Midweek Update

Midweek Update

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

OPM has released the 2020 highlights of its FEHB Plan Performance Assessment System. With this system, the 2020 plan scores which are based on 2019 data are used to determine the 2021 service charge for experience rated plans and the 2021 performance adjustment for community rated plans. 2020 was a tricky scoring year because the data was being gathered and analyzed just as the great hunkering down began in March 2020.

Reg Jones provide FEHB background for federal employees in Fedweek.

On the COVID-19 front, Bloomberg discusses the work of the federal government’s recently created COVID-19 Community Corps. The article discusses a Maine dairy farmer who set up a COVID-19 vaccination clinic for her employees and community members. “Organized in small teams that run the gamut from veterans and religious groups to progressive youth organizations and a Black LGBTQ group, the corps has been in the forefront of reaching the reluctant. The idea is that this wide demographic outreach will radiate, so that the friends and neighbors of the vaccinated follow suit.” Bravo.

WTOP, a local news radio station here in Washington DC reports that Pfizer “will seek [emergency] approval for use [of its COVID-19 vaccine] in children between 2 and 11 years old as early as September.

In other healthcare news

  • Mobihealth News reports that “On-demand behavioral health platform Ginger is now available as a health benefit for Cigna’s 14 million members, the companies announced [on April 28]. Members with Cigna’s employer-sponsored or individual and family insurance plans can now access Ginger’s behavioral health coaching, therapy and psychiatry services as an in-network benefit.” Smart move.
  • Healthcare Dive reports that “Telehealth utilization among the commercially insured fell 16% from January to February, the first month-to-month drop since September, according to a tracker from nonprofit Fair Health. The data suggests a potential slowdown in demand for virtual care services that spiked last year in the early months of COVID-19. Historically high levels of telehealth utilization spurred an unprecedented influx of cash into the digital health sector, but the sustainability of that boom depends in part on continued demand from consumers that could be waning as vaccinations increase and the pandemic wanes. Mental health conditions continued to top the list of diagnoses. However, COVID-19, which joined the top five diagnoses list in December, dropped from the list, likely reflecting the national decline in cases in February.”
  • Since Monday the FEHBlog has been looking at the Health Affairs blog to post here Katie Keith’s follow up post on the 457 page long second final ACA notice of benefit and payment parameters. It turns out that he had posted Prof. Keith’s follow up post on Monday and that the lead entry was made last Saturday May 1. Here are the links to Prof. Keith’s lead and follow up posts on that important ACA rule making. Considering it’s Cinqo de Maio, lo siento lectors.

The FEHBlog hasn’t mentioned the Econtalk podcast in a while but he does listen every week. This week the host Russ Roberts spoke with behavioral scientist Katy Milkman of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania talks about her new book How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.” Professor Milkman talks about soft commitment strategies [to achieve goals] and hard commitment strategies. An example of a soft commitment strategy involved a doctor posting a letter visible to patients committing to specific Choosing Wisely recommendations such as proper prescribing of antibiotics. As for hard commitments she notes this example, which was news to the FEHBlog, “websites like StikK and Beeminder that let you fine yourself if you’re not achieving your goals.” She also discusses the carrot strategy .”The carrot is, let’s actually figure out ways to make it more enjoyable in the moment, and that way your willpower won’t be needed to do the thing that’s good for you.” An example is binging junk TV while using the treadmill. Their discussion on self control is fascinating. Check it out.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID-19 Data Tracker website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 14th week of 2020 through 17th week of this year (beginning April 2, 2020, and ending April 28, 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 over the period (April 2, 2020, through April 28, 2021):

Finally here is a COVID-19 vaccinations chart over the period December 17, 2020, through April 28, 2021 which also uses Thursday as the first day of the week:

As of yesterday, 39% of the U.S. population over age 18 and 68.8% of those over age 65 have been fully vaccinated. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Office of Minority Health will host a May 13 webinar on building COVID-19 vaccine confidence. Register for the 12 p.m. ET webinar here. The FEHBlog already has done so.

