Weekend update

Weekend update

Lincoln Memorial in the Fall

The House of Representatives is on the campaign trail. The Senate will join them tomorrow after a confirmation vote on Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Her nomination narrowly cleared a cloture vote at the Senate today. If you want to understand why the Supreme Court will not strike down the Affordable Care Act this term even with Judge Barrett on its illustrious bench, click here.

There is only one Congressional hearing this week — a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Wednesday morning, October 28, about the federal internet liability shield. The witnesses will be the CEOs from Twitter, Alphabet/Google, and Facebook, large companies that currently benefit from this shield. Congress returns to its legislative business on November 16 following the Presidential and Congressional election on November 3.

Today, the Department of Health and Human Services shared news on how States and the District of Columbia will use the rapid COVID-19 BinaxNOW tests that the federal government purchased on their behalves. “HHS also provided all CLIA-certified nursing homes over 11 million rapid, point-of-care tests. The tests include the following FDA-authorized antigen diagnostic tests: Abbott BinaxNOW and either a Quidel Sofia 2 or Becton, Dickinson and Company (BD) Veritor™ Plus System instrument(s).”

The Washington Post’s Lily website offers an interview with a 14 year young lady, Anika Chebrolu, who was awarded a $25,000 prize “for her discovery: a compound that can bind to the coronavirus [COVID-19-, inhibiting its ability to infect people. She beat out nine other finalists — whose own projects ranged from a robotic glove to a device that detects invisible particles in water — to be named America’s top young scientist.” Ms. Chebrolu modestly explains that “my effort to find a spike protein binder isn’t unique in its methodology, and it may appear to be a drop in the ocean, but it adds to all these efforts and therefore is quite substantial.” Congratulations.

It’s also worth pointing out this Healthcare Dive article informing us that

Medical device funding hit a new high in the third quarter, growing 63% year on year to top $5 billion for the first time in CB Insights’ dataset. Investments in robotic surgery startups was a major driver of the increase. The analysts listed the progress of neuromodulation devices and Medtronic’s deals in diabetes and neurosurgery as other medical device highlights of the quarter.

The Mayo Clinic explains that “Robotic surgery, or robot-assisted surgery, allows doctors to perform many types of complex procedures with more precision, flexibility and control than is possible with conventional techniques. Robotic surgery is usually associated with minimally invasive surgery — procedures performed through tiny incisions.”

The International Modulation Society further explains that

Neuromodulation is technology that acts directly upon nerves. It is the alteration—or modulation—of nerve activity by delivering electrical or pharmaceutical agents directly to a target area.

Neuromodulation devices and treatments are life changing. They affect every area of the body and treat nearly every disease or symptom from headaches to tremors to spinal cord damage to urinary incontinence. With such a broad therapeutic scope, and significant ongoing improvements in biotechnology, it is not surprising that neuromodulation is poised as a major growth industry for the next decade.

Most frequently, people think of neuromodulation in the context of chronic pain relief, the most common indication. However, there are a plethora of neuromodulation applications, such as deep brain stimulation (DBS) treatment for Parkinson’s disease, sacral nerve stimulation for pelvic disorders and incontinence, and spinal cord stimulation for ischemic disorders (angina, peripheral vascular disease).

Cochlear implants to treat deafness, for example, are intermodulation devices.

The FEHBlog noticed on Twitter today that the HHS Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research has made available in the Apple Store and Google Play an app to help patients to develop questions for the doctor visits.

