Tuesday Tidbits

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the Delta variant front —

Medscape reports on yesterday’s CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices meeting:

“Vaccines remain effective in preventing hospitalization and severe disease but might be less effective in preventing infection or milder symptomatic illness,” Sara Oliver, MD, the CDC scientist who presented the information [about the mRNA vaccines], told the committee.

In a new data analysis released by the CDC on Sunday, unvaccinated adults were 17 times more likely to be hospitalized than vaccinated adults. Hospitalization rates were higher for unvaccinated people in all age groups.

Among the fully vaccinated, people who were hospitalized were much older, more likely to be nursing home residents and more likely to have three or more underlying medical conditions. Nearly a third had immunosuppressive conditions.

Healthcare Dive tells us that

The U.S. government will resume distribution of Eli Lilly’s COVID-19 antibody drug combination in a number of states, HHS said Friday, as cases and hospitalizations in the U.S. are driven higher by the spread of the delta variant.The decision comes roughly two months after administration of Lilly’s therapy was halted by U.S. officials due to concerns of reduced efficacy against coronavirus infections stemming from the beta and gamma variants. Those are now much less prevalent compared with delta, which laboratory testing has shown remains susceptible to treatment with the dual-antibody therapy, HHS said.

Fierce Pharma reports that

Last week’s FDA approval of Pfizer’s Comirnaty vaccine boosted consumer confidence among both vaccinated and unvaccinated people.

A Harris Poll survey over the weekend found that 80% of Americans who were aware of the approval now have more confidence in it. Even more encouraging? Almost half (49%) of unvaccinated people who heard about the approval said they will “probably” or “definitely” get vaccinated.

Overall awareness of the Pfizer approval was high—79% of those surveyed by The Harris Poll were aware of the FDA thumbs-up.

From the telehealth front, Kaiser Health News discusses re-emerging state law barriers to telehealth. “’The whole challenge is to ensure maximum access to health while assuring quality,’said Barak Richman, a Duke University law professor, who said laws and policies haven’t been updated to reflect new technological realities partly because state boards want to hang onto their authority.” The article provides an overview of options available to doctors and state boards.

From the miscellany front

  • Beckers Hospital Review unveils six big ideas in health innovation. For example, Jason Joseph. Senior Vice President and Chief Digital and Information Officer at Spectrum Health (Grand Rapids, Mich.). As we innovate, we are forcing hidden barriers into the light via experimentation. We saw so many of these barriers uncovered within health care, such as lack of connectivity, digital competency, and the need for comprehensive managed workflow. We have shined a spotlight on how much of healthcare relies on people and inconsistent manual processes to get through the system. That needs to change, and that also requires changing a leader’s traditional mindset.
  • The Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research is offering a toolkit to help healthcare providers and possible health plans get patients and members engaged with the diagnosis process.

The toolkit contains two strategies, Be The Expert On You and 60 Seconds To Improve Diagnostic Safety. When paired together, these strategies enhance communication and information sharing within the patient-provider encounter to improve diagnostic safety. Each strategy contains practical materials to support adoption of the strategy within office-based practices.

Be The Expert On You is a patient-facing strategy that prepares patients and their families to tell their personal health stories in a clear, concise way. Research suggests that 79 percent of diagnostic errors are related to the patient-clinician encounter and up to 56 percent of these errors are related to miscommunication during the encounter. Environmental scan findings show that inviting patients to share their entire health story, uninterrupted, and in a way that gives clinicians the information they need can reduce diagnostic errors.

60 Seconds To Improve Diagnostic Safety prepares providers to practice deep and reflective listening for one minute at the start of a patient-encounter. Research suggests that patients are interrupted by their providers in the first 11 to 18 seconds of telling their diagnostic story. Diagnostic safety can be improved when a provider allows a patient to tell his or her health story without interruption for one minute, and then asks questions to deepen understanding.

  • Not every innovative idea makes sense to implement though. The President and Democrat leadership in Congress want the Centers for Medicare Services to “negotiate” drug prices for Medicare Part D plans. Regulatory Focus informs us that “A new drug development model released by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates a Medicare drug pricing bill like the one proposed by Democrats in the US House of Representatives could result in between 21 and 59 fewer drugs brought to market over the next three decades.”

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, the Wall Street Journal reports that “Top House Democrats said the chamber would move forward with voting on the budget blueprint for a $3.5 trillion healthcare, education and climate package next week, rebuffing demands from a group of centrist Democrats to first vote on a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and urging their caucus to stay unified around President Biden’s agenda” According to the article the centrist Democrats opposed the Speaker’s compromise approach discussed in Sunday’s Post and the much larger Democrat progressive causus pushed hard for this outcome. Speaker Pelosi can only afford to lose three of the nine Democrat centrists as the Republicans are expected to unanimously oppose the budget blueprint.

From the Delta variant front

  • Bloomberg reports that the Southern states continue to experience robust vaccination rates one month after the mid-July low point.
  • The Wall Street Journal informs us that “The Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus appears to be breaking through the protection vaccines provide at a higher rate than previous strains, a Wall Street Journal analysis found, though infections among the fully inoculated remain a tiny fraction of overall cases, and symptoms tend to be milder.”
  • Most significantly the New York Times reports tonight that

The Biden administration has decided that most Americans should get a coronavirus booster vaccination eight months after they received their second shot, and could begin offering third shots as early as the third week of September, according to administration officials familiar with the discussions.

