The FEHBlog

Midweek update

Yesterday, the FEHBlog noted a study from late March to early April showing a big drop in non-COVID healthcare. (After all it is a lawyer’s job to belabor the obvious.) Today, Fierce Healthcare reports on a Commonwealth Fund study finding a “slight” pick up in that care later in April. “The rebound occurred across all specialties, although the decline in visits remains largest among surgical and procedural specialties alongside pediatrics, the study said.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that

A study published this week found that banning mass gatherings had the biggest contribution to bringing the epidemic under control in Germany.

Superspreading events could even reignite the epidemic when the situation appears under control, said Prof. Cristopher Moore, a physicist with the Santa Fe Institute.

Dr. Streeck, the German virologist, agrees. While most experts expect a deadly second wave of coronavirus infections in the fall, he thinks a sharper focus on preventing superspreading events and vigilant monitoring could help avoid such a scenario.

The FEHBlog would gladly take a ban on mass gatherings over the great hunkering down. Add fake crowd noise to sporting events with fans just like TV shows add canned laughter.

In the same vein, Healthcare Dive informs us that

Apple and Google have launched software allowing public health agencies to create contact tracing apps that will notify users if they’ve been close to a person who has tested positive for COVID-19. The infrastructure, dubbed Exposure Notification, uses the Bluetooth radios within iOS and Android systems for contact tracing apps and will be part of a software update the companies are pushing out Wednesday. Amid privacy concerns, Apple and Google say the apps will be fully opt-in and have other built-in consumer protections.

22 countries and several U.S. states have requested and been given access to the technology so far.

Beckers Hospital Review unfortunately lets us know that U.S. births hit a 35 year low in 2019. No bueno.

Monday Roundup

Fierce Biotech reports on today’s positive but not definitive results from Moderna’s early COVID-19 vaccine testing. “With eyes on a phase 3 study this summer, Moderna posted promising early data for its COVID-19 vaccine. The jab prompted an immune response similar to those seen in patients who have recovered from the disease.” Fingers crossed.

CVS Health, Walgreen’s and Rite Aid / Verily continue to expand their drive up COVID-19 testing capabilities. Healthcare Dive reports that the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) last Friday “authorized multiple laboratories to test for coronavirus in nasal samples collected by consumers using an at-home kit” produced by Everlywell. This is the second FDA approved at home kit.

What’s more, Fierce Biotech reports that Verily’s Project Baseline “has launched a new clinical research effort focused on COVID-19 antibody testing and exploring the body’s immune response to the novel coronavirus.” Fierce Healthcare adds that the American Medical Association is offering guidance on COVID-19 antibody testing for physicians. “Although many are using these tests to determine whether an individual had COVID-19, we encourage physicians to only use antibody tests authorized by the FDA and only for the purposes of population-level studies [like the Project Baseline study], evaluating recovered individuals for convalescent plasma donations, or along with other clinical information as part of a well-defined testing plan for groups or individuals.”

A friend of the FEHBlog called his attention to this federal government list of top ten routinely exploited cybersecurity vulnerabilities and mitigations over the period 2016 through 2019 and this year.

Weekend update

The House of Representatives returned to Capitol Hill on Friday to pass a resolution (H.R. Res. No. 965) permitting remote Committee hearings and proxy voting during a federal declared emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic. The House also passed a wide-ranging, $3 trillion COVID-19 relief bill known as the HEROES Act (H.R. 6888) by a narrow 208-199 vote. The House thereby laid down its wishlist before the Senate and the President in the looming negotiations over what would be the fourth COVID-19 relief bill.

The FEHBlog’s favorite podcast Econtalk featured a special edition in which the host Stanford economist Russ Roberts interviewed Nobel in Economics laureate Paul Romer about the COVID-19 pandemic. Mr. Romer supports much less hunkering down and a lot more testing. It’s worth the hour or so to listen to the interview.

In other news:

  • The Washington Post reports that “Four months into the U.S. coronavirus epidemic, tests for the virus finally are becoming widely available, a crucial step toward lifting stay-at-home orders and safely returning to normal life. But while many states no longer report crippling supply shortages, a new problem has emerged: too few people lining up to get tested.” This word needs to get out.
  • Healthcare Dive discusses health insurer and tech company efforts to help their employer plan sponsors to safely reopen their businesses.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports on the state of the race to develop a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine. Eight investigational versions have begun human testing trials. “Testing of early vaccines could show the way for subsequent shots by giving researchers a better idea of the level of immune response needed to provide protection against the virus, Emory’s Dr. Orenstein said.”
  • Fierce Healthcare discusses J.D. Powers 2020 analysis of consumer attitudes toward commercial health plans. “Consumers want a coordinated, integrated experience that their health plan may be unwilling or unable to provide, [James Breen from J.D. Power] said. “Health plan members have an expectation that health insurance companies do that, but I’m not certain whether or not health insurance companies feel that’s part of their major role, so there’s a disconnect there,” Beem said.

