Monday Roundup

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

Mondays have tended to be good news days for COVID-19 vaccines. As of today, over 50% of Americans over age 18 have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Fierce Healthcare reports that

“CVS Pharmacy has begun stocking its virtual and in-store shelves nationwide with rapid tests for COVID-19—which can be purchased without a prescription and used by anyone regardless of whether or not they are showing symptoms—including three FDA-authorized diagnostics and sample collection kits produced by LabCorp, Ellume and Abbott.”

“Even as vaccines become more widely available, COVID-19 testing remains a critical tool to keep our communities safe,” Walgreens President John Standley said in a statement. Walgreens currently offers on-site testing at more than 5,500 of its pharmacies and plans to expand to 6,000 drive-thru sites by May, using Abbott’s ID NOW portable testing machines.

In addition, earlier this month CVS began offering COVID-19 antibody testing for $38 at 1,100 in-house clinics, using fingerstick blood samples to determine previous infections.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management announced today that the agency

will allow [FSAFEDS] flexibilities permitted under the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021 and the American Rescue Plan Act including allowing full carryover for a health care flexible spending account (HCFSA) and Limited Expense FSA (LEX FSA); extending the grace period for a dependent care flexible spending account (DCFSA); and permitting care for dependents through age 14 for 2020 and 2021 under a DCFSA. In addition, OPM is working with our FSAFEDS contractor, Health Equity, to offer a Special Enrollment/Election Period (SEP) in the near future.  This SEP will allow participants to increase or decrease their current elections for their DCFSA and/or their HCFSA.  In addition, the SEP will allow those who did not re-enroll for 2021 during Open Season in the Fall, the opportunity to enroll in a DCFSA and/or HCFSA for 2021.  Finally, OPM will allow DCFSA participants to increase their election during the Special Election Period to the new IRS maximum of $10,500 for 2021. 

All good news.

What’s more, the Wall Street Journal reported in its Saturday essay about the U.S. airline safety revolution.

Over the past 12 years, U.S. airlines have accomplished an astonishing feat: carrying more than eight billion passengers without a fatal crash.

Such numbers were once unimaginable, even among the most optimistic safety experts. But now, pilots for domestic carriers can expect to go through an entire career without experiencing a single engine malfunction or failure. Official statistics show that in recent years, the riskiest part of any airline trip in the U.S. is when aircraft wheels are on the ground, on runways or taxiways.

The achievements stem from a sweeping safety reassessment—a virtual revolution in thinking—sparked by a small band of senior federal regulators, top industry executives and pilots-union leaders after a series of high-profile fatal crashes in the mid-1990s. To combat common industry hazards, they teamed up to launch voluntary incident reporting programs with carriers sharing data and no punishment for airlines or aviators when mistakes were uncovered.

One wonders whether this successful strategy may be transferable to other pressing safety issues, such as patient safety. In this regard, a friend of the FEHBlog suggested check this Washington Post opinion piece written by a group of psychologists titled “We instinctively add on new features and fixes. Why don’t we subtract instead?
‘Less is more’ is a hard insight to act on, it turns out.” How true.

In other healthcare news —

  • The Kaiser Family Foundation informs us that

a relatively small number and share of drugs accounted for a disproportionate share of Medicare Part B and Part D prescription drug spending in 2019 (Figure 1).

— The 250 top-selling drugs in Medicare Part D with one manufacturer and no generic or biosimilar competition (7% of all Part D covered drugs) accounted for 60% of net total Part D spending.

— The top 50 drugs covered under Medicare Part B (8.5% of all Part B covered drugs) accounted for 80% of total Part B drug spending.

Some recent proposals to lower prescription drug prices have limited the number of drugs subject to price negotiation and international reference pricing. This analysis shows that Medicare Part D and Part B spending is highly concentrated among a relatively small share of covered drugs, mainly those without generic or biosimilar competitors. Focusing drug price negotiation or reference pricing on a subset of drugs that account for a disproportionate share of spending would be an efficient use of administrative resources . . . .

  • Employee Benefits News tells us

New research from Voya shows employees have a bias against HDHPs and the reason for that is as simple as marketing.

“One of the really interesting findings that we saw from the research about why there is that bias comes down to branding, pure and simple,” says Nate Black, vice president of consumer driven health for Voya Financial. “When we replaced the high deductible health plan name and called it something more generic, the share of people choosing high deductible health plans doubled. So just the name itself can have a really significant impact on how people think about what plan they should choose.”