Officials are planning to announce the decision on Wednesday at the White House. Their goal is to let Americans who received the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines know now that they will need additional protection against the Delta variant, which is causing caseloads to surge across much of the nation. But the new policy will depend on the Food and Drug Administration authorizing additional shots.

Recipients of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was authorized as a one-dose regimen, will also most likely require an additional dose, the officials said. But they are waiting for results, expected this month, from a clinical trial that provided participants with two doses. So far, only about 14 million people in the United States have gotten the Johnson & Johnson shot, which the government began offering in March. The first Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were given in December.

The first boosters would probably go to nursing home residents, health care workers and emergency workers, who were the first to be vaccinated last winter. They would likely be followed by other older people, then by the general population. Officials envision giving people the same vaccine they originally received.

On the federal employment front, Federal News Network tells us that OPM is promulgating an interim final rule that will allow agencies to “hire [bachelors degree or graduate] students to a temporary appointment of a year or a term appointment of one-to-four years. Students will work for their agency at the General Schedule 11 level or below while in school. Students who finish their degrees and meet a series of other requirements are eligible for a permanent position at the same agency, OPM said.”

From the federal guidance front

  • The National Law Review informs us that “OSHA’s Revised COVID-19 Guidance [released August 13] Adopts CDC’s Latest Recommendation on Masks for Vaccinated Employees, Advocates for Vaccination, and Suggests Periodic Testing for Unvaccinated Employees.” “Although OSHA disclaims that its recommendations are legally binding on employers, the agency also includes language that signals that failure to adhere to the recommendations could be legally significant for the employer.  Specifically, OSHA prefaces its guidance by stating: “The recommendations are advisory in nature and informational in content and are intended to assist employers in providing a safe and healthful workplace free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”
  • The tri-agencies issued Affordable Care Act FAQ 48 informing interested parties that in response to litigation they are working on an amending the “2018 final regulations that expanded exemptions for entities with religious or moral objections to the contraceptive coverage requirement to which their health plans would otherwise be subject.” That rulemaking of course will lead to more litigation and so on.

On the drug news front, STAT News reports that

A new study found that the number of adults who used two widely prescribed stimulants nearly doubled in recent years, raising concerns about a potential wave of abuse since both medicines can be highly addictive.

Specifically, an estimated 4.1 million adults reported using amphetamines and methylphenidate in 2018, an increase of nearly 80% from 2013. Measured by total prescriptions, the use of amphetamines rose 119% during that time, while the use of methylphenidate grew about 39%, according to the study, which was published in BMJ Open.

The article warns that this surge could turn into another epidemic.

On the healthcare utilization front, Fierce Healthcare reports that

Hospitals did not experience a major rebound in deferred care in the first part of 2021, foretelling that such care may not be coming back, a new analysis finds.

The analysis from Kaiser Family Foundation and the Epic Health Research Network, released Tuesday, found hospital spending was 4.1% below expected levels in June. It is the latest evidence of how the lingering impact of the pandemic could affect hospital finances, especially as the highly transmissible delta variant is causing new surges in most states.

“Several factors may be contributing to the lower-than-expected number of hospital admissions in early 2021,” the analysis said. “For example, the economic effects of the pandemic may depress the number of people seeking services.”

Researchers explored data from 250 hospitals across 47 states and 112 million patients through April 9, 2021.

Hospital admission rates were nearly 90% of what were expected if the pandemic did not happen, the analysis found.

From the tidbits department

  • Health Day tells us that “A small, new study suggests that getting out of your chair every half hour may help improve your blood sugar levels and your overall health.”
  • Fierce Healthcare informs us that “New York City-based Unite Us announced this morning [August 17] the acquisition of Carrot Health, a consumer data and predictive analytics platform offering engagement insights to payer and provider customers. With its new purchase, the social determinants of health software platform said it will be better positioned to help healthcare organizations identify patients with unmet social needs and connect them to community resources across all 50 states. Unite Us did not disclose the terms of the deal, which has already closed.”
  • In this week’s NIH Director’s blog, Dr. Francis Collins discusses how advanced brain scanning can help guide neurosurgeons.
  • Last but certainly not least the HHS Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research issued a call to action on achieving health equity.

Midweek Update

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

The American Hospital Association informs us that

The Senate early this morning approved on a party line vote a $3.5 trillion budget resolution, which included reconciliation instructions which will provide the majority party with the means to pass a comprehensive reconciliation package with just 51 votes in the Senate, rather than the usual 60-vote hurdle. The House will reconvene on Aug. 23 to consider the budget resolution. Once the resolution has passed both chambers, the House and Senate majorities can proceed with the reconciliation process, a resolution to which is expected in the fall. 

Bloomberg adds

Translating the budget framework into law will require Biden and Democratic congressional leaders keeping their party’s moderate and progressive wings marching together.

