Tuesday’s Tidbits

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Roll Call reports

Congressional leaders and top appropriators are set to meet as early as Wednesday to work through differences on a potential omnibus spending agreement, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Tuesday.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, along with a few top White House aides, met with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Schumer earlier Tuesday to discuss the lame-duck agenda.

Schumer said the leaders had a “productive discussion” about funding the government, and said all four leaders aim to come together to pass an omnibus.

“We all agreed that it should be done this year, we all agreed we have to work together and everyone has to give a little bit,” he said. “We also…said we would all work toward getting an omnibus as opposed to a CR.”

The prospects of a lame duck omnibus remain murky as Republicans and Democrats have not reached a topline spending agreement. The current continuing resolution runs out Dec. 16, though lawmakers have discussed a stopgap extension of perhaps a week to buy extra time.

The FEHBlog sees these developments as a good sign.

From the Omicron and siblings front, MedPage Today informs us

What happens to people who get reinfected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19? A recent paper in Nature Medicinehas been misinterpreted by some as providing evidence that repeat infections are somehow worse than first-time infections.

Here’s the actual situation: second infections are far less dangerous than first infections, with respect to severe, critical, and fatal COVID-19. This is true regardless of vaccination status.

Health Payer Intelligence offers three interesting survey findings about health insurance in our country

  • “Health insurance coverage disruptions were associated with higher mortality risks for people with private and public insurance, a JAMA Health Forum study found.”
  • “In two-adult families with and without children, the majority of members had the same type of health insurance coverage, whether they had group plans, non-group plans, or Me,dicaid” according to a brief from the Employee Benefit Researcher Institute (EBRI).

From the public health front, the FEHBlog ran across The PCORI Health Care Horizon Scanning System identifies and monitors developing innovations with potential to change health care. This database can be used by patients, care partners, and others to track advancements in care options.

The Wall Street Journal reports

The rate of gun deaths in the U.S. reached a 28-year high in 2021 after sharp increases in homicides of Black men and suicides among white men, an analysis of federal data showed.

A record 48,953 deaths in the U.S., or about 15 fatalities per 100,000 people, were caused by guns last year, said the analysis published Tuesday in the journal JAMA Network Open. Gun deaths declined in the 1990s, but have been rising steadily over the past decade and skyrocketed during the Covid-19 pandemic, said researchers who conducted the analysis.

Gun-related deaths of women and children have risen, the analysis said, but men remain far more likely to die from guns.

“The disparities are so marked,” said Chris Rees, a co-author of the study and an assistant professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at Emory University School of Medicine.

On a related note, Federal News Network relates

The Pentagon is looking to hire hundreds of clinicians and mental health professionals in the coming months, as part of the initial cohort of its worldwide suicide prevention workforce.

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, speaking Tuesday at a Washington Post Live event, said DoD is building up a “first of its kind” suicide prevention workforce that will eventually reach an end strength of 2,000 personnel.

Hicks said hiring, onboarding and training the suicide prevention workforce is “at the top of the list” of priorities for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. This DoD workforce, she added, is expected to outpace any similar effort led by universities or state governments.

“This prevention workforce will be a first of its kind, and we’re going to do it right here in the United States military, because that’s what we owe our people and their families,” Hicks said.

From the medical research and development front, the Wall Street Journal reports

Researchers released new details from a study of a closely watched drug for Alzheimer’s disease on Tuesday, shedding more light on the drug’s risks and benefits as U.S. health regulators weigh approving it. 

Eisai Co. and Biogen Inc.’s drug, called lecanemab, slowed cognitive decline by 27% compared with a placebo over 18 months in a study of more than 1,700 people with early-stage Alzheimer’s, researchers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine on Tuesday. 

The drug’s effect was moderate, and was associated with swelling and bleeding in the brain, the researchers said. They recommended further, longer study of the drug.

Some 17.3% of patients taking lecanemab had signs of brain bleeding, compared with 9% in the placebo group. Brain swelling occurred in 12.6% of people getting the drug, versus 1.7% who got placebos. 

The study data have been eagerly anticipated by Alzheimer’s researchers since Eisai disclosed high-level results in September, raising the hopes of doctors and patients that a new treatment proven to help Alzheimer’s patients is on the horizon.

The companies have asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to conditionally approve lecanemab based on an earlier study showing that the drug reduced levels of a protein in the brain called amyloid associated with Alzheimer’s. The agency is expected to make a decision by Jan. 6. 

Eisai, which is leading the development of lecanemab, has said it plans to seek full approval using the new study data. 

The NIH DIrector’s Blog tells us about the NIH clinical center doctors who are testing 3D-printed miniature, single-use ventilators. Cool.

Healthcare Dive informs us

Google’s health division has inked its first commercial agreement to use its mammography AI research model in real-world clinical practice, with the goal of improving breast cancer screening, Google Health announced Monday.

Google Health has partnered with cancer detection and therapy medtech iCAD on the 5-year deal. Under the agreement, iCAD will work to validate and incorporate Google’s mammography AI — which Google has been building and testing for several years — into its products for use in clinical practices.

From the U.S. healthcare business front, the Wall Street Journal reports

Apoorva Mehta, a co-founder of Instacart Inc., is working on his next act after saying earlier this year that he would step down as executive chairman from the startup he built into a grocery delivery giant once it goes public.

Mr. Mehta earlier this month raised $30 million for Cloud Health Systems, a new healthcare startup aiming to offer consumers medical consultations and other health-related services, according to people familiar with the matter. 

Good luck.

Thanksgiving Weekend Update

Thanks to ACK15 for sharing their work on Unsplash.

The House of Representatives and the Senate return to Capitol Hill for Committee business and floor voting this week.

The Wall Street Journal adds

Lawmakers return to work this week with a to-do list that includes passing a critical government-funding bill, solidifying access to same-sex marriage and setting priorities for the U.S. military before the start of the new Congress next year.

