Monday Roundup

Monday Roundup

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From our Nation’s capital, OPM released its Fiscal Year 2024 Congressional Budget Justification document, which is part of the federal budget process. Of interest to the FEHBlog is this OPM goal:

Improve customer experience by making it easier for Federal employees, annuitants, and other eligible persons to make a more informed health insurance plan selection. 

By September 30, 2023, complete user-centered design and develop a minimum viable product for a new, state-of-the-art Decision Support Tool that will give eligible individuals the necessary information to compare plan benefits, provider networks, prescription costs, and other health information important to them and their families.

Federal News Network tells us about a related Office of Management and Budget analytical perspective on federal workforce issues.

The Office of Management and Budget, in one of its analytical perspectives supplementing the Biden administration’s 2024 budget request, said federal workers’ pay is “increasingly hamstrung” by statutory requirements “that curb the ability of agencies to reward talent, including for specialized occupations, in a national competitive job environment.”

From the Rx coverage front —

The Wall Street Street Journal reports

Eisai Co.’s new Alzheimer’s disease drug Leqembi will be covered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the first major insurer to agree to pay for the drug since its approval by U.S. regulators earlier this year. 

Eisai said Monday veterans with the early stages of Alzheimer’s would get the drug covered under criteria set by the VA.

An estimated 167,954 veterans receiving care through the VA have Alzheimer’s dementia, according to government estimates. To qualify for Leqembi, patients must be over 65, have early-stage symptoms and elevated brain amyloid, sticky protein fragments, which the drug is designed to remove.

STAT News describes the VA’s step as “unexpected,” which is an understatement because CMS does not plan to issue a Medicare national coverage decision until mid-year. STAT News adds

The [VA] published a guide on its formulary saying coverage will extend to any veteran who meets specified criteria, including an MRI scan within the previous year, amyloid PET imaging consistent with Alzheimer’s and a staging test indicating mild Alzheimer’s dementia. There is also a long list of criteria that would exclude veterans.

The agency can negotiate prices for drugs, but the price it will pay for Leqembi was not listed and the Eisai spokesperson did not offer a cost. Leqembi has an annual wholesale price of $26,500, although the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review recently said the treatment should cost between $8,900 and $21,500 per year to be considered cost effective.

Under federal law, the VA can bill other health plans (including FEHB but not Medicare) for non-service related care such as this drug. For this reason, this VA action opens the back door to FEHB coverage of Leqembi.

From the end of the public health emergency front —

The Society for Human Resource Management offers its take on how employers should prepare for the end of the PHE, now less than two months away.

The American Hospital Association points out

The Food and Drug Administration will end 22 COVID-19-related policies when the public health emergency ends May 11 and allow 22 to continue for 180 days, including temporary policies for outsourcing facilities compounding certain drugs for hospitalized patients and non-standard personal protective equipment practices for sterile compounders not registered as outsourcing facilities, the agency announced. FDA plans to retain 24 COVID-19-related policies with “appropriate changes” and four whose duration is not tied to the PHE, including its recently revised policy for COVID-19 tests

From the Rx business front —

BioPharma Dive informs us

Pfizer has agreed to buy Seattle-based Seagen for $43 billion in a blockbuster deal that would unite the pharmaceutical giant with a biotechnology company that pioneered a new type of tumor-killing medicine.

The acquisition is the largest Pfizer has attempted since its 2009 purchase of Wyeth, and is the most sizable in the drug industry by value since AbbVie’s $63 billion buyout of Allergan in 2019.

Acquiring Seagen gives Pfizer control of the top-selling lymphoma medicine Adcetris as well as a pipeline of cancer treatments that’s yielded three new drug approvals in the past three years. Seagen specializes in a type of cancer therapy known as an antibody-drug conjugate, and has steadily improved on the technology since its founding in 1997.

STAT News relates

Sanofi said Monday that it is acquiring Provention Bio, makers of a diabetes treatment, for $2.9 billion.

The Provention drug at the centerpiece of the deal, called TZield, was approved in the U.S. last November as the first and only treatment to prevent the onset of symptomatic Type 1 diabetes. Sanofi was already co-marketing the drug under a prior licensing deal signed between the two companies.

The French pharma giant will now own TZield outright, paying $25 per share to acquire Provention — a 273% premium over Friday’s closing stock price.

In recognition of Patient Safety Awareness Week

  • The HHS Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research’s Director Robert O. Valdez, Ph.D., M.H.S.A. explains how AHRQ is sharpening its focus on diagnostic safety.
  • Beckers Hospital Review reports
    • The pediatric mental health crisis is the most pressing patient safety concern in 2023, the Emergency Care Research Institute said on March 13. 
    • The ECRI, which conducts independent medical device evaluations, annually compiles scientific literature and patient safety events, concerns reported to or investigated by the organization, and other data sources to create its top 10 list.
    • Here are the 10 patient safety concerns for 2023, according to the report: 
      • 1. The pediatric mental health crisis
      • 2. Physical and verbal violence against healthcare staff
      • 3. Clinician needs in times of uncertainty surrounding maternal-fetal medicine
      • 4. Impact on clinicians expected to work outside their scope of practice and competencies
      • 5. Delayed identification and treatment of sepsis
      • 6. Consequences of poor care coordination for patients with complex medical conditions
      • 7. Risks of not looking beyond the “five rights” to achieve medication safety
      • 8. Medication errors resulting from inaccurate patient medication lists
      • 9. Accidental administration of neuromuscular blocking agents
      • 10. Preventable harm due to omitted care or treatment
  • The U.S. Department of Labor announced on March 10
    • the launch of a series of online dialogues to gather ideas and other public input on how health policies can support workers’ mental health most effectively.
    • The crowdsourcing will focus on four areas of concern for people with mental health conditions, including benefits policies that meet their needs, access to workplace care and supports, the reduction of related social stigmas, disparities faced by people in underserved communities, shortages of behavioral health professionals, and the establishment of state resource systems.
    • Part of the department’s ePolicyWorks initiative, the dialogues will remain open until April 3. Input received will inform the next meeting of the Mental Health Matters: National Task Force on Workforce Mental Health Policy
  • Healthexec calls attention to FDA recalls of certain eyedrops.

