Friday Items

Friday Items

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

The FEHBlog apologizes for the fact that his Grammarly program made a hash out of yesterday’s Miscellany post. The FEHBlog discovered and fixed the problems this afternoon if anyone cares to go back to read that post. Lo siento.

Going forward, the FEHBlog will be posting Covid stats on the first Friday of the month. Here is the CDC’s weekly interpretation of its Covid statistics which focuses on a CDC report on Covid mortality dated November 16, 2022, and summarized below:

The Wall Street Journal adds

Uptake of fall Covid-19 booster shots remains anemic well into November, frustrating public-health experts who blame the lackluster interest on pandemic fatigue and insufficient outreach from officials.

About 31 million people in the U.S. have gotten the updated shots, or roughly 10% of people ages five and older, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The federal government purchased more than 170 million doses of the new bivalent boosters that target two Omicron subvariants and the original virus strain.

“It has been pretty dismal,” said Rupali Limaye, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who studies vaccine demand and acceptance. * * *

[U]ptake of the modified booster is slow due in part to the limited amount of outreach and type of messaging from health officials, some public-health experts say.

Anecdotally, it sounds like a lot of people are still not aware that the bivalent boosters are available,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University. “If they are, many don’t seem to understand the importance of getting boosted at all—with bivalent or original recipe—and there is a decided lack of urgency in communications about it.” 

Some public-health experts say there must be not just more, but also targeted outreach. Celine Gounder, a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said messaging needs to be more targeted at people age 50 and over who are most at risk. Among adults 65 and older, some 27% have gotten an updated booster dose, CDC data show. 

“You should be thinking of who is most vulnerable and target the efforts there,” said Dr. Gounder, an infectious-disease specialist and epidemiologist.

The following are the key points from this week’s CDC Fluview:

  • Seasonal influenza activity is elevated across the country.
  • The majority of influenza viruses detected this season have been influenza A(H3N2) viruses, but the proportion of subtyped influenza A viruses that are A(H1N1) is increasing slightly.
  • Two more influenza-associated pediatric deaths were reported this week, for a total of seven pediatric flu deaths reported so far this season.
  • CDC estimates that, so far this season, there have been at least 4.4 million illnesses, 38,000 hospitalizations, and 2,100 deaths from flu.
  • The cumulative hospitalization rate in the FluSurv-NET system is higher than the rate observed in week 45 during every previous season since 2010-2011.
  • The majority of influenza viruses tested are in the same genetic subclade as and antigenically similar to the influenza viruses included in this season’s influenza vaccine.

Medscape offers expert opinions on the “perfect storm” of rampant flu and RSV.

In OPM news, the agency posted its Fiscal Year 2022 Performance and Accountability report this week. The Director’s response to the Inspector General’s list of top management challenges is worth a gander. That response begins on page 125.

From the No Surprises Act front, Beckers Payer Issues tells us

The No Surprises Act has prevented millions of surprise medical bills since January, according to new data from AHIP and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. 

The payer associations gathered their data, published Nov. 17, by surveying 84 health insurance providers representing around 57 percent of the national market. 

“Thanks to the No Surprises Act, millions of Americans no longer face a complicated, confusing billing bureaucracy, being harassed by collection agencies, or even potential legal action,” AHIP President Matt Eyles said in a press release. 

AHIP and the BCBS Association also surveyed plans for the number of claims submitted to arbitration under the act. They estimated 275,000 claims have been submitted since January 2022, more than the 17,000 claims predicted by government agencies. 

and

AHIP is backing HHS in a lawsuit over surprise billing arbitration from Texas providers, who have support from the largest associations of providers. 

The trade association filed an amicus brief in Texas Medical Association v. HHS on Nov. 16. 

The lawsuit, filed by the Texas Medical Association in September, challenges the arbitration process established under the No Surprises Act. 

The FEHBlog appreciates AHIP’s amicus brief filing. In the FEHBlog’s opinion, the medical association plaintiffs in the Texas case are making a mountain out of a molehill.

A surprising legal development was the Justice Department’s 11th hour notice of appeal filed today in the antitrust challenge to United Healthcare’s acquisition of Change Healthcare which a federal district judge approved last September.

In other Friday items —

Endpoints reports

The emergence of interchangeable biosimilars since the pathway opened up has been slow. But the FDA on Thursday approved the fourth interchangeable biosimilar, which is also the second interchangeable biosimilar insulin product.

Eli Lilly’s Rezvoglar (insulin glargine-aglr), which converted to an interchangeable after an earlier biosimilar approval in December 2021, follows Viatris’ Semglee in seeking out a niche to compete with Sanofi’s blockbuster Lantus (insulin glargine). * * *

These interchangeable designations mean Semglee and Rezvoglar may be substituted at the pharmacy level for Lantus, without a doctor’s prescription, and as long as the state pharmacy law permits the switch.

USA Today reports

Preterm births last year reached their highest peak since 2007 – with more than 383,000 born before 37 weeks of gestational age in the United States, according to a new report.

In 2021, roughly 10.5% of U.S. babies were born premature, according to the annual March of Dimes “Report Card,” which rated the United States at D+. The score dropped from its C- rating in 2020, when the preterm birth rate saw its first decline in six years, a slight decrease to 10.1%.

The report released this week found disparities widened between white mothers and Native and Black mothers, who are already 62% more likely to have a preterm birth and nearly three times as likely as white moms to die of childbirth-related causes. In 2021, Black mothers saw a 3% increase and Native mothers a 6% increase in preterm births, according to the analysis.

Of all groups, Asian and Pacific Islander mothers saw the largest preterm birth increase – an 8% surge  – even though births to Asian mothers decreased that year, and they have the lowest preterm birth rate overall.

HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research capped off antibiotic awareness week by releasing antibiotic stewardship kits for the acute hospital, long-term care, and ambulatory care settings.

Midweek Update

Forbes reports

As the polls pretty much predicted, Tuesday’s midterms turned out to be very close in terms of the balance of power between the two parties. As of this writing [Wednesday evening] it’s still not clear which party controls the House and Senate. But in several states, there were important healthcare issues on the ballot that were settled more decisively. In South Dakota, voters approved an expansion of Medicaid benefits, adding itself to the list of many other states that have bypassed legislatures to expand the program by ballot initiative. Voters in Michigan, California and Vermont approved Constitutional amendments protecting abortion rights while voters in Kentucky rejected an amendment that would have stated abortion rights are not protected in the state. Meanwhile, in Arizona many of the headline races are still too close to call as of this writing, but one vote that isn’t is an overwhelming “Yes” for Proposition 209, which expands property and assets that can’t be collected against medical debt and also reduces the interest rate that can be charged on it. 

From the Omicron and siblings front, protein-based Covid vaccine manufacturer Novovax reports on its third-quarter earnings and the value of its vaccine as a booster. In addition, Novovax says that it has delivered over 94 million doses of its vaccine worldwide.

