Tuesday’s Tidbits

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Washington DC, the Wall Street Journal reports

  • “President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy remained at loggerheads after a meeting Tuesday at the White House, appearing to make little progress in averting the first-ever default by the federal government as soon as next month.
  • “House Republicans have demanded deep spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling and criticized Mr. Biden for not starting talks earlier. But Mr. Biden and Democrats in Congress maintain that the federal borrowing limit should be raised without preconditions and have called the GOP stance irresponsible. Neither side has presented a path forward that could win enough support to pass both chambers of Congress.
  • ”I didn’t see any new movement,” Mr. McCarthy said after leaving the meeting. He said he thought negotiators only had about two weeks to reach an agreement. He said there were staff-level meetings planned and the key leaders would meet again on Friday.”

From the end of the public health emergency front —

  • The Department of Health and Human Services released a fact sheet on the end of the Covid public health emergency, which ends on Thursday, May 11.
  • The Washington Post tells us,
    • “The federal government will allow doctors to keep using telemedicine to prescribe certain medications for anxiety, pain and opioid addiction, extending for six months emergency flexibilities established during the coronavirus pandemic.
    • “The Drug Enforcement Administration and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration made the announcement Tuesday, two days before the telemedicine flexibilities were set to expire along with the coronavirus public health emergency.
    • “The ability to prescribe controlled medications remotely will run through Nov. 11, 2023. And that deadline will be longer still if doctors have already established a telemedicine relationship with patients. In that circumstance, physicians can keep prescribing the medications virtually through Nov. 11, 2024.”
  • Govexec informs us
    • “President Biden on Tuesday officially revoked the COVID-19 vaccine mandates for federal employees and contractors that had already been mired in lawsuits that prevented them from being enforced. 
    • “The mandates–issued in September 2021–will end on May 12, Biden said in an executive order. The move had been expected following an announcement from the White House earlier this month, and will coincide with the end of the COVID public health emergency on May 11.”
  • STAT News adds
    • “The White House isn’t quite ready to launch its new pandemic response office for a neat handoff at the end of the Covid-19 public health emergency, White House Covid-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha told reporters Tuesday.
    • “Jha said White House officials are in the middle of setting up an Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy that Congress mandated them to create in December, but it won’t be ready in time for a clean transfer at the end of the public health emergency on May 11.
    • “He deflected questions about whether he will stay on after the transition.

From the substance abuse disorder front, Google tells us that this is National Fentanyl Awareness Day, and Shatterproof addresses four myths about fentanyl.

From the preventive services front, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force posted

  • “a draft recommendation statement on screening for breast cancer. The Task Force now recommends that all women get screened for breast cancer every other year starting at age 40. This is a B grade. More research is needed on whether or not women with dense breasts should have additional screening with breast ultrasound or MRI, and on the benefits and harms of screening in women older than 75. These are I statements.”
  • The public comment period ends on June 5, 2023.

From the litigation front, STAT News reports

  • “A federal jury handed a major win to Gilead Sciences on Tuesday in a closely watched battle with the U.S. government over the rights to groundbreaking HIV prevention pills.
  • “The jury decided Gilead did not infringe on patents held by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and, in fact, that the agency’s patents were invalid. The CDC helped fund academic research into HIV prevention that later formed the basis for the pills. The Department of Health and Human Services contended that Gilead refused to reach a licensing agreement despite several attempts to reach a deal.
  • “For its part, the company argued that it invented the pills — an older one called Truvada and a newer, upgraded version called Descovy — and that the concept of using Truvada to prevent HIV was well-known by the time the government tried to obtain its patents. Moreover, Gilead maintained that it acted in good faith during its negotiations with the government.”

From the tidbits front —

  • Federal News Network relates
    • “The Postal Service is falling short of its goal to start turning around its financial losses this year, but Postmaster General Louis DeJoy says the agency is taking “aggressive actions” to get the agency back on track to break even by the end of the decade.
    • “USPS reported a $2.5 billion net loss for the second quarter of fiscal 2023, and is expected to see a net loss for the entire fiscal year.
    • The agency saw more than an 8% decline in first-class mail volume and a 5% decline in package volume, compared to the same period last year.”
  • OPM announced
    • “U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Director Kiran Ahuja will deliver the commencement address to the 2023 graduating class of the University of Georgia’s (UGA) School of Public and International Affairs at the Ramsey Auditorium on the UGA campus.  
    • “Director Ahuja, an alumna of the University of Georgia School of Law, will speak to the Class of 2023 on the opportunities that a career in federal service offers. As federal agencies seek to fill the positions necessary to implement legislation such as the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, OPM is leading the federal government’s recruitment efforts. Director Ahuja’s message to graduates will be simple: if you want a career with impact, the federal government is hiring.”
  • HUB International points out that
    • “The IRS recently released a Chief Counsel Memo confirming its long-standing position that all flexible spending account (“FSA”) expenses must be substantiated. This means that, no matter how small, each expense must have some kind of third-party verification. While Chief Counsel Memos are not official, binding IRS guidance, they are informative of the IRS’s views in a particular area.”
  • Last Wednesday, “the FDA published a new web page with details about over-the-counter (OTC) Hearing Aids: What You Should Know before and after buying an OTC hearing aid.”



Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From Washington, DC —

  • The Wall Street Journal reports, “Weight-loss drugmakers are lobbying Congress to grant them access to a monster payday for their blockbuster treatments: Medicare coverage.” At last Thursday’s carrier conference, OPM pointed out a related advantage of the Medicare Part D EGWPs that the FEHBP will offer next year. Although the weight loss drugs may not be on the Medicare formulary, those drugs would be made available to FEHB annuitants via the Plan’s formulary, which can gap-fill the Medicare formulary.
  • CMS announced that the updated MMSE Section 111 GHP User Guide version 6.8 has been posted to the GHP User Guide page on CMS.gov. Refer to Chapter 1 for a summary of updates.”
  • Per Health Payer Intelligence, AHIP launched a marketing campaign targeting Pharma’s prescription drug pricing. “The payer organization stated that prescription drug pricing is out of control and explained health insurance’s role in reducing the impact.”
  • The Department of Health and Human Services proposed a rule to extend ACA marketplace, Basic Health Program, Medicaid, and CHIP coverages to 580,000 DACA recipients.