On the healthcare survey and report front

The top 12 reasons for using telehealth, according to the 2020 survey, are listed below, with the 2019 ranking and percentages in parentheses:

  1. Convenience, 51 percent (1, 64 percent)
  2. Safety, 46 percent (12, 13 percent)
  3. Speed – ability to receive care quickly, 44 percent (2, 53 percent)
  4. Quality care, 30 percent (6, 25 percent)
  5. Condition covered by telehealth visit, 28 percent (7, 22 percent)
  6. Ease of access to health information, 27 percent (3, 34 percent)
  7. Convenient communication channels, 26 percent (4, 33 percent)
  8. Lower overall cost, 23 percent (5, 30 percent)
  9. Difficult to travel to medical office, 21 percent (7, 20 percent)
  10. Recommendation, 19 percent (7, 20 percent)
  11. Reputation, 19 percent (11, 14 percent)
  12. Past experience, 17 percent (9, 19 percent).
  • Health Payer Intelligence reports that

Around a third of Millennials [ages 24 – 39] have a behavioral health condition, emphasizing a greater need for behavioral healthcare options and coverage as well as a new approach to millennial member engagement, the latest Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA) report revealed. * * * Not only do Millennials have a high percentage of behavioral health conditions but their rate of developing a behaioral health condition is rising by double digits. Over five years from 2014 through 2018, the prevalence of major depression rose by 43 percent, ADHD rose by 39 percentage percent, and psychotic disorders rose by 26 percent among Millennials.”

Midweek update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

The Hill brings us up to date on the status of bipartisan negotiations over a COVID-19 relief bill. At least the negotiated bill may be teed up for the lame duck session of Congress next month.

On Monday, Healthcare Dive reported the CVS Health is hiring 10,000 pharmacy technicians to administer vaccinations and today, and today

the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through the Assistant Secretary for Health (ASH), issued guidance under the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act (PREP Act) authorizing qualified pharmacy technicians and State-authorized pharmacy interns to administer childhood vaccines, COVID-19 vaccines when made available, and COVID-19 tests, all subject to several requirements. This guidance clarifies that the pharmacy intern must be authorized by the State or board of pharmacy in the State in which the practical pharmacy internship occurs, but this authorization need not take the form of a license from, or registration with, the State board of pharmacy.

Smart move, CVS.

On Monday, NCQA released the results of its Spring 2020 telehealth questionnaire. Check it out.

On the opioid front, the Wall Street Journal reports today that

Purdue Pharma LP agreed to plead guilty to three felonies related to its marketing and distribution of powerful painkiller OxyContin, as part of an $8.34 billion settlement that caps yearslong federal investigations into tactics the government said helped fuel the opioid crisis.

The Justice Department unveiled the settlement Wednesday, alongside a deal with Purdue’s owners, members of the Sackler family. The price tag for Purdue, however, is largely symbolic: The bankrupt company’s assets fall well short of $8 billion. It will pay the federal government $225 million, and much of the rest of the fines will be waived to allow more money to flow to states, counties and tribes that accuse Purdue of sparking widespread opioid addiction and deaths.

The Sacklers, meanwhile, resolved civil charges for a separate $225 million, but prosecutors made clear criminal investigations into the family continue.

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

The Hill reports “progress but not breakthroughs” as yet in the negotiation to achieve bipartisan agreement on a pre-election COVID-19 relief bill. The Speaker has agreed to continue negotiations past the 48 hour deadline that she set over the week. So both sides have set and withdrawn deadlines. That may be the clearest sign that progress is being made.

Federal News Network takes a deeper dive into last week’s FEHBP Open Season announcement from OPM. To recap “non-postal FEHBP participants will pay in 2021.

  • Self-only coverage: $4.67 more per biweekly pay period,
  • Self-plus-one coverage: $10.90 more per biweekly pay period,
  • Family coverage: $10.94 more per biweekly pay period.

It is interesting that the two other than self only options increased at the same level. This illustrates the small family size in the FEHBP. Furthermore,

[OPM Acting Director for Healthcare and Insurance Laurie] Bodenheimer described the premium rates OPM announced Wednesday as a “snapshot in time.” “These numbers are based on premiums for next year, along with what plans people are enrolled in right now,” she said. “It’s well known that during the open season people do choose different plans and coverage based on benefits or premiums or whatever is important to them. The end result is often that the overall premium increase is less than what we’re announcing today.”

