Weekend update

Weekend update

Photo by Dane Deaner on Unsplash

Happy New Year. Shanah Tovah.

The House of Representatives and the Senate are scheduled to be in session this week for Committee business and floor voting. Congress is set to go on an election break on September 30, the end of the federal fiscal year. Due to the incentive to get on the campaign trail, the FEHBlog expects Congress to wrap up by the end of next weekend a continuing resolution funding the federal government through December 16. The Senate version of the continuing resolution will be released tomorrow as negotiations are ongoing.

From the Omicron and siblings front, the Department of Health and Human Services announced how the federal government supports the Covid treatment market as its funding shifts to the private sector.

From the Rx coverage front, STAT News tells us

Brand-name drugmakers increased wholesale prices by 4.9% in the second quarter this year, up slightly from 4.4% a year ago. But when accounting for inflation, wholesale prices fell by 3.7%. Inflationary pressures are likely to push wholesale prices still higher, STAT writes, citing a new analysis. At the same time, net prices that health plans paid for medicines — after subtracting rebates, discounts, and fees — dropped by 0.8%, but after considering inflation, net prices actually fell 7.9% compared with 3.8% in this year’s first quarter. This was the largest quarterly decline in real terms seen by analysts at SSR Health, which conducted the analysis.

From the litigation front, Health Affairs Forefront provides helpful background on a September 7 decision from a Texas district federal court holding the Appointments clause of the U.S. Constitution bars the federal government from treating U.S Preventive Services Task Force recommendations as binding on health plans. The lawsuit also involves a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”)claim. The Court has reserved a ruling on appropriate remedies. The FEHBlog expects that the Appointments clause challenge will not survive appellate review but who knows what can happen with an RFRA claim. Another remaining issue is the plaintiffs’ challenge to the contraceptive mandate.

From the maternal care front, MedCity News informs us

Racial disparities in maternal health complications grew amid Covid-19, BCBS report finds
Pregnancy-related complications increased 9% between 2018 and 2020 among all women, but the rate of change is even more significant among women of color. The disparities exist regardless of having commercial insurance or Medicaid. * * *

The fact that racial disparities exist regardless of commercial insurance or Medicaid coverage suggests that the issues are due to broader health challenges, including underlying conditions, racial inequities and biases in the healthcare system, according to the report.

To combat these disparities, BCBS listed several actions players in the healthcare industry can take. This includes adding nurse-midwives and birthing centers to provider networks, expanding coverage for postpartum care to one year after giving birth and using value-based contracts for maternal health.

BCBS doesn’t just call on healthcare leaders to act, but the government as well. In the report, the payer urges Congress to pass the Congressional Black Maternal Health Caucus’ Momnibus package, which provides steps to improve health outcomes for pregnant women and mothers of color. BCBS also asks for states to extend Medicaid coverage from 60 days to a full year postpartum, an option provided through the American Rescue Plan Act.

One’s race or ethnicity should not determine how likely you are to suffer from pregnancy-related complications. We must address deep-rooted issues like implicit bias and systemic racism that cause these disparities in the first place,” [Dr. Adam] Myers said in a news release.

Midweek Update

Happy First Day of Autumn!

From Capitol Hill, Roll Call discusses the Senate Majority Leader’s plans for successfully passing the continuing resolution funding the federal government through December 16, 2022.

[I]n theory the tentative plan to start the process this Thursday could lead to a final Senate vote by next Friday, when the current fiscal year expires. It might even enable the House to take up the Senate-passed bill and clear it in time to beat the midnight deadline.

All that assumes everything goes according to plan and that there’s an acceptable stopgap funding package that can pass in both chambers. None of those details have been released, but top appropriators and other lawmakers said Wednesday there’s no talk yet of a very short-term CR to buy more time.

From the Omicron and siblings’ front —

  • Fierce Healthcare tells us about the possible blossoming of another Omicron variant BF.7
  • The Wall Street Journal reports on the rollout of nasal Covid vaccines in Asia “though just how effective they are remains to be seen.” These are adenovirus, not mRNA-based, vaccines. Nonetheless

Delivering a vaccine through the nose has the potential to build up a type of immune response known as mucosal immunity, or immunity in the upper airway tract, said David Curiel, professor of radiation oncology at Washington University School of Medicine who co-developed the Bharat vaccine. That is important because mucosal immunity could more effectively block infection and transmission of the coronavirus than the type of immunity induced by injected vaccines, he said.

In other virus news, Forbes offers an illuminating article by Gayle Smith, the CEO of the ONE Campaign, which fights to end extreme poverty and preventable disease. Ms. Smith writes on the emergence of polio.

The re-emergence of polio is worrisome, particularly considering the politicization of and uneven response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Panic, however, is unwise. What is needed is vigilance and vaccination coverage. Fortunately, there are millions of people who are living proof that polio vaccines work.

This is a moment when the world can do the right thing and eradicate a preventable disease. Since the mid-1950s, a concerted global effort has confined endemic polio to only two countries and proven that this is a virus we can defeat. 

Going all the way is a moonshot and a win for the world. It is not without its challenges, of course. But it is far easier right now than defeating Covid, or malaria, or AIDS. One can only hope that ridding the world of a disease known as “infantile paralysis” might be something we can all agree on — if not for ourselves then for the children whose lives continue to be at risk.

Also, from the public health front, the National Institutes of Health helpfully informs us

In a large clinical trial that directly compared four drugs commonly used to treat type 2 diabetes, researchers found that insulin glargine and liraglutide performed the best of four medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to maintain blood glucose levels in the recommended range. Blood glucose management is a key component of keeping people with type 2 diabetes healthy. All four medications evaluated were added to treatment with metformin, which is the first-line drug to treat type 2 diabetes. The trial was funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the National Institutes of Health.

More than 37 million Americans have diabetes, and approximately 90 to 95% of them have type 2 diabetes. People with diabetes who keep their blood glucose levels in the near-normal range generally have a much lower risk of developing diabetes complications such as nerve, kidney, and eye diseases. Most people with type 2 diabetes require more than one medication to control blood sugar levels over time. 

While there is general agreement among health care professionals that metformin combined with diet and exercise is the best early approach in diabetes care, there is no consensus on what to do next to best keep high blood glucose in check.

From the wellness front, Fierce Health relates that United Healthcare is expanding its relationship with exercise machine marker Peleton. As a result, UHC will be making Pelton’s fitness services available to as many as 10 million of its members.

From the federal compensation and benefits front

  • Govexec reports on locality pay developments, and Social Security changes that Congress may approve this year.
  • Reg Jones writing in FedWeek provides a personal story about federal survivor benefits worth a gander.

