Thursday Miscellany

Thursday Miscellany

As you may be able to tell, it’s a late FEHBlog post because the FEHBlog was returning home to Dripping Springs, TX, last night from our Nation’s capital.

In case, here are some highlights from Washington DC.

  • The GAO released a troubling report on our country’s fiscal health this week. Here’s a link to a Wall Street Journal Opinion Watch podcast about the report. The podcast is about 20 minutes long, and it may make your hair stand on edge.
  • Mercer Consulting discusses changes to the RxDC reports due annually on June 1.
    • “CMS released instructions for the third prescription drug data collection (RxDC) reports due June 1, 2024 – and they may cause plan sponsors to reconsider whether they need to make “plan level” submissions, instead of relying on their vendors to make “aggregate” submissions on their behalf. The good news is that the instructions largely mirror prior versions, so plan sponsors should be able to build off prior RxDC reporting efforts. However, for the first time, CMS plans to enforce the “aggregation restriction”—a provision in the 2021 regulations that CMS suspended for the first two reporting cycles. As explained [in the article], the reinstated aggregation restriction may cause headaches for some plan sponsors, who find that they can no longer rely on their PBM’s aggregate submission of pharmacy data but must instead submit plan level data. Other plan sponsors may welcome the opportunity to do a plan level submission so they can obtain otherwise unavailable prescription drug data.”
  • Per Govexec,
    • “With federal budget talks still unresolved less than a month away from Congress’ latest deadline, the Office of Personnel Management said Friday that the decade-long pay freeze for senior political appointees like Vice President Kamala Harris and others will remain in effect.
    • “In a Feb. 9 post, OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said that under January’s continuing resolution that extended federal funding to agencies until March 1 and 8, certain senior political appointees will continue to see their payable pay rates remain at current levels at least through the latter budget deadline, when Congress will have to decide whether it will continue to fund the federal government. 
    • “Future Congressional action will determine whether the pay freeze continues beyond March 8, 2024,” Ahuja said. “Until such time, the OPM guidance issued on Dec. 21, 2023, regarding the pay freeze for certain senior political officials continues to be generally applicable in applying the pay freeze in 2024.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “There isn’t a silver bullet to maintaining mental acuity or warding off dementia [as we age], scientists of aging say. But a combination of genetics, healthy lifestyle habits and factors such as cleaner air and good education have been linked to prolonged mental agility.  * * *
    • “Genetics is thought to play a role in brain maintenance, as does diet, exercise and a person’s risk of vascular disease. More education, mental stimulation and social connectivity have been associated with improved cognitive reserve.
    • “Better brain maintenance and cognitive reserve might help keep symptoms of dementia at bay. Almost 50% of people 40 and older think they will likely develop dementia, according to a 2021 AARP survey. The actual number of U.S. adults 65 and older with dementia is closer to 10%, a 2022 study found. * * *
    • “Sleeping too little—or too much—can also lead to cognitive problems. Activities including yoga and tai chi, the Chinese martial art, could help improve cognitive function, research suggests. 
    • “Hearing loss is a risk factor for dementia, too. Lost hearing might cause the brain to atrophy more quickly and can make people more isolated, said Dr. Dung Trinh, chief medical officer of the Healthy Brain Clinic. Hearing aids can help preserve mental fitness.”
  • AHA News adds,
    • “About half of U.S. health care workers have witnessed racial discrimination against patients and say discrimination against patients is a crisis or major problem, according to a survey released Feb. 15 by the Commonwealth Fund and African American Research Collaborative. Younger workers and workers of color were more likely than their older or white counterparts to say they witnessed discrimination, as were workers at facilities with more patients of color. About six in 10 Black health care workers and four in 10 Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander workers say they have been discriminated against because of their race or ethnicity. 
    • “While most health care workers see positive efforts from employers to address discrimination, a majority of Black, Latino, and AAPI workers worry about retaliation if they raise discrimination concerns. When asked about potential solutions, more than two-thirds of health care workers thought the following could help: providing an easy way to anonymously report situations involving racism or discrimination; creating opportunities to listen to patients and health care professionals of color; examining treatment of non-English-speaking patients; and training health care staff to spot discrimination.” 
  • Employee Benefit News offers three suggestions on how employers can help employees hold cancer at bay with preventive screenings.
    • “A new report from healthcare platform Color Health shows that although 80% of employers are concerned by rising cancer costs and 96% of benefits leaders agree early detection is the best solution, the majority of focus is devoted to post-diagnosis treatment, rather than evidence-based screenings. 
    • “According to the report, three out of four employers say they are placing more emphasis on screening, early detection and risk prevention efforts, but they are going to have to go beyond their current benefits setup: Only a quarter believe their current health plans meet the screening needs of their workforce, and three-quarters say employees are not being adequately screened by their primary care provider. Leaders report that 40% of employees are not compliant with screenings in general, and for the most deadly forms of cancer — lung and bronchus — the American Lung Association reports that only 6% of people eligible get screened. 
    • “The assumption [has been that] if we cover mammograms and colonoscopies and lung CTs, then people will actually get them, and that’s turned out to be false,” says Othman Laraki, Color Health’s CEO. “The big driver for that is that for non-acute care services, availability is not the same thing as access.” 

