Thursday Miscellany

Thursday Miscellany

As you may be able to tell, it’s a late FEHBlog post because the FEHBlog was returning home to Dripping Springs, TX, last night from our Nation’s capital.

In case, here are some highlights from Washington DC.

  • The GAO released a troubling report on our country’s fiscal health this week. Here’s a link to a Wall Street Journal Opinion Watch podcast about the report. The podcast is about 20 minutes long, and it may make your hair stand on edge.
  • Mercer Consulting discusses changes to the RxDC reports due annually on June 1.
    • “CMS released instructions for the third prescription drug data collection (RxDC) reports due June 1, 2024 – and they may cause plan sponsors to reconsider whether they need to make “plan level” submissions, instead of relying on their vendors to make “aggregate” submissions on their behalf. The good news is that the instructions largely mirror prior versions, so plan sponsors should be able to build off prior RxDC reporting efforts. However, for the first time, CMS plans to enforce the “aggregation restriction”—a provision in the 2021 regulations that CMS suspended for the first two reporting cycles. As explained [in the article], the reinstated aggregation restriction may cause headaches for some plan sponsors, who find that they can no longer rely on their PBM’s aggregate submission of pharmacy data but must instead submit plan level data. Other plan sponsors may welcome the opportunity to do a plan level submission so they can obtain otherwise unavailable prescription drug data.”
  • Per Govexec,
    • “With federal budget talks still unresolved less than a month away from Congress’ latest deadline, the Office of Personnel Management said Friday that the decade-long pay freeze for senior political appointees like Vice President Kamala Harris and others will remain in effect.
    • “In a Feb. 9 post, OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said that under January’s continuing resolution that extended federal funding to agencies until March 1 and 8, certain senior political appointees will continue to see their payable pay rates remain at current levels at least through the latter budget deadline, when Congress will have to decide whether it will continue to fund the federal government. 
    • “Future Congressional action will determine whether the pay freeze continues beyond March 8, 2024,” Ahuja said. “Until such time, the OPM guidance issued on Dec. 21, 2023, regarding the pay freeze for certain senior political officials continues to be generally applicable in applying the pay freeze in 2024.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “There isn’t a silver bullet to maintaining mental acuity or warding off dementia [as we age], scientists of aging say. But a combination of genetics, healthy lifestyle habits and factors such as cleaner air and good education have been linked to prolonged mental agility.  * * *
    • “Genetics is thought to play a role in brain maintenance, as does diet, exercise and a person’s risk of vascular disease. More education, mental stimulation and social connectivity have been associated with improved cognitive reserve.
    • “Better brain maintenance and cognitive reserve might help keep symptoms of dementia at bay. Almost 50% of people 40 and older think they will likely develop dementia, according to a 2021 AARP survey. The actual number of U.S. adults 65 and older with dementia is closer to 10%, a 2022 study found. * * *
    • “Sleeping too little—or too much—can also lead to cognitive problems. Activities including yoga and tai chi, the Chinese martial art, could help improve cognitive function, research suggests. 
    • “Hearing loss is a risk factor for dementia, too. Lost hearing might cause the brain to atrophy more quickly and can make people more isolated, said Dr. Dung Trinh, chief medical officer of the Healthy Brain Clinic. Hearing aids can help preserve mental fitness.”
  • AHA News adds,
    • “About half of U.S. health care workers have witnessed racial discrimination against patients and say discrimination against patients is a crisis or major problem, according to a survey released Feb. 15 by the Commonwealth Fund and African American Research Collaborative. Younger workers and workers of color were more likely than their older or white counterparts to say they witnessed discrimination, as were workers at facilities with more patients of color. About six in 10 Black health care workers and four in 10 Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander workers say they have been discriminated against because of their race or ethnicity. 
    • “While most health care workers see positive efforts from employers to address discrimination, a majority of Black, Latino, and AAPI workers worry about retaliation if they raise discrimination concerns. When asked about potential solutions, more than two-thirds of health care workers thought the following could help: providing an easy way to anonymously report situations involving racism or discrimination; creating opportunities to listen to patients and health care professionals of color; examining treatment of non-English-speaking patients; and training health care staff to spot discrimination.” 
  • Employee Benefit News offers three suggestions on how employers can help employees hold cancer at bay with preventive screenings.
    • “A new report from healthcare platform Color Health shows that although 80% of employers are concerned by rising cancer costs and 96% of benefits leaders agree early detection is the best solution, the majority of focus is devoted to post-diagnosis treatment, rather than evidence-based screenings. 
    • “According to the report, three out of four employers say they are placing more emphasis on screening, early detection and risk prevention efforts, but they are going to have to go beyond their current benefits setup: Only a quarter believe their current health plans meet the screening needs of their workforce, and three-quarters say employees are not being adequately screened by their primary care provider. Leaders report that 40% of employees are not compliant with screenings in general, and for the most deadly forms of cancer — lung and bronchus — the American Lung Association reports that only 6% of people eligible get screened. 
    • “The assumption [has been that] if we cover mammograms and colonoscopies and lung CTs, then people will actually get them, and that’s turned out to be false,” says Othman Laraki, Color Health’s CEO. “The big driver for that is that for non-acute care services, availability is not the same thing as access.” 

Friday Factoids

From Washington, DC

  • The U.S. Office of Personnel Management released its call letter for benefit and rate proposals for 2025 FEHB and Postal Service Health Benefit (PSHB) plans. Not surprisingly, the 2025 call letter focuses on the launch of the PSHB Program on January 1, 2025. The next step will be for OPM to issue its technical guidance. The benefit and rate proposals are due on May 31, 2024.
  • Fierce Healthcare reports,
    • “A bipartisan group of senators announced Friday that it is working on new legislation for “long-term reforms” to physician payments under Medicare and other program changes.
    • “In a joint release, U.S. Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nevada; Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee; John Barrasso, R-Wyoming; Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan; Mark Warner, D-Virginia; and Minority Whip John Thune, R-South Dakota said they have formed a “Medicare payment reform working group.”
    • “The lawmakers plan to proposes changes to the physician fee schedule and “make necessary updates” to 2015’s Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA), they said, and “in the coming weeks” will be seeking feedback from stakeholders.”
  • The Department of Health and Human Services announced,
    • “On Thursday, February 8, 2024, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra addressed the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. for its historic Headliners Luncheon.
    • “During his address, he urged the nation to shift from an “illness-care system” to a “wellness-care system.” He also highlighted the Biden-Harris Administration’s work to increase access to quality, affordable health care, lower health care costs, including the cost of prescription drugs, and protect access to reproductive health care.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The Centers for Disease Control tells us,
    • What CDC knows
      • BA.2.87.1, a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was identified in South Africa by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. CDC is closely tracking this variant because of the large number of mutations when compared to previous variants. At this time, BA.2.87.1 has not been identified in clinical specimens outside South Africa. Because this is a newly emerging variant, there is not as much additional data about its potential impact. So far, the public health risk for this new variant appears low.
    • What CDC is doing
      • CDC continues to track the appearance and spread of new variants around the world through genomic surveillance. CDC is working closely with partners in South Africa to gather the latest information on BA.2.87.1. CDC and its partners are continually assessing potential impacts to vaccines, tests, and treatments.
    • Keep reading: CDC Tracks New SARS-CoV-2 Variant, BA.2.87.1
  • Here is a link to the CDC’s Covid Data Tracker.
  • ABC News adds,
    • “The flu virus is hanging on in the U.S., intensifying in some areas of the country after weeks of an apparent national decline. 
    • “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data released Friday showed a continued national drop in flu hospitalizations, but other indicators were up — including the number of states with high or very high levels for respiratory illnesses.
    • ““Nationally, we can say we’ve peaked, but on a regional level it varies,” said the CDC’s Alicia Budd. “A couple of regions haven’t peaked yet.”
  • MedPage Today lets us know,
    • “The CDC has published its first comprehensive laboratory recommendations for syphilis testing.
    • “Published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reportopens in a new tab or window, the new recommendations include approaches for laboratory-based tests, point-of-care tests, sample processing, and how laboratories should report test results to clinicians and health departments.
    • “The recommendations are primarily for clinical laboratory or disease control personnel, but also for clinicians to understand how to collect and process specimens, interpret test results, and counsel and treat patients, according to CDC researchers led by John Papp, PhD, of the agency’s National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention in Atlanta.”
  • Mercer Consulting suggests that rising cancer rates call for a comprehensive strategy.
    • “A comprehensive cancer strategy includes both support for employees as they cope with the physical and emotional stresses of a cancer diagnosis, and effective care management to help ensure the patient receives quality care quickly in the most appropriate setting — which can lead to better outcomes and better use of healthcare dollars. Just over a third of large employers (34%) provide a specialized cancer care management program. These programs assist with care coordination, support compliance with treatment regimens, find applicable clinical trials, and connect families to local community resources and to other solutions the employer offers.  
    • “Centers of Excellence or site-of-care navigation programs, offered by 24% of large employers, help ensure that members are treated by quality providers with relevant experience and expertise. Hotlines, caregiver and family advocacy services, and financial planning services can help employees and their families deal with the day-to-day challenges of the cancer journey.”
  • Milliman Consulting offers some use cases for AI in healthcare and their implications for health insurers.
  • Per BioPharma Dive,
    • Takeda Pharmaceutical plans to quickly begin late-stage testing of an experimental drug for narcolepsy, which, if successful, could help the company enter what Wall Street analysts see as a multibillion-dollar market.
    • There are two kinds of narcolepsy, with a key difference being that “Type 1” can involve a sudden loss of muscle control. Takeda has been testing its drug, known as TAK-861, as a potential treatment for both, and on Friday disclosed high-level results from a pair of studies that each focused on one type.
    • “Takeda said the Type 1 trial, which evaluated 112 patients, found those given its drug as opposed to a placebo experienced statistically significant and “clinically meaningful” improvements in wakefulness at the eight-week mark. The company now intends to begin Phase 3 trials in the first half of its fiscal year, which begins April 1.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Per Healthcare Dive,
    • “Primary care providers Indianapolis-based Marathon Health and Denver-based Everside Health completed their merger on Thursday, and will operate as Marathon Health.
    • “The Marathon executive team — CEO Jeff Wells and executive chairman Ben Evans — will stay intact post-merger, while Everside Health CEO Chris Miller will depart the company, according to a company spokesperson. Marathon declined to disclose financial details of the deal.
    • “The new Marathon Health will have a physical presence in 41 states at 680 health centers and provide virtual healthcare in all 50 states.” 
  • and
    • “One Medical is closing several offices and moving its chief financial officer to a role focused on growth as Amazon attempts to reallocate internal resources to cut costs.
    • “One Medical plans to close offices in New York City, Minneapolis and St. Petersburg, Florida, by the end of February, according to an internal email obtained by Business Insider. The company will also downsize its San Francisco office space to one floor.
    • “An Amazon spokesperson confirmed the changes to Healthcare Dive and said the company is reducing its investment in corporate office space given many One Medical corporate employees work remotely.”
  • MedTech Dive informs us,
    • “Fresenius Medical Care has received 510(k) clearance for its high-volume hemodiafiltration dialysis therapy system, the company said Thursday.
    • “The device, the 5008X Hemodialysis System, uses both diffusion and convection to remove waste products from the blood of kidney disease patients. Using diffusion, the standard mechanism for hemodialysis, and convection is intended to improve the removal of larger waste products.
    • “Fresenius plans to start a broad market launch next year and push to establish hemodiafiltration, which is already widely used in Europe, as the new standard of care in the U.S.”
  • Health Payer Intelligence points out “KLAS Report Reveals Top-Performing Vendors for Payer Services. The top-performing vendors varied across payer services, with Zelis ranking high for payment accuracy and integrity and ZeOmega succeeding in care management.”