The American Hospital Association reports that “The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services today released a second final notice of benefit and payment parameters to implement standards governing health insurance issuers and marketplaces for 2022 that were not finalized in the Jan. 19 final rule. CMS chose not to finalize the proposed premium adjustment percentage and instead finalized a lower percentage, resulting in lower maximum out-of-pocket costs for consumers ($8,700 for individuals and $17,400 for families) than originally proposed.” These are the 2022 out of pocket maximums on in-network cost sharing that apply to FEHB plans. Here’s a link to the HHS press release which promises even more guidance down the road.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced the winner and runner-up in its healthcare artificial intelligence competition today. “Out of more than 300 initial entries, ClosedLoop.ai was chosen as the grand prize winner and will receive up to $1 million in prize money. Based in Austin, Texas, the company is a leader in developing healthcare data science solutions. Challenge Runner-Up Geisinger, a non-profit healthcare system based in Danville, Pennsylvania [and the carrier of an FEHB plan], will receive up to $230,000 in prize money.” Congratulations.

Midweek Update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

Bloomberg reports today that

The B.1.1.7 variant of the coronavirus, first found in the U.K., has overtaken the initial form of the virus in the U.S. and is now the country’s most common strain, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at a briefing that the version had overtaken other mutations that have emerged, as well as the initial version of the virus in the U.S.

The Centers for Disease control has identified the B.1.1.7 variant as a “variant of concern” which means

A variant for which there is evidence of an increase in transmissibility, more severe disease (increased hospitalizations or deaths), significant reduction in neutralization by antibodies generated during previous infection or vaccination, reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines, or diagnostic detection failures.

Here is the CDC’s breakdown on the B.1.1.7. variant:

(Pango lineage)
Spike Protein SubstitutionsName
First DetectedBEI Reference IsolatebKnown Attributes
20I/501Y.V1United KingdomNR-54000external icon~50% increased transmission 5

Likely increased severity based on hospitalizations and case fatality rates 6
Minimal impact on neutralization by EUA monoclonal antibody therapeutics 7, 14
Minimal impact on neutralization by convalescent and post-vaccination sera 8,9,10,11,12,13,19

WebMD adds that “Of the three “variants of concern” recognized by the World Health Organization and the CDC, studies have shown that the mRNA vaccines created by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, as well as the Novavax vaccine, remain highly effective against the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first recognized in the United Kingdom. * * * Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, and Pfizer are all exploring options to make their vaccines more effective against the variants [of concern].”

The Wall Street Journal offers a helpful tip — “Pharmacies and health officials are making a plea to Americans who received their Covid-19 vaccines: Cancel the other shots you booked.” That is sensible advice.

The Department of Health and Human Service reports today that “more than half a million consumers have already signed up for health insurance through HealthCare.gov as a result of the Biden Administration’s Special Enrollment Period (SEP) for the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency. * * * Today’s report from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), which covers plan selections from February 15 to March 31, also shows gains in enrollment among historically uninsured communities, including Black consumers and Americans near the poverty level. Of applicants who identified a race, 17% identified as Black – compared to about 11% in both 2020 and 2019 during the same time period. Among consumers requesting financial assistance, 41% report being at or slightly above the federal poverty level, compared to 38% in 2020 and 33% in 2019.” The SEP continues until August 15, 2021. Will / can HHS make the open enrollment permanent?

In other heathcare / healthcare business news:

  • Healthcare Dive reports “UnitedHealth Group has named longtime executive Brian Thompson as the new chief executive officer of its health benefits business, UnitedHealthcare, the biggest private payer in the U.S.”
  • The CDC discusses the “Surprising Link Between Chronic Kidney Disease, Diabetes, and Heart Disease.”

Risk factors for each condition are similar and include high blood sugar, high blood pressure, family history, obesity, unhealthy diet, and physical inactivity.

High blood sugar can slowly damage the kidneys, and, over time, they can stop filtering blood as well as they should, leading to CKD. Approximately 1 in 3 adults with diabetes has CKD.

When the kidneys don’t work well, more stress is put on the heart. When someone has CKD, their heart needs to pump harder to get blood to the kidneys. This can lead to heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States. Change in blood pressure is also a CKD complication that can lead to heart disease. Luckily, preventing or managing one condition can help you prevent and manage the others and lower the risk for more complications [as explained in the article].

  • The Labor Department today issued FAQs and model forms to help ERISA governed plans implement the free COBRA continuation coverage available from April 1 through September 30, 2021, for COBRA-eligible folks who lost their ERISA coverage due to an involuntary termination or reduction in hours. This offer does not extend to FEHB enrollees who are covered under a different continuation of coverage program colloquially known as TCC>
  • Fedweek offers Reg Jone’s column on benefits available on the death of a current federal employee. These are very valuable rights that protect the employee’s family.