Midweek Update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • The Department of Health and Human Services announced that
    • “21.3 million people selected an Affordable Care Act Health Insurance Marketplace plan during the 2024 Open Enrollment Period. Total plan selections include more than five million people — about a fourth — who are new to the Marketplaces and 16 million people who renewed their coverage. Notably, open enrollment continues in four states and Washington, D.C., through January 31.
    • “For decades, when it came to federal programs we could depend on to keep Americans covered, three were always top of mind — Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, but now it’s crystal clear that we need to add a fourth — the Affordable Care Act,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. “Once again, a record-breaking number of Americans have signed up for affordable health care coverage through the Affordable Care Act’s Marketplace, and now they and their families have the peace of mind that comes with coverage. The ACA continues to be a successful, popular, and important federal program to millions of people and their families. As we celebrate the success of this most recent enrollment effort, HHS will double down on the Biden-Harris Administration’s efforts to increase access to quality care and lower costs.”
  • The Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker identifies “Health Cost and Affordability Policy Issues and Trends to Watch in 2024.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • Beckers Hospital Review informs us,
    • “After discontinuing the use of semaglutide and liraglutide weight-loss medications, a majority of patients were able to maintain the same weight they were at when halting the use — or even continued to lose additional weight after one year, a new study revealed. 
    • “The research, published Jan. 23 in Epic Research, focused on the outcomes of 20,274 patients who were prescribed semaglutide and 17,733 patients prescribed liraglutide, who lost at least five pounds while taking it. 
    • “Sustained weight loss slightly differed for the drugs — 56.2% of patients prescribed semaglutide kept the weight off one year after discontinuation of the drug, while that same outcome was 55.7% of patients who took liraglutide.
    • “While the majority were able to maintain their weight or shed additional pounds, some did not, and the outcomes differed by medication type. 
    • “One year after discontinuation of semaglutide medications, 17.7% regained all the weight they had lost while on the medication, and some even gained additional weight. For liraglutide, 18.7% entirely regained their weight one year after halting use.
  • Medpage Today tells us,
    • “Infants born to unvaccinated mothers who had COVID-19 during pregnancy were at high risk for developing neonatal respiratory distress, the longitudinal, cohort COMP study found.
    • “The odds of developing respiratory distress were threefold higher (OR 3.06, 95% CI 1.08-10.21) in infants born to unvaccinated mothers diagnosed with COVID-19 while pregnant compared with COVID-exposed infants born to COVID-vaccinated mothers, Mary Catherine Cambou, MD, of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and colleagues reported in Nature Communications.
    • “This was not something we were expecting to see, as none of the babies were diagnosed with COVID-19 themselves,” co-author Karin Nielsen-Saines, MD, also from UCLA, told MedPage Today in an email. “We also noted that respiratory distress was not transient and lasted several days.”
    • “However, when pregnant participants had received at least one mRNA vaccine dose prior to SARS-CoV-2 infection, the odds of their infants developing neonatal respiratory distress dropped to 0.33 (95% CI 0.10-0.96) — a 67% decline, the authors pointed out.”
  • The National Institutes of Health announced,
    • “Researchers at the National Institutes of Health have found overactivation in many brain regions, including the frontal and parietal lobes and the amygdala, in unmedicated children with anxiety disorders. They also showed that treatment with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) led to improvements in clinical symptoms and brain functioning. The findings illuminate the brain mechanisms underlying the acute effects of CBT to treat one of the most common mental disorders. The study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, was led by researchers at NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). 
    • “The findings can help our understanding of how and for which children CBT works, a critical first step in personalizing anxiety care and improving clinical outcomes,” said senior author Melissa Brotman, Ph.D., Chief of the Neuroscience and Novel Therapeutics Unitin the NIMH Intramural Research Program. * * *
    • “This study provide evidence—in a large group of unmedicated youth with anxiety disorders—of altered brain circuitry underlying treatment effects of CBT. The findings could, in time, be used to enhance treatment outcomes by targeting brain circuits linked to clinical improvement. This is particularly important for the subset of children who did not significantly improve after short-term CBT.
    • “The next step for this research is to understand which children are most likely to respond. Are there factors we can assess before treatment begins to make the most informed decisions about who should get which treatment and when? Answering these questions would further translate our research findings into clinical practice,” said Brotman.”
  • BioPharma Dive reports,
    • “An 11-year-old boy who was born deaf can hear after receiving an experimental gene therapy, developer Eli Lilly reported on Tuesday.
    • “The boy, identified as Aissam Dam by The New York Times, was the first participant treated in a small study Lilly is running to test the therapy, which is designed to correct a particular type of inherited hearing loss.
    • “While only from one person, the result is a striking example of gene therapy’s potential. According to Lilly, Dam experienced restored hearing across sound frequencies within a month of treatment. In some frequencies, Dam’s hearing was within the normal range at day 30, Lilly said.
    • “Lilly plans to present full data from Dam, as well as a second participant in its study, at a medical conference in early February.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Healthcare Dive lets us know,
    • “Elevance Health raked in $6 billion in profit last year on revenue of more than $171 billion — a better performance than Wall Street expected, given that high medical costs have been dogging payers.
    • “The payer beat analysts’ consensus expectations for earnings and revenue in the fourth quarter of 2023, with a topline of $42.7 billion, up 7% year over year. Elevance’s fourth-quarter profit of $831 million was down, however, by 5% year over year.
    • “Elevance chalked its revenue growth up to higher premiums and growth in its pharmacy benefit manager CarelonRx. Analysts said the Indianapolis, Indiana-based payer also benefited from better-than-expected medical costs and higher investment income in the quarter.” 
  • and
    • “Walgreens is considering a sale of its specialty pharmacy business Shields Health Solutions as the struggling retail chain attempts to improve its halting finances, according to a Bloomberg report. 
    • “Shields could be valued at more than $4 billion in a sale, and a deal might appeal to private equity firms or healthcare companies, Bloomberg said, citing sources familiar.
    • “Walgreens is in the midst of a shift to focus on delivering healthcare services to payer, provider and pharmaceutical clients. But the company’s U.S. Healthcare division — which Shields is a part of — isn’t currently profitable.” 
  • and
    • “HCA Healthcare’s outpatient surgery operator Surgery Ventures has acquired majority interests in two ambulatory surgical centers in North Texas, the for-profit hospital operator announced on Monday.
    • “The centers are now affiliated with HCA subsidiary Medical City Healthcare, which runs 19 hospitals and 15 surgery centers in the region.
    • “The purchase comes after HCA, one of the largest hospital operators in the country, has made other recent acquisitions in Texas, which is one of the chain’s largest markets.” 
  • Per BioPhama Dive,
    • “Johnson & Johnson CEO Joaquin Duato sold 2023 as a “remarkable year” on an earnings call with investors Tuesday. But the pharmaceutical giant faces looming difficulties that hang over its performance, including incoming biosimilar competition to its blockbuster immune drug Stelara and a $700 million settlement over claims the company’s talc product caused cancer.
    • “As far as last year goes, J&J narrowly beat Wall Street’s expectations with $85.2 billion in revenue. Pharma sales grow 9.5% in the fourth quarter compared to the same period the year before. Cancer treatments and immunology medicines like Stelara made up the bulk of that revenue.
    • “As one of the largest pharma companies and often the first in the sector to report earnings each quarter, J&J is often considered a sort of bellwether for the industry.”
  • and
    • “Novo Nordisk is adding yet another prospect to its obesity drug pipeline, this time from a biotech company spun out of Harvard University and Zurich University. · EraCal Therapeutics tests compounds in larval zebrafish in a bid to trigger behavioral changes related to appetite while minimizing other effects in the body. The Swiss startup says it’s seen early success in mice and may be able to produce a drug that helps people lose weight without the side effects sometimes seen with current treatments. ·
    • “As part of the deal announced Tuesday, EraCal is eligible for payments worth as much as 235 million euros, or about $256 million, as well as royalties if a product reaches the market. The total includes an unspecified amount of money up front, as well as future payments tied to developmental and commercial milestones.”
  • North Carolina Public Radio reports
    • “The board that oversees the North Carolina State Health Plan will face a heavy decision Thursday when it considers dropping coverage of weight loss medications like Wegovy. * * *
    • “The State Health Plan is the health insurance plan for more than 740,000 teachers, state employees, retirees, and their dependents. It’s a massive health plan that paid more than $4 billion in claims last fiscal year, according to plan data.
    • “But even at that size, the high costs of these GLP-1 medications take an outsized bite of the pie. In 2023, the 24,750 people with prescriptions of Wegovy, Saxenda, and Zepbound cost the plan $102 million after rebates. In 2024, CVS Caremark, the plan’s pharmacy benefits manager, warned those rebates might lessen or go away completely, something that could push total costs north of $170 million. For context, as recently as 2019-20, the plan paid less than $790 million for all pharmacy claims for the entire fiscal year.”
  • Bolton consulting group identifies seven key employee benefit trends for this year.

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Washington, DC

  • Senator Chuck Grassley (R Iowa) announced that he and
    • Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) are leading 12 of their colleagues in urging the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to complete its investigation into the health care industry’s most powerful prescription drug middlemen. The bipartisan senators are also requesting a status update on the investigation, which has now been open for over 18 months.
    • “We support the [FTC’s] issuance of a Section 6(b) order and conducting a timely study of pharmacy benefits managers’ (PBM) business practices,” the senators wrote in their letter to FTC Chair Lina Khan. “With the FTC’s inquiry reaching its year-and-a-half mark, we urge the FTC to complete the study without delay. In the interim, we believe it is important to know the status of the study and therefore ask the FTC to issue a progress report.”  ***
    • Read the full letter HERE.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services informs us,
    • “On January 12th, U.S. Secretary of Health Xavier Becerra spoke with Canadian Health Minister Mark Holland regarding the recent announcement on commercial drug importation from Canada by U.S. states. During the call, they agreed to continue to discuss mechanisms and strategize on finding solutions to combat increasing drug prices to ensure that both Americans and Canadians have access to an affordable and stable drug supply.  Secretary Becerra and Minister Holland committed to keeping in close contact to ensure a mutually beneficial path forward.”
  • and
    • “On Monday, January 22, HHS and Pfizer leadership met virtually with health care provider groups, including the American Medical Association, American Academy of Family Physicians, and others – highlighting the pathways for a smooth transition of oral antivirals for COVID-19, including Paxlovid, to the commercial market and the importance of provider education and clear communication to consumers.
    • “During the call, HHS leadership reminded providers that no patient should be forced to pay the full out-of-pocket cost to access Paxlovid, regardless of their insurance status. Providers should take steps to ensure patients understand the full range of options when it comes to accessing these life-saving treatments and anyone who is facing difficulties at the pharmacy counter should be directed to the PAXCESS patient assistance program (PAP).”
  • Federal Manager tells us,
    • “The results from the fiscal year (FY) 2023 Human Capital Reviews show that Chief Human Capital Officers (CHCOs) want more resources, are making strides in implementing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA), and plan to use data more heavily in the future.
    • “The annual reviews probed CHCOs opinions in four areas: Workforce planning and analysis, Implementation of Executive Order 14035 (Advancing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility), evaluation of system development, and innovation.”
  • Reg Jones, writing in FedWeek, discusses 2024 FEHB premiums and coverage.
  • BioPharma Dive points out,
    • “The makers of CAR-T cell therapies will need to warn about the risk of new blood cancer, the Food and Drug Administration said, following a review of reports involving so-called T cell malignancies following their use.
    • “In Jan. 19 letters to the manufacturers of six CAR-T therapies, the FDA said the prescribing information will need to include boxed warnings, the strongest type. In communication with industry executives, FDA officials have said they believe the benefits of these treatments, which are approved for types of lymphoma, leukemia and multiple myeloma, outweigh their risks.
    • “Since the FDA’s review began in late November, academic researchers have been probing the issue, too. One cell therapy advocacy group noted how the rate of 20 cases of T cell malignancies in roughly 34,000 CAR-T treated patients “is notably lower than that reported for more conventional alternative treatments.” The organization called for more studies to determine if some patients are at higher risk than others.”
  • The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force “concluded that the current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of screening for speech and language delay and disorders in children 5 years or younger.” The USPSTF previously gave the same recommendation to this service in 2015.