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From Washington, DC

  • Think Advisor lets us know,
    • “The U.S. House of Representatives voted 211-208 on Wednesday to pass H.R. 485, the Protecting Health Care for All Patients Act of 2023.
    • “The bill would prohibit federal health programs — including Medicare, Medicaid and the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program — from using a “quality-adjusted life year” measure or similar measures when allocating resources.
    • “All Republicans who voted supported the bill, and all Democrats who voted opposed it.
    • “The bill was introduced by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Ore.”
  • Roll Call reports,
    • “House Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a 10-term Republican from Washington state who has been a strong advocate for people with disabilities, announced Thursday she would not seek reelection this year.
    • “It’s been the honor and privilege of my life to represent the people of Eastern Washington in Congress. They inspire me every day,’’ Rodgers said in a statement. “After much prayer and reflection, I’ve decided the time has come to serve them in new ways. I will not be running for re-election to the People’s House.”
    • “The announcement comes as Rodgers is leading negotiations with the Senate on a wide-ranging health care package that touches all parts of the industry. The legislation would implement more transparency in data and pricing for prescription drugs and other medical services.”
  • BioPharma Dive informs us,
    • “The CEOs of three major drugmakers defended the prices they charge U.S. patients in a Senate [Health Education Labor and Pensions] committee hearing Thursday, claiming Americans gain access to cutting-edge medicines months or years earlier than people in countries that pay a fraction of the U.S. costs. * * *
    • “Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., asked the CEOs to pledge to not block entry of generics or biosimilars to the respective drugs in the spotlight when their primary patents expire, which Merck and Bristol Myers agreed to. That question in the case of Bristol Myers Squibb was focused Opdivo, its cancer immunotherapy rival to Keytruda.
    • “For Merck, Davis committed to open competition with any forthcoming biosimilars of intravenous Keytruda. But he didn’t mention the company is trying to develop and launch a subcutaneous, or under-the-skin, version that would likely extend its market advantage beyond the anticipated 2028 expiration of its main patent. Bristol Myers is also working on subcutaneous Opdivo.
    • “Questioned by Luján on settlements that have pushed the launch of biosimilar Stelara to 2025, J&J’s Duato said the price of the drug will be lower when that happens and added that prices net of rebates have dropped ahead of biosimilar competition.”
  • Bloomberg reports,
    • “The pharmaceutical industry, Trump and Obama administration officials, and others are urging the Biden administration to reconsider a controversial plan for seizing patents on a drug when its cost gets too high, claiming the approach misinterprets decades-old law and threatens the delicate pipeline that produces innovative, life-saving drugs.
    • “Over 500 comments were filed by the Feb. 6 deadline for groups and individuals to weigh in on the Biden administration’s framework for the federal government to use its march-in rights. The proposal lays out the Biden administration’s stance in a longstanding debate over whether price is a justifiable reason for the government to “march in” and take over a patent on technology developed with the help of taxpayer dollars and then license it to an outside manufacturer.
    • “The Biden plan is already drawing blowback from a broad swath of players in the innovation space. A collection of former US Patent and Trademark Office directors and other government officials under the George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations wrote to warn that the proposed framework, if adopted, would prove destabilizing.”
  • Per an HHS press release
    • “The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs (IEA) will be hosting a stakeholder webinar TOMORROW, February 9, 2024, from 2 – 3 PM ET to provide an update on patient privacy.  
    • “Today, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, through its Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), finalized modifications to the Confidentiality of Substance Use Disorder (SUD) Patient Records regulations at 42 CFR part 2 (“Part 2”), which protect the privacy of patients’ SUD treatment records. Specifically, today’s final rule increases coordination among providers treating patients for SUDs, strengthens confidentiality protections through civil enforcement, and enhances integration of behavioral health information with other medical records to improve patient health outcomes.
    • “Today’s rule was informed by the bipartisan Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) that, among other things, required HHS to bring the Part 2 program into closer alignment with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) Privacy, Breach Notification, and Enforcement Rules.
    • “The final rule includes the following modifications to Part 2:
      • “Permits use and disclosure of Part 2 records based on a single patient consent given once for all future uses and disclosures for treatment, payment, and health care operations.
      • “Permits redisclosure of Part 2 records by HIPAA covered entities and business associates in accordance with the HIPAA Privacy Rule, with certain exceptions.
      • “Provides new rights for patients under Part 2 to obtain an accounting of disclosures and to request restrictions on certain disclosures, as also granted by the HIPAA Privacy Rule.
      • “Expands prohibitions on the use and disclosure of Part 2 records in civil, criminal, administrative, and legislative proceedings.
      • “Provides HHS enforcement authority, including the potential imposition of civil money penalties for violations of Part 2.
      • “Outlines new breach notification requirements applying to Part 2 records.”
    • “A fact sheet on the final rule may be found at: https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/regulatory-initiatives/fact-sheet-42-cfr-part-2-final-rule/index.html
    • Register in advance for this webinar: REGISTER HERE  
  • Govexec tells us,
    • “The U.S. Postal Service was $2 billion in the red in the first three months of fiscal 2024—typically its busiest and most profitable period of the year—doubling its loss from the same period in the previous year. 
    • “The accelerated losses during the holiday season continue a longstanding trend of poor financial performance for the mailing agency, but mark a troubling sign as its leadership team undertakes significant operational transformations with a promise to right the ship.
    • “In a positive development, however, USPS turned a net profit of $472 million when accounting only for the part of the ledger postal management deems within its control. That figure, which does not include fluctuations in workers’ compensation and amortized payments toward employee retirement accounts, grew from $187 million in the first quarter of the prior year.” 
  • The U.S. Office of Personnel Management announced,
    • “[t]he Finalists for this year’s Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) Program, the federal government’s premier leadership development program. In total, 825 Finalists were selected from more than 7,000 applicants from around the world. 
    • “Presidential Management Fellows are the next generation of federal government leaders,” said Kiran Ahuja, Director of OPM. “The PMF Program gives Fellows the leadership skills and exposure they need to make a difference in government and an impact within their community. Congratulations to all the 2024 PMF finalists. We cannot wait to see what you will accomplish in public service.” 

From the public health and medical research front,

  • Medscape points out,
    • “Brain fog is one of the most common, persistent complaints in patients with long COVID. It affects as many as 46% of patients who also deal with other cognitive concerns like memory loss and difficulty concentrating. 
    • “Now, researchers believe they know why. A new study has found that these symptoms may be the result of a viral-borne brain injury that may cause cognitive and mental health issues that persist for years.
    • “Researchers found that 351 patients hospitalized with severe COVID-19 had evidence of a long-term brain injury a year after contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The findings were based on a series of cognitive tests, self-reported symptoms, brain scans, and biomarkers.” 
  • STAT News reports,
    • “People receiving a double dose of naloxone are no more likely to survive an opioid overdose than people receiving a standard, 4-milligram nasal spray, according to a new study.
    • “The new paper, published Thursday in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, showed no significant difference in survival rates between people who were revived using 4- and 8-milligram sprays of naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan. People receiving the smaller dose also did not require a higher total number of sprays, despite having received just half the initial amount. The researchers found only one major contrast between those receiving different dose sizes: Those who received a double dose were over 2.5 times more likely to experience severe withdrawal symptoms, like vomiting.
    • “The study comes as pharmaceutical companies continue to market expensive high-dose formulations of naloxone, arguing that amid record drug death levels resulting from potent synthetic opioids like fentanyl, it’s essential to deliver as much of the overdose-reversal medication as possible. Public health experts and harm-reduction groups have pushed back, however, charging that the companies have used Americans’ fear of fentanyl as an excuse to sell needlessly expensive naloxone products to cash-strapped public health agencies.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review reports,
    • “Patients who take Ozempic, Mounjaro and Wegovy are less likely to be diagnosed with anxiety or depression compared to those who don’t receive the popular diabetes and weight loss drugs, according to a new study
    • “A review of more than 4 million patient records conducted by Epic Research found that diabetic patients are less likely to have anxiety if they are taking any glucagon-like peptide-1 receptor agonist. 
    • “The researchers analyzed five different GLP-1s: tirzepatide (Mounjaro, Zepbound), semaglutide (Ozempic, Wegovy, Rybelsus), dulaglutide (Trulicity), liraglutide (Saxenda, Victoza) and exenatide (Byetta, Bydureon). 
    • “The patients taking GLP-1s for weight loss were compared with those receiving another kind of weight loss drug, and diabetic patients were compared with people not taking a GLP-1.”
  • The American Hospital Association News notes how you can “[l’earn how hospitals and health systems are improving maternal and child health outcomes in this synopsis of the latest resources from AHA’s Better Health for Mothers and Babies initiative. READ MORE.”
  • The NIH Director discusses in her blog “What’s Behind that Morning Migraine? Community-Based Study Points to Differences in Perceived Sleep Quality, Energy on the Previous Day.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • AstraZeneca sees its revenue and core earnings per share growing by double-digit percentages in 2024, the pharmaceuticals major said as it reported fourth-quarter core earnings per share below expectations on higher costs, sending the stock lower.
  • CNBC discusses how “Novo Nordisk, Eli Lilly are tackling weight loss drug supply woes.”
    • “Last week, the Danish drugmaker [Novo Nordisk] said it had more than doubled its supply of lower-dose versions of its weight loss injection Wegovy in January compared to previous months. Supply shortages forced Novo Nordisk to restrict the availability of those lower doses in the U.S. since May. 
    • “But why are those lower doses important? It’s because people are supposed to start Wegovy at a low dose and gradually increase the size over time to mitigate side effects such as nausea. So, more of those low “starter” doses means more new patients can begin treatment with Wegovy. 
    • “The company plans to “gradually” increase the overall supply of Wegovy throughout the rest of the year, executives added on the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call Wednesday.”
  • Per Healthcare Dive,
    • “UnitedHealth’s chief operating officer Dirk McMahon is retiring after more than two decades at the company.
    • McMahon plans to retire on April 1, the payer said in a Wednesday filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Wednesday.
    • “UnitedHealth has yet to name a replacement for McMahon.”
  • and
    • “Walgreens has named a new head of its healthcare unit as the pharmacy chain works to improve its halting finances and shift to delivering more healthcare services.
    • “John Driscoll, the current executive vice president and president of the U.S. Healthcare segment, will be replaced by Mary Langowski, who previously held the chief executive role at chronic condition management company Solera Health. Driscoll will serve in a senior advisory role, Walgreens announced Thursday.”
  • and
    • “Molina Healthcare lost half a million Medicaid members due to redeterminations by the end of 2023, executives said Thursday.
    • “States resumed checking beneficiaries’ eligibility for the safety-net program in April following a pause during the COVID-19 public health emergency. Some 16 million Americans have been disenrolled from Medicaid to date because of the redeterminations. The process is disproportionately impacting insurers with a heavy Medicaid presence like Molina, which brings in 80% of its revenue from the program.
    • “Molina still expects to retain 40% of its Medicaid membership once redeterminations are complete. However, on Thursday the insurer raised its estimate of members gained during COVID from 800,000 to 1 million because of new business adds. That implies a net member loss of 600,000 once redeterminations are complete.” 
  • and
    • “Tenet Healthcare beat Wall Street expectations for revenue in the fourth quarter of 2023 on continued cost control measures and sustained demand for services, particularly in its ambulatory care unit, executives said during an earnings call on Thursday.
    • “CEO Saum Sutaria told investors that Tenet was entering a “new era” in which a higher proportion of its performance was generated by its ambulatory surgical business. Same-facility revenue for ambulatory services grew 9.2% during 2023, above Tenet’s long-term goal of 4% to 6% top line growth.
    • “The Dallas-based for-profit will continue a careful watch on its debt levels, executives said. The company has recently taken steps to reduce its leverage, last week finalizing the sale of three hospitals to Novant Health and announcing the sale of four additional hospitals to UCI Health.”
  • Beckers Payer Issues discusses why it appears that insurers are split in two camps over rising Medicare Advantage costs.