Sixty-three percent of the people surveyed by Voya said they would choose the plan with the lowest deductible. As part of the study Voya designed an experiment asking participants to choose between a PPO and an HDHP. The experiment was set up in a way that the HDHP was always the optimal financial choice, despite this, 65% of those surveyed still chose the PPO plan.

Communicating the long term value of plans connected with health savings accounts is quite important.

  • Here’s a link to the CDC’s website on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause which explains

If you received the vaccine more than three weeks ago, the risk of developing a blood clot is likely very low at this time.

If you received the vaccine within the last three weeks, your risk of developing a blood clot is also very low and that risk will decrease over time.

Contact your healthcare provider and seek medical treatment urgently if you develop any of the following symptoms: severe headache, backache, new neurologic symptoms, severe abdominal pain, shortness of breath, leg swelling, tiny red spots on the skin (petechiae), or new or easy bruising.

If you experience any adverse events after vaccination, report them to v-safe and the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System

The FEHBlog enrolled in v-safe after his first Pfizer vaccination and the CDC has continued to inobtrusively check in weekly. The FEHBlog is happy to help out.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Bloomberg reports that “President Joe Biden said [today] he wants all American adults eligible for a coronavirus vaccine by April 19, two weeks earlier than his previous goal. All but two states are already set to meet that goal, with Oregon and Hawaii having planned to open up vaccines to all non-minors on May 1.”

Yesterday, the Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”) released a report finding that “The principal mode by which people are infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) is through exposure to respiratory droplets carrying infectious virus. It is possible for people to be infected through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects (fomites), but the risk is generally considered to be low.” As this BBC News article illustrates, last Spring we were quite worried about contracting COVID-19 from contaminated surfaces. In any event, thank heavens that we have the vaccines.

Federal News Network reports that front line federal employee access to the COVID-19 vaccine depends upon their employing agency.

If you are a federal employee working in the field, like Food and Drug Administration inspectors, Forest Service rangers or Custom and Border Protection officers, getting a COVID-19 vaccine from your agency isn’t a sure thing.

The Department of Homeland Security is making an all-out effort to vaccinate all 300,000 employees.

Other agencies like the Agriculture Department or the IRS are asking employees to take a path through their state and local governments.

This inconsistent application of agency support for “frontline” workers to receive one of the three inoculations has the potential to create a have and have nots among agencies.

Hopefully as the COVID-19 vaccine supply continues to expand and access restrictions are removed, these unfortunate quirks in the process will be ironed out quickly.

In other healthcare related tidbits

  • On April 12, the CDC will be sponsoring its decennial meeting on healthcare associated infections.
  • The Food and Drug Administration released a COVID-19 update today. The FEHBlog wonders when the FDA will take up granting full marketing approval for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and when AstraZeneca will file an emergency use authorization with the FDA for its COVID-19 vaccine. Those steps take us closer to ironing out the process quirks.
  • MedPage Today reports that

A personalized, hands-on care strategy for patients struggling with addiction was effective at reducing hospital readmission, a randomized trial found. In a comparison of hospitalized adults with substance use disorder involving opioids, cocaine, or alcohol, those who received Navigation Services to Avoid Rehospitalization (NavSTAR) care saw far better outcomes than those who simply received treatment as usual, according to Jan Gryczynski, PhD, of the Friends Research Institute in Baltimore, and colleagues.

  • Health Payer Intelligence informs us that

A digital therapeutic weight loss program led to major medical cost savings, according to a Rally Health Inc. study that points to wellness programs as cost-effective strategies to tackle the obesity epidemic. The study published in Obesity examined program data over a three-year period to analyze medical cost trends for those participating in Rally Health’s Real Appeal weight loss intervention program.

Researchers compared medical costs for a group of participants in the digital therapeutic wellness program with costs for a control group of non-participants. The control group was selected to match the intervention group in terms of health risk, baseline medical costs, age, gender, geographic region, and chronic conditions.

The study found that the wellness programming resulted in significant weight loss. There was an average weight loss of 3 percent for 4,790 program participants who attended at least one session over a 52-week period. In addition to providing positive member outcomes, the wellness program lowered medical expenditures significantly. Costs for the intervention cohort were 12 percent less than costs for the control group. What’s more, the savings of the wellness program cohort were 2.3 times more than program costs, marking significant return on investment.