That, my friend, is the benefit of FEHBP competition. The FEHBP/FEDVIP/FSAFeds Open Season runs from November 9 through December 14.

The open season for the Affordable Care Act’s marketplace begins on November 1. HHS released yesterday

a report showing the trend of lower premiums and increased issuer participation for HealthCare.gov will continue for 2021 year. The average premium for the second lowest cost silver plan (also called the benchmark plan) dropped by 2% for the 2021 coverage year and, when looking at states that are using HealthCare.gov in both 2020 and 2021, 22 more issuers will offer coverage in 2021, for a total of 181 issuers delivering more choice and competition for consumers.

The FEHBlog is happy to see that marketplace continues to mature and improve without the individual mandate.

On the COVID 19 front —

  • Healthcare Dive reports “About 20% of hospital executives surveyed by Kaufman Hall recently said they were ‘extremely concerned’ about their financial viability until an effective vaccine or treatment is available.”
  • A friend of the FEHBlog pointed out this helpful New York Times COVID-19 vaccination tracker.
  • NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins reports in his Director’s Blog that “findings [from two new studies] show that people who survive a COVID-19 infection continue to produce protective antibodies against key parts of the virus for at least three to four months after developing their first symptoms. In contrast, some other antibody types decline more quickly. The findings offer hope that people infected with the virus will have some lasting antibody protection against re-infection, though for how long still remains to be determined.”
  • NPR informs us that “Two new peer-reviewed studies are showing a sharp drop in mortality among hospitalized COVID-19 patients. The drop is seen in all groups, including older patients and those with underlying conditions, suggesting that physicians are getting better at helping patients survive their illness.” That has been the FEHBlog’s operating assumption. The principal researcher remarks that “”I do think this is good news, “but it does not make the coronavirus a benign illness.” No doubt about that.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

The Wall Street Journal reports that Speaker Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin continue to negotiate over another COVID-19 relief bill. “On Monday afternoon’s call with Democrats, Mrs. Pelosi said the two sides were still discussing how much money to provide state and local governments, child-care facilities and how to structure a national plan for testing and contact tracing of the virus.” The negotiations need to conclude soon if Congress is to have time to consider and pass the compromise bill before the national election which is two weeks from tomorrow.

Healthcare Dive offers a helpful overview of last week’s HLTH conference. Of note:

A slew of government agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HHS and Operation Warp Speed, are working together to generate a vaccine distribution plan in tandem with private sector partners.

Plans for distribution are ongoing but shift as the frontrunners in the vaccine race do, experts say. Different vaccines require different processes. For example, there may be additional costs to store a coronavirus vaccine at cold temperatures, or because some of the candidates require two doses.

“All those things we’re working through to try and understand,” Alan Lotvin, president of CVS’ pharmacy benefit management arm Caremark, said Monday. “It’s going to be different for every vaccine.”

Walgreens, for example, is in regular conversations with five manufacturers in the last stages of clinical tests, the federal government and other retail partners to coordinate a distribution strategy, Gourlay said.

And CMS plans to release a rule before the end of the month for how Medicare will cover an eventual COVID-19 vaccine without cost-sharing, Verma said.

The Healthcare Dive article also discusses back to work technology presented at HLTH. In that regard, HR Daily advisor offers advice on how employers and managers can offer mental health guidance to their remote employees. For example,

Knowing that isolation is a big challenge, companies should look for ways to help their staff feel connected. “Working at home can prove challenging under the best of circumstances,” says Jeanne Hurlbert, PhD, President of Hurlbert Consulting. “Forming virtual work teams can help combat those challenges.”

“Teams can connect by phone or, ideally, through video conferencing, once or twice a day—and this can help to increase productivity. That allows them to provide instrumental support to each other,” Hurlbert adds. “And if your employees remain in the workplace, the same principles hold. The bonus? Our research shows that workers with more coworker connections enjoy higher job satisfaction.”