Other issues emphasized by Democrats, including passing a ban on the sale of assault-style weapons, are a long-shot given their narrow majority in the Senate. Most legislation requires 60 votes to advance in the Senate. In addition, lawmakers are discussing raising the federal debt ceiling, which limits how much the government can borrow.

Congress faces a Dec. 16 deadline to pass legislation that would continue funding the federal government; failure to do so could result in a partial shutdown. Lawmakers must decide whether to approve a short-term bill or reach a deal on more-detailed legislation that would fund the government for the full fiscal year.

The Senate also will be considering the National Defense Authorization Act, which typically includes government procurement law changes.

Tomorrow, the Federal Employee Benefits Open Season will reach its clubhouse turn with two weeks left to go. Although not a part of the Open Season, Federal News Network reports an important development concerning the Federal Employees Long Term Care Insurance Program (FLTCIP.

Those looking to enroll in the FLTCIP will soon have to wait a couple of years before applying.

The Office of Personnel Management said it will suspend all new applications to the program starting on Dec. 19. The suspension will last for the next two years, but those who apply ahead of the start date may still see their applications go through. During that time, current FLTCIP enrollees cannot apply to increase their coverage. The suspension will otherwise not affect the coverage of current enrollees.

* * *

The contract for the insurance program, with John Hancock Life and Health Insurance Company, typically lasts seven years before getting a renewal. The program normally gets a premium hike each time the contract turns over. During the open period for new contract proposals earlier this year, only the current underwriter John Hancock submitted a bid. The current FLTCIP contract will expire on April 30, 2023.

The upcoming suspension on applications will allow OPM “to assess the benefit offerings and establish sustainable premium rates that reasonably and equitably reflect the cost of the benefits provided,” the agency said in a Nov. 18 notice. OPM added that it will only suspend applications when it is in the best interest of the program.

Many are eligible to apply for FLTCIP coverage, including federal employees, U.S. Postal Service employees and annuitants, as well as active and retired members of the uniformed services, and qualified relatives of feds. John Hancock has historically sponsored the program, and Long Term Care Partners, LLC, has administered it.

From the Omnicron and siblings front, the National Institutes of Health announced

Reporting a positive or negative test result just became easier through a new website from the National Institutes of Health. MakeMyTestCount.org, developed through NIH’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx®) Tech program, allows users to anonymously report the results of any brand of at-home COVID-19 test.

COVID-19 testing remains an essential tool as the United States heads into the holiday season and people navigate respiratory viruses. While taking a rapid COVID-19 test has become commonplace, test results are not often reported. COVID-19 test results provide valuable data that public health departments can use to assess the needs and modify the responses in the local community, the state or the nation.

Lab tests have a well-established technology system for sharing test results. RADx Tech has been working on a system to standardize test reporting for at-home tests in a secure manner. The MakeMyTestCount.org website is built on this system for logging test results.

The Wall Street Journal tells us

U.S. life insurers paid a record $100 billion in 2021 in death benefits, fueled by another year of Covid-19 deaths, an industry trade group said.

Payouts rose 11% in 2021 to $100.19 billion, most likely due to the pandemic, according to the American Council of Life Insurers. The increase was on the heels of a 15% year-over-year rise in 2020, when death-benefit payments totaled $90.43 billion.

The ACLI compiles data from annual filings by insurers to state insurance departments. Given limitations in the filings, the group can’t break down causes of death, but it is reasonable to attribute the bulk of the increases to the pandemic, said Andrew Melnyk, ACLI vice president of research and chief economist.

The year-over-year increases are among the largest since the 1918 flu pandemic, when payments surged 41%. They are far above the 4.9% average from 2011 to 2021, the ACLI said.

From the No Surprises Act front, Healthcare Dive reports

House lawmakers expressed their discontent with a final rule on surprise billing and urged federal regulators to make changes.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Ma., and ranking member Kevin Brady, R-Texas, sent a letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and other department heads again expressing disappointment with a much-contested section of the surprise billing ban.

The lawmakers “are severely disappointed to find that the August 2022 final rule violates the No Surprises Act in the same ways as before,” Neal and Brady said in a letter last week.

For Heaven’s sake, Congress should give the revised rule a chance before joining the medical associations in condemning it.

From the public health front, Health Payer Intelligence tells us

The number of Americans with a usual source of care has dropped 10 percent in the last 18 years, with only about three-quarters of people saying they have a regular primary care provider or at least a facility where they know they can access care, according to the Primary Care Collaborative (PCC) and AAFP Graham Center.

The analysis also revealed some health disparities, with folks who are Hispanic, have less than a high school education, are uninsured, and are younger being less likely to have a usual source of care than their counterparts. * * *

“Employers have a very important role to play to ensure that all their employees and their families have ready, convenient access to a usual source of affordable primary care,” said Asaf Bitton, MD, the executive director of Ariadne Labs – Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“We applaud those employers who are providing highly accessible virtual and in-person primary care options, and working with preferred provider organizations and health systems to support patients in establishing and maintaining these crucial primary care relationships.”

Amen to that sentiment.

STAT New reports

Cardiovascular disease is responsible for about one in five deaths in women in the U.S., more than any other cause — including all forms of cancer combined. Black women like Shields are particularly vulnerable: In the U.S., Black adults are substantially more likely to die from heart disease than their white, Hispanic, or Asian or Pacific Islander counterparts.

To try to reduce deaths from heart disease, health professionals typically use basic risk calculators, which take about a dozen standard data points to predict a person’s likelihood of having a major event, such as a heart attack or stroke, in the next 10 years.

Regardless of their other risk factors, for the most part, patients who are young and female have a very low chance of having a cardiovascular event in the next 10 years, so they are unlikely to get recommendations for serious lifestyle interventions or medication. But they may still be heading down a path to a fatal event later in life.