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Govexec lays out what appears to be an unnecessarily complicated path to a continuing resolution funding the federal government for 10 weeks into the new federal fiscal year beginning October 1. The Senate majority leadership crafted the rocky path that stems from the compromise which lead to Congressional passage of the budget reconciliation act earlier this summer.

From the No Surprises Act front, the American Medical Association informs us

The AHA and American Medical Association today moved to dismiss their challenge to the federal government’s September 2021 interim final rule governing the No Surprises Act’s independent dispute resolution process.

The groups challenged the rule in a District of Columbia court last December, but the lawsuit became moot when the Administration released a revised final rule on Aug. 26. However, the AHA and AMA remain concerned that the final rule continues to favor insurers and does not line up with what Congress intended when it passed the law.

In a joint statement the AHA and AMA said, “No patient should fear receiving a surprise medical bill. That is why the AHA and AMA strongly supported the No Surprises Act to protect patients from unexpected medical bills and keep them out of the middle of any billing disputes between providers and commercial health insurance companies. Congress enacted the law with a balanced, patient-friendly approach, and it should be implemented that way. We have serious concerns that the August 2022 final rule departs from Congressional intent just as the September 2021 interim final rule did. Hospitals and doctors intend to make our voices heard in the courts very soon about these continued problems.”

The AHA and AMA’s suit did not seek to prevent the law’s core patient protections from moving forward. It sought only to force the Administration to bring the regulations in line with the law before the dispute negotiations begin.

The AHA / AMA lawsuit is consolidated with a suit filed by an air ambulance association which may explain why these two large provider associations are dismissing its case rather than amending their complaint. The FEHBlog does not understand why the provider associations refuse to give the new rule a chance before bringing another expensive lawsuit.

From the U.S. healthcare business front —

Fierce Healthcare reports

Walgreens Boots Alliance on Tuesday said it will buy the remaining stake in specialty pharmacy company Shields Health Solutions for approximately $1.37 billion.

Walgreens last year spent $970 million to increase its stake in the company to 71%, according to Reuters, with the possibility of taking full ownership over the pharmacy company.

The transaction is expected to be completed by the end of the year. * * *

As a specialty pharmacy, Shields offers medications with unique handling, administration and monitoring requirements. Specialty drugs are used to treat complex or rare conditions such as cancer, hepatitis and transplants. Shields currently names 30 health systems as partners, including 1,000 hospitals.

and

Employer health startup Transcarent is making its next move with the launch of its new pharmacy program.

Transcarent’s Pharmacy Care offering is designed to be fully transparent and integrate with its other platforms. The goal, executives said, is to break through the noise for members and make it easier for them to understand their pharmacy benefits while offering employers full control over formulary, benefit design and data.

The platform is available to self-funded employers as well as health systems, Transcarent said in an announcement. Snezana Mahon, Transcarent’s chief operating officer, told Fierce Healthcare that the company’s employer clients have felt the market changes and are seeking a way to “coexist” in a world where there are traditional pharmacy benefits, cash pay and coupon cards all working together.

From the healthcare quality front, Beckers Hospital Review calls attention to

A new data visualizer shows the 10 most similar hospitals to any one benchmark hospital, challenging traditional, ordinal rank lists like those from U.S. News & World Report.

SimilarityIndex | Hospitals comes from Trilliant Health Labs, which created the tool so health economy stakeholders can learn how similar a selected benchmark hospital is to — or different from — highly regarded U.S. hospitals. 

Users can compare hospitals to find peers in either quality alone or aggregate — the latter reflects an equally weighted combination of measurements in the categories of hospital quality (including 30-day mortality and readmission rates), outpatient service line, financial (including operating margin and average inpatient service costs), patient mix and market share.

Nifty.

From the public health front —

The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) today posted for public comment draft recommendations on screening for anxiety, depression, and suicide risk in adults.

For the first time, the task force is recommending screening all adults aged 64 and younger for anxiety — including pregnant and postpartum women.

This “B” recommendation reflects “moderate certainty” evidence that screening for anxiety in this population has a moderate net benefit, the task force notes in a draft recommendation statement posted on its website.

The recommendation applies to adults aged 19-64 years who do not have a diagnosed mental health disorder or are not showing recognized signs or symptoms of anxiety.

The public comment deadline is October 17.

  • The Wall Street Journal offers advice on timing the annual flu shot and the upcoming flu season in general.
  • The CDC released a vital signs report warning that rates of screening and treatment of children with sickle cell anemia for life-threatening problems are far too low.

Two recommended healthcare measures to prevent complications in children with sickle cell anemia are:

* Transcranial doppler (TCD) ultrasound screening, which identifies children with increased risk for stroke.

* Hydroxyurea therapy, which reduces the occurrence of several complications, including severe acute pain episodes and acute chest syndrome, which can result in lung injury and trouble breathing.

Far too few patients are receiving these potentially lifesaving prevention measures, recommended by an expert panel in 2014. 

  • The CDC also called attention to its website about gestational diabetes.

From the Rx coverage front, Bio Pharma Dive relates

The Food and Drug Administration on Friday [September 16] granted accelerated approval to a personalized gene therapy for an ultra-rare childhood brain disease, called cerebral adrenoleukodystrophy or CALD.

Built from a patient’s own stem cells, the therapy is the first medicine to be made available in the U.S. for CALD, which affects young boys and typically results in severe disability or death. It was developed by the biotechnology company Bluebird bio and will be sold as Skysona.

Its approval is Bluebird’s second in four weeks, following an Aug. 17 FDA decision on another gene therapy from the company for the blood disorder beta thalassemia. * * *

In the U.S., an estimated 50 boys are born each year who will go on to develop CALD. Bluebird expects to treat about 10 annually.

Meant to be a one-time infusion, Skysona will cost $3 million. The price tag makes the therapy one of the most expensive ever launched on a single-use basis, exceeding the $2.8 million cost of Bluebird’s other gene therapy. * * *

Bluebird expects Skysona to be available by the end of the year, and is planning to work with a “limited number” of centers that are experienced in treating CALD and in stem cell transplantation, including Boston Children’s Hospital and CHOP [Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia].

[Due to the small number of patients, t]he company is not putting in place “outcomes-based” coverage agreements with insurers for Skysona as it did with its other gene therapy, for which it’s offering to reimburse part of the cost if patients don’t continue to benefit.

From the surveys department —

A majority of healthcare executives think value-based-care has replaced fee-for-service billing, a new survey found

Of 160 C-suite executives and other high-level staff surveyed, just 4 percent said they think payers use traditional fee-for-service billing with no connection to quality and value. The majority of executives think payers use FFS models with connections to the quality and value of care taken into account. 