From the U.S. healthcare business front, we have a trifecta from Healthcare Dive.

Healthcare Dive informs us

More than 30 healthcare associations and advocacy groups joined the American College of Emergency Physicians in asking President Joe Biden to prioritize finding solutions to the problem of overcrowded hospital emergency rooms.

Strained emergency departments are coping with an increase in boarding, a term for when patients are held in the ED longer than they should be because of a lack of available inpatient beds. The problem has led to gridlocked EDs filled with patients waiting, sometimes in life-threatening situations, the ACEP and other groups warned Monday in a letter to the president. “Boarding has become its own public health emergency,” the letter said.

The organizations urged the Biden administration to convene a summit of stakeholders from across the healthcare system to identify immediate and long-term solutions to the boarding problem.

Holy cow!

Healthcare Dive tells us

Elevance Health inked a deal to acquire a specialty pharmacy that caters to patients with complex and chronic conditions like cancer and multiple sclerosis.

The insurer said BioPlus will complement its existing pharmacy benefit manager, IngenioRx, providing patients with specialty drugs and a whole-health approach.

After closing and integrating BioPlus into operations, the company will be able to leverage the insights from both pharmacy and medical benefits, Elevance announced on Wednesday.

Working together, BioPlus’ pharmacy team will be able to identify “a patient who may need behavioral health support or in-home care services” and “seamlessly connect that patient to services to address their whole health needs,” Elevance said.

The deal is expected to close in the first half of 2023. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Healthcare Dive also explains why Cigna invested $2.5 billion in Walgreen’s combined Village MD / Summit Health primary care company.

Unlike many other primary care physician groups, VillageMD is focused on the commercial market, which brings in two-thirds of its revenue. That plays to Cigna’s strength in the employer market, as the majority of its customers are commercial employers, according to Credit Suisse analyst A.J. Rice.

As part of its investment, Evernorth will develop value-based agreements with VillageMD. The two will work together to optimize sites of care and patient outcomes through VillageMD’s physician network and Evernorth’s health services businesses, which include pharmacy benefit manager Express Scripts, specialty pharmacy Accredo and virtual care provider MDLive.

Beckers Hospital Review discusses how CVS, Amazon and Walgreens are pushing into primary care, and home health care.

From the healthcare quality front

The HHS Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research’s Director offers a blog post about how “AHRQ’s Research and Tools Help Transform Delivery of Primary Care.”

Patient Engagement HIT relates

Personal health record (PHR) use is key to driving patient engagement, with recent JMIR Cancer data showing PHR use among colorectal cancer survivors increasing access to follow-up care and screening by more than 30 percentage points.

Additionally, PHR use increased the proportion of survivors who believed access to certain follow-up cancer screenings was important to their health and well-being, according to researchers from the Regenstrief Institute, the VA, and Indiana University’s schools of medicine and nursing.

PHRs are different from EHRs in that they are patient-facing and give users insights into their own health information. Most PHRs, particularly PHRs “tethered” to the EHR, come with some secure messaging and patient notification systems, giving the technologies even more patient engagement power.

Revcycle Intelligence reports

Hospitals work hard to avoid “never events,” or serious, largely preventable, and harmful events identified by the National Quality Forum (NQF). These never events include performing surgery on the wrong patient or accidentally leaving an item in a patient after an invasive procedure. However, some industry experts are now calling onthe healthcare industry to consider a new set of never events that are administrative in nature, such as aggressive medical debt collection.

Dave A. Chokshi, MD, MSc, FACP, senior scholar at CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy and former Commissioner at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and Adam L. Beckman, BS, of Harvard’s Medical and Business Schools, identify five new hospital never events in a new JAMA Health Forum article. They say that hospitals should never:

  1. Aggressively pursue medical debt against patients who cannot afford their bills
  2. Spend less on community benefits than it earns in tax breaks from non-profit status
  3. Flout federal requirements for hospitals to be transparent with patients about costs
  4. Compensate hospital workers less than a living wage
  5. Deliver racially segregated care

That approach could get the attention of hospitals.

Finally, Med City News informs us

More than three quarters, or 77%, of reproductive-aged women want birth control pills to be made available without a prescription, provided that research proves the pills safe and effective, a new survey shows.

“Oral contraceptives are the most commonly used method of reversible contraception in the U.S., and studies suggest that [over-the-counter] access would increase use of contraception and facilitate continuity of use in addition to saving time spent on travel, at a doctor’s office, and off work,” the report stated.

Under the Affordable Care Act, most private health insurance plans are required to cover FDA-approved birth control, but it must be prescribed. However, 41% of women at reproductive age are not aware of this. About 70% of women with private insurance said their health plan fully covered their birth control, but about a quarter said they had to pay some out-of-pocket.

The ACA rule also applies to FEHB plans. The FEHBlog is metaphysically certain the ACA regulators would extend this rule to over the counter contraceptive if the Food and Drug Administration can get its act together.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the Federal Employee Benefits Open Season front, the Federal Times offers a detailed report on FEHB infertility coverage. The article answered one of the FEHBlog’s outstanding questions:

In October, the White House Office of Personnel Management, which acts the human relations department for the federal workforce, unveiled four new plan options that will provide some form of assisted reproductive technology, or ART, for a total of 18 FEHB plan options in 2023.

Those are offered by carriers Triple S-SaludUPMC Health Plan, Indiana University Health Plan, Foreign Service Benefit Plan, and Health Net of California Southern.

One new plan option, under CDPHP, will provide a non-FEHB benefit for discounted ART.

From the Omicron and siblings front —

The New York Times tells us “People who took the antiviral drug Paxlovid within a few days after being infected with the coronavirus were less likely to be experiencing long Covid several months later, a large new study found.” The federal government should be promoting Paxlovid and flu treatments at least as much as it promotes vaccines.

Because winter is coming the Centers for Disease Control reminds us about the importance of home ventilation.

Improving ventilation can help you reduce virus particles in your home and keep COVID-19 from spreading. You may or may not know if someone in your home or if a visitor to your home has COVID-19 or other respiratory viruses. Good ventilation, along with other preventive actions, can help prevent you and others from getting and spreading COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses.

Health IT Analytics reports

Researchers from New York University’s Machine Learning for Good Laboratory (ML4G Lab), Carnegie Mellon University, and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYC DOHMH) have developed an automated machine-learning system designed to detect rare or previously unseen disease clusters.

According to the press release shared with HealthITAnalytics via email, current automated systems used to identify public health threats rely on “syndromic surveillance” to detect existing threats but can fall short of identifying new ones.

“Existing systems are good at detecting outbreaks of diseases that we already know about and are actively looking for, like flu or COVID,” said NYU Professor Daniel B. Neill, PhD, director of the ML4G Lab, in the press release. “But what happens when something new and scary comes along? Pre-syndromic surveillance provides a safety net to identify emerging threats that other systems would fail to detect.”