Weekend update

Photo by Michele Orallo on Unsplash

Happy Easter!

Congress remains on State/district work breaks for the coming week.

As of the beginning of this week, according the CDC’s website, 75.4% of the U.S population over age 65 and 40.2% of the U.S. population over age 18 has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. 54.5% of the over age 65 population and 23.2% of the over 18 age population have been fully vaccinated.

That’s progress. Here are a couple of interesting angles on the vaccine distribution process:

  • The Wall Street Journal reports that “Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine has found a niche among organizations that work with the homeless, who say the one-dose shot is better-suited for a population that can be difficult to reach twice.”

[H]ealthcare workers say they have been surprised to find many homeless people specifically requesting the J&J vaccine, which is branded as Janssen, a unit of J&J. Some of them point out that the shot was still effective even though it was tested after Covid-19 variants entered the mix. Others say they are worried about getting a vaccine once, let alone twice, given the potential side effects.

“If you’re in a shelter, or don’t have a home, those side effects are different than if you can stay at home,” said Bobby Watts, chief executive of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, which supports hundreds of providers that cater to the homeless.

  • Health Payer Intelligence informs us that “To ensure COVID-19 vaccine access for homebound individuals, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has partnered with the Commonwealth Care Alliance (CCA), a health plan that says it has proven best practices for vaccinating this population.” “The Commonwealth defines a “homebound” individual as anyone who needs assistance from two or more people to leave home. In Massachusetts, there are about 20,000 individuals who meet this definition.”

As one of the first healthcare organizations in the country to vaccinate homebound individuals, CCA has also been part of the national discussion around strategies to ensure COVID-19 vaccine access for this population. Last month, CCA joined AHIP in briefing the White House, promoting the prioritization of homebound individuals in COVID-19 vaccine delivery efforts and underlining CCA’s best practices in this endeavor.

Speaking of AHIP, the organization on Friday announced

AHIP’s new SEP landing page also features other important resources to help guide consumers through the SEP, including fast facts, an educational blog, a link to a Get Covered Connector tool offered by Young Invincibles, and a link to a Health Insurance Marketplace Calculator provided by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“Health insurance coverage is an important way to protect your health and financial stability, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Matt Eyles, president and CEO of AHIP.  “Health insurance available through the individual marketplaces cover products and services such as COVID-19 care and vaccines, mental health care and support, $0 copay preventive care, regular doctor visits and prescription medications to keep you healthy, and much more.”

In other COVID-19 news, Kaiser Health News provides details on over-the-counter COVID-19 testing kits.

Even with vaccines, epidemiologists say, rapid tests are desperately needed because more testing, along with mask-wearing and physical distancing, will get people back in offices and classrooms and help catch cases that go undetected. * * *

[M]any experts support the widespread distribution of cheap, rapid tests, even if they aren’t as sensitive as lab-run alternatives, and see a demand. In Germany, the supermarket chain Aldi began selling rapid tests in early March, roughly $30 for a five-pack, and sold out within hours. One recent study found that if a pack of tests was mailed to every household in the U.S. — even assuming that up to 75% would go into the garbage — they would save thousands of lives and avert millions of infections. “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good,” said study co-author and Yale University professor A. David Paltiel. “This doesn’t have to work perfectly to make a huge difference.”

The Federal News Network shares opinions that it obtained from former OPM officials on the recent National Academy of Public Administration report on the agency.

Janice Lachance, the Clinton-era OPM director, sees the budget as a good starting point for the Biden administration and the new director. The president nominated Kiran Ahuja, a former chief of staff for the agency, for the role.

“The new director has a tremendous opportunity to go in there, do a very effective assessment of the situation and make a reasonable request that covers all of the things that need to be done — and that we want to do,” said Lachance, who currently serves as an executive vice president for the American Geophysical Union. “The NAPA report is very aspirational. What is it going to take to get OPM from where it is today to this desired state that’s articulated in the NAPA report over how many years?”

The new director, Lachance added, will need to make the case why an empowered OPM will help resolve the federal government’s talent problems.