From the public health and medical research front,

  • Phrma, the drug manufacturer trade association, announced,
    • “2023 marked a five-year high for the number of new treatments and vaccines developed by the biopharmaceutical industry and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). According to new information from the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) and the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER), 71 novel treatments and vaccines were approved last year for people facing various cancers, certain rare diseases and more. Each new treatment represents new hope and progress for patients and their loved ones.”
  • CNN reports,
    • “Testing a person’s blood for a type of protein called phosphorylated tau, or p-tau, could be used to screen for Alzheimer’s disease with “high accuracy,” even before symptoms begin to show, a new study suggests.
    • “The study involved testing blood for a key biomarker of Alzheimer’s called p-tau217, which increases at the same time as other damaging proteins — beta amyloid and tau — build up in the brains of people with the disease. Currently, to identify the buildup of beta amyloid and tau in the brain, patients undergo a brain scan or spinal tap, which often can be inaccessible and costly.
    • “But this simple blood test was found to be up to 96% accurate in identifying elevated levels of beta amyloid and up to 97% accurate in identifying tau, according to the study published Monday in the journal JAMA Neurology.
    • “What was impressive with these results is that the blood test was just as accurate as advanced testing like cerebrospinal fluid tests and brain scans at showing Alzheimer’s disease pathology in the brain,” Nicholas Ashton, a professor of neurochemistry at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and one of the study’s lead authors, said in an email.”
  • The Washington Post adds, “For some Alzheimer’s patients, vision problems may be an early warning. A large study brings fresh attention to a lesser-known variant of the disease called posterior cortical atrophy.”
  • The AP reports,
    • “New York City intends to wipe out more than $2 billion in medical debt for up to 500,000 residents, tackling a top cause of personal bankruptcy, Mayor Eric Adams announced Monday.
    • The city is working with RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit that buys medical debt in bulk from hospitals and debt collectors for pennies on the dollar. The group targets the debt of people with low incomes or financial hardships and then forgives the amounts.
    • Under the program, the city will spend $18 million over three years.”

From the U.S. health care business front,

  • Beckers Hospital Review shares the latest HeathGrades top hospital lists.
    • “Healthgrades has recognized 250 hospitals nationwide for exceptional care via its “America’s Best Hospitals” awards, released Jan. 23.
    • “Three lists feature America’s 50, 100 and 250 best hospitals, which represent the top 1 percent, 2 percent and 5 percent of hospitals in the nation, respectively.”
  • STAT News reports,
    • “Steward Health Care, a for-profit health system that serves thousands of patients in Eastern Massachusetts, is in such grave financial distress that it may be unable to continue operating some facilities, according to public records and people with knowledge of the situation. The fast-moving crisis has left regulators racing to prevent the massive layoffs and erosion of care that could come if hospital services were to suddenly cease.
    • “Steward runs nine Massachusetts hospitals, mostly in Boston suburbs and underserved cities from the Merrimack Valley to the South Coast. But the national operator has shown escalating financial difficulties for at least the past three years, according to public records. This month, Steward’s landlord revealed in a news release that the health system hadn’t been paying its full rent for months and would contemplate selling off hospitals nationally.”
  • Healthcare Dive adds,
    • “Hospital Sisters Health System will close two hospitals and some health centers in Western Wisconsin following prolonged financial stress, the nonprofit system said Monday.
    • “HSHS will close St. Joseph’s Hospital and Sacred Heart Hospital around the end of the first quarter this year. The system also plans to close all the medical centers it operates in the region in partnership with multispecialty group Prevea Health by April 21, according to a release.
    • “The closures, which will impact roughly 1,400 HSHS and Prevea employees, will fully exit the faith-based heath system from the Western Wisconsin region.”
  • BioPharma Dive lets us know,
    • “Sanofi on Tuesday said it will acquire San Diego biotechnology company Inhibrx in a complex deal that could be worth up to $2.2 billion.
    • “The focus of the deal is an experimental drug Inhibrx is developing for a rare lung disease known as alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. Sanofi will acquire the drug via a buyout of Inhibrx following the spinout of the biotech’s other assets and employees into a new publicly traded company that will inherit the Inhibrx name.”
  • MedTech Dive notes that “Orthopedics leaders watch procedure backlog, new technologies in 2024. J&J, Medtronic and Smith & Nephew executives and orthopedic surgeons said they expect more procedures to move outpatient, while questions about pricing and procedure backlogs loom over the space.”
  • Per Beckers Hospital Review,
    • “Optum Perks, a prescription discount provider, has launched a new telehealth service that provides affordable healthcare and prescription treatments for conditions such as acne, cough and high blood pressure.
    • “The new service, with a starting cost of $25, allows patients to receive care at any time and can give them access to birth control, cold or flu medication and medication refills, without the need for scheduling or video chat, according to a Jan. 23 news release from Optum Perks. Optum Perks is part of RVO Health, a joint venture between Optum and Red Ventures.” 
  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • Bitewell, a food-as-medicine company, has launched a new digital food “farmacy” to encourage members to buy healthy groceries and pre-made meals.
    • “The online store personalizes the food shopping experience based on members’ health conditions and goals. Members can access the offering through a participating health plan, wellness program or provider.
    • Kelly’s Choice, a nutrition and health platform offering coaching and workplace wellness, is among the partners who will begin sponsoring Bitewell food farmacy memberships this month.”

Friday Factoids

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

From Washington, DC

  • Roll Call reports,
    • “Speaker Mike Johnson reiterated support Friday for the fiscal 2024 spending agreement he negotiated in the face of opposition from members of the House Freedom Caucus, who’ve been lobbying him to toss the deal. 
    • “Johnson, R-La., told reporters that while he is seeking feedback from across his conference, he is committed to the “strong” deal he negotiated with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.
    • “Our topline agreement remains; we are getting our next steps together, and we are working toward a robust appropriations process,” he said.”  * * *
    • “Next week, Congress will face a more pressing Jan. 19 spending deadline for agencies covered under four of the 12 annual appropriations bills. Schumer took the first procedural step needed for a stopgap spending bill Thursday, filing cloture on the motion to proceed to a shell vehicle. 
    • “The Senate’s continuing resolution is expected to last until March, sources familiar with the talks say. But while Johnson has said he is “not ruling out” the need for another continuing resolution, he has not yet said definitively whether or not he would support one. 
    • “And that stopgap measure will be essential to keep the government open, as Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., and House Appropriations Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, are continuing to negotiate over the final subcommittee allocations, also known as 302(b)s. 
    • “Negotiators will need about a month to wrap up their work after those allocations are finalized, House Appropriations ranking member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said Friday. “
  • Govexec tells us,
    • “The Office of Personnel Management made some of its best progress at reducing the number of pending retirement applications from federal workers last year, reducing the backlog by 34% in 2023 and breaking multiple recent records in the process.
    • “Long a source of frustration for the governmental HR agency, lawmakers and retirees alike, OPM’s inventory of pending retirement claims has been plagued by delays due to the still largely paper-based nature of federal employment records, staffing issues and other challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated many of these issues, as the backlog climbed to a high of more than 36,000 pending claims in March 2022.
    • “But OPM moved on multiple fronts last year to improve the process. The agency released its long-awaited IT strategic plan, which includes plans to develop a “digital retirement system,” complete with electronic records and an online retirement application process.
    • “And officials launched a series of short-term fixes aimed at shoring up the current system, including a guide for retirees to follow as they navigate the retirement process, as well as staffing up and coordinating more actively with federal agencies to prepare for the annual wave of new retirement claims that occurs between January and March.”
  • Federal News Network informs us,
    • “The Postal Service says its competitive package business is growing, following its busy year-end holiday season.
    • “USPS says it delivered 130 million more packages in the “peak” first quarter of fiscal 2024, a nearly 7% increase, compared to the same period last year.
    • “USPS delivered more than 1.9 billion packages in the first quarter of fiscal 2023, which covers October through the end of December.
    • “Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, in a video message to employees, said growing the package business is the key to turning around the Postal Service’s long-term financial problems.”
  • KFF analyzes the Food and Drug Administration’s recent decision to allow Florida to import prescription drugs from Canada.
  • Per Fierce Healthcare, AHIP, among others, expressed opposition to the provision in the proposed 2025 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters Notice, reducing the number of non-standardized plans that an Affordable Care Act plan carrier can offer from four to two.
    • “AHIP is particularly concerned about the impact of non-standardized plan limits on issuers’ ability to offer broad networks for consumers that want access to a variety of providers and specialists, which is often a key factor in plan selection for those with chronic health conditions,” the lobbying group wrote in comments on the proposed rule.”
  • The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force offers a report on its 2023 accomplishments.

