additional $25 if they provide results in two days or less.” Medicare testing rates are sound benchmark for out-of-network COVID-19 labs which fail to comply with internet price post requirements.

The Centers for Disease Control yesterday issued an initial report concerning allergic reactions to the COVID-19 vaccines. Here’s the report’s summary:

What is already known about this topic?

Anaphylaxis is a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction that occurs rarely after vaccination.

What is added by this report?

During December 14–23, 2020, monitoring by the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System detected 21 cases of anaphylaxis after administration of a reported 1,893,360 first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine (11.1 cases per million doses); 71% of these occurred within 15 minutes of vaccination.

What are the implications for public health practice?

Locations administering COVID-19 vaccines should adhere to CDC guidance for use of COVID-19 vaccines, including screening recipients for contraindications and precautions, having the necessary supplies available to manage anaphylaxis, implementing the recommended postvaccination observation periods, and immediately treating suspected cases of anaphylaxis with intramuscular injection of epinephrine.

The Department of Health and Human Services announced today

a national plan to address the serious, preventable public health threat caused by viral hepatitis in the United States. The Viral Hepatitis National Strategic Plan for the United States: A Roadmap to Elimination 2021–2025 sets national goals, objectives, and strategies to respond to viral hepatitis epidemics. Building on three prior National Viral Hepatitis Action Plans over the last 10 years, the Viral Hepatitis National Strategic Plan is the first to aim for elimination of viral hepatitis as a public health threat in the United States by 2030.  This plan serves as a roadmap for stakeholders at all levels and across many sectors, both public and private, to guide development of policies, initiatives, and actions for viral hepatitis prevention, screening, care, treatment, and cure.  

Federal News Network reports that

Federal payroll providers and agencies are beginning to detail exactly how and when federal employees and servicemembers will repay the Social Security taxes that were deferred from their paychecks during the last four months of 2020. The latest omnibus spending package, which the president signed into law last week, allows those subject to the president’s payroll tax deferral to repay the deferred taxes — worth 6.2% of their income — throughout the entire year of 2021, rather than the first four months of the year.

The article provides examples but generally the services are collecting in equal installments over the course of 2021.

Midweek Update

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On Monday of this week, the FEHBlog carefully was reading through Division BB of the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021, Pub. L. No.  116-260, and he discovered to his great surprise that the new law adds a new subsection 8902(p) to the FEHB Act. Division BB, Section 102(d)(1) found at page 1616 of the enrolled bill version of H.R. 133.

The FEHBlog was surprised because Division BB like virtually every federal healthcare mandate for the past 25 to 30 years has taken the shortcut of reaching all health plans and providers by amending the Public Health Service Act (“PHSA”), ERISA, and the Internal Revenue. However, in two laws passed in 2020, the CARES Act and Division BB, Congress expressly has amended the FEHB Act too.

This new FEHBA Section 8902(p) applies the No Surprises Act and a patient rights provision (Public Health Service Act (“PHSA”) Section 2799A-1,-2, -7)) contractually to FEHB plan carriers and statutorily to the health care providers who serve FEHB plan members. This means that several of the Division BB provisions about which the FEHBlog has expressed concern, e.g. the continuity of care provision (PHSA Section 2799A-3) and the provider directory provision (PHSA Section 2799A-5) do not apply to FEHB plans. You may recall that the FEHBlog expressed concern about the continuity of care provision because the FEHBP has offered transitional care to it members for over 20 years. Why upset the apple cart?

In any event, the No Surprises law will be a real bear to implement and administer. What’s more, Becker’s Hospital News reports that “The arbitration system implemented by New Jersey in 2018 to resolve surprise billing disputes between insurers and out-of-network providers is advantageous to hospitals and other providers, according to a study published Jan. 5 in Health Affairs.

1. The authors found that providers won 59 percent of arbitration decisions, and health plans won in 41 percent of decisions in the study period.