Bravo.

With the new year less than two months away, Med City New informs us “Consumer research firm Forrester recently predicted major trends that would shape healthcare in 2023. Healthcare stakeholders should prepare for key changes, such as care becoming even more inaccessible for rural patients[, more remote patient monitoring for chronically ill patients] and additional retail entrants into the clinic space.

On a related note, Becker’s Hospital Review identifies the ten states with the most rural hospitals at immediate risk of closure — 1. Mississippi 24; 2. Tennessee 17, and 3. Kansas 16.

In other U.S. healthcare business news

Healthcare Dive reports

  • VillageMD has agreed to acquire medical practice Summit Health for $8.9 billion including debt, the primary care provider announced Monday.
  • VillageMD, which is majority owned by pharmacy chain Walgreens, and Summit Health, the parent company of CityMD, plan to combine their provider locations and VillageMD’s experience with value-based care to help accelerate the transition to risk for payer clients.
  • Cigna’s health services division Evernorth is also taking a stake in the deal, and will become a minority owner in VillageMD at the deal’s close, expected in the first quarter of 2023.

Fierce Healthcare summarizes 3rd quarter earnings reports from major health insurers.

Fierce Healthcare also announced its ten 2022 Women of Influence in Health award winners.

This year’s honorees cover the breadth of the industry, from providers to payers to health tech, and represent some of the industry’s largest companies as well as up-and-coming innovators. Each has been pivotal in helping their organizations—and their patients—navigate some of the most complicated years that we’ve ever faced.

Kudos to the winners.

The Goverment Accountability Office released a report titled “Private Health Insurance: Markets Remained Concentrated through 2020, with Increases in the Individual and Small Group Markets.”

Several companies may be selling health insurance in a given market, but, as we previously reported, most people usually enroll with one of a small number of insurers. Known as market concentration, this can result in higher premiums due to less competition in the market.

We found this pattern continued in 2019 and 2020, with the markets for individuals and for small employers generally becoming more concentrated. Specifically, three or fewer health insurers held at least 80% of the market share for both of these markets in at least 42 states.

From the healthcare quality front, the HHS Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research released

  • a draft Evidence Map of Social and Structural Determinants of Health Risk Factors for Maternal Morbidity and Mortality; the public comment deadline is December 4, 2022.

Also, Fierce Healthcare tells us

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI) released a report Monday updating its strategic vision for implementing value-based care, including detailing its progress since the vision was released last year. One of the key new strategies focused on creating greater care coordination between primary care doctors and specialists, especially surrounding the types of models the center puts out.

From the mental healthcare front, the National Institutes of Health’s NIH in the News for November 2022 features an article on clinical depression for patients.

From the medical device front, the Wall Street Journal reports

Medtronic PLC medical device reduced the blood pressure of people with tough-to-treat hypertension in a closely watched study, but not significantly beyond what medications achieved.

The device cut a crucial measure of blood pressure by only about two points more than the average reduction in study volunteers who didn’t get the procedure, researchers said Monday.

Despite falling short of the study’s main efficacy goal, Medtronic said it has completed its application to the Food and Drug Administration for approval of the device, based on its safety and ability to meet certain secondary goals in the latest study as well as positive data from earlier studies.

If the FDA approves it, the device could offer a new, nonmedication treatment option for people with blood pressure that remains high despite treatment with drugs. It could also be a big-selling product for Medtronic. * * *

Medtronic’s experimental device, Symplicity Spyral, is used to perform a minimally invasive procedure known as renal denervation. 

In renal denervation, doctors insert a spiral-shaped catheter into an artery near the patient’s groin, through which a generator delivers radio-frequency energy to nerves in arteries near the kidneys. These nerves can become overactive and fuel high blood pressure. The device essentially burns these nerves so that they don’t contribute to high blood pressure.

Renal denervation has potential to be a one-time treatment, though researchers are still following patients to see how the benefit lasts.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From the OPM front, an OPM press release informs us

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) released government-wide results of the 2022 OPM FEVS today. The OPM FEVS is an employee survey that tracks how federal employees view their current work environment, including management, policies, and new initiatives. OPM FEVS is an unmatched government data asset that assists agencies to hire and support the skilled workforce needed to serve the American people.

According to Gallup, employee engagement for the total U.S. workforce has declined for the past two years by a total of four percentage points, the first time it has dropped in over a decade. The OPM FEVS government-wide employee engagement index dropped one percentage point from 2020 to 2021, and then stabilized above pre-pandemic levels at 71 percent in 2022. In 2019, this metric stood at 68 percent.

Additional highlights from the 2022 OPM FEVS government-wide results include:

* The Performance Confidence Index, which measures employees’ view that their work unit can achieve goals and produce at a high level, remains high at 84 percent.

* The 2022 OPM FEVS includes a new Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) Index, which shows 69 percent of respondents report positive perceptions of agency practices related to DEIA.

* The 2022 OPM FEVS newly evaluates Innovation and to what extent leadership encourages and supports new ideas and innovative approaches. The survey scores show success and opportunities for innovation encouragement, with 64 percent of employees consistently looking for new ways to improve work and 56 percent noting that management encourages innovation.

In other encouraging news, Federal News Network reports

Suicides across the active duty U.S. military decreased over the past 18 months, driven by sharp drops in the Air Force and Marine Corps last year and a similar decline among Army soldiers during the first six months of this year, according to a new Pentagon report and preliminary data for 2022.

The numbers show a dramatic reversal of what has been a fairly steady increase in recent years.

The shift follows increased attention by senior military leaders and an array of new programs aimed at addressing what has been a persistent problem in all the services, although it’s unclear what impact any of the programs had or if pandemic-related restrictions played any role in the decline.

On a related note —

  • The actuarial consulting firm WTW released the employer survey findings

Two out of three U.S. employers (67%) plan to make employee mental health and emotional wellbeing programs and solutions one of their top three health priorities over the next three years. Additionally, the number of employers that intend to offer designated mental health days could triple from 9% currently to 30% in the next two years.

  • The U.S. Surgeon General offers best practices for designing employer-sponsored mental health programs.

From the Omicron and siblings, front MedPage Today tells us

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) voted unanimously Thursday to add COVID-19 vaccination to its panel of routine immunizations for both kids and adults. The 15-0 vote does not mandate vaccination for children or adults or prevent unvaccinated children from attending school; it’s simply an annual update to the child and adult immunization schedules, panelists pointed out.

The ACIP decision does mandate that health plans cover Covid vaccines without member cost sharing after the public health emergency expires, likely next year.

In other public health news, the Wall Street Journal reports

Physicians are reporting unseasonably high numbers of respiratory illnesses in children, straining many children’s hospitals before the typically busier winter months.

Juan Salazar, physician in chief at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford, Conn., said a sharp increase in cases of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, has filled up hospital beds at his facility, creating capacity issues. 