Some 10 to 15% of pregnancies have at least one complication that is linked to later heart disease. In addition to preeclampsia, these include other forms of gestational hypertensiongestational diabetespreterm deliverylow birth weight; and placental abruption. People who experience miscarriages and stillbirths are also at greater risk of heart disease. Additional reproductive health conditions — including the early arrival of periods, polycystic ovary syndrome, infertility, and early menopause — have also been linked to increased risk.

These data, however, are all missing from standard cardiovascular disease risk calculators. Some pregnancy complications are listed as part of the comprehensive American Heart Association screening guidelines. But a large national 2014 survey revealed that only 16% of primary care physicians and 22% of cardiologists were using these full guidelines. The failure of health-care providers to screen for these sorts of early warning signs is in keeping with the long-standing pattern in which women’s risk for heart disease is chronically underestimated by medical professionals — as well as by women themselves.

That’s a big bowl of wrong.

From the plan design front, Beckers Payer Issues relates

Providers using EHRs that aren’t enabled for electronic prior authorization and the cost to upgrade to those EHRs are the main barriers preventing automated PA, according to a Nov. 14 America’s Health Insurance Plans survey

The health insurance trade group conducted an industrywide survey on “prior authorization practices and gold carding experience of commercial plans” between February and April, according to the report. AHIP received responses from 26 plans, covering a total of 122 million commercial enrollees.

Top barriers to automated prior authorization:

  1. Provider does not use EHR enabled for electronic PA: 71 percent
  2. Costly/burdensome for providers to buy/upgrade EHR for electronic PA: 71 percent
  3. Lack of interoperability between EHR vendors: 62 percent
  4. Costly for payers to enable PA rules and information to be delivered electronically: 43 percent
  5. Lack of electronic PA solutions on market: 19 percent

This is a surprising outcome considering how vociferously providers object to prior authorization.

Weekend update

As we barrel toward Thanksgiving, the House of Representatives and the Senate will be on a District / State work break this week.

Concerning Thanksgiving, Bloomberg Prognosis tackles a burning question.

Does turkey actually make you sleepy? It feels like everyone always says that because turkey contains tryptophan it makes you tired, but is that actually true? Madison, New York, New York

The answer to this question is somewhat counterintuitive: Tryptophan can indeed make you sleepy, but the desire for a post-Thanksgiving dinner nap probably isn’t caused by the bird.

The more likely culprit is the very large meal, says Kat Lederle, a sleep therapist in the UK. * * *

[T]he best way to avoid the post-dinner food coma is to pace yourself at the table. Just be sure to save room for dessert

From the Federal Employee Benefits Open Season front —

From the Omicron and siblings front, the New York Times reports

As winter looms and Americans increasingly gather indoors without masks or social distancing, a medley of new coronavirus variants is seeding a rise in cases and hospitalizations in counties across the nation.

The Biden administration’s plan for preventing a national surge depends heavily on persuading Americans to get updated booster shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. Now some scientists are raising doubts about this strategy.

Older adults, immunocompromised people and pregnant women should get the booster shots, because they offer extra protection against severe disease and death, said John Moore, a virologist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York.

But the picture is less clear for healthy Americans who are middle-aged and younger. They are rarely at risk of severe illness or death from Covid, and at this point most have built immunity through multiple vaccine doses, infections or both.

The newer variants, called BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, are spreading quickly, and boosters seem to do little to prevent infections with these viruses, as they are excellent evaders of immunity.

The Centers for Disease Control reported on Friday

CDC Nowcast projections* for the week ending November 19, 2022, estimate the proportion of ten lineages designated as Omicron with estimates above 1%: BA.5—and five of its sublineages (BQ.1, BQ.1.1, BF.7, BA.5.2.6, and BF.11)—BA.4.6, BA.2, and BA.2.75.

The predominant Omicron lineage is BQ.1, projected to be 25.5% (95% PI 22.1-29.1%). Additionally, other variants represent 3.1% of circulating viruses, largely composed of the Omicron-derived XBB lineage.

The New York Times adds

Diminishing returns from tinkering with the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines call for a new approach to protecting Americans altogether, Dr. Moore and other experts said. A universal vaccine that targets parts of the coronavirus that do not mutate would be ideal, for example. A nasal vaccine might be better at preventing infections than an injected one.

“Chasing variants by tweaking the mRNA vaccines is not a sustainable strategy,” Dr. Moore said. “There’s a need for better vaccine designs, but that needs a change of attitude at the government level.”

NPR Shots discusses the available treatment options for the predominant variants, which include Paxlovid.

Healthcare Dive informs us

A group of 22 states led by Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen filed a petition Thursday calling on the CMS to repeal its COVID-19 vaccination mandate for healthcare workers, according to a release.

The states argued the requirement has led to worsening staff shortages in the sector, particularly in rural areas.

The federal vaccine mandate covering healthcare workers has faced a flurry of legal challenges since it was first announced last year.

Unfortunately, the government continues to fight last year’s pre-Paxlovid battle in court.

From the U.S. healthcare business front, Fierce Healthcare tells us

Centene has agreed to sell Magellan Specialty Health to Evolent Health, the latest move in its broad value creation plan.

The government insurer said in an announcement that it expects to bank $750 million in the aggregate from the deal. Centene added Magellan Specialty Health, a leading specialty benefit management company, as part of its acquisition of Magellen Health, which closed in January.

Magellan Specialty Health provides utilization management tools to insurers, including for radiology, musculoskeletal, physical medicine and genetic testing. When the transaction closes, Centene and Evolent will enter a multiyear partnership that enables the insurer to extend and build on its work with Magellan Specialty.

“This transaction is another significant milestone in our ongoing portfolio review and value creation plan,” said Sarah London, CEO of Centene, in the release.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

Today, November 17, is National Rural Health Day.