From the healthcare spending and plan design fronts

  • Fierce Healthcare informs us,
    • “About a year ago, Elevance Health launched a pilot program to offer digital concierge care to members who were recovering from COVID-19 infections.
    • “Since then, the insurer has expanded that initiative to offer concierge care management to members with a number of chronic conditions, including Crohn’s disease, cancer and diabetes. Anthony Nguyen, M.D., the chief clinical officer at Elevance, told Fierce Healthcare that the program was born from a desire to be “more engaging with our members.”
    • “The challenge for not only the programs that we have, the traditional ones, as well as others in the market, is that it’s not personalized,” Nguyen said. “It is not tailored to an ‘n’ of one.”
    • “Greater personalization was built into the foundation of the program, he said. For example, concierge care deploys a nurse matching tool that connects members with a clinician who is likely to connect and resonate well with them, improving the care journey.”
  • and
    • “Healthcare spending declined dramatically in 2020 thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, but expenditures rebounded the following year, according to new data from the Health Care Cost Institute.
    • “The group released its annual look at cost and utilization trends last week, which found the average health spending for people with employer-sponsored coverage reached $6,457, up 15% from the 2020 average of $5,630. Spending declined by 4% in 2020 as utilization decreased, the researchers said.
    • “John Hargraves, director of data strategy at HCCI, told Fierce Healthcare that the 2020 data are an aberration in the long-term spending trends, which had grown steadily prior to the pandemic.
    • “It’s almost like 2020 is a missing data point in the long-term growth in the healthcare spending and use patterns that we’ve noted,” Hargraves said.”

From the telehealth and fraud waste and abuse fronts, the HHS Inspector General made available a “toolkit intended to assist public and private sector partners—such as Medicare Advantage plan sponsors, private health plans, State Medicaid Fraud Control Units, and other Federal health care agencies—in analyzing their own telehealth claims data to assess program integrity risks in their programs.”

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

The HIMSS conference is being held this week in Chicago. The HIMSS organization is providing the publich with morning and afternoon session updates.

From the regulatory front, the Department of Health and Human Services released the final 2024 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters which is applicable to qualified health plans in the marketplaces.

From the US healthcare business front

  • Healthcare Dive reports
    • Hospital and health system merger and acquisition activity remained consistent in the first quarter of 2023 with 15 healthcare industry transactions, a slight drop from 17 in the fourth quarter of 2022, according to a new report from hospital consultancy Kaufman Hall. The 15 transactions comprised $12.4 billion in total transacted revenue, down from the high of $12.7 billion in 2018.
    • Mergers and acquisitions are trending toward cross-regional partnerships, and the size of the smaller party in mergers is increasing to between $250 million and $750 million in annual revenue, according to the report.
    • Realignment of for-profit health system portfolios continued in the first quarter of 2023, particularly for high financial and operational performing health systems.
  • AHIP issued a report finding that hospital markups on specialty drugs cost patients thousands of dollars.
  • Beckers Hospital CFO Reports identifies 22 US hospitals that are cutting care.
  • Beckers Payer Issues informs us that
    • UnitedHealthcare’s plans to implement a gold-card program in 2024 might cut another 10 percent of its prior authorization volumes on top of a 20 percent reduction that will roll out this summer, UnitedHealthcare CEO Brian Thompson said during UnitedHealth Group’s April 14 earnings call, which was transcribed by Seeking Alpha.
    • The payer plans to implement the national gold-card program in early 2024 for care provider groups that meet eligibility requirements, according to a March 29 company news release. The gold-card status applies for most UnitedHealthcare members across commercial, Medicare Advantage and Medicaid. 
    • Qualifying care provider groups “will follow a simple notification process for most procedure codes rather than the prior authorization process,” according to the release. 

From the public health front, Medpage Today reports

  • Chronic pain continued to affect more than one in five U.S. adults, new CDC survey data showed.
  • During 2021, an estimated 51.6 million adults (20.9%) had chronic pain lasting 3 months or longer, and 17.1 million (6.9%) had high-impact chronic pain — pain severe enough to restrict daily activities — reported S. Michaela Rikard, PhD, of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, and co-authors.
  • Pain prevalence was higher in adults who were American Indian or Alaska Native, who identified as bisexual, or who were divorced or separated, the researchers said in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

From the Rx coverage front, the Institute for Clincical and Economic Research released a Final Evidence Report on Lecanemab for Alzheimer’s Disease.

  • — Independent appraisal committee voted that currently available evidence is not adequate to demonstrate a net health benefit for lecanemab when compared to supportive care —
  • — Using best estimates from current data, ICER analyses suggest lecanemab would achieve common thresholds for cost-effectiveness if priced between $8,900 – $21,500 per year —
  • — Manufacturers should release all patient-level data to help patients, clinicians, researchers, and regulators understand more about the link between amyloid reduction and cognitive outcomes

Lecanemab is an FDA approved drug that the CDC is considering for Medicare coverage beyond clinical testing. The VA has agreed to cover FDA marketing label uses for the drug in its patient population which overlaps with FEHBP.

From the medical research front, a National Institutes of Health study outlines “opportunities to achieve President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot goal of reducing cancer death rates in the United States. Accelerated progress is needed to achieve Cancer Moonshot goal of cutting the age-adjusted cancer death rate by at least 50% over 25 years, NIH study says.”

  • The study was conducted by researchers in NCI’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, the Center for Cancer Research, and their collaborators, using data from NCI’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. The researchers examined trends in age-standardized cancer incidence, survival, and mortality rates from 2000 to 2019 for all cancers combined, as well as for the six cancers that together account for 57% of cancer deaths: lung, colorectal, pancreatic, breast, prostate, and liver. They then projected the overall cancer death rate in 2047 based on the assumption that current trends would continue.
  • According to their analysis, because of decreasing cancer incidence and improvements in survival, age-adjusted death rates from all cancers combined declined by 1.4% per year from 2000 to 2015 and by 2.3% per year from 2016 to 2019. These declines reflect substantial reductions in deaths from lung cancer (-4.7% per year during 2014–2019), as well as colorectal cancer (-2.0% per year during 2010–2019) and breast cancer (-1.2% per year during 2013–2019).
  • Trends in prostate, pancreatic, and liver cancer death rates have been less promising. Death rates from prostate cancer had declined strongly (-3.4% per year during 2000–2013), but the decline has slowed (to -0.6% per year during 2013–2019). Death rates from pancreatic cancer have been increasing (0.2% per year during 2006–2019). Death rates from liver cancer, which had been increasing for decades, recently began to decline (-0.5% per year during 2016–2019). Death rates from all other cancer types combined have declined (-1.7% per year during 2016–2019).

