Tuesday’s Tidbits

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the Capitol Hill front, Roll Call reports that “The House [of Representatives] cleared a temporary debt limit bill Tuesday that will buy lawmakers a little more time [at least until December 3] to negotiate a longer-term solution * * * . The House voted 219-206 to adopt a rule for floor debate on unrelated legislation that “deemed” the Senate-passed debt limit bill as having cleared that chamber. That maneuver sent the bill, which would increase the Treasury Department’s borrowing authority by $480 billion to nearly $28.9 trillion, to President Joe Biden’s desk where he’s expected to sign it this week.”

Here are a few COVID vaccination mandate tidbits for your consideration —

  • Fedweek discusses the status of the President’s mandate that federal employees receive the COVID vaccine.
  • CNBC lets us know that Boeing, which holds large defense contracts, is rolling out a COVID vaccination mandate for its 125,000 U.S. employees.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that

The Labor Department signaled Tuesday evening that it is close to acting on President Biden’s plan to require private-sector workers get Covid-19 vaccinations or be regularly tested, a move that has drawn a mixed reaction from larger and smaller companies.

The proposed mandate, according to an earlier announcement by the Biden administration, would apply to businesses with 100 or more employees. It would be implemented under a federal rule making known as an emergency temporary standard and affect roughly 80 million workers nationwide, according to Biden administration estimates, or more than half the total U.S. workforce.

The Labor Department said its Occupational Safety and Health Administration submitted the initial text of the proposed standard to the White House for approval, signaling its final release could soon follow. The details could change during the White House review.

Also from the Delta variant front, STAT News tells us that “Food and Drug Administration scientists did not take a clear position as to whether the agency should authorize booster doses of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine in documents released Tuesday. * * * The FDA has not made available its briefing document on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. * * * [The briefing documents relate to the FDA vaccine advisory committee meetings scheduled for Thursday and Friday this week.] One of the most interesting topics for the meeting comes at the end of day two: the discussion of a National Institutes of Health study that examines what happens when people get a booster dose of a different vaccine than the one they originally received. Allowing such mix-and-match boosterscould make it much simpler to give people the shots in the future. It would also open the Covid-19 vaccine market up to many more players, instead of giving Pfizer and Moderna an effective lock on the market.”

In miscellaneous tidbits

  • The National Institutes of Health yesterday announced that

A commonly available oral diuretic pill approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration may be a potential candidate for an Alzheimer’s disease treatment for those who are at genetic risk, according to findings published in Nature Aging. The research included analysis showing that those who took bumetanide — a commonly used and potent diuretic(link is external) — had a significantly lower prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease compared to those not taking the drug. The study, funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health, advances a precision medicine approach for individuals at greater risk of the disease because of their genetic makeup.

The research team analyzed information in databases of brain tissue samples and FDA-approved drugs, performed mouse and human cell experiments, and explored human population studies to identify bumetanide as a leading drug candidate that may potentially be repurposed to treat Alzheimer’s.

“Though further tests and clinical trials are needed, this research underscores the value of big data-driven tactics combined with more traditional scientific approaches to identify existing FDA-approved drugs as candidates for drug repurposing to treat Alzheimer’s disease,” said NIA Director Richard J. Hodes, M.D.

  • FEHB plans that offer plan brochures in Spanish may be interested to know that AHRQ has translated its medical visit question builder tool for patients into Spanish.
  • In an interesting business move, Best Buy, according to Healthcare Dive, is expanding its home healthcare business.

Best Buy is acquiring United Kingdom-based at-home care platform Current Health for an undisclosed amount, expanding its push into the health industry.

The massive consumer electronics retailer already owns two healthcare companies, and is now snapping up Current, which has a platform combining remote patient monitoring, telehealth and patient engagement. The move comes as an increasing amount of care is delivered in the home, accelerating consumers’ use of health tech.

The acquisition should allow Best Buy to play a bigger role in virtual care delivery, the company said in a blog post Tuesday. Best Buy expects the deal, which will be financed with cash, to close by the end of the fourth quarter of its 2022 fiscal year, per a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Weekend Update

The U.S. House of Representatives is engaged in Committee business this week following Columbus Day and the Senate is on State work break / recess. The House also is expected to vote this week on the temporary debt limit increase.

The Medicare Open Season begins on Friday October 15.

From the Federal Benefits Open Season front, Federal News Network discusses the No Surprises Act (“NSA”) which takes effect on January 1, 2022. The NSA addresses three types of surprising billing — out of network emergency care; out of network care at in-network facilities and out-of-network air ambulance services. It does not address situations where the patient chooses out of network medical or mental health care or ground ambulance services. The article appropriately concludes

Of course, these [NSA] changes shouldn’t mean federal employees toss the basic rules of choosing an appropriate health insurance plan.

[Walt] Francis suggests FEHB participants check with their doctors each year to ensure they’re planning to stay within their preferred network — and then do some research about what new benefits are coming to your current plan and the others.

The plans change every year, and nearly all insurance providers add new benefits or perks to compete with others and respond to OPM’s priorities for the FEHBP.

From the mental healthcare front, the Wall Street Journal reported last week that “Finding a therapist who takes insurance was tough before the pandemic. Now, therapists and patients say, an increase in the need for mental-health care is making the search even harder.”