  • Adam Fein reports in his Drug Channels blog that

The drug channel is consolidating, both vertically and horizontally. For evidence, look no further than Drug Channels Institute’s estimates of pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) market share, which are shown in the chart below. For 2020, DCI estimates that the three biggest PBMs [CVS Health (including Caremark and Aetna), the Express Scripts business of Cigna, and the OptumRx business of UnitedHealth Group] accounted for more than three-quarters of total equivalent prescription claims. * * * This concentration helps plan sponsors and payers, which can maximize their negotiating leverage by combining their prescription volumes within a small number of PBMs. 

Weekend update

Photo by Michele Orallo on Unsplash

Happy Easter!

Congress remains on State/district work breaks for the coming week.

As of the beginning of this week, according the CDC’s website, 75.4% of the U.S population over age 65 and 40.2% of the U.S. population over age 18 has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. 54.5% of the over age 65 population and 23.2% of the over 18 age population have been fully vaccinated.

That’s progress. Here are a couple of interesting angles on the vaccine distribution process:

  • The Wall Street Journal reports that “Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine has found a niche among organizations that work with the homeless, who say the one-dose shot is better-suited for a population that can be difficult to reach twice.”

[H]ealthcare workers say they have been surprised to find many homeless people specifically requesting the J&J vaccine, which is branded as Janssen, a unit of J&J. Some of them point out that the shot was still effective even though it was tested after Covid-19 variants entered the mix. Others say they are worried about getting a vaccine once, let alone twice, given the potential side effects.

“If you’re in a shelter, or don’t have a home, those side effects are different than if you can stay at home,” said Bobby Watts, chief executive of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, which supports hundreds of providers that cater to the homeless.

  • Health Payer Intelligence informs us that “To ensure COVID-19 vaccine access for homebound individuals, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has partnered with the Commonwealth Care Alliance (CCA), a health plan that says it has proven best practices for vaccinating this population.” “The Commonwealth defines a “homebound” individual as anyone who needs assistance from two or more people to leave home. In Massachusetts, there are about 20,000 individuals who meet this definition.”

As one of the first healthcare organizations in the country to vaccinate homebound individuals, CCA has also been part of the national discussion around strategies to ensure COVID-19 vaccine access for this population. Last month, CCA joined AHIP in briefing the White House, promoting the prioritization of homebound individuals in COVID-19 vaccine delivery efforts and underlining CCA’s best practices in this endeavor.

Speaking of AHIP, the organization on Friday announced

AHIP’s new SEP landing page also features other important resources to help guide consumers through the SEP, including fast facts, an educational blog, a link to a Get Covered Connector tool offered by Young Invincibles, and a link to a Health Insurance Marketplace Calculator provided by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“Health insurance coverage is an important way to protect your health and financial stability, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Matt Eyles, president and CEO of AHIP.  “Health insurance available through the individual marketplaces cover products and services such as COVID-19 care and vaccines, mental health care and support, $0 copay preventive care, regular doctor visits and prescription medications to keep you healthy, and much more.”

In other COVID-19 news, Kaiser Health News provides details on over-the-counter COVID-19 testing kits.

Even with vaccines, epidemiologists say, rapid tests are desperately needed because more testing, along with mask-wearing and physical distancing, will get people back in offices and classrooms and help catch cases that go undetected. * * *

[M]any experts support the widespread distribution of cheap, rapid tests, even if they aren’t as sensitive as lab-run alternatives, and see a demand. In Germany, the supermarket chain Aldi began selling rapid tests in early March, roughly $30 for a five-pack, and sold out within hours. One recent study found that if a pack of tests was mailed to every household in the U.S. — even assuming that up to 75% would go into the garbage — they would save thousands of lives and avert millions of infections. “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good,” said study co-author and Yale University professor A. David Paltiel. “This doesn’t have to work perfectly to make a huge difference.”

The Federal News Network shares opinions that it obtained from former OPM officials on the recent National Academy of Public Administration report on the agency.

Janice Lachance, the Clinton-era OPM director, sees the budget as a good starting point for the Biden administration and the new director. The president nominated Kiran Ahuja, a former chief of staff for the agency, for the role.

