Midweek Update

Midweek Update

Yesterday, the Internal Revenue Service created in view of the COVID-19 emergency new flexibilities for flexible spending account (FSA) holders, health savings account (“HSA”holders and cafeteria plan members by

  • extending claims periods for taxpayers to apply unused amounts remaining in a health FSA or dependent care assistance program for expenses incurred for those same qualified benefits through December 31, 2020.
  • expanding the ability of taxpayers to make mid-year elections for health coverage, health FSAs, and dependent care assistance programs, allowing them to respond to changes in needs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • applying earlier relief for high deductible health plans to cover expenses related to COVID-19, and a temporary exemption for telehealth services retroactively to The notice increases the limit for unused health FSA carryover amounts from $500, to a maximum of $550, as adjusted annually for inflation.January 1, 2020.

The IRS also increased “the limit for unused health FSA carryover amounts from $500, to a maximum of $550, as adjusted annually for inflation.”

The Board of Directors of America’s Health Insurance Plans issued a statement on “Safely Re-Opening America’s Health Care System and Resuming Needed Procedures and Treatments, Routine Care, and Preventive Services” in the wake of the COVID-19 emergency. The statement encourages continued use of telehealth and sensible applic ation / waivers of health plan prior authorization requirements.

HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has created its own COVID-19 resources webpage. Among other things the site “provides links to research funding opportunities, AHRQ Views blog posts about the Agency’s COVID-19 activities, and examples of new AHRQ-funded research findings.”

Benefits Pro reports that “A Social Security policy analyst for the advocacy group The Senior Citizens League is estimating the cost-of-living adjustment for 2021 will be zero based on consumer price index data through April and the continued impact of COVID-19 on the economy.” A zero COLA, which occurred in 2009, 2010, and 2015, will trigger the protection of Medicare Part B premium hold harmless clause for certain but not all federal annuitants.

Midweek update

On the COVID-19 front —

  • The Senate this afternoon approved H.R. 6021, the Families First Coronavirus Response bill. HR Dive explains the paid leave revisions that the House made to the bill first passed last Saturday before sending the bill to the Senate. Three attempts in the Senate to further amend the bill were rejected. The President has indicated that he will sign the bill.
  • H.R 6021 will mandate all types of health plans, including FEHB plans, cover FDA approved COVID-19 testing without cost sharing or medical management by the health plan. OPM already has required this for FEHB plans. However, the no cost sharing aspect of this coverage does not extend to treatment of the COVID-19 disease. A recent survey “of nearly 600 individual and family health insurance enrollees released today by eHealth, Inc. more than two thirds (69%) feel they lack a basic understanding of how testing and treatment of coronavirus (COVID-19) would be covered by their health insurance plan.” A word to the wise, etc.
  • Federal News Network reports “Federal agencies have 48 hours [until tomorrow] to review, modify and start implementing policies and procedures that will realign critical resources to slow the spread of the coronavirus. This includes offering “maximum telework flexibilities” for the federal workforce and may even include mandatory telework orders, the Office of Management and Budget said Tuesday night.”
  • The Wall Street Journal’s Journal podcast offers an interesting 20 minute long take on the race for a cure to the COVID-19 disease. One of the drugs discussed on the podcast is a Regeneron arthritis drug Kevazara that acts to calm the body’s immune system. Severe cases of COVID-19 cause lung inflammation. The FEHBlog read in the Great Influenza that the flu pandemic caused a spike in the death rate for healthy young adults. This flu struck deep in the lungs where the alveoli tissues transfer oxygen to the blood stream. The body’s immune system took great umbrage with this type of attack and threw everything at the disease. The body’s immune system attack often was the cause of death in young adults who have the strongest immune systems. The modern treatment is to try to calm the immune system and use a ventilator, options that didn’t exist in 1918.
  • Verily Health, the Google / Alphabet affiliate, issued an update on its development of a COVID-19 testing platform for patients. The Washington Post reports on COVID-19 testing sites in the DC metropolitan area.
  • Medicare has expanded the availability of telehealth for traditional Medicare beneficiaries during the COVID-19 emergency. HHS has issued guidance to health care providers on how to maintain HIPAA Privacy and Security rule compliance in the brave new world of telehealth.

In other news–

  • The Labor Department’s Employee Benefits Security Administration has released its latest report to Congress on improving health plan compliance with the federal mental health parity law and its report and an appendix on EBSA enforcement of that law in 2019.
  • Healthcare Dive reports that “The Trump administration is considering pushing back the timeline for payers, providers and health IT vendors to come into compliance with its two sweeping rules to promote interoperability as the healthcare system struggles with the novel coronavirus outbreak.” It would make sense to slow down the effort to ensure that it is done correctly, in the FEHBlog’s opinion.
  • AHRQ wisely points out the need to rethink the role of primary care in reducing hospital readmissions. Check it out.
  • Fierce Healthcare reports that

Aetna is linking Unite Us, a social care coordination platform, with its Guardian Angel program for members who have suffered an opioid overdose. The insurer, owned by CVS Health, will roll out the joint effort first in North Carolina, it announced this week. Using the Unite Us platform, care managers will be able to more effectively link members with social supports and other nonclinical options to aid in recovery, such as housing and healthy food.



The President declared COVID-19 to be a national emergency this afternoon. The Wall Street Journal reports that the President announced that efforts are well underway to greatly expand COVID-19 testing, including drive thru testing. Furthermore,

A new, high-speed coronavirus test was earlier granted emergency clearance by the Food and Drug Administration. Developed by Roche Holding AG, the test is designed to run on the company’s automated machines, which are already installed in more than 100 laboratories across the U.S. It will be available immediately.