The survey, conducted by business intelligence firm Morning Consult and health tech company Innovaccer, found just 1 percent of executives think FFS billing with no connection to value will be in use in 2025. 

According to a Sept.14 news release, payers report that FFS billing with no account for value makes up more than 10 percent of billing, higher than providers estimated. 

“So, providers think the transition to value has substantially occurred, when in fact we’re only at the very beginning,” Brian Silverstein, MD, Innovaccer’s chief population health officer, said in the release. “The amount of financial risk providers have is going to increase significantly in the next few years.”

  • Beckers Hospital Review tells us “Patients who are publicly insured or uninsured are more likely to be treated unfairly in healthcare settings compared to patients with private insurance, according to a report from the Urban Institute with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.”

In closing Federal News Network shares the list of deserving federal employees receiving the 2022 Partnership for Public Service’s Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals — affectionately known as the Sammies. These awards “often dubbed the “Oscars” of federal service” will be presented at a gala tonight. Hearty congratulations to the award winners and the other nominees.

Monday Roundup

From Capitol Hill, Govexec informs us that

Congress is looking to fund federal agencies at their current spending levels through mid-December, with momentum growing for a 10-week stopgap bill to avoid a government shutdown on Oct. 1. 

Lawmakers must clear several hurdles before voting on a continuing resolution to kick off fiscal 2023, but they could act as soon as this week. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said last week he would work with Republicans to “avoid even a hint of a shutdown,” though several disagreements remain. Negotiations appear to have settled on a CR that would fund agencies through approximately Dec. 16, but lawmakers have yet to determine exactly which provisions will be added to it. 

From the federal appointment front, STAT News reports

President Joe Biden on Monday appointed longtime biologist and former government scientist Renee Wegrzyn as the first director of the nascent Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health.

Biden’s announcement comes as ARPA-H advocates debate where the multibillion-dollar agency should be headquartered and which elusive disease areas should be prioritized. The president officially launched the agency in March with $1 billion in initial funding allotted by Congress, but the search for its inaugural director has taken months.

Wegrzyn, 45, currently works at Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks, a company focused on biological engineering, but has prior experience in two government agencies Biden has said he hopes to emulate with ARPA-H — the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity.

Good luck, Dr. Wegryzn.

From the omicron and siblings front

The American Hospital Association tells us

Insured and uninsured Americans can receive the new bivalent Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 booster and other COVID-19 vaccines at no cost as long as the federal government continues to purchase and distribute them, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced today.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month recommended Pfizer’s updated COVID-19 vaccine booster for Americans aged 12 and older and Moderna’s updated COVID-19 vaccine booster for Americans aged 18 and older at least two months after completing a primary COVID-19 vaccine series or booster. Authorized by the Food and Drug Administration, the updated boosters are bivalent, meaning they help protect against the most recently circulating omicron variants as well as the original virus strain.

Americans can find local sites administering the new COVID-19 vaccine booster here. For more on provider requirements and payment, visit the CDC COVID-19 Vaccination Program and CMS toolkit.

The Wall Street Journal reports

Illness caused by Covid-19 shrank the U.S. labor force by around 500,000 people, a hit that is likely to continue if the virus continues to sicken workers at current rates, according to a new study released Monday.

Millions of people left the labor force—the number of people working or looking for work—during the pandemic for various reasons, including retirement, lack of child care and fear of Covid. The total size of the labor force reached 164.7 million people in August, exceeding the February 2020 prepandemic level for the first time. The labor force would have 500,000 more members if not for the people sickened by Covid, according to the study’s authors, economists Gopi Shah Goda of Stanford University and Evan J. Soltas, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“If we stay where we are with Covid infection rates going forward, we expect that 500,000-person loss to persist until either exposure goes down or severity goes down,” said Mr. Soltas. That assumes that some of those previously sickened eventually return to work.

The authors “provide the most credible evidence to date about labor-market impacts for a large set of workers,” said Aaron Sojourner, an economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, who wasn’t involved in the study.

From the U.S. healthcare business front —

Healthcare Dive relates

Escalating costs for labor, drugs, supplies and equipment are adding to the long-term pressures facing rural hospitals, raising the risk of more closures that could jeopardize patient access to care, the American Hospital Association warned in a new report

Many hospitals were already in difficult financial positions before the COVID-19 pandemic began, due to challenges including low patient volume and reimbursement, geographic isolation, staffing shortages and aging infrastructure, the AHA said. From 2010 through 2021, 136 rural hospitals closed, according to data from the University of North Carolina’s Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research. In 2020, when the pandemic hit, a record 19 rural hospitals closed.

The public health emergency put additional pressure on margins and patient volumes. “While rural hospitals were partially buoyed by the Provider Relief Fund and other sources of COVID-19 assistance that limited closures in 2021, the financial outlook for many rural hospitals moving forward is precarious,” the AHA said.

Revcycle Intelligence reports

Private equity acquisition of physician practices in dermatology, gastroenterology, and ophthalmology was associated with increased healthcare spending and utilization, according to a study published in JAMA Health Forum. * * *

Following a private equity acquisition, physician practices saw consistent growth in spending during the next eight quarters. Acquired practices saw a mean increase of $71 in charges per claim or a 20.2 percent increase. In addition, practices saw an increase of $23 in the allowed amount per claim—an 11 percent increase.

Patient utilization of healthcare services grew as well after practices underwent acquisitions.

Across the eight post-acquisition quarters, the mean number of unique patients increased by 25.8 percent. This increase was mainly driven by more new patient visits, which rose by 37.9 percent. The number of encounters grew by 16.3 percent and the number of evaluation and management (E/M) visits increased by 37.1 percent.

The increase in patient visits may reflect changes in management and practice operations or overutilization of profitable services and low-value care, the study suggested. This could lead to higher healthcare spending without corresponding benefits.

Additionally, researchers said the growing number of visits was consistent with private equity firms’ common strategy to maximize revenue through a fee-for-service delivery system.

Ruh roh on both counts.

Healthcare Finance adds

Quality can go a long way in determining if a consumer is willing to pay more for their healthcare, as indicated by new survey responses published by revenue cycle company AKASA.

Out of more than 2,000 respondents, the survey found that 57% would pay more for a higher quality of care. Out of all categories in the survey, care quality was the only area in which a majority said they would be willing to pay more.

Forty-seven percent said they would pay more for the ability to work with the care team of their choice. Forty-one percent said they would pay more for the ability to work with hospitals of their choice, while the same percentage said they’d pony up more cash for better location proximity or convenience.