Just hours after passage of the budget blueprint, Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, said he couldn’t support a social spending bill with a $3.5 trillion price tag. Senator Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat, has said the same. One Democratic objection is all it would take to scuttle the package in the Senate.

Time will tell but we are talking about $3.5 trillion on top of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill and multi-trillion COVID-19 relief bills that Congress has passed in the last 18 months. It appears that Congress is trying to disprove the adage that money can’t solve all problems.

One of the initiatives in the budget reconciliation package is to add dental, vision, and hearing coverage to Medicare. Kaiser Health News discusses the issue here.

From the Delta variant front

  • The Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practice released a helpful report on COVID-19 adverse side effects which it summarized as follows

What is already known about this topic?

Rare serious adverse events have been reported after COVID-19 vaccination, including Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) and thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS) after Janssen COVID-19 vaccination and myocarditis after mRNA (Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna) COVID-19 vaccination.

What is added by this report?

On July 22, 2021, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices reviewed updated benefit-risk analyses after Janssen and mRNA COVID-19 vaccination and concluded that the benefits outweigh the risks for rare serious adverse events after COVID-19 vaccination.

What are the implications for public health practice?

Continued COVID-19 vaccination will prevent COVID-19 morbidity and mortality far exceeding GBS, TTS, and myocarditis cases expected. Information about rare adverse events should be disseminated to providers, vaccine recipients, and the public.

  • Forbes tells us that today “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encouraged anyone pregnant and breastfeeding to get vaccinated against coronavirus Wednesday, pointing to a growing amount of evidence that vaccines are safe and effective as new cases and hospitalizations linked to the virus surge across the country.” The Washington Post adds “Just 23 percent of pregnant women have received at least one shot of vaccine.”
  • Also from Forbes as schools begin to reopen “Vaccine rates among teenagers have remained lower than the U.S. population overall, with only 43% of 12- to 15-year-olds and 52.8% of 16- and 17-year-olds receiving at least a first dose as compared with 58.9% of the total population and 71.2% of adults.”
  • The Boston Globe discusses this teenage hesitancy issue — “The top reservation among parents of unvaccinated teens was the lack of information about the long-term effects of the shot, followed by concerns about side effects and fertility — despite conclusive evidence that the vaccine has no negative impacts on reproduction. Dr. Jill Kasper, a pediatrician at Cambridge Health Alliance, said she typically encounters ‘very little hesitancy’ from parents about routine adolescent vaccinations. That hasn’t been the case with COVID-19.”

The HHS Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research issued two noteworthy studies today. Here are the topline findings

  • #1 Overuse or low-value procedures may result in patient physical, psychological, or emotional harm. This study explored the association between eight low-value care procedures and length of stay (LOS) and cost. All eight procedures were associated with increased LOS and cost, particularly spinal fusion. Patients receiving low-value care may be exposed to increased risk of adverse events and hospital-acquired conditions.
  • #2 Medication administration errors made by parent or caregivers can result in medication errors at home. This systematic review found that 30% to 80% of pediatric patients experience a medication error at home, and that the risk increases based on characteristics of the caregiver and if a prescription contains more than two drugs.

Healthcare Dive informs us that

  • CVS Health said its Aetna unit will offer virtual primary care to self-funded employers nationwide in a move that underscores the growing popularity of telehealth services fueled by the COVID-19 public health emergency.
  • Using Teladoc Health’s physician-led care team model, the Aetna Virtual Primary Care service is intended to help strengthen the patient-doctor relationship and improve access to care, the vertically integrated company announced Tuesday. Members can receive health services remotely and in person.

Such support for primary care should be applauded.

In other healthcare news

  • STAT News reports that The Department of Veterans Affairs has decided not to cover a new Alzheimer’s drug from Biogen [Adulhelm], citing insufficient evidence of “a robust and meaningful clinical benefit” and concerns about safety. In a notice issued by the agency, the VA said it will make exceptions for “highly selected patients” and listed several hurdles that must be cleared before the medicine will be covered, such as requiring it to be prescribed by providers who specialize in treating dementia and ensuring patients had recently received MRI brain scans. * * * ‘Its bad news for Biogen,’ said Ira Loss of Washington Analysis, which tracks legislative and regulatory issues affecting the pharmaceutical industry for investors, who noted several private insurers have either declined or delayed coverage for the drug. ‘The VA is a big buyer of medicines. And you don’t like this kind of publicity, that’s for sure.’”
  • Fierce Healthcare continues to report from the HIMSS conference in Las Vegas. “Health IT giant Epic launched a new customer story-sharing website that lets Epic users share insights, tips and creative ideas around using health IT to improve their organizations and patient care. The site, EpicShare.org, combines insights from industry leaders, quick tips on improving outcomes and performance, in-depth case studies as well as a “Hey Judy” column from Epic founder and CEO Judy Faulkner.”

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the Delta Variant front —

Federal News Network reports that

The White House is strongly considering requiring federal employees to show proof they’ve been vaccinated against the coronavirus or otherwise submit to regular testing and wear a mask — a potentially major shift in policy that reflects growing concerns about the spread of the more infectious delta variant.https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/fully-vaccinated.html

The possible vaccine mandate for federal employees — regardless of the rate of transmission in their area — is one option under consideration by the Biden administration, according to a person familiar with the plans who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss deliberations that have yet to be made public. The White House is expected to announce its final decision after completing a policy review this week.