Let’s follow up on two posts from this week:

  • On Tuesday, the FEHBlog mentioned that the Internal Revenue Service issued Notice 2022-59 which adjusts the PCORI fee for years “that end on or after October 1, 2022, and before October 1, 2023.” The FEHBlog referenced an adjusted PCORI fee of $2.79 per covered life. Whoops. The FEHBlog referenced the current PCORI fee. The adjusted PCORI fee is $3.00 per covered life. Lo siento.
  • Yesterday, the FEHBlog called to readers’ attention a Congressional Research Service report on federal healthcare laws enacted in the current Congress that expire at the end of 2022. The FEHBlog thought “I should go back and read that report.” Today an email from the Wagner Law firm identified one of these expiring laws, to wit

During the pandemic, Congress allowed telehealth services to be provided to HSA-eligible individuals without cost-sharing and without regard to whether they had met their deductibles under their High Deductible Health Plans. That authorization expired December 31, 2021. Congress then again allowed deductible-free telehealth services to resume from April 1, 2022, through December 31, 2022. Unless this authorization is extended again, plans covering HSA-eligible individuals will have to require that telehealth services be provided to those individuals on the same terms as in-person care, i.e., the deductible must be met before telehealth can be provided without further charge to the patient. [The American Benefits Council has asked Congress to extend this consumer protection.]

From Capitol Hill, Politico brings us up to date on medical association efforts to block or at least reduce a 4.5% cut in Medicare Part B payments to physicians.

From the federal employee benefits front, Tammy Flanagan writing in Govexec discusses the health benefit options available to federal employees who are veterans.

“From the public health front —

  • The Labor Department’s Department’scupational Safety and Health Administration offers guidance to employers on controlling seasonal flu outbreaks in the office or plant.
  • The New York Times examines anti-depressant drugs. “The most commonly prescribed medications for depression are somewhat effective — but not because they correct a “chemical imbalance.”

Hospitals have made progress in reducing preventable errors, accidents and injuries over the past decade, according to the Leapfrog Group’s fall 2022 hospital safety grades released Wednesday.

Incidents of falls and trauma and of objects unintentionally left in a body after surgery decreased by about 25% since 2012, according to Leapfrog.

In this year’s fall rankings, 30% of hospitals earned an A grade, 28% earned a B, 36% earned a C, 6% earned a D and 1% earned an F.

From the Rx coverage front,

Today the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved [Provention Bio’s] Tzield (teplizumab-mzwv) injection to delay the onset of stage 3 type 1 diabetes in adults and pediatric patients 8 years and older who currently have stage 2 type 1 diabetes. 

“Today’s approval of a first-in-class therapy adds an important new treatment option for certain at-risk patients,” said John Sharretts, M.D., director of the Division of Diabetes, Lipid Disorders, and Obesity in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “The drug’s potential to delay clinical diagnosis of type 1 diabetes may provide patients with months to years without the burdens of disease.” 

“From the plan design front, MedCity News tells us “Historically having worked with Medicaid and Medicare Advantage populations, Uber Health is now expanding its services to self-insured employers. The company made the announcement at the HLTH conference in Las Vegas.”

Midweek update

From Capitol Hill, the Wall Street Journal reports

Republicans won a majority of seats in the House of Representatives with a victory in California, the Associated Press said late Wednesday, bolstering their ability to steer the agenda on Capitol Hill after two years of Democratic control of both chambers of Congress and the White House.

The Congressional Research Service released a report on health care provisions expiring at the end of this 117th Congress.

Healthcare Dive adds

With midterm elections resulting in a narrowly divided Congress, the HHS will be free to focus on longstanding priorities for the health department, such as implementing drug negotiation policy within Medicare, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said at the HLTH conference in Las Vegas on Tuesday.

“In a way, we’re now going to be able to concentrate on the work we have to still execute on,” Becerra said,

Under the Inflation Reduction Act passed earlier this year, Congress granted Medicare the power to negotiate how much it pays for certain prescription drugs starting in 2026, and to receive rebates from pharmaceutical manufacturers that hike drug costs above the rate of inflation starting in 2023.

Of course, HHS and its partners have a lot of work on implementing the No Surprises Act. Health Payer Intelligence discusses the good faith estimate and advance explanation of benefits comments that an ERISA plan trade association, ERIC, submitted to the NSA regulators yesterday.

In other HLTH 2022 conference news,

  • Healthcare Dive tells us about Google’s plans for offering personal health records and Maven Clinic‘s efforts to build a maternal health business by, e.g., recently landing a $90 million Series E amid increasing investor focus on women’s health.
  • MedCity News informs us, “Cell and gene therapies are offering patients potentially curative treatments for a growing scope of diseases. Insurance companies are trying to figure out how to pay for them. Industry consultants speaking at the HLTH conference offered some strategies they see payers taking to these new therapies.”

From the federal employee benefits front,

  • Govexec collected all of its current Open Season articles for convenient access.
  • Reg Jones, writing in Fedweek, recommends that federal employees contemplating retirement should retire on December 31, 2022.
  • Govexec reports that the Postal Service is headed into its busy season with far fewer employees than past years.

From the Affordable Care Act front —

  • The FEHBlog ran across this updated reference chart on minimum essential coverage under the ACA.
  • The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force issued its 12th Annual Report to Congress which is titled “High-Priority Evidence Gaps for Clinical Preventive Services.”

From the public health front —

  • Forbes reports “Researchers at the University of Houston have developed a vaccine that could block the effects of fentanyl and prevent addiction, according to a new study that could unlock solutions to the opioid epidemic as more than 150 people die every day from overdoses connected to synthetic opioids.”
  • CNN reports “The five-year lung cancer survival rate has increased 21%, from 21% in 2014 to 25% in 2018, making what experts call “remarkable progress” – but it is still the leading cause of cancer death in the United States. However, in communities of color, a person’s odds of surviving five years after diagnosis are much lower, at only 20%, according to the 2022 State of Lung Cancer report, which was published by the American Lung Association on Tuesday.”
  • The National Institutes of Health tells us “COVID-19 Vaccines Are Safe for People Receiving Cancer Immunotherapy, Study Confirms.”