Midweek update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

From Washington, DC

  • The Department of Health and Human Services informs us,
    • “On Monday, February 5, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra met virtually with pharmacy CEOs, including Walgreens, CVS, Walmart, and pharmacy leaders, to discuss COVID-19 therapeutics commercialization. Secretary Becerra reconvened pharmacy leaders as a follow-up to his larger meeting with pharmacies, pharmacy benefit managers, and insurers on January 9, 2024.
    • “During the call, Secretary Becerra made it clear that no patient should be charged hundreds of dollars for Paxlovid at the pharmacy counter – stressing the importance of pharmacist education and clear communication to patients. Secretary Becerra re-iterated the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to equitable access to COVID-19 therapeutics, reminded pharmacy leaders of the pathways for access that HHS negotiated with Pfizer, and made it clear that HHS would continue to engage with pharmacist leadership as needed.
    • “While HHS is no longer managing the distribution of COVID-19 therapeutics since they transitioned to the commercial market, the Biden-Harris Administration has been closely monitoring the therapeutics commercialization process and remains committed to equitable access to lifesaving COVID-19 therapeutics, including Paxlovid. Thanks to the pathwaysthat HHS negotiated with Pfizer, all individuals on Medicare and Medicaid can receive Paxlovid for free through 2024 and individuals who are uninsured can receive Paxlovid for free through 2028. * * *
    • “To learn more about Paxlovid access, go to Pfizer’s PAXCESS Website
  • Health Payer Intelligence points out a KFF study on how various types of payer cover COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines post-public health emergency.
  • The American Hospital Association News tells us,
    • “The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services yesterday released FAQs clarifying coverage criteria and utilization management requirements for Medicare Advantage plans under its final rule for calendar year 2024, which includes provisions intended to increase program oversight and create better alignment between MA and Traditional Medicare. Topics addressed by the FAQs include medical necessity determinations; algorithms and artificial intelligence; internal coverage criteria; post-acute care; the two-midnight benchmark for inpatient admission criteria; prior authorization; and enforcement.”
  • STAT News adds,
    • “In recent months, the federal government has repeatedly told Medicare Advantage insurers that they cannot use artificial intelligence or algorithms to deny medical services the government routinely covers.
    • “But in finalizing a rule to that effect, it also stepped into a thicket of questions from insurers about a technology that is especially difficult to pin down: What is AI? Can it be used at all to make decisions about the coverage of older patients? If so, how?
    • “This week, the federal agency that oversees Medicare sought to boil it all down into a simple directive: Put the circumstances of the individual patient first, and your algorithm second.
    • “An algorithm that determines coverage based on a larger data set instead of the individual patient’s medical history, the physician’s recommendations, or clinical notes would not be compliant” with federal regulations, the government wrote in a memo to Medicare Advantage insurers on Tuesday.”
  • Health plans were using algorithms in claims processing long before AI exploded on the scene. On a related note, Health IT Analytics explores the benefits of predictive analytics in healthcare.
  • The FEHBlog noticed this entry on the OMB Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs website.
AGENCY: OPMRIN: 3206-AO43Status: Pending ReviewRequest EO Meeting
TITLE: Postal Service Reform Act; Establishment of the Postal Service Health Benefits Program 
STAGE: Final RuleSECTION 3(f)(1) SIGNIFICANT: No
** RECEIVED DATE: 02/06/2024LEGAL DEADLINE: None  
From Reginfo.gov
  • This notice pertains to OPM’s effort to finalize the interim final rule establishing the Postal Service Health Benefits Program issued April 6, 2023. OIRA review is the last step in the regulatory process before publication of this “final, final” rule in the Federal Register. OPM had project publishing that rule this month.
  • Drug Channels discusses
    • the latest National Health Expenditure (NHE) data, which measures all U.S. spending on healthcare.
    • As you will see, retail and mail prescription drug spending remain a consistently small share of the $4.5 trillion that we spend on U.S. healthcare. 
    • And contrary to what you might read, drug spending growth was *not* driven by purportedly “skyrocketing” drug prices. In reality, nearly all drug spending growth occurred due to growth in the number of people treated, prescriptions dispensed, and other nonprice factors.

From the public health and medical research,

  • The Washington Post offers an opinion piece by former CDC Director Thomas Frieden about the public health importance of treating hypertension.
  • The Post also provides background on stomach cancer, the disease that cause country singer Toby’s Keith’s death earlier this week.
  • The National Institutes of Health announced,
    • In a recent study of the brain’s waste drainage system, researchers from Washington University in St. Louis, collaborating with investigators at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), a part of the National Institute of Health (NIH), discovered a direct connection between the brain and its tough protective covering, the dura mater. These links may allow waste fluid to leave the brain while also exposing the brain to immune cells and other signals coming from the dura. This challenges the conventional wisdom which has suggested that the brain is cut off from its surroundings by a series of protective barriers, keeping it safe from dangerous chemicals and toxins lurking in the environment.
    • “Waste fluid moves from the brain into the body much like how sewage leaves our homes,” said NINDS’s Daniel S. Reich, M.D., Ph.D. “In this study, we asked the question of what happens once the ‘drain pipes’ leave the ‘house’—in this case, the brain—and connect up with the city sewer system within the body.” Reich’s group worked jointly with the lab of Jonathan Kipnis, Ph.D., a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. * * *
    • Together, the labs found a “cuff” of cells that surround blood vessels as they pass through the arachnoid space. These areas, which they called arachnoid cuff exit (ACE) points, appear to act as areas where fluid, molecules, and even some cells can pass from the brain into the dura and vice versa, without allowing complete mixing of the two fluids. In some disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, impaired waste clearance can cause disease-causing proteins to build up. Continuing the sewer analogy, Kipnis explained the possible connection to ACE points:  
    • “If your sink is clogged, you can remove water from the sink or fix the faucet, but ultimately you need to fix the drain,” he said. “In the brain, clogs at ACE points may prevent waste from leaving. If we can find a way to clean these clogs, its possible we can protect the brain.”  
  • Medscape lets us know,
    • “Dry January has come to an end — at least for those who jumped on the trendy post-holiday no-booze wagon.
    • “The benefits of drinking less alcohol are well documented. A systematic review of 63 studies, for example, found that reducing or giving up alcohol reduced people’s risk for hospitalization, injuries, and death. The lifestyle change also improved people’s physical and mental health as well as their quality of life.
    • “When it comes to cancer risk, however, the benefits of quitting or cutting back on alcohol remain much less clear, according to a new report from the cancer agency of the World Health Organization (WHO).
    • “After reviewing dozens of studies, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that, for most alcohol-related cancers, there is limited evidence to support a link between eliminating or reducing alcohol consumption and lowering of cancer risk.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Healthcare Dive relates,
    • “Citing elevated medical costs, CVS Health on Wednesday cut its 2024 outlook despite posting better revenue and earnings than Wall Street had expected in the fourth quarter.
    • The massive healthcare conglomerate now expects to bring in at least $8.30 in adjusted earnings per share this year, compared to prior guidance of $8.50.
    • “CVS is the latest insurer to post 2024 guidance below investors’ expectations, after Humana released a disappointing earnings outlook last month.”
  • and
    • “Amazon is cutting hundreds of jobs across One Medical and Amazon Pharmacy, the company confirmed on Wednesday.
    • “The goal of the cuts is to “realign” resources to meet the divisions’ goals, Amazon Health Services SVP Neil Lindsay said in an email to staff shared with Healthcare Dive. The company is not disclosing the number of employees or what roles are being impacted by the cuts.
    • “Affected employees will receive financial support and benefit continuation, as well as the opportunity to apply for new roles at Amazon, according to Lindsay. Amazon is not on a hiring freeze and will continue to hire providers and employees for One Medical and Amazon Pharmacy.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review notes,
    • “More than a quarter of the top U.S. hospitals for patient experience fall under Providence’s umbrella, according to a new ranking from PEP Health
    • “The Minneapolis-based AI platform extracts behavioral insights data from patient comments shared on multiple social media and review platforms. To rank the top U.S. hospitals for patient experience in 2024, PEP Health gathered and analyzed more than 30 million online patient reviews shared between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2023.  * * *
    • “On average, the top 30 scored 30% higher in continuity of care, 22% higher in attention to physical and environmental needs, and 17% higher in fast access than their peers. 
    • “Hospitals belonging to Renton, Wash.-based Providence excelled on more than half of the assessment metrics, according to PEP’s report. Although eight of the top 30 hospitals were prefixed with “Providence” — and another, Swedish Medical Center-First Hill in Seattle, is an affiliate — the system could still show improvement in communication and emotional support, per the AI company.”
  • Per BioPharma Dive,
    • “Amgen is a global pharmaceutical company worth more than $160 billion. Nine of its marketed medicines are blockbuster products by annual sales.
    • “Yet, on a Tuesday conference call discussing Amgen’s fourth quarter earnings, all Wall Street analysts wanted to talk about was an experimental drug that only just cleared the first stage of human testing.
    • “More than half of the questions asked by analysts were focused on AMG 133, a promising treatment for obesity that’s drawn attention as a potential competitor to in-demand weight loss medicines from Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly. While Wall Street often overlooks the present to focus on the future, the intense interest in a drug years away from the market was noteworthy.”
  • Milliman has made available its
    • “sixth annual Milliman Multiemployer Health and Welfare Study, which analyzes financial disclosures for multiemployer health and welfare plans, also known as Taft-Hartley plans. This year’s report includes data for 1,226 plans covering approximately 4.6 million members as of 2021, the most recent year for which data is available. The average plan could pay about one year and three months of benefits and expenses with its net assets, a decrease of approximately one month from 2020.”