From the value-based care front, Health Payer Intelligence notes

CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield (CareFirst) has formed a strategic alliance with Aledade, Inc. (Aledade), offering independent primary care physicians tools and resources to improve healthcare affordability and effectiveness, supporting CareFirst member physicians in achieving value-based care goals.

Through this value-based relationship, CareFirst member physicians can leverage specialists, including onsite business support for physician practices, a technology platform that works with more than 100 different EHRs, and healthcare regulatory and policy expertise.

From the medical debt front, Healthcare Dive reports

  • Hospitals are a prime source of medical debt in America that hits underserved populations hardest, despite charity care programs and financial assistance policies, according to a new analysis from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
  • Of the 15% of U.S. adults with past-due medical debt, almost two-thirds owe some or all of that debt to hospitals, according to research from the Urban Institute. That medical debt disproportionately affects underserved populations, such as low-income individuals and people with disabilities, researchers found.
  • While medical debt remains a persistent financial burden in the U.S., a new analysis from the Urban Institute highlights how targeting hospital billing could ameliorate the problem.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

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From the U.S. healthcare business front, the Wall Street Journal reports Inc. will be able to close its purchase of 1Life Healthcare Inc., the operator of the One Medical line of primary-care clinics, without a legal challenge by antitrust enforcers.

The Federal Trade Commission won’t sue in time to block the $3.9 billion deal, including debt, but will continue its investigation of the merger, an agency spokesman said. The decision clears a path for Amazon to substantially expand its healthcare offerings and operate physical medical clinics. Amazon has invested in the healthcare space for years, including with an online pharmacy and other health ventures.

“The FTC’s investigation of Amazon’s acquisition of One Medical continues,” FTC spokesman Douglas Farrar said. “The commission will continue to look at possible harms to competition created by this merger as well as possible harms to consumers that may result from Amazon’s control and use of sensitive consumer health information held by One Medical.”

Becker’s Hospital Review offers two articles on Mark Cuban’s Cost Plus Drug Co.

  • In one article, BHR observes
    • As news outlets, celebrities, swingers on Reddit and people on Twitter praise Cost Plus Drug for its low prices on hundreds of generics, some of its products are more expensive than options at local pharmacies, KHN reported using GoodRx data. 
    • For example, one presentation of amoxicillin-clavulanate, an antibiotic currently in shortage, is $267.60 at Cost Plus Drug Co. and $109.44 at the average community pharmacy. 
    • Mr. Cuban told the outlet that its analysis was not comprehensive because of the company’s pricing model, which is a 15 percent markup, $3 for labor per drug and $5 for shipping. Because the shipping cost is overall and not for each medication, Mr. Cuban said his pharmacy can still offer a cheaper sale. 
  • In the other article, BHR informs us that the Cost Plus Drug Co., which already has business arrangements with three prescription drug managers, is contacting independent pharmacies for business.

From the public health front, February is Low Vision Awareness Month.

  • The BrightFocus Foundation proclaimed
    • Global vision and brain research non-profit BrightFocus Foundation celebrates the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval of Syfovre (pegcetacoplan injection), the first-ever treatment to slow the progression of vision loss from geographic atrophy, an advanced form of dry age-related macular degeneration and a leading cause of blindness. 
    • “Today’s FDA approval of Syfovre provides hope to the more than five million people worldwide who are at risk of permanent vision loss from geographic atrophy,” said BrightFocus President and CEO Stacy Pagos Haller. “This first-of-its-kind treatment is a momentous step forward in vision research and will make a meaningful difference in the lives of millions of people.” 
    • An estimated one million people in the U.S. have geographic atrophy, an advanced and severe form of age-related macular degeneration in which regions of cells in the retina waste away and die (atrophy). This progressive and irreversible disease can lead to permanent vision loss. Nearly 20 million adults in the U.S. have some form of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), almost double the previous estimate of 11 million people, according to a new report.    
    • People living with geographic atrophy often experience emotional hardships including anxiety, feeling powerless, and frustration. Approximately one in three have recently withdrawn from their social lives because of their disease, and BrightFocus offers a free AMD community group and educational audio chats for affected individuals.
    • Syfovre is expected to be available by the beginning of March through select specialty distributors and specialty pharmacies nationwide.

The New York Times Morning column criticizes the public health system for undertreating people with opioid use disorder, obesity and mental health issues, among other problems.

Similarly, HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality calls attention to the underuse of cardiac rehabilitation in our country.

From the Rx coverage front —

  • BioPharma Dive explains that while the last decade’s lapse of patents impacted blockbuster small-molecule drugs, this decade’s lapse impacts specialty drugs such as Humira and Keytruda. Time will tell whether patients will convert to biosimilar drugs as quickly as they converted to generic drugs when patents lapse.
  • STAT News reports on “A battle between Vertex and insurers [over copay assistance accumulators] is leaving cystic fibrosis patients with crushing drug costs. Copay assistance accumulators prevent co-pay assistance from accumulating toward the plan’s out-of-pocket payments maximum required by the Affordable Care Act.
  • The Institute for Clinical and Economic Research related a final evidence report on treatments for multiple sclerosis.

From the medical research front, STAT News reports

An experimental antibody that delivers lethal radiation directly to the bone marrow improved the outcomes of stem cell transplants for older patients with relapsed leukemia — and may change the way transplant medicine is practiced.

The antibody-radiation treatment, called Iomab-B, is being developed by Actinium Pharmaceuticals, a small drugmaker based in New York.

In the results of a Phase 3 clinical trial presented Saturday, 22% of patients with acute myeloid leukemia who were administered Iomab-B to prepare their bone marrow for transplants had durable remissions lasting six months or more. None of the patients in the study who received conventional care prior to transplant achieved durable remissions.