A friend of the FEHBlog shared this National Institutes of Health press release about “a groundbreaking study that will aim to address gaps in reaching communities most heavily affected by the opioid epidemic with proven, evidence-based interventions for opioid use disorder (OUD),” which as we have seen remains a national public health emergency.”

An estimated 1.6 million people had OUD in 2019; of these, only 18.1% received medication treatment for opioid misuse. To address this gap, in May 2019, the NIH announced plans to invest more than $350 million to support the multi-year HEALing Communities Study, a multi-site research study that will test the impact of an integrated set of evidence-based practices on reducing opioid-related overdose deaths by 40% in three years in communities hard-hit by the opioid crisis.

Study research sites include the University of Kentucky, Lexington; Boston Medical Center; Columbia University, New York City; and Ohio State University, Columbus. The study will track communities as they work to increase the number of individuals receiving medication-based treatment for OUD, increase treatment retention beyond six months, provide recovery support services, expand the distribution of naloxone, a medication to reverse opioid overdose, and reduce high-risk opioid prescribing.

Interesting.

Weekend update

Note: The third time is charm. The correct version of OPM’s 2021 Non-Postal Nationwide / FFS Plan Premium chart is now linked to Friday’s note. Thanks readers.

To compensate for this inconvenience, the FEHBlog has attached his treasured actual maximum FEHB government contribution chart 2016-2021. If a plan’s premium is below the maximum government contribution, prescribed by 5 USC Sec. 8906, then plan annual premium increase is covered by the government contribution increase. If, however, the plan’s premium is above the maximum government contribution, the “shield” typically vanishes. As a result, the “above the max” plan’s annual premium changes are quite visible to the member. The maximum government contribution helps tamp down premium increases in this competitive program. The purpose of the chart is to illustrate the fact that the CPI-U is a useful proxy for maximum government contribution changes.

Onto the Weekend Update

The Senate is open for voting and committee work this week. On Thursday morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination. The House remains on the campaign trail although, according to the Hill, the Speaker has warned the Administration that she will stop negotiating a pre-election COVID-19 relief bill unless a compromise is reached early this week. Turnabout is fair play.

On the COVID-19 vaccine front —

Alex Gorsky, chief executive of Johnson & Johnson, remains upbeat about the possibility of a COVID-19 vaccine arriving as early as this year, despite the health care giant suspending a late-stage clinical trial for one of its own candidates after a patient fell ill this week. “If you just look at the sheer number of compounds that are in development right now, there is a very good probability that late this year or early next year, we will have options for vaccines.”

  • The Department of Health and Human Services announced on Friday that “agreements with CVS and Walgreens to provide and administer COVID-19 vaccines to residents of long-term care facilities (LTCF) nationwide with no out-of-pocket costs.” “The pandemic has inflicted a devastating toll on America’s nursing home residents,” said Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma. “That’s why the Trump Administration has taken unprecedented action to protect them in every possible way. This effort will ensure they are at the front of the line for the COVID vaccine and will bring their grueling trial to a close as swiftly as possible.”

On Saturday, according to CNN, the President signed into law a Congressionally approved bill that converts the national suicide hotlines ten digit number 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) to a three digit number 988. The Federal Communications Commission has ordered voice service providers to make the new three digit number available to subscribers by July 16, 2022.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released the result of a Medicare beneficiary survey on the impact of COVID-19. It’s a survey of interest to FEHB plans because there is a large cadre of Medicare prime annuitants enrolled in their plans.

21% of Medicare beneficiaries report forgoing non-coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) care due to the pandemic, and nearly all – 98% – of beneficiaries have taken preventative measures to keep themselves safe from the virus.

According to the survey, the most common type of forgone care because of the pandemic was dental care (43%), followed by regular check-up (36%), treatment for ongoing condition (36%), and diagnostic or medical screening test (32%). The most common reason cited for forgoing care was not wanting to risk being at a medical facility (45%).

“An infographic with a snapshot of the survey results is here.  A link to the public use file detailing the survey results is here.”