Happy Groundhog Day

From Gobbler’s Notch, PA, NPR informs us,

  • “Punxsutawney Phil, the renowned groundhog who’s been predicting when winter will end since 1887, says things are about to warm up.
  • “Glad tidings on this Groundhog Day. An early spring is on the way,” a proclamation was read out at Gobbler’s Knob, elating a crowd of thousands of people who had weathered dark and cold to see the famous rodent.”

From Washington, DC

  • Rep. James Comer, the Chair of the House of Representatives Oversight and Accountability Committee announced that the full Committee will be marking up several bills next Tuesday at 10 am, including
    • “H.R. 6283, the Delinking Revenue from Unfair Gouging Act: Adds a new section to the Federal Employees Health Benefits Act which would make changes to Pharmacy Benefit Manager (PBM) pricing, including implementing de-linking policies and requiring a PBM to only charge a flat fee for drug placement versus letting them continue to charge a percentage of the drug.”
    • The markup will be open to the public and press [at 2154 Rayburn House Office Building”] and will be live streamed online at https://oversight.house.gov/.
  • Govexec tells us,
    • “The federal government added 11,000 jobs in January, an usually high number but in line with recent trends under the Biden administration. 
    • “Including the U.S. Postal Service, federal agencies have seen robust growth of 86,000 jobs over the last year. Not counting decennial census years when the government hires hundreds of thousands of temporary workers, total federal employment reached its highest level in at least 20 years, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The last year saw the most non-census hiring of any 12-month period over the same two-decade period. 
    • “Of the 11,000 jobs gained in January, about 4,500 were for the Postal Service and 6,500 went toward the rest of federal government. Only a handful of non-census months over the last 20 years have seen such significant federal job growth. Federal employment has increased in 16 of the last 17 months.” 
  • mHealth Intelligence points out,
    • “The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published a final rule on February 2 that significantly expands access to medications for opioid use disorder (OUD), including allowing treatment initiation through telehealth.”The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will publish a final rule on February 2 that significantly expands access to medications for opioid use disorder (OUD), including allowing treatment initiation through telehealth.
    • “This final rule updates certain provisions of regulations related to Opioid Treatment Program (OTP) accreditation, certification, and standards for treating OUD with medications. These are the first substantial changes to the rules governing OTPs in 20 years.”
  • Healthcare Finance delves into the 2025 Advance Notice for the Medicare Advantage and Medicare Part D Prescription Drug Programs released Wednesday.
  • The Affordable Care Act regulators issued ACA Frequently Asked Question 65 which seeks to resolve a Transparency in Coverage compliance issue.
  • “On Thursday, the FDA advised consumers in the Don’t Overuse Acetaminophen Consumer Update to be cautious not to exceed the daily maximum recommended dose of acetaminophen, which can lead to overdose and severe liver damage. Over 600 medications – both prescription and nonprescription – have acetaminophen to help relieve pain and reduce fever.”
  • The Hill reports that Perigo expects to have its Opill over the counter female contraceptive pills on pharmacy shelves in the first quarter of 2024. Perigo has not accounced Opill’s retail price, “with a spokesperson saying it is committed to making sure its product is ‘accessible to people who need it.'”

From the U.S. public health and medical research front,

  • The University of Minnesota’s CIDRAP reports,
    • “After declining trends over the past few weeks, flu activity rose in some parts of the country, while COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) levels continued overall declines, according to the latest updates today from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
    • “Though flu indicators declined following the winter holidays, the CDC has said that it is watching for a second peak that sometimes occurs after the winter holidays. In its respiratory virus snapshot, the CDC said some regions are seeing rising flu indicators, especially in the Midwest and South-Central regions.
    • “Also, the percentage of respiratory samples that were positive for flu at clinical labs rose last week to 16.2%, compared to 14.2% the previous week, the CDC said in its weekly flu update. Influenza A is still dominant, with 60.4% of subtyped samples belonging to the 2009 H1N1 subtype. There were increases in the percentages of H3N2 and influenza B detections compared to the previous week.
    • “Outpatient visits for flulike illness held steady and have been above the national baseline since November. However, CDC surveillance shows a rise for one age-group: people ages 5 to 24 years.”
  • The Center for Disease Control adds,
    • “According to insurance claims data for adults 18 years and older, as of January 13, 2024, the number of flu vaccination doses given so far this season in pharmacies and medical offices is lower compared with last season by about 7 million doses (from 66 million to 59 million doses, or about a 10% percent decline). There were drops in the number of doses given in both pharmacies and medical offices this season compared with last season.”
  • The National Institutes of Health’s Director explains in her blog why “Findings in Tuberculosis Immunity Point Toward New Approaches to Treatment and Prevention.”
  • Precision Vaccinations discusses why HIV vaccine development is rekindling in 2024.
  • Mercer Consulting lets us know,
    • “Black Americans represent approximately 12% of the U.S. population but account for 40% of people with HIV. The rate of new HIV infections among Black women is 10 times that of white women and four times that of Latina women. While HIV can affect anyone regardless of sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, gender, age, or where they live, some population groups have higher rates of HIV in their communities, thus raising the risk of new infections.  
    • “Black communities have made great progress in reducing HIV. Yet racism, discrimination, and mistrust in the health care system may affect whether Black people seek or receive HIV prevention services. These issues may also reduce the likelihood of engaging in HIV treatment and care.
    • National Black HIV AIDS Awareness Day on February 7 is an opportunity to increase HIV education, testing, community involvement, and treatment among Black communities. We encourage employers to use this as a call to action to educate your workforce about HIV, to reduce stigma and create workplaces where everyone feels they belong, as well as help make employees aware of the HIV prevention and treatment resources available to them.”
  • Fierce Healthcare adds,
    • “There are significant health disparities among people with employer coverage, but plan sponsors still have work to do to fully address those issues, according to a new analysis.
    • “The report comes from Morgan Health, the healthcare arm of banking giant JPMorgan Chase. It identifies some critical disparities in the employer-sponsored sector and suggests strategies employer can use to tackle these challenges.
  • NPR interviews an anatomy professor who explains why a person’s appendix is useful.
    • “It turns out that the appendix appears to have two related functions. The first function is supporting the immune system. The appendix has a high concentration of immune tissue, so it’s acting to help the immune system fight any bad things in the gut. 
    • “The second function that it serves is what we refer to as the safe house. So this was a hypothesis that was put forward by a team from Duke University in 2007. And they argued that the appendix may serve as a safe reservoir for the beneficial gut bacteria that we have.” 