From the miscellany / tidbits department

  • The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force proposes to renew the following Grade A recommendation:
    • The USPSTF recommends that all persons planning to or who could become pregnant take a daily supplement containing 0.4 to 0.8 mg (400 to 800 μg) of folic acid.
    • The public comment period on this renewal is open until March 20, 2023/
  • Beckers Payer Issues reports
    • Anthem BCBS ColoradoIndianaMissouri and Nevada are rolling out virtual primary care to more members.
    • Eligible commercial members will gain access to a virtual care team that conducts an initial health screening, creates a personalized care plan, and then provides care services, according to a Feb. 7 news release.
    • The virtual care services will take place through Anthem’s app, Sydney Health. The app offers 24/7 medical text chat, preventive wellness visits, support services, including new prescriptions and refills, and in-network referrals.
    • Virtual primary care is now available to eligible individuals enrolled in Anthem’s fully insured plans and certain large group administrative services clients.

Happy Days are Here Again!

OPM Headquarters a/k/a the Theodore Roosevelt Building

The FEHBlog was delighted to read today that OPM is encouraging FEHB carriers that OPM is encouraging FEHB carriers to incorporate Medicare Part D EGWPs in their plans for 2024. The FEHBlog has been encouraging this step for years, as readers must know.

The Medicare Part D EGWPs will cushion the FEHBP against the expenses of drugs to treat Alzheimer’s Disease and other illnesses that impact annuitants over age 65. While there are many factors at play in determining premiums, this factor standing alone would lower premiums. Thank you, OPM.

From the Omicron and siblings front, the New York Times virus briefing newsletter wished its readers well today.

Now, after three years, we’re pausing this newsletter. The acute phase of the pandemic has faded in much of the world, and many of us have tried to pick up the pieces and move on. We promise to return to your inbox if the pandemic takes a sharp turn. But, for now, this is goodbye.

The American Hospital Association informs us

In a study released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC}, a single bivalent COVID-19 vaccine booster provided additional protection against omicron XBB variants in adults who previously received two to four monovalent vaccine doses. XBB-related variants account for over half of currently circulating COVID-19 variants in the United States.

“All persons should stay up to date with recommended COVID-19 vaccines, including receiving a bivalent booster dose when eligible,” the authors conclude.


The CDC yesterday launched a website to help consumers locate no-cost COVID-19 testing through its Increasing Community Access to Testing program, which includes pharmacies, commercial laboratories and other sites that bill the tests to government and private insurers and focus on vulnerable communities. The tests may include laboratory-based nucleic acid amplification tests and rapid antigen point-of-care tests, with results typically provided in 24-48 hours.

From the public health front

  • The Hill tells us about a CDC internal reorganization.
  • The HHS Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research provides us with an infographic and report about the three most commonly treated illnesses among older adults — hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and arthritis / other joint disorders
  • Fierce Healthcare relates, “The Biden administration is planning to release three to four new payment models on advance primary care and another enabling states to assume the total cost of care for Medicare, a top official shared.”
  • HHS’s HEAL Program Director, Dr. Rebecca Baker, discusses “Research That Offers Hope to End Addiction Long-Term.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front

Healthcare Dive reports

Elevance Health, one of the nation’s largest insurers, added more members in 2022, fueled by growth in its government business thanks to continued relaxed eligibility rules on enrollment.  

Elevance ended the year covering 47.5 million people, a nearly 5% increase from the prior-year period, driven largely by growth in Medicaid members.

In turn, total revenue climbed 13% to nearly $157 billion for the year as the insurer collected higher premium revenue from its Medicaid plans.   

Net income dipped about 1% to $6 billion for the full year as expenses climbed about 14%.  


The CMS announced Wednesday that a record-breaking 16.3 million people signed up for Affordable Care Act marketplace plans during the 2023 open enrollment season, a result of extended pandemic-era subsidies enacted by the American Rescue Plan.

Over 1.8 million more people enrolled in marketplace coverage compared to last year — a 13% increase, and the most amount of plan selections of any year since the launch of the ACA marketplace a decade ago, according to the CMS. The record-breaking enrollment numbers include 3.6 million first-time marketplace enrollees.

STAT News tells us

The claims have become almost ubiquitous. Hospital CEO after hospital CEO stands at a podium and promises the merger being announced will improve quality and lower costs.

Once deals close, though, there tends to be little, if any, follow-up to determine whether those things actually happened. A new Journal of the American Medical Association study adds to the growing body of evidence that they don’t. The authors looked across a large swath of the country’s hospitals and physicians found that while quality did improve marginally, the prices paid for services delivered by health system hospitals and doctors was significantly higher than their non-system peers.

“You start to feel really hopeful when you hear about this, ‘Yeah, we can really improve health care,’ and then when you look at it, it’s just not there,” said Nancy Beaulieu, a study author and research associate in Harvard Medical School’s department of health care policy.

Ruh roh.

On related note, Fierce Healthcare informs us

A top insurance lobbying group plans to press Congress this session to adopt legislation that expands the footprint of site-neutral payment reform, setting up a likely clash with hospital groups. 

The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA), which represents 38 Blues plans, released several policy priorities for the current Congress as part of a new report Tuesday. Some of the policies focus on changing Medicare reimbursement rates to pay the same amount to clinics whether they are independent or affiliated with a hospital. Other reforms focus on prescription drugs and spurring more participation in value-based care. 

“We’re very concerned about the increasing acquisition of physician practices by hospitals in the healthcare system,” said Kris Haltmeyer, vice president of policy analysis for BCBSA, during a reporter briefing Tuesday. 

One of the association’s major priorities is to pass a bill that would remove a grandfathering provision in the 2015 Balanced Budget Act. The provision shielded certain hospital outpatient departments from billing limits established in the law, with the exception of emergency departments. 

The association also wants to require off-campus hospital sites to get a different national provider identifier than the main facility campus. They should also use a different claim form for any professional service rendered in an office or clinic owned by a hospital but not on the campus. 

Go get ’em.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From our Nation’s capital, the Wall Street Journal reports

The Treasury Department began taking special measures to keep paying the government’s bills on Thursday as the U.S. bumped up against its borrowing limit, kicking off a potentially lengthy and difficult debate in Congress over raising the debt ceiling

With the federal government constrained by the roughly $31.4 trillion debt limit, the Treasury Department began deploying so-called extraordinary measures. Those accounting maneuvers, which include suspending investments for certain government accounts, will allow the Treasury to keep paying obligations to bondholders, Social Security recipients and others until at least early June, the department said last week.  