“The new director has a tremendous opportunity to go in there, do a very effective assessment of the situation and make a reasonable request that covers all of the things that need to be done — and that we want to do,” said Lachance, who currently serves as an executive vice president for the American Geophysical Union. “The NAPA report is very aspirational. What is it going to take to get OPM from where it is today to this desired state that’s articulated in the NAPA report over how many years?”

The new director, Lachance added, will need to make the case why an empowered OPM will help resolve the federal government’s talent problems.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

In FEHB News

  • OPM is finalizing without change its proposed rule to remedy some federal employee benefit problems that cropped up during the last, particularly lengthy government shutdown.
  • CVS Health announced yesterday that

CVS Caremark, the Pharmacy Benefit Manager (PBM) of CVS Health, is continuing its long-standing agreement to serve the Government-wide Service Benefit Plan.  Since 1993, CVS Caremark has provided high-quality pharmacy care to the Service Benefit Plan to help federal employees, retirees and their families achieve prescription drug savings and better health outcomes, while being a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars.

The expanded contract will go into effect January 1, 2022 and now includes specialty pharmacy in addition to existing retail, mail and clinical pharmacy services in the current contract.

From the COVID-19 front

  • The Wall Street Journal reports that

The FDA late Wednesday gave the green light to three tests that are meant to be used frequently or multiple times over a few days—called serial tests. Consumers will be able to buy two of them over the counter without a prescription; the other, for use in such places as schools and doctors’ offices, requires a prescription. The FDA had previously authorized them for use among people with symptoms. * * *

Wednesday’s authorizations, awarded to companies [Quidel Corp., Abbott Laboratories and Becton, Dickinson & Co.] with bulk manufacturing power, add to the tests that can be purchased over the counter among people without symptoms if they are used repeatedly, potentially enabling rapid, at-home testing to become more widely accessible and affordable.

  • Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced two revisions regarding the number of doses per vial available for the Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine. The first revision clarifies the number of doses per vial for the vials that are currently available, in that the maximum number of extractable doses is 11, with a range of 10-11 doses. The second revision authorizes the availability of an additional multi-dose vial in which each vial contains a maximum of 15 doses, with a range of 13-15 doses that can potentially be extracted. Both of these revisions positively impact the supply of Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine, which will help provide more vaccine doses to communities and allow shots to get into arms more quickly. Ultimately, more vaccines getting to the public in a timely manner should help bring an end to the pandemic more rapidly,” said Peter Marks, M.D., Ph.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.”

Midweek Update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

The FEHBlog noticed today that OPM has posted the agenda for its annual FEHB Carrier Conference which AHIP co-hosts. While the agenda includes many hot topics, the FEHBlog is surprised that new FEHB Act Section 8902(p) / the No Surprises Act is not highlighted on the agenda.

From the COVID-19 front —

  • The Centers for Disease Control’s daily report on COVID-19 vaccinations in the U.S. reports that that over 150 million doses have been delivered.
  • Pfizer and BioNTech announced that “in [study] participants aged 12-15 years old, [their two dose COVID-19 vaccine] BNT162b2 demonstrated 100% efficacy and robust antibody responses, exceeding those reported in trial of vaccinated 16-25 year old participants in an earlier analysis, and was well tolerated. The companies plan to submit these data to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) as soon as possible to request expansion of the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) and EU Conditional Marketing Authorization for BNT162b2.” This is good news for the next school year. Testing on younger children continues.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that “Pregnant women who get the coronavirus vaccine pass their antibodies on to their newborns, recent studies suggest, a promising sign that babies can acquire from their mothers some protection against Covid-19. At least three studies have found that women who received either the Pfizer Inc. –BioNTech SE vaccine or the Moderna Inc. shots during pregnancy had coronavirus antibodies in their umbilical-cord blood. That indicates the women’s babies got the antibodies, too. * * * Pregnant women are at higher risk of a severe case of Covid-19 and of preterm delivery if they are infected. The studies’ findings, though preliminary, suggest women could safely protect themselves and their newborns by getting vaccinated.
  • Health Payer Intelligence explains “How Payers Are Involved in Boosting COVID-19 Vaccine Confidence — Payers are targeting coronavirus vaccine confidence through collaborations, marketing tools, and incentive programs.”
  • The National Institutes of Health announced that “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in collaboration with NIH, has launched an innovative community health initiative called “Say Yes! COVID Test” starting in Pitt County, North Carolina, and coming soon to Chattanooga/Hamilton County, Tennessee. As many as 160,000 residents across the two communities will have access to free, rapid antigen tests that they can administer themselves to use three times a week for one month. NIH will provide the tests (also called a home-test or at-home test) and evaluate the effectiveness of the initiative, which aims to determine if frequent self-administered COVID-19 testing helps residents reduce community transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease.”

