OPM IG Confirmation Hearing

OPM IG Confirmation Hearing

This afternoon, the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee held a virtual confirmation hearing for the President’s nominee for OPM Inspector General, Craig E. Leen, who currently is the Director of the Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contractor Compliance Programs (“OFCCP”). The FEHBlog caught a good chunk of the hearing online. The Senators’s attention principally was on the other nominee Russell Vought who is the acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget and hopes to be made the permanent director.

Mr. Leen was in no sense ignored though. Each Senator asked him a question or two. His opening testimony is available here. Of note, Mr. Leen stated that

As Inspector General, I would focus on the following immediate priorities:
 Closing open IG recommendations and establishing a public dashboard to track my office’s progress;
 Addressing improper payments and seeking to eliminate them;
 Evaluating OPM’s guidance related to COVID-19 and learn from what went well and what could be improved;
 Increasing the amount of evaluations done by OPM Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and
 Ensuring equal employment opportunity for all protected classes, including ensuring inclusion and accommodations of individuals with disabilities (the federal government should follow the same guidance it gives federal contractors in how to ensure equal employment opportunity)

I would like to take a moment to focus on the first and last priorities. The OPM OIG has over 300 open recommendations going back many years. This is a common issue for IGs. I am concerned about what open IG recommendations does to public trust in government; a problem has been specifically identified, but not corrected. I would make closing these open recommendations a primary focus as Inspector General.

Mr. Leen mentioned during the Q&As that the OPM Inspector General historically has performed one evaluation annually. The next step will be a Committee business meeting to consider sending Mr. Leen’s nomination to the Senate floor.

Weekend update

The House of Representatives and the Senate both will be in session on Capitol Hill this coming week, Of note from an FEHBP perspective is that Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has scheduled a confirmation hearing for the President’s nominee for OPM Inspection General, Craig E. Leen, for Tuesday June 2 at 2:30 pm. Mr. Leen currently is Director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) at the U.S. Department of Labor. The FEHBlog plans to tune in.

The Supreme Court heads into the home stretch of its October 2019 term tomorrow. The Court has 25 decisions left to issue before adjourning for the summer according to the Scotusblog.

OPM released more COVID-19 guidance last Friday. This guidance concerns preparedness for returning to OPM facilities.

Fierce Healthcare brings us up to date on COVID-19 testing at home options. The latest product receiving FDA approval is offered by Quest Diagnostics a/k/a Quest Labs.

The FEHBlog ran across on Twitter today this May 24 column from Reason senior editor Jacob Sillum.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the current “best estimate” for the fatality rate among Americans with COVID-19 symptoms is 0.4 percent. The CDC also estimates that 35 percent of people infected by the COVID-19 virus never develop symptoms. Those numbers imply that the virus kills less than 0.3 percent of people infected by it.

The FEHBlog also found this reassuring (at least to the FEHBlog) Science News article on COVID-19 mutations.

[C]oronavirus mutations are guaranteed to pop up over the coming months — and experts will continue to track them. “The data will tell us whether we need to worry, and in what way we need to worry,” [Louise] Moncla[, an evolutionary epidemiologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle] says. “Everyone should take a deep breath and realize that this is exactly what we’ve always expected to happen, and we don’t necessarily need to be concerned.”

Memorial Day Weekend Update

Congress was scheduled to be out of town this week for State / District work periods. The House however has decided to be in town for votes and a few Committee hearings on Wednesday and Thursday. Congress is considering making some adjustments to the CARES Act’s Payroll Protection Program.

This is a big week for FEHBP carriers because their 2021 benefit and rate proposals are due at OPM by May 31. (Yes, next Sunday.) It is an complicated proposal year because the COVID-19 emergency has disrupted the normal claim payment rhythm.

The Wall Street Journal reports that on a randomized study of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in New York City finding the convalescent plasma (which includes the antibodies created by people who recovered from COVID-19) produced better outcomes. “In the study, the plasma recipients were more likely to remain stable or show improvement in their requirements for supplemental oxygen. They also had improved survival when compared to the control patients.”

The Wall Street Journal also reports tonight about “early signs the U.S. economy is, ever so slowly, creeping back to life.” “If this is the only wave [of coronavirus], it looks like we’ve bottomed out and the normalization process has begun,” said Beth Ann Bovino, U.S. chief economist at S&P Global Ratings.” Much greater testing, improved treatments, and controls on potentially super spreading events hopefully will place our medical system in a position to handle another wave without another great hunkering down.