Tuesday Tidbits

The FEHBlog was wondering today whether the clinical trial review board had given AstraZeneca a heads up about its concerns with the company’s press release before making the midnight press release on that topic. The New York Times reports that

“Only hours after AstraZeneca announced encouraging news about the effectiveness of its Covid-19 vaccine on Monday, a group of medical experts charged with monitoring the company’s clinical trial made a highly unusual accusation: AstraZeneca had essentially cherry-picked data to make its vaccine look better.

The accusation, in a two-page letter sent Monday to the company and federal officials, was a fresh blow to the credibility of a vaccine whose low price and relatively easy storage have made it critical to the global fight against the coronavirus pandemic.”

In other words, AstraZeneca, which is partnering with the University of Oxford, knew about the credibility concerns yet didn’t pull back the press release in the face of such criticism. The company’s failure to respond lead to a “sharply worded” statement  from the the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases [issued] on Tuesday shortly after midnight, disclosing the panel’s concerns.

The New York Times explains that

The fight is about the degree of effectiveness of a vaccine that is considered highly safe and effective.

While AstraZeneca said on Monday that its vaccine appeared to be 79 percent effective at preventing Covid-19, the panel of independent experts said the actual number may have been between 69 percent and 74 percent. The mass availability of a vaccine with even a 69 percent efficacy rate could help the world conquer the coronavirus.

But the public airing of a conflict between a pharmaceutical company and a board overseeing a clinical trial is almost unheard-of. It is certain to trigger extra scrutiny of the vaccine by the Food and Drug Administration and other regulators if, as expected, AstraZeneca seeks their authorization to use it on an emergency basis in the United States.

This is a sad state of affairs.

And now for some tidbits

  • The Department of Health and Human Services announced today its decision to the extend the Affordable Care Act marketplace special enrollment period for an additional three months. The last day to enroll will be August 15 instead of May 15, 2021.
  • Fierce Healthcare reports that “The Senate is likely to consider a bill this week that would extend a moratorium on 2% cuts to Medicare payments, according to the American Hospital Association. The extension is a major priority for hospital and doctor groups that say providers are still suffering financially due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
  • In a piece of good news, Healthcare Dive informs us that

After cancer screenings for breast and colon cancers plummeted at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, they rebounded by the end of July, according to a new report in the Journal of General Internal Medicine that analyzed the private insurance claims of 6.8 million people ages 45 to 64.

In fact, the rate of women seeking mammograms was higher by the end of July than in the months leading up to the pandemic. Prior to mid-March, or when the public health crisis began, the median weekly rate of mammogram screenings were 87.8 women per 10,000 beneficiaries. That figure improved to 88.2 screenings per 10,000 beneficiaries by the end of July.

However, the rate of colonoscopies did not return to pre-pandemic levels, but returned to near normal, according to the researchers. In the months leading up to the crisis, median weekly colonoscopy rates were 15.1 per 10,000 beneficiaries and later rebounded to only 12.6 per 10,000 beneficiaries.

  • The Federal News Network reports on the Postal Service’s long awaited ten year business plan which was released today.

Weekend update

Photo by Mark Tegethoff on Unsplash

The House of Representatives is engaged in committee work this week which will be followed by three weeks of district work. The Senate will engage in a floor voting, including a confirmation vote on the Secretary of Labor nominee Martin Walsh tomorrow, as well as committee work.

Healthcare Dive reports that

  • The House passed a bill Friday to extend the pause on Medicare sequester cuts until Dec. 31. The cuts have been on hold for a year but are set to go back into effect at the end of March.
  • The bill passed on a 246-175 bipartisan vote and also exempts the latest $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill from budget rules that would have imposed additional cuts on Medicare payments to providers.
  • “We now look forward to working with the U.S. Senate to achieve relief from the pending Medicare sequester cuts before they go into effect,” the American Hospital Association said in a Friday statement.

Medicare sequester cuts tend to boomerang on private sector health plans, including FEHB plans.

Following up on Friday’s Stats and More, the FEHBlog compared new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths per 100,000 by age groups as of January 2, 2021, and last Wednesday March 17, 2021.

This chart has a left axis measured in hundreds
This chart’s left axis ranged from zero to sixteen.