RSV is an easily transmissible virus that infects the respiratory tract. The virus spreads through droplets from coughing and sneezing and on surfaces. Positive tests for RSV have been on the rise across the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rise in cases has come ahead of the typical winter peak for such illnesses, hospital officials said. 

For most people, RSV amounts to a cold, and nearly all children come in contact with the virus by the age of two, health authorities said. But it can be severe for some infants and older adults, especially for those that have pre-existing health conditions. 

Much like influenza, RSV cases were flattened during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic. The respiratory virus that typically circulates in the fall and winter then rebounded in the summer of 2021.  

Is RSV the official name for the common cold? Calling Dr. Google. Perhaps people should choose to wear N-95 masks in the winter.

From the Rx coverage front

The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) today released a Final Evidence Report assessing the comparative clinical effectiveness and value of subcutaneous semaglutide (Wegovy, Novo Nordisk), liraglutide (Saxenda, Novo Nordisk), phentermine/topiramate (Qsymia, Vivus Pharmaceuticals), and bupropion/naltrexone (Contrave, Currax Pharma) for the treatment of obesity.

“The vast majority of people with obesity cannot achieve sustained weight loss through diet and exercise alone,” said David Rind, MD, ICER’s Chief Medical Officer. “As such, obesity, and its resulting physical health, mental health, and social burdens is not a choice or failing, but a medical condition. The development of safe and effective medications for the treatment of obesity has long been a goal of medical research that now appears to be coming to fruition. With a condition affecting more than 40% of adults in the US, the focus should be on assuring that these medications are priced in alignment with their benefits so that they are accessible and affordable across US society.”

Downloads: Final Evidence Report | Report-at-a-Glance | Policy Recommendations

This report is worth a gander because OPM is requiring coverage of next-gen obesity drugs for 2023.

It turns out that October is health literacy month.

  • The Labor Department’s Assistant Secretary for Employee Benefits offers employees five tips for making health benefits work.
  • The HHS Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research gives healthcare providers a complete literacy manual, 2nd edition.

Of course, October is also breast cancer awareness month, and Yale New Haven hospital issued with newsletter with advice on that critical topic.

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer among American women, except for skin cancer – but millions of women are surviving the disease, thanks in part to regular screening, early detection and improvements in treatment.

“Compared to 15 or 20 years ago, the proportion of early-stage breast cancers we are seeing in our clinics is significantly higher. We can directly attribute this to the improvements in screening technologies, in mammography, tomosynthesis, breast MRI, breast ultrasound and computer-assisted detection methods over the years,” said Meena Moran, MD, chief of Breast Radiation Oncology for the Smilow Cancer Network. “Another major factor attributing to earlier detection over the last two decades is the overall increased awareness of breast cancer and the importance of screening in the general population.”

From the miscellany department —

  • The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans discusses “Optimizing Outcomes and Containing the Costs of Surgery.”
  • Reg Jones writing in the Federal Times, provides the math on calculating Social Security benefits, especially early retirement benefits.

Mid-week Update

Following up on this week’s posts

Forbes unpacks the colonoscopy study that the FEHBlog discussed in Monday’s post. The critical consideration is that “while colonoscopy may not be the gold standard it’s been made out to be, one or more colorectal cancer screening tools are essential to detect cancer and lower mortality rates.” Check it out.

Prof. Katie Keith writing in Health Affairs Forefront explores the final family glitch rule that the FEHBP mentioned in yesterday’s post. Two points suggest to the FEHBlog that the final rule will not materially impact the FEHB Program.

This situation—where employee-only coverage is affordable, but family coverage is not—is not uncommon. Most employers offer family coverage, but many do not subsidize it for family members which keeps the cost high for workers and their families.

That’s not the case in the FEHB Program. Moreover,

The final rule will not affect liability under the employer mandate, a fact confirmed by the IRS. Why not? The employer mandate requires certain large employers to offer coverage to employees and dependents. But penalties for violating the mandate are triggered only when an employee receives premium tax credits through the marketplace. The final rule extends premium tax credits to only the family members of workers who are not offered affordable job-based family coverage. It does not affect the eligibility of employees and thus does not implicate the employer mandate.

That’s an important consideration. Implementing the final rule is OPM’s responsibility as the FEHB Program’s regulator.

From the Omicron and siblings’ front —

The Associated Press reports

The White House on Tuesday said eligible Americans should get the updated COVID-19 boosters by Halloween to have maximum protection against the coronavirus by Thanksgiving and the holidays, as it warned of a “challenging” virus season ahead.

Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 coordinator, said the U.S. has the tools, both from vaccines and treatments, to largely eliminate serious illness and death from the virus, but stressed that’s only the case if people do their part. * * *

So far the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says only about 11.5 million Americans have received the updated shots, which are meant to provide a boost of protection against both the original strain of COVID-19 and the BA.5 variant that is dominant around the world. Jha said studies suggest that if more Americans get the updated vaccines, “we could save hundreds of lives each day this winter.”

The American Hospital Association informs us

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention today recommended Moderna’s bivalent COVID-19 vaccine booster for children aged 6-17 and Pfizer’s bivalent COVID-19 vaccine booster for children aged 5-11 after the Food and Drug Administration authorized them for these ages. CDC previously recommended the Pfizer bivalent booster for Americans 12 and older and the Moderna bivalent booster for adults. The boosters protect against the most recently circulating omicron variants as well as the original virus strain.

MedPage Today offers more information on this FDA decision and a modeling study of 1.2 million global Covid patients showing (1) “Long COVID — defined as one or more clusters of symptoms lasting three months or longer — occurred in about 6% of people with symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection” and (2) “at one year, 15% of long COVID patients had ongoing cognitive or respiratory problems or fatigue.”

In other public health news, NPR offers a transcript of a monkeypox discussion among NPR healthcare reports. The upshot is

Just a few months ago, it looked like the U.S. had lost its chance to get monkeypox under control. Cases were soaring, and vaccines were in short supply. But now the story has taken a turn and this time in a good direction. In fact, some disease experts are even raising the idea that the U.S. could nearly eliminate the virus. 

From the medical research front —

Healthcare Dive reports

Walmart is getting into clinical trials with the launch of the Walmart Healthcare Research Institute, as the retail giant focuses on high-margin businesses in healthcare.

Walmart said the venture is meant to improve diversity in clinical trials, focusing on interventions and medications that can make an impact in underrepresented communities. That includes older adults, rural residents, women and minority populations, the company said in a release.

It could also become a valuable stream of revenue for Walmart from drug companies looking for participants for potential trials and studies.

The NIH Directors’ Blog tells us about two NIH-supported chemists, Carolyn R. Bertozzi and K. Barry Sharpless, who won the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work in click chemistry.

This form of chemistry has made it possible for researchers to snap together, like LEGO pieces, molecular building blocks to form hybrid biomolecules, often with easy-to-track imaging agents attached. Not only has click chemistry expanded our ability to explore the molecular underpinnings of a wide range of biological processes, but it has provided us with new tools for developing drugs, diagnostics, and a wide array of “smart” materials.