2. The average arbitration awards were considerably higher than typical in-network payment amounts. The average award was $7,222. This payment award is nine times higher than the median in-network price for the rendered service.

The FEHBlog was intrigued to read this morning about Optum’s acquisition of one of the largest healthcare clearinghouses in the country, Change Healthcare. Assuming timely shareholder and regulatory approvals, the deal is expected to close in the second half of this year. Interestingly, “Neil de Crescenzo, President and CEO of Change Healthcare * * * will serve as OptumInsight’s chief executive officer, leading the combined organization.”

Becker’s Hospital Review lists fourteen health systems with strong balance sheets. Becker’s cautions that “This is not an exhaustive list. Hospital and health system names were compiled from credit rating reports and are listed in alphabetical order.” Nevertheless it’s worth a gander.

The Department of Health and Human Services announced today the launch of

the HPV VAX NOW campaign with the long-term goal of increasing human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination rates among young adults ages 18–26. The campaign will specifically target young adults and healthcare providers in Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas — states with some of the lowest HPV vaccination rates in the country.

Currently, fewer than half of young adults in the United States have received one or more doses of the HPV vaccine, and only 22% have completed the vaccine series. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV causes nearly 36,000 cases of cancer in men and women each year in the U.S.  

HPV VAX NOW aligns with the OASH immunization “Catch-up to Get Ahead” campaign as part of HHS’ efforts to improve vaccination uptake in the United States. “With the increased awareness of vaccination opportunities that HHS has prioritized during the COVID pandemic, now is an important time for young adults to complete their HPV vaccine series.” said Dorothy Fink, M.D., Deputy Assistant Secretary for Women’s Health.

The HPV VAX NOW campaign is launching during Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, bringing attention to one of the six cancers and pre-cancerous cervical lesions that the HPV vaccine prevents.

The federal government’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency released a joint statement yesterday from the FBI, CISA, the Office of the National Intelligence Director and the National Security Agency about the status of their work on investigating and remediating the SolarWinds backdoor hack. The statement explains each agency’s role in this work.

Tuesday Tidbits

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STAT News reports that “Nancy Messonnier, a top federal health official involved in the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, predicted on Tuesday [in an interview with STAT] that delays in the administration of the shots would improve soon.” (On the bright side, the CDC has begun to update its COVID-19 vaccinations site daily. Around 275,000 initial doses were administered yesterday.) Furthermore

During the discussion Tuesday, Messonnier said she hoped the supply of vaccine would expand greatly in the spring, a time when the shots could be made more widely available to the general public, not just people with certain jobs or health conditions. But making the vaccine is only one step: successfully inoculating the vast majority of the population will require major efforts to educate the public, to build out accessible sites where people can easily get vaccinated, and to ensure individual people show up when it’s their turn to get the shot.

Health Payer Intelligence updates on how three large payers “extended temporary COVID-19 benefits in 2021.” Technically the COVID-19 public health emergency period expires on January 21, 2021, but unquestionably the federal government will extend that period for another 90 days before then.

Under the Affordable Care Act, effective January 1, U.S. Preventive Services Task Force A and B recommendations made two years earlier become eligible for health plan in-network coverage with no member cost-sharing. If you pick out from the USPSTF list those recommendations that received an A or B grade in 2019, you will find ten recommendations that are eligible for “no additional cost” coverage in 2021. Fierce Healthcare provides insights into how health plan members can take advantage of one of those 2019 recommendations -“The USPSTF recommends that clinicians offer preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP) with effective antiretroviral therapy to persons who are at high risk of HIV acquisition.”

On the OPM front, Federal News Network lets us know that

Federal employees who forfeited vacation time in excess of the usual annual leave carryover limit at the end of 2020 may be able to get some of those days back for use later this year, thanks to a policy in the new annual defense authorization law. The Office of Personnel Management on Tuesday issued detailed guidance covering the new annual leave policy and instructed agencies to implement it.