In public health news, the American Hospital Association celebrates the fact that

The United Network for Organ Sharing, which serves as the nation’s transplant system under contract with the federal government, Friday reported its millionth U.S. organ transplant. UNOS and the Organ Donation and Transplantation Alliance credited the organ donation and transplantation community, including transplant hospitals, with making the historic milestone possible. The first successful transplant took place at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (now Brigham and Women’s Hospital) in Boston in 1954.

UNOS and the Alliance encourage the transplant community to join Living It Forward, a national initiative to commemorate the achievement and accelerate the path forward to the next million transplants. They also encourage members of the public to register as organ donors, noting that each donor can save up to eight lives and help up to 75 people through tissue donation. Over 100,000 people remain on the transplant waitlist.

From the Rx coverage front, BioPharma Dive tells us that

The Food and Drug Administration on Friday approved Bristol Myers Squibb’s psoriasis pill Sotyktu, the first medicine of its type and the last of three potential blockbuster drugs the company sought to bring to market this year.

Sotyktu will compete with biologic drugs like AbbVie’s Humira and Amgen’s Enbrel, but as a pill could be more attractive to patients who don’t want to inject themselves regularly. Importantly, Sotyktu’s labeling doesn’t require patients to first try biologic drugs, giving doctors an opportunity to prescribe it widely.

Approval came after Phase 3 testing in which the pill, also known as deucravacitinib, was tested against a placebo as well as another oral therapy, Amgen’s Otezla. In patients with moderate-to-severe plaque psoriasis, Sotyktu outperformed both on two commonly used measures for assessing skin clearing: PASI and sPGA.

“All in all, the overall efficacy and safety profile as a new first-in-class agent for plaque psoriasis bodes well for it becoming the standard of care,” said Samit Hirawat, Bristol Myers Squibb’s chief medical officer, setting a high bar for his company’s commercial expectations.

In wellness news, Healio informs us that

Widespread adoption of simple lifestyle changes, including switching to a well-known eating plan, could reduce risk for CV events and death for millions of adults with stage 1 hypertension, researchers reported.

“Millions of working-age people are walking around with elevated BP, which is symptomless but is also a leading preventable cause of disability and death,” Kendra D. Sims, PhD, MPH, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) School of Medicine who presented the findings at the American Heart Association Hypertension Scientific Sessions, told Healio. “Our study found that 27,000 CVD events and 2,800 deaths could be prevented during the next 10 years if people with elevated BP follow through with recommended lifestyle changes. We would then save $1.6 billion in associated health care costs. The largest benefit comes from eating more fruits and vegetables and less salt, as outlined in the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet.

Tuesday’s Tibits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Fierce Healthcare points out four legislative items that providers should be tracking for the remainder of this year.

From the Omicron and siblings front, the Washington Post reports

Cold weather favors the coronavirus. But as summer gives way to fall, infectious-disease experts are guardedly optimistic that the spread of covid-19 this autumn and winter won’t be as brutal as in the previous two years of the pandemic.

Coronavirus scenarios from multiple research teams, shared in recent weeks with federal officials, foresee stable or declining hospitalizations in early fall. The scenarios show the possibility of a late-fall surge. A new variant remains the biggest wild card. But several factors — including the approval this week of reformulated boosters and the buildup of immunity against the latest strain of the virus — could suppress some of the cold-season spread, experts say.

In related news, the Wall Street Journal informs us

U.S. health authorities plan to recommend that people get Covid-19 boosters once a year, starting with the new shots now rolling out, a shift from their current practice of issuing new advice every several months.

The annual cadence would be similar to that of flu shots, White House officials said Tuesday, though elderly people and those with weakened immune systems may need more frequent inoculations. 

A shift to annual Covid-19 boosters would be a departure from current practice and comes after many people in the U.S. have ignored calls to get a first or second booster, partly due to fatigue with repeat inoculations. 

“Barring any new variant curveball,” said White House coronavirus coordinator Ashish Jha, “for a large majority of Americans, we are moving to a point where a single annual Covid shot should provide a high degree of protection all year.”

A very sensible approach, indeed!

From the healthcare business front, Healthcare Dive tells us

Amazon and One Medical said Friday that antitrust regulators want more information about the online retailer’s proposed $3.9 billion acquisition of the primary care group. 

The Federal Trade Commission sent a second request for information on Friday, One Medical said in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

A second request from the FTC means the two cannot move forward with the deal “until the companies have substantially complied with the additional investigatory request,” according to the FTC.

Amazon and One Medical will “promptly respond” to the second request, the primary care group said in the SEC filing.

In July, Amazon agreed to purchase One Medical for $3.9 billion in an all-cash deal.

From the tidbits department

  • Drug Channels surveys the upcoming Humira price war as biosimilar competitors take the field.
  • CMS posted new information about available group health plan defenses to CMS contractor assertions that the GHP has failed to properly coordinate its benefits with Medicare.
  • Beckers Payer Issues offers expert opinions on the impact of the transparency in coverage rule on consumerism now that the three machine-readable files of health plan pricing data have been posted for two months. For example, “Neil Mayle is the founder and president of Visible Charges, a Cambridge, Mass.-based company that provides clients with curated datasets of both payer- and provider-negotiated service prices. * * * ‘I think we’ve gone from nothing to a lot,’ Mr. Mayle said. ‘We haven’t gone to perfect.'” Of course, it was only the first of three stages in transparency in coverage rule disclosures.
  • The FEHBlog noticed today these CMS and DOL fact sheets on the No Surprises Act which are worth a gander.

.

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the Omicron and siblings front, the Wall Street Journal reports

The Biden administration has completed plans for a fall Covid-19 booster campaign that would launch in September with 175 million updated vaccine doses provided to states, pharmacies and other vaccination sites.

The administration is procuring the doses, which drugmakers are updating to target the newest versions of the virus. The administration has also informed states, pharmacies and other entities they can begin preordering now through the end of August, according to the administration’s fall vaccination planning guide.

Vaccines would be shipped immediately following an expected authorization by federal drug regulators, who still must review and sign off on the shots, and recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which still must review the data and sign off on administering the shots. 

Administration officials have expressed hope that the boosters would help head off a wave of serious illnesses and deaths in the fall and winter, when cases often increase as more people gather indoors.

Due to the 2021-22 Delta and original Omicron variants, I gave up on expecting herd immunity from Covid. However, MedPage Today points out that those perilous Covid surges combined with vaccinations and treatments like Paxlovid create herd safety from hospitalizations and deaths. We should build up vaccination levels, but the vaccination marketing campaign should be built on a sensible theory like herd safety and not on 2020-like hysteria.

From the No Surprises Act front, Fierce Healthcare offers provider and payer opinions on the final independent dispute resolution rule. Last Spring, CMS dethroned the Qualifying Payment Amount from its commanding position in the baseball arbitration process. That aspect of the final rule is not a change in current practice. The FEHBlog senses that the No Surprises Act is working well.