Kudos to the winners.

STAT News reports

Merck on Wednesday agreed to extend an ongoing collaboration with Moderna to develop a personalized vaccine for the treatment of patients with skin cancer.

Moderna is getting $250 million from Merck to secure opt-in rights to the cancer vaccine candidate, called mRNA-4157. The two companies are jointly conducting a mid-stage clinical trial that combines the customized, mRNA-based vaccine with Merck’s checkpoint inhibitor Keytruda.

Results from this randomized study will be announced before the end of the year, but the timing of Wednesday’s deal suggests Merck and Moderna have seen enough encouraging data to advance mRNA-4157 into larger studies.

From the Rx coverage front, the HHS Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality updated its consumer tool “How To Create a My Medicines List,” previously known as “My Pills List.”

From the healthcare quality front, NCQA released a slide deck and recording of last week’s Future of HEDIS webinar focused on health equity.

From the maternity care front, Health Day reports on a March of Dimes report on maternity care deserts and related matters. Here’s the federal government’s maternity care map:

Maternity care deserts [red]: low access [orange]; moderate access [yellow]; full access [light purple] Source: U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), Area Health Resources Files, 2021

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the omicron and siblings front, Govexec and Federal News Network recount today’s oral argument before the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals over the legality of the Administration’s Covid vaccine mandate on federal employees.

The en banc ruling, expected in the next few weeks, could be the last step after a lengthy court battle that has played out through many fits and starts over the last year. Feds for Medical Freedom has previously said it will take its case to the Supreme Court if the Fifth Circuit rules against it, though the high court may be less inclined to weigh in on the case after it already ruled on two vaccine mandate cases in January. If the mandate is ultimately permitted to stand, individual employees could still wind up in the federal circuit if they take their cases to MSPB and appeal further after an initial decision. The mandate has not been enforced since a U.S. district judge in Texas first enjoined it in January.

In other virus news, the Wall Street Journal offers one of its helpful overview articles titled “What to Know About Polio Symptoms, Vaccines and the Virus’s Spread in New York.”

From the healthcare cost front, HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research called attention to a recent agency report about the characteristic “high spenders”:

• In 2019, the top 1 percent of persons ranked by their healthcare expenditures accounted for about 21 percent of total healthcare expenditures, while the bottom 50 percent accounted for only 3 percent.
• Hypertension and osteoarthritis/other non-traumatic joint disorders were the most commonly treated conditions among the top 5 percent of spenders.
• Persons ages 65 and older and Whites were disproportionately represented in the top spending tiers.
• Inpatient hospital care accounted for about 37 percent of spending for persons in the top 5 percent of spenders.
• Over three-quarters of aggregate expenses for persons in the top 5 percent of spenders were paid for by private insurance or Medicare.

From the SDOH front, MedCity News reports about “Information as a social determinant: Three ways Google is addressing health inequity: Google announced three updates at the Google Health Equity Summit, including a new video series partnership, improved search features and an expanded program with Fitbit.”

In coding news, Healthcare Dive tells us

The American Medical Association said its 2023 Current Procedural Terminology code set, released Friday, contains burden-reducing revisions to the codes and guidelines for providers.

The updates to the data-sharing terminology for medical procedures and services are intended to make coding and documentation easier and more flexible, freeing providers from time-wasting administrative tasks that are clinically irrelevant to providing high-quality care to patients, the AMA said.

The modifications follow the 2021 revisions made to the evaluation and management codes for office visit services. They extend to inpatient and observation care services, consultations, emergency department services, nursing facility services, home and residence services and prolonged services.

HHS regulations implementing HIPAA electronic transaction standards require that the CPT be used to code outpatient services.

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the Omicron and siblings front, Regulatory Focus reports

[Last week,] both Pfizer and Moderna are seeking FDA authorization for their bivalent COVID-19 vaccines containing components of both the prototype virus and Omicron BA.4/5. 

“The FDA is working tirelessly to evaluate the submissions to ensure the data meet FDA’s rigorous standards for safety, effectiveness and manufacturing quality so that these new boosters are available as soon as possible,” Califf tweeted on Thursday, noting that the agency would base its decision on “the totality of available evidence,” including clinical trial data from other bivalent mRNA vaccines, real-world evidence from current vaccines and non-clinical data on the two BA.4/5-containing vaccines.
 
Califf also said that the agency’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) would not be convened to review the submissions. “FDA will not hold a VRBPAC meeting about these submissions, as the agency feels confident in the extensive discussion that was held in June. VRBPAC voted overwhelmingly to include an omicron component in COVID-19 boosters. FDA has no new questions that warrant committee input,” he wrote.

From the monkeypox front, the Wall Street Journal informs us

A person in Texas who was diagnosed with monkeypox and had a weak immune system has died, Texas state health officials said Tuesday, in what could be the first-known fatality from the virus in the U.S.

The Texas Department of State Health Services said this was the first death of a person diagnosed with monkeypox in Texas. Officials are investigating what role monkeypox played in the death. They said the patient, who was an adult and a resident of Harris County, Texas, was “severely immunocompromised” but didn’t offer additional details. 

In a statement, Texas health commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt said that “monkeypox is a serious disease, particularly for those with weakened immune systems.” He urged those who have been exposed or have symptoms to seek treatment.

Healthcare Dive adds

Concerns over monkeypox vaccine supplies appear to be softening after federal public health agencies initially scrambled to acquire enough doses of the shot.

The Biden administration has been working to boost its supply of vaccines in recent weeks, and so far has made over 1 million vials available to jurisdictions, “which is nearly enough to reach the entire population that’s most at risk,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said during a call with reporters Tuesday.

The HHS also announced on Monday that it will provide about $11 million to support the first U.S.-based productioneffort for manufacturing the Jynneos vaccine at a facility in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The FDA authorized administering the Jynneos shot intradermally — a method that requires only one-fifth of the usual dose but is just as effective, according to the agency.

However, the vaccine’s developer, Bavarian Nordic, has raised concerns about the method, citing a lack of data and evidence related to its efficacy.

About 75% of jurisdictions that have received the vaccine are administering it intradermally now, Bob Fenton, the White House’s monkeypox response coordinator, said on Tuesday’s call.

From the public health front, CNN Health discloses

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky has tapped Mary Wakefield — an Obama administration veteran and former nurse — to helm a major revamp of the sprawling agency and its multibillion-dollar budget. Making the changes will require winning over wary career CDC scientists, combative members of Congress, and a general public that in many cases has stopped looking to the agency for guidance.

“If she can’t fix it, she’ll say, ‘It’s not fixable, here’s why, and here’s what needs to be done next,'” said Eileen Sullivan-Marx, dean of the New York University Rory Meyers College of Nursing, who’s known Wakefield professionally for decades.