On the mergers and acquisitions front —

  • Fierce Healthcare reports that “Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Tufts Health Plan officially combined Jan. 1. The deal, announced in August 2019, comes about a decade after the organizations attempted to merge in 2011. * * * The combined Massachusetts organization will serve 2.4 million members. Both the Tufts and Harvard Pilgrim brands will be in the market for a period of time, the organizations said.”
  • Healthcare Dive reports that health insurer “Centene has entered into a definitive agreement to acquire Phoenix, Arizona-based Magellan Health for $2.2 billion, or $95 per share, the payer said Monday. Magellan will operate independently under the Centene umbrella. Executives said the combination will result in one of the nation’s largest behavioral health platforms as the two will provide behavioral services to about 41 million members in the U.S. The deal also boosts Centene’s already established footprint in government sponsored health plans with the addition of 5.5 million lives and another 2.2 million to add to its pharmacy benefit management platform.

Monday Roundup

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Govexec.com provides an update on COVID-19 vaccine administration by federal agencies to their employees. A friend of the FEHBlog asked him today whether he knew how long it took for a COVID-19 to provide protection following the injection. Good question. The New York Times reported last week that “The protective effects of vaccines are known to take at least a couple of weeks to kick in.” To wit,

Data from Pfizer’s clinical trials suggests the vaccine might start safeguarding its recipients from disease around one or two weeks after the first injection. A second jab of mRNA, delivered three weeks after the first, helps immune cells commit the virus’s most prominent features to memory, clinching the protective process.

Biopharma Dive reports that “AbbVie raised the list prices of many of its drugs on Jan. 1, while Biogen hiked the price tag of its old multiple sclerosis treatment Tysabri, part of broad, sector-wide increases typically taken at the start of a new year. The hikes could feature in calls for drug pricing legislation as a new Congress and new administration begin work.” Timing is everything.

Here a few loose ends that have been tied up.

  • According to Healthcare Dive, “Haven, the high-profile, secretive venture to lower healthcare costs backed by Amazon, J.P. Morgan and Berkshire Hathaway, is suspending operations in February after three years, the company announced Monday. Haven caused waves when launched in 2018, with a lineup of notable hires from within the healthcare industry. However, the nonprofit, independent company is now closing with little concrete to show, hinting at the difficulty of reforming the complex insurance system and curbing rising costs in the deeply entrenched healthcare industry. Haven said in a statement on its website that Amazon, J.P. Morgan and Berkshire Hathaway would use the information it gained moving forward and continue working to create programs addressing the health needs of their combined 1.2 million employees. Shares of major U.S. insurers got a bump in Monday trading following the news, with UnitedHealthcare and Humana each climbing more than 2% since noon.”
  • According to Fierce Healthcare, “New York Life completed its acquisition of Cigna’s group life, accident and disability insurance businesses in a deal valued at $6.3 billion.” Cigna like CVS Health / Aetna has decided to focus its attention on healthcare.
  • Congress.gov reported today that the Senate has returned to the President his nomination of Craig Leen to be OPM Inspector General because the Senate failed to act on the nomination during the 116th Congress. The President may renew the nomination for the 117th Congress.

Thinking about the OPM Inspector General caused the FEHBlog to check to see whether the latest OPM Inspector General semi-annual report to Congress (period ended September 30, 2020) is online and by golly it has been posted right here. The lead article in the report discusses the impact of the COVID-19 public health emergency on the FEHBP. The management response to the Inspector General’s report is available here.

Weekend Update

The 117th U.S. Congress convened today, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D Calif.) was re-elected Speaker of the House. The Wall Street Journal reports that “Democrats expect to have 222 seats to Republicans’ 211.” Party leadership in the Senate hinges on the two special elections that will be held in Georgia on January 5.

The federal mandate for health plans to cover the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine begins today. According to the CDC as of yesterday at 9 am ET, 13,071,925 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have been distributed across the U.S. and 4,225,756 initial doses of those vaccines have been administered.