Weekend update

The House of Representatives returned to Capitol Hill on Friday to pass a resolution (H.R. Res. No. 965) permitting remote Committee hearings and proxy voting during a federal declared emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic. The House also passed a wide-ranging, $3 trillion COVID-19 relief bill known as the HEROES Act (H.R. 6888) by a narrow 208-199 vote. The House thereby laid down its wishlist before the Senate and the President in the looming negotiations over what would be the fourth COVID-19 relief bill.

The FEHBlog’s favorite podcast Econtalk featured a special edition in which the host Stanford economist Russ Roberts interviewed Nobel in Economics laureate Paul Romer about the COVID-19 pandemic. Mr. Romer supports much less hunkering down and a lot more testing. It’s worth the hour or so to listen to the interview.

In other news:

  • The Washington Post reports that “Four months into the U.S. coronavirus epidemic, tests for the virus finally are becoming widely available, a crucial step toward lifting stay-at-home orders and safely returning to normal life. But while many states no longer report crippling supply shortages, a new problem has emerged: too few people lining up to get tested.” This word needs to get out.
  • Healthcare Dive discusses health insurer and tech company efforts to help their employer plan sponsors to safely reopen their businesses.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports on the state of the race to develop a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine. Eight investigational versions have begun human testing trials. “Testing of early vaccines could show the way for subsequent shots by giving researchers a better idea of the level of immune response needed to provide protection against the virus, Emory’s Dr. Orenstein said.”
  • Fierce Healthcare discusses J.D. Powers 2020 analysis of consumer attitudes toward commercial health plans. “Consumers want a coordinated, integrated experience that their health plan may be unwilling or unable to provide, [James Breen from J.D. Power] said. “Health plan members have an expectation that health insurance companies do that, but I’m not certain whether or not health insurance companies feel that’s part of their major role, so there’s a disconnect there,” Beem said.

Tuesday Tidbits

The Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee held a COVID-19 hearing today featuring a number of federal government healthcare luminaries including Dr. Fauci. Here is a link to the hearing and the submitted testimony. The Wall Street Journal reports

Dr. Fauci said that with some states reopening before seeing a steady decline in cases and deaths, “there is a real risk you could trigger an outbreak…that could set you back rather than going forward.”

Adm. Brett Giroir, who is heading up the administration’s testing efforts, said an increased focus on testing in schools could be used as a means of surveillance to help ensuree students stay healthy.

Other health officials also emphasized the need for widespread testing to get a more accurate picture of how many people have fallen sick and to spot potentially undetected clusters of cases.

Here’s a link to the COVID Tracking Project site which provides a ton of state by state COVID-19 data, including testing data. As previously noted, GoodRx offers a complete, growing list of drive up COVID-19 test sites. Last week, one of the big U.S. lab test companies, LabCorp, began to offer “expanded access to COVID-19 antibody test through LabCorp’s wide network of doctors, healthcare providers, and online. Individuals have the ability to receive the COVID-19 IgG antibody test from their doctor, in person or through a telemedicine program, and now directly using www.LabCorp.com/antibody-testing.

A friend of the FEHBlog pointed out this National Institutes of Health website which is chock-a-block full of COVID-19 research tidbits. For example, the FEHBlog noticed a NIH study finding “nearly everyone who recovers from COVID-19 makes coronavirus antibodies.” Check it out.

The Hill brings us to date on the four leading U.S. and European COVID-19 vaccine development efforts. “There are more than 100 potential vaccine candidates, according to the World Health Organization, but only eight have entered the crucial clinical trials stage. Four are in the United States and Europe, with the rest in China.”

Healthcare Dive reports that the American Hospital Association flipped out over new price transparency rules in the fiscal year 2021 Medicare Part A hospital PPS changes proposed rule released yesterday.

Weekend update

Happy Mother’s Day.

Just like last week, the Senate will be in session this week while the House continues to fully hunker down. The Hill discusses five factors influencing when the House will return to Capitol Hill. It’s funny that the article does not list the Presidential election as a sixth factor. (Even the FEHBlog is entitled to have an occasional “DJT” moment. Lo siento.)

The FEHBlog forgot last Thursday to provide a link to the Senate Health Education Labor and Pension Committees “shark tank” on new tests for COVID-19. Here you go. This Committee will be holding a hearing on how to pull out of the great hunkering down on Tuesday.

For the past two months, the FEHBlog has been tracking a simplified infection fatality rate (IFR) for COVID-19 based on the CDC’s statistics. The FEHBlog is not an epidimeologist but he figured things would be looking up if the rate plateaued. The FEHBlog’s statistics do show the IFR increase slowing down over the past month. In any event, here’s a new Health Affairs article on the COVID-19 IFR for your information.