Also, Specialty Pharmacy Continuum points out

Less than 20% of providers submitted claims using a type of payment code [ICD 10 Z codes] that could help identify and address health disparities that adversely affect patient outcomes, according to a new ICON Market Access report.

The results come amid a growing call for payors and pharmaceutical manufacturers to work together to better address racial and ethnic health inequalities, speakers said during the AMCP 2022 annual meeting.

Such health disparities exist in nearly all U.S. states, said Jessica Cherian, PharmD, RPh, the vice president of content and strategic services for ICON Market Access, citing a 2021 Commonwealth Report, In 2021, her company surveyed 32 payor executives for their perceptions regarding health disparities in racial and ethnic groups, with a targeted focus on medication access and utilization.

Payors typically review data from claims, case manager screenings and more, and use that information to match members to programs that meet their SDOH needs, such as access to care, housing or transportation help, Ms. Fleming said. Payors also track needs through Z codes: additional codes provided in the International Classification of Diseases, Tenth Revision to report nonmedical factors influencing health status. For example, code Z63 would indicate difficulty with a patient’s family/support, such as alcoholism or drug addiction. Approximately 71% of payors in the ICON report used Z codes to monitor SDOH; however, they said less than 20% of submitted claims included these codes.

In payor personnel news, Healthcare Dive informs us

Name: David Brailer

New title: Executive vice president and chief health officer, Cigna

Brailer will assume his new role in early September, and will be Cigna’s first chief health officer.

In his role, he will focus on bringing together Cigna products, technologies and services in new ways in an attempt to drive more value and help improve overall health, according to the release.

He will report to Cigna Chairman and CEO David Cordani and will serve on the company’s enterprise leadership team.

From the healthcare costs front, the HHS Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research released “STATISTICAL BRIEF #543: Trends in Health Insurance at Private Employers, 2008-2021.”

“Highlights

  • “Employment-sponsored health insurance at private-sector employers was characterized by increases in premiums and cost-sharing for covered workers in 2021.
    • In 2021, average health insurance premiums were $7,380 for single coverage, $14,634 for employee-plus-one coverage, and $21,381 for family coverage, representing increases of 3.2, 3.1 and 3.0 percent, respectively, from their 2020 levels.
    • In 2021, the average employee contribution was $1,643 for single coverage, a 7.2 percent increase from the 2020 level. Single premium contributions increased at small (12.3 percent), medium (14.1 percent), and large firms (5.6 percent).
    • From 2020 to 2021, average deductible levels for single coverage increased by 3.0 percent to $2,004, and family coverage deductibles increased 3.9 percent to $3,868.
  • “From 2020 to 2021, there were no statistically significant changes in enrollment rates or offer rates for small, medium, or large firms. 
  • “Overall enrollment and offer rates decreased from 2020 to 2021. These decreases are due to an increase in employment among small employers, and a corresponding decrease in the proportion of employees in medium and large firms, which have higher rates for both measures.
  • “In 2021, overall eligibility and take-up rates were not significantly different from 2020 levels.”

From the Rx coverage front, HealthDay tells us

Cholesterol-lowering statins are proven lifesavers, but they’ve also gained a reputation for causing muscle aches and pains in a good number of patients.

That reputation is undeserved, according to a new large-scale analysis of data from nearly two dozen clinical trials of statins.

There’s a less than 10% chance that muscle symptoms reported by patients are caused by the statin they are taking, researchers report.

“Our analysis showed that over 90% of muscle symptoms were not attributable to the statin, and those cases that were due to statins occurred mainly within the first year of treatment,” said joint lead researcher Colin Baigent, director of the Medical Research Council Population Health Research Unit at the University of Oxford, in England.

Statins have simply gotten a bad rap when it comes to muscle side effects, Baigent said.

In government contract reporting news, the Society for Human Resource Management reports

The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) has issued a revised directive on compensation compliance, addressing concerns federal contractors had about a previous directive issued earlier this year. Some contractors were concerned that the prior version of the directive intruded upon communications protected by attorney-client privilege.

On the same day the revised directive was issued, OFCCP Director Jenny Yang wrote in a blog post that a top priority for the OFCCP is combating agency pay discrimination.

“Contractors therefore should review the directive and ensure they are engaging in compensation analyses as required by the regulations and be prepared to respond to questions regarding those analyses that are detailed in the directive,” said Guy Brenner, an attorney with Proskauer in Washington, D.C.

“Federal regulations require contractors periodically—or OFCCP interprets now as annually—[to] review their compensation systems to determine whether there are gender, race or ethnicity-based disparities in compensation,” said Sheila Willis, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Columbia, S.C.

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

The Wall Street Journal reports

A federal judge approved Blue Cross Blue Shield companies’ settlement of a sweeping antitrust suit filed on behalf of their customers, with the insurers agreeing to pay $2.67 billion and change certain practices that allegedly limited competition. * * *

Under the settlement, the Blue insurers would drop a Blue Cross Blue Shield Association rule that limits the share of each company’s total national revenue that can come from business that isn’t under Blue brands.

That change could increase competition among the companies if they choose to expand their non-Blue lines of business in one another’s geographies, insurance experts said.

The settlement would also loosen a rule that had limited the Blue insurers’ ability to compete with one another for the business of large national employers. Under the changes, certain national employers would be able to also request a bid from a second Blue insurer of their choice, setting up competition between the two Blues.

However, the settlement stops short of unwinding the Blues’ licensing setup that grants exclusive geographic branding rights to companies—the main original focus of the litigation. * * *

A spokeswoman for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association said it was pleased with the approval, and is committed to finalizing and implementing the agreement.

The settlement should be implemented beginning in 30 days. There are limited appeal rights for class members. The Journal adds, “The Blue insurers still face a second, parallel antitrust suit filed on behalf of doctors, hospitals and other healthcare providers.”

From the Omicron and siblings front, the New York Times offers advice on how to manage Omicron BA.5 symptoms, including sore throats, from home.

From the monkeypox front, Becker’s Hospital Review provides a state-by-state breakdown of U.S. monkeypox cases and offers physician perspectives on the monkeypox cases that they are treating. “‘The biggest misconception is that this is always a mild disease,’ Jason Zucker, MD, an infectious diseases specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City, said during an Aug. 5 call with reporters.”

Govexec reports that the FDA implemented its plan to significantly extend the supply of the preferred monkeypox vaccine. Bloomberg Prognosis provides more medical details on this development.

From the Rx coverage front, Fierce Healthcare discusses Optum’s latest drug development pipeline report and STAT News reports

For only the second time, Pfizer is offering a warranty for a medicine that will cover the cost for any patient or health plan if the medication fails to work, a move that expands an effort to appease concerns about high drug costs.

The newest warranty program began last month and covers Panzyga, which was approved last year in the U.S. to treat a rare neurological disorder called chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, or CIPD. Patients can get repaid for four treatments — up to $16,500 each, or a maximum of $50,000 — if use is discontinued for clinical reasons. And insurers can also get reimbursed for their own outlays.