Today, the Office of Personnel Management posted its first FAQs on the Postal Service Health Benefits Program which will launch in January 2025.

From the medical research front, BioPharma Dive reports

Over the last decade, drugs based on multiple RNA technologies, known as RNA interference and antisense oligonucleotides, have made it to market. Yet, it took a historic pandemic to thrust RNA into the global spotlight. Equipped with new tools, scientists are now exploring how other types can be used to make therapies that last longer and treat, as well as prevent, more diseases.

At least 10 biotechnology startups are developing next-generation RNA drugs. Though years of research lie ahead, these companies have already raised hundreds of millions of dollars from venture capitalists, large pharmaceutical firms and other investment groups.

If their work pans out, it could provide new treatments for cancer, rare diseases, and chronic illnesses that affect organs, the nervous system and the immune system.

The article provides an overview of these RNA drug development efforts.

From the tidbits department —

  • MedPage Today reports that “For higher-risk adults without prior cardiovascular disease (CVD) events, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) continues to broadly recommend statins for primary prevention while differing from other American guidelines in certain key aspects. * * * Despite being consistent with the USPSTF’s 2016 recommendations on the subject, the latest update takes away language about the preferred low-to-moderate dosing of statins in people with no history of CVD. This could be attributed to a lack of data, as a review of the literature showed most statin trials tested a moderate-intensity statin.”
  • Axios reports “Life expectancy in the U.S. fell in all 50 states and the District of Columbia from 2019 to 2020 and fell nationally by 1.8 years, according to new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data published Tuesday. The big picture: The decline nationally and in states was mostly due to the COVID-19 pandemic and increases in unintentional injuries, specifically drug overdose deaths.
  • The National Institutes of Health announced that “Poverty, combined with other types of adversity in early childhood, is associated with greater chances of premature death in adulthood, compared to other adverse childhood experiences, according to a study of more than 46,000 people by researchers at the National Institutes of Health.”
  • The NIH Director’s Blog features a fascinating description of the inside of the “amazing” human brain.
  • The HHS Office of Civil Rights reached a settlement with dermatology practice over an alleged HIPAA Privacy Rule violation for improper disposal of protected health information.

Midweek Update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Roll Call reports

Democrats may need to make some changes to the tax portion of their budget reconciliation package to earn the support of Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, including possible removal of a tax increase on investment fund managers and softening a new minimum tax on the biggest corporations.

The bill could also undergo other tweaks as Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough continues her review of the bill. Changes to the prescription drug pricing provisions are already in the works, but many pieces of the package have yet to go through the formal “Byrd bath” to determine whether the language complies with budget rules.

Despite all the work still underway, several Democratic senators said they anticipated voting on the motion to proceed to the reconciliation package as soon as Thursday and beginning the “vote-a-rama” process, in which senators can offer unlimited amendments to the measure, as soon as this weekend. 

“As soon as possible, but don’t count on going home on the weekend,” Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a member of Democratic leadership, said. “We’re probably going to be here all weekend, so get lots of sleep.

From the OPM front, Federal News Digest tells us

The Office of Personnel Management is getting a second in command.

President Joe Biden nominated Rob Shriver to be the OPM deputy director on Aug. 3. * * *

Shriver is a political appointee already, having been the associate director for employee services since January 2021.

If confirmed by the Senate, Shriver would be OPM’s first deputy director since Michael Rigas, who held the job from March 2018 to January 2021, but worked in other administration positions from March 2020 until January 2021.

From the Omicron and siblings front —

Bloomberg informs us

[Israeli] Hospital workers who got a fourth dose of Pfizer Inc.’s messenger RNA vaccine were far less likely to get Covid than triple-vaccinated peers in a study. 

The findings published Tuesday in the American Medical Association’s open access journal are the latest to confirm the benefits of a second booster against breakthrough infections caused by omicron. The study’s authors pointed to an extra dose as a tool to prevent medical staff shortages and spare health systems in times of strain.  * * *

Doctors, nurses and other health-care workers who got a fourth mRNA shot in January showed a 7% rate of breakthrough infections. Those with three doses — the third having been administered by the end of September — saw an infection rate of 20%.  

The Department of Health and Human Services released two reports on long Covid to support patients and further research.

From the monkeypox front

  • Beckers Hospital Review explains that the Centers for Disease Control have released isolation guidance “as cases near 6,000.”

The New York Times delves into various aspects of the disease, including what people can do the stay safe.

From the U.S. healthcare business front

Healthcare Dive reports

CVS Health raised its full-year guidance in its second quarter earnings report despite a $77 million decrease in adjusted operating income primarily due to declines in its retail segment.

The company’s Aetna subsidiary boosted earnings with reported gains of 922,000 covered lives compared to the second quarter of last year and growth in all product lines contributing to a nearly 11% rise in revenues year over year.

Adjusted operating income was 9.1% lower in its retail division compared to the year prior due to a decrease in coronavirus vaccinations, “continued pharmacy reimbursement pressure” and the lack of an antitrust legal settlement gain that was recorded in the second quarter last year, according to the earnings report. * * *

In its race to add more primary care services, the executive team further teased acquisition plans, with [CVS Health CEO Karen] Lynch adding that the company could take the “next step on this journey” by the end of this year.

“We can’t be in … primary care without M&A. We’ve been very clear about that,” Lynch said.

[Larry] McGrath [CVS Health senior vice president of business development and investor relations] added that the company has been active in evaluating a wide range of assets around the care delivery space. CVS also signaled that it could potentially pursue multiple acquisitions, adding that there was “no one and done asset” in the market.

Biopharma Dive informs us

Gilead’s cell therapy business outperformed Wall Street expectations during the second quarter. The unit — which currently consists of two products, Yescarta and Tecartus, used to treat various blood cancers — generated $368 million in the three-month period, an increase of 68% year over year, earnings numbers released Tuesday show.

Key to that growth was a recent, first-of-its-kind approval from the Food and Drug Administration. In April, the agency cleared Yescarta as a so-called second line therapy for large B-cell lymphoma that resists or returns within a year of initial treatment with chemoimmunotherapy. Before, Yescarta was used only when patients either relapsed after or hadn’t responded to at least two other kinds of therapies.

Fierce Healthcare adds

CivicaScript’s first product is hitting the market.

The public benefits company and sister to Civica Rx is making its first generic available: 250-mg abiraterone acetate tablets. The drug is used in combination with the steroid medication prednisone as a treatment for prostate cancer that has spread to other parts in the body.