Especially in big cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., demand for mental-health care is so strong that many experienced therapists don’t accept any insurance plans, they say. They can easily fill their practices with patients who would pay out of pocket, they add. Therapists who do take insurance are often booked up. And in many smaller towns and rural areas, there are few mental-health professionals at all. Finding a provider who takes insurance, or lowering your rates in other ways, is possible but often takes legwork that can be draining when you are already grappling with mental-health issues.

[Among other approaches] Telehealth can provide access to a broader pool of providers, including therapists who are farther away from you. [Health plan sponsored telehealth providers are always in network.]

Insurance companies say they are trying to increase access to therapists. Anthem Inc. says it added about 2,000 additional providers to its telehealth platform during the early days of the pandemic to handle increased demand. UnitedHealth Group Inc. says it has grown its network of mental-health-care providers by 50% in the past five years to more than 260,000 nationwide.

As for therapists’ complaints of low reimbursement rates, Anthem health plans “routinely review reimbursements to ensure that providers receive market rates,” the company said in a statement. Margaret-Mary Wilson, UnitedHealth Group’s associate chief medical officer, says the company uses data on how patients are improving to financially “reward providers for delivering care with better outcomes.”

Fortune offers a fascinating article about Aetna’s preventive approach to mental health care. Among other tools the authors point out

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are also valuable modes of preventing escalated mental health concerns, as they provide 24/7 life assistance across a wide range of issues that can lower risks of feeling overwhelmed, anxious or depressed. In fact, one study found that companies with EAPs see a 24% improvement in life satisfaction and a 10% reduction in workplace distress among their workers. But we need to better inform people that EAPs are more than a workplace productivity tool. Aetna’s Resources for Living, which provides EAP services,is one example of a resource that supports those facing stress and anxiety, family conflict, legal and financial issues, grief and loss and even loneliness among our Medicare members.

Federal agencies and the Postal Service offer robust employee assistance programs to their employees independent of the FEHB Program and the FEHBlog’s view OPM should put more emphasis on coordinating such related services.

Cybersecurity Saturday

From Capitol Hill, the Wall Street Journal reports that “the Senate Homeland Security Committee took a step forward on Wednesday October 6], advancing a bill that would require hospitals and oil and natural-gas pipeline companies, among other critical infrastructure operators, to report cyberattacks and ransom payments within 72 hours. Chairman Gary Peters said he wants the bill tacked onto the broader annual defense authorization package.” More details on this Senate committee meeting is available on Nextgov.

On the regulatory front, the U.S. Justice Department announced on Wednesday October 6 a new Civil Cyber- Fraud Initiative that

will utilize the False Claims Act to pursue cybersecurity related fraud by government contractors and grant recipients. The False Claims Act is the government’s primary civil tool to redress false claims for federal funds and property involving government programs and operations. The act includes a unique whistleblower provision, which allows private parties to assist the government in identifying and pursing fraudulent conduct and to share in any recovery and protects whistleblowers who bring these violations and failures from retaliation. 

The initiative will hold accountable entities or individuals that put U.S. information or systems at risk by knowingly providing deficient cybersecurity products or services, knowingly misrepresenting their cybersecurity practices or protocols, or knowingly violating obligations to monitor and report cybersecurity incidents and breaches.

Cyberscoop adds that “The focus comes after suspected Russian hackers breached the federal contractor SolarWinds in 2020, using the federal contractor as a foothold into nine U.S. agencies.”

Because the False Claims Act is applicable to FEHB carriers and many FEHB subcontractors, it’s worth adding that the False Claims Act defines “knowingly” as having “actual knowledge” or acting “in deliberate ignorance” or “reckless disregard of the truth or falsity of the information.” 31 U.S.C § 3729(b)(1)(A). Courts have recognized that this is more than a mere negligence standard. E.g. United States v. Sci. Applications Int’l Corp., 626 F.3d 1257, 1274-75 (D.C. Cir. 2010) (quoting S. Rep. No. 99-345, at 6, 19 (1986)). 

It strikes the FEHBlog as unusual that the Justice Department laid out its policy without bringing a test lawsuit. However, because the False Claims Act authorizes private parties to bring False Claims Act lawsuits on behalf of the federal government (“qui tam” actions), the Justice Department may have taken this approach to alert the active qui tam bar of the Department’s support for these kinds of False Claim Act lawsuits.

From the ransomware front, Bleeping Computer reports

While most ransomware actors spend time on the victim network looking for important data to steal, one group favors quick malware deployment against sensitive, high-value targets. It can take less than two days for the FIN12 gang to execute on the target network a file-encrypting payload – most of the time Ryuk ransomware.

The group is a close partner of the TrickBot gang and targets high-revenue victims (above $300 million) from various activity sectors and regions on the globe.

FIN12 is characterized by skipping the data exfiltration step that most ransomware gangs have adopted to increase their chances of getting paid. This attribute allows the group to execute attacks at a much faster rate than other ransomware operations, taking them less than two days from the initial compromise to the file encryption stage.

According to data collected from investigations, most ransomware gangs that also steal data have a median dwell time of five days and the average value is 12.4 days.