Friday Stats and More

Per the CDC’s COVID-19 Cases in the U.S. that the FEHBlog tracks, the number of COVID-19 cases crossed the 1.4 million mark and the number of COVID-19 deaths exceeded 85,000 today. The CDC’s COVIDView confirms that the rate of increase continues to slow. For what it’s worth, the FEHBlog-calculated COVID-19 case mortality rate has been pretty stable for the past month. The Wall Street Journal’s Numbers columnist discusses COVID-19 stats her latest column.

Dividing fatalities by the number of confirmed illnesses produces the case fatality rate. [That’s FEHBlog’s approach] A better estimate of lethality divides fatalities by the number of people infected. But no one knows how many people are infected with Covid-19.

“Right now the death rate is a guess,” Dr. [Fred] Brauer said. “I’ve seen ranges from one-tenth of a percentage point to 3%.”

The FEHBlog has been tracking the simple case mortality rate to find a plateau and the FEHBlog thinks we may be there.

Recently, the filing of Supreme Court briefs defending the Affordable Care Act’s constitutionality have lead some press outlets to raise an alarm. The best chill pill is to read this Reason article by Prof. Jonathan Adler who filed on the 38 friends of the Court briefs supporting the statute’s constitutionality. The article’s title says it all — “The Penalty-less Individual Mandate Is Severable from the Rest of the ACA No Matter How You Look at It.” Amen to that.

A friend of the FEHBlog brought to his attention this C-SPAN interview with Dr. David Kimberlin. Dr. Kimberlin is pediatric infectious diseases chair at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He talked about how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting children. He expresses concern that the COVID-19 pandemic is discouraging parents from taking their children to pediatrician for routine childhood vaccinations. He encourages parents to contact their pediatrician to learn how the vaccinations can be obtained safely. That’s important advice.

In other news —

  • Becker’s Hospital Review discusses each of the fifteen hospital closures that have occurred in the United State this year.
  • STAT News reports that “fueled by the Covid-19 pandemic, remote heart monitoring could become tech’s next big target.
    • “Both Apple and Alphabet spinout Verily have watches equipped with EKGs that detect the heart abnormality atrial fibrillation, or A-fib. Apple and Amazon have recently hired prominent cardiologists to fill their ranks, while Facebook is hiring for a team overseen by Freddy Abnousi, a cardiologist and the social network’s new head of health technology. Among the new roles: an expert in the same type of technology used to monitor the heart in Fitbits and Apple Watches.”
Person using a laptop

Thursday Miscellany

A few posts ago, the FEHBlog favorably mentioned the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project. “Researchers hope transfusions of antibody-rich plasma from recovered Covid-19 patients can help neutralize the coronavirus in patients who are sick.” Today the Wall Street Journal reports that

A [Phase 2] study of thousands of Covid-19 patients who received blood plasma transfusions from recovered patients indicates the experimental therapy appears to be safe, paving the way for future studies and clinical trials.

A team of researchers at Mayo Clinic, Michigan State University and Johns Hopkins University examined health outcomes of 5,000 hospitalized patients around the U.S. who received convalescent plasma treatment, and found the transfusions resulted in few serious side effects and there wasn’t an excessive mortality rate.

Let’s go.

In other upbeat news, the Wall Street Journal reports that “More patients are turning to mail or courier to get their prescription drugs during coronavirus lockdowns, a shift from the traditional visit with a pharmacist that is expected to endure after the pandemic subsides.” Mail order delivery of maintenance medications is known to create a cost savings for health plans and their members.

Health Payer Intelligence discusses a fascinating PriceWaterHouseCoopers healthcare consumer survey conducted during the great hunkering down. The survey’s “results signal that US businesses could play an even bigger role in protecting the health of their workers, that the health system likely will make more room for telehealth and other forms of virtual care, and that the American consumer may take a more active role in managing health and participating in a system that is being remade.”

In other news —

  • The FEHBlog ran across this American Medical Association website of its COVID-19 resources.
  • Fierce Healthcare calls to our attention the Medscape Physician Compensation Report 2020. “Primary care docs brought in about $243,000, up 2.5% from $237,000 reported a year earlier. Specialists earned about $346,000 on average, up 1.5% from the $341,000 they made a year earlier.”
  • OPM issued additional COVID-19 guidance to federal agencies today. It’s not FEHBP related.