Late Week Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

Dear FEHBlog readers — The FEHBlog wrote a quick blog post for Thursday but overlooked hitting the publish button, so here are the two items from Thursday and the remainder from Friday.

Wednesday afternoon, the Affordable Care Act regulators issued ACA FAQ 59 about the Braidwood Management decision. The FAQs expressly endorsed OPM’s informal administration action last Friday using FEHB Act Section 8902(d) to endorse the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendations that the decision rejected because they had no federal government endorsement. The FEHBlog wonders why HHS hasn’t pulled this page out of OPM’s playbook.

Wednesday night, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (2-1 decision) stayed a portion of the abortion pill injunction on statute of limitations grounds in a 42-page opinion. The Fifth Circuit opinion allows the abortion pill to stay on the market with reinstated in-person medical visit prerequisites and without delivery by mail. The Attorney General has stated that he will ask the Supreme Court to weigh in. Axios reports that the Supreme Court would decide quickly.

Axios was correct because the Wall Street Journal reported that today

  • The Supreme Court temporarily blocked lower court orders that would have limited access to the abortion drug mifepristone beginning Saturday, preserving the pill’s availability while the justices weigh the Biden administration’s emergency request to leave current Food and Drug Administration approvals in place during a continuing legal battle with antiabortion groups.
  • In a pair of orders Friday, Justice Samuel Alito, who oversees emergency matters for the lower courts that limited or suspended approval of the widely used abortion pill, gave the antiabortion groups until noon Tuesday to file briefs in response to appeals by the FDA and Danco Laboratories LLC, which makes the branded version Mifeprex.
  • The temporary orders expire at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, suggesting a high court decision on whether and to what extent mifepristone will remain available during litigation may come by then.

In other judicial news, the American Hospital Association informs us

  • The U.S. Supreme Court today unanimously reversed a 9th Circuit decision that impliedly stripped federal district courts of jurisdiction over constitutional challenges to the Federal Trade Commission structure, procedures and existence. Ruling in the FTC case and another case involving the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Supreme Court said, “The statutory review schemes set out in the Securities Exchange Act and Federal Trade Commission Act do not displace a district court’s federal-question jurisdiction over claims challenging as unconstitutional the structure or existence of the SEC or FTC.”
  • As a result of this decision, parties may bring claims in federal court alleging that “the structure, or even existence, of an agency violates the Constitution” without having to first go through costly and time-consuming administrative proceedings before the SEC or FTC.

Turning now to the federal employment front –

  • Govexec tells us
    • Office of Management and Budget guidance released Thursday tasks agencies with developing a new system to monitor their “organizational health and organizational performance” on an ongoing basis. With the new system comes an expectation that federal agencies will rely less on telework and remote work, although that must be balanced with the need to compete for talent with private sector employers who continue to offer similar workplace flexibilities, wrote OMB Deputy Director for Management Jason Miller in a blog post accompanying the memo.
  • Federal News Network reports OPM’s implementation of the Postal Service Health Benefits Program.

From the public health front

  • The Centers for Disease Control begins to bring down the curtain on its now bi-weekly review of its Covid statistics and updates us on the bird flu situation.
  • The Food and Drug Administration announced granting emergency use authorization to an improved Covid test.
  • The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation offers various perspectives on achieving joyful, healthy births for all, a worthy goal.
  • Medscape identifies troubling trends in colorectal cancer data recently released by the American Cancer Society.

From the regulatory front —

  • Mercer Consulting offers advice on the recent instructions concerning RxDC reporting for the 2022 reference year due June 1.
  • Healthcare Finance tells us
    • The Office of Civil Rights is providing a 90-day transition period for healthcare providers to come into compliance with the HIPAA Rules regarding telehealth, according to the Department of Health and Human Services OCR. 
    • The transition period will be in effect beginning on May 12 and will expire at 11:59 p.m. on August 9.
    • OCR said it would continue to exercise its enforcement discretion and not impose penalties on covered providers for noncompliance during the 90- day transition period. 
    • During the public health emergency, providers did not have to be licensed in the state where the patient was located. They were allowed to treat patients in other states. 
    • Also, under the PHE, non-HIPAA-compliant platforms were allowed as long as they were not public facing.
    • Both of these flexibilities are coming to an end with the PHE on May 11, with providers now getting a 90-day grace period.
    • Other telehealth provisions expire at the end of 2023 and 2024

From the Rx coverage front —

  • Fierce Healthcare informs us that Cigna’s Express Scripts unveiled two new programs on Thursday, Copay Assurance and ClearCare Rx, which reminds the FEHBlog of OPM’s transparent pharmacy pricing program.
  • The Institute for Clinical and Economic Research (ICER) published an
    • Evidence Report on Treatments for Non-Alcoholic Steatohepatitis [liver inflammation]
      • — Evidence suggests that both resmetirom and obeticholic acid improve liver histology without evidence yet demonstrating improved long-term outcomes; obeticholic acid has more concerning side effects —
      • — Current evidence suggests that resmetirom would achieve common thresholds for cost-effectiveness if priced between $39,600 – $50,100 per year, while obeticholic acid would achieve these thresholds if priced between $32,800-$40,700 per year —
      • — At the April 28 virtual public meeting, ICER’s independent appraisal committee will review the evidence, hear further testimony from stakeholders, and deliberate on the treatments’ comparative clinical effectiveness, other potential benefits, and long-term value for money —

From the U.S. healthcare business front

  • Beckers Payer Issues reports, “UnitedHealth Group posted revenues of $91.9 billion in the first quarter of 2023, up 15 percent from $80.1 billion over the same period last year, according to the company’s earnings report released April 14.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review ranks 29 physician specialties by annual compensation.

Friday Factoids

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

Happy 75th World Health Day!

OPM announced

Voice of America’s Asian American Changemakers series premiered its final episode recently, featuring the work of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and the leadership of Director Kiran Ahuja. Asian American Changemakers is a character-driven docuseries highlighting the lives and experiences of Asian Americans in the political and public arena.  * * *

Watch the full Asian American Changemakers episode here and learn more about opportunities to serve at opm.gov.   