With FIN12, the average time spent on the victim network dropped each year, getting to less than three days in the first half of 2021. After getting initial access, the group did not waste any time hitting their victims and in most cases they started activity on the same day. * * *

In a profile of the group published today [October 7] by cybersecurity company Mandiant, researchers note that many FIN12 victims are in the healthcare sector.

And here’s a link to Bleeping Computer’s The Week in Ransomware report. What’s more here’s a link to Unit 42’s first supplement to the ransomware report that issued earlier this year. This supplement focuses on ransomware families, like FIN12.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Roll Call reports that

The Senate passed a temporary debt limit increase along party lines Thursday evening, a move that would give the Treasury Department at least a couple of months before it once again bumps up against its legal borrowing cap.

The 50-48 vote sent the bill to the House, where that chamber will need to clear the measure before it heads to President Joe Biden. That vote, likely next week, could be tricky given GOP opposition to the short-term patch and Democrats in that chamber barely backing a longer suspension of the debt limit late last month.

Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House’s principal deputy press secretary, said Biden “looks forward to signing” the debt limit measure after it clears.

The Senate amended the House bill, which passed 219-212, replacing a longer debt ceiling suspension with a $480 billion increase in Treasury’s borrowing cap designed to last into early December, though it may go a little longer.

The current continuing appropriations resolution is set to expire relatively contemporaneously on December 3, 2021.

From the Federal Benefits Open Season front, federal benefits consultant Tammy Flanagan has posted her first GovExec column on this year’s Open Season while GEHA, the second largest plan in the FEHB, has posted information on its 2022 benefits.

From the Delta variant front, Healthcare Dive informs us that

Pfizer and BioNTech have officially asked U.S. regulators for emergency clearance of their coronavirus vaccine in children between 5 and 11 years old, making the developers the first to seek authorization for younger kids.

Thursday’s announcement, which Pfizer made on Twitter, comes nine days after the companies said they had started submitting data to the Food and Drug Administration in support of their application, which, if authorized, could make more than 28 million children in the U.S. eligible for vaccination.

The FDA has already scheduled an Oct. 26 advisory panel to discuss the vaccine’s potential authorization in children, more and more of whom have been infected and hospitalized as the delta variant spread and the school year began. Clearance is reportedly expected in November, though the evaluation could be complicated by turnover within the agency’s vaccine review office.

From the healthcare business front —

Healthcare Dive tells us that

Total revenue of hospital M&A so far this year dipped only slightly from last year despite the number of deals being nearly cut in half, according to a Wednesday report from Kaufman Hall.

The average seller size of $659 million was well above year-to-date average going back to 2015, the earliest year featured in the report. This year’s third quarter included the Intermountain Health merger with SCL Health to create an $11 billion system and HCA’s buy of five Steward Health hospitals in Utah.

Hospitals are increasing looking outside traditional care delivery methods to diversify business models by pursuing stakes in home health, virtual care and post-acute services. They are also identifying strategic partnership with payers, physicians groups and other adjacent sectors, Kaufman Hall said.

United Healthcare’s subsidiary Optum announced a collaboration with SSM Health, a Catholic health system in the Midwest.

Together, the organizations will work to improve the overall well-being of individuals and communities – while addressing the complex social and economic factors affecting each person’s health.

SSM Health and Optum will partner across certain functions – including inpatient care management, digital transformation and revenue cycle management – to improve health outcomes and patients’ health care experiences. The organizations also will collaborate to redefine the consumer health care journey through the design and development of a seamless digital experience to simplify patient access to the care and services they need.

“Creating a new ecosystem of care requires bringing together the best and the brightest to collaborate for the common good,” said Laura S. Kaiser, FACHE, president and chief executive officer, SSM Health. “The commitment of UnitedHealth Group and Optum to improving health care experiences and outcomes for everyone aligns well with SSM Health’s Mission to ensure all people have access to high-quality, compassionate and affordable care. We are excited to partner with them to achieve our vision of transforming health care in America – and address the health equity gap for the most vulnerable in society.”

To help advance health equity, UnitedHealth Group and SSM Health will jointly invest in vital community health programs to ensure the disadvantaged and vulnerable have equal access to quality health care services. These efforts will focus on closing the health equity gap and critical health priorities in the communities SSM Health serves throughout the Midwest.

Medcity News reports that

Primary and urgent care provider Carbon Health is expanding its service offerings with a new acquisition.

The San Francisco-based company has bought Alertive Healthcare, a remote patient monitoring provider, for an undisclosed sum. Alertive Healthcare provides a suite of RPM tools across a range of specialties, including primary care, cardiology, neurology and nephrology. * * *

Carbon Health launched in 2015 and has raised upwards of $522 million in funding, according to Crunchbase. Its goal is to become the “Starbucks of healthcare.”

As of August, Carbon Health operated 83 clinics across 12 states following its acquisition of Tucson, Arizona-based Southern Arizona Urgent Care and Sacramento, California-based Med7 Urgent Care.

From the telehealth front, Healthcare Dive reports that

Teladoc Health on Wednesday announced it is making its virtual primary care pilot broadly available to commercial health plans, employers and other benefits sponsors nationwide.

The Primary360 service, which the New York-based telemedicine giant has been piloting for the past few years, is currently being used by several large companies, and will be available through CVS Health-owned payer Aetna early next year, Teladoc said in a release.