CIGNA’s PBM Express Scripts has created a program called ParachuteRX which offers reasonably priced prescription drugs to the uninsured. Cool.

The FEHBlog has been a fan of genetics-based personalized medicine. It therefore was sobering for the FEHBlog to read in the Wall Street Journal that the popular focus on personalized medicine has detracted from public health efforts. The article explains that

the first national initiative launched to try to treat today’s severely ill patients is the National Covid-19 Convalescent Plasma Project. The project originated with a small nucleus of people who, it turns out, have been prominent critics of personalized medicine over the years, including Arturo Casadevall of Johns Hopkins University, Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic and Nigel Paneth of Michigan State University.

The idea of using antibody-rich plasma from recovered patients to try to neutralize a virus in those who are ill was first used more than 100 years ago. The project is designed to buy time and save lives until a vaccine can be developed and deployed or more targeted therapies can be identified and tested. It also offers a real-world test case for ideas that had largely been confined to academic journals and debates between scientists.

Indeed the FEHBlog learned in the Great Influenza book that small scale efforts to use this antibody approach found success in the 1918-19 pandemic. It’s encouraging to read that a large scale effort is underway now. In the aftermath of the great hunkering down, a Goldilocks compromise must be reached between personalized medicine and public health efforts.

Finally, Health IT Security does a good job putting the government’s COVID-19 related flexibilities with regard to enforcing the HIPAA Privacy Rule into focus.

Midweek update

Fierce Healthcare and Healthcare Dive report on CVS Health’s positive first quarter 2020 results. According to Fierce Healthcare,

[CVS Health] CEO Larry Merlo said that utilization of telehealth and virtual visits through its MinuteClinic locations was up 600% compared to the first quarter of 2019, while home delivery of prescriptions was up 1000%.

In addition, he said, the company is seeing a fourfold increase in the number of customers adding other items from the front of their stores to home pharmacy deliveries. CVS is also seeing increased engagement with customers and members through its app, Merlo said.

Healthcare Dive adds

Though coronavirus had “minimal impact on the quarter,” CVS does expect a “big impact in April,” CFO Eva Boratto told investors on a Wednesday morning call. Consumers increasingly stayed at home in April, resulting in a sharp reduction in foot traffic to stores, and filed fewer prescriptions due to fewer doctor visits, according to CVS’ preliminary results from the month. Those headwinds could persist throughout the second quarter.

Interesting links —

  • The Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Roundtable on COVID-19 policy was held today. Among the speaker was the FEHBlog’s favorite health policy expert Avik Roy whose testimony reads in pertinent part as follows:

[T]raffic fatalities is a good mental framework for thinking about how to live with COVID-19. Instead of abolishing cars, we enforce traffic laws and speed limits, and prohibit drunk driving. We set a minimum standard for car safety. But, most of all, we expect individual drivers to be responsible for their own conduct.
Something similar can work for COVID-19. Businesses can deep-clean their surfaces and provide hand sanitizer and masks to their workers and customers. People can wash their hands regularly, and minimize close contact with strangers. This is, in fact, what East Asian countries did after the original SARS outbreak in 2003, and it enabled them to gradually return to normal life, despite the absence of a vaccine or effective treatments.

  • As the FEHBlog aims to be a voice of calm and reason in the FEHBlog storm he notes that PsychHub has created a COVID-19 Mental Resource Hub and that the Atlantic has debunked, to his satisfaction, an unsubstantiated claim that the COVID-19 virus has mutated.
  • The CARES Act created a Pandemic Response Accountability Committee which has its own website. The site’s purpose is “to foster greater accountability and transparency in the use of these [CARES Act relief] funds” totaling $2.3 trillion.

Tuesday Tidbits

Theme for Cinco de Mayo — Ball of confusion that’s what the world is today. The Temptations (1970)

The American Hospital Association reported today that hospitals are losing $50.7 billion monthly from March through June due of course to the COVID-19 emergency. That’s a lot more than the $175 billion that Congress has appropriated so far for grants to hospitals and other healthcare providers. The FEHBlog doubts that most hospitals have strong balance sheets. No wonder health plans are stepping up to offer support as noted on Sunday.

Healthcare Dive discusses a study that reminds us about the large extent to which private payers including FEHB plans subsidize hospitals and other providers due to the insufficient payments from Medicare. “It’s unlikely Washington would take concrete measures to shrink hospitals’ toplines during the pandemic.”