And from the survey front —

  • The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans released its “2020 Employee Benefits Survey [which] provides benchmarking data on their health care offerings, covered dependents, plan funding, dental and orthodontia benefits, prescription drug offerings and other benefits.”
  • Becker’s Hospital Review identifies two dozen health care facilities that offer care to long haul COVID-19 patients.

Midweek Update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

Happy St. Patricks Day to all.

Congress in a recent appropriations law sought a report from the National Academy for Public Administration on the Trump Administration’s proposal to break up the Office of Personnel Management. The Federal Times reports that “A better federal workforce policy will require the Office of Personnel Management to become a more independent and authoritative agency, rather than being broken apart into other departments, a long-awaited National Academy for Public Administration study determined March 17. ”

“We strongly recommend that a central personnel agency continue to exist, and that organization is an independent, enterprise-wide human capital agency and a steward of the merit system principles,” said Terry Gerton, president and CEO of NAPA, said at a press briefing on the report. “But that organization, OPM as we know it today, really needs to build its staff capacity, encourage innovation and adopt a more data-driven, accountable and forward-looking capital management approach.”

In other federal agency news, the Federal News Network informs us that

The IRS is moving this year’s April 15 tax filing season deadline back to May 17, citing ongoing challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic. IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said in a statement Wednesday that the new deadline would give the public more time to take stock of their finances, while also giving agency employees more time to implement new responsibilities under the American Rescue Plan.

The Department of Health and Human Services announced today that the agency

will invest $10 billion from the American Rescue Plan to ramp up screening testing to help schools reopen, $2.25 billion to scale up testing in underserved populations, and provide new guidance on asymptomatic screening testing in schools, workplaces, and congregate settings. These measures are part of President Biden’s strategy to increase COVID-19 testing nationwide as vaccinations increase.

“COVID-19 testing is critical to saving lives and restoring economic activity,” said HHS Acting Secretary Norris Cochran. “As part of the Biden Administration’s National Strategy, HHS will continue to expand our capacity to get testing to the individuals and the places that need it most, so we can prevent transmission of the virus and defeat the pandemic.”

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force announced yesterday a proposed B grade recommendation “on screening for prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. The Task Force recommends screening adults between ages 35 to 70 years old who are overweight or obese for prediabetes and diabetes.” The current minimum age for this screening recommendation is 40 years old. NBC News reports that

We know the rates of prediabetes and diabetes are increasing in people who are younger,” said Dr. Chien-Wen Tseng, a task force member and a professor of family medicine at the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine. “Our main reason for dropping the age is to match the screening with where the problem is: If diabetes and prediabetes are occurring at a younger age, then we should be screening at a younger age.”

The Affordable Care Act requires health plans to cover USPSTF A and B recommended preventive services without member cost sharing when an eligible member receives the service in-network. If the USPSTF finalizes this recommendation later in 2021, then the ACA health plan coverage mandate for this screening would expand to people in the age 35 to 40 age group in 2023. Here is a link to background on the USPSTF’s sixteen members.

In other health industry news —

Healthcare Dive reports that

Amazon is expanding its virtual care pilot program, Amazon Care, to employees and outside companies nationwide beginning this summer in a major evolution of its telehealth initiative, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to drive unprecedented demand for virtual care.

Amazon will also offer its on-demand primary care service to other Washington state-based companies and plans to expand its in-person service to Washington, D.C., Baltimore and other cities in the following months, the e-commerce behemoth announced Wednesday.

Employee Benefit News offers a Chief Financial Offer’s advice on health savings account funding.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

The Wall Street Journal reports that

The House [of Representatives] looked on track to pass the latest version of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package later this week, as liberal Democrats swallowed their frustration with the Senate’s changes and prepared to approve the bill for a second time.

The House is expected to narrowly pass the bill Tuesday or Wednesday, sending it to the White House for President Biden’s signature. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) had initially said the House would take its first procedural vote on the bill Monday, but processing the bill’s Senate paperwork pushed the vote slightly later in the week, aides said. 