Govexec adds that “Federal law does not prohibit public and private entities from mandating coronavirus vaccines, even though those vaccines do not yet have full authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, according to a legal opinion from the Justice Department posted on Monday.”

Other press reports indicate that the President may announce his decision this Thursday, and in the FEHBlog’s view if he approves this action, many private sector employers in and outside of healthcare will follow suit.

The Centers for Disease Control recommended today that “To maximize protection from the Delta variant and prevent possibly spreading it to others, [vaccinated Americans should] wear a mask indoors in public if you are in an area of substantial or high transmission.” It turns out the Washington DC is an area of substantial transmission. Bloomberg adds that “It’s not just Arkansas and Louisiana, where the delta variant has been raging, that are affected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new recommendation for vaccinated people to mask indoors in some parts of the country. Most major U.S. urban areas also fall under the scope of the advisory.”

In today’s Tidbits —

  • Beckers Hospital Review informs us that U.S. News and World Report has issued its annual U.S. hospital rankings with the Mayo Clinic claiming the top spot “for the sixth consecutive year.” Becker’s also comments on the new health equity section found in those rankings.
  • The Congressional Research Service has released a report on the No Surprises Act which it describes as an “Overview of Federal Consumer Protections and Payment for Out-of-Network Services.”
  • The HHS Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has issued a report providing and “Overview of Clinical Conditions With Frequent and Costly Hospital Readmissions by Payer, 2018.”
  • Becker’s Payer Issues discusses a Forbes interview with Liz Fowler, who is director of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation at HHS. “Here are four conclusions CMMI has drawn over a decade of experimentation, according to Forbes: (1) Voluntary initiatives narrowed participation as only providers who saw financial gain opted in; (2) Separate alternative payment models and multiple bundles for specialty groups leads to fragmentation, taking away from value-based care. (3) Initiatives like per-member per-month payments only temporarily work, but don’t sustain new practices once phased out, and (4) In benchmarking, models need to leverage retrospective benchmarks or prospective ones with guardrails to ensure accuracy and feasibility of approaches.”
  • Medcity News offers an interesting account of how certain hospital got the pricing transparency job done correctly.
  • Fierce Health tells us that Blue Cross licensee “Anthem is investing nearly $90 million in affordable housing across Indiana. The $87.9 million investment will fund 1,139 affordable apartment units, townhomes and single-family homes across 11 communities in the state, Anthem announced on Saturday. The initiative was unveiled at a ribbon-cutting for a recently completed complex in Culver, a six-building, 48-unit complex.” Well done.
  • Healthcare Dive reports that health insurer Centene reported a $353 million dollar loss for the second quarter of 2021 as members returned to the doctors’ offices. “There was a “broad return to the doctor’s office” in March and April, CFO Drew Asher said, but Centene had expected the slight downtick in May utilization to persist. That did not happen. Instead, utilization increased again in June.”
  • 401k Specialist informs us that the President has nominated New York City attorney Lisa M. Gomez to be Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employee Benefits. “The Senate-confirmed position oversees the Labor Department’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA), tasked with regulation and enforcement of private-sector retirement and health plans.” Ms. Gomez is also an FEHB lawyer and an esteemed colleague of the FEHBlog. She deserves a swift Senate confirmation for this important post.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

In today’s Morning Rounds email, the American Medical Association informs us that

The New York Times (6/28, Mandavilli) reports a new study published in Nature has found the COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna “set off a persistent immune reaction in the body that may protect against the coronavirus for years, scientists reported on Monday.” Researchers gathered samples from the lymph nodes of 14 recruits at five different points following the first dose, finding “the number of memory cells that recognized the coronavirus had not declined” 15 weeks later. The Times adds, “The results suggest that a vast majority of vaccinated people will be protected over the long term.”

In a separate article, the New York Times (6/28, Mandavilli, Zimmer, Robbins) says the study adds to other research suggesting that “widely used vaccines will continue to protect people against the coronavirus for long periods, possibly for years, and can be adapted to fortify the immune system still further if needed.”

The Federal Times reports that GEHA, the second largest FEHB plan carrier, has launched a COVID-19 vaccination reward program for its members. Here is a link to GEHA’s website on this program.

As of today just about two thirds of Americans over age 18 have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccination. Most importantly, approaching 90% of Americans over age 65, the cadre that suffered the most COVID-19 fatalities, has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 78% of that cadre are fully vaccinated. However, Bloomberg warns that

The gap between the most vaccinated and least vaccinated places in the U.S. has exploded in the past three months, and continues to widen despite efforts to convince more Americans to get a Covid shot. * * * In the least vaccinated group of counties, many of which are in the South and Central regions of the U.S., less than half as many people have gotten at least one Covid vaccine dose as in the most vaccinated counties in the cities and on the coasts. Those less vaccinated places are not catching up, either. The gap between more- and less-vaccinated counties is expanding, and the trailing counties are far below levels needed to halt future waves of infection

As the FEHBlog has pointed out previously, such herd immunity is built on both natural immunity and vaccination-created immunity. The FEHBlog encourages COVID-19 vaccination which has been miraculous. Nevertheless you cannot predict Delta variant devastation in certain areas of our country without considering natural immunity and the fact that most of elderly cadre is vaccinated. The FEHBlog also has confidence in the federal, state and county authorities as well as the Nation’s physicians to complete the vaccination campaign.