Turning back to the Affordable Care Act amendments included in Division BB of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, that require health plan attention in order to implement then for 2022:

  • Section 107 requires health plan identification cards to include the following information:

‘‘(1) Any deductible applicable to such plan or coverage.

‘‘(2) Any out-of-pocket maximum limitation applicable to such plan or coverage.

‘‘(3) A telephone number and Internet website address through which such individual may seek consumer assistance information, such as information related to hospitals and urgent care facilities that have in effect a contractual relationship with such plan or coverage for furnishing items and services under such plan or coverage’’.

  • Section 116 creates new requirements on health plan network provider directories and holds health plans and providers liable to consumers/ patients liable for errors in those directories, although the provider may shift certain aspects of that liability to the health plan in the network contract.

There is one requirement in the new law (relating to mental heath parity) that takes effect on February 9, 2021. The section requires specific comparative analyses to demonstrate health plan compliance with the most complicated provision of the federal mental health parity law, non-quantitative treatment limitations, e.g, medical necessity, pre-authorization. Here is a link to the most recent federal government FAQs on NQTLs.

Section 203 of Division B states

In the case of a group health plan or a health insurance issuer offering group or individual health insurance coverage that provides both medical and surgical benefits and mental health or substance use disorder benefits and that imposes nonquantitative treatment limitations (referred to in this section as ‘NQTLs’) on mental health or substance use disorder benefits, such plan or issuer shall perform and document comparative analyses of the design and application of NQTLs and, beginning 45 days after the date of enactment of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, make available * * * the Secretary of Health and Human Services [FEHBlog note edited for the FEHBP], upon request, the comparative analyses and the following information:

‘‘(i) The specific plan or coverage terms or other relevant terms regarding the NQTLs and a description of all mental health or substance use disorder and medical or surgical benefits to which each such term applies in each respective benefits classification.

‘‘(ii) The factors used to determine that the NQTLs will apply to mental health or substance use disorder benefits and medical or surgical benefits.

‘‘(iii) The evidentiary standards used for the factors identified in clause (ii), when applicable, provided that every factor shall be defined, and any other source or evidence relied upon to design and apply the NQTLs to mental health or substance use disorder benefits and medical or surgical benefits.

‘‘(iv) The comparative analyses demonstrating that the processes, strategies, evidentiary standards, and other factors used to apply the NQTLs to mental health or substance use disorder benefits, as written and in operation, are comparable to, and are applied no more stringently than, the processes, strategies, evidentiary standards, and other factors used to apply the NQTLs to medical or surgical benefits in the benefits classification.

‘‘(v) The specific findings and conclusions reached by the group health plan or health insurance issuer with respect to the health insurance coverage, including any results of the analyses described in this subparagraph that indicate that the plan or coverage is or is not in compliance with this section.

The law permits that Secretary of HHS to use the comparative analyses for investigative purposes when a mental health parity compliance complaint has been made against the health plan.

Saturday Stats and More

Based on the CDC’s Cases in the U.S. website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 14th through 52nd weeks of this year (beginning April 2 and ending December 30; 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 noted 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 over the period (April 2 through December 30):

The CDC’s COVID-19 Vaccine tracker has not been updated since last Wednesday morning At that time roughly 2.8 million initial doses had been administered. The American Hospital Association and the American Medical Association have posted helpful information about the currently available COVID-19 vaccines. The Food and Drug Administration offers a comprehensive year end report.

The CDC’s FluView continues to report that “Seasonal influenza activity in the United States remains lower than usual for this time of year.”

The FEHBlog took a look at a couple of the hospital chain websites and could not find the price information required by the HHS hospital price transparency rule. However, FEP Blue, the largest FEHB plan, announced the availability of their FEP Cost Advisor Tool.

Today is the last day of the 116th Congress. The Wall Street Journal informs us that among the provisions in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, is the following

Flexible spending accounts. Many workers with FSAs that allow them to use pretax dollars to pay for unreimbursed health expenses (like glasses) or dependent-care expenses (like summer camp) didn’t use all the money in their 2020 accounts because of the pandemic. The IRS had limited ability to ease FSA rules, but Congress has now done so. 