From the miscellany department —

  • Forbes informs us “UnitedHealth Group’s pharmacy benefit manager Optum Rx Tuesday said it will put three less expensive “biosimilar” versions of Abbvie’s pricey rheumatoid arthritis drug Humira ‘in the same position as the brand’ on the PBM’s preferred list of drugs known as a formulary.”
  • MedTech Dive discusses how Labcorp, Abbott, BD, and Siemens plan to expand the home testing market
  • NCQA looks back at its recent Health Innovation Summit.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the Capitol Hill front —

  • Roll Call and Govexec bring us up to date on the lame-duck session’s agenda.
  • The Washington Post tells us about the Administration’s plans to include $10 billion in Covid funding in the omnibus appropriations bill that Congress must pass or extend by December 16.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports “Republicans have won 217 House seats to the Democrats’ 205, according to the Associated Press tally. A party needs 218 for a majority in the chamber, and Republicans were on track for a very narrow margin after they won seats Monday in Arizona, California and New York. ” This development increases the likelihood that Congress will pass an omnibus appropriations bill before year-end.
  • The Congressional Budget Office posted a presentation on its recommended policy approaches to reduce commercial health Insurer payments for hospitals’ and physicians’ services. The presentation is worth a gander because the American Hospital Association, among others, is not pleased with the CBO’s recommendations.

The Federal Employee Benefits Open Season started today, and Govexec offers a checklist to help decision-makers.

From the conferences’ front —

  • The American Medical Association shares developments from its interim meeting which concludes tomorrow.
  • Fierce Healthcare offers a news feed from the HLTH 2022 conference.

From the Affordable Care Act front, the Internal Revenue Service announced the PCORI support fee that health plans must pay for policy years and plan years that end on or after October 1, 2022, and before October 1, 2023. In short, the dollar amount that calendar year plans such as the FEHB plan must pay next July 31 is $3.00 times the average number of covered lives.

From the Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia front, Medscape reports

  • “Dementia prevalence is dropping in the United States, new research shows.”
  • “Of the more than 6 million Alzheimer’s patients in the U.S. age 65 or older, nearly two-thirds are women. A new study may help explain the gender gap — and offer clues to new treatments for helping patients of both sexes fight back.” The FEHBlog has been taking a continuing legal education course on eldercare, and the practicing lawyers teaching the court remarked that 95% of the clients for whom Medicaid nursing home coverage is sought are husbands.
  • “Among older adults who use the US Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), rates of memory decline appear to be slower than among those who don’t use the program, new research shows.”

The Wall Street Journal informs us

An experimental Alzheimer’s drug from Roche Holding AG failed to significantly slow cognitive decline in long-awaited trials, the latest in a long line of setbacks for a field that has seen little progress in decades.

The drug, called gantenerumab, slightly reduced cognitive decline in people with early Alzheimer’s compared with a placebo across two large and lengthy trials, but the difference wasn’t statistically significant, Roche said Monday. The trials, which lasted more than two years and involved nearly 2,000 participants, compared scores of cognition and function in areas such as memory, orientation and problem-solving. * * *

The news comes just weeks after clinical trial results from a drug developed jointly by Biogen Inc. and Eisai Co. infused fresh hope into a field that has been marked by failure. The Biogen and Eisai drug, called lecanemab, reduced cognitive and functional decline by 27% compared with a placebo. The companies say they plan to provide more detailed study results at an upcoming research conference.

Like lecanemab, Roche’s gantenerumab targets accumulations of beta-amyloid, a protein that is found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s and is thought to be linked to the disease. Several earlier beta-amyloid-targeting drugs had failed in clinical trials, although each drug acts slightly differently.

Roche Chief Executive Severin Schwan said last month that the Biogen and Eisai results were encouraging, but cautioned that they didn’t shed any light on the likely success of gantenerumab. Roche said Monday that the level of beta-amyloid removal by gantenerumab was lower than expected in the trials.

In other news —

  • Per Fierce Healthcare, Aetna announced a new advanced price care program in cooperation with Crossover Health. The program will launch next January 1 in the Seattle Washington region. “The new hybrid care model is integrated into a health plan and aims to tackle the rising access issues and costs of healthcare with a fixed fee, value-based payment model, executives said.”
  • Milliman offers its thoughts on mental health challenges facing employers.

Weekend Update

Photo by Tomasz Filipek on Unsplash

The Wall Street Journal reports that in last week’s Congressional election

Democrats retained control of the Senate after Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto won a tight race in Nevada over Republican Adam Laxalt, giving the party the 50 seats it needs for a majority, and disappointing Republicans who believed they had a strong chance to flip the chamber.

The GOP appeared on track toward winning the barest of House majorities, nonpartisan analysts said, but the final outcome hinged on races, mostly on the West Coast, that remain too close to call.

HR Dive recounts the outcome of state ballot initiatives that relate to employer-employee relations.

The lame-duck session of the current Congress kicks off tomorrow with floor voting in the Senate and House and Committee business.

The Federal Employees Benefits Open Season starts tomorrow and ends on December 12, 2022.

The American Medical Association’s Interim Meeting started yesterday and ends on Tuesday, November 15, in Honolulu, Hawaii.

The Centers for Disease Control marks Antibiotic Awareness Week this week with a focus on prevention.

Every year, CDC honors U.S. Antibiotic Awareness Week to raise awareness and share information on the importance of improving antibiotic and antifungal use.

Antibiotics and antifungals save lives, but any time they are used, they can cause side effects and can contribute to the development of resistance.

Prevention puts a “pause” on antimicrobial resistance (AR), and we all have a role in combating AR.

McKinsey and Company offers guidance on preparing for the next pandemic.