From the public health and medical research front,

  • Becker’s Hospital Review provides three updates on the predominant Omicron strain JN.1.
    • “Disease severity: New findings from a study led by researchers at the Ohio State University indicate BA.2.86 and its close relative, JN.1, may be linked to an increase in disease severity. The research focused on mutations in the spike protein of BA.2.86 and found it can infect human cells that line the lower lung, which is a feature linked to severe symptoms. Researchers emphasized additional research is needed to confirm the findings, since the study used pseudoviruses. 
    • “But from our past experience, we know that infectivity in human epithelial cell lines provides very important information,” Shan-Lu Liu, MD, Ph.D., senior study author and virology professor at OSU, said in a news release. “The concern is whether or not this variant, as well as its descendants including JN.1, will have an increased tendency to infect human lung epithelial cells similar to the parental virus that launched the pandemic in 2020.” 
    • “In late December, the WHO classified JN.1 as a “variant of interest” due to its rapid spread. At the time, the agency said the overall risk to public health posed by the strain remains low, since updated vaccines continue to offer protection against severe illness. The CDC published its latest update on JN.1 Jan. 5, stating, “At this time, there is no evidence JN.1 causes more severe disease.” 
  • The Centers for Disease Control points out,
    • “As seasonal flu activity remains elevated nationally, CDC is tracking when, where and what influenza viruses are spreading and their impact on the public’s health. So far this season, the most commonly reported influenza viruses are type A(H1N1) and type B viruses. According to CDC research, this could mean more severe outcomes among people who are hospitalized with flu.”
  • Here’s a link to the CDC’s latest Fluview report.
    • “Seasonal influenza activity remains elevated in most parts of the country.
    • “After several weeks of increases in key flu indicators, a single week of decrease has been noted.  CDC will continue to monitor for a second period of increased influenza activity that often occurs after the winter holidays.
    • “Outpatient respiratory illness has been above baselinenationally since November and is above baseline in all 10 HHS Regions.
    • “The number of weekly flu hospital admissions decreased slightly.”
  • The CDC also announced,
    • “On October 23, 2023, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued Health Alert Network (HAN) Health Advisory 499 to provide guidance for prioritization of nirsevimab given the limited supply. Nirsevimab (Beyfortus, Sanofi and AstraZeneca) is a long-acting monoclonal antibody immunization recommended for preventing RSV-associated lower respiratory tract disease in young children.
    • Given the recent increase in nirsevimab supply and the manufacturers’ plan to release an additional 230,000 doses in January, the CDC advises healthcare providers to return to recommendations put forward by the CDC and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) on the use of nirsevimab in young children. Infants and children recommended to receive nirsevimab should be immunized as quickly as possible. Healthcare providers should not reserve nirsevimab doses for infants born later in the season when RSV circulation and risk for exposure to RSV may be lower. RSV activity remains elevated nationwide and is continuing to increase in many parts of the country, though decreased activity has been observed in the Southeast.” 
  • Fierce Healthcare reports,
    • “Though prescriptions for antiviral influenza medications have declined somewhat since 2023, perhaps indicating that the United States might be less encumbered by the flu than in recent record-breaking years, healthcare providers still find themselves battling a surge above historic norms, according to data by the Evernorth Research Institute.
    • “Researchers there examined pharmacy claims for more than 32 million people during current and past flu seasons and found an increasing prevalence of antiviral medication prescriptions since Thanksgiving 2023, though that’s tapered off slightly recently. More individuals experience flu symptoms severe enough to send them to physicians’ offices for prescriptions, and most of many of those forced to do so did not get the flu vaccination. Evernorth, a Cigna subsidiary, tries to develop cost-effective delivery systems for pharmacy benefits.
    • “Urvashi Patel, M.D., vice president of the Evernorth Research Institute, told Fierce Healthcare in an email that “since the shift to remote work from the pandemic, many employees who used to get their flu vaccines at the office are no longer able to. This may change as more workers continue to return to the office, but it’s likely a contributor to lower vaccination rates.”
  • The Wall Street Journal shares an employee’s favorable experience with the powerful weight loss drug Mounjaro.
  • Health Day provides the following study notes:
    • “U.S. doctors are prescribing antifungal creams to patients with skin complaints at rates so high they could be contributing to the rise of drug-resistant infections, new research shows.
    • “These are “severe antimicrobial-resistant superficial fungal infections, which have recently been detected in the United States,” noted a team led by Jeremy Gold, a researcher at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
    • “One of the biggest emerging threats: Drug-resistant forms of ringworm (a form of dermatophytosis).”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Healthcare Dive reports,
    • “UnitedHealth was slammed with medical costs as it closed out 2023. The health insurance behemoth still managed to exceed Wall Street’s financial expectations.
    • “UnitedHealth posted a medical loss ratio of 85% in the fourth quarter — its highest MLR since the COVID-19 pandemic began early 2020.
    • “MLR is a metric of how much payers shell out to cover their members’ medical expenses. Payers tried to shake the effects of higher medical costs all last year as patients who delayed healthcare during the pandemic returned to doctor’s offices.
    • “The bulk of higher costs in the fourth quarter was driven by more seniors using outpatient services, a trend that first appeared in the second quarter of 2023, said UnitedHealth CEO Andrew Witty on a Friday morning call with investors.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review offers an interview with Mayo Health System President “Prathibha Varkey, MBBS, [who] is excited about the future of healthcare,” and an analysis of nurse practitioner pay by specialty.
  • The Washington Post offers an interview with the American Medical Association President Jesse Ehrenfeld, MD.
  • Mercer Consulting offers guidance on network strategies to optimize patient care and save while its sister company, Oliver Wyman, peers into the crystal ball concerning the state of healthcare in 2035.
  • Beckers Payer Issues offers a look at ten updates to the 2024 Medicare Advantage landscape.
  • MedCity News discusses seven JP Morgan Conference news items that you don’t want to miss.
  • BioPharma Dive poses five questions facing the pharmaceutical industry this year. “Many drugmakers hope to compete with Novo and Lilly in obesity, while others seek to win oncology’s next era. Meanwhile, a contentious drug pricing law looms.”
  • Drug Channels shares a guest post titled “Repairing the Patient Journey: How Pharma Can Fix the Obvious–and Not So Obvious–Breaking Points of Nonadherence.”
  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • CVS Health plans to close dozens of pharmacies inside Target stores at a time when pharmacy chains are struggling to grow retail profits.
    • “CVS will close the pharmacies between February and April this year, said a company spokeswoman. The closures are part of CVS’s efforts to pare down its retail footprint “based on our evaluation of changes in population, consumer buying patterns and future health needs,” she said. * * *
    • “CVS has operated pharmacies inside Target stores since late 2015 when it bought the business from the retailer for around $1.9 billion. It has pharmacies in around 1,800 of Target’s more than 1,950 U.S. stores. A Target spokeswoman declined to comment. The latest round of closures account for a small percentage of CVS’s pharmacies at Target stores.” 
  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “Artificial intelligence was dominating CES 2024 this week. From assistive speech tools to pet wearables to AI-enabled pillows to prevent snoring, the majority of companies exhibiting at CES boasted the use of the technology as part of their products.
    • “Digital health companies at the show also are putting AI to use from Intuition Robotics’ AI-enabled ElliQ care companion robot to hearing eyewear.
    • “Amid all this hype, entrepreneur and investor Mark Cuban believes AI will be transformative for healthcare.
    • “There are two types of companies in the world — those who are great at AI and everyone else and either you know how to use it to your advantage or you’re in trouble,” he said during a digital health panel at CES on Thursday.
    • “He added, “I don’t think it will be dominated by five or six big models. I think there will be millions of models. I think we’ll find every company will have a model, every vertical will have its own model, individuals will have their own models, doctors have their own models, and trying to get to the point where it’s more democratic so that specific verticals will be used within healthcare is going to be an evolution and I don’t think we’ve figured all that out.”
  • Healthcare Dive adds
    • “Generative artificial intelligence can be used to pull social determinants of health data, like housing or employment status, from clinician notes to identify patients who need additional support, according to a new study.
    • “Large language models trained by researchers could identify 93.8% of patients with adverse social determinants of health, while official diagnostic codes include that data in only 2% of cases. 
    • “The finely tuned models were also less likely than OpenAI’s GPT-4 to change their determination when demographic information like race or gender was added. Algorithmic bias is a major concern for AI use in healthcare, amid fears the technology could worsen health inequities.” 