Participants in such plans can carry over unused funds from 2020 to 2021 and 2021 to 2022, or for up to 12 months for companies with fiscal years. For dependent-care accounts, the law extends the age limit from 12 to 13 for some carried-over funds. For workers to take advantage of these changes, company plans must often opt into the new rules.

OPM typically does adopt such changes for FSAFeds.

Federal News Network reports that yesterday the Senate joined the House of Representatives in overriding the President’s veto of the FY 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. The Senate did not join the House in approving a $2000 direct stipend COVID relief proposal.

Federal News Network also reports that

With hours to spare before the new year, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Thursday night implementing a federal pay raise for civilian employees and military members in 2021. Civilian employees will receive a 1% across-the-board federal pay raise in 2021. There are no additional locality pay adjustments this year.

Happy New Year

The FEHBlog wishes all of his readers a Happy New Year.

The Wall Street Journal reports that in the wake of the December 29 D.C. Circuit opinion upholding the Trump Administration’s hospital price transparency rule,

The nation’s largest hospital chains, including publicly traded giants HCA Healthcare Inc., Universal Health Services Inc. and Community Health Systems Inc., and national nonprofit chains CommonSpirit Health and Ascension, said they planned to comply with new requirements to post pricing. Tenet Healthcare Corp. declined to comment.

“Ascension supports price transparency of our hospital services for the benefit of consumer choice and access to care for those we serve,” said Nick Ragone, a spokesman for the St. Louis-based chain.

As of Jan. 1, hospitals will be required to publish the prices negotiated privately with each payer for 300 common services for easy use by consumers, and make public the same information for all their procedures in a format that can be read and analyzed by computers.

The FEHBlog will be back on January 2 for Saturday Stats and More. Enjoy.

Midweek update

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Per the Office of Personnel Management, “The effective date of the Open Season change is the first day of the first full pay period in January. For annuitants this date will always be January 1.” It turns out that Sunday January 3, 2021, is the first day of the first full pay period in January 2021. How convenient.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, does include the three standard FEHBP appropriations provisions — a prohibition on applying full Cost Accounting Standards coverage to FEHB contracts (Sec. 611), an abortion coverage restriction (Secs. 613, 614), and a limited contraceptive coverage mandate (Sec. 726) which the Affordable Care Act has overridden. What’s more this new law extends the option of FEHBP and FEGLI coverage to 120 tribal grant schools thereby filling a coverage gap erroneously created by the Affordable Care Act. This option is exercised by the tribal employers who must make the minimum federal civil servant government contribution toward the benefit coverage.

For the past 20 years or so, the FEHBP has offered plan members transitional care protection pursuant to President Clinton’s Bill of Consumer Rights which states in pertinent part as follows:

Consumers who are undergoing a course of treatment for a chronic or disabling condition (or who are in the second or third trimester of a pregnancy) at the time they involuntarily change health plans or at a time when a provider is terminated by a plan for other than cause should be able to continue seeing their current specialty providers for up to 90 days (or through completion of postpartum care) to allow for transition of care.

FEHB plan carriers intending to terminate a network provider for cause generally could comply with this requirement by giving affected members 90 days advance notice of the change.

It turns out that Section 113 Division BB of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, includes an Affordable Care Act amendment ensuring continuity of care. The requirements of this new law bear similarities to the FEHBP’s transitional care protections. However, as always, the devil is in the details. For example, the new law’s transitional care provisions apply to any provider contract termination, including passive non-renewals, whether triggered by the provider or the payer, with the limited exception of payer termination for fraud or failure to meet applicable quality standards. FEHB plans and OPM have a year to sort out the details before the new requirements take effect on January 1, 2022.