COVID-19 won’t be the last pandemic, but is the world prepared for the next one? COVID-19 exposed underlying vulnerabilities in public health systems that made them less resilient to acute threats than expected. The learning: there’s much work to be done. McKinsey partner Matt Craven, and senior partners Matt Wilson and Lieven Van der Veken, identified four areas where governments can focus their efforts to build greater confidence in readiness. Learn more about this strategic approach to managing future threats, and dive deeper with these insights on vaccine innovation and resilience, boosting COVID-19 vaccine uptake in Africa, improving social determinants of health, strengthening the public health workforce, and more.

Fierce Healthcare informs us

The Biden administration is pushing to resolve big gaps in the quality and accuracy of data on health equity as it installs new requirements for payers and providers.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released a blog post late Thursday outlining steps to address data issues such as aligning standards for collection and gradually implementing equity scores.

“Data can tell a story, but if the data is incomplete or unaligned, the story is also incomplete,” wrote LaShawn McIver, M.D., director of CMS’ Office of Minority Health. “To work to advance health equity, we must improve our data, especially our health equity data.”

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has made closing equity gaps a key pillar of the Biden administration, including pursuing new equity requirements in health plans and value-based care payment models.

A recent framework released by CMS detailed the need for increasing the collection of data on social determinants of health (SDOH) to better identify equity gaps.

“CMS recognizes that progress has been made but is committed to resolving the major gaps in data quality, accuracy and completeness,” McIver wrote. 

The FEHBlog would be happy if OPM started sharing SDOH data with FEHB carriers.

Health Payer Intelligence discusses steps that health plans are taking to make explaining benefits more understandable to members.

Weekend update

Photo by Tomasz Filipek on Unsplash

Congressional election day is Tuesday. The lame duck session will be next Monday.

Also next Monday, the Federal Employee Benefit Open Season will kick off. OPM has made the 2023 FEHBP and FEDVIP plan comparison tools available. Check them out.

Govexec reports on OPM Director Kiran Ahuja’s speech last Wednesday Wednesday at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Public Administration.” Ms. Ahuja said “the federal government’s HR agency is hard at work finding ways to improve the federal government’s personnel systems and shifting toward becoming a modern leader on strategic human capital issues.”

From the Rx coverage front, NPR Shots tells us

If you were prescribed medicine to lower your risk of a heart attack or stroke, would you take it? 

Millions of Americans are prescribed statins such as Lipitor, Crestor or generic formulations to lower their cholesterol. But lots of people are hesitant to start the medication. 

Some people fret over potential side effects such as leg cramps, which may be – or may not be – linked to the drug. As an alternative, dietary supplements, often marketed to promote heart health, including fish oil and other omega-3 supplements (Omega-3’s are essential fatty acids found in fish and flaxseed), are growing in popularity

So, which is most effective? Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic set out to answer this question by comparing statins to supplements in a clinical trial. They tracked the outcomes of 190 adults, ages 40 to 75. Some participants were given a 5 mg daily dose of rosuvastatin, a statin that is sold under the brand name Crestor for 28 days. Others were given supplements, including fish oil, cinnamon, garlic, turmeric, plant sterols or red yeast rice for the same period.

The maker of Crestor, Astra Zeneca sponsored the study, but the researchers worked independently to design the study and run the statistical analysis.

“What we found was that rosuvastatin lowered LDL cholesterol by almost 38% and that was vastly superior to placebo and any of the six supplements studied in the trial,” study author Luke Laffin, M.D. of the Cleveland Clinic’s Heart, Vascular & Thoracic Institute told NPR. He says this level of reduction is enough to lower the risk of heart attacks and strokes. The findings are published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

“Oftentimes these supplements are marketed as ‘natural ways’ to lower your cholesterol,” says Laffin. But he says none of the dietary supplements demonstrated any significant decrease in LDL cholesterol compared with a placebo. LDL cholesterol is considered the ‘bad cholesterol’ because it can contribute to plaque build-up in the artery walls – which can narrow the arteries, and set the stage for heart attacks and strokes.

“Clearly, statins do what they’re intended to do,” the study’s senior author Steve Nissen, M.D., a cardiologist and Chief Academic Officer of the Heart, Vascular & Thoracic Institute at Cleveland Clinic told NPR.

Forbes informs us

In healthcare contexts, American consumers have historically tended to abandon their consumerism skills, often entering the doctor’s office or insurance process helpless, overwhelmed, and at the mercy of the system. Even when consumers have high expectations for their healthcare experiences, they’re often disappointed.

New research suggests that those days may be over. According to the 2022 Patient Access Journey Report, released last week from Kyruus, “Patients are consumers first.”

For the sixth year in a row, Kyruus has surveyed 1,000 consumers across geographies and generations to understand their preferences for selecting and accessing healthcare services. This year’s report focuses on three aspects of the healthcare consumer experience: search, selection, and action. 

The latest findings suggest consumers, in fact, now weigh similar factors in choosing their healthcare providers and service sites as they do with other types of services. * * *

Healthcare provider websites have a two-to-one advantage in consumer trust compared with health insurance sites. Forty-four percent of consumers surveyed said that they view healthcare provider websites as the most trustworthy source for information about healthcare providers or services, compared with 20% who rated health insurance providers as the most trustworthy. But the percentage of respondents who said health insurance providers were the most trustworthy sources of information jumped nine points since 2021.

From the miscellany department

  • NPR Shots explains what to watch for in the RSV surge and answers about treatment options
  • MedPage Today calls our attention to models leading to a favorable Covid conclusion

The U.S. probably won’t see a major surge in COVID deaths this winter, according to new models from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington in Seattle.

By Feb. 1, 2023, daily deaths are projected to be at a high point of 335, which pales in comparison to the approximate 2,500 daily deaths seen during the Omicron surge around the same time last year, according to a recently published IHME policy brief.