That gives lawmakers on Capitol Hill and the Biden administration roughly five months to pass legislation raising or suspending the debt limit. In a letter to congressional leaders on Thursday, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said there was “considerable uncertainty” about how long extraordinary measures can last. 

“I respectfully urge Congress to act promptly to protect the full faith and credit of the United States,” Ms. Yellen said. 

From the OPM front, OPM issued “Guidance on Increasing Opportunities for Federal Internships, Fellowships, and Other Early Career Programs” and, according to MeriTalk, held a “virtual job fair organized today by Tech to Gov in partnership with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is targeting a wide range of Federal government technology and related positions as part of the government’s goal to restock its tech ranks amid a slowdown in hiring by the private sector.” As daily reports of layoffs at tech companies have been appearing in the news, OPM’s timing for the job fair is opportune.

Today, benefits expert Tammy Flanagan completed her three Govexec columns on federal employee and annuitant benefit changes for this year.

From the Omicron and siblings front,

MedPage Today tells us, “Real-World Data Support Bivalent COVID-19 Boosters in Older Adults — Study from Israel showa ed high level of protection in people 65 and up.” MedPage Today’s medical editor in chief Dr. Jeremy Faust comments

[T]he Israeli data really helps us understand that for 65-years-olds and over, getting a bivalent booster is going to protect against hospitalization. We don’t know how long that’s going to last, and that’s the key. If it turns out that the bivalent booster ends up having a much longer tail of effectiveness than the monovalent did, that’ll be good news, but it’ll depend upon what variants are circulating and other factors, but we are watching that.

Reuters adds

The European Union’s drug regulator has not identified any safety signals in the region related to U.S. drugmaker Pfizer Inc (PFE.N) and German partner BioNTech’s updated COVID-19 shot, the agency said on Wednesday.

On Friday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said that a safety monitoring system had flagged that the shot could possibly be linked to a type of brain stroke in older adults, according to preliminary data.

The FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee will consider this safety issue at a meeting on January 26.

Also from the FDA front, the Wall Street Journal informs us

U.S. drug regulators rejected Eli Lilly & Co.’s proposed new Alzheimer’s disease treatment, saying they need more data from clinical testing, according to the company.

The setback could delay a potential commercial introduction of the highly anticipated drug by at least several months, if the Food and Drug Administration eventually decides to approve it. * * *

The agency had recently approved another Alzheimer’s therapy. Earlier this month, the FDA gave early approval to a new Alzheimer’s drug from Eisai Co. and Biogen Inc.

Lilly had been hoping for an accelerated FDA approval of donanemab early this year. Now, a midyear filing of a standard drug application means an FDA decision could be pushed back into 2024, based on typical FDA timelines of taking six to 10 months to review new drug applications.

The American Hospital Association relates

In an online survey last November of 1,200 U.S. adults previously vaccinated against COVID-19, 62% had not yet received a bivalent booster dose, most often because they did not know they were eligible or the booster was available, or believed they were immune against infection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported today. After viewing information about eligibility and availability, over two-thirds of them planned to get a bivalent booster and 29% reported receiving the booster in a follow-up survey in December. To help increase bivalent booster coverage, the report recommends using evidence-based strategies to inform patients about booster recommendations and waning immunity.

From the No Surprises Act front, Healthcare Dive points out

  • Many Americans are still exposed to the potential for a surprise medical bill from an out-of-network ambulance ride, a research report published in Health Affairs found. About 28% of emergency trips in a ground ambulance resulted in a potential surprise bill, according to the research that analyzed commercial insurance claims.
  • About 85% of emergency transports were deemed out of network between 2014 and 2017, researchers found. But two-thirds of those trips are paid in full by insurers, eliminating the risk of a surprise bill.
  • The report shows the difference in pricing by ground ambulance ownership and how that affects patients’ financial exposure. * * *
  • Given the high prevalence for a potential surprise bill, protections like those afforded to consumers in the No Surprises Act may be necessary for both emergency and non-emergency transports, the authors said.

The FEHBlog is puzzled by the author’s extension of NSA protection to non-emergency transports, which the consumer should have time to manage. Congress should not overload the NSA system.

From the telehealth front, Healthcare Dive reports

  • Private insurers paid roughly the same for telehealth and in-person visits during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic as virtual care surged, according to new research from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
  • Though it’s unclear how payment rates might have changed over the past two years, the findings call into question the argument that telehealth is saving the healthcare system money, researchers said.
  • However, researchers said that perks of telehealth included expanded access and convenience — cost benefits of which were not factored into the study.

Fierce Healthcare tells us

UnitedHealthcare is rolling out a new virtual behavioral health coaching program backed by Optum.

The offering is available as of Jan. 1 for 5 million fully insured members, and self-insured employers can purchase the program as an employer benefit. Through the program, adults with symptoms of mild depression, stress and anxiety can access support for their mental health needs through virtual modules as well as one-on-one video conferences, phone calls or messaging with coaches. * * *

Members who use virtual coaching can connect with a dedicated behavioral health coach for a 30-minute weekly audio or video call and can chat with their coach using in-app messaging between sessions.

The program lasts eight weeks, and each member will complete an assessment at the onset to identify their individual needs. Coaches use cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to assist the patient in crafting an action plan that is personalized to them.

In other UHC news, Beckers Payer Issues relates

The largest employer of physicians in the United States is not HCA, the VA, or Kaiser Permanente — it’s UnitedHealth Group’s Optum.

With at least 60,000 employed or aligned physicians across 2,000 locations in 2023, Optum has cemented itself at the forefront of the quickly changing healthcare delivery landscape. For comparison, Bloomberg reported in 2021 that Ascension employs or is affiliated with 49,000 physicians, HCA has 47,000 and Kaiser has 24,000.

Given that the Affordable Care Act limits health insurers, but not healthcare providers, profits, UHC made a smart move, in the FEHBlog’s opinion.

From the Rx coverage front, STAT News tells us

In a bid to blunt competition and address rising drug costs, Sanofi is offering a warranty that will cover the cost for any hospital if a specific medicine fails to work, marking only the second time a major pharmaceutical company has taken such a step.