Because the March 17 new deaths rates are not visible in this chart, here are those numbers that the FEHBlog copied from the CDC’s website for last week’s new death statistics by age group

 Week ended 3-17-202118-2425-3435-5455-6465-7980+
New Deaths  per 100,000 00000.010.03

That, my friends, illustrates the work of the COVID-19 vaccines over the past two and half months. The Wall Street Journal reports today

Both the production and administration of shots have picked up in recent weeks. Now, some 2.5 million people in the U.S. are vaccinated daily on average, up from about 500,000 in early January, though many who want a vaccine still can’t get it.

The increased output should be enough to fully vaccinate 76 million people in the U.S. in March, another 75 million in April and then 89 million more in May, according to estimates from Evercore ISI analysts. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines require two doses.

By midsummer, 75% of Americans 12 years old and above should be vaccinated, according to Morgan Stanley. The vaccines aren’t currently authorized for anyone younger than 16, but companies may have results this spring for studies of the shots in adolescents 12 and older, which, if positive, could lead to vaccinations for that age group. The companies are also starting to test the vaccines in children younger than 12, but results of those studies aren’t expected until late this year. 

Keep your sunny side up.

In other healthcare news:

  • Katie Keith in the Health Affairs Blog informs us that the impact of American Rescue Plan’s new ACA marketplace subsidies will be made known to consumers on April 1, 2021.

Enhanced subsidies are available for the entire 2021 plan year to anyone who qualifies and enrolls in marketplace coverage. This includes individuals who enrolled during the 2021 open enrollment period (and have had coverage since January 2021), individuals who enrolled before the American Rescue Plan was enacted (during special enrollment periods in 2021), and individuals who will enroll during the rest of 2021.

Consumers will be able to see the availability of the enhanced subsidies at HealthCare.gov beginning on April 1. But the process to “claim” these enhanced subsidies will look slightly different for new consumers versus existing consumers. (This process will also vary for consumers in states with their own marketplaces, which may adopt policies and timelines that differ from those for HealthCare.gov.)

Just like any other year, individuals can choose to receive all or some of the enhanced PTC in advance (i.e., have it paid to the insurer on their behalf each month) or wait to receive PTC at tax time in 2022 (i.e., while paying full premiums to the insurer each month). Because the cost of health insurance is so high for so many people, most marketplace enrollees opt for advance PTCs to reduce the amount they owe in monthly premiums.

The federal ACA marketplace and many state ACA marketplaces are in the middle of a special Open Season that run until May 15, 2021.

  • The HHS Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s Director concluded Patient Safety Week with reflections available at this link. Among the observations were the following:

The quest to learn more about what contributes to diagnostic inaccuracies and delays has already been a focus area for AHRQ. We began investing in diagnostic safety and quality research in 2007 and have helped build interest around the topic. Diagnostic error harms too many and costs too much .  

When I think about options for tackling the issue of diagnostic safety, I’m reminded of the progress we’ve made with our successful Healthcare-Associated Infections (HAI) Program. AHRQ’s HAI Program is dedicated to understanding the problems that can harm patients, identifying what works to prevent infections, and then developing, testing, and refining tools to put that knowledge into practice on the front lines of care. AHRQ has achieved a great deal working alongside clinicians, patients, and other stakeholders focused on HAI prevention throughout government and the private sector.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

The President signed the American Rescue Plan (H.R. 1319) into law today.

Mercer provides a useful overview of the provisions of the law affecting employers. The COBRA subsidy discussed in the article does not apply to the temporary continuation coverage applicable to federal and postal employees. The COBRA subsidy in any event is only available to employees who lost health coverage due to involuntary termination of employment or reduction in hours.

On the bright side, the new law “increases the income exclusion for employer-provided dependent care assistance programs — for example, employee pretax contributions to dependent care FSAs — from $5,000 to $10,500 (and from $2,500 to $5,250 for a married individual filing a separate return) for 2021.” The FEHBlog expects that OPM will adopt this FSA change because the dependent care FSA is fully funded by the employee with no insurance risk to the employer.

Katie Keith in Health Affairs digs into the law’s financial support for the Affordable Care Act marketplace and its beneficiaries.

From the COVID front —

  • The White House has announced that the Biden administration will seek to “make every adult in the U.S. eligible for vaccination no later than May 1.” This fact sheet explains that steps that will be taken to make good on that plan.  The FEHBlog believes that this is an achievable goal.
  • David Leonhardt in the New York Times offers an interesting take on herd immunity from COVID-19. He explains that

Herd immunity is more like a light dimmer. The more people develop immunity — either from having been infected or from being vaccinated — the less easily the virus will spread.