  • The Wall Street Journal discusses the Menty B (mental breakdown) hashtag in use in Instagram and Tik Tok and a boarding high school in Massachusetts which replaced their students smart phones with light phones. The school also banned teachers from using smart phones while teaching. Everyone’s happier.

Thursday Miscellany

From the Federal Employee Benefits Open Season front, we find guidance from FedSmith, FedWeek, and My Federal Retirement.

From the unusual viruses front —

The American Hospital Association reports that

The Department of Health and Human Services today renewed the nation’s monkeypox public health emergency declaration for another 90 days. When the PHE was announced in August, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., said the declaration would provide access to resources and flexibilities, expedite state data sharing, and provide more detailed data on testing and hospitalizations. CDC yesterday reported over 28,000 U.S. monkeypox cases since the first confirmed case May 18.

For a more current information on monkeypox, check out these articles from the Hill and MedPage Today.

From the Rx coverage front., Bloomberg reports

Hundreds of community pharmacies are having trouble filling prescriptions for amoxicillin, a common antibiotic that’s often used to treat bacterial infections in children.

Two-thirds of 333 pharmacy owners and managers who responded at the end of October to a National Community Pharmacists Association survey about drug shortages said they were having difficulty getting the antibiotic. The liquid form of the drug has been in limited supply in the US since October, according to the Food and Drug Administration, and it’s also in shortage in other countries

 

Another Bloomberg article attributes the shortage to demand due the RSV epidemic and school age children illnesses plus the generic drug’s low price.

“A lot of that risk is driven by market factors, particularly price,” explained Matt Christian, USP’s director of supply chain insights. In general, antibiotics are generic drugs that have existed for years and tend to be cheaper and have lower margins than newer drugs. That means drug companies have a lot less incentive to set up robust, resilient supply chains  and may be caught short if something goes wrong at a competing supplier.

“Lower priced drugs have a higher risk of shortage,” Christian said. “No margin, no inventory.”

An analysis by the FDA found a similar correlation: Drugs in short supply typically cost less than other medicines. * * *

“If you run out of an antibiotic as ubiquitous as amoxicillin, there is a concern that unnecessarily moving [to a more aggressive antibiotic] can further cause antimicrobial resistance,” Christian said.

Why doesn’t the federal government manufacture amoxicillin?

In other medical development news —

MedPage Today tells us

Hard thresholds for pain medication doses and duration are no longer promoted through the CDC’s new Clinical Practice Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Pain.

The new guidance — which covers acute, subacute, and chronic pain for primary care and other clinicians — updates and replaces the controversial 2016 CDC opioid guideline for chronic pain. The 2016 guideline was interpreted as imposing strict opioid dose and duration limits and was misapplied by some organizations, leading the guideline authors to clarify their recommendations in 2019.

The 2022 recommendations are voluntary and give clinicians and patients flexibility to support individual care, said Christopher Jones, PharmD, DrPH, MPH, acting director of CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control in a CDC press briefing. They should not be used as an inflexible, one-size-fits-all policy or law, or applied as a rigid standard of care, or replace clinical judgement about personalized treatment, he emphasized.

More details can be found in the STAT News article.

Bloomberg informs us

In just 15 minutes, a small, handheld blood test can tell doctors whether a patient has likely suffered a concussion or traumatic brain injury — no brain scan required.    

After more than a decade of research, the Abbott Laboratories test is being used for the first time in a real-world setting to evaluate patients at Tampa General Hospital in Florida. Doctors using the test say it’s better at evaluating concussions than the brain scans that have been widely used for the last 30 years.  * * *

[Abbott Labs’] test, called the i-STAT TBI Plasma test, was greenlit by the Food and Drug Administration in 2021 to rule out the need for a CT scan when evaluating mild traumatic brain injuries. * * *

Though Abbott’s test is not yet ready to be used on the sidelines of sporting events, the ultimate goal for Abbott is for every hospital, urgent care clinic, ambulance, school and sporting event to have a portable test available. The company is also working on research that will help doctors know the severity of a concussion or brain injury, for both adults and kids, to aid in diagnoses.

Abbott worked with the Department of Defense to develop the test, which supported development with millions of dollars in funding. More than 450,000 US service members were diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury from 2000 to 2021, according to the CDC. It’s an area the DOD is “very concerned about,” said Beth McQuiston, a neurologist and chief medical officer for Abbott’s diagnostic business.  

Bravo.

From the U.S. healthcare business front

Beckers Payer Issues reports

Cigna raised its annual earnings outlook and reported a 70 percent boost in third quarter profits compared to the same period last year, according to the company’s earnings report published Nov. 3.

“We built on our momentum from the first half of 2022 with strong execution in the third quarter across our businesses and a continued focus on serving customers and clients with our differentiated health and well-being solutions,” CEO David Cordani said.

Healthcare Dive offers an M&A perspective on the Cigna announcement.

The Wall Street Journal reports

Moderna Inc.’s third-quarter revenue fell by nearly a third and the pharmaceutical company cut its outlook, saying as part of its earnings report that supply constraints for its Covid-19 vaccines might sap as much as $3 billion in sales this year.

The Cambridge, Mass.-based company said Thursday that higher costs and a decline in demand for its original Covid-19 vaccine also hit its performance.

Moderna, which three months ago said it projected $21 billion in product sales of its Spikevax vaccine for anticipated delivery this year, now expects between $18 billion and $19 billion. The company said short-term supply constraints will delay some sales into 2023.

Beckers Hospital Review cautions

The third quarter brought little relief to hospitals in what is shaping up to be one of their worst financial years.  

Kaufman Hall’s October National Hospital Flash Report — based on data from more than 900 hospitals — found slightly lower hospital expenses in September did not outweigh lower revenue across the board, with decreases in discharges, inpatient minutes and operating minutes.

The median year-to-date operating margin index for hospitals was -0.1 percent in September, marking a ninth straight month of negative operating margins and a dimmer outlook for their climb back into the black by year’s end. 