In this instance, Sanofi designed a warranty program for its Cablivi medication, which is used to treat aTTP, a rare, life-threatening autoimmune blood disorder that is considered a medical emergency. The cost will be refunded for up to six doses for patients who fail to initially respond or up to 12 doses for patients whose condition worsens.

The move comes after Pfizer began offering warranties for two of its medicines, the first of which debuted in August 2021. At the time, the Pfizer effort was the first of its kind in the pharmaceutical industry. Unlike the Sanofi warranty, however, the Pfizer programs offer refunds to patients — not hospitals — if the medicines fail to work sufficiently.

Although the approaches vary, both companies are signaling their interest in differentiating themselves from competitors, not just responding to complaints about the rising cost of medicines, according to Emad Samad, president of Octaviant Financial, a firm that is promoting the use of warranties in the pharmaceutical industry.

How would these warranties redound to the benefit of third party payers?

From the miscellany front

  • Cigna offers a paper about “Digging into the Unique Drivers and Healthy Behaviors That Impact Vitality.”
  • The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force released a chart of its most impactful 2022 recommendations.
  • Fierce Healthcare reports, “The number of providers serving as [Medicare] accountable care organizations increased slightly this year thanks to the start of a new advanced model and a slew of reforms meant to reverse a slide in participation.”
  • Mercer Consulting digs into “must do” valued based care strategies.
  • The MIT Technology Review considers the prospect of gene editing for the masses using CRISPR 3.0
  • STAT News discusses the “hot mess” of legal issues associated with the FDA’s recent decision to make abortion drugs available at pharmacies.

Midweek Update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, the Wall Street Journal reports

Kevin McCarthy and his allies launched a new round of talks late Wednesday with a small but stubborn band of conservative holdouts who have blocked his bid for House speaker, as Republicans sought a path forward following a second day of votes without a winner.

Mr. McCarthy didn’t reach the majority in of three votes on Wednesday, deepening doubts about whether he would ever be able to bring enough Republicans to his side and fueling talk of alternatives.

Twenty GOP lawmakers remained opposed, along with all Democrats, blocking the California Republican from getting the necessary majority of the full House. After the sixth vote, the House adjourned and reconvened at 8 p.m. [at which point the House voted 216 to 214 to call it a day and convene at noon on Thursday.]

A flurry of meetings were taking place by early evening with Republicans shuttling between offices. In one major concession, a McCarthy-aligned super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, agreed to stop picking candidates in primaries where the seat is expected to stay in Republican hands.

From the Omicron and siblings front, we have a man bites dog story.

First Nature informs us that “COVID drug Paxlovid was hailed as a game-changer. What happened?
Insufficient investment and fears about rebound and side effects are driving dowthe n use of a lifesaving antiviral.” The FEHBlog, who has had four Covid vaccinations, points his finger at the government for promoting vaccinations, which, while helpful for older and immunocompromised folks don’t prevent the illness yet, over Paxlovid, a treatment for virtually everyone.

Here’s the twist. CNBC reports

A new antiviral pill for Covid was found to be as effective as Paxlovid at curbing mild to moderate illness among people at high risk of severe disease in a Phase 3 trial in China.

The results, published Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine, suggest that the treatment had fewer side effects than Paxlovid, the go-to antiviral for high-risk patients. Around 67% of people who took the experimental pill, called VV116, reported side effects, compared to to 77% who took Paxlovid.

The new pill was also less likely than Paxlovid to cause unexpected side effects due to reactions with other medications, such as those for insomnia, seizures or high blood pressure.

“You have a medication that looks to be just as good as Paxlovid, but less cumbersome,” said Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, an assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore.

VV116 is similar to the antiviral remdesivir, which the Food and Drug Administration has approved as an IV infusion. But the team behind the new drug — pharma companies Junshi Biosciences and Vigonvita Life Science — tweaked the formula so that the body can absorb it in pill form, said Dr. Peter Gulick, an associate professor of medicine at Michigan State University. Gilead Sciences, which developed remdesivir, is testing a similar oral version of its drug.

From the Rx coverage front —

  • STAT News reports “Walgreens plans to seek certification to begin providing abortion pills under new Food and Drug Administration rules that allow the drugs to be distributed by retail pharmacies, the company told STAT on Wednesday.” P.S. FEHB plans can only cover abortion drugs when abortion is necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman, or if the pregnancy arises from incest or rape.
  • The Drug Channels blog tells us

For 2022, brand-name drugs’ net prices dropped for an unprecedented fifth consecutive year. What’s more, after adjusting for overall inflation, brand-name drug net prices plunged by almost 9%.

The factors behind declining drug prices will remain in the coming years—and become even stronger due to forthcoming changes in Medicare and Medicaid. Employers, health plans, and PBMs will determine whether patients will share in this ongoing deflation.

Read on for details and make up your own mind. And please pass the news along to the drug pricing flat earthers (#DPFE) who refuse to accept that brand-name drug prices are falling—or that prescription drug spending is a small and stable portion of overall U.S. healthcare expenditures.

  • Health Payer Intelligence tells us

Insulin costs vary based on insurance coverage type and coverage types that lead to high healthcare spending can force patients to ration their insulin supplies, a report from the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) uncovered.

Healthcare spending for individuals who have diabetes—including diabetes treatment, comorbidities, preventive care, and more—amounted to approximately $446 billion total in 2019. Drug costs, including spending on insulin, were responsible for nearly a third of that amount (32 percent).

Insulin users, who tend to be in a more severe stage of the disease, contributed 46 percent of the healthcare spending total among patients with diabetes. Average healthcare spending across the population of insulin users is 4.3 times higher than for non-institutionalized Americans. * * *

Medicare beneficiaries had the highest total out-of-pocket healthcare spending for the drug when compared to privately insured and uninsured individuals’ costs. Medicaid out-of-pocket healthcare spending on insulin was low and hard to estimate.

Most insulin users have either Medicare coverage (52 percent) or private insurance (33 percent). The remainder was covered by Medicaid or reported being uninsured.

It’s worth adding that Medicare covers insulin under Medicare Part B, not Part D.