OPM also informed FEHB carriers that “The recent opinion in Braidwood Management, Inc. v. Becerra, — F. Supp. 3d —, 2023 WL  2703229 (N.D. Tex.), in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, pertains to the preventive services requirement under the Affordable Care Act; it does not impact the preventive services requirements for FEHB Carriers.”  Regardless, and as the FEHBlog anticipated, writers in Health Affairs suggest sensible administrative law approaches to repairing the Braidwood management problem. For example, “the HHS Secretary could authorize the director of the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality or the CDC director to review and adopt the Task Force’s recommendations, which the CDC director now does before ACIP’s immunization recommendations become effective.” No wonder HHS appealed Braidwood Management to the Fifth Circuit without requesting a stay of the district court’s decision.

In other judicial news, the Washington Post reports

  • “A federal judge in Texas blocked U.S. government approval of a key abortion medication Friday, siding with abortion foes in an unprecedented lawsuit and potentially upending nationwide access to the pill widely used to terminate pregnancies.
  • “The highly anticipated ruling puts on hold the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of mifepristone, a medication first cleared for use in the United States in 2000. The ruling will not go into effect for seven days to give the government time to appeal.”

Later today, per the AP, “A federal judge in Washington state on Friday ordered U.S. authorities not to make any changes that would restrict access to the abortion medication mifepristone in 17 Democratic-led states that sued over the issue, countering a ruling by a judge in Texas on the same day that ordered a hold on federal approval of the drug.”

From the healthcare of the near future front —

  • Medscape relates
    • “US regulators may soon clear blood-based biomarker tests for colorectal cancer (CRC), expanding potential options for patients seeking more convenient forms of screening.
    • “Most recently, Guardant Health, Inc., announced the completion of its US premarket approval application for its Shield blood test to screen for CRC. Approval by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would position Guardant to later secure Medicare coverage for its test.
    • “Rival companies, including CellMax Life, Freenome, and Exact Sciences, which already offers the stool-based Cologuard product, are pursuing similar paths in their development of blood tests for CRC.
    • I”f these companies succeed, clinicians and patients could have a choice of several FDA-approved tests in a few years.”
  • A Wall Street Journal essay digs into why “doctors are turning to artificial intelligence to help them make the best decisions for patients.

From the public health front –

  • Fierce Healthcare informs us “Black mothers living in the least vulnerable areas of the U.S. are more likely to die or have worse birth outcomes compared to white mothers living in the most vulnerable areas, a sweeping new study has found.”
  • Fierce Healthcare tells us “Reports of serious patient safety events among healthcare facilities in 2022 rose 19% from 2021 with falls, the most common such event, rising nearly 27%, according to data reported to The Joint Commission and released Tuesday.”

Friday Factoids

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

The various Covid-19 pandemic-related mandates are tied to the end of the public health emergency and the end of the national emergency. The Administration has told us to expect the end of both emergencies on May 11.

The CDC’s Covid data tracker and weekly review support ending the emergencies.

Congress has passed a bill (House Joint Resolution 7) which the President has agreed to sign ending the national emergency upon signing. Mercer Consulting explains:

During the NE, group health plans have been required to extend certain participant deadlines that would have expired during the “Outbreak Period,” which began March 1, 2020, and will end 60 days after the end of the NE. These deadlines related to:

  • Special enrollment rights under HIPAA
  • COBRA elections, payments and notifications
  • Benefit claims, appeals and external reviews

Employers will have less time to prepare for the end of the Outbreak Period relief if, as the pending legislation would require, the NE ends before May 11, 2023. Other COVID-19 relief measures, described in this post, are tied to the PHE and are not impacted by the pending legislation.

This week, regulators provided FAQs and a blog to assist employers preparing for the NE and PHE to end. The FAQs provide many helpful examples illustrating how the extended deadlines available during the Outbreak Period will wind down. However, the FAQs assume that the NE will end on May 11 and the Outbreak Period 60 days later, on July 10. Assuming President Biden signs the legislation ending the NE earlier than May 11, the dates in the FAQs will need to be adjusted.

Any deadline adjustments for these three mandates impact employers directly and group health plans indirectly. The three mandates had have had limited FEHBP impact.

Following up on Thursday’s post, MedPage Today offers a broader perspective on Thursday’s Senate Finance Committee PBM hearing. The hearing’s theme was “transparency.” For over ten years, OPM has required FEHB carriers covering most enrollees to use a strict drug pricing transparency system. This has allowed the FEHB to avoid certain practices criticized at the hearing, such a spread pricing, and it facilitates OPM Inspector General audits of the PBMs. However, it takes Congress to address the key economic concern about rebates inflating drug prices discussed at the hearing:

Karen Van Nuys, PhD, of the Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, highlighted her 2021 JAMA Internal Medicine research letter that found that Medicare would have saved $2.6 billion in 2018 on 184 drugs if patients had purchased them without insurance at Costco.

CMS finalized its Medicare Advantage and Medicare Part D payment policies for 2024 today. Of note, Fierce Healthcare reports,

The Biden administration finalized a proposal to raise Medicare Advantage payments by 3.32% in 2024, slightly above the 1% raise that it proposed. 

The final payment rule released Friday comes after an intense lobbying campaign from insurers who claimed that the original advance notice released in February would amount to a cut to plans. The agency also finalized changes to the MA risk adjustment model, but will instead phase the changes in over three years as opposed to implementation next year.

CMS also offered a fact sheet on the final actions.

From the SDOH front, Health Payer Intelligence informs us

OMB’s 1997 Statistical Policy Directive No. 15: Standards for Maintaining, Collecting, and Presenting Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity (Directive No. 15). The directive regulates consistency in federal data-sharing and the 1997 iteration emphasized that data gathering practices should seek to mirror the nation’s diversity.

OMB’s directive requires that data collection include two category options for ethnicity (Hispanic or Latino and Not Hispanic or Latino) and five for race (American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and white). In contrast, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) includes over 900 categories for these two designations.

The directive does not include any requirement to indicate sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) data. Very few regulations or standardizing entities do.

OMB will release changes to Directive No. 15 in 2024.

Several associations, including AHIP and BCBSA, have commented on the importance of OMB including changes to Directive No. 15 that facilitate health insurer efforts to reduce social determinants of health-related health disparities.

From the miscellany department —

  • EBRI posted Fast Facts on “High-Cost Health Care Claimants: Health Care Spending and Chronic Condition Prevalence Among Top Spenders.”