The FEHBlog understand that these high speed tests can turn around results in 24 hours, rather than a few days.

The FEHBlog compared the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID-19 U.S. case statistics from last Friday compared to today.

CDC COVID-19 stats
Person-to-person spread18129
Under Investigation1101362
Total cases1641629

That’s quite a jump. CMS and Healthcare Dive also have offered their perspectives on the import of the emergency declaration.

In other news

  • Healthcare Dive reports on a Rand study on the value of out of network cost controls.
  • On this last day of AHRQ’s Patient Safety Week, the agency called public attention to its “Guide to Patient and Family Engagement in Hospital Quality and Safety.” The FEHBlog thinks its important for health plans to help families to support their hospitalized family members.

This Guide reminded me of a related human nature anecdote that I heard on the Econtalk blog which I can share

Russ Roberts: I was talking to this nurse about the challenges of doing a good job because it can be a very boring job, and then all of a sudden it’s unbelievably intense. And at one point he said to me–and at this point, my brother and sister, our mom had all been in the room for hours over a course of three or four days.

He said, he conceded, that–he said, ‘It really helps to have family here with the patient.’

And I thought he was going to say, you know, ‘Because it helps them sustain their morale.’

He said, ‘I think it makes us do a better job.’

And I thought, of course, of Adam Smith’s impartial spectator. It’s like we’re the actual spectator, watching him, and he said–this was a great thing–he said, ‘It shouldn’t be that way.’ And he’s right, of course. It should be that you’re equally motivated whether no one’s watching. But as human beings we sometimes fall short. He said, ‘It shouldn’t be that way, but sometimes it is.’

Russ Roberts is a University of Chicago trained economist who has written on Adam Smith.

Midweek Update

The Office of Personnel Management issued a guidance letter to FEHB carriers on the COVID-19 virus today.

The Internal Revenue Service today issued a Notice 2020-15 which permits high deductible health plans used with health savings accounts (under Internal Revenue Code Section 223) to cover COVID-19 testing on a first dollar basis. To its credit, OPM references the IRS notice in the above linked carrier letter.

The U.S. Labor Department also issued FAQ guidance on COVID-19 or Other Public Health Emergencies and the Family and Medical Leave Act.

As noted on Monday, this is Patient Safety Awareness week. The patient safety organization ECRI Institute released a list of top 10 patient safety concerns. The Safety Week’s key sponsor HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research issued

Making Healthcare Safer III, a comprehensive report whose pages are filled with practical information on how today’s clinicians can keep patients free from harm.

The report reviews roughly four dozen practices that target patient safety improvement across a variety of settings. If appropriately applied, many of these practices can dramatically reduce high-impact healthcare-related harms.

The 47 patient safety practices and evidence highlighted in the report include technological and staffing-related practices, a series of specific hygiene and disinfection interventions for reducing healthcare-associated infections, and several practices designed to prevent medication errors and reduce opioid misuse and overdoses.

Monday Musings

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management issued additional COVID-19 guidance and FAQs on Saturday March 7. The Federal News Network summarizes OPM’s issuances here.

Here are the Centers for Diseases Control’s March 9 COVID-19 statistics for the U.S.

  • Travel-related 72
  • Person-to-person spread 29
  • Under Investigation 322
  • Total cases 423

The CDC has issued guidance for people at risk of contracting serious illness from COVID-19. According to the CDC,

Early information out of China, where COVID-19 first started, shows that some people are at higher risk of getting very sick from this illness. This includes:

  • Older adults
  • People who have serious chronic medical conditions like:
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Lung disease

Becker’s Hospital News reports on a study recently published in the Journal of American Medical Association. The study which was conducted in Singapore finds that from a contagion standpoint the COVID-19 virus does not linger in the air but it does contaminate surfaces.

As predicted, the Trump Administration released its final electronic health record interoperability and data blocking rules today. The objective of the rules is to give patients better access to their health records. The rules take effect as early as January 1, 2021. The implementation of the interoperability rule is staged over time.

Here are links to the government fact sheets on the final interoperability rule and the final data blocking rule. WEDI, which an information technology advisor to the HHS Secretary, prepared a helpful comparison of the proposed and final data blocking rules.

Healthcare Dive reports on industry reaction to the final rules. Healthcare Dive explains

The CMS rule requires Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Medicare Advantage plans and Affordable Care Act exchange plans to provide their collective 125 million patients with free electronic access to their personal health data, including medical claims and encounter information including cost, by 2021.

MA plans, state Medicare and CHIP programs, CHIP managed care entities, Medicaid managed care plans and qualified health plans in the federal exchanges now have to “implement, test, and monitor” a Health Level Seven FHIR-compliant API, which the government has selected as the new national standard.

Those plans also have to make their provider directories available to current and potential enrollees through the API technology, too (excepting the federal exchanges, which already do so), by 2021, with the hope insurers will carry over those practices to private plans as well.

Finally it’s worth noting that HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research has deemed this to be Patient Safety Awareness Week.

Our firm is closely monitoring the impacts of COVID-19. Effective 6/08/20, Ermer & Suter has reopened its physical offices for business, however for the continued safety of our staff, in-office capacity will not exceed 40%. We remain fully operational and are readily available from both our office and telework locations.