From the U.S healthcare front —

  • The American Hospital Association relates “U.S. hospitals and health systems continued to experience negative operating margins through November 2022, Kaufman Hall reported today. Median operating margins were down 44% so far this year compared with 2021, as high labor and other costs continued to outpace revenues, according to data from over 900 hospitals.”
  • BioPharma Dive reports “Moderna said Wednesday it will pay $85 million to buy OriCiro Genomics, describing the company’s tools as “best in class” for the synthesis of plasmid DNA.”

From the telehealth front

  • The Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research released a report on the use of telehealth during the Covid era.
  • The Society for Human Resource Management reminds us “Employers [sponsoring health plans including FEHB plans] will have the option to provide pre-deductible coverage of telehealth services for people with high-deductible health plans for another two years [through December 31, 2024].

From the No Surprises Act front, Health Dive digs into the recent CMS report on first-year experience with the NSA’s arbitration process.

The report from regulators provides insight on how the arbitration system is faring so far. It helps paint a picture of how frequently the portal is being used and the types of services payers and providers found themselves fighting over. It also shows what providers have initiated the most disputes.

The vast majority of disputes originated from emergency room visits.

About 81% of disputes (excluding air ambulance services) started in the emergency room.

The entities that initiated the most [arbitrations] were mainly physician staffing and revenue cycle management firms, including TeamHealth and Envision Healthcare, private equity backed practices that staff emergency rooms around the country. As a business strategy, the two work out of network, which can lead to surprise billing if the hospital remains in network, according to a prior study from Yale researchers.

The 10 groups that submitted the most disputes accounted for 75% of all the disputes involving out-of-network emergency services and non-emergency items.

From the public health front, “the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) released the results of its annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), which shows how people living in America reported about their experience with mental health conditions, substance use, and pursuit of treatment in 2021. The 2021 NSDUH national report includes selected estimates by race, ethnicity, and age group. It is the most comprehensive report on substance use and mental health indicators that SAMHSA has released to date.” This HHS announcement summarizes the survey’s findings.

From the OPM front, Federal News Network reports on OPM’s plans to refresh its website, which in the FEHBlog’s opinion can’t come soon enough. “Aside from overhauling its main website, OPM is also planning to make more updates to its retirement services. It’s the area of the agency that encompasses the most legacy — or outdated — technology in all of OPM, [an OPM spokesperson] said. Bravo.

Thursday Miscellany

From Capitol Hill, the American Hospital Association tells us

The Senate today passed (68-29) an amended version of the $1.7 trillion omnibus appropriations bill that funds the federal government through the end of the current fiscal year. The legislation also includes many provisions affecting hospitals and health systems.

The Senate also passed another short-term continuing resolution through Dec. 30 to allow time for the more than 4,000-page legislation to be enrolled and for President Biden to sign it. This ensures there will be no interruption of services or federal shutdown.

The omnibus spending bill, which includes relief from Medicare cuts and extensions of rural and telehealth programs, as well as the Dec. 30 continuing resolution, now go to the House, which is expected to consider them today . The president is expected to sign the short-term continuing resolution before current funding for the government expires at 11:59 p.m. ET on Dec. 23, and to sign the omnibus later next week.

The Wall Street Journal adds, “House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) said the House would vote on the bill Friday.”

In other 2023 Consolidated Appropriations Act or omnibus news

  • The Hill reports on “last minute” changes to the omnibus, including provisions assisting nursing and pregnant workers.
  • Mercer Consulting alerts us to a two-year-long extension of telehealth flexibilities available to high deductible plans with health savings accounts.
  • Think Advisor and the Wall Street Journal provide an overview of the Secure 2.0 Act provisions in the omnibus. The Secure 2.0 Act affects 401(k) plans offered to employees and IRAs. The key provision that takes effect for 2023 is an increase in the required minimum distribution age from 72 to 73.
  • The Wall Street Journal reviews the other omnibus provisions affecting businesses.

From the public health front —

Beckers Hospital Review informs us

While the respiratory “tripledemic” continues to slam emergency rooms and children’s hospitals, there are two glimmers of hope on the horizon, according to a Dec. 22 report in The New York Times. 

COVID-19, the flu and respiratory syncytial virus attack the body in different ways, and there are varying levels of disease severity across the U.S. Today, some scientists say RSV has peaked in most parts of the country.

“I think it’s likely that the RSV season has peaked in most parts of the country,” said Virginia Pitzer, ScD, an infectious disease epidemiologist at New Haven, Conn.-based Yale School of Public Health. “I think that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Additionally, there’s reason to believe next winter won’t be as burdensome for the American population and healthcare organizations.

Ironically, the safety precautions used to help stem the pandemic in the past couple of years have also kept adults and children from being exposed to the viruses that typically circulate this time of year, said Dr. Pitzer.

“There was a bit of a buildup of susceptibility at the population level,” she added. “It’s a worse than normal winter, but one that hopefully will not be repeated next year.”STS

The American Hospital Association tells us

The Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America today recommended hospitals and health systems no longer routinely screen symptom-free patients for COVID-19 upon admission or before procedures and rely instead on enhanced layers of infection prevention interventions.

“The small benefits that could come from asymptomatic testing at this stage in the pandemic are overridden by potential harms from delays in procedures, delays in patient transfers, and strains on laboratory capacity and personnel,” said Thomas R. Talbot, M.D., MPH, the chief hospital epidemiologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and a member of the SHEA Board of Directors. “Since some tests can detect residual virus for a long period, patients who test positive may not be contagious.”

STAT News reports

[According to a CDC report, a] baby born in the U.S. in 2021 has a life expectancy of 76.4 years, down from 77 years in 2020 and the lowest level the CDC has recorded since 1996. The age-adjusted death rate for Covid rose by 22.5% between 2020 and 2021, while death rates from unintentional injuries — one-third of which come from overdoses — rose by 12.3%.

HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Quality and Researched refreshed its Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project Fast Stats website. The site provides “summary statistics on inpatient stays, emergency department visits, and priority topics, by select characteristics.”

From the OPM front, OPM’s medical director, Dr. Ron Kline announced today on Linked In that he is leaving OPM to take a new position beginning January 17, 2023 as

the Chief Medical Officer of the Quality Measurement and Value-Based Incentives Group (QMVIG) at the Center for Clinical Standards and Quality (CCSQ) at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).