On the other side of the aging spectrum the Wall Street Journal reports on millennials agreeing to marry in part so that one partner can access the other partner’s employer sponsored health insurance. This has been happening for a long time. What’s interesting to the FEHBlog is that employer sponsored plans, not ACA marketplace plans , are viewed as the life raft.

Weekend update

Thanks to ACK15 for sharing their work on Unsplash.

Congress does not plan to hold votes this week. The Senate Judiciary Committee begins Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination confirmation hearing tomorrow.

Fox Business brings us up to date on the COVID-19 relief bill negotiations, and Federal News Network outlines new federal employment bills to watch.

This week the HLTH conference will virtually occur. Healthcare Dive describes five conference highlights.

On the afternoon of Tuesday October 13, the HCP-LAN will hold its virtual summit meeting. The FEHBlog has enjoyed these summits and, in contrast to HLTH, there’s no charge to attend. “The 2020 LAN Virtual Summit will center around how value-based payment models and the larger health care system have adapted to become more responsive and resilient in the wake of the public health emergency.”

On Thursday October 15, the Medicare Open Season begins. This is time when Medicare beneficiaries can enroll in or switch Medicare Advantage and Part D plans. The Open Season end on December 7.

Hopefully this week also will spotlight OPM’s 2020 Open Season announcement.

In recent news —

  • Health Payer Intelligence discusses a PriceWaterhouseCoopers report on strategies that health plans are implementing to control prescription benefit costs.
  • The Wall Street Journal considers “Lessons for the Next Pandemic—Act Very, Very Quickly / Scientists and public-health leaders are working on new ways to find infections before they spread; smarter lung scans and screening blood samples.” It’s never too early to start evaluating and planning.
  • The Federal Times reports on the virtual ceremony held to honor the federal employees who received the 2020 SAMMIE awards. SAMMIE is short for Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals. Congratulations SAMMIE winners.
  • NPR reports that

When developing a vaccine, scientists have a few strategies to try. They can take a piece or component of the bacteria and use that to trigger an immune response in a person. They can kill the pathogen and use its corpse as the vaccine. Or they can take a live pathogen and weaken it in the lab.

The latter are called “live, attenuated vaccines,” and over the past century, scientists have noticed something peculiar about these vaccines: They seem to offer some protection, not just from the targeted disease, but also against many different diseases, including respiratory infections.

COVID-19, of course, is a respiratory infection.

The nasal flu vaccine, in contrast to the injection, is a “live, attenuate vaccine.” However, it is only available to certain age groups. The Centers For Disease Control explains “The nasal spray flu vaccine is approved for use in healthy non-pregnant individuals, 2 years through 49 years old. People with certain medical conditions should not receive the nasal spray flu vaccine.” Of course, this is a conversation to hold with your doctor if you are eligible for the nasal flu vaccine.

Tuesday Tidbits

The Wall Street Journal reported this afternoon that the President has “endorsed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s [“FDA”] plans for assessing whether a Covid-19 vaccine should be given to the public, making it likely that a shot won’t be cleared until after the election, people familiar with the matter said.” Here is a link to that FDA guidance which was issued today. The FEHBlog also has confidence in the FDA.

The Journal also reports that the President has called off further COVID-19 relief bill negotiations between the Speaker of the House and the Treasury Secretary until after the November 3 election which is four weeks away.

Mr. Trump said he had instructed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) to focus his efforts on confirming his Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, whose Judiciary committee hearings start Monday, rather than the stimulus effort.

Mr. McConnell said that he agreed with Mr. Trump’s decision.

“I think his view was that they were not going to produce a result and that we needed to concentrate on what’s achievable,” he told reporters.

In other inside the Beltway news, the FEHBlog this morning listened to the oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in the ERISA preemption case involving an Arkansas law governing prescription benefit manager pricing practices. Rutledge v. PCMA (No. 18-540) — the recording of the argument is available here.