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Beckers Payer Issues reports,
    • “The Cigna Group is projecting $235 billion in revenue by the end of 2024 and recorded double-digit growth in the fourth quarter across its core lines of business at Evernorth Health Services and Cigna Healthcare, according to the company’s year-end earnings report published Feb. 2.
    • “Total revenues in the fourth quarter were $51.1 billion, up 12% year over year. Total revenues in 2023 were $195.3 billion, up 8%.
    • “In the fourth quarter, net income was more than $1 billion, down 14% from nearly $1.2 billion year over year. Year-end net income was nearly $5.2 billion, down 23% year over year. 
    • “Evernorth revenues rose 12% year over year to $40.5 billion in the fourth quarter. Operational earnings in the fourth quarter were nearly $1.5 billion, and $4.8 billion in 2023.
    • “The insurance side of the business, Cigna Healthcare, reported fourth-quarter revenues of nearly $13 billion, up 16% from the previous year. Operational income in the fourth quarter was $925 million, and $4.2 billion in 2023.
    • “The company’s medical loss ratio was 82.2% in the fourth quarter, compared to 83.8% during the same period last year. In 2023, the company’s MLR was 81.3%.”
  • Healthcare Dive adds,
    • “Cigna on Friday defended its decision to sell its Medicare division, with management telling investors the health insurer will emerge from the divestiture as a leaner and more focused organization.
    • “On a call to discuss Cigna’s fourth-quarter earnings, analysts peppered the payer’s C-suite with questions about the trajectory of its business following the sale, which some had criticized for seeming to undervalue Cigna’s Medicare lives.
    • “Cigna still likes Medicare as an expansion area, but is more interested in providing services like pharmacy benefits to other Medicare Advantage organizations than offering plans itself, according to CEO David Cordani. “We were really pleased with the nature of the transaction we were able to structure,” Cordani said on the call. ”We see it as a win-win.”
  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “When Florida Blue announced this week that it’s partnering with Sanitas Medical Center in Jacksonville to deliver primary care, officials with the company considered it in keeping with a healthcare system that’s evolving from one based on volume to one based on value.
    • “The healthcare system has largely been fee-for-service,” Elana Schrader, M.D., senior vice president of Florida Blue healthcare services and president of sister company GuideWell Health, told Fierce Healthcare. “Now, we’re talking about paying for services that help us achieve better outcomes. It’s a whole new value equation. Value-based care has been around, but it’s growing and growing.
    • “She added that in the future the health plan hopes that most, if not all, of the care provided will be based on value not volume. The umbrella of what can be described as primary care at the Jacksonville center is a large one under which resides, according to a press release, “preventive and primary care, onsite pharmacy dispensing, chronic condition management, mental health services, labs and imaging, and a community use space for patient and community education and social engagement and wellness classes and activities.”
  • and
    • “Optum Perks is rolling out a new telehealth solution that aims to make it easier for patients to secure their prescriptions at a low cost.
    • “Optum Perks is a part of the RVO Health umbrella, which is jointly backed by Red Ventures and UnitedHealth Group’s Optum. Its sister, Optum Store, is also within RVO Health. Optum Perks offers prescription discounts to consumers and is building on that foundation through the new virtual platform.
    • “Users can access care on demand starting at $25 for hundreds of conditions and needs including acne, birth control, cold and flu, high blood pressure and more. It services are available for people with or without insurance.”
  • Per Healthcare Dive,
    • “Telehealth availability for mental healthcare varies widely from state to state, suggesting some patients may face “several hurdles” when booking appointments for services, according to a study published Friday in JAMA Health Forum.
    • “The analysis, conducted by nonprofit research institute Rand Corporation, found less than half of mental health treatment facilities in Mississippi and South Carolina offered telehealth care, while all facilities contacted in Delaware, Maine, New Mexico and Oregon did. Researchers were also unable to reach one in five facilities when attempting to inquire about telehealth options, the study found.” 
  • Beckers Hospital Review lists emergency department visit times by state.
    • “Patients in Washington, D.C., had the highest median time spent in the emergency department, while patients in North Dakota had the lowest, CMS data shows.
    • “The agency’s “Timely and Effective Care” dataset, updated Jan. 31, tracks the average median time patients spend in the emergency department before leaving. The measures apply to children and adults treated at hospitals paid under the Inpatient Prospective Payment System or the Outpatient Prospective Payment System, as well as those that voluntarily report data on relevant measures for Medicare patients, Medicare managed care patients and non-Medicare patients. 
    • “Data was collected from April 2022 through March 2023. Averages include data for Veterans Health Administration and Department of Defense hospitals. Learn more about the methodology here.
    • “Nationwide, the median time patients spent in the ED was 162 minutes, up from 159 minutes in the 12-month period ending in March 2022, according to CMS data. In the same period ending in 2021, this figure sat at 149 minutes.”

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • The Department of Health and Human Services announced today that
    • “Sickle cell disease (SCD) will be the first focus of the Cell and Gene Therapy (CGT) Access Model, which was initially announced in February 2023. The model is designed to improve health outcomes, increase access to cell and gene therapies, and lower health care costs for some of the nation’s most vulnerable populations. * * *
    • “Gene therapies for sickle cell disease have the potential to treat this devastating condition and transform people’s lives, offering them a chance to live healthier and potentially avoid associated health issues,” said CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure. “Increasing access to these promising therapies will not only help keep people healthy, but it can also lead to savings for states and taxpayers as the long-term costs of treating sickle cell disease may be avoided.” * * *
    • “For additional information see the fact sheet – PDF and CGT model page.
  • The American Hospital Association reports,
    • “Paxlovid may no longer be distributed with an emergency use label after March 8, the Food and Drug Administration announced. Providers may dispense unexpired Paxlovid labeled for emergency use to patients through March 8, after which Paxlovid labeled for emergency use must be returned to the manufacturer or disposed of in accord with regulations, the agency said.
    • “The FDA last May approved a new drug application for Pfizer’s Paxlovid to treat adults at high risk of progressing to severe COVID-19. Paxlovid labeled under the new drug application will continue to be authorized for emergency use to treat eligible pediatric patients, the agency said.”
  • Following up on Affordable Care Act FAQ 64, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management issued today a carrier letter no. 2024-03 on contraceptive coverage and patient education.
  • Reuters reports,
    • “Pharmaceutical companies are due to receive by Thursday the U.S. government’s opening proposal for what are expected to be significant discounts on 10 of its high-cost medicines, an important step in the Medicare health program’s first ever price negotiations.
    • “Five Wall Street analysts and two investors told Reuters they expect the negotiations over prices that will go into effect in 2026 to result in cuts ranging from the statutory minimum of 25% to as much as 60% when the final numbers are set in September.
    • “The drugmakers and the government are expected to wait until then to disclose them.” * * *
    • “Pharmaceutical companies and business groups have filed more than half a dozen lawsuits to stop the negotiations from taking place, saying that they are unlawful.
    • “Drug companies say the law’s costs will hurt drug development programs and patients.”
    • “The lawsuits have not slowed the implementation timeline.”
  • Axios points out that CMS’s recent prior authorization proposed rule do not apply to prescription drug claims.
  • The Federal Acquisition Regulation Council published in the Federal Register today a proposed rule
    • “would prohibit contractors and subcontractors from seeking and considering information about job applicants’ compensation history when making employment decisions for certain positions. Under the proposed policy and the proposed regulatory amendments, contractors and subcontractors would also be required to disclose the compensation to be offered to the hired applicant in job announcements for certain positions.”
  • The public comment period ends on April 1, 2024.

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “People who are suffering from severe pain but don’t want to risk addiction to an opioid are closer to a new option for treatment.
    • Vertex Pharmaceuticals on Tuesday reported positive study results for its closely watched non-opioid painkiller. The drug lowered the moderate-to-severe acute pain reported by study volunteers, a sign it could be the first in a new class of painkiller to be approved for use.
    • “But the experimental medicine is more likely to provide an alternative to opioids, rather than supplant them, because it didn’t work better than a widely used opioid drug sold under the brand name Vicodin.
    • “Vertex said it would file for approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration by the middle of this year.”
  • STAT News tells us,
    • “Drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy — already game changers for diabetes and obesity — are being studied to treat an entirely different growing health problem: mental health illnesses, including depression and bipolar disorder.
    • “Early data and anecdotes suggest that this class of GLP-1 drugs could help patients feel less depressed and anxious. The treatment may also fight the decline in cognitive and executive function that many people with mental health disorders experience, like worsening memory and losing the ability to focus and plan.
    • “If further research yields positive results, it could drive even more demand for the highly popular GLP-1 treatments, which have increasingly been shown to help with problems across the body, such as heart and kidney complications. And especially if the cognitive benefits are proven out, the GLP-1 drugs would plug a critical gap in current treatments for depression, since most depression drugs help with mood, but close to none address cognitive symptoms that affect memory and attention.”
  • and
    • “The U.S. syphilis epidemic isn’t abating, with the rate of infectious cases rising 9% in 2022, according to a new federal government report on sexually transmitted diseases in adults.
    • “But there’s some unexpected good news: The rate of new gonorrhea cases fell for the first time in a decade.
    • “It’s not clear why syphilis rose 9% while gonorrhea dropped 9%, officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, adding that it’s too soon to know whether a new downward trend is emerging for the latter.
    • “They are most focused on syphilis, which is less common than gonorrhea or chlamydia but considered more dangerous. Total cases surpassed 207,000 in 2022, the highest count in the United States since 1950, according to data released Tuesday.”
  • MedTech Dive calls attention to “four heart device trends shaping the medtech sector in 2024. Medtronic, Boston Scientific and J&J are among the medtech companies advancing treatments in cardiac care for when medicines are not enough.
  • MedCity Dive discusses “How Food as Medicine is Becoming A Core Team Capability. As the food as medicine movement grows, some payers and healthcare organizations are carving out specific roles and teams dedicated to food and nutrition. Doing so can be beneficial considering the significant impact diet can have on health outcomes.”
  • The Washington Post notes,
    • “Older adults spend an average of three weeks every year on doctor’s appointments and other health care outside their homes, according to research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
    • “Of those 21 “health care contact days,” 17 involve ambulatory services, such as office visits with primary-care doctors or specialists, testing and imaging, procedures, treatments and therapy. The remaining four days included time spent in an emergency room, hospital, skilled nursing facility or hospice.
    • “The study also found that about 11 percent of people 65 and over spend even more time — 50 or more days each year (nearly one day a week) — obtaining routine health care away from home. The research was based on Medicare data from a nationally representative sample of 6,619 people 65 and older.
    • “The findings represent “not only access to needed care but also substantial time, efforts and cost, especially for older adults and their care partners,” the researchers wrote.”
  • Peterson – KFF Health System Tracker offers a study comparing U.S. life expectancy to other countries.