And now for Tuesday’s tidbits

  • The FEHBlog nearly fell off his chair when he read in Healthcare Dive that Nearly 70% of U.S. physicians are now employed by a hospital or a corporate entity, according to the latest report by Avalere for the Physicians Advocacy Institute, a coalition of state doctors’ groups. This is the first time the report included ownership by corporate entities outside of just hospitals. Hospitals and corporate entities, which include insurers or private equity groups, own nearly half of the physician practices in this country, according to the report released Tuesday that examines the two-year period from 2019 through 2020.  This longtime trend [really since the Affordable Care Act became law in 2010] was exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the report, which shows 48,400 physicians left private practice during the study period across all regions of the country.” The FEHBlog does not see this course reversing itself.
  • Buck consultants reminds FEHB plan carriers that the PCORI fee is due on August 2 this year because July 31 falls on a Saturday.
  • Medscape reports that “In the U.S. House [of Representatives], 20 Democrats and 10 Republicans have signed on as co-sponsors to the Protecting Seniors Through Immunization Act of 2021 (HR 1978), introduced in March by Rep. Ann Kuster (D-NH). The companion Senate measure (S 912) has the backing of two Democrats and two Republicans. This legislation would end copays in Medicare Part D plans for vaccines recommended for adults by the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.” The FEHBlog, who is on Medicare, got hit for $400 in copayments to obtain two doses of the new ACIP recommended Shingles vaccine last year. Why it is taking over a decade for Medicare to align with the ACA on this point is beyond the FEHBlog’s understanding.
  • AHRQ’s Director Dr. David Meyers offers his perspective on getting telehealth properly integrated into our health care system.
  • The showstopper of this week will be the first interim final rule on implementation of the No Surprises Act which has a statutory deadline of Thursday July 1. The rule is expected to principally pertain to calculating the initial payments in the NSA scenarios. Hopefully the rule will provide more guidance than that. The rule has been pending approval from the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs since June 8. Since then OIRA has sponsored seven listening sessions with interested organizations. The last such listening session will be held tomorrow at 1 pm ET. Once the listening session is completed, a list of attendees and the meeting materials are posted on OIRA’s online calendar.

Weekend update

Photo by Mark Tegethoff on Unsplash

The House of Representatives is engaged in committee work this week which will be followed by three weeks of district work. The Senate will engage in a floor voting, including a confirmation vote on the Secretary of Labor nominee Martin Walsh tomorrow, as well as committee work.

Healthcare Dive reports that

  • The House passed a bill Friday to extend the pause on Medicare sequester cuts until Dec. 31. The cuts have been on hold for a year but are set to go back into effect at the end of March.
  • The bill passed on a 246-175 bipartisan vote and also exempts the latest $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill from budget rules that would have imposed additional cuts on Medicare payments to providers.
  • “We now look forward to working with the U.S. Senate to achieve relief from the pending Medicare sequester cuts before they go into effect,” the American Hospital Association said in a Friday statement.

Medicare sequester cuts tend to boomerang on private sector health plans, including FEHB plans.

Following up on Friday’s Stats and More, the FEHBlog compared new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths per 100,000 by age groups as of January 2, 2021, and last Wednesday March 17, 2021.

This chart has a left axis measured in hundreds
This chart’s left axis ranged from zero to sixteen.

Because the March 17 new deaths rates are not visible in this chart, here are those numbers that the FEHBlog copied from the CDC’s website for last week’s new death statistics by age group

 Week ended 3-17-202118-2425-3435-5455-6465-7980+
New Deaths  per 100,000 00000.010.03

That, my friends, illustrates the work of the COVID-19 vaccines over the past two and half months. The Wall Street Journal reports today

Both the production and administration of shots have picked up in recent weeks. Now, some 2.5 million people in the U.S. are vaccinated daily on average, up from about 500,000 in early January, though many who want a vaccine still can’t get it.

The increased output should be enough to fully vaccinate 76 million people in the U.S. in March, another 75 million in April and then 89 million more in May, according to estimates from Evercore ISI analysts. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines require two doses.

By midsummer, 75% of Americans 12 years old and above should be vaccinated, according to Morgan Stanley. The vaccines aren’t currently authorized for anyone younger than 16, but companies may have results this spring for studies of the shots in adolescents 12 and older, which, if positive, could lead to vaccinations for that age group. The companies are also starting to test the vaccines in children younger than 12, but results of those studies aren’t expected until late this year. 

Keep your sunny side up.

In other healthcare news:

  • Katie Keith in the Health Affairs Blog informs us that the impact of American Rescue Plan’s new ACA marketplace subsidies will be made known to consumers on April 1, 2021.