Midweek Update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

From Washington, DC

  • Roll Call reports,
    • ​”Speaker Mike Johnson dropped his adamant opposition to any more short-term funding patches on Wednesday, saying he wouldn’t rule out a continuing resolution even though that’s not his preference.
    • “Johnson, R-La., said it was still “pedal to the metal” on trying to get the fiscal 2024 spending bills done, including the first batch, which is due Jan. 19. But in comments to reporters after a House GOP conference meeting, he appeared to soften his tone on a CR.
    • “I’m not ruling out anything, committing to anything, other than getting these appropriations done,” Johnson said. “And I think we can and we’re pushing everybody hard.” 
    • “Senators on both sides of the aisle Tuesday said it was clear another temporary patch was needed because there just wouldn’t be enough time next week to beat the first deadline, particularly given the cumbersome Senate floor process.
    • “Sources familiar with the discussions said they expect the Senate to move first on a stopgap spending measure, which could make it easier for Johnson to put it on the floor in his chamber if it looks like there’s little choice and time is running out. A March end date is under consideration, sources said.”
  • Senator Chuck Grassley (R Iowa) announced,
    • Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) introduced bipartisan legislation to codify rules directing hospitals and insurers to disclose cash prices and negotiated rates to patients before they receive medical care. The Health Care PRICE Transparency Act 2.0 stems from policies implemented via executive order in 2019, and builds on a bill and related effort Grassley pushed last Congress. 
    • “Patients should be able to compare and shop for health care services. However, the pricing information they need when visiting the hospital or working with insurance companies isn’t always available. By strengthening transparency and accountability requirements, our bill would help lower costs for patients through more competition and added sunlight in the health care industry,” Grassley said
    • “It’s wrong that the same procedure can be 20 times more expensive in one hospital than in another, and there’s no other industry where consumers are in the dark on the price of what they’re buying. Knowing what health care services cost will lower health care prices because Americans can shop around and get the best deal rather than relying on insurers to negotiate with providers which drives the price up for everything. The Health Care PRICE Transparency Act 2.0 will pull the curtain back and put the power back in the hands of the American people, introducing real market competition into the health care industry and bringing down prices,” Braun said.
    • “Grassley and Braun are joined by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) and Tina Smith (D-Minn.). 
  • Chief Investment Officer tells us,
    • “President Joe Biden re-nominated Julie Su for Secretary of Labor on Monday. Su has been acting secretary of Labor since March 2023.
    • “Su’s nomination passed through the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions in April by an 11 to 10 vote. Her nomination then stalled in the Senate, and a full vote was never held. Presidential nominations must be renewed at the start of a new year.”
  • The Society for Human Resource Management adds,
    • “The new independent contractor rule from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) could spark an increase in misclassification lawsuits and make businesses less likely to hire gig workers, according to some legal experts.
    • “The final rule restores an earlier standard that required companies to weigh a variety of economic factors together to determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor. It will take effect on March 11.”
  • The Department of Health and Human Services announced,
    • “Under the Biden-Harris Administration, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced today that over 20 million people have selected an Affordable Care Act (ACA) Health Insurance Marketplace plan since the 2024 Marketplace Open Enrollment Period launched on November 1 — a record number of enrollments.
    • “Today’s data represents activity through December 23 (Week 8) for the 32 states using HealthCare.gov and for the 18 states and the District of Columbia with State-based Marketplaces. Total plan selections include more than 3.7 million people (18% of total) who are new to the Marketplaces for 2024, and 16.6 million people (82% of total) who had active 2023 coverage and selected a plan for 2024 coverage or were automatically re-enrolled.  Plan selections so far represent an impressive increase of over 8 million more people who have coverage since President Biden took office.
    • “The 2024 Marketplace Open Enrollment Period runs from November 1, 2023, to January 16, 2024, for states using the HealthCare.gov platform. Consumers who enroll by midnight on January 16 can get coverage that starts February 1, 2024. State-based Marketplace enrollment deadlines vary. State-specific deadlines and other information are available in the State-based Marketplace Open Enrollment Fact Sheet – PDF.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • ABC News points out,
    • “More than three years into the pandemic, hundreds of Americans are still dying from COVID-19 every week.
    • “For the week ending Dec. 9, the last week of complete data, there were 1,614 deaths from COVID, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The last four weeks of complete data show an average of 1,488 weekly deaths.
    • “By comparison, there were 163 weekly deaths from the flu for the week ending Dec. 9, according to CDC data.
    • “While high, these COVID death figures are still lower than the high of 25,974 deaths recorded the week ending Jan. 9, 2021, as well as weekly deaths seen in previous winters, CDC data shows.”
  • Medscape reports,
    • “Medication people with type 2 diabetes use to manage their blood sugar also appear to protect their hearts and kidneys, according to a new study in JAMA Network Open
    • “These pills, known as sodium-glucose cotransport protein 2 (SGLT2) inhibitors, reduce the amount of blood sugar in a kidney by causing more glucose to be excreted in urine.
    • Chronic kidney disease (CKD) cannot be cured and often leads to renal failure. SGLT2 inhibitor drugs can help stave off this possibility. Acute kidney disease (AKD), on the other hand, is potentially reversible. It typically occurs after an acute kidney injury, lasts for up to 90 days, and can progress to CKD if left unchecked. 
    • “There has been a notable absence of targeted pharmacotherapy to offer protection to these patients,” said Vin-Cent Wu, MD, PhD, a nephrologist at National Taiwan University Hospital in Taipei, and an author of the study.” 
  • Per STAT News,
    • “More hopeful news on the menopause front: Bayer announced on Monday encouraging results in two Phase 3 trials for its non-hormonal drug candidate, elinzanetant, meant to treat hot flashes. The results follow the recent market launch of Veozah, Astellas Pharma’s groundbreaking non-hormonal treatment for hot flashes, which was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last spring and received approval in the U.K., under the name Veozah, in December.
    • “Elinzanetant is a neurokinin-1 and 3 receptor antagonist, and works by calming down the estrogen receptors in the brain that become hyperactive around menopause, causing hot flashes. The drug, a pill administered once a day, was shown to reduce both the frequency and intensity of hot flashes, and also met the secondary endpoints for improving sleep and quality of life, according to JoAnn Pinkerton, professor of obstetrics and gynecology and director of the Midlife Health at UVA Health, who is a clinical investigator for Bayer’s drug candidate.”

Per the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Beckers Hospital Review discusses expert concerns about Eli Lilly’s new platform to market their drugs directly to consumers and provides four Ozempic updates.
  • Per Healthcare Dive,
    • “Healthcare providers have kept an eye on rising costs as nationwide labor shortages, inflation and dried up COVID-19 relief funds have pushed health systems’ operating margins into the red.
    • “But, despite hospital executives’ best efforts at cost management, 2024 will not bring a reprieve from razor-thin operating margins for most systems, experts warn.
    • “2024 will not be markedly better and certainly not the V-shaped recovery we’re hoping for,” said Kevin Holloran, senior director at credit agency Fitch Ratings. “Not-for-profit hospital margins are still below both pre-pandemic levels — but more importantly they will trend below the ‘magic number’ operating margin of 3%.”
    • “Analysts are split on how bleak the picture is for the provider sector. The major three major credit agencies — Fitch Ratings, Moody’s Investor Services and S&P Global Ratings — have forecast negative to stable conditions for the year.
    • “However, neither credit agencies nor industry experts predict a full financial turnaround for the embattled industry in 2024. Providers’ individual outlooks hinge on their ability to pull the right combination of levers that lift revenue and shrink costs, experts said.”
  • Health Payer Intelligence explains how one payer tackled the No Surprises Acts’ provider directory accuracy requirements.

Happy New Year!

From Washington, DC

Congress returns to legislative and Committee business next week.

The Hill discusses four ways the Fiscal Year 2024 appropriations issues can play out in January.

The Chief Justice, Hon. John Roberts, released his year-end report on the federal judiciary. The report focuses on generative artificial intelligence.