In other news —

The Senate moved forward today on overriding President’s veto of the FY 2021 National Defense Authorization Act but not on the $2000 COVID-19 relief direct stipend per the Wall Street Journal:

Moving through the procedural steps for overriding Mr. Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act could take up much of the Senate’s time before Sunday. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), in a push for a stand-alone vote on increasing the size of the direct checks, has stopped Mr. McConnell from fast-tracking votes on the NDAA override. As a result, the final vote on the NDAA may not take place until Saturday due to a series of procedural steps.

The Senate took one of those steps late Wednesday, voting 80-12 to move forward with the bill, in another show of broad, bipartisan support for the legislation Mr. Trump vetoed.

Bleeping Computer updated us on how the federal government is addressing the SolarWinds backdoor hack.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has ordered all US federal agencies to update the SolarWinds Orion platform to the latest version by the end of business hours on December 31, 2020. CISA’s Supplemental Guidance to Emergency Directive 21-01 demands this from all agencies using Orion versions unaffected in the SolarWinds supply chain attack.

Tuesday Tidbits

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued an opinion today affirming a district court holding that the Trump Administration’s hospital price transparency rule is lawful. The rule takes effect on Friday January 1. Needless to say the Court also denied the appellant American Hospital Association’s motion for an emergency stay of the rule.

On a similar note, one of the transparency provisions included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, amendments to the Affordable Care Act (Section 114 of Division BB) states:

‘‘A group health plan or a health insurance issuer offering group or individual health insurance coverage shall offer price comparison guidance by telephone and make available on the Internet website of the plan or issuer a price comparison tool that (to the extent practicable) allows an individual enrolled under such plan or coverage, with respect to such plan year, such geographic region, and participating providers with respect to such plan or coverage, to compare the amount of cost-sharing that the individual would be responsible for paying under such plan or coverage with respect to the furnishing of a specific item or service by any such provider.’’’

This new requirement, which applies to FEHB plans, takes effect with the first plan year beginning on or after January 1, 2022. The recently finalized Trump Administration’s payer transparency rule kicks in a year later. We will have to see how the Biden Administration handle this.

As the FEHBlog just picked up a couple of delicious Christmas cookies, it is time to consider the joint HHS and Department of Agriculture Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 released today. The announcement described the publication as “the nation’s trusted resource for evidence-based nutrition guidance. The guidelines are designed for use by healthcare professionals and policy makers for outreach to the general public and provide the nutritional foundation for federal nutrition programs. The dietary guidelines should not be considered clinical guidelines for the treatment of disease.” The announcement notes that

Steeped in scientific evidence, the key recommendations look similar to those of the past and address two topics that garnered much attention throughout the development of the guidelines – added sugars and alcoholic beverages. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 carried forward the committee’s emphasis on limiting these dietary components, but did not include changes to quantitative recommendations, as there was not a preponderance of evidence in the material the committee reviewed to support specific changes, as required by law. As in previous editions, limited intake of these two food components is encouraged. In fact, this sentiment remains prominent throughout the policy document and complements 

For consumers, USDA’s MyPlate translates and packages these principles of dietary guidance for Americans in a way that is handy and accessible. To share these messages broadly, USDA offers the Start Simple with MyPlate campaign and a new MyPlate websiteto help individuals, families, and communities make healthy food choices that are easy, accessible, and affordable, in addition to helping prevent chronic disease. For more information, please visit www.myplate.gov.

Funny, the FEHBlog no longer sees Christmas cookies on his plate.

P.S. The Senate did not vote on the stipend increase or the NDAA veto today per the Wall Street Journal. This session of Congress ends on Saturday.

Monday Roundup

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Today, the House of Representatives voted 322-87 to override the President’s veto of the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. Govexec notes that “The NDAA contains several provisions for federal employees, such as making technical corrections to the paid parental leave policy from last year’s bill and waiving the normal annual cap for unused leave from year to year.” The Senate is expected to complete the veto action in a vote tomorrow. This would be the first time that Congress has overridden one of President Trump’s vetoes.