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Pfizer released its full year 2023 results and reaffirmed its full year 2024 financial guidance provided on December 13, 2023. “The fourth-quarter 2023 earnings presentation and accompanying prepared remarks from management as well as the quarterly update to Pfizer’s R&D pipeline can be found at www.pfizer.com.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review reports,
    • “Nashville, Tenn.-based HCA Healthcare saw revenues of $17.3 billion in the fourth quarter of 2023, up from $15.5 billion over the same period in 2022, according to its financial report released Jan. 30.” 
  • and
    • “Nonprofit Hospitals’ operating margins are far below the pre-pandemic “magic number” of 3% and are in danger of a permanent reset in the 1%-2% range, according to a Jan. 29 report published by Fitch Ratings.
    • “This operating margin reset is worrying some investors, but “hospital downgrades en masse would be unlikely because many systems have built up robust balance sheets and learned to economize on capital spending to a certain degree,” Kevin Holloran, senior director and sector head at Fitch, said.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • Govexec reports,
    • “Key congressional negotiators have reached an agreement on how to divvy up funding for the fiscal 2024 spending bills, clearing a major threshold that will allow appropriators to finalize those measures. 
    • “The deal, confirmed by a source familiar with talks, was hammered out after weeks of negotiations between Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, who respectively chair the Senate and House Appropriations Committees, and establishes how much money will be allocated to each of the 12 bills Congress must pass to fund government each year. With those allocations set, lawmakers can now complete their work of setting line-by-line funding for every program and office in agencies across government.”
  • Federal News Network tells us,
    • “The Office of Personnel Management is issuing a final rule to bar the government from considering a person’s current or past pay when determining their salary for federal employment. Administration officials said this step will help limit pay discrimination and ensure compensation is based on an applicant’s skills, experience and expertise.
    • “A similar proposal will offer protections to those employed by federal contractors.
    • “The Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council is issuing a proposal to prohibit federal contractors and subcontractors from seeking and considering information about a job applicant’s compensation history when hiring or setting pay for anyone who works on a government contract.
    • “The proposal also requires contractors and subcontractors to disclose salary ranges in job postings.
    • “Administration officials said the proposal would help federal contractors recruit, diversify and retain talent, improve job satisfaction and performance and reduce turnover.”
  • The Department of Health and Human Services is holding a virtual summit this Wednesday January 31 “for policymakers, advocates, researchers, and a wide variety of stakeholders with equities in the Food is Medicine space to engage in a substantive conversation about why food is medicine is important, what actions are being taken to promote this concept, and what stakeholders can do to bolster this work.”
  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services informs us about
    • “Increased participation in CMS’ accountable care organization (ACO) initiatives in 2024, which will increase the quality of care for more people with Medicare. Of note, CMS is announcing that 19 newly formed accountable care organizations (ACOs) in the Medicare Shared Savings Program (Shared Savings Program) are participating in a new, permanent payment option beginning in 2024 that is enabling these ACOs to receive more than $20 million in advance investment payments (AIPs) for caring for underserved populations. An additional 50 ACOs are new to the program in 2024, and 71 ACOs renewed their participation, bringing the total to 480 ACOs now participating in the Shared Savings Program, the largest ACO program in the country. CMS also announced that 245 organizations are continuing their participation in two CMS Innovation Center models — ACO Realizing Equity, Access, and Community Health (ACO REACH) and the Kidney Care Choices (KCC) models.”
  • Bloomberg reports,
    • “Justice Department investigators are scrutinizing the healthcare industry’s use of AI embedded in patient records that prompts doctors to recommend treatments.
    • “Prosecutors have started subpoenaing pharmaceuticals and digital health companies to learn more about generative technology’s role in facilitating anti-kickback and false claims violations, said three sources familiar with the matter. It comes as electronic health record vendors are integrating more sophisticated artificial intelligence tools to match patients with particular drugs and devices.
    • “It’s unclear how advanced the cases are and where they fit in the Biden administration’s initiative to spur innovation in healthcare AI while regulating to promote safeguards. Two of the sources—speaking anonymously to discuss ongoing investigations—said DOJ attorneys are asking general questions suggesting they still may be formulating a strategy.”
  • Per Healthcare Dive,
    • “Federal legislation holding patients blameless for surprise medical charges prevented more than 10 million unexpected bills in the first nine months of 2023, according to a new analysis by health insurance groups.
    • “The survey of U.S. payers from AHIP and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association also highlighted a “growing and troubling trend” — an increasing number of claims going through the payment negotiation process set up by the No Surprises Act.
    • “Regulators forecast that 17,000 claims would go through that process, called independent dispute resolution, each year. However, AHIP and BCBSA estimate almost 670,000 claims were submitted to IDRbetween January and September 2023 alone.”
  • Per BioPharma Dive,
    • “Philips has agreed to stop selling new sleep therapy devices or other respiratory care products in the U.S., roughly two-and-a-half years after launching its massive recall of related products, the company said Monday. 
    • “The company agreed to the action as part of a consent decree it is entering into with the U.S. Department of Justice, representing the Food and Drug Administration. Philips has been negotiating the decree in light of the quality problems that led to its recall of more than 15 million sleep therapy and respiratory care devices. The decree is now being finalized ahead of its submission to a U.S. court for approval.
    • “Philips shared details of the agreement as part of its fourth-quarter earnings call.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • ABC News reports,
    • “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is warning clinicians to remain on alert for measles cases due to a growing number of infections.
    • “Between Dec. 1, 2023, and Jan. 23, 2024, there have been 23 confirmed cases of measles including seven cases from international travelers and two outbreaks with five or more infections each, according to an email sent this week.
    • “Cases have been reported in PennsylvaniaNew JerseyDelaware and the Washington, D.C. area so far.
    • “Most of these cases were among children and adolescents who had not been vaccinated against measles, despite being eligible.
    • “According to the CDC, most measles cases in the U.S. occur when unvaccinated or partially vaccinated Americans travel internationally, contract the disease and then spread it to those who are unvaccinated upon their return.”
  • Bloomberg offers background on the effective measles vaccine.
    • “The measles, mumps and rubella combined vaccine is so effective that in the US, thanks to a widely accepted vaccine campaign, measles was declared eliminated in 2000.
    • “But the disease has made a comeback. A now-discredited studypublished in the journal The Lancet in 1998 suggested that the MMR vaccine was linked to autism. This is not true, but some parents became reluctant to immunize their children. Dahl’s letter about the measles vaccine has had an online revival multiple times in the past decade, as measles spread repeatedly in children who’d never gotten their shots.
    • “The disease is flaring up again now, this time in Europe, where the World Health Organization waved a warning flag last week. The region reported more than 40,000 cases between January and November of last year, compared to 942 in 2022. The havoc the Covid-19 pandemic wreaked on basic preventative care is partly to blame.”
  • The National Institutes of Health provides us with an emotional wellness tookit.
  • MedPage Today points out,
    • A multiparametric blood test for prostate cancer showed potential to avoid more than half of unnecessary biopsies without sacrificing accuracy, a large prospective study showed.
    • In a comparison against the current PSA testing standard of ≥4 ng/mL, the Stockholm3 biomarker, which incorporates a PSA cutoff of 15 ng/mL with other proteins and genomic information, would have spared 56% of men from biopsies for grade group (GG) 1 or benign disease. The standard PSA cutoff would have avoided 19% of unnecessary biopsies, decreasing to 10% with a cutoff of ≥3 ng/mL.
    • Sensitivity, specificity, and predictive values with the multicomponent test either approximated or surpassed those achieved with conventional PSA testing, reported Scott Eggener, MD, of the University of Chicago, at the Genitourinary Cancers Symposium

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Health Payer Intelligence notes,
    • “UnitedHealth Group saw revenue growth of over 14 percent in 2023, while adding 1.7 million new consumers to its Medicare and commercial offerings, executives shared during the UnitedHealth Group Fourth Quarter and Full Year 2023 Earnings Conference Call.
    • “Last year was a “year of balanced, sustainable growth for UnitedHealth Group,” according to Andrew Witty, CEO of UnitedHealth Group.”
  • Beckers Payer Issues lets us know,
    • “Though Medicare Advantage enrollment keeps climbing, the program may not have the profitability it once did for insurers. 
    • “In a January analysis shared with Becker’s, Moody’s analysts wrote that the program “seems to be losing some of its luster,” facing a significant increase in medical costs and lower reimbursement rates from CMS. 
    • “Earnings in Medicare Advantage shrunk by 2.1% among the insurers Moody’s rated from 2019 to 2022, despite premiums and members growing by 40% in the same time period.”
  • and
    • After a called-off merger between Humana and Cigna, executives at both companies say the companies are focused on staying on their existing courses. 
    • Neither company has directly addressed the called-off merger, but they have each fielded questions from investors on the outlook for the future. 
  • Beckers Hospital Review explains how the Ozempic boom affects hospital pharmacies.