QMVIG is responsible for developing, evaluating and supporting the implementation of quality measurement programs across the entire federally-supported health care continuum. This includes Medicare’s Quality Payment Program and the Inpatient (i.e. Hospital) Quality Reporting Program. These measures and policies guide these innovative programs to improve healthcare quality for all Americans.

Best wishes, Dr. Kline, and thanks for your work with the FEHB over the past 3 1/2 years.

From the Rx coverage and medical research fronts –

MPR reports

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Actemra (tocilizumab) for intravenous (IV) use to treat COVID-19 in hospitalized adults who are receiving systemic corticosteroids and require supplemental oxygen, noninvasive or invasive mechanical ventilation or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO).

ICER released evidence reports on Alzheimer’s Disease treatments (draft) and hemophilia A and B (final) STAT News explains

The latest Alzheimer’s disease treatment from Eisai and Biogen needs to be cheaper than $20,000 a year to be cost-effective, according to a draft analysis from an influential nonprofit organization published Thursday.

The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review, or ICER, dug into the evidence for lecanemab and concluded that the drug’s demonstrated benefits, a modest but statistically significant delay in the advance of Alzheimer’s, are worth between $8,500 and $20,600 per year. ICER’s calculations, which could change in response to public comment over the next month, are based on metrics meant to quantify the value of improvements to quality of life.

Eisai, which is leading the effort to commercialize lecanemab, has not disclosed how much it will charge for the medicine, saying only that it will prize affordability and access. That will soon change, as the drug, a twice-monthly infusion, is expected to win a preliminary Food and Drug Administration approval by Jan. 6. * * *

Lecanemab’s safety has come into sharp focus over the past two months after three patients died of major brain bleeds.

Regarding hemophilia therapies, ICER observes

The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) today released a Final Evidence Report assessing the comparative clinical effectiveness and value of etranacogene dezaparvovec (Hemgenix, CSL Behring,) for hemophilia B. ICER also updated the previous Hemophilia A assessment on valoctocogene roxaparvovec (Roctavian™, BioMarin).  

Key recommendations stemming from the roundtable discussion include:

  • The value of high-impact single and short-term therapies should not be determined exclusively by estimates of long-term cost offsets, particularly when the existing standard of care is acknowledged to be priced significantly higher than reasonable cost-effective levels.
  • Payers should work with manufacturers to develop and implement outcomes-based agreements to address the uncertainty and the high cost of gene therapies for hemophilia.
  • At least one national payer has suggested to patient representatives that step therapy with emicizumab is being considered prior to provision of coverage for Roctavian. Clinical experts and patient experts view this approach as lacking any clinical justification and appears to be only a method for trying to avoid the high one-time fee for gene therapy while assuming that patients may switch insurers before the cost-saving potential of gene therapy is fully realized. In short, step therapy does not appear to be a reasonable consideration for this treatment.

ICER’s detailed set of policy recommendations, including comprehensive considerations for establishing evidence-based prior authorization criteria, is available in the Final Evidence Report and in the standalone Policy Recommendations document.

NIH announced

Scientists used patient stem cells and 3D bioprinting to produce eye tissue that will advance understanding of the mechanisms of blinding diseases. The research team from the National Eye Institute (NEI), part of the National Institutes of Health, printed a combination of cells that form the outer blood-retina barrier—eye tissue that supports the retina’s light-sensing photoreceptors. The technique provides a theoretically unlimited supply of patient-derived tissue to study degenerative retinal diseases such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD). 


From the miscellany department, the Wall Street Journal and MedPage Today explore the new AI text tool known as ChatGPT. From the Journal article

If you haven’t yet tried ChatGPT, OpenAI’s new artificial-intelligence chatbot, it will blow your mind. Tell the bot to write you anything—an email apologizing to your boss, an article about the world’s richest hamster, a “Seinfeld” script set in 2022—and it spits out text you’d think was written by a human. Knowledge of the topic, proper punctuation, varied sentence structure, clear organization. It’s all there.

Midweek Update

From Capitol Hill, the Wall Street Journal reports

The House on Wednesday passed a one-week government funding measure to give congressional negotiators time to complete and pass a full-year omnibus spending bill, overcoming opposition from Republicans who urged postponing any deal until next year, when the GOP will take control of the chamber. * * *

The Senate is expected to next approve the one-week extension [on Thursday December 15]. 

The vote on a one-week continuing resolution, which keeps the government funded at fiscal 2022 spending levels, follows the announcement Tuesday that Democratic and Republican negotiators had reached agreement on a framework and would turn to completing the details. 

From the public health front, Healthcare Dive tells us

  • National health spending grew almost 3% in 2021, reaching $4.3 trillion as big increases in healthcare use and insurance coverage were offset by lower government spending on COVID-19.
  • The year’s growth rate was smaller than the 10% notched in 2020. CMS actuaries chalked the deceleration up to lower federal health spending, which fell 3.5% in 2021 compared to a 37% increase in 2020 as funding to combat the pandemic skyrocketed.
  • Health spending grew at a much slower clip than the nation’s gross domestic product, which increased 11% in 2021 — the largest growth rate since 1984.

Here’s the report which is posted on Health Affairs.

Medscape relates

New more aggressive targets for blood pressure and lipids are among the changes to the annual American Diabetes Association (ADA) Standards of Care in Diabetes — 2023.

The document, long considered the gold standard for care of the more than 100 million Americans living with diabetes and prediabetes, was published December 12 as a supplement in Diabetes Care. The guidelines are also accessible to doctors via an app; last year’s standards were accessed more than 4 million times.

The Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research’s Director is posting a series of four reports concerning the agency’s effort to rethink healthcare quality in view of the fact

In seven years, the United States is expected to reach a demographic tipping point that will redraw the picture of healthcare delivery in America.  

In 2030, all baby boomers [birth dates from 1946 to 1964] will be older than 65, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Just four years later—in 2034—older adults will outnumber children for the first time in history. The scope of this and future demographic shifts—including our population’s growing racial and ethnic diversity—will profoundly impact how healthcare is accessed, delivered, paid for, and evaluated.