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

The Senate Finance Committee held a hearing today on “Pharmacy Benefit Managers and the Prescription Drug Supply Chain: Impact on Patients and Taxpayers.” Fierce Healthcare reports

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, said during the hearing that “this whole area is ripe for gamesmanship.” He then asked Matthew Gibbs, PharmD and Capital Rx President, what Capital Rx’s model would bring to the table that sets it apart from other players like Amazon or Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug that are aiming to shake up the traditional PBM space.

Gibbs emphasized Capital Rx’s focus on transparency, something that sets it apart in the broader market.

“Using a price index like NADAC, which is published by CMS, they actually do the survey of the pharmacies, and getting it more robust so that it’s not voluntary—today it’s a voluntary survey—and getting responses to that will lead us to the actual drug costs,” Gibbs said. “And then you can have your nuances of Costco, Mark Cuban. And the person can actually go in and look and actually be informed about the real prices once and for all. The only way is to level set.”

“We have the tools already,” he said. “We just need to employ them.”

Meanwhile, the National Council of State Legislatures discusses the wide variety of state laws being imposed on PBMs, which only complicates matters.

In Affordable Care Act New, MedPage Today reports, “A federal judge on Thursday struck down the Affordable Care Act (ACA) provision requiring all insurers to cover certain preventive services free of charge, angering the law’s supporters.” The FEHBlog won’t delve into this case now because he expects the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to promptly stay this decision.

From the Omicron and siblings front, WebMD tells us

The CDC has updated its COVID-19 booster shot guidelines to clarify that only a single dose of the latest bivalent booster is recommended at this time. 

“If you have completed your updated booster dose, you are currently up to date. There is not a recommendation to get another updated booster dose,” the CDC website now explains.

16.4% of people in the U.S. have gotten the latest booster that was released in September, CDC data shows.

MedPage Today opines on a World Health Organization “Booster Update: Here’s What They Got Right and Wrong.”

In FDA / drug development news —

  • Beckers Hospital Review reports
    • On May 9 and May 10, an FDA advisory panel will discuss whether to recommend the agency approve what could be the first over-the-counter birth control pill. 
    • The pill, a 0.075-milligram norgestrel tablet [manufactured by French drugmaker Laboratoire HRA Pharma], “is proposed for nonprescription use as a once-daily oral contraceptive to prevent pregnancy,” according to a document published March 29 on the Federal Register.
  • BioPharma Dive informs us
    • “Johnson & Johnson will stop developing its experimental vaccine for respiratory syncytial virus in an unexpected retreat from a high-profile research effort that had put the pharmaceutical giant among the leading companies seeking to win the first approval of a preventive shot.
    • “The company said Wednesday it will discontinue a 23,000-person Phase 3 trial, called Evergreen, of its RSV vaccine in adults following a review of its drug pipeline. The company does not plan to develop the shot for pregnant women or infants, a spokesperson confirmed.
    • “J&J’s pullback comes amid a restructuring of its infectious disease division, which was reported by Fierce Pharma in February. Its decision also thins the RSV vaccine competition, leaving GSK and Pfizer in the lead with shots that are currently under review by the Food and Drug Administration. Moderna is also developing an RSV vaccine and could file for approval this year.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front —

Healthcare Dive relates

  • Walgreens’ growing U.S. healthcare segment is continuing to bolster the retail health chain’s financial performance. The business, which includes value-based provider VillageMD, recorded $1.6 billion in sales in the second quarter, an increase of $1.1 billion from last year.
  • VillageMD sales were up 30%, including a boost from its recent acquisition of medical group Summit Health. Specialty pharmacy Shields Health Solutions grew sales 41%, while at-home care provider CareCentrix’s sales were up 25%.
  • Thanks in part to a jump in revenue in its healthcare segment, Walgreens’ results beat Wall Street expectations even as profit declined more than 20% amid lower COVID-19 vaccine volumes and test sales, higher salary costs, opioid litigation charges and costs associated with its $3.5 billion investment in its Summit acquisition.


  • Oak Street Health disclosed on Thursday that the antitrust waiting period for its planned sale to CVS Health has expired.
  • CVS and Oak Street filed the required notification forms under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act with the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission on Feb. 24. The waiting period under the HSR Act ended Monday, according to a new proxy filing from Oak Street.
  • The disclosure means the $10.6 billion deal has cleared one regulatory hurdle — companies can’t consummate mergers until the HSR waiting period expires — but regulators could still challenge the acquisition on antitrust grounds in the future.

From the healthcare studies front —

  • Bloomberg tells us the story behind a breast cancer scare. Last week, I noticed a breast cancer study report that struck the FEHBlog as overblown, and it turns out that this report is the breast cancer scare that Bloomberg discusses.
  • NBC News reports
    • “Losing weight — even if some pounds are gained back — may help your heart over the long term, according to a study published Tuesday in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.
    • “The findings may be welcome news to those who have found it difficult to keep weight off and feared the risks thought to be associated with gaining weight back.
    • “In the new study, researchers analyzed data from 124 clinical trials with a total of more than 50,000 participants. They found that risk factors for heart disease and Type 2 diabetes decreased for people who lost weight through intensive behavioral programs. The diminished risk persisted for years after they were done with the programs, even if some, but not all, of the weight came back.”
    • “The whole time your weight is less than it would otherwise have been, your risk factors for heart disease are lower than they would have been,” co-author Susan Jebb, a professor of diet and population health at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, said in an email.
  • The Centers for Disease Control announced 
    • The expanded availability of opioid use disorder-related telehealth services and medications during the COVID-19 pandemic was associated with a lowered likelihood of fatal drug overdose among Medicare beneficiaries, according to a new study.
    • “The results of this study add to the growing research documenting the benefits of expanding the use of telehealth services for people with opioid use disorder, as well as the need to improve retention and access to medication treatment for opioid use disorder,” said lead author Christopher M. Jones, PharmD, DrPH, Director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, CDC. “The findings from this collaborative study also highlight the importance of working across agencies to identify successful strategies to address and get ahead of the constantly evolving overdose crisis.”

From the healthcare quality front, Beckers Hospital Review relates

CVS and Optum have struggled to integrate behavioral health into their payer-provider models, Behavioral Health Business reported.