The vendor hopes Primary360 will serve as an access point to the primary care system while enticing patients to its other services like specialty care and mental health to boost business.

From the miscellany department, Healthcare Dive interviewed the CEO of Morgan Health.

The mission of J.P. Morgan’s new healthcare venture is to innovate employer-sponsored healthcare, not just for the investment bank’s massive employee base but eventually for all 150 million Americans receiving coverage through their job. But it’s a lofty goal for the small business unit, called Morgan Health, launched late May, and there are many skeptics of efforts from major employers looking to disrupt the deep-rooted and complex healthcare industry.

Check it out.

Midweek Update

From Capitol Hill, the Wall Street Journal reports that

Senate Democrats were poised to accept a GOP proposal to defer the showdown over the debt ceiling until later this year, lawmakers said, as administration officials and corporate executives issued dire warnings about the dangers of a possible government default.

The proposed agreement would extend the debt ceiling into December, provided that Democrats affix a dollar amount to the debt level. A deal could pave the way for a procedural vote in the Senate soon, to be followed by final passage sometime later this week. The House will still have to pass the legislation, which is expected to be signed into law by President Biden.

OPM Director Kiran Ahuja was interviewed today for a Washington Post Live online event. Ms. Ahuja principally discussed implementing the COVID vaccine mandate for the federal workforce and implementing the President’s June 2021 executive order on enhancing diversity, equity and inclusion in the federal workforce.

From the Delta variant front, David Leonhardt in the New York Times posted another column on the need for more rapid COVID tests in our country.

If you wake up with a runny nose or scratchy throat, you should be able to grab a Covid-19 test from your bathroom shelf and find out the result within minutes. The tests exist. They are known as antigen tests and are widely available not only in Britain but also France, Germany and some other places. Rapid tests can identify roughly 98 percent of infectious Covid cases and have helped reduce the virus’s spread in Europe.

In the U.S., by contrast, rapid tests are hard to find, because the Food and Drug Administration has been slow to approve them. F.D.A. officials have defended their reluctance by saying that they need to make sure the tests work — which they certainly do. But many outside scientists have criticized the agency for blocking even those antigen tests with a demonstrated record of success in other countries. * * *

[At long last,] The F.D.A. announced Monday that it would allow the sale of an antigen test known as Flowflex. The test has been available in Europe but not here, even though the company that makes it — Acon Laboratories — is based in San Diego.

The decision suggests that the F.D.A. has become willing to approve other rapid tests too, Alex Tabarrok, an economist at George Mason University and an advocate of expanded testing, told me. Separately, the Biden administration plans to announce an expansion of rapid testing today, a White House official told me last night. It will be a $1 billion government purchase of tests, meant to accelerate their production, on top of other money the administration has already dedicated to rapid tests.

[I]t is not too late for rapid tests to improve day-to-day life. The Biden administration finally seems to be taking significant steps in that direction.

From the health equity front, Becker’s Payer Issues tells us that

United Health Foundation’s “America’s Health Rankings 2021 Health of Women and Children Report” report cites an increase in maternal mortality and a decrease in women and child physical activity.

The annual report from the UnitedHealth Group’s philanthropic arm, shared in an Oct. 6 announcement, called out a range of physical and behavioral health trends among women and children.

Among key findings is a 16 percent spike in average maternal mortality, shifting from 17.4 deaths per 100,000 births to 20.1 deaths. Florida was the state with the highest jump, up 70 percent to 26.8 deaths per 100,000 births.

Physical activity in children and women is also down, with only 20.6 percent of children and 21.5 percent of women meeting federal physical activity standards, according to the report. 

The report’s executive summary also pointed to rising mental health burdens on youths, including a 1.6 percentage point increase in childhood anxiety. Teen suicide is up 26 percent over 2014-2016 numbers to 11.2 deaths per 100,000 adolescents. 

Women also experienced 14 percent increased mental distress over 2016-2017 numbers

Health Affairs digs deeper into the maternal mortality issue and finds using data from fourteen state Maternal Mortality Review Committees (MMRCs) over the period 2008–17 that

Among 421 pregnancy-related deaths with an MMRC-determined underlying cause of death, 11 percent were due to mental health conditions. Pregnancy-related mental health deaths were more likely than deaths from other causes to be determined by an MMRC to be preventable (100 percent versus 64 percent), to occur among non-Hispanic White people (86 percent versus 45 percent), and to occur 43–365 days postpartum (63 percent versus 18 percent). Sixty-three percent of pregnancy-related mental health deaths were by suicide. Nearly three-quarters of people with a pregnancy-related mental health cause of death had a history of depression, and more than two-thirds had past or current substance use. MMRC recommendations can be used to prioritize interventions and can inform strategies to enable screening, care coordination, and continuation of care throughout pregnancy and the year postpartum.

From the Rx front, MedPage Today reports that

A national antibiotic stewardship program at ambulatory care centers was associated with reduced antibiotic prescribing during the pandemic, both overall and for acute respiratory infection (ARI) cases, researchers found.