Enhanced subsidies are available for the entire 2021 plan year to anyone who qualifies and enrolls in marketplace coverage. This includes individuals who enrolled during the 2021 open enrollment period (and have had coverage since January 2021), individuals who enrolled before the American Rescue Plan was enacted (during special enrollment periods in 2021), and individuals who will enroll during the rest of 2021.

Consumers will be able to see the availability of the enhanced subsidies at HealthCare.gov beginning on April 1. But the process to “claim” these enhanced subsidies will look slightly different for new consumers versus existing consumers. (This process will also vary for consumers in states with their own marketplaces, which may adopt policies and timelines that differ from those for HealthCare.gov.)

Just like any other year, individuals can choose to receive all or some of the enhanced PTC in advance (i.e., have it paid to the insurer on their behalf each month) or wait to receive PTC at tax time in 2022 (i.e., while paying full premiums to the insurer each month). Because the cost of health insurance is so high for so many people, most marketplace enrollees opt for advance PTCs to reduce the amount they owe in monthly premiums.

The federal ACA marketplace and many state ACA marketplaces are in the middle of a special Open Season that run until May 15, 2021.

  • The HHS Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s Director concluded Patient Safety Week with reflections available at this link. Among the observations were the following:

The quest to learn more about what contributes to diagnostic inaccuracies and delays has already been a focus area for AHRQ. We began investing in diagnostic safety and quality research in 2007 and have helped build interest around the topic. Diagnostic error harms too many and costs too much .  

When I think about options for tackling the issue of diagnostic safety, I’m reminded of the progress we’ve made with our successful Healthcare-Associated Infections (HAI) Program. AHRQ’s HAI Program is dedicated to understanding the problems that can harm patients, identifying what works to prevent infections, and then developing, testing, and refining tools to put that knowledge into practice on the front lines of care. AHRQ has achieved a great deal working alongside clinicians, patients, and other stakeholders focused on HAI prevention throughout government and the private sector.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

In the wake of yesterday’s announcement that Amazon is breaking into the employer sponsored plan telehealth market, there was plenty of news today about telehealth.

STAT News reports that

“The market for virtual care is still massively underpenetrated,” wrote Cowen analysts Charles Rhyee, Calvin Sternick, James Auh, and Gwen Shi in a research note Wednesday. While Teladoc expects to provide 10 million visits in the U.S. in 2021, each year the country sees roughly 850 million outpatient visits, plus 300 million additional visits specific to mental health, according to the Cowen analysts. “This is not a zero sum game by any stretch,” they added.

Med City News effectively seconds this point of view as follows:

Amazon will need to build out relationships with health plans and health systems, so it can have a referral network for patients who need to see a specialist.   Teladoc, for example, says it has partnerships with more than 50 health plans and 600 health systems, perhaps implying that it’s not going to be that easy.

“New entrants to virtual care will continue to confront many of the challenges Teladoc Health has overcome over the past decade as we have built worldwide capabilities to deliver, enable and empower whole-person virtual care,” a Teladoc spokesperson wrote in an email.

While that may well be true, what Teladoc and Amwell encountered and overcame was low utilization — something that Amazon won’t have to contend with given that Covid-19 has ramped up utilization and adoption sky-high.

It will be interesting to see the jockeying for market share, but no matter which company wins, telehealth has already come out on top.

In that regard, Healthcare Dive reports that “Virtual behavioral health visits surged in the first half of 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated mental health needs, according to a new analysis by Milliman and Well Being Trust.”

Healthcare IT News cautions us that “Telehealth experienced sudden and massive growth starting a year ago, but it didn’t happen everywhere. A new report from the RAND Corporation suggests that the biggest upticks in virtual care availability occurred in more affluent and metropolitan communities, and that telemedicine services were mostly enjoyed by patients with private insurance.”

Healthcare Dive offers an interview with Health Affairs editor in chief Alan Weil that features a discussion of telehealth.

In healthcare equity news

  • Health Payer Intelligence reports that “Blue Shield of California has enhanced its provider network to expand COVID-19 vaccine access in underserved communities.”
  • Fierce Healthcare reports that

The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA) is teaming with Feeding America for COVID-19 vaccine outreach in vulnerable communities.

Clinical information and educational materials highlighting the safety and efficacy of the vaccines will be made available at Feeding America’s 200 food banks, which reach 40 million people. BCBSA will provide physical handouts as well as social media posts with information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its own clinicians.

The materials will be available in both English and Spanish, BCBSA said, and aim to “dispel common myths” that may prevent people from getting vaccinated.

In other healthcare industry news

  • Healthcare Dive reports that the Senate confirmed the President’s nomination of Xavier Becerra to be Health and Human Services Secretary by a 50-49 vote. “Becerra has the support of payer and provider groups including the American Hospital Association and American Medical Association.”
  • Also coming out of Congress,

Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Representatives Scott Peters (D-Calif.) and John Curtis (R-Utah) today introduced the Methamphetamine Response Act, a bill declaring methamphetamine an emerging drug threat which would require the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) to develop, implement and make public a national plan to prevent methamphetamine addiction and overdoses from becoming a crisis.