Fierce Healthcare informs us that after reaching out to 500,000 Medicare Advantage members Humana has decided to waive Medicare Advantage member cost sharing for primary and behavioral healthcare this year whether the care is delivered in office or virtually. “William Shrank, M.D., chief medical officer at Humana, told FierceHealthcare that the insurer is tracking member behavior in this area and has gathered plenty of anecdotal evidence that patients are deferring potentially necessary care due to the pandemic.”

Catalyst for Health Reform has created a new state by state report card on healthcare price transparency laws. “Sixteen states [including the FEHBlog’s home state of Maryland] received passing grades this year, up from only seven when CPR last graded states in 2017.”

Lincoln Memorial

May the Fourth be with you

The FEHBlog saw that line several times today. It’s cute.

Healthcare Dive reports that the Department of Health and Human Services decided last Friday to divvy up $22 billion of CARES Act funding by send $12 billion to hospitals in COVID-19 hot spots and another $10 billion to rural hospitals. The American Hospital Association is happy.

RevCycle Intelligence informs us that “Outpatient visits for more than 50,000 providers declined by nearly 60 percent in mid-March when COVID-19 cases started to rise exponentially, researchers from Harvard University recently reported in a Commonwealth Fund study. The volumes have remained low through mid-April.” Here are a couple more tidbits from the study:

  • The decline in visits was generally larger among surgical and procedural specialties and smaller in other specialties such as adult primary care, obstetrics/gynecology, oncology, and behavioral health.
  • As the number of in-person visits dropped, telehealth visits increased. But the increase in telehealth visits only partially offset the drop in in-person visits.
  • Nearly 30 percent of all visits at these ambulatory practices are now provided via telemedicine.
  • The decline in visits was largest among school-age children and older adults.

Health Payer Intelligence informs us that America’s Health Insurance Plans and AHIP member medical directors have proposed a course for health plans to follow while we come out of the great hunkering down. That course includes continuing expansive coverage of COVID-19 testing and care, promoting telehealth, and engaging members, particularly those in need.

In that regard, Medical Economics provides physicians with advice on best practices for billing health plans for telemedicine services during the COVID-19 emergency. The advice strikes the FEHBlog as a bit complicated. It’s therefore not surprising to the FEHBlog that, according to an mHealth Intelligence report, members of Congress “Reps. Kim Schrier (D-WA) and Phil Rose (R-TN), say they want private payers to operate under the same rules as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which last month established telehealth payment and coverage parity for the duration of the emergency.” The two representatives have introduced a bill for this purpose H.R. 6644).

Weekend Update

The Senate, but not the House of Representatives, returns to Capitol Hill tomorrow. On Wednesday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is holding a roundtable discussion about how new COVID-19 information should drive policy. On Thursday, the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee is holding a “Shark Tank” about new tests for COVID-19.

Federal News Network reports that George Nesterczuk who was President Trump’s first nominee to be OPM Director, has become a senior advisor to OPM’s current acting Director Michael Rigas. In 2017, Mr. Nesterczuk asked the President to withdraw the nomination in the face of criticism from federal employee unions.

The Wall Street Journal estimates the revenues that major health insurers will receive at some point due to the Supreme Court’s favorable decision in the Affordable Care Act risk corridor case last Monday. The Supreme Court begins its series of May telephonic oral arguments tomorrow.

The Journal further reports

The promise of new payments comes as the health-insurance industry has seen little financial pressure from the pandemic. In earnings calls over the past few weeks, insurers said they’d seen minimal impact on first-quarter results, and they were benefiting from reduced health-care costs due to the widespread cancellation of elective procedures and patients steering clear of routine care.

But the insurers said they could see costs ramp back up later in the year. Overall, several big companies including UnitedHealth Group Inc., Anthem Inc. and Humana left their financial guidance on earnings for 2020 in place despite the coronavirus impact.

A WSJ article posted today adds that

With fewer claims to pay out, some health insurers are using their improved balance sheets to help struggling providers secure loans, pay claims earlier and, in some cases, underwrite patients’ outstanding bills. And they have good reason to ensure providers survive the pandemic: “There is a risk that there is a smaller provider network after this,” said Brad Ellis, a senior director at Fitch Ratings. “So health insurers are trying to maintain the network.”

Well done.

Our firm is closely monitoring the impacts of COVID-19. Effective 3/16/20, Ermer & Suter has implemented telework for all of our staff to encourage social distancing and help contain the virus. We remain fully operational and are readily available from our telework locations with no change in telephone numbers or email addresses.