In an analysis involving nearly 300 practices who took part in the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s (AHRQ) program for improving antibiotic use, there were nine fewer antibiotic prescriptions for every 100 visits by the end of the intervention (95% CI -10 to -8), as well as 15 fewer prescriptions for every 100 ARI-related visits (95% CI -17 to -12), reported Sara Keller, MD, MPH, MSPH, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. * * *

AHRQ’s Safety Program for Improving Antibiotic Use is a national program that involves presentations, webinars, patient handouts, and other educational tools (including the Four Moments of Antibiotic Decision Making tool) and emphasizes three key areas for clinicians: developing and improving antibiotic stewardship; learning strategies for discussing antibiotic prescribing with colleagues, patients, and their families; and best practices for diagnosing and managing common infectious syndromes, as well as allergies to antibiotic.

Fierce Healthcare informs us about a recently established prescription drug manager “Prescryptive Health, a blockchain-powered prescription data platform.”

Weekend Update

Thanks to ACK15 for sharing their work on Unsplash.

This coming week, the U.S. House of Representatives will engage in Committee business and the Senate will engage in both Committee business and the Senate will engage in Committee business and floor voting. Roll Call explains that “President Joe Biden told House Democrats on Friday to hold off on his bipartisan infrastructure bill until they reach agreement on a scaled-back partisan tax and spending package funding the rest of his economic agenda.”

The U.S. Supreme Court opens its October 2021 term tomorrow. Two Affordable Care Act Section 1557 (individual non-discrimination law) cases will be argued this calendar quarter.

On the Delta variant front, the Wall Street Journal reports that

The cost of similar Covid-19 treatments can vary by tens of thousands of dollars a patient, even within the same hospital, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of pricing data that indicates pandemic care hasn’t escaped the complex economics of the U.S. health system.

One kind of patient, with a type of severe respiratory condition that is common among those admitted with Covid-19, is an example of the wide range. The rates for these patients usually spanned from less than $11,000 to more than $43,000, the analysis found, but some prices could be far higher, depending on the severity of the case.

Federal News Network informs us that

The Office of Personnel Management on Friday offered up more details on how agencies might approach disciplinary action against employees who fail to comply with the Biden administration’s recent federal vaccine mandate.

Because employees aren’t considered fully vaccinated until two weeks after receiving a single-shot series or the second dose of a two-shot series, they must get the vaccine by Nov. 8 to comply with the federal mandate.

Therefore, agencies can begin the disciplinary process for employees who are unvaccinated by Nov. 8 on the following day, Nov. 9, OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said Friday in a new memo.

On the No Surprises Act front, Prof. Katie Keith and her colleagues delves into the details of the second interim final rule on the NSA which concerns the independent dispute resolution process.

On the newly opened Federal Benefits Open Season front, the FEHBlog notes that Blue Cross FEP and Kaiser Permanente have posted information about 2022 benefits on their respective websites. Here’s a belated link to OPM’s announcement of 2022 premiums from last Thursday.

On a related note Healthcare Dive informs us that

Average Medicare Advantage premium rates are dropping 10% to $19 a month next year as nearly 30 million people are expected to be enrolled in the program, an increase of about 2.6 million from this year, CMS said in a Thursday press release.

Cigna and UnitedHealthcare are expanding their MA footprints. Cigna is going into three new states and increasing its geographic coverage by 30%. UnitedHealthcare is entering 276 new counties, giving it access to 94% of Medicare members.

Analysts at Cowen said in a note Friday that after reviewing benefits for the three largest plans from top insurers, it saw stability to modest improvements. That indicates conservative bids among the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Open enrollment for Medicare runs from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7.

Second Interim Final Rule on NSA Implementation Released / Gov’t Shutdown Avoided

The White House

Today, the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Health and Human Services, and OPM issued the second interim final rule on No Surprises Act (“NSA”) implementation. This rule concerns the independent dispute resolution (“IDR”) process. The process is intended to resolve disputes that arise when an out-of-network provider is dissatisfied with the qualifying payment amount (“QPA”) from the health plan pursuant to the NSA.

The IDR process timeline is as follows:

Independent Dispute Resolution ActionTimeline
Initiate 30-business-day open negotiation period30 business days, starting on the day of initial payment or notice of denial of payment
Initiate independent dispute resolution process following failed open negotiation4 business days, starting the business day after the open negotiation period ends
Mutual agreement on certified independent dispute resolution entity selection3 business days after the independent dispute resolution initiation date
Departments select certified independent dispute resolution entity in the case of no conflict-free selection by parties6 business days after the independent dispute resolution initiation date
Submit payment offers and additional information to certified independent dispute resolution entity10 business days after the date of certified independent dispute resolution entity selection 
Payment determination made30 business days after the date of certified independent dispute resolution entity selection
Payment submitted to the applicable party30 business days after the payment determination

The NSA IDR process uses the so-called baseball arbitration approach under which the decision maker selects one of the parties proposals rather than craft an independent approach as judges do. The requirements description accompanying the final rule explains

When making a payment determination, certified independent dispute resolution entities must begin with the presumption that the QPA is the appropriate OON amount. If a party submits additional information that is allowed under the statute, then the certified independent dispute resolution entity must consider this information if it is credible. For the independent dispute resolution entity to deviate from the offer closest to the QPA, any information submitted must clearly demonstrate that the value of the item or service is materially different from the QPA. Without this additional information, the certified independent dispute resolution entity must select the offer closest to the QPA.