CivicaScript will make the drug available to pharmacies at $160 per bottle of 120 tablets, a typical one-month supply. The company suggests pharmacies sell it to patients at no more than $171 for each bottle. This price is about $3,000 less per month than the average cost for people enrolled in Medicare Part D, which is the largest portion of patients with this type of cancer.

Using CivicaScript’s abiraterone will lead to significant savings for patients both in the deductible phase and in the Part D “donut hole,” where they face the highest out-of-pocket costs, the company said in an announcement (PDF). * * *

“We’re proud the first lower-cost generic drug of our partnership with CivicaScript is entering the market,” said Kim Keck, president and CEO of BCBSA. “This is an important milestone in our shared commitment to help make prescription drugs more affordable for millions of Americans. No one should have to face breaking the bank from buying a life-saving medication.”

From the Affordable Care front, Prof. Katie Keith takes a deep dive into last week’s ACA FAQ 54 on mandated contraceptive coverage under that law.

From the research front —

Benefits Pro points to

A survey of nearly 2,500 U.S. healthcare consumers by PYMNTS.com offered more proof that this remains a barrier to consumer trust of the healthcareThe survey revealed that many consumers continue to under budget for their health care –probably because most have little idea about the cost of various procedures and appointments. * * *

For instance, nearly 20% of those surveyed said they “experienced financial distress due to health care costs because they spent more than they could afford in the past 12 months.” A quarter of respondents who said their advance notice cost estimates were accurate said they still spent more than they could really afford. Not surprisingly, 43% of those who received inaccurate cost estimates said they spent more than they could afford. system. PYMNTS.com, a provider of data, news and insights on innovation in payments and the payment-related, conducted the survey to learn how many respondents fell into the unexpectedly high and inaccurate estimate category, and what the outcome for them was in the aftermath. * * *

Medscape reports

Regular exercise, regardless of intensity level, appears to slow cognitive decline in sedentary older adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), new research from the largest study of its kind suggests.

Topline results from the EXERT trial showed patients with MCI who participated regularly in either aerobic exercise or stretching/balance/range-of-motion exercises maintained stable global cognitive function over 12 months of follow-up — with no differences between the two types of exercise.

“We’re excited about these findings, because these types of exercises that we’re seeing can protect against cognitive decline are accessible to everyone and therefore scalable to the public,” study investigator Laura Baker, PhD, Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, said at a press briefing.

The topline results were presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) 2022.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, the Wall Street Journal reports that the Senate majority’s leadership is rallying the caucus to pass the Schumer – Manchin compromise reconciliation bill that would address climate and healthcare concerns while raising taxes. The goal is for the Senate to pass the bill next week which immediately precedes the Senate’s August recess.

The Hill adds that

A day after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) stunned Washington by endorsing hundreds of billions of dollars for President Biden’s domestic agenda, House Democrats are rallying behind the nascent package as a crucial — if incomplete — strategy for tackling the climate crisis and easing working class economic strains.

Both articles discuss the flies remain in the reconciliation ointment.

Govexec informs us

The odds that Congress would increase the average 4.6% pay raise planned for federal employees in 2023 got a little longer Thursday, after Senate appropriators revealed that they would effectively endorse President Biden’s pay increase proposal.” The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday revealed all of their initial versions of fiscal 2023 spending bills, including the package governing financial services and general government, which is the vehicle by which Congress weighs in on federal employee compensation. That bill makes no mention of changes to career federal employees’ pay, effectively endorsing the pay raise plan offered by Biden in his fiscal 2023 budget proposal.

Here is a link to the Senate Appropriations Committee’s press release unveiling those bills. What caught the FEHBlog’s eye is the statement in the press release that the Senate appropriations bills, like the House appropriations bills, do not include the Hyde amendments limiting federal funding of abortions to cases of rape, incest, or endangerment of the mother’s life. That tectonic change would draw the FEHBP into the post-Dobbs controversy.

From the Affordable Care Act front, Prof. Katie Keith does her usual outstanding job breaking down the proposed ACA Section 1557 individual non-discrimination rule in Health Affairs Forefront. In the FEHBlog’s view, the rule is unnecessarily complicated. It is the FEHBlog’s understanding that this HHS rule would not apply to FEHBP and that HHS would refer Section 1557 complaints involving FEHB plans to OPM. As the preamble points out, Section 1557 is a law that doesn’t need an implementing rule. Nevertheless, HHS recommends that other agencies with programs covered by Section 1557 adopt their own implementing rule using the HHS rule as a template.

The ACA regulators issued a 13-page long ACA FAQ 54 describing in detail the ACA rule requirements under which health plans must cover contraceptive drugs and services for women without cost sharing.

On a related note, Healthcare Dive tells us

Melanie Fontes Rainer is now acting director of HHS’ Office of Civil Rights. Fontes Rainer will replace Lisa Pino, who oversaw rulemaking related to patient safety, reproductive rights and other healthcare issues and issued policy regarding health equity, long COVID and firearm injury and death prevention, the agency said in an emailed statement.

From the federal employee benefits front, Fedweek explains the circumstances under which survivors of federal employees (as opposed to federal annuitants) are eligible for federal survivor benefits.

If you are an employee who was married when you die and you had at least 18 months of creditable civilian service, your spouse will be entitled to a survivor annuity.  * * * f you were enrolled in either the self plus one or self and family options of the Federal Employees Health Benefits program when you died, the person(s) on your enrollment could continue that coverage. If you weren’t enrolled in the program (or were enrolled but in the self only option), any otherwise eligible survivors would be out of luck.

From the Omicron and siblings front, the American Medical Association offers a helpful Q&A on Covid boosters.

From the monkeypox front, Reuters makes two reports

  • The United States has the capacity to conduct 60,000-80,000 tests for monkeypox virus per week, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said on Thursday. When the monkeypox outbreak began, the U.S. was able to conduct only 6,000 tests per week, Becerra told reporters during a telephone briefing.
  • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Wednesday it plans to make the rapidly spreading monkeypox disease a nationally notifiable condition. The designation, which is set to take effect on Aug. 1, updates criteria for reporting of data on cases by states to the agency and would allow the agency to monitor and respond to monkeypox even after the current outbreak recedes, the CDC said.

From the U.S. healthcare business front —

The American Hospital Association issued a report attacking the commercial health insurance industry, which in the FEHBlog’s view is akin to strangling the golden goose.

Healthcare Dive reports

Teladoc beat Wall Street expectations for revenue in the second quarter, with a topline of $592 million, up 18% year over year. Chronic care membership came in higher than analysts expected, while member utilization improved year over year.