Kaufman Hall noted that expense pressures and volume and revenue declines could force hospitals to make “difficult decisions” about service reductions and cuts. 

Meanwhile according to MedCity News, the American Medical Association “blasted the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Tuesday for its 2023 Physician Fee Schedule final rule, which would cut the Medicare payment rate to physicians by nearly 4.5%.” The AMA is demanding that Congress prevent the cut from occuring January 1, 2023.

The article adds

[O]ther organizations applauded it for areas that reflected their respective priorities. For instance, the National Association of ACOs (NAACOS) praised changes to the Medicare Shared Savings Program for 2023 that included providing more time to Accountable Care Organizations before they have to assume financial risk. The final rule also gave advance shared savings payments to ACOs that care for underserved communities. CMS said it expects these changes to increase participation in rural and underserved areas. * * *

[T]he final rule made changes to policies related to telehealth. This includes extending several telehealth services that were temporarily made available during the public health emergency through at least 2023. This will “allow additional time for the collection of data that may support their inclusion as permanent additions to the Medicare Telehealth Services List,” CMS said. The change is in line with comments CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure made at a recent conference. 

The Telehealth Access for America (TAFA), which includes the American Hospital Association, applauded the changes to telehealth, though the group called on Congress to make permanent actions.

In other telehealth news, Healthcare Dive reports

  • COVID-19 diagnoses fell by about 1% to 2% as a share of telehealth claims nationally in August, according to Fair Health’s monthly tracker data out Thursday.
  • In the South and West, COVID-19 fell from the second top diagnosis to the third from July to August. It remained in second place in the Midwest and Northeast.
  • Mental health conditions stayed as the top telehealth diagnoses nationally and in every region, and one hour of psychotherapy remained the top telehealth procedure code.

Weekend update

Congress remains on the campaign trail with the November 8 election just nine days away.

The Federal Employees Benefits Open Season starts two weeks from tomorrow.

From the Omicron and siblings front, Fortune Well tells us about the Zoe Health Study, a study of Covid symptoms among five million people.

Getting vaccinated against COVID reduces your risk of severe illness, hospitalization, and death if you do catch the disease—but according to new research, it could also dictate which batch of the milder, more common symptoms of the virus you end up getting. It’s thought that a large proportion of cases are still asymptomatic.

In an update to the ongoing Zoe Health Study, which has collected data from almost 5 million participants since 2020, researchers said they had identified symptoms that had emerged in recent weeks, noting that they appeared to differ depending on vaccination status. 

“Generally, we saw similar symptoms of COVID-19 being reported overall in the app by people who had and hadn’t been vaccinated,” the research team said in its update. “However, fewer symptoms were reported over a shorter period of time by those who had already had a jab, suggesting that they were falling less seriously ill and getting better more quickly.”

Precision Vaccinations informs us

As World Pneumonia Day approaches on November 12th, the ongoing effort to reduce fatalities from infectious diseases has never been more urgent.

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that needlessly affects millions worldwide each year. Most of the people affected by pneumonia in the U.S. are adults.

Previous U.S. CDC data indicates 47,000 people died from pneumonia in the U.S. in 2020.

And that negative trend continues today.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) Mortality Surveillance data available on October 27, 2022, 9.2% of infectious disease fatalities that occurred during week #42 were due to pneumonia, influenza, and/or COVID-19 (PIC).

Among the 2,128 PIC deaths reported last week, 1,164 listed pneumonia as an underlying or contributing cause of death on the death certificate, 949 had COVID-19, and 15 listed influenza.

Pneumonia always has been a killer. The FEHBlog’s Dad referred to the disease as “the old man’s friend.” He was not alone. A 2018 medical editorial explains

The term “old man’s friend” is often used when referring to pneumonia. Searching for it on Google yields 16,400 results in 0.33 s for this combination.

The term is attributed to William Osler, who in the first edition of his book The Principles and Practice of Medicine (1892) wrote:

In children and in healthy adults the outlook is good. In the debilitated, in drunkards and in the aged the chances are against recovery. So fatal is it in the latter class [i.e. the elderly] that it has been termed the natural end of the old man [1].

In the 9th edition, published after Osler himself already died (in 1919 from pneumonia at the age of 70 years [2]), this excerpt was rephrased as “.. . one may say that to die of pneumonia is almost the natural end of old people” [3]. But that was 100 years ago. Fortunately, a lot changed for the better in the century that followed.

Today, pneumonia still affects many ‘old’ men. Medical progress made since William Osler’s time has resulted in survival rate for hospitalized pneumonia that now sits above 90–95%. However, longer-term mortality is high. The reasons for this are still largely unknown. A hypothesis from the editors of Pneumonia? Perhaps chronic inflammation leading to silent progression of cardiac disease is an underlying mechanism.

In mental healthcare news, the Wall Street Journal reports

Mental-health screenings for kids are expanding across the country. But as more children are identified as needing assistance, families can face a tough time getting help from resources that are already stretched thin.

and

Startups [i.e., this site] are prescribing ketamine online to treat serious mental-health conditions, raising concern among psychiatrists about the safety of taking the mind-altering anesthetic without medical supervision, sometimes at high doses that raise risks of side effects.

The first story illustrates an issue for which telehealth is a solution, while the story shows why telehealth cannot replace in-person care.

In U.S. healthcare business news, Bloomberg relates

VillageMD, which is majority owned by Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc., is exploring a deal to merge with Warburg Pincus-backed Summit Health, according to people familiar with the matter. 

The acquisition by primary-care provider VillageMD of Summit, a health-care network and the parent of CityMD, would value the combined entity at between $5 billion to $10 billion, said the people, who asked to not be identified because the matter isn’t public.

An agreement could be reached in the coming weeks, though talks could still fall apart, the people added. Representatives for VillageMD, Walgreens and Warburg Pincus declined to comment, while Summit Health didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.