Basically this instructs the health plan to make a proposal close to, if not equal to, the QPA. Then the burden of proof for a higher amount is necessarily placed on the provider. The FEHBlog’s hunch is supported by the following American Hospital Association (“AHA”) statement from the provider side:

AHA Executive Vice President Stacey Hughes said, “The No Surprises Act was an important step forward in protecting patients from surprise medical bills. Hospitals and health systems strongly support these protections and the balanced approach Congress chose to resolve disputes. Disappointingly, the Administration’s rule has moved away from Congressional intent and brought new life to harmful proposals that Congress deliberately rejected. Today’s rule is a windfall for insurers. The rule unfairly favors insurers to the detriment of hospitals and physicians who actually care for patients. These consumer protections need to be implemented in the right way, and this misses the mark.”

AHA staff are reviewing the rule. Watch for a Special Bulletin tomorrow with additional details.

On the bright side for providers, it appears that the IDR process allows the health plan no opportunity to make a low ball proposal to the decision maker. However, it’s the FEHBlog’s view that the devil remains in the details of this lengthy rule and no one should underestimate the ingenuity of lawyers on either side in these novel legal situations. Finally, the apparently simple approach that the regulators took will facilitate implementing the principal feature of the No Surprises Act on January 1, 2022.

From Capitol Hill, Roll Call reports that

President Joe Biden signed a stopgap funding measure Thursday with hours to spare before federal agencies would otherwise have to start shutting down.

The continuing resolution gives lawmakers and the White House nine more weeks to reach agreement on spending levels and negotiate a dozen fiscal 2022 appropriations bills. * * *

The stopgap bill extends federal agencies’ current spending rates, with some exceptions known as “anomalies,” through Dec. 3, as well as certain expiring program authorizations like the National Flood Insurance Program’s ability to sell new policies and renew existing ones. 

The measure provides $28.6 billion to address natural disasters like Hurricane Ida which slammed into the Gulf Coast earlier this month, and $6.3 billion to provide resettlement assistance for Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban. Another $2.5 billion goes toward care and shelter for undocumented migrant children who crossed the border alone while the government reviews their status.

From the telehealth front

Telehealth usage was four times higher than a year ago, but the industry and patients are still grappling with growing pains including service limitations, difficulty accessing appointments and inconsistent care, a survey from J.D. Power found.

From 2020 to 2021, overall satisfaction with both direct-to-consumer and payer-sponsored telehealth services declined, according to the survey. Patients frequently cited limited services, lack of awareness of costs and confusing technology requirements.

Among direct-to-consumer brands, Teladoc ranked highest for telehealth satisfaction, followed by MDLive. Among payer-sponsored telehealth services, UnitedHealthcare ranked the highest, followed by Humana and Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, both in a tie for second, the survey found.

Despite the wide-ranging expansion of telehealth in the past year, there is still a broad swath of the U.S. population it has largely failed to reach: the 57 million people in rural parts of the country.

Even now, as employers rush to add virtual care to their benefits, many telehealth companies have avoided rural areas. Several acknowledged to STAT that most of their users remain in urban and suburban areas, and they’ve made far less progress than they’d like to in reaching rural patients. The companies recognize they face an uphill battle. Beyond the foundational barrier of broadband access, providers must contend with questions about reimbursement rates, strict rules on interstate licensing, and a hazy road map without clear inroads for reaching rural patients and providers.

“Honestly, as much as our mission statement fits well with rural health care, we haven’t really made enough progress to date around this work,” Brad Younggren, the chief medical officer of telehealth company 98point6, told STAT.

As it is Thursday from the miscellany department

  • Recycle Intelligence discusses “Lessons learned from Aetna, Cleveland Clinic’s Joint ACO Mode / Leaders from Aetna and Cleveland Clinic reflect on the first year of their joint ACO and health plan and share how others can deliver value-based care to their local markets.” Check it out.

Scientists have unveiled new maps of the protein networks underlying different types of cancer, offering a potentially clearer way to see what’s driving the disease and to find therapeutic targets.

Sequencing the genetic information of tumors can provide a trove of data about the mutations contained in those cancer cells. Some of those mutations help doctors figure out the best way to treat a patient, but others remain more of a mystery than a clear instruction manual. Many are exceedingly rare, or there are so many mutations it’s not clear what’s fueling the cancer.

In a quest to come up with more practical and actionable tools, experts have been looking beyond the genes. Instead, they’re mapping out the proteins the genes encode and the interactions among those proteins in hopes of getting a clearer view of cancer-propelling pathways. And in a series of papers published Thursday in the journal Science, a team of researchers outlined those “protein-protein interaction” maps for certain cancers and explain how charting those landscapes and others like them could reveal insights about patients’ prognoses, point to drugs to try for particular patients, and perhaps identify targets for new therapies.

  • STAT News also seeks to predict what will become of the COVID pandemic this coming winter. The article hopefully concludes

Barney Graham, who led the vaccine design work that laid the foundation for many of the current Covid vaccines, is hopeful, though, that in Delta the virus has hit a sweet spot that will eventually undermine it.