From the public health and medical research front,

  • Fortune Well considers the reigning Omicron subvariant JN.1 or Pirola.
    • “As always, it’s impossible to distinguish COVID from the flu, RSV, and other common winter illnesses like rhinoviruses, enteroviruses, and parainfluenza viruses by symptoms alone. Even with the new, highly mutated COVID variant “Pirola” JN.1, now globally dominant, this remains true. What’s more, it’s possible to have two or more infections at the same time.
    • “As always, testing—at a health care facility or at home, in the case of COVID—is the only true way to determine the source of your illness. And while you should consult your health care provider, if your symptoms are mild and you don’t have other health conditions, the cause may not matter.”
  • The article wades into Pirola specifics.
  • The Washington Post shares what’s known about long Covid.
    • “An analysis of nearly 5 million U.S. patients who had covid, based on a collaboration between The Washington Post and research partners, showed that people infected with the coronavirus’s omicron variant are less likely to develop symptoms typical of long covid than those who had covid earlier in the pandemic. Patients exposed to the coronavirus during the first wave of pandemic illness — from early 2020 to late spring 2021 — were most prone to develop long covid, with 1 in 12 suffering persistent symptoms, the study showed.”
  • The Post points out,
    • “Although HDL helps remove cholesterol from people’s arteries, the researchers wrote that, at very high levels, HDL’s structure and actions change, and it “may become deleterious to health” in various ways.
    • “For more than six years, they tracked 18,668 study participants, all 65 or older and all physically and cognitively healthy at the start of the study. In those years, cognitive dementia was diagnosed in 850 participants (4.6 percent).
    • “Those with very high HDL levels were more likely to have developed dementia than were those with more optimal HDL levels. For instance, the oldest participants with high HDL levels (those 75 or older) were 42 percent more likely to have developed dementia than those with normal HDL levels, and overall, anyone with high HDL levels had a 27 percent increased risk for dementia.”
  • and also offers exercise-based strategies for people experiencing trouble standing up or lying down.
  • Medscape tells us
    • “Researchers made important gains in 2023 in the fight against cardiovascular disease (CVD), according to the American Heart Association’s (AHA’s) annual list of key scientific developments in the field.
    • “Every year, we compile an overview of scientific research that advances our understanding of how to prevent, treat, and manage heart disease and stroke,” Mariell Jessup, MD, AHA chief science and medical officer, said in a news release.
    • “Whether the science points to new ways to treat long-known health conditions, disparities in care, or how to prevent some of our most pressing problems, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or obesity, the findings help people, healthcare professionals, policymakers, and others make better informed healthcare decisions,” Jessup added.
    • “[The article provides] a brief summary of some of the year’s most noteworthy developments, according to the AHA.”
  • The Wall Street Journal informs us,
    • “One of the best strategies for good health in the new year: Reduce the amount of sugar you eat.
    • Sugar sneaks into our diet in surprising ways, from coffee drinks you don’t realize are sugar bombs to small amounts that add up in bread or sauces. Looking more closely at nutrition labels and little tricks like putting a few cookies onto a plate rather than eating them straight from the bag can help.
    • “It’s worth the effort, nutrition researchers say. Studies have found that diets high in added sugars are linked to a higher risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. 
    • “U.S. guidelines recommend that Americans limit their consumption of added sugars to 10% of daily calories. The American Heart Association recommends a limit of 6% of calories. While overall sugar consumption has decreased in recent years, Americans still get an average of about 13% of their daily calories from added sugars, according to federal data. 
    • “Still, there’s an important distinction between added sugars—which are found in processed foods such as soda, cereal and yogurt, as well as honey and sugar itself—and sugar that occurs naturally in foods like fruit and dairy products. Foods that naturally contain sugar provide nutrients that people need and most Americans aren’t eating enough of them, nutrition researchers say.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Medscape reports,
    • “Drugmakers including Pfizer, Sanofi and Takeda Pharmaceutical plan to raise prices in the United States on more than 500 drugs in early January, according to data analyzed by healthcare research firm 3 Axis Advisors.
    • “Excluding different doses and formulations, more than 140 brands of drugs will have their prices raised next month, the data showed. * * *
    • “More drug prices are likely to be announced over the course of January – historically the biggest month for drugmakers to raise prices.
    • “In 2023, drugmakers raised prices on 1,425 drugs, down from 2022, when they raised prices on 1,460 drugs, according to data published by 46brooklyn.
    • “While drugmakers have pared back their price increases for established drugs, prices for newly launched drugs have hit record levels.
    • “In 2022, the price of newly launched drugs topped $220,000 from around $180,000 in the first six months of 2021 suggesting a more than 20% increase. That’s in line with a JAMA-published study on drug prices which showed that between 2008 and 2021 U.S. drug launch prices grew 20% annually.”

Friday Factoids

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • Endpoints informs us,
    • “In a landmark moment for genetic medicine and sickle cell disease patients, the FDA on Friday approved not just one but two gene therapies for the disease: Vertex Pharmaceuticals’ and CRISPR Therapeutics’ Casgevy, marking the first-ever approval of a CRISPR-based medicine in the US, and Lyfgenia, bluebird bio’s lentiviral gene therapy.
    • “The treatments are approved for sickle cell disease patients 12 years of age and older who experience painful attacks associated with the disease. Vertex will charge $2.2 million in the US for Casgevy, while bluebird will charge $3.1 million for Lyfgenia.
    • “This is the very first time that some patients have ever imagined that they might not have to live their entire lifespan with the consequences of sickle cell disease,” Alexis Thompson, the chief of the division of hematology at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and investigator on the clinical trials that led to the therapies’ approvals, told Endpoints News ahead of the announcement.” * * *
    • “ICER, a drug pricing watchdog, has suggested the therapies could be cost-effective at $2 million in the US. Bluebird bio markets a gene therapy as Zynteglo for transfusion-dependent beta thalassemia as well in the US, for which it charges $2.8 million.”
  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “New polling suggests voters would rather work to improve the current U.S. healthcare system and keep the Affordable Care Act in place, rather than drastically overhaul the system in favor of a national public option or Medicare for All.
    • “Three-quarters of survey respondents said they prefer fixing the current health insurance system versus starting fresh with a Medicare for All system, while 64% said Medicare should begin at the age of 60 instead of 65 and 58% believe people should be allowed to purchase health insurance beginning at the age of 50.
    • “Repealing the ACA struck a chord with respondents as just 32% of voters and only 44% of GOP voters said they support repealing the ACA. When asked if ACA subsidies should be extended, 60% said they should while only 41% of Republicans agreed.
    • “Notably, the survey was conducted on behalf of the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, an industry group created in 2018 comprised of America’s Health Insurance Plan, the American Hospital Association, BlueCross BlueShield Association, the Federation of American Hospitals, PhRMA and other major hospital systems, payers and healthcare advocacy groups that seek to quell support and prevent passage of Medicare for All.” 
  • Healthcare Dive tells us,
    • “Hospitals are up in arms over a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that would equalize payments for drugs administered in outpatient clinics, regardless of ownership.
    • The American Hospital Association and the Federation of American Hospitals sent separate letters to Congress this week urging legislators to vote against the bill over the site-neutral provision, arguing it would threaten access to care by cutting hospitals’ Medicare payments.
    • “The bipartisan Lower Costs, More Transparency Act is scheduled to come up for a House vote the week of Dec. 11.”
  • Fierce Healthcare offers more information on this bill (HR 5378).
    • [T]he legislation would ban spread pricing in Medicaid, force PBMs and providers to adopt President Trump-era transparency rules, push closer toward site-neutral payment reform, extend a federal program due to expire and approve funding increases for community health centers.
  • The American Hospital Association News points out,
    • The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission Dec. 8 discussed draft payment update recommendations for 2025, which the commission will vote on in January. The draft recommendations call for Congress to update Medicare payment rates for hospital inpatient and outpatient services by the current law amount plus 1.5%, and transition to a safety-net index policy that would distribute an additional $4 billion to safety-net hospitals. They also propose that Congress:
      • Update 2025 Medicare payments for physicians and other health professional services by 50% of the Medicare Economic Index increase, and enact a non-budget-neutral add-on payment under the physician fee schedule to services provided to low-income Medicare beneficiaries.
      • Reduce the 2025 payment rate for home health agencies by 7%.
      • Reduce the 2025 payment rate for skilled nursing facilities by 3%.
      • Reduce the 2025 payment rate for inpatient rehabilitation facilities by 5%.
  • On December 6, the Biden Administration’s latest semi-annual regulatory agenda was posted. Here is a link to OPM’s agenda. Here are the FEHB rulemakings in process:
    • OPM Proposed Rule Stage Federal Employee Health Benefits Program: Effective Date of Coverage RIN 3206-AO47
    • OPM Proposed Rule Stage Postal Service Health Benefits Program: Additional Requirements and Clarifications RIN 3206-AO59
    • OPM Proposed Rule Stage Federal Employee Health Benefits Program: Decreasing Enrollment Type to Self Only RIN 3206-AO62
    • OPM Final Rule Stage Requirements Related to Air Ambulance, and Agent, and Broker Services, and Provider Enforcement RIN 3206-AO28
    • OPM Final Rule Stage Postal Service Health Benefits Program RIN 3206-AO43
  • Readers can research these rulemakings on regulations.gov by referencing the RIN.