For Optum, the challenges lie in integrating all the different IT systems from the providers the company has bought, Trip Hofer, the CEO of Optum Behavioral Health Solutions, said at the news outlet’s VALUE conference. For example, Optum in 2022 acquired Kelsey Seybold Clinic, a medical group in Houston with 500 healthcare professionals.

“Kelsey Seybold says, ‘Trip, here’s my issue. I have access problems for depression, stress and anxiety for adults.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, we have a ton of solutions for you,'” Mr. Hofer said, according to the March 27 story. “Six months later, we still can’t get it implemented because it’s like, ‘Well, how do I get data back to them?'”

Deborah Fernandez-Turner, DO, deputy chief psychiatric officer of CVS payer subsidiary Aetna, said at the conference that it’s time-consuming and complex to build behavioral health into payer-provider companies.

CVS, for instance, has started bringing mental health providers and virtual behavioral health access into its MinuteClinics, according to the story.

Keep on truckin’

The FEHBlog had planned to discuss the OPM-AHIP carrier conference in this post. However, the second day of the conference was postponed today due to a power outage affecting the webinar operations. The second day will be rescheduled, and the FEHBlog will bring readers up to date then.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

The Wall Street Journal reported this morning that maternal mortality cases in the U.S. spiked in 2021, rising from around 850 to 1200 nationwide. From examining Journal reader comments, the FEHBlog ran across a helpful breakdown of maternal deaths per U.S. state.  The lowest maternal death rate is in California, and the highest maternal death rate is in Louisiana.  The breakdown points out what the States with the lowest rates are doing right and what the States with the highest rates are doing to remedy the problem. Healthcare is local.

The FEHBlog also was directed to this article from the T.H. Chan public health school at Harvard:

October 21, 2022 – Women in the U.S. who are pregnant or who have recently given birth are more likely to be murdered than to die from obstetric causes—and these homicides are linked to a deadly mix of intimate partner violence and firearms, according to researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Homicide deaths among pregnant women are more prevalent than deaths from hypertensive disorders, hemorrhage, or sepsis, wrote Rebecca Lawn, postdoctoral research fellow, and Karestan Koenen, professor of psychiatric epidemiology, in an October 19 editorial in the journal BMJ.

The U.S. has a higher prevalence of intimate partner violence than comparable countries, such violence is often fatal, and it frequently involves guns, Lawn and Koenen noted. They cited one study that found that, from 2009–2019, 68% of pregnancy-related homicides involved firearms. That study also found that Black women face substantially higher risk of being killed than white or Hispanic women.

I also located the CDC’s website on keeping new mothers alive.

This evening the Journal discussed why our country’s maternal mortality rate is so high.

Finally, STAT News reports that this afternoon the Centers for Disease Control announced preliminary 2022 maternal mortality figures.

Deaths of pregnant women in the U.S. fell in 2022, dropping significantly from a six-decade high during the pandemic, new data suggests.

More than 1,200 U.S. women died in 2021 during pregnancy or shortly after childbirth, according to a final tally released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2022, there were 733 maternal deaths, according to preliminary agency data, though the final number is likely to be higher.

Officials say the 2022 maternal death rate is on track to get close to pre-pandemic levels. But that’s not great: The rate before Covid-19 was the highest it had been in decades.

The CDC counts women who die while pregnant, during childbirth, and up to 42 days after birth. Excessive bleeding, blood vessel blockages, and infections are leading causes.

Covid-19 can be particularly dangerous to pregnant women, and experts believe it was the main reason for the 2021 spike. Burned out physicians may have added to the risk by ignoring pregnant women’s worries, some advocates said.

In 2021, there were about 33 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births. The last time the government recorded a rate that high was 1964.

What happened “isn’t that hard to explain,” said Eugene Declercq, a long-time maternal mortality researcher at Boston University. “The surge was Covid-related.”

The FEHBlog’s goal is to provide perspective on this vital issue.

From the Omicron and siblings front, MedPage Today informs us

An FDA panel recommended the agency grant full approval to nirmatrelvir-ritonavir (Paxlovid) for treating high-risk COVID-19.

By a vote of 16-1 on Thursday, the Antimicrobial Drugs Advisory Committee said the totality of evidence supports the traditional approval of the oral antiviral, which has been widely used since late 2021 under an emergency use authorization to reduce the risk of hospitalization or death in outpatients at risk for severe outcomes.

“Besides oxygen, Paxlovid has probably been the single most important treatment tool in this epidemic, and it continues to be,” said Richard Murphy, MD, MPH, of the White River Junction VA Medical Center in Hartford, Vermont.

The Mercer consulting firm considers employer approaches to coverage of Covid tests following the end of the public health emergency.

Employers have some important decisions to make over the next two months before the COVID Public Health Emergency (PHE) comes to an end on May 11. One is how to handle cost-sharing for PCR and other COVID tests and related services provided by a licensed healthcare or otherwise authorized provider. Under the PHE, group health plans had to cover testing received either in- or out-of-network at no cost to participants. 

We recently polled recipients of our New Shape of Work newsletter to ask whether they planned to impose cost-sharing requirements once allowed. Of the more than 1,000 readers who responded, about half indicated that their organization will  not make any change when the PHE ends:  22% will continue to cover PCR testing at 100% both in- and out-of-network, and 29% say that they require COVID testing at their worksites and provide it at no cost.  Only about a fourth (26%) will now require cost-sharing from participants even when they use an in-network facility for testing; about another fourth (23%) will add a cost-sharing requirement only for out-of-network services.   

Personally, the FEHBlog would opt for restoring a cost-sharing requirement only for out-of-network services.

From the Rx coverage front

  • STAT News tells us, “Following the lead of its rivals, Sanofi will cut the price of its most widely prescribed insulin in the U.S. by 78% and also place a $35 cap on out-of-pocket costs for commercially insured patients who take the treatment, which is called Lantus. The moves will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2024.”
  • The Mercer consulting firm offers its perspective on coverage of the new era of weight loss drugs, e.g., Ozempic.

For plans covering weight-loss medications, adding prior authorization criteria can help manage cost growth. These include requirements such as a certain body mass index (BMI), co-morbid conditions, enrollment in a behavior modification program, and/or reduced calorie diet. Upon initiation of therapy, patients and clinicians should partner to create a comprehensive plan to achieve goals and use the medication purposefully alongside a targeted and managed lifestyle program. The plan should include a discussion regarding medication discontinuation when/if goals are met to prevent relapse and weight regain/ weight cycling. Medical nutrition therapy (MNT) with a registered dietitian should be covered; ideally 14 in-person or telenutrition sessions.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, self-monitoring, motivational interviewing, structured meal plans, portion control and goal setting are recommended interventions. Ideally, patients would progress from dietary intervention (covered MNT or weight management solution), to weight loss medications, and then, potentially, to bariatric surgery.  