Unlike the first warranty program — which Pfizer began a year ago for its Xalkori lung cancer treatment — this newest warranty is only available to patients who are covered by commercial insurance or pay cash, not government health care programs.  The Xalkori program is available to patients who are covered by commercial insurance or those who pay cash but are also covered by Medicare.

And how about an Rx coverage tidbit? Bayer tells us with understandable pride

This year, acetylsalicylic acid (ASA), the active ingredient that brought Aspirin to fame, celebrates its 125th anniversary. On August 10, 1897, Dr. Felix Hoffmann discovered the ideal formula for acetylsalicylic acid when he synthesized the first chemically pure and stable form of acetylsalicylic acid. * * *

Hoffmann’s breakthrough was entered in the trademark register of the Imperial Patent Office in Berlin in 1899 and received a patent in the USA the following year, and scientists continue to conduct research even to this day on Aspirin, other potential areas of application, and dosage forms. In 1969, the round tablet made its way to the moon with the astronauts in the Apollo 11 capsule.

From the U.S. healthcare business front, MedCity News examines CVS Health’s expansion into the primary and homecare markets.

From the plan design front,

  • AHRQ’s Medical Expenditure Panel released a survey on trends in health insurance at private employers, 2008 – 2021.
  • The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans offers four steps for evaluating your plan’s diabetes coverage.
  • The Congressional Research Service updated its health savings account report.

From the telehealth and fraud, waste and abuse fronts

Healthcare Dive informs us

More patients turned to telehealth to see a doctor in May than April, in step with an increase in COVID-19 cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to Fair Health’s latest monthly tracker of private insurance claim lines.

Virtual visits rose 10.2% in May, accounting for 5.4% of all medical claim lines in the month, compared to 4.9% in April, Fair Health said Monday. It was the second straight month that telehealth’s share of claims grew.

COVID-19 made the list of top five telehealth diagnoses in every region of the country in May, holding in the No. 2 spot in the Northeast while climbing to second place in the Midwest and West and third place in the South.

STAT News delves into how telehealth fraud concerns could impact the industry’s future.

In Postal Service news, Federal News Network reports that USPS is eyeing mail price increases for January 2023.

USPS Chief Financial Officer Joe Corbett said the agency remains “in a financial hole,” and that more progress under the 10-year reform plan is needed.

“While we have accomplished a tremendous amount executing on the [Delivering for America] plan, we still have a lot of work to do. We need to continue executing the management initiatives in our Delivering for America plan to fill this hole and return to Postal Service to continuous self-sustaining financial health,” Corbett said.

[Postmaster General] DeJoy said USPS contributions to the retirement health care plan for its employees, under Postal Service Reform Act, will resume in 2026, and will grow to about $6.7 billion a year.

“We will not be able to make these payments unless we timely engage and accomplish all our initiatives, and we are trying to do just that,” DeJoy said.

Happy First Day of Summer 2022

Thanks to Aaron Burden for sharing their work on Unsplash.

From Capitol Hill, the Hill reports

The Senate voted 64 to 34 Tuesday evening to advance an 80-page gun safety bill to strengthen background check requirements for gun buyers under 21, provide funding to states to administer red flag laws and to provide billions of dollars in new federal funding for mental health services.  * * *

Senate Majority Leader Schumer (D-N.Y.) said a successful initial procedural vote would set the bill up to pass by the end of the week.  

Last week, a House Appropriations subcommittee approved the Fiscal Year 2023 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill, which funds OPM and the FEHB Program. The accompanying bill summary points out

  • Office of Personnel Management (OPM) – The bill includes $448 million, an increase of $75 million above the FY 2022 enacted level, for OPM to manage and provide guidance on Federal human resources and administer Federal retirement and health benefit programs.
  • Fosters equality for women and men: Eliminates provisions preventing the FEHBP from covering abortion services.

The House Appropriations Committee will mark up this bill at a meeting scheduled for Friday, June 24.

The U.S. Supreme Court today issued a 7-2 decision holding that the Medicare Secondary Payer law does not permit healthcare providers to make disparate impact claims against health plans. This decision protects ERISA and FEHB Program plans against costly litigation. Fierce Healthcare and Health Payer Intelligence also report on the decision.

From the Omnicron and siblings front —

MedPage Today informs us

Most people who have been infected with COVID-19 in the U.S. in the past couple of months likely had the BA.2 or BA.2.12.1 variant, both lineages of the original Omicron strain of SARS-CoV-2.

Now, BA.4 and BA.5 are here, and they’re starting to make up a larger proportion of U.S. cases.

So if someone was recently infected with a BA.2 lineage, are they mostly protected against reinfection with BA.4 or BA.5?

Probably not, infectious disease experts say.

“It’s expected that there’s probably not much cross-protection between them,” Amesh Adalja, MD, an infectious disease physician at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, told MedPage Today.

The American Hospital Association tells us

More than 1 million prescriptions for the COVID-19 antiviral pills Lagevrio and Paxlovid were dispensed between late December 2021 and May 2022, but dispensing rates were lowest in the most socially and economically disadvantaged communities, according to a study released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a separate study of electronic health records from Kaiser Permanente Southern California over the period, fewer than 1% of patients aged 12 and older who received Paxlovid to treat mild-to-moderate COVID-19 had a COVID-19-related hospitalization or emergency department visit in the next five to 15 days. CDC said the studies “highlight the importance of ensuring access to oral antiviral medicine in treating COVID-19, a key strategy in preventing hospitalization and death.”

Speaking of hospitals, Beckers Hospital Review reports

Healthgrades has recognized 399 hospitals as recipients of its 2022 Outstanding Patient Experience Award, the organization said June 21. This represents the top 15 percent of hospitals in the U.S. for patient experience.  * * * Healthgrades has recognized 399 hospitals as recipients of its 2022 Outstanding Patient Experience Award, the organization said June 21. This represents the top 15 percent of hospitals in the U.S. for patient experience.  * * * View the full list of recipients here

From the Rx coverage front —

  • The Food and Drug Administration released one of its news roundups today.
  • Per Stat News, a group of researchers writing in the Annals of Internal Pharmacy used Mark Cuban’s online pharmacy pricing to puncture Medicare Part D’s pricing on generic drugs.
  • Per Fierce Healthcare, CVS Health is expanding its Project Health program to Richmond, Virginia and Las Vegas. “The healthcare giant announced Tuesday that it will hold 72 events dedicated to seniors and children this year. It is also adding four new mobile units in 2022.”
  • Per Healthcare Dive, Walgreens “has partnered with managed care company Buckeye Health Plan in Ohio to open new Health Corner locations in five of the state’s northeast neighborhoods this summer. * * * About 2.3 million patients will have access to Health Corner services across 60 locations in Ohio, California and New Jersey by the summer’s end, Walgreens said on Tuesday. By the end of this year, Walgreens expects to increase the number of Health Corners from 55 to about 100, including the new Ohio locations.”