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The Department of Health and Human Services announced
    • “In first-of-its-kind research to examine racial and ethnic disparities in the medical costs of smoking in the United States, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) found that adults from some racial and ethnic populations benefit substantially more than others from tobacco control policies. The research, published today in the journal Tobacco Control, supports President Joe Biden’s April 2023 Executive Order calling for policymakers to examine distributional effects in cost-benefit analyses required in the rulemaking process.  This study helps inform such analyses and will benefit other research in this area.
    • “The study shows that even though adults in specific racial and ethnic populations have a lower ever-smoked rate than White adults and make more attempts to quit, their medical spending associated with smoking was twice as high, with a 41% higher rate of having multiple chronic conditions associated with smoking. * * *
    • “Disparities in medical spending, as well as adverse health outcomes, are continuing to increase over time,” said AHRQ co-author Dr. William Encinosa. “AHRQ’s results indicate that racial and ethnic populations benefit substantially from tobacco control policies, such as tobacco product regulations.”
    • “The article, “Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Healthcare Costs and Outcomes of Smoking in the United States: 2008-2019,” is published in Tobacco Control and may be found at: https://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/lookup/doi/10.1136/tc-2023-058136
  • Medscape notes,
    • “Patients receiving semaglutide for weight loss show a significantly higher rate of continuing the medication at 1 year compared with less effective anti-obesity drugs. However, even among those patients, continuation declines to fewer than half of patients.
    • “We now have effective US Food and Drug Administration-approved anti-obesity medications; [however], this study shows that in a real-world setting, the vast majority of patients discontinued their prescription fills within the first year,” said first author Hamlet Gasoyan, PhD, lead author of the study and a researcher with Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Value-Based Care Research, said in a press statement.
    • “The study was published online today in the journal Obesity.”
  • HR Morning fills us in on cancer benefit trends in 2024 and how employers can support employees fighting cancer.
  • Per MedPage Today,
    • “An outbreak of Clade I mpox virus is currently spreading in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and clinicians should be aware of the potential for transmission from people traveling from the Central African country, the CDC said Thursday in a Health Alert Network advisoryopens in a new tab or window.
    • “Of the two distinct mpox subtypes, Clade I is endemic in Central Africa, and appears to be more transmissible and causes more severe infections than the Clade II subtype. So far, no Clade I mpox infections have been detected in the U.S. during surveillance testing. The current threat for Clade I mpox in travelers remains low, the CDC said, in part because there are no direct commercial flights to the U.S. from the DRC.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Becker’s Payer Issues explains how BCBS plans are using price transparency data.
    • “It’s been nearly two years since payers have been required to publish the costs of their in-network provider rates for covered items and services, and now Blue Cross Blue Shield plans are using that data to create actionable insights for stakeholders across the healthcare system.
    • “Much of that work is being done by Blue Health Intelligence, the data and analytics arm of the BCBS Association that is collectively owned by 17 BCBS affiliates. Becker’s sat down with BHI CEO Bob Darin to learn how Blues plans around the country are utilizing price transparency data, and the major challenges that still lie ahead.”
  • Check out the interview.
  • HR Dive reports,
    • “The U.S. government published its fall regulatory agenda Wednesday, sharing its rulemaking plans for the remainder of 2023 and early 2024.
    • “Of interest to HR professionals are U.S. Department of Labor updates on wage and hour law, workplace safety and retirement plans. Perhaps most notably, the DOL plans to finalize overtime regulations in April 2024. Final regulations for independent contractor classification — under the Fair Labor Standards Act — hang in the balance, as they were slated to be published in November, per the DOL.
    • “Separately, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said it will finalize Pregnant Workers Fairness Act rules in December.”
  • The Society for Human Resource Management advises
    • “With the end of the year quickly approaching, HR and benefits leaders have yet one more task to add on to their busy end-of-year checklist: reminding employees about approaching deadlines to use up remaining cash in their health care flexible spending accounts (FSAs). ***
    • “So how should employers share end-of-year news about FSAs? And what should they say?
    • “One of the best ways to remind employees is to send multiple emails during the remainder of the year, Dinich said, adding that if company leaders simply raise the issue in a company meeting, anyone who is on leave or out sick won’t get that reminder.
    • “Make sure to reiterate any terms and conditions within that email and advise on checking which expenses are eligible, so that employees can refer back to this when making claims before the end of the year,” he said. “Also ensure that it’s clear when the expiry date is, as some plans are tied to specific dates rather than defaulting to the end of the year.”

Weekend Update

From Washington, DC,

  • The Federal Benefits Open Season ends a week from tomorrow.
  • KFF News provides a helpful overview of the recently proposed Affordable Care Act notice of benefit and payment parameters.
  • The New York Times reports,
    • “A small group of Republican senators on Friday called on President Biden to ban travel from China to protect against an outbreak of respiratory illnesses in children there, even as scientists and global and American health officials said there were no signs of a threatening new pathogen.
    • “Instead, those experts said, the evidence so far pointed to a surge of age-old infectious agents such as influenza, driven by the colder weather and China’s emergence from stringent Covid lockdowns. The World Health Organization said last week that China had shared data about its outbreak, including laboratory results from infected children, that did not show any unusual pathogens.
    • “Dr. Mandy Cohen, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, echoed that assessment on Friday. She said American officials had also been in touch with Chinese authorities, academic experts and health workers.
    • “What we have all been able to ascertain is that there is no novel pathogen,” she said. “This is all related to upticks of known viruses and bacteria in their pediatric population.”

From the public health front,

  • NPR Shots tells us,
    • “There’s just not much that’s very effective for treating the common cold,” said Dr. Lauren Eggert, clinical assistant professor in the Pulmonary Allergy and Critical Care Division at Stanford University. * * *
    • “She opens a database called UpToDate, which physicians use as a resource when they want to see the summary of evidence for medications targeting specific concerns. The conclusions for cold and flu remedies are disconcerting:
      • “Antihistamines, vitamins and herbal remedies are deemed ineffective.
      • “Cough syrups, decongestants, expectorants, and zinc may have minimal or uncertain benefits.
      • “Nasal sprays and analgesics like Tylenol and ibuprofen may be effective.”
  • The American Medical Association lets us know what doctors wish their patients knew about Covid oral anti-virals, Paxlovid and molnupiravir.
  • Medscape points out,
    • Breast cancer has a worse prognosis when diagnosed during pregnancy or postpartum. Methods for early detection are needed, as evidenced every day in the multidisciplinary unit for treating pregnancy-associated breast cancer, which operates within the Breast Unit at the Vall d’Hebron University Hospital in Barcelona, Spain.
    • “The team working in this field is led by Cristina Saura, PhD, who is also head of the Breast Cancer Group at the Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology (VHIO). The results of a study recently published in Cancer Discovery show, for the first time, that breast milk from breast cancer patients contains circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) that can be detected by a liquid biopsy of the milk.”

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • This morning, the federal government filed a notice appealing to the D.C. Circuit the HIV and Hepatitis Foundation’s successful challenge to the Trump administration’s co-pay accumulator rule.
  • Yesterday, the federal government moved for the district court to modify its decision to state that the Trump administration rule would remain effective until the ACA regulators reconsidered it in compliance with the court’s order. The plaintiffs reportedly oppose the government’s motion. 
  • The ACA regulators issued
  • The FAQs concern the claims batching limitations under the No Surprises Act and the update to CLAS requirements that health plans, including FEHB plans must use in certain plan publications. The FEHBlog noticed that the ACA regulators have added new languages to CLAS requirements. The CLAS changes will take effect for the 2025 plan year.
  • The American Hospital Association News adds,
    • In response to recent court decisions that set aside certain regulations implementing the No Surprises Act’s Independent Dispute Resolution process, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Nov. 28 released [ACA] FAQs [63] explaining how certified IDR entities may determine whether a dispute is appropriately batched and clarifying certain other provisions and its policy for extending existing IDR deadlines once the federal IDR portal reopens to all batched disputes and single disputes involving air ambulance services. CMS also rescheduled to Nov. 30 at 3 p.m. ET its webinar to review the FAQs for health care providers and insurers submitting batched or air ambulance claims. To attend the webinar, register here.
  • Get a load of this other AHA News item,
    • A bipartisan group of House members Nov. 28 introduced AHA-supported legislation that would prohibit health insurers from charging fees for standard electronic fund transfers to pay health care providers for services. Commercial insurers often automatically charge health care providers a percentage-based fee for EFT payments. 
    • FEHBlog note — EFT transactions are not free. If the entire cost is shifted onto the insurer, then premiums go up.

From the public health and medical research front,

  • BioPharma Dive informs us,
    • “The Food and Drug Adminsitration is investigating whether CAR-T cell therapies like Novartis’ Kymriah or Gilead’s Yescarta are linked to the risk of new blood cancers after receiving reports of so-called T cell malignancies in people who have received the treatments.
    • “In a statement Tuesday, the agency said it’s weighing “the need for regulatory action” in response to the reports, which came from both clinical testing and safety monitoring tied to commercial use. The identified risk is applicable to all approved CAR-T therapies, although the agency noted that “the overall benefits of these products continue to outweigh their potential risks for their approved uses.”
  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned of an emerging safety issue involving a continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, machine made by Philips.
    • “The FDA issued a safety communication about thermal issues with the Philips Respironics’ DreamStation 2 CPAP machines, which are used to treat forms of sleep apnea, and recommended patients monitor machines.
    • “The agency said it had received reports of issues such as fire, smoke, burns and other signs of overheating. The FDA said it is in discussions with the company about strategies to address the safety issue.”
  • The Washington Post points out,
    • “Scientists have discovered a new type of stem cell in the spine that appears crucial to resolving a long-standing mystery: why far more cancer cells spread to the spine than to other bones in the body.
    • “When breast, lung and prostate cancers metastasize to multiple bones in the body, three to five times more cancer winds up in the spine than in the lower and upper limbs. Scientists have known of this disparity for decades, but the reason for it has remained unclear.
    • “One theory held that differences in blood flow might be the cause. But the new findings suggest an alternative that could have implications for cancer care, spine fusion surgery and osteoporosis, a bone-weakening disease that afflicts about 10 million Americans.”
  • The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) announced,
    • “releasing a Draft Evidence Report assessing the comparative clinical effectiveness and value of xanomeline tartrate/trospium chloride (KarXT, Karuna Therapeutics) for the treatment of schizophrenia. This preliminary draft marks the midpoint of ICER’s eight-month process of assessing these treatments, and the findings within this document should not be interpreted to be ICER’s final conclusions.
  • The ICER announcement also explains how to submit public comments and participate in virtual public meeting on February 9, 2024.