Friday Factoid

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

From Washington, DC

  • Govexec informs us,
    • “Federal agencies will have to speed up their presidential transition preparations and ensure they are prepared for extended periods without a known electoral winner under a new law introduced on Friday by a bipartisan pair of senators. 
    • “The Agency Preparation for Transitions Act, put forward by Sens. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, aims to provide greater resources to career employees at federal agencies tasked with preparing potential future administrations. Agencies already face a slew of requirements in drafting materials and answering questions from campaign transition teams, but the new measure looks to speed up some of the established timelines for those interactions and boost communication between the White House and agency transition teams.”
  • The Department of Health and Human Services announced
    • “On December 7, the Biden-Harris Administration announced new actions to promote competition in health care, including increasing transparency in the Medicare Advantage (MA) insurance market and strengthening MA programmatic data. Today, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), is continuing momentum in this area by releasing a Request for Information (RFI) to solicit feedback from the public on how best to enhance MA data capabilities and increase public transparency. Transparency is especially important now that MA has grown to over 50% of Medicare enrollment, and the government is expected to pay MA health insurance companies over $7 trillion over the next decade. The information solicited by this RFI will support efforts for MA plans to best meet the needs of people with Medicare, for people with Medicare to have timely access to care, to ensure that MA plans appropriately use taxpayer funds, and for the market to have healthy competition. * * *
    • The MA Data RFI can be accessed on the Federal Register’s webpage at https://www.federalregister.gov/public-inspection/current.  Comments are due on May 29, 2024.
  • MedTech Dive reports,
    • “Absolutions Med has received breakthrough designation for an abdominal wall closure device that is intended to reduce the risk of hernia. 
    • “The Food and Drug Administration designation, which Absolutions disclosed Wednesday, covers a device designed to distribute suture tension over a large area of tissue.
    • “Absolutions began testing the device, Rebuild Bioabsorbable, in cancer patients undergoing abdominal surgeries in 2022, and the company began a study in a broader population in March 2023.”
  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services made available the latest version of the Section 111 reporting user guide for group health plans and the slides from a recent webinar on the new Section 111 civil monetary penalties program that kicks in on October 11, 2024.
  • The Society Human Resource Management points out that
    • “The Department of Labor has issued guidance on emergency savings accounts linked to retirement savings plans, a new benefit available this year under a provision of the Secure 2.0 Act of 2022.
    • Secure 2.0 amended the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) to authorize the establishment of pension-linked emergency savings accounts (PLESAs), which are short-term savings accounts established and maintained as part of an individual’s retirement savings plan, such as a 401(k) plan. The provision creating PLESAs, Section 127, took effect on Jan. 1.
    • “The DOL guidance comes in the form of 20 frequently asked questions.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • STAT News reports,
    • “A historic new study out of Scotland shows the real-world impact of vaccines against the human papillomavirus: The country has detected no cases of cervical cancer in women born between 1988-1996 who were fully vaccinated against HPV between the ages of 12 and 13.
    • “Many previous studies have shown that HPV vaccines are extremely effective in preventing cervical cancer. But the study, published on Monday in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, is the first to monitor a national cohort of women over such a long time period and find no occurrence of cervical cancer.
    • “The study is super exciting. It shows that the vaccine is extremely effective,” said Kathleen Schmeler, a professor of gynecologic oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, who was not involved in the research. “It’s obviously early. We’re just starting to see the first data of the impact of the vaccine because it takes so long from the time of the vaccine to the effects.”
    • “The results underscore the importance of working to increase uptake of the HPV vaccine in the U.S., said Schmeler. Scotland, for example, introduced routine immunization in schools in 2008, and close to 90% of students in their fourth year of secondary school (equivalent to 10th grade in the U.S.) in the 2022-2023 school year had received at least one dose of the vaccine. In the U.S., where HPV vaccines are not administered in school, uptake among adolescents ages 13 to 17 is a little over 60%.
    • “The study also points to how crucial the timing of vaccination is. “The girls that didn’t develop any cancer were vaccinated before becoming sexually active,” said Schlemer. “So we should not wait to vaccinate folks and really do it, for the guidelines, prior to becoming sexually active.”
  • The Centers for Disease Control tells us,
    • “A new CDC study has found that more recent COVID-19 hospitalizations among adults experienced fewer severe outcomes than during earlier parts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that the proportion of severe hospital outcomes from COVID-19 became more similar to adults hospitalized with flu. Most recently, when COVID-19 Omicron variants predominated, hospitalized flu and COVID-19 patients had similar levels of intensive care unit (ICU) admissions and use of supplemental oxygen, respiratory support, and invasive mechanical ventilation. Even the risk of death as an outcome became more similar across the two diseases, with the exception of among people 18 to 49 years, who continued to experience higher in-hospital deaths from COVID-19. This study underscores the fact that both diseases have the potential to be dangerous and that both warrant the compliance with CDC prevention and treatment recommendations.
    • “The study, published in Open Forum Infectious Diseases, analyzed a subset of adult hospitalizations with COVID-19 or flu that were recorded in one surveillance system to compare clinical outcomes and other characteristics between the two groups. People who were hospitalized with COVID-19 were additionally sorted into groups depending on the predominant COVID-19 variant circulating at the time. The most recent COVID-19 Omicron BA.5-predominant period was compared to flu outcomes during the 2021-2022 season.”
  • MedPage Today offers a transcript of an interview with Dr. Paul Paul Offit, MD, on “the history of the MMR vaccine and the lasting legacy of COVID.”
  • Precision Vaccinations lets us know,
    • “In 2023, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved one respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) vaccine and an updated monoclonal antibody therapy to prevent respiratory disease in very young children.
    • “Given these were new options, health officials did not know which product pregnant women would prefer during the 2023-2024 RSV season.
    • “According to new data published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on January 23, 2024, the winner has been Beyfortus™ (Nirsevimab).”
  • The JAMA Open Network explains,
    • Question  What are the long-term trends in breast cancer incidence among women aged 20 to 49 years?
    • Findings  In this population-based, cross-sectional study using data from Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results, age-standardized, age-cohort–adjusted, and age-period–adjusted breast cancer incidence rates increased over the past 20 years among different races in different age groups. Incidence rates for estrogen receptor (ER)-positive, stage I, and stage IV tumors increased, while rates decreased for ER-negative, stage II, and stage III tumors.
    • Meaning  These results suggest that understanding factors driving differential trends in incidence rates for different age groups by race and ER-positive status should provide insights into breast cancer prevention in young women.

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Beckers Hospital Review reports,
    • “Nonprofit hospital operating margins soared last year, increasing 20% January to November 2023 as compared to the same period in 2022, according to Kaufman Hall’s “National Hospital Flash Report,” published Jan. 9. 
    • “Operating EBITDA jumped 15% year over year in November and was up 9% for the first 11 months of the year compared to 2022.
    • “Hospitals with 500-plus beds also did particularly well. On average their operating margin was up 59.3% year over year for November, and operating EBITDA margin was : up 20.5%, according to Kaufman Hall.”
  • and
    • Boston-based Tufts Medicine reported a $171 million operating loss in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, a 57% improvement on the $399 million loss it posted in the previous year, according to financial documents published Jan. 26. 
    • Year over year, revenue increased 14.4% to $2.6 billion while expenses grew by 3.8% to $2.8 billion. Under expenses, salaries and wages increased 6.4% to $1.3 billion and employee benefits were up 6% to $260.5 million.
    • After accounting for the performance of its investment portfolio and other nonoperating items, Tufts ended the 12-month period with an overall gain of $1.6 million, a significant improvement on the $530.4 million net loss recorded in the prior year. 
  • Per Healthcare Dive,
    • “Healthcare bankruptcies spiked in 2023 to the highest level in the past five years, according to a report released Thursday by healthcare restructuring advisory firm Gibbins Advisors.
    • “The analysis included Chapter 11 bankruptcies for companies with liabilities of at least $10 million. Gibbins Advisors found 79 such bankruptcies last year — more than three times the level seen in 2021.
    • “The number of filings dropped from the third to the fourth quarter, but total case volume could remain high in 2024 as the market continues to be “very challenging” for providers, said Tyler Brasher, a director at Gibbins Advisors, in a statement.”
  • Mercer Consulting shared its views on managing prescription drug benefits.

 

The FEHBlog is back!!

On Friday, the FEHBlog flew from Austin to Washington, DC, having left his briefcase at home. As a result he did not have his laptop or his FEHBlog log in information over the weekend. He is back in action today.

From Washington, DC,

  • The White House issued a fact sheet about new actions taken by the White House Task Force on Reproductive Healthcare Access which is marking the 51st Anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Of note to the FEHB Program, the Fact Sheet discusses
    • “Strengthen[ing] Contraception Access and Affordability for Women with Private Health Insurance. The Administration is committed to ensuring that women have access to contraception—an essential component of reproductive health care that has only become more important in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade—and reducing barriers that women face in accessing contraception prescribed by their provider. The Departments of the Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services (HHS) are issuing new guidance [ACA FAQ 64] to clarify standards and support expanded coverage of a broader range of FDA-approved contraceptives at no cost under the Affordable Care Act. This action builds on the progress already made by the Affordable Care Act to expand access to affordable contraception for millions of women nationwide.
    • “In addition, the Office of Personnel Management will strengthen access to contraception for federal workers, retirees, and family members by issuing guidance to insurers participating in the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program that incorporates the Departments’ guidance. OPM will also newly require insurers that participate in the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program to take additional steps to educate enrollees about their contraception benefits.”
  • You may recall that OPM issued comprehensive guidance for carriers on contraceptive coverage in Carrier Letter No. 2022-17 back in the summer of 2022.
  • The FEHBlog was surprised that new ACA FAQ 64 does not announce a decision on whether group health plans are required to cover the new over-the-counter female contraceptive Opill which is not yet reached pharmacy shelves. The FEHBlog expects that the regulators will requires that group health plans cover Opill with no cost sharing when purchased at a network pharmacy.
  • In related news, the HHS and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced:
    • “launch[ing] a series of actions to educate the public about their rights to emergency medical care and to help support efforts of hospitals to meet their obligations under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA). As part of this comprehensive plan, the Department will:
      • “Publish new informational resources on CMS’s website to help individuals understand their rights under EMTALA and the process for submitting a complaint if they are denied emergency medical care;
      • “Partner with hospital and provider associations to disseminate training materials on providers’ obligations under EMTALA; 
      • “Convene hospital and provider associations to discuss best practices and challenges in ensuring compliance with EMTALA; and
      • “Establish a dedicated team of HHS experts who will increase the Department’s capacity to support hospitals in complying with federal requirements under EMTALA.”
  • In sum, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra also sent a “letter to Medicare plans, health insurance issuers, and State Medicaid and CHIP programs about upholding their [contraceptive coverage] bligations under federal law.
    • Secretary Becerra wrote: ‘From day one, the Biden-Harris Administration has made clear that women should have access to the healthcare they need, including contraception and other family planning services. I’m writing to reaffirm that access to reproductive healthcare is a core priority of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.’”
  • American Hospital News tells us,
    • “A Department of Veterans Affairs policy that provides free emergency suicide prevention care has helped nearly 50,000 veterans and former service members in its first year, the VA announced last week. The policy allows the agency to provide, pay for or reimburse for eligible individuals’ emergency suicide care, transportation costs and follow-up care at any VA or non-VA facility for up to 30 days of inpatient care and 90 days of outpatient care.”
  • CMS issued its latest top ten Section 111 reporting issues for group health plans.
  • Fierce Healthcare informs us,
    • Truveta, the real-world data analysis company backed by dozens of health systems and other life sciences groups, won a multi-million-dollar contract from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to assist with the agency’s research into maternal health, pediatric care and respiratory viruses, including COVID-19.
    • “The company will let the CDC tap into its collection of more than 100 million patients’ deidentified, normalized electronic health record data.
    • “The Bellevue, Washington-based collective receives the information from its 30 health system members, which include major providers like Providence, Trinity Health and Tenet Healthcare. Together, the members provide over 18% of the country’s daily clinical care.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • U.S. New and World Report lets us know,
    • “Coronavirus hospital admissions last week decreased for the first time in more than two months, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though the number remains elevated, weekly hospitalizations fell by nearly 10% week over week.
    • “More than 32,800 new COVID-19 hospital admissions were reported over the week ending Jan. 13, and over 27,800 Americans on average each day were considered currently hospitalized due to the disease during the same time frame, according to CDC data.
    • “Despite test positivity (percentage of tests conducted that were positive), emergency department visits, and hospitalizations remaining elevated nationally, COVID-19 rates have stabilized, or in some instances decreased,” the CDC said in a post on Friday.”
  • The CDC’s Fluview from last Friday notes,
    • “Seasonal influenza activity remains elevated in most parts of the country.
    • “After several weeks of increases in key flu indicators through the end of 2023, two weeks of decreasing or stable trends nationally have been noted. CDC will continue to monitor for a second period of increased influenza activity that often occurs after the winter holidays.
    • “Outpatient respiratory illness has been above baseline nationally since November and is above baseline in all 10 HHS regions.
    • “The number of weekly flu hospital admissions has decreased slightly for two consecutive weeks.”
  • Medpage Today points out,
    • “Several recent measles outbreaks have public health officials concerned — and are drawing attention to rising childhood vaccine exemptions and renewing calls for increased measles awareness.
    • “Philadelphia’s health department confirmed nine casesof the illness as of Tuesday, which spread at local health facilities and a daycare. At least three of the infections were in unvaccinated children, according to ABC News.
    • “As of January 12, two counties in Washington state noted “3 lab-confirmed and 3 [epidemiologically]-linked measles cases have been identified among unvaccinated adults.” Delaware identified 20-30 people who were exposed to measles at the Nemours Children’s Hospital a few days earlier. * * *
    • “Katelyn Jetelina, MPH, PhD, epidemiologist and author of the “Your Local Epidemiologist” newsletter, calls the recent measles outbreaks a potential symptom of “collective amnesia” in a recent newsletter, writing, “As generations age, the memory of mid-20th-century diseases like measles fade. … Some don’t know why this disease is bad or if this vaccine is safe. This is understandable.”
  • The FEHBlog subscribes to the Your Local Epidemiologist on Substack and he finds it to be worth the money.
  • NBC News reports,
    • “After decades of good news in the fight against cervical cancer — marked by decades of steady declines in cases and deaths — a new report suggests that some women are being left behind. * * *
    • “Among women in their 30s and early 40s, incidence has been edging upward. Diagnosis of cervical cancer among women ages 30 to 44 rose almost 2% a year from 2012 to 2019.
    • “We need to make sure we are not forgetting about that generation that was a little too old for HPV vaccination,” said Jennifer Spencer, an assistant professor at the Dell Medical School at University of Texas-Austin who studies population health.
    • “Fortunately, the cancers found in 30- and 40-something women were mostly early, curable tumors, said Ahmedin Jemal, senior author of the new report and the cancer society’s senior vice president for surveillance and health equity science. About 13,800 American women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year and 4,360 die from the disease.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Cigna issued a report on the top healthcare trends of 2024.
  • Kaiser Health News calls our attention to the following Modern Healthcare story
    • “Blue Cross Blue Shield insurers have become the first carriers to cover multimillion-dollar new gene therapies for sickle cell disease, and other insurers and Medicaid agencies are moving to follow suit. Blue Cross’ Synergie Medication Collective has inked risk-sharing agreements with drugmaker BlueBird Bio to offer its $3.1 million Lyfgenia gene therapy treatment for sickle cell disease to some self-insured employers, as well as competitor Vertex Pharmaceuticals’ $2.2 million Casgevy treatment.”
  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “UnitedHealthcare is rolling out a new resource hub that seeks to make it easier for members to use wellness offerings while also easing the financial burden on employers.
    • “The UHC Hub features more than 20 different options, including wellbeing programs that target healthy living and more complex care management. Its network is built to make it easier for employers to find and purchase solutions and to make it simpler for consumers to engage.
    • “It’s not a secret that employers are feeling increasingly overwhelmed with the wide array of vendor options available to them. Samantha Baker, chief consumer officer for UnitedHealthcare’s commercial business, told Fierce Healthcare in an email that this is a pain point that comes up frequently in conversations with plan sponsors. * * *
    • “UnitedHealthcare said in an announcement that the hub builds on existing advocacy programs that it offers to clients, which help members in finding in-network providers, during a hospital discharge or in reviewing treatment and medication options.” 
  • Per Healthcare Dive,
    • “Intermountain-owned Saltzer Health said it will shut down if it cannot find a buyer by March 29, citing financial and economic challenges.
    • “The physician group said it’s in active negotiations with healthcare companies over the sale of some operations, and is “optimistic that a sale can be achieved,” according to a Thursday news release. 
    • “The health group, which is owned by Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Health, employs 450 people and serves approximately 100,000 annual patients across 11 Treasure Valley locations, according to a company spokesperson.”
  • BioPharma Dive explains why “With two biotech buyouts, schizophrenia drugs appear back on pharma’s radar. Deal documents suggest others besides Bristol Myers and AbbVie may be looking.”