At issue is a U.S. Court of Appeals decision holding that ERISA preempted this Arkansas law. The counsel for the State of Arkansas, supported by the U.S. Solicitor General, argued that ERISA does not preempt a state law that regulates health care pricing. However, the counsel for PCMA countered, successfully in the FEHBlog’s view that the Arkansas law was not merely a pricing requirement. Rather it was loaded with administrative requirements. If the Supreme Court were to reverse the Eight Circuit, then there are forty states at last count that would be able to impose their pricing and procedural requirement on employer-sponsored health plans, which outcome likely would wind up encompassing the FEHBP.

PCMA’s counsel described that outcome as an administrative nightmare for ERISA plans. He directed the Court’s attention to the amicus brief filed by a nationwide employer based in Arkansas, J.B. Hunt.

For example, if an over-the-road truck driver for J.B. Hunt maintains two separate residences in Arkansas and California, which state PBM law applies? Many Arkansas communities straddle border states (e.g., West Memphis, Texarkana, Ft. Smith, Rogers). What if a J.B. Hunt employee resides in a border state but fills prescriptions across the border in Arkansas— or vice-versa? What if a Minnesota-based over-the- road truck driver needs to fill a prescription while passing through Arkansas, and now the Plan has to process and pay the claim under two different sets of laws?

ERISA and FEHBA state law preemption are in place to permit uniform nationwide administration of these employer sponsored plans. The Supreme Court will issue a decision before the end of June 2021.

Weekend Update

The House of Representatives is now on a district work period / the campaign trail until after election day. According to the Hill, the Senate which had planned to hold votes this week will be switching to pro-forma session for the next two week as three Republican Senators unfortunately have been diagnosed with COVID-19. The Senate Majority Leader expects to resume holding votes during the week of October 19.

Over the summer, the House leadership changed its rules to permit remote House floor voting during the COVID-19 public health emergency. That action permits the House leadership to rapidly schedule a House vote in October if necessary. The FEHBlog wonders whether the Senate leadership will take the same action this month.

The House and Senate will be holding a handful of Committee meetings this week.

The FEHBlog is confident that this will be the week that OPM publicizes 2021 premiums for FEHBP and FEDVIP carriers.

Tomorrow, being the first Monday in October, the U.S. Supreme Court will begin its October 2020 Term with virtual oral arguments. The Court will virtually hear argument in a blockbuster ERISA state law preemption case on Tuesday October 6. Courts tend to read certain aspects of the ERISA and FEHBA state law preemption provisions similarly.

Last Friday, the Internal Revenue Service announced delays and flexibilities in 2020 ACA Form 1095-B and 1095-C reporting similar to those that were in effect for 2019, the first reporting year in which the individual mandate penalty was zeroed out. These reports are now ordinarily used for the six jurisdictions that have reinstated the individual mandate penalty for their respective residents.

Health Payer Intelligence offers a helpful overview of three categories of telehealth that payers cover – synchronous communication between members and providers of care by telephone, tablet, or PC; asynchrouous secure direct messaging between members and providers, and remote monitoring of member health.

For example, UnitedHealth Group designed its new diabetes program, Level2, around a remote patient monitoring device. The company transformed the continuous glucose monitor—which is usually used for patients with type 1 diabetes—into a tool for those with type 2 diabetes.

The monitor delivered hundreds of readings per day. These readings go into the member’s individual health record. By looking at the readings over time, the payer can assess potential trends.

However, the remote patient monitoring device provides instantaneous information, meaning that the payer can also address health concerns the moment they occur even though the member is not in a provider’s office.

If a member had a sugar spike, the payer’s platform would let the member know certain steps he could take to control his sugar levels, through exercise or food consumption, for example.

Midweek Update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

Late this afternoon, the Senate approved the compromise FY 2021 continuing resolution (H.R. 8337) by a vote of 84-10. The President is expect to sign the bill into law tonight. The bill provides continued funding for the federal government through December 11. Congress will hold a lame duck session following the national election on November 3 to consider next steps on FY 2021 appropriations.