In COVID-19 news

  • The Centers for Disease Control today released guidance for those who are fully vaccinated against the disease (meaning two weeks after the final dose).
  • The Biden Administration announced “an effort to invest $250 million to encourage COVID-19 safety and vaccination among underserved populations. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Minority Health (OMH) will offer the funding as health literacy grants to localities, who will partner with community-based organizations, to reach racial and ethnic minority, rural and other vulnerable populations. The new initiative – Advancing Health Literacy to Enhance Equitable Community Responses to COVID-19 – is expected to fund approximately 30 projects in urban communities and 43 projects in rural communities for two years. “
  • The Food and Drug Administration has given emergency use authorization for “the Cue COVID-19 Test for Home and Over The Counter (OTC) Use. The product is a molecular nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT) that is intended to detect genetic material from SARS-CoV-2 virus present in the nostrils. The test is the first molecular test authorized for at-home use without a prescription.” Here’s a link to the Cue Health website.

In other healthcare news —

  • Healthcare Dive reports that “for the first time since Fair Health started tracking monthly telehealth claims, COVID-19 became one of the top five diagnoses in the U.S. in December as cases surged, the nonprofit said in a report released Thursday. Overall, telehealth claim lines increased 2,817% year over year, rising from just 0.22% of all medical claim lines in December 2019 to 6.51% in December 2020. Mental health conditions continue to be the No. 1 telehealth diagnosis nationwide.” It’s the last sentence that caught the FEHBlog’s attention.
  • Benefits Pro writes about the important role that employers and their health plans can help in reducing employee obesity issues. “’Overweight and obesity, which require a comprehensive approach, are top health concerns for employers around the world,’ said Ellen Kelsay, president and CEO of Business Group on Health. ‘Employers play a major part in offering quality health care, understanding obesity’s inextricable link to mental health, lessening the stigma surrounding it and addressing some of the social determinants of health.’ By 2025, one in five adults worldwide will be affected by obesity, according to the organization’s new report, ‘The Global Landscape for Overweight and Obesity: A Guide for Employers.’ As overweight and obesity rates surge worldwide, large employers are positioned to address the chronic medical conditions on multiple fronts, the report said.”
  • The New York Times reports that “When the pandemic struck last year, many Americans rushed to stock up on alcohol, causing retail sales of wine, beer and liquor to surge across the country. But the uptick in sales was a worrying sign for health experts focused on cancer prevention. In recent years, a growing number of medical and public health groups have introduced public awareness campaigns warning people to drink with caution, noting that alcohol is the third leading preventable cause of cancer, behind tobacco and obesity. * * * [Consumer S]urveys continue to show that most people remain unaware of the risks. When the American Institute for Cancer Research surveyed Americans two years ago to gauge their awareness of different cancer risk factors, the results were striking: fewer than half were aware of the alcohol-cancer link.”

Friday Stats and More

Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID-19 Data Tracker website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 14th week of 2020 through 9th week of this year (beginning April 2, 2020, and ending March 3, 2021; using Thursday as the first day of the week in order to facilitate this weekly update):

and here is the CDC’s latest overall weekly hospitalization rate chart for COVID-19:

The FEHBlog has noticed that the new cases and deaths chart shows a flat line for new weekly deaths  because new cases greatly exceed new deaths. Accordingly here is a chart of new COVID-19 deaths over the period (April 2, 2020, through March 3, 2021):

Finally here is a COVID-19 vaccinations chart since mid-December 2020 which also uses Thursday as the first day of the week:

These are all encouraging charts. The CDC reports that as of today 21.7% of eligible Americans (over age 18) have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 11.2% of received two doses.

The CDC’s FluView continues to report that “Seasonal influenza activity in the United States remains lower than usual for this time of year.”

The Wall Street Journal informs us that

A new study on the topic in JAMA Cardiology is based on the screening of 789 professional athletes who tested positive for Covid-19 between May and October in Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the National Hockey League, National Football League, and the men’s and women’s National Basketball Association. 

The paper shows that 0.6% of those athletes ultimately had findings suggestive of inflammatory heart disease. Five athletes were held out of competition because of their cardiac results. Three had myocarditis, which is heart inflammation, and two had pericarditis, which is swelling of the tissue that surrounds the heart. All had had moderate cases of Covid.

The findings suggest that long-term heart complications in non-severe Covid cases are unlikely—and that sports leagues are still likely to continue with cardiac screenings during the pandemic.