Midweek Update

Yesterday, the Internal Revenue Service created in view of the COVID-19 emergency new flexibilities for flexible spending account (FSA) holders, health savings account (“HSA”holders and cafeteria plan members by

  • extending claims periods for taxpayers to apply unused amounts remaining in a health FSA or dependent care assistance program for expenses incurred for those same qualified benefits through December 31, 2020.
  • expanding the ability of taxpayers to make mid-year elections for health coverage, health FSAs, and dependent care assistance programs, allowing them to respond to changes in needs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • applying earlier relief for high deductible health plans to cover expenses related to COVID-19, and a temporary exemption for telehealth services retroactively to The notice increases the limit for unused health FSA carryover amounts from $500, to a maximum of $550, as adjusted annually for inflation.January 1, 2020.

The IRS also increased “the limit for unused health FSA carryover amounts from $500, to a maximum of $550, as adjusted annually for inflation.”

The Board of Directors of America’s Health Insurance Plans issued a statement on “Safely Re-Opening America’s Health Care System and Resuming Needed Procedures and Treatments, Routine Care, and Preventive Services” in the wake of the COVID-19 emergency. The statement encourages continued use of telehealth and sensible applic ation / waivers of health plan prior authorization requirements.

HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has created its own COVID-19 resources webpage. Among other things the site “provides links to research funding opportunities, AHRQ Views blog posts about the Agency’s COVID-19 activities, and examples of new AHRQ-funded research findings.”

Benefits Pro reports that “A Social Security policy analyst for the advocacy group The Senior Citizens League is estimating the cost-of-living adjustment for 2021 will be zero based on consumer price index data through April and the continued impact of COVID-19 on the economy.” A zero COLA, which occurred in 2009, 2010, and 2015, will trigger the protection of Medicare Part B premium hold harmless clause for certain but not all federal annuitants.

Tuesday Tidbits

The Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee held a COVID-19 hearing today featuring a number of federal government healthcare luminaries including Dr. Fauci. Here is a link to the hearing and the submitted testimony. The Wall Street Journal reports

Dr. Fauci said that with some states reopening before seeing a steady decline in cases and deaths, “there is a real risk you could trigger an outbreak…that could set you back rather than going forward.”

Adm. Brett Giroir, who is heading up the administration’s testing efforts, said an increased focus on testing in schools could be used as a means of surveillance to help ensuree students stay healthy.

Other health officials also emphasized the need for widespread testing to get a more accurate picture of how many people have fallen sick and to spot potentially undetected clusters of cases.

Here’s a link to the COVID Tracking Project site which provides a ton of state by state COVID-19 data, including testing data. As previously noted, GoodRx offers a complete, growing list of drive up COVID-19 test sites. Last week, one of the big U.S. lab test companies, LabCorp, began to offer “expanded access to COVID-19 antibody test through LabCorp’s wide network of doctors, healthcare providers, and online. Individuals have the ability to receive the COVID-19 IgG antibody test from their doctor, in person or through a telemedicine program, and now directly using www.LabCorp.com/antibody-testing.

A friend of the FEHBlog pointed out this National Institutes of Health website which is chock-a-block full of COVID-19 research tidbits. For example, the FEHBlog noticed a NIH study finding “nearly everyone who recovers from COVID-19 makes coronavirus antibodies.” Check it out.

The Hill brings us to date on the four leading U.S. and European COVID-19 vaccine development efforts. “There are more than 100 potential vaccine candidates, according to the World Health Organization, but only eight have entered the crucial clinical trials stage. Four are in the United States and Europe, with the rest in China.”

Healthcare Dive reports that the American Hospital Association flipped out over new price transparency rules in the fiscal year 2021 Medicare Part A hospital PPS changes proposed rule released yesterday.

Monday Mishmash

Today, the Centers for Medicare and Medicare Services released its proposed rule describing changes to its Medicare Part A prospective payment system (“PPS”) changes for the federal fiscal year beginning October 1, 2020. This PPS applies to acute and long term inpatient care. Fierce Healthcare explains that the changes represent “an approximately 1.6% increase to inpatient hospital stay payments” that will add about $2.1 billion to Medicare spending next fiscal year.

A friend of the FEHBlog recommended a book called “Together: The Healing Power of Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World” written by former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. It seems like a perfect read for the great hunkering down. The FEHBlog will let you know.