 “In a single year we’ve seen psychostimulant-related overdose deaths, which include meth, spike by 42 percent,” said Feinstein. “The meth available on our streets is pure, potent and cheap and law enforcement is seizing more of the drug than ever. Two of the largest seizures on record occurred in California last year and in just a five month period, U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized more than 75,000 pounds of methamphetamine. Clearly we are in the midst of a meth crisis and we must implement a national, comprehensive plan to address this threat before it claims even more American lives.”

No bueno.

In further celebration of Patient Safety Awareness Week and because the FEHBlog believes that communication plays an important role in patient safety here’s an AHRQ article on using better communication to improve drug safety / avoid medication errors.

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Fortune offers an insightful story about CVS Health’s CEO Karen Lynch.

Smart Brief discusses news from last week’s AHIP National Policy Conference.

The Society for Human Resource Management offers a helpful list of American Rescue Plan Act provisions impacting employers.

Medscape encouragingly reports that

Vaccination of about 88% of Americans who received the first dose of Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines was complete, a study of over 12 million people by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed. * * * According to the analysis, about 3% of people in the United States who received the first dose of either vaccine did not get the second dose needed to complete vaccination. The agency said 8.6% had not received the second dose, but were still within the allowable interval to receive it.

As of today, 64.6% of the U.S. population over age 65 has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 36.6% of that group (including the FEHBlog) are fully vaccinated.

Healthcare Dive informs us that “Independent primary care docs more financially stable, but fed up with vaccine exclusion.” The FEHBlog heard today that vaccine distribution will open to more sites of care, including physician offices, once the Food and Drug Administration gives full marketing approval to the COVID-19 vaccines. The FEHBlog, however, could not find a projected date for that action, but he will keep looking.

Healthcare Dive also reports that “Virtual care company Doctor on Demand and clinical navigator Grand Rounds have announced plans to merge, creating a multibillion-dollar digital health firm.” The companies’ joint press release explains

The new company will combine Grand Rounds’ data-driven clinical navigation platform and patient advocacy tools with Doctor On Demand’s preeminent virtual care offering to provide an unparalleled member experience. It will accelerate the adoption of virtual care in key areas including primary care, specialty care, chronic condition management, and behavioral health. Owen Tripp, CEO of Grand Rounds, will serve as the CEO of the expanded business. Both companies will continue to operate under their existing brands for the time being.

“No one has done this before, combining navigation and virtual care delivery. We think it’s the future,” said Owen Tripp, co-founder and CEO of Grand Rounds. “People make unguided healthcare decisions every day, often with higher costs and worse outcomes. Now, with Doctor On Demand, we’ll offer them coordinated support on all fronts—physical, behavioral, financial, administrative—and we’ll do it for everything from acute issues to life-long health. This is truly complete care, and it’s what we all need.”

“We’re building a next-generation virtual care company with a nationwide practice of diverse, dedicated providers and a multidisciplinary care team,” said Hill Ferguson, CEO of Doctor On Demand. “By fully integrating medical and behavioral healthcare with clinical navigation, we’re impacting healthcare where it actually happens—between a patient and their provider—and ensuring that experience is seamless, personalized, and can follow the patient wherever they go.”

In continuing recognition of Patient Safety Awareness Week, here are links to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s blog post on accelerating progress in patient safety and an AHRQ article on the importance of good communication skills to achieving patient safety.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

“The ides of March are come.
Soothsayer: Ay, Caesar; but not gone.” Wm. Shakespeare

From the COVID-19 vaccine front —

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”) announced today that

Effective for COVID-19 vaccines administered on or after March 15, 2021, the national average payment rate for physicians, hospitals, pharmacies and many other immunizers will be $40 to administer each dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. This represents an increase from approximately $28 to $40 for the administration of single-dose vaccines, and an increase from approximately $45 to $80 for the administration of COVID-19 vaccines requiring two doses. The exact payment rate for administration of each dose of a COVID-19 vaccine will depend on the type of entity that furnishes the service and will be geographically adjusted based on where the service is furnished.  

CMS, along with the Departments of Labor and Treasury, is requiring that most private health plans and issuers cover the COVID-19 vaccine and its administration, both in-network and out-of-network, with no cost sharing during the public health emergency (PHE). Current regulations provide that out-of-network rates must be reasonable, as compared to prevailing market rates, and reference the Medicare reimbursement rates as a potential guideline for insurance companies. In light of CMS’s increased Medicare payment rates, CMS will expect commercial carriers to continue to ensure that their rates are reasonable in comparison to prevailing market rates.

Medscape reports that “AstraZeneca Plc is preparing to file for U.S. emergency use authorization (EUA) for its COVID-19 vaccine later this month or early April after accumulating enough data to judge the inoculation’s efficacy, sources with knowledge of the ongoing clinical trial told Reuters on Friday.” STAT News in its article titled the “Curious Case of the AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine” concludes

The U.S. study, started last September and including 30,000 patients, is, like the studies for the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, being run with the U.S. National Institutes of Health. It’s the best hope for settling any questions or concerns about the AstraZeneca vaccine once and for all.