The House of Representatives also voted in favor of a “clean bill” to amend the latest COVID-19 relief law (H.R. 133) by increasing the direct stipend from $600 to $2000 per person. That bill now goes to the Senate.

The FEHBlog noted earlier this month that the American Hospital Association had asked Congress not to disrupt payer / provider network contracting in the COVID-19 relief bill. Of course, the surprise billing restrictions may encourage in-network providers to make the jump to out-of-network status particularly if the surprise billing arbitration decisions favor the providers. Time will tell on that one, but the following ACA amendment in H.R. 133 reminded the FEHBlog of the AHA’s warning.


Not later than January 1, 2022, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Secretary of Labor, and the Secretary of the Treasury shall issue a proposed rule implementing the protections of section 2706(a) of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 300gg-5(a)). The Secretaries shall accept and consider public comments on any proposed rule issued pursuant to this subsection for a period of 60 days after the date of such issuance. Not later than 6 months after the date of the conclusion of the comment period, the Secretaries shall issue a final rule implementing the protections of section 2706(a) of the Public Health Service Act

Congress has set the fuse on another one of the Affordable Care Act’s time bombs directed at provider networks. Section 2706(a) reads as follows:

A group health plan and a health insurance issuer offering group or individual health insurance coverage shall not discriminate with respect to participation under the plan or coverage against any health care provider who is acting within the scope of that provider’s license or certification under applicable State law. This section shall not require that a group health plan or health insurance issuer contract with any health care provider willing to abide by the terms and conditions for participation established by the plan or issuer. Nothing in this section shall be construed as preventing a group health plan, a health insurance issuer, or the Secretary from establishing varying reimbursement rates based on quality or performance measures.

The Obama Administration on April 29, 2013, issued the following ACA FAQ on this law:

Q2:  Will the Departments be issuing regulations addressing PHS Act section 2706(a) prior to its effective date?

No.  The statutory language of PHS Act section 2706(a) is self-implementing and the Departments do not expect to issue regulations in the near future.  PHS Act section 2706(a) is applicable to non-grandfathered group health plans and health insurance issuers offering group or individual health insurance coverage for plan years (in the individual market, policy years) beginning on or after January 1, 2014. 

Until any further guidance is issued, group health plans and health insurance issuers offering group or individual coverage are expected to implement the requirements of PHS Act section 2706(a) using a good faith, reasonable interpretation of the law.  For this purpose, to the extent an item or service is a covered benefit under the plan or coverage, and consistent with reasonable medical management techniques specified under the plan with respect to the frequency, method, treatment or setting for an item or service, a plan or issuer shall not discriminate based on a provider’s license or certification, to the extent the provider is acting within the scope of the provider’s license or certification under applicable state law.  This provision does not require plans or issuers to accept all types of providers into a network.  This provision also does not govern provider reimbursement rates, which may be subject to quality, performance, or market standards and considerations.

The Departments will work together with employers, plans, issuers, states, providers, and other stakeholders to help them come into compliance with the provider nondiscrimination provision and will work with families and individuals to help them understand the law and benefit from it as intended. 

The FEHBlog recalls that ancillary providers such as chiropractors were particularly exercised by, and insurers were relieved by, the Administration’s statement that “This provision does not govern provider reimbursement rates, which may be subject to quality, performance, or market standards and considerations.” While the statute does not expressly mention consideration of “market standards and considerations,” such a fine point has not stopped federal agencies from elaborating on statutory standards in the past. The FEHBlog expects that this mandated rule making will be a tug of war over statutory interpretation that will wind up in the courts If the providers win this tug of war and the surprise billing arbitrations, then healthcare spending will resume its upward curve.

And there’s more to follow tomorrow. If you want to find the text of H.R. 133 visit this Congress.gov website and download the PDF of the enrolled bill. The ACA amendments may be found in Division BB. You can search for Division BB using the Adobe Acrobat find tool.