In recognition of Patient Safety Awareness Week, the Partnership to Fight Infectious Disease announced, making March 18 a day of action to raise awareness of the need to #squashsuperbugs so that we can all do our part to prepare and perhaps even prevent a future pandemic due to antibiotic resistance.

From the No Surprises Act front, Fierce Healthcare reports

An “astronomical” number of surprise billing arbitration dispute cases is impacting the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), a top agency official said.

Education and communication are integral to an “orderly transition” in the handling of independent dispute resolutions for out-of-pocket charges, the official said. The agency has grappled with legal issues and implementation hiccups surrounding a controversial process for settling feuds between payers and providers on out-of-network charges.

“We are seeing more than expected number of disputes getting to that last stopgap part, which is the independent dispute resolution part,” said Ellen Montz, director of CMS’ Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight. Montz spoke during a session Wednesday at the AHIP Medicare, Medicaid, Duals & Commercial Markets Forum in Washington, D.C. 

The agency is also seeing a lot of ineligible cases that don’t qualify for the dispute resolution process, which requires a third party to choose between out-of-network charges submitted by the payer and provider. 

These ineligible cases require “a lot of casework, phone calls and back and forth to determine eligibility,” Montz said. 

From the Medicare front, Healthcare Dive tells us

The group that advises Congress on Medicare policy is recommending updating base physician payment rates by 1.45% for 2024, according to its annual March report out Wednesday.

The Medicare Advisory Payment Commission, or MedPAC, did not make recommendations for ambulatory surgery center payment updates or for Medicare Advantage plans.

The commission did note concern with MA plan coding intensity, and said Medicare now spends more on MA enrollees than it would have spent had those enrollees remained in fee-for-service plans.

The FEHBlog doubts that this MedPAC report made anyone happy.

From the federal employee benefits front, FedWeek reminds folks that while the dependent care flexible spending accounts available to federal employees typically are used for child care, they also can be used for senior care in certain circumstances.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, STAT News reports

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday passed legislation to prevent drug companies from gaming the patent system to delay competition from cheaper generics, but members in both parties said they still have concerns about the reforms.

It’s unclear when the bills might advance in either chamber. 

The Congressional Research Service released an analysis of healthcare coverage spending in 2021.

Meanwhile, the Health Affairs Council on Healthcare Spending and Value updates us on the recommendations proposed in its 2018 Road Map for Action.

From the Omicron and siblings front —

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that its Secretary Xavier Becerra had given the States 90 days advance notice of the end of the Covid public health emergency on May 11, 2023.

To help you and your communities in your preparations for the end of the COVID-19 PHE, I have attached a fact sheet to this letter that includes information on what will and will not be impacted by the end of the COVID-19 PHE.2 In the coming days, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) will also provide additional information, including about the waivers many states and health systems have adopted and how they will be impacted by the end of the COVID-19 PHE. I will share that resource with your team when available.

MedPage Today informs us,

Early treatment with a single dose of pegylated interferon lambda in a highly vaccinated population of COVID-19 outpatients decreased the risk for hospitalization and emergency department (ED) visits lasting more than 6 hours, the phase III TOGETHER trial found.

Among nearly 2,000 participants with acute COVID symptoms and a risk factor for severe illness, 2.7% of those who received pegylated interferon lambda within a week of symptoms required hospitalization or ED visits, as compared with 5.6% of those given placebo (relative risk [RR] 0.49, 95% Bayesian credible interval [CrI] 0.30-0.76), reported Gilmar Reis, MD, PhD, of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and colleagues.

Results were similar regardless of vaccination status (over 80% were vaccinated), and the treatment effect with the long-acting form of interferon lambda-1 was more pronounced in those who received the subcutaneous injection with 3 days of their symptoms.

From the miscellany department —

HHS released initial guidance for Medicare’s Prescription Drug Inflation Rebate Program created by last year’s Inflation Reduction Act.

Under the Medicare Prescription Drug Inflation Rebate Program, drug companies who raise prices faster than the rate of inflation will be required to pay rebates to the Medicare Trust Fund. Below is a timeline of key dates for implementing the Medicare Prescription Drug Inflation Rebate Program:

  • October 1, 2022: Began the first 12-month period for which drug companies will be required to pay rebates to Medicare for raising prices that outpace inflation on certain Part D drugs.
  • January 1, 2023: Began the first quarterly period for which drug companies will be required to pay rebates for raising prices that outpace inflation on certain Part B drugs.
  • April 1, 2023: People with Traditional Medicare and Medicare Advantage may pay a lower coinsurance for certain Part B drugs with price increases higher than inflation.
  • 2025: CMS intends to send the first invoices to drug companies for the rebates.

The law has a circular aspect because the government needs a much lower general inflation index to get the full bang for the buck from this program. The notice also poses issues for public input.

The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans tells us,

The International Foundation has been tracking fertility and family-forming benefits over the past seven years. According to Employee Benefits Survey: 2022 Results, 40% of U.S. organizations currently offer fertility benefits (an increase from 30% in 2020).

  • 28% cover fertility medications (8% covered in 2016, 14% in 2018, 24% in 2020)
  • 30% cover in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments (13% in 2016, 17% in 2018, 24% in 2020)
  • 16% cover genetic testing to determine infertility issues (11% in 2018, 12% in 2020)
  • 17% cover non-IVF fertility treatments (6% in 2016, 11% in 2018, 11% in 2020).

In 2016, only 2% of organizations covered egg harvesting/freezing services. That jumped to 6% in 2018, 10% in 2020 and even higher in 2022, with 14% reporting that they cover the benefit.

Healthcare Dives points out, “National telehealth utilization increased 1.9% month-over-month among the privately insured population in November 2022, following one month of decline, according to a new analysis from Fair Health’s monthly tracker.” The bump is attributable to the tripledemic.

Fierce Healthcare relates, “UnitedHealthcare is rolling out a new wearables-based rewards program for members and their spouses. In UnitedHealthcare Rewards, eligible members can earn up to $1,000 per year by using wearable devices to complete health goals and activities, the insurance giant announced Wednesday.”