But “all eyes” are on the vendor’s guidance for the rest of the year, which implies a third-quarter miss and a steep ramp-up for earnings in the fourth quarter, SVB Securities analyst Stephanie Davis wrote in a note on the results.

STAT News chimes in

Telehealth giant Teladoc is bracing for disappointing earnings this year as it faces headwinds that could also thwart competitors struggling to turn a profit — including increasingly frugal employers delaying or dropping contracts for virtual care.

“The challenge that we’re seeing is in these times of economic uncertainty, all purchases are just getting a significantly higher level of scrutiny,” CEO Jason Gorevic said in an earnings call Wednesday.

Gorevic also noted that declining yield on advertising suggests that individual patients may start spending less on direct-to-consumer services like BetterHelp, the company’s mental health care offering. Those hurdles aren’t unique to Teladoc. Competitors like Amwell and Talkspace could also have to grapple with cutbacks.

Healthcare Dive also delves into Amazon’s planned acquisition of One Medical. “The deal fast-tracks Amazon’s ambitions in healthcare, while giving One Medical a cushion in today’s tricky economic environment.”

Yesterday, the FEHB wrote about the hospitals receiving five stars from Medicare. Today Becker’s Hospital Review lists the 192 hospitals receiving a single start from that program.

Finally STAT News lists the 41 best books and podcasts on health and science to check out this Summer.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the Omicron and siblings front, STAT News reports

The Biden administration is preparing a sweeping initiative to develop a next generation of Covid-19 immunizations that would thwart future coronavirus variants and dramatically reduce rates of coronavirus infection or transmission, building on current shots whose impact has been mainly to prevent serious illness and death, the White House told STAT.

To kick off the effort, the White House is gathering key federal officials, top scientists, and pharmaceutical executives including representatives of Pfizer and Moderna for a Tuesday “summit” to discuss the new technologies and lay out a road map for developing them.

“These are vaccines that are going to be far more durable, that are going to provide far longer-lasting protection, no matter what the virus does or how it evolves,” Ashish Jha, the White House Covid-19 response coordinator, said in an interview. “If we can drive down infections by 90% … Covid really begins to fade into the background, and becomes just one more respiratory illness that we have to deal with.”

Here’s hoping. Curiously, the federal government did not start this effort last year when Delta was raging.

The Centers for Disease Control posted an information sheet on the Novovax vaccine. The FEHBlog was surprised to read “Novavax COVID-19 vaccine is not authorized for use as a booster dose.” The FEHBlog had read months ago that the Novovax vaccine would make a dandy booster to a series of mRNA shots.

Medscape discusses long Covid symptoms.

People who reported sore throats, headaches, and hair loss soon after testing positive for COVID-19 may be more likely to have lingering symptoms months later, according to a recent study published in Scientific Reports.

Researchers have been trying to determine who faces a higher risk for developing long COVID, with symptoms that can last for weeks, months, or years after the initial infection. So far, the condition has been reported in both children and adults, healthy people, those with preexisting conditions, and a range of patients with mild to severe COVID-19.

“These people are not able to do necessarily all the activities they would want to do, not able to fully work and take care of their families,” Eileen Crimmins, PhD, the senior study author and a demographer at the University of Southern California’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, told the Los Angeles Times.

“That’s an aspect of this disease that needs to be recognized because it’s not really as benign as some people think,” she said. “Even people who have relatively few symptoms to start with can end up with long COVID.”

From the Affordable Care Act front, the Department of Health and Human Services released today a proposed third version (Obama, Trump, Biden) version of a rule implementing Section 1557, the individual non-discrimination provision of the Affordable Care Act. Here are links to the proposed rule and the Department’s fact sheet. The law needs an implementing rule because its wording is garbled. The FEHBlog didn’t think he would ever see a more complicated rule than the Obama Administration’s 2016 rule, but at least at first glance, it appears that the Biden Administration has cleared that high bar. Later this week, the FEHBlog will offer his take on the extent of the rule’s application to the FEHBP. The public comment period will be 60 days long once the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register.

The Wall Street Journal has launched an investigative journalism campaign against certain large charitable hospitals.

Nonprofit hospitals get billions of dollars in tax breaks in exchange for providing support to their communities. A Wall Street Journal analysis shows they are often not particularly generous.

These charitable organizations, which comprise the majority of hospitals in the U.S., wrote off in aggregate 2.3% of their patient revenue on financial aid for patients’ medical bills. Their for-profit competitors, a category including publicly traded giants such as HCA Healthcare Inc., wrote off 3.4%, the Journal found in an analysis of the most-recent annual reports hospitals file with the federal government.

Among nonprofits with the smallest shares of patient revenue going toward charity care—well under 1%—were high-profile institutions including the biggest hospitals of California’s Stanford Medicine and Louisiana’s Ochsner Health systems. At Avera Health, a major hospital system in South Dakota, charity care was roughly half of 1% of patient revenue across all its 18 hospitals.

You get the gist. These Journal investigations usually attract attention on Capitol Hill.

From the public health front, the Washington Post discusses the meaning of a pre-diabetes diagnosis to the over 65 crowd.

More than 26 million people 65 and older have prediabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How concerned should they be about progressing to diabetes?

Not very, some experts say. Prediabetes — a term that refers to above-normal but not extremely high blood sugar levels — isn’t a disease, and it doesn’t imply that older adults who have it will inevitably develop Type 2 diabetes, they say.

“For most older patients, the chance of progressing from prediabetes to diabetes is not that high,” said Robert Lash, the chief medical officer of the Endocrine Society. “Yet labeling people with prediabetes may make them worried and anxious.”

Other experts believe it is important to identify prediabetes, especially if doing so inspires older adults to add more physical activity, lose weight and eat healthier diets to help bring their blood sugar under control.

Based on personal experience, the FEHBlog finds himself supporting “the other experts.”

From the OPM / FEHB front —

  • OPM today issues a fact sheet on the steps being taken to implement the President’s June 2021 Executive Order on increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the federal workforce.
  • FedSmith has an article encouraging federal annuitants to take look this Open Season at FEHB plans which offer an integrated Medicare Advantage. The number of those plans has been growing over the past two Open Seasons and the FEHBlog anticipates the number will continue to grow this coming Open Season.

From the telehealth front, mHealth Intelligence points out

The benefits of breastfeeding are well-documented. Breast milk is a comprehensive source of infant nutrition, can help stave off some short-and long-term illnesses, and enables babies to gain valuable antibodies from their mothers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Further, breastfeeding can reduce the mother’s risk of developing several conditions, including breast and ovarian cancer and type 2 diabetes.

Though a majority of babies are breastfed initially, there appears to be a drop-off at the six-month mark, and rates continue to decline from there. In total, about 84 percent of babies were breastfed in 2018, but only 57 percent were breastfed at six months and 35 percent at 12 months, according to CDC data.