Nearly 30 percent of Americans have now had the virus, according to Youyang Gu, a data scientist. (That includes many people who have never taken a Covid test.) About 18 percent have received at least one vaccine shot. There is some overlap between these two groups, which means that about 40 percent of Americans now have some protection from Covid.

Had these people been exposed to the virus a year ago, they could have become infected — and then spread Covid to others. Today, many are protected.

What’s more Mr. Leonhardt’s first dose of vaccination figure (18%) reflects the total U.S. population. However the vaccines generally are available only to people over 18 years of age. The Centers for Disease Control reports today that 25.1% of that population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The FEHBlog nearly fell off his share today when he noticed a new statistic on the CDC site showing that 62.4% of the U.S. population over age 65 has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. That’s great news.

In legislative / regulatory news —

  • Healthcare Dive reports that Xavier Becerra will soon receive a Senate floor vote on his nomination to serve as Secretary of Health and Human Services.
  • Govexec reports that “Postmaster General Louis DeJoy will soon request a $40 billion investment into the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service for organizational and workforce improvements, saying the money will help address longstanding challenges the mailing agency faces.  The funds would go toward infrastructure updates such as larger facilities and new package sortation equipment, DeJoy told a panel of the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday [March 11], and reducing turnover in the USPS workforce.”
  • Healthcare Dive also discusses hospital pricing information that has been gleaned from the online reports required by the federal government’s hospital pricing transparency rule. It’s not pretty.

Weekend update

Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

The House of Representatives and the Senate will be engaged in committee and floor work this coming week. Fierce Healthcare reports on healthcare provisions found in the Senate passed American Rescue Plan bill.

Insurers will likely be happy with a temporary boost to income-based subsidies for customers on the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges for 2021 and 2022.

Under current law, anyone making 400% above the federal poverty level are not eligible for subsidies to pay down the cost of insurance.

However, under the legislation, anyone making 400% above the poverty level won’t have to pay more than 8.5% of their income on health insurance.

The bill would also ensure that low-income customers won’t have to pay anything for their coverage.

Currently, those making 150% above the poverty level pay no more than 4.3% of their income on healthcare. But the legislation would make their coverage fully subsidized.

The legislation would also offer premium assistance to cover up to 100% of COBRA costs for eligible individuals and families through the end of September.

Another change in the Senate version from the House concerns the removal of a cap on the Medicaid drug rebate, changing the removal of the cap to 2024 instead of 2023. The removal of the rebate cap, which kicks in at 100% of a drug’s average manufacturing price, will lead to higher rebates for Medicaid drugs.

The Wall Street Journal informs us that

The $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill returns to the House of Representatives this week, where lawmakers will gear up for a vote as soon as Tuesday on the package following narrow approval Saturday by the Senate that came only after concessions to moderate Democrats.

The Senate changes to the bill, which first passed the House Feb. 27 with more generous unemployment provisions, mean House Speaker Nancy Pelosi must hold together her slim majority caucus for a second House vote to send President Biden’s top legislative priority to his desk.

The House is expected to hold a procedural vote on the bill Monday night, with final passage slated for Tuesday. 

Speaking of the Affordable Care Act marketplace, Katie Keith updates on the successful first two weeks of the ongoing marketplace special enrollment period.

In other healthcare news

  • Bloomberg reports on developing approaches to overcome COVID-19 hesitancy. “To do that, officials must make the process of getting shots easier, and fight misinformation about the vaccines, concerns about the speed of development and distrust of government and health-care institutions.” As of today, 23% of the eligible U.S population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. The FEHBlog noticed today that the Johnson & Johnson single dose vaccine is now being administered at the Maryland mass vaccination sites in Baltimore and Waldorf. It strikes the FEHBlog that the single dose vaccine will be more attractive to the hesitant.
  • NPR Shots offers a physician’s take on five types of medical visits that you should stop putting off. “Emerging evidence tells us that the health threats from postponing some tests and exams — including those for cancer and heart disease, but other crucial appointments too — outweigh the risk of running into the coronavirus at a doctor’s visit, even if the virus is prevalent in your community.”

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%

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