This bill includes two provisions relevant to the FEHBP:

  • Section 2401 caps any increase to the Medicare Part B premium at 25% of what it otherwise would be for 2021. Presumably this cap only applies to the basic Part B premium and not to the increased premiums paid by high earners. In any event it should help encourage annuitants to join or stay enrolled in Part B. CMS should be announcing Medicare Part B and other traditional Medicare cost sharing amounts later in October.
  • Section 138 allows OPM, “which is still grappling with its own funding shortfall after the governmentwide security clearance business transferred to the Defense Department last year, to tap into the trust funds it oversees to keep its own operations going.” How would this impact the FEHBP? Section 8909 of the FEHB Act imposes a 4% surcharge on net to carrier premiums. 75% of that surcharge is deposited in a contingency reserve for the carrier which acts like a premium stabilization fund. The remaining 25% of that surcharge is available to cover OPM costs of FEHB administration to the extent appropriated by Congress. Congress typically appropriates only 1/4 of the administration fund to OPM and the balance per Section 8909 is deposited into the FEHB plan contingency reserves based on enrollment. It appears to the FEHBlog that this new law has given OPM the authority to tap into that surplus that otherwise would have been available to the FEHBP carriers. This is not the only such trust fund available to OPM.

The Wall Street Journal and the Hill report that the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin will continue to discuss a compromise fourth COVID-19 relief bill tomorrow. The two leaders met today for 90 minutes and they hope for more progress tomorrow.

On the COVID-19 front —

  • The U.S. National Science Foundation discusses how it has been funding small businesses in the fight to control COVID-19. “Startups nationwide responded with creativity and a diversity of experiences to create innovative technology solutions in the COVID-19 crisis,” said Andrea Belz, director for the Division of Industrial Innovation and Partnerships. “NSF-funded solutions have the potential to make a significant impact in the fight against COVID and future pandemic threats.” That’s encouraging.
  • Forbes reports on a deal between startup tech company doc.ai and major health and Blue Cross licensee Anthem. “One of the products that Anthem is offering its members through doc.ai is called Passport, which helps employees safely return to in-person work during the Covid-19 pandemic. An employer decides on the parameters and each morning the employee answers a self-assessment that determines whether or not the app generates a unique barcode to enter the office building. But the key here is that the protected health information is never sent to the employer—it stays on the employee’s phone—and all the employer sees is whether the QR code was issued. De Brouwer likens it to “soft contact tracing,” where privacy comes first. The data is never uploaded to a server, but stays on the mobile device.” Also encouraging
  • In not so encouraging but understandable news, MedPage Today reports that “Overall frequency of alcohol consumption among adults ages 30-80 increased 14% versus 2019, with increases of 17% for women, reported Michael Pollard, PhD, of RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California, which administers the survey, and colleagues. * * * ‘Health systems may need to educate consumers through print or online media about increased alcohol use during the pandemic and identify factors associated with susceptibility and resilience to the impacts of COVID-19,’ Pollard and co-authors wrote.”

On the healthcare fraud front, the HHS Inspector General announced today

The Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) Office of Inspector General, along with our state and federal law enforcement partners, participated in a health care fraud takedown in September 2020. More than 345 defendants in 51 judicial districts were charged with participating in health care fraud schemes involving more than $6 billion in alleged losses to federal health care programs. Since 2016, HHS-OIG has seen a significant increase in “telefraud”: scams that leverage aggressive marketing and so-called telehealth services. The conspirators include telemedicine company executives, medical practitioners, marketers, and business owners who scammed hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting patients in their homes.

Wow.