“I’m hoping the virus has gotten itself to a point where it’s basically trapped now,” said Graham, who was deputy director of the NIH’s Vaccine Research Center until his retirement at the end of August. “That it can’t get any better at transmission, and any adaptation it makes in the immune response is going to make it less transmissible.”

  • In support of this optimism, Reuters reports that

Laboratory studies show that Merck & Co’s (MRK.N) experimental oral COVID-19 antiviral drug, molnupiravir, is likely to be effective against known variants of the coronavirus, including the dominant, highly transmissible Delta, the company said on Wednesday.

Since molnupiravir does not target the spike protein of the virus – the target of all current COVID-19 vaccines – which defines the differences between the variants, the drug should be equally effective as the virus continues to evolve, said Jay Grobler, head of infectious disease and vaccines at Merck.

Molnupiravir instead targets the viral polymerase, an enzyme needed for the virus to make copies of itself. It is designed to work by introducing errors into the genetic code of the virus.

Data shows that the drug is most effective when given early in the course of infection, Merck said.

What’s more, the Merck drug is administered in pill form.

OPM Announces 2022 FEHB and FEDVIP Premiums

OPM Headquarters a/k/a the Theodore Roosevelt Building

OPM, as promised, announced 2022 FEHB and FEDVIP premiums before the end of September. Here are links to the OPM website for 2022 FEHB plan premiums and its website for 2022 FEDVIP plan premiums. In addition, here are links to related articles from the Washington Post, GovExec, Federal News Network, FedWeek, and the Federal Times which offered a separate article on FEDVIP.

The Washington Post summed it up as follows: “Premiums for federal employees will rise by 3.8 percent on average in 2022, the second straight year of moderate increases despite the coronavirus pandemic, the government announced Wednesday.” That’s a credit to OPM and the carriers as well as this competitive program. Also as OPM usually explains, the average increase is shown before the Open Season results when federal and postal employees and annuitants can elect lower premium plans from Nov. 8 through Dec. 13.

From Capitol Hill, the Wall Street Journal reports this evening that

Party leaders are racing to unify Democrats around changes to a separate $3.5 trillion healthcare, education and climate package, which progressives want to see advance as a condition of supporting the infrastructure bill in the narrowly divided House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) so far has stuck to her plan to bring the infrastructure bill up for a vote Thursday, saying she was taking it “one hour at a time,” though she opened the door to further delay if talks don’t progress. * * *

The Thursday deadline for the infrastructure vote is one of several scheduling crunches Democrats face in the coming days. They are also rushing to pass a stand-alone measure extending government funding, currently set to expire on Friday at 12:01 a.m., through Dec. 3. Republicans and Democrats in the Senate were nearing an agreement to pass the spending patch Thursday before sending it to the House. 

From the Delta variant front, STAT News tells us that “People who’ve received a third dose of a Covid-19 vaccine are reporting rates of side effects similar to those after the second dose, according to data released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

From the No Surprises Act front, OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs has concluded its review of the second interim final rule which concerns the independent dispute resolution process. This means that the regulators can timely release information on the rule this week, if not the entire rule itself.

From the health equity front, Fierce Healthcare reports that “CVS Caremark is expanding its health equity efforts, setting goals that specifically target diseases that disproportionately impact patients of color, such as HIV and sickle cell disease.”

In other healthcare news

  • HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research reminds us that today is ‘World Heart Day — an observance that aims to improve how we understand, prevent, and manage the disease.” AHRQ describe its efforts to improve heart health.
  • Healthcare Dive without grinding an axe informs us that

U.S. health insurance markets have become increasingly concentrated over the past half decade, according to a new report from the American Medical Association, which argues payer M&A results in rising costs and fewer care options for patients, but largely excludes the impact of provider consolidation in driving those trends.

Almost three-fourths of metropolitan statistical areas were highly concentrated in 2020 according to federal guidelines used by the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission, up from 71% in 2014. Of markets that were already highly concentrated in 2014, 54% become more concentrated as of last year, while 26% of markets that were not highly concentrated become so by 2020, the AMA said.

The medical association’s study is the latest salvo in a messaging war between provider and payer lobbies as they work to shift the blame for rapidly rising medical costs in the U.S.

  • The National Institutes of Health reports on the efforts of its “Helping to End Addiction Long-termSM Initiative, or NIH HEAL InitiativeSM, is an aggressive, trans-agency effort to speed scientific solutions to stem the national opioid public health crisis.”

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, the Wall Street Journal reports that on Tuesday the Senate Republicans refused to give unanimous consent to the Democrat effort to solve the debt ceiling issue without Republican support. Secretary of the Treasury Yellen advised Congress yesterday that she expects that current emergency measures used since August 1 to deal with the debt ceiling problem would soon be exhausted and “the government would be unable to pay all of its bills on time starting Oct. 18 unless Congress acts.” That of course is an unprecedented situation. The FEHBlog finds it interesting that the Congressional Democrat leadership has not lead with the bipartisan crafted continuing appropriation bill instead of the debt ceiling bill because the federal fiscal year ends on Thursday.

From the Delta variant front

  • The National Institutes of Health Director summarizes where we stand on the COVID-19 booster effort in his weekly blog post. The FEHBlog who has received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine over six months ago checked a major retail pharmacy chain site to see whether the booster is readily available and he found that it is which happily is a stark difference from last winters efforts to find the initial doses.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that

Regulatory clearance of the Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE vaccine for young children may not come until November, according to a person familiar with the matter, after the companies said they won’t ask for the green light for a few weeks.