To support breastfeeding, the five-hospital Trinity Health of New England system joined forces with Nest Collaborative last month to launch a telehealth program.

The telehealth-enabled breastfeeding support program, launched at the end of June, connects pregnant women and new mothers to a nationwide network of lactation consultants.

Nest Collaborative’s [lactation consultants] help families reach their breastfeeding goals and assist them in making informed decisions about infant feeding options,” said Judith Nowlin, CEO of Nest Collaborative, in an email.

Weekend update

Photo by Dane Deaner on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, The House of Representatives and the Senate will be in session for Committee business and floor voting this week. This is the last week that the House is in session before the August recess. The Senate has one more week of legislative work before it heads off on its State work period for the eighth month of the year.

The Wall Street Journal adds

Congress nears the close of a packed legislative session this week, aiming to pass legislation providing about $54 billion to boost U.S. semiconductor manufacturing while also juggling a raft of other bills ahead of the monthlong August recess.

Along with the bipartisan bill subsidizing chips, Democrats are hoping to salvage a piece of President Biden’s once-ambitious domestic agenda, looking to advance a measure aimed at lowering some drug and healthcare costs. The party is also weighing whether to hold votes related to social issues and guns that could help rally the party’s base. * * *

In the Senate, Democrats are awaiting guidance from the Senate’s parliamentarian over whether a measure aimed at lowering drug costs by giving Medicare the right to negotiate prices for a narrow set of drugs will comport with the Senate’s procedures for passing bills through a budget-related process known as reconciliation. Democrats in the 50-50 Senate are using the special process because it allows the passage of bills with only a simple majority, instead of the 60 votes required for most legislation. The procedure is only available until Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

Mr. Hoyer said that if Senate Democrats are able to soon pass the drug-pricing bill, which would also extend Affordable Care Act subsidies, then the House would return from its August recess to clear the measure in time for insurance companies to factor in the subsidies when they set prices for their plans.

From the Omicron and siblings front, the New York Times informs us

People with coronavirus infections of the Omicron variant often have significantly different viral levels in their noses, throats and saliva, and testing just a single type of sample is likely to miss a large share of infections, according to two new papers, which analyzed Omicron infections over time in a small number of people.

The papers, which have not yet been published in scientific journals, suggest that coronavirus tests that analyze both nasal and throat swabs would pick up more Omicron infections than those that rely on just a nasal swab. Although these combined tests are common in other countries, including Britain, none are yet authorized in the United States.

“You could get a lot more bang for your buck if you use these mixed specimen types,” said Rustem Ismagilov, a chemist at the California Institute of Technology and the senior author of both papers. But in the United States, he said, “we are stuck with nobody doing it.”

And yet the CDC has recorded nearly 90 million cases in our country.

From the unusual viruses front

STAT News reports

The World Health Organization on Saturday declared the unprecedented monkeypox outbreak that has spread around the world a public health emergency, a decision that will empower the agency to take additional measures to try to curb the virus’s spread.

In an unusual move, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made the declaration even though a committee of experts he had convened to study the issue did not advise him to do so, having failed to reach a consensus. The same committee met just one month ago and declined to declare a public health emergency of international concern, or PHEIC [pronounced fake].

Secretary of Health and Human Services expressed his support for this decision.

Bloomberg Prognosis provides a quick take on monkeypox and its spread. Among other takes

The illness is usually mild and most patients will recover within a few weeks; treatment is mainly aimed at relieving symptoms. About 10-to-15% of cases have been hospitalized, mostly for pain and bacterial infections that can occur as a result of monkeypox lesions. The CDC says smallpox vaccine, antivirals, and vaccinia immune globulin can be used to treat monkeypox as well as control it.

The Wall Street Journal adds

Unusual for an emerging disease, there are already vaccines and treatments that can be used to counter monkeypox. That is because some governments have invested in developing defenses against the accidental or deliberate reintroduction of smallpox, a closely related but much more severe virus. Some countries hold these treatments and vaccines in national stockpiles, but they aren’t readily available everywhere.

In some places, including the U.S., U.K. and parts of Canada, broad groups of men who have sex with men are being offered vaccination in an effort to slow the spread, although vaccine supplies have so far been constrained. Public-health authorities also are working to raise awareness among men who have sex with men about the spread of monkeypox.

From the Medicare front, STAT News reports

The federal government is hashing out the details on a new type of rural hospital, and new developments suggest regulators want to make it an attractive option.

So-called Rural Emergency Hospitals (REH) will run emergency rooms, but won’t offer inpatient care. On top of bumped-up Medicare reimbursement, they’ll get facility payments north of $3 million annually, which is nothing to sneeze at for small hospitals. The new details were part of the government’s proposed Medicare payment rates for hospital outpatient services in 2023, released Friday [July 15].

For their part, hospitals aren’t yet sold on the idea.

From the Affordable Care Act front, we have Section 1557 news:

On Monday, July 25, 2022, [at 2:15 pm ET] the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will announce a proposed rule to strengthen Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, and disability in certain health programs and activities. 

In regard to sex, which includes sexual orientation and gender identity, the proposed rule would solidify protections against discrimination consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Bostock v. Clayton County.  

Strengthening this rule is a significant achievement for the Biden-Harris Administration and promotes gender and health equity and civil rights for communities of color, women, LGBTQI+ individuals, people with disabilities, persons with limited English proficiency (LEP), and seniors.

From the reports and studies department

  • Fortune Well tells us “While two-thirds of Alzheimer’s cases are in women, an overwhelming majority don’t know they are at an increased risk for the disease, a new survey finds. A survey conducted by the Cleveland Clinic last month found that while 71% of women respondents saw a doctor for their health in the last year, 82% of them did not know that they are at increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease and 73% percent had not talked to their doctor about their brain health.”

Early physician follow-up with a comprehensive transitional care strategy and effective chronic disease management after discharge was associated with reduced 90-day readmissions among patients with COPD and other complex conditions.

“This population-based retrospective cohort study found that early follow-up with a [primary care] physician or relevant specialist was associated with fewer readmissions for patients with [congestive heart failure] or COPD, fewer COPD-related readmissions for patients with COPD and lower mortality for patients with [congestive heart failure], all within 90 days of discharge, but that there was no demonstrable benefit at 30 days or for patients with [acute myocardial infarction],” Farah E. Saxena, MPH,researcher at the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer in Toronto, and colleagues wrote in JAMA Network Open.

  • The CDC reports “Adults who receive diabetes education follow more recommended preventive care practices, such as getting regular physical activity.” Many FEHB plans offer diabetes education services.