In miscellaneous news —

  • HHS created a Hospital Price Transparency website today three months before the final rule takes effect on January 1, 2021.
  • HHS also announced today “five cooperative agreements to health information exchange organizations (HIEs) to help support state and local public health agencies in their efforts to respond to public health emergencies, including disasters and pandemics such as COVID-19.” These HIEs provide a vital framework for sharing health information.
  • “The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the Multi-State Information Sharing & Analysis Center (MS-ISAC) have released a joint Ransomware Guide that details practices that organizations should continuously engage in to help manage the risk posed by ransomware and other cyber threats. The in-depth guide provides actionable best practices for ransomware prevention as well as a ransomware response checklist that can serve as a ransomware-specific addendum to organization cyber incident response plans.” Check it out.
  • Health Payer Intelligence helpfully reports on a surprise billing study published in the American Journal of Managed Care which finds that

More than 10% of health plan spending is attributable to ancillary and emergency services that commonly surprise-bill. Reducing payment for these services by 15% would reduce premiums by 1.6% ($67 per member per year), and reducing average payment to 150% of traditional Medicare rates—the high end of payments to other specialists—would reduce premiums by 5.1% ($212 per member per year). These savings would reduce aggregate premiums for the nation’s commercially insured population by approximately $12 billion and $38 billion, respectively.

The study is based on claims data from major health insurers housed in the Healthcare Cost Institute.

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Today the Senate invoked cloture on the compromise FY 2021 continuing resolution (HR 8337) by an 82 to 6 vote. The Senate now is in a position to pass the legislation and send it to the President for signature before the end of this federal government fiscal year, tomorrow September 30.

The Wall Street Journal reports that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin have resumed discussing a compromise COVID-19 relief bill. Their discussions will continue tomorrow.

Healthcare consulting company WillisTowersWatson released a new white paper about the impact of the COVID-19 public health emergency on healthcare spending in the U.S.

Health care plan sponsors may see an unprecedented decrease in year-over-year medical costs in 2020, as system capacity shifts and fear of contracting COVID-19 in medical settings drives a significant volume of foregone and deferred care. Significant uncertainties remain however, including the course of the pandemic, the availability of effective vaccines and treatments, and changes in the health care delivery system that could impact future health care costs.

Willis Towers Watson has evaluated a set of potential future care utilization scenarios contemplating a variety of patterns of infection and care return. Across our scenarios, 2021 costs to employer plans are expected to be slightly higher (0.5% to 5.0%) than the non-pandemic baseline projection. Nevertheless, when 2020 and 2021 are combined, all scenarios show cost reductions (–2.8% to –3.8%) relative to the non-pandemic baseline. The baseline comparison from which these estimates were developed reflects projected costs for 2020 and 2021 assuming the pandemic never occurred. Employers should consider these scenarios as they budget for and measure the performance of their health care plans in the upcoming year.

Speaking of COVID-19 vaccines, the National Institutes of Health today announced that based on a separate Phase I study, the COVID-19 vaccine being jointly developed by Moderna and NIH had a positive impact on 40 older adult volunteers. This vaccine currently is in the Phase III study with a younger cohort. The separate Phase I study found that “Overall, the researchers found that “the investigational vaccine was well-tolerated in this older age group. Importantly, the immune response to the vaccine seen in older volunteers was comparable to that seen in younger age groups.” NIH is proposing that the Phase III study be expanded to include a senior cohort.

In other tidbits

  • Beckers Hospital Review reports on “13 things to know about Aetna, Anthem, Cigna, Humana and UnitedHealthcare’s virtual care strategies.” The article reminds the FEHBlog that the current end date for the federal government’s COVID-19 public health emergency technically is October 23. In all likelihood HHS will extend the deadline for another ninety days to Inauguration Day.
  • Healthcare Dive reports that “HHS has sent the Office of Management and Budget an interim final rule, called Information Blocking and the ONC Health IT Certification Program: Extension of Compliance Dates and Timeframes in Response to the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency, received on Sept. 17. ONC declined to comment on the rule. But the title implies it will extend dates identified in the sweeping information blocking provisions — notably, the looming November compliance deadline for providers — and dates for the Conditions and Maintenance of Certification provisions requiring EHR platforms to be interoperable.”