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • The Business Group on Health issued a report on nine healthcare cost trends to watch in 2024.
  • Beckers Hospital Review tells us,
    • “Hospitals’ median operating margin was 1.2% through October, marking the third straight month with the same year-to-date median and signaling growing stability.  
    • “The latest figure comes from Kaufman Hall’s November “National Hospital Flash Report,” which is based on data from more than 1,300 hospitals. 
    • “Kaufman Hall said the 1.2% year-to-date median operating margin for October reflects “continued stabilization” among hospitals. In the first 10 months of 2023, hospitals’ net operating revenue per calendar day was up 6%, and total expense per calendar day was up 4% compared to the same time period in 2022.”

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • Roll Call reports,
    • “Republicans yanked another fiscal 2024 spending bill before a final vote scheduled for Thursday morning, leaving them empty-handed for the week and stuck at seven out of 12 annual appropriations bills passed.
    • “The $25 billion Financial Services bill [which funds OPM and the FEHBP] ran into trouble with GOP moderates over language that would block the District of Columbia from implementing its 2014 law preventing employment discrimination based on reproductive health decisions, including taking birth control or having an abortion.
    • “The simple analogy is they didn’t have the votes. Shocking,” said Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., who backs the bill. “Monday, we’ll see if we can have a consensus over the weekend for those people that have a problem with what I think is a very straightforward bill.”
    • “Another issue which contributed to the measure’s demise Thursday, according to a source familiar with the decision, was conservative opposition to allowing the General Services Administration to implement its plan to build a new FBI headquarters in Greenbelt, Md.”
  • As Rosanna Rosannadana would say, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.”
  • The Society for Human Resource Management informs us,
    • Employees can funnel an extra $150 into their health flexible spending accounts (FSAs) next year, the IRS announced Nov. 9.
    • “The annual contribution limit is rising to $3,200 in 2024, up from $3,050 in 2023. The hike is still significant, although it’s a smaller boost than the $200 hike seen this year.
    • “If the employer’s plan permits the carryover of unused health FSA amounts, employees can carry over up to $640 in 2024. That’s up $30 over the 2023 carryover amount, which is $610.”
  • Here’s a link to the IRS’s complete list of 2024 inflation adjustments to tax items.
  • STAT News tells us that the Ground Ambulance Committee created by the No Surprises Act wants to cap the cost-sharing for people who use ground ambulances at $100 per trip. The catch is that they have difficulty deciding how much health plans should pay for ground ambulance services.
    • “Some experts say a Medicare benchmark is the simplest administrative solution. Medicare’s payment system for ambulances is outdated, but it’s based on some measure of costs. But that shift would result in a lot of upheaval, especially for ambulance providers that currently are able to bill and collect large sums of money from the biggest insurance companies. * * *
    • “Early next year, the federal ambulance committee will deliver its recommendations to Congress. Key lawmakers have not shown a lot of interest in taking up surprise billing again because it requires a lot of political capital to confront the ambulance and insurance industries.”

In FEHBP news,

  • FedSmith offers its strategy for approaching the FEHB open season which begins next Monday.
  • FedWeek discusses coordinating benefits between FEHB plans and Medicare. The best resource is OPM’s chart found in Section 9 of every FEHB plan’s brochure.

From the public health and research front,

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “A team of New York surgeons has performed the world’s first whole-eye transplant on a human, a breakthrough that could change vision treatments even though the patient hasn’t regained sight in the grafted eye. 
    • “In the six months since the eye surgery was performed, in conjunction with a partial face transplant, the 46-year-old patient has shown promising signs of health in the eye, the surgical team at NYU Langone Health said Thursday. 
    • “The grafted eye is maintaining normal ocular pressure and has direct blood flow to the retina, the area at the back of the eye that receives light and sends images to the brain. It isn’t known if the patient will regain his sight, but the transplant is still a significant accomplishment, according to Dr. Eduardo D. Rodriguez, director of the Face Transplant Program at NYU Langone.  
    • “We’ve made one major step forward and have paved the way for the next chapter to restore vision,” Rodriguez said. Rodriguez led the May surgery, which lasted 21 hours and included more than 140 surgeons, nurses and other healthcare professionals.” 
  • The Food and Drug Administration announced,
    • “approving Adzynma, the first recombinant (genetically engineered) protein product indicated for prophylactic (preventive) or on demand enzyme replacement therapy (ERT) in adult and pediatric patients with congenital thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (cTTP), a rare and life-threatening blood clotting disorder.”
  • and
    • “approving Ixchiq, the first chikungunya vaccine. Ixchiq is approved for individuals 18 years of age and older who are at increased risk of exposure to chikungunya virus.
    • “The chikungunya virus is primarily transmitted to people through the bite of an infected mosquito. Chikungunya is an emerging global health threat with at least 5 million cases of chikungunya virus infection reported during the past 15 years. The highest risk of infection is in tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, Southeast Asia, and parts of the Americas where chikungunya virus-carrying mosquitos are endemic. However, chikungunya virus has spread to new geographical areas causing a rise in global prevalence of the disease.” 
  • and
    • clearing for marketing the first over-the-counter (OTC) antigen test for COVID-19. ACON Laboratories’ Flowflex COVID-19 Antigen Home Test, originally authorized for emergency use in 2021, is now the second home COVID-19 test to successfully complete a traditional FDA premarket review pathway, and the first indicated for use in children under 18. Today’s announcement follows clearance of a molecular home test earlier this year.
  • Per Beckers Hospital Review,
    • “Pneumonia patients who took an antibiotic that’s typically reserved as an alternative were less likely to develop Clostridioides difficile infections compared to those taking the recommended drug, according to a study from Veterans Affairs Hospitals. 
    • “The retrospective study analyzed 156,107 patients treated for pneumonia at a VA hospital between 2009 and 2022. Overall, less than 1% of pneumonia patients were diagnosed with a C. diff infection, but among those who had C. diff in the year before contracting pneumonia, 12% developed a new C. diff infection associated with their antibiotic treatment. 
    • “Clinical guidelines recommend azithromycin, and nearly 9 in 10 of the patient cohort received the drug. Of the 13% who received doxycycline, the alternative antibiotic, the drug was associated with reducing C. diff infections by 45%. 
    • “The researchers concluded that, if Legionella pneumonia can be ruled out, clinicians might consider doxycycline as a first-line treatment over azithromycin.”
  • The Wall Street Journal notes,
    • “There is hope for those of us who live (and sleep) in the real world: Getting less than 8 hours of shut-eye a night doesn’t mean you’re doomed to an early grave.
    • “A recent study looking at sleep and longevity found that sleep “regularity”—going to bed and waking up at consistent times with few mid-slumber interruptions—matters more than how long you sleep. Sleeping six hours every night on a consistent schedule was associated with a lower risk of early death than sleeping eight hours with very irregular habits.
    • “The study adds to a growing understanding of the links between sleep and longevity. Research in recent years has shown not only how important sleep is for health and lifespan, but also that the duration of sleep isn’t the only thing that matters.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Healthcare Dive points out,
    • “For-profit hospital operators strained by physician fees, payer relations in the third quarter of 2023. Except for HCA, the biggest U.S. health systems all reported lower year-over-year profits in the third quarter.”
  • and
    • “More than 85,000 Kaiser Permanente healthcare workers have a new four-year contract with the nonprofit system after union members overwhelmingly voted to ratify a compromise reached in October following months of labor negotiations and a high-profile strike.”
  • and
    • “Virgin Pulse announced on Thursday it closed its merger with third-party health plan administrator HealthComp. Private equity firms New Mountain Capital and Marlin Equity Partners are new majority and minority owners of the company, respectively, according to a release.”
  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “Optum Rx is shifting eight different insulin products to its preferred formulary in a bid to address affordability, the company said Thursday.
    • “The product selection includes all rapid-acting and short-acting insulin products and some long-acting insulins, according to the announcement. It includes insulins manufactured by Sanofi, Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly.
    • “Optum’s Tier 1 includes the lowest cash prices that its members will pay, the company said.”
  • and
    • A BCBSA study concludes that the Affordable Care Act’s risk adjustment system works, notwithstanding noteworthy failures.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • AstraZeneca raised its full-year guidance for core earnings per share and total revenue excluding Covid-19 medicines despite a lower third-quarter profit that missed forecasts after booking a tax charge compared with a credit for the comparable period.
    • “The Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical giant said Thursday that it expects core earnings per share to increase by a low double-digit percentage compared with previous guidance of a high single-digit to low double-digit percentage increase.
    • “Total revenue excluding COVID-19 medicines is now expected to increase by a low-teens percentage at constant-exchange rates compared with previous expectations of low double-digit percentage growth.
    • “Total revenue is expected to increase by a mid-single-digit percentage compared with previous guidance of low-to-mid single-digit, it said.”