The National Institutes of Health reports “Two randomized, placebo-controlled trials evaluating three Ebola vaccine administration strategies in adults and children found that all the regimens were safe in both age groups, according to results published today in the New England Journal of Medicine.”

Health Payer Intelligence informs us

Privately-insured Americans experienced higher rates of heat-related illness diagnoses in 2021 compared to 2016, in some cases a more than 37 percent increase, according to a report from FAIR Health.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified projected increases in extreme summer heat as one source of adverse health impacts from climate change. However, systematic, national data on trends in heat-related illnesses in the United States have been lacking,” the report began.

From the omicron and siblings front, a subset of public health —

  • The New York Times explores the question — who are the never Coviders? Even if you have never had Covid, you certainly have been impacted mightily by Covid. Nevertheless, it is an interesting article.
  • MedPage Today notes “Long COVID played a role in more than 3,500 deaths in the U.S. since the start of the pandemic, according to data from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).” The NCHS report may be overestimating because the first death occurred in April 2020 just after Covid got rolling and the most commonly mentioned term on death certificates with long COVID was “post COVID,” which was mentioned in 89.6% of long COVID-related deaths.” This may be a rare case in which the “retrospectoscope” is cloudy. See Dr. Martin Markary’s opinion piece on long Covid in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.

From the regulatory front —

  • CMS issued a proposed rule on Medicare Part D changes for 2024.
  • Health Affairs began a series of three informative articles on the proposed 2024 notice of benefit payments and parameters released on Monday.
  • STAT News discusses a feature of the parameters notice that is drawing industry attention. To wit, “The Biden administration signaled Monday that it will require health plans on federal exchanges to cover more of the costs of generic drugs, a small tweak that nevertheless has industry groups divided on how best to manage drug costs.”
  • Health Leaders Media examines the gap that must be bridged to achieve a recent HHS proposed rule’s goal of implementing electronic prior authorization.

In agency event news —

  • OPM issued a press release about its “first government-wide summit for diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) on December 6-8, 2022.”

Weekend update

Thanks to ACK15 for sharing their work on Unsplash.

The House of Representatives and the Senate are in session this week for Committee business and floor voting.

The continuing resolution funding the federal government expires at 11:59 pm on Friday December 16.

The Federal Employee Benefits Open Season ends at 11:59 pm, in the location of the enrollee’s electronic enrollment system, on Monday, December 12, 2022.

The Medicare Open Enrollment period ends this Wednesday, December 7.

From the Rx coverage front, the Wall Street Journal reports on

  • A shortage in the weight loss drug Wegovy, “missing out on hundreds of millions of dollars in sales and squandering a head start before a rival could begin selling a competing product. * * * [Wegovy manufacturer’ Novo lists Wegovy at $1,349 a month. Some commercial insurers cover the drug.” OPM has encouraged FEHB carriers to offer coverage of this drug.
  • A CVS Health effort to improve pharmacy efficiency with “a system [currently being tested] that allows pharmacists to process prescriptions in part remotely, a move it said could improve store working conditions and the experience for customers as the company grapples with a shortage of pharmacists.”

From the mental healthcare front, Health Payer Intelligence tells us

Mental healthcare services utilization and network size have grown significantly since 2019 among Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts (“Blue Cross”) members, according to data from Blue Cross.

Mental healthcare services utilization grew by 100 percent in the timeframe that Blue Cross examined. At the same time, Blue Cross’s mental healthcare network grew by 46 percent.

“As the need for mental health services continues to grow, access to convenient and affordable care is critical,” said Andrew Dreyfus, president and chief executive officer of Blue Cross. “By expanding and diversifying our mental health network, we’re ensuring that our members are able to find and receive the high-quality care they need, when they need it.”

The mental healthcare provider network swelled to a total of 18,000 clinicians. With the growth in utilization, Blue Cross plans to expand its network further. The payer will do this by working with national mental healthcare provider groups as well as expanding its virtual care mental health groups in 2023. * * *

Blue Cross also shared that the health plan’s reimbursement for telehealth and virtual care services is at parity with in-person services. Receiving reimbursement at parity is not only a controversial issue for telehealth providers but also for mental and behavioral healthcare providers, who do not always receive reimbursement at parity with physical care providers.


Also worth reading is this Journal article about a 24-year-old military wife who went through drug addiction hell and came out a new person with help from her family, the Missouri prison where she was housed, and a fellow inmate. The article illustrates the importance of Blue Cross of Massachusett’s efforts to expand mental health coverage and various efforts to reduce drug addiction and overdose deaths.

From the medical research front, the Wall Street Journal offers an essay about breast cancer written by a medical historian and breast cancer patient Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. What grabbed the FEHBlog’s eye is the article’s conclusion:

The cofounders of BioNTech recently announced that vaccines targeting cancer may be available before the end of the decade. Researchers at Duke University are already developing a vaccine that targets mutations commonly arising in people with certain types of advanced breast cancer. Using the same mRNA technology deployed against Covid-19, these types of vaccines would not be administered prophylactically but, rather, used as a treatment to trigger a stronger immune response in patients with locally recurrent or metastatic disease. When it comes to conquering breast cancer, future medical historians will have plenty to write about.

From the innovation front, Senior Living explains how to use Apple AirPods as hearing aids. MedTech Dive adds

  • Apple AirPods Pro earbuds have the potential to be a hearing aid for adults with mild to moderate hearing loss, according to a paper published in iScience. 
  • Researchers found the earbuds meet four of the five standards for personal sound amplification products and perform comparably to hearing aids in terms of speech perception in quiet environments.
  • The study suggests that some consumer earbuds can function as hearing aids to potentially further lower the cost and address the stigma associated with the technology.

It’s also worth calling attention to the HHS Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research’s Effective Health Care Program’s website.

The Effective Health Care (EHC) Program improves the quality of health care by providing the best available evidence on the outcomes, benefits and harms, and appropriateness of drugs, devices, and health care services and by helping health care professionals, patients, policymakers, and health care systems make informed health care decisions. The EHC Program achieves this goal by partnering with research centers, academic institutions, health professional societies, consumer organizations, and other stakeholders to conduct research, evidence synthesis, evidence translation, dissemination, and implementation of research findings.

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. 


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.