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From Washington, DC

  • Politico reports,
    • “The House cleared a stopgap spending bill on Thursday afternoon that officially keeps federal agencies funded through early March, sending the measure to President Joe Biden’s desk. * * *
    • “With parts of the government now funded through March 1 and March 8, leading appropriators have a tremendous amount of work to do in just a matter of weeks. ***
    • “Haggling over the broader spending bills can’t begin in earnest, however, until leading appropriators lock down a deal on funding totals for all 12 of them. It’s a critical next step that has consumed the last couple weeks for Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and her House counterpart, Chair Kay Granger (R-Texas).”
  • The American Hospital News informs us,
    • “The Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and the Treasury will reopen the public comment period for their proposed rule to improve the No Surprises Act independent dispute resolution process for 14 days beginning Jan. 22 to provide additional time for interested parties to comment.”
  • The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced the Innovation in Behavioral Health (IBH) Model.
    • IBH is focused on improving quality of care and behavioral and physical health outcomes for Medicaid and Medicare populations with moderate to severe mental health conditions and substance use disorder (SUD). Medicare and Medicaid populations experience disproportionately high rates of mental health conditions and/or substance use disorders (SUD), and as a result are more likely to experience poor health outcomes and experiences, like frequent visits to the emergency department and hospitalizations, or premature death. 
    • The IBH Model seeks to bridge the gap between behavioral and physical health; practice participants under the IBH Model will screen and assess patients for select health conditions, as well as mental health conditions and/or SUD, in community-based behavioral health practices. IBH is a state-based model, led by state Medicaid Agencies, with a goal of aligning payment between Medicaid and Medicare for integrated services.
    • CMS will release a Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) in Spring 2024, and up to eight states will be selected to participate. The model will launch in Fall 2024 and run for eight years.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services also issued a fact sheet about steps taken over the last year to expand access to behavioral health by integrating behavioral health with primary care and other physical health and community settings.
  • The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force posted a draft research plan concerning “BRCA-Related Cancer: Risk Assessment, Genetic Counseling, and Genetic Testing” for public comment. The public comment deadline is February 14, 2024.

From the public health and medical research front

  • The Kaiser Family Foundation discusses the two healthcare cost crises facing our country.
    • “The cost of health care isn’t a single problem, it’s a multi-dimensional one. That’s one reason we often talk past each other about healthcare costs; we’re talking about different problems. There’s national health spending, consumer out-of-pocket costs, federal health spending (mostly for Medicare and Medicaid), state health spending (mostly Medicaid), employer premiums, and the cost problem currently in vogue—getting better “value” for the health care dollar. Like a Venn diagram with sets that don’t always overlap, each of these are different challenges that often have different and sometimes conflicting solutions. We work on all of these dimensions of health care costs at KFF, but two health cost problems stand out as legitimate health policy crises: Affordability, especially for people who are sick and need a lot of healthcare, and national health spending (the subject of the CMS annual report).”
  • STAT News reports,
    • Mental health care in the United States is in crisis. As the need for care surges — a longstanding trend exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic — the demand for therapists far outstrips the supply. In national surveys, more than one in five U.S. adults suffer from mental illness, yet almost half of those in need report receiving no care. People struggling with mental health challenges often spend months on a wait list despite needing immediate care. Others simply can’t afford it. And getting care is even harder for people living in rural areas and people of color. * * *
    • In the face of these issues, there’s growing interest in the use of lay counselors. One scientific journal recently announced a call for papers for a special issue on the subject. In its executive summary for a recent population health summit, the APA [American Psychological Association] declared that the “exclusive reliance on trained mental health care providers when there are severe gaps in support for training of a mental health workforce has left millions untreated.” A number of recent research articles suggest addressing the gap by innovating on the traditional model of mental health treatment, including where and how it is provided and who provides it.
    • Lynn Bufka, associate chief of practice transformation and quality at the APA, believes that an expanded approach to providing mental health care is essential to meet the current need. “We clearly cannot meet the need for mental health services in this country with the existing workforce,” she said. “We’re going have to consider those kinds of models and options in order to get to where we need to be in this country.”
  • STAT New also delves into whether recent scientific findings may lead to a test for long Covid.
    • “Long Covid has long eluded scientists looking for its cause. Not knowing what triggers its persistent and distressing symptoms makes the condition challenging to treat; it’s hard to even say definitively who has it. New research published Thursday in Science has identified proteins present in the blood of people with long Covid that could point the way to a much-needed diagnostic test and possibly to future therapeutic targets.
    • “Scientists at the University of Zurich discovered high levels of proteins involved in the complement system — an important part of the immune system bridging innate and adaptive responses — that were disrupted in people with long Covid symptoms, but not in those who got better after the initial Covid-19 infection or in those who had recovered from long Covid symptoms after six months. The team also found damaged red blood cells and platelets as well as signs of harm to the endothelial cells that line blood vessels.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “Drugmakers kicked off 2024 by raising the list prices for Ozempic, Mounjaro and dozens of other widely used medicines. Companies including the maker of Ozempic, and Eli Lilly , which sells Mounjaro, raised list prices on 775 brand-name drugs during the first half of January, according to an analysis for The Wall Street Journal by 46brooklyn Research, a nonprofit drug-pricing analytics group. 
    • “The drugmakers raised prices of their medicines by a median 4.5%, though the prices of some drugs rose by around 10% or higher, according to the research group. The median increase is higher than the rate of inflation, which ticked up to 3.4% in December. * * *
    • “Among the notable increases: The price for Ozempic, a diabetes treatment that many people are taking to lose weight, went up by 3.5% to nearly $970 for a month’s supply. Mounjaro, a diabetes drug in the same class that is also widely used for weight loss, climbed 4.5% to almost $1,070 a month.”
  • Healthcare Dive identifies “Top healthcare trends in 2024; Here’s what industry experts see coming down the pike for hospitals, insurers and digital health companies this year.” The article summarizes Healthcare Dive’s 2024 trend reports from the past few weeks.
  • Healthcare Dive also informs us,
    • “Humana is the latest victim of elevated medical costs in the fourth quarter. The health insurer on Thursday lowered its 2023 profit outlook after members utilized more healthcare than expected as the year drew to a close.
    • Humana now expects $26.09 in adjusted earnings per share for full-year 2023, according to a financial filing. That’s down from its prior guidance of at least $28.25.
    • “Humana also lowered its expectations for growth in the lucrative Medicare Advantage program. The insurer now expects to increase MA membership 1.8% this year. Previously, Humana said it would outstrip expected industry growth of 6% to 8%.”
  • CVS Health posted a report highlighting opportunities for the future of community pharmacies.