Health Payer Intelligence notes that “High deductible health plan (HDHP) enrollment hit a record high in 2021, with nearly six out of ten employer-sponsored health plan members enrolled in a high deductible health plan, according to a ValuePenguin survey.”

Benefits consultant Tammy Flanagan writing in Govexec, explains how federal employees can get the full advantage out of the Thrift Savings Plan, which is part of the Federal Employees Retirement System.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Roll Call offers the House Speaker’s perspective on the debt ceiling negotiation, and the Washington Post does the same for the Senate Majority Leader. The FEHBlog is becoming more optimistic that the debt negotiations will be successful.

From the Omicron and siblings front, the FEHBlog was pleasantly surprised to see that his favorite Covid columnist David Leonhardt of the New York Times, has returned from his four-month long book leave. In his return column, he lists seven surprises that happened during his leave. Here is the Covid surprise.

A milder Covid winter. In each of the past two winters, the country endured a terrible surge of severe Covid illnesses, but not this winter.

His column includes this chart of COVID hospitalizations.

New York Times February 6, 2023

Mr. Leonhardt explains —

It’s a sign that the virus has become endemic, with immunity from vaccinations and previous infections making the average Covid case less severe. If anything, the best-known Covid statistics on hospitalizations and deaths probably exaggerate its toll, because they count people who had incidental cases. Still, Covid is causing more damage than is necessary — both because many Americans remain unvaccinated and because Covid treatments are being underused, as German Lopez has explained.

Mr. Leonhart’s comment should come as no surprise to FEHBlog readers. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to read it in the New York Times.

It’s worth noting that the first high peak from the left is Alpha which the Covid vaccines (released in December 2020) helped stem. The middle high point was Delta, and the highest point is Omicron which Paxlovid (released in December 2021) and other treatments helped stem. The public health authorities back in the day discussed a three-legged stool to deter Covid — one leg was immunity, the other was prevention (vaccines, etc.) and the third was treatments, which we did not broadly have until December 2021. What’s more the Omicron siblings have defeated some antiviral treatments but not Paxlovid.

On a related note of interest to care providers, CMS yesterday called attention to its regularly update Current Emergencies website which a chock-a-block full of helpful information.

From the Affordable Care Act and ERISA fronts

  • Fierce Healthcare discusses provider and payer reactions to the ACA’s regulators’ recently closed request for public input on the apprpropriate scope of the ACA’s essential health benefits requirement.
  • The Miller & Chevalier law firm discusses an important 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals decision on remedies available in ERISA claim disputes. The decision favored the ERISA plans and their thir party administrators as well as the objective of health plan cost control.

From the executive personnel front —

  • Fierce Healthcare invites us to meet Express Script’s new president Adam Kautzner.
  • Healthcare Dive introduces us to CVS Health’s senior vice president and chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer Shari Slate.

From the broader U.S. healthcare business front —

The Wall Street Journal reports

CVS Health Corp. is close to an agreement to acquire Oak Street Health Inc.for about $10.5 billion including debt, a deal that would rapidly expand the big healthcare company’s footprint of primary-care doctors with a large network of senior-focused clinics, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

The companies are discussing a price of about $39 a share, the people said. The deal, if it goes through, could be announced as soon as this week, they said. CVS is scheduled to report earnings on Wednesday.

The Journal adds that “Oak Street, which has more than 160 centers across 21 states, focuses on the care of patients enrolled in Medicare” and that the deal would push CVS Health “far deeper” into direct provision of healthcare.

Beckers Payer Issues informs us

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, saw its medical stop-loss insurance business grow “nearly sixfold” last year, tech news site The Verge reported Feb. 2. The business, called Granular, provides medical stop-loss coverage to employers and is a subsidiary of Verily, Alphabet’s life sciences business.

Healthcare Dive tells us

  • Looking at 2,000 U.S. hospitals’ websites, only about a quarter were in full compliance with federal price transparency rules, according to a new analysis from PatientRightsAdvocate.org.
  • The majority of hospitals have some required files posted, but most are incomplete, illegible or do not clearly identify prices both associated with payer and plan, according to the report. Some 6% of the hospitals posted no usable pricing files.
  • This latest report calls out both major for-profit and nonprofit chains across the country for not following the rules, including HCA Healthcare, Tenet, Providence and UPMC, which lacked any compliant hospitals.

From the Rx coverage / drug research front —

BioPharma Dive reports

  • Gilead has secured an expanded U.S. approval for its breast cancer medicine Trodelvy, announcing Friday the Food and Drug Administration cleared the antibody treatment for the most commonly occurring form of the tumor type. 
  • Previously approved only for rarer, “triple-negative” breast tumors, Trodelvy can now be used to treat patients with metastatic breast cancer that’s hormone receptor, or HR, positive, but negative for a protein called HER2. This type of breast cancer accounts for an estimated 70% of all new cases, according to Gilead. 
  • The FDA’s decision is a win for Gilead, which gained Trodelvy when it paid $21 billion to acquire Immunomedics in 2020. But clinical trial results showed the drug’s benefit was modest, and Gilead will face competition from a rival drug sold by AstraZeneca and Daiichi.

The Raleigh NC News and Observer discusses a late stage breast cancer injectable drug that Duke University researchers have converted into an FDA approved pill. “[Duke researcher Donald] McDonnell expects elacestrant, which will be marketed as Orserdu, to completely replace the injectable treatment regimen. Not only is the pill less taxing for patients, clinical trials also found it to be more effective.”

STAT News reports

Japanese drugmaker Eisai reported Monday the first U.S. sales of Leqembi, its treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, although exact numbers were not provided and people taking the drug appear to be paying out of pocket because insurance coverage has not yet been established. * * *

The Food and Drug Administration approved Leqembi on Jan. 6. It costs $26,500 per year and is administered by infusion every two weeks. The drug has the potential to be a commercial blockbuster, but only if Medicare can be convinced to pay for it. Unless Medicare changes the way it pays for drugs like Leqembi, Eisai expects a slow commercial rollout.

“Engagements with payers is steadily ongoing towards insurance coverage,” Eisai said Monday, although no new details about its communications with Medicare were provided. “Several” private insurers were “advancing their formulary discussions” about Leqembi reimbursement, Eisai also said, although specific coverage decisions, if any, were not disclosed Monday.