The companies said Tuesday they provided U.S. health regulators with data from a recent study of their vaccine in children 5 to 11 years old. They said they would file an application asking the Food and Drug Administration to authorize use in the coming weeks, though they had previously targeted submitting the application as early as the end of September.

  • The Kaiser Family Foundation released an interesting survey on the current public response to COVID. As of today, according to the CDC, just over 75% of Americans eligible to receive the vaccine (ages 12 and older) have receive at least one dose.
  • Healthcare Dive adds that

As of Tuesday, hospitalizations in the U.S. are down 16% over the past two weeks, according to the 14-day average from data compiled by The New York Times.

The U.S. reached a turning point in this year’s summer surge earlier this month, according to the seven-day averages. The average hospitalizations reached a peak on Sept. 3, started to decline the next day and have been trending down ever since, according to data compiled by the Times.

In the tidbits department

  • The Department of Health and Human Services announced awarding “nearly $1 billion in American Rescue Plan funding to nearly 1,300 Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Health Center Program-funded health centers in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories to support major health care construction and renovation projects. These awards will strengthen our primary health care infrastructure and advance health equity and health outcomes in medically underserved communities, including through projects that support COVID-19 testing, treatment, and vaccination. The awards were made through the Health Resources and Services Administration.”
  • Health Payer Intelligence discusses a Manatt Health report on episode based care.
  • HHS also announced “the appointment of Lisa J. Pino as Director of the Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”). OCR is the HHS agency which enforces the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules among other things. As it is a small world, Ms. Pino previously was “Senior Counselor [at Homeland Security] and drove the 2015 U.S. cyber breach mitigation of 4 million federal personnel and 22 million surrogate profiles, the largest hack in federal history, by renegotiating 700 vendor procurements and establishing new cybersecurity regulatory protections.”

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, the Wall Street Journal reports that the Senate failed to override a filibuster (requiring 60 votes) on a House of Representatives bill including stop gap federal government funding from October 1, 2021, the beginning of the new federal fiscal year, and December 3, 2021.

While lawmakers in both parties negotiated the short-term government funding, Republicans voted against Monday’s procedural motion in a bid to force Democrats to address the debt limit themselves. With 48 in favor and 50 opposed, the legislation fell short of the 60 votes required to advance in the evenly split chamber. * * *

The failure of the procedural vote Monday could prompt Democrats to decouple the short-term spending measure and the debt-limit vote. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) suggested last week that Democrats would do so, saying that Congress would pass a stopgap spending measure before the end of the month to keep the government funded.

We shall see.

From the Delta variant front, the New York Times reports that

At the drugstore, a rapid Covid test usually costs less than $20.

Across the country, over a dozen testing sites owned by the start-up company GS Labs regularly bill $380.

There’s a reason they can. When Congress tried to ensure that Americans wouldn’t have to pay for coronavirus testing, it required insurers to pay certain laboratories whatever “cash price” they listed online for the tests, with no limit on what that might be.

GS Labs’s high prices and growing presence — it has performed a half-million rapid tests since the pandemic’s start, and still runs thousands daily — show how the government’s longstanding reluctance to play a role in health prices has hampered its attempt to protect consumers. As a result, Americans could ultimately pay some of the cost of expensive coronavirus tests in the form of higher insurance premiums.

Many health insurers have refused to pay GS Labs’ fees, some contending that the laboratory is price-gouging during a public health crisis. A Blue Cross plan in Missouri has sued GS Labs over its prices, seeking a ruling that would void $10.9 million in outstanding claims.

The FEHBlog disagrees with the journalist’s statement that the government is reluctant to play a role in healthcare prices, see the No Surprises Act, most recently. The FEHBlog further disagrees that the law forces carriers to pay a facially unreasonable price given the web of laws over fraud, waste, and abuse. Certainly though Congress can and should fix this problem its own.

Also Fierce Healthcare informs us that

As schools and businesses weigh their options for tracking COVID-19 cases, UnitedHealth Group’s researchers have developed an online calculator tool these organizations can use to game out potential testing programs.

The free tool allows users to simulate the financial cost as well as the likely number of false positives for several different testing options and frequencies.

For example, if a school in a low-spread area wants to model the cost associated with administering weekly polymerase chain reaction tests, they can input that information to see an estimated per person expense as well as the likely number of infections in a 100-day window.

Cool. This tool also could be useful to project the cost of the vaccination screen program planned for businesses with 100 or more employees.

From the health savings account front, HR Dive tells us that

  • The average individual contribution to health savings accounts fell between 2019 and 2020, while average annual distributions fell to an “all-time low” last year, according to an Employee Benefit Research Institute report published this month.
  • Both trends may have been driven by the pandemic in some way, EBRI said. HSA owners may have reduced contributions as unemployment increased last year, while the decline in both contributions and distributions may have been due to decreased use of healthcare services.
  • HSA owners primarily appear to use their accounts to cover current expenses instead of making contributions in preparation for retirement healthcare expenses, EBRI said. The organization also noted that the average HSA contribution was less than half the maximum allowable contribution for family coverage.