In other news:

  • Fierce Healthcare also discusses how CVS Health has adapted its specialty pharmacy to the COVID-19 emergency. According to the article, CVS Specialty is making greater use of digital tools, e.g., “a 30% increase in March alone in encounter volume through CVS Specialty’s secure messaging tool, which allows [their] pharmacists to text members directly to discuss their medications.”
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that “Atul Gawande is in advanced discussions to step down as chief executive and take on a less operational role as chairman of Haven, the health-care venture backed by Amazon.com Inc., Berkshire Hathaway Inc., and JPMorgan Chase JPM , according to people with knowledge of the matter.” Haven was the big new thing is 2018 when Dr. Gawande came aboard.
  • The HHS Office of Inspector General announced the availability of two “toolkits and the accompanying code can be used to analyze claims data for prescription drugs and identify patients who may be misusing or abusing prescription opioids and may be in need of additional case management or other followup. These toolkits and accompanying code can also be used to answer research questions about opioid utilization.”

Weekend update

Happy Mother’s Day.

Just like last week, the Senate will be in session this week while the House continues to fully hunker down. The Hill discusses five factors influencing when the House will return to Capitol Hill. It’s funny that the article does not list the Presidential election as a sixth factor. (Even the FEHBlog is entitled to have an occasional “DJT” moment. Lo siento.)

The FEHBlog forgot last Thursday to provide a link to the Senate Health Education Labor and Pension Committees “shark tank” on new tests for COVID-19. Here you go. This Committee will be holding a hearing on how to pull out of the great hunkering down on Tuesday.

For the past two months, the FEHBlog has been tracking a simplified infection fatality rate (IFR) for COVID-19 based on the CDC’s statistics. The FEHBlog is not an epidimeologist but he figured things would be looking up if the rate plateaued. The FEHBlog’s statistics do show the IFR increase slowing down over the past month. In any event, here’s a new Health Affairs article on the COVID-19 IFR for your information.

CIGNA’s PBM Express Scripts has created a program called ParachuteRX which offers reasonably priced prescription drugs to the uninsured. Cool.

The FEHBlog has been a fan of genetics-based personalized medicine. It therefore was sobering for the FEHBlog to read in the Wall Street Journal that the popular focus on personalized medicine has detracted from public health efforts. The article explains that

the first national initiative launched to try to treat today’s severely ill patients is the National Covid-19 Convalescent Plasma Project. The project originated with a small nucleus of people who, it turns out, have been prominent critics of personalized medicine over the years, including Arturo Casadevall of Johns Hopkins University, Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic and Nigel Paneth of Michigan State University.

The idea of using antibody-rich plasma from recovered patients to try to neutralize a virus in those who are ill was first used more than 100 years ago. The project is designed to buy time and save lives until a vaccine can be developed and deployed or more targeted therapies can be identified and tested. It also offers a real-world test case for ideas that had largely been confined to academic journals and debates between scientists.

Indeed the FEHBlog learned in the Great Influenza book that small scale efforts to use this antibody approach found success in the 1918-19 pandemic. It’s encouraging to read that a large scale effort is underway now. In the aftermath of the great hunkering down, a Goldilocks compromise must be reached between personalized medicine and public health efforts.

Finally, Health IT Security does a good job putting the government’s COVID-19 related flexibilities with regard to enforcing the HIPAA Privacy Rule into focus.

Friday Stats and More

Per the CDC’s COVID-19 Cases in the U.S. that the FEHBlog tracks, the number of COVID-19 cases crossed the 1.2 million mark and the number of COVID-19 deaths exceeded 70,000 this week. The case mortality rate hit 6% on Thursday after being in the 5 to 6% range for 2 1/2 weeks. Before then the case mortality rate was increasing much faster. So we evidently are plateauing. The Wall Street Journal reports that the leading cause of death in our country remains heart disease. For an even better perspective, check out the CDC’s COVIDView which is released on Fridays.

The Wall Street Journal offers a perspective on State reopening here. The FEHBlog got a kick out of listening too this 20 minute long WSJ podcast on office reopenings titled “Welcome Back to the Office. Your Every Move Will Be Watched.”

The Wall Street Journal also has a regularly updated site on COVID-19 testing and treatments.

Health Payer Intelligence brings us up to date on the Texas v. U.S. case over the Affordable Care Act’s constitutionality. The Supreme Court will hear the case next fall.

Our firm is closely monitoring the impacts of COVID-19. Effective 3/16/20, Ermer & Suter has implemented telework for all of our staff to encourage social distancing and help contain the virus. We remain fully operational and are readily available from our telework locations with no change in telephone numbers or email addresses.