From the interoperability and telehealth fronts

  • Epic, the largest purveyor of electronic health record systems in the U.S., announced “its plan to join a new health information exchange framework to improve health data interoperability across the country. The Trusted Exchange Framework and Common Agreement (TEFCA) will bring information networks together to help ensure that all people benefit from complete, longitudinal health records wherever they receive care. In the future, TEFCA will expand to support use cases beyond clinical care, such as public health.” That’s a big boost for TEFCA, which will serve as the backbone for the nation’s EHR systems.
  • AHRQ offers research on telehealth for women’s preventive healthcare services.

Finally, STAT News reports

President Biden will soon nominate Arati Prabhakar, a physicist and former DARPA director, to serve as his next top science adviser, the White House announced on Tuesday.

If confirmed by the Senate, Prabhakar would replace the genomics researcher Eric Lander, who resigned as the head of the White House science office in February amid a workplace-bullying scandal.

The new post would be Prabhakar’s third tour as head of a federal science office. She ran DARPA, the high-stakes military research agency, from 2012 to early 2017, and served as director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the 1990s.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

Today is Earth Day. AHRQ offers “A new AHRQ Views blog post in recognition of Earth Day 2022 highlights the Agency’s emerging efforts to reduce the impacts of climate change.”

From the FEHB front, Fedweek warns federal employees to think hard before rejecting FEHB coverage late in a career. As explained in the article you can lose out on one of the best fringe benefits for federal and postal employees — continuing their FEHB coverage into retirement with the full government contribution.

From the Omicron and siblings front —

STAT News informs us

Experts who advise the CDC met yesterday to discuss a thorny issue: Covid vaccine boosters, specifically the new policy to allow people 50 and older and people who are immunocompromised to get a second booster. By the end of the meeting — during which members of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices expressed frustration with the lack of clarity about the goal of the U.S. booster policy — it wasn’t entirely clear why people are being offered a second booster at this time. Data presented by CDC experts suggested the protection that immune-competent people have received from their primary series and first booster is holding up and the expected benefits from the fourth shots are modest at best. ACIP member Beth Bell raised concerns about “booster fatigue” and said offering another dose now could undercut confidence in vaccines that are working well at protecting people from severe Covid. The policy to offer the fourth doses was made without consulting ACIP.

What’s more,

Among the many views expressed around vaccine mandates, one theme persists: the idea that Covid-19 infection protects unvaccinated people against reinfection. While CDC says “getting a Covid-19 vaccination is a safer and more dependable way to build immunity to Covid-19 than getting sick with Covid-19,” a research letter in JAMA Network Open tested the concept of natural immunity by analyzing data from more than 121,000 patients receiving health care in the western U.S. from October 2020 through November 2021, before the Omicron variant took hold. Unvaccinated people who’d been sick with Covid had an 85% lower risk of acquiring Covid again compared to unvaccinated individuals without prior Covid. That level is similar to what mRNA vaccines deliver. Previous infection conferred 88% protection against hospitalization after reinfection and 83% protection against reinfection that did not require hospitalization. The authors conclude natural immunity works as well against both mild and severe illness. One difference: Natural immunity didn’t wane, but mRNA vaccines’ protection did. “This study may have important implications for vaccine policy and public health,” they write.

It is illogical to downplay natural immunity when the worst flu epidemic in U.S. history, the 2018 pandemic, was resolved by a combination of deaths and natural immunity. This is not intended to downplay vaccines. In the FEHBlog’s view, the CDC should be paying more attention to natural immunity from Covid.

From the Covid anti-fraud front, Healthcare Dive reports

The Department of Justice has charged 21 people across the U.S. for pandemic-related healthcare fraud, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.

Defendants — including doctors, medical business executives and fake vaccination card manufacturers — caused nearly $150 million in false billing to federal programs, the DOJ alleged.

The prosecution effort involves some of the “largest and most wide-ranging pandemic-related frauds detected to date,” said Kevin Chambers, the DOJ’s director for COVID-19 fraud enforcement.

From the Food and Drug Administration front —

The American Hospital Association tells us

The Food and Drug Administration seeks comments through June 21 on a potential change that would require outpatient settings to dispense opioid pain medications with prepaid mail-back envelopes and pharmacists to provide patient education on safe disposal of opioids.

“This potential modification to the existing Opioid Analgesic Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy would provide a convenient, additional disposal option for patients beyond those already available such as flushing, commercially available in-home disposal products, collection kiosks and takeback events,” the agency said.

Good idea. Also

Health care providers should not use non-invasive prenatal screening tests alone to diagnose genetic abnormalities due to the potential for false results, the Food and Drug Administration warned last week. Also known as cell-free DNA tests or non-invasive prenatal tests, these laboratory developed tests in most cases are not reviewed by the FDA.

“Patients and health care providers should be aware of the risks and limitations of using these genetic prenatal screening tests and that they should not be used alone to diagnose chromosomal (genetic) abnormalities,” FDA said, citing reports that some patients and providers have made critical health care decisions based on the results without additional confirmatory testing. 

From the Rx coverage front, STAT News reports

Thanks to Covid-19 vaccines and therapies, U.S. spending on pharmaceuticals rose 12% in 2021 as use reached record levels and new prescriptions for acute and chronic care largely recovered from the slowdown seen during the pandemic, according to a new analysis.

Meanwhile, out-of-pocket costs paid by patients hit $79 billion, a $4 billion rise from the year before and the same level seen in 2018 after two years of declining costs. Overall, these costs were relatively low — less than $20 per prescription — but about 1% of all prescriptions filled, or 64 million, ran patients $125, underscoring ongoing barriers to affordability. In fact, 81 million prescriptions were not filled last year.

“We’re not in a very different situation from where we were five years ago except for the intensified, competitive market dynamics. But there are no major changes from a major legislative or policy perspective,” said Murray Aitken, senior vice president and executive director of the IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science, which conducted the analysis.

He also noted that the overall use of health services has returned to pre-pandemic levels, but has not yet made up for the backlog in missed patient visits, screenings and diagnostics, elective procedures, and new prescription starts — which IQVIA called a “concerning gap in preventive and treatment services.”

From the opioid epidemic front, the White House announced today

President Biden sent his Administration’s inaugural National Drug Control Strategy to Congress at a time when drug overdoses have taken a heartbreaking toll, claiming 106,854 lives in the most recent 12-month period. The Strategy delivers on the call to action in President Biden’s Unity Agenda through a whole-of-government approach to beat the overdose epidemic.

The Strategy focuses on two critical drivers of the epidemic: untreated addiction and drug trafficking. It instructs federal agencies to prioritize actions that will save lives, get people the care they need, go after drug traffickers’ profits, and make better use of data to guide all these efforts.

Here is a link to the full report