STAT News also informs us that Biden Administration is about to embark on a $1.5 billion public relations campaign to convince Americans to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. “Much of the project’s funding comes from the sweeping $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill Biden signed last week. The administration has also already pledged over $500 million in additional funds to address vaccine uptake, health literacy, and equity in the vaccine distribution, including $250 million to fund local health literacy projects and another $255 million for the CDC to fund local government efforts to focus on equity and confidence in underserved communities.”

The Federal Times reports that “Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser released an updated vaccination timeline March 15 that outlines when, among other essential professions, federal government and Postal Service employees can expect to become eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. * * * Just under seven percent of federal employees are located in Washington, D.C.”

Also, Fierce Healthcare offers UnitedHealthcare scientist and Healthcare Dive offers hospital executive reflections on the first anniversary of the great hunkering down.

The HHS Office of Inspector General has unveiled a new website about the agency’s oversight of COVID-19 response and recovery. The website calls attention to the agency’s updated list of COVID-19 scams.

During this Patient Safety Awareness Week, HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality calls attention to its Chartbook on Patient Safety. “This Patient Safety chartbook is part of a family of documents and tools that support the National Healthcare Quality and Disparities Report (QDR). The QDR includes annual reports to Congress mandated in the Healthcare Research and Quality Act of 1999 (P.L. 106-129). This chartbook includes a summary of trends across measures of patient safety from the QDR and figures illustrating select measures of patient safety.”

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Happy Mardi Gras!

As the FEHBlog has noted, the FEHB Program has unique demographics compared to other employer sponsored health plans because the federal government offers generous FEHB annuitant coverage to its employees. FEHB enrollment is roughly 52% active employees and 48% annuitants. The average age of federal and postal employees is late forties and the FEHBlog understands that average age of an FEHB enrollee is sixty. (OPM offers detailed demographic statistics on its workforce but not on its retirement system members. No complaints, just stating a fact.)

Today HHS’s Agency of Healthcare Research and Quality issued a fascinating report titled “Concentration of Healthcare Expenditures and Selected Characteristics of High Spenders, U.S. Civilian Noninstitutionalized Population, 2018.” Here are the report’s highlights:

  • In 2018, 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 about 3 percent.
  • Persons ages 65 and older and whites were disproportionately represented in the top spending tiers.
  • Inpatient hospital care accounted for 36 percent of spending for persons in the top 5 percent of the spending distribution.
  • About three-quarters of aggregate expenses for persons in the top 5 percent of spenders were paid for by private insurance or Medicare.

In 2018, the top 1 percent of persons ranked by their healthcare expenditures accounted for 21 percent of total healthcare expenditures (100 minus 79 percent; figure 1), with an annual mean expenditure of $127,284 (figure 2). The group within the top 1 percent is defined as persons who spent $72,212 or more during the year. Cut points for additional percentile groups are shown in table 1 [immediately below]. The top 5 percent of the population accounted for 48.3 percent of total expenditures (100 minus 51.7 percent), with an annual mean expenditure of $58,609. The bottom 50 percent accounted for only 3.2 percent of total healthcare expenditures. Every person in this group spent less than $1,317 during the year (table 1), with an average annual expenditure of $384 (figure 2).

Percentile of population2018 Expenditure
Top 1%$72,212 or more
Top 5%$26,355 or more
Top 10%$14,651 or more
Top 30%$3,776 or more
Bottom 50% Less than $1,317

But given the FEHB’s demographics, this figure particularly caught the FEHBlog’s eye:

Figure 4: Percentage of persons by age group and percentile of spending, 2018

Age groupOverall percentageBottom 50%Top 50%Top 10%Top 5%

It is a credit to OPM and the FEHB carriers that they are able to hold premiums rather stable.

On the COVID-19 vaccination front —

  • NPR updates us with encouraging COVID-19 vaccination distribution statistics.
  • Federal News Network tells us that “The Biden administration’s Safer Federal Workforce Task Force has new details on how agencies should handle [COVID-19 vaccination] leave, labor unions and mask mandates during the ongoing pandemic.”
  • The Centers for Disease Control now offers guidance on how to arrange COVID-19 vaccinations for home-bound individuals.

Healthcare Dive reports on CVS Health’s fourth quarter 2020 earnings report. The headline is that CVS Health’s payer arm Aetna plans to return to the Affordable Care Act marketplace for 2022.

CVS’ fourth quarter revenue of $69.6 billion, up 4% year over year, was mostly due to growth in the benefits segment. Healthcare benefits reported quarterly revenue of $19.1 billion, up 11% year over year, driven primarily by membership growth in Medicaid and Medicare products and partially offset by a drop in commercial membership and COVID-19 costs.

As of the end of 2020, CVS covered 23.4 million lives. Despite fluctuating membership and utilization due to COVID-19 over the course of last year, overall utilization in the fourth quarter was generally back to normal, executives said. The company’s medical loss ratio, a marker of how much it’s reinvesting in patient care, was 86.7% in the quarter, compared to 85.7% same time last year.

JDSupra includes this employment law article titled “Employees Starting to Receive the COVID-19 Vaccine – Now What?” which is worth a gander in the FEHBlog’s opinion.