Govexec offers an interesting interview with National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins.

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

The Wall Street Journal reports this evening that “President Biden said the U.S. would have enough Covid-19 vaccines for all American adults by the end of May, two months earlier than he had previously said, after regulators authorized the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine and Merck & Co. agreed to help produce it.” That is very encouraging news.

Politico reports that the President has agreed to comply with Neera Tanden’s request that he withdraw her nomination as Office of Management and Budget Director. “Biden’s statement indicated that he expects Tanden to serve in another role in his administration.”

And here are some tidbits for you —

  • The House Energy and Commerce Committee held a future of telehealth hearing today. “It is critical to the health, safety and equitable access of our patients to ensure we can continue to provide telehealth services after the end of the public health emergency,” said Megan Mahoney, M.D., chief of staff at Stanford Health Care, who testified at the hearing.
  • Medpage Today reports that ” Insufficient evidence exists to support any strategy where patients either delay their second dose or only receive one dose of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines [Pfizer and Moderna], even if they have been previously infected with the virus, CDC staff told the agency’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) at its Monday meeting. And ACIP committee members seemed to agree * * *.”
  • Fierce Pharma reports on two recent Food and Drug Administration emergency use authorizations of at home COVID-19 tests.
  • A friend of the FEHBlog pointed him to this STAT News article written by HHS Office of Inspector General Officials discussing the “importance of adding patients’ diagnoses to their prescriptions.” For example, [d]iagnosis information on prescriptions could help pharmacists identify safety issues,” and electronic prescription systems can accommodate diagnosis information.
  • CMS, which enforces the HIPAA electronic transaction rules, issued a factsheet on savings available to healthcare providers who use those electronic transactions. “According to data from the 2020 CAQH Index, 16% of medical plans and 36% of dental plans do not fully use electronic HIPAA standard transactions to conduct eligibility and benefits inquiries and responses. The CAQH Index estimates that medical and dental providers could save approximately $7 billion per year by completing eligibility and benefits checks using the HIPAA standard.” Health plans should share this information with their recalcitrant network providers.
  • Healthcare Dive informs us about four healthcare anti-trust issues to watch in 2021.
  • Health Payer Intelligence reports that “Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois (BCBSIL) is tackling maternal care disparities in its state by financially supporting community-based interventions that focus on increasing education among new mothers and providing in-person and digital support. ‘By taking a holistic approach to supporting prenatal care that considers the social and economic factors impacting the health of mothers and newborns, we are working to help create an environment that fosters access to affordable benefits, equitable care delivery and wherever possible, better health outcomes,’ said Anita Stewart, MD, medical director at BCBSIL.” Well done.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID-19 Data Tracker website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 14th week of 2020 through 8th week of this year (beginning April 2, 2020, and ending February 24, 2021; using Thursday as the first day of the week in order to facilitate this weekly update):

and here is the CDC’s latest overall weekly hospitalization rate chart for COVID-19:

In this regard, Bloomberg reports that

Covid-19 hospital admissions plummeted 72% in a month in the U.S. as the virus ebbed and the vaccination push accelerated.

Americans 85 years old and over saw the most pronounced drop, down 81% from January to February, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which monitors the data through its Covid-19-Associated Hospitalization Surveillance Network.

The rate was 23.4 hospitalizations per 100,000 residents 85 and over for the week of Feb. 7-13, the latest data available. That was down from 120.3 per 100,000 four weeks earlier. The overall rate across age groups was 4.6, down from 16.7.

The FEHBlog has noticed that the new cases and deaths chart shows a flat line for new weekly deaths because new cases greatly exceed new deaths. Accordingly here is a chart of new COVID-19 deaths over the period (April 2, 2020, through February 24, 2021):

Finally here is a COVID-19 vaccinations chart for past ten weeks which also uses Thursday as the first day of the week:

In other COVID-19 vaccination news

  • The Wall Street Journal reports that

Johnson & Johnson’s JNJ -2.64% single-dose Covid-19 vaccine worked safely and should be authorized for use in the U.S., a panel of experts advised federal health regulators Friday.  The advisory committee’s unanimous vote in support of the vaccine’s authorization is the last step before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issues a decision, which is expected Saturday. 

Yippee!

  • Reuters reports that “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Thursday approved storage and transportation of COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc and German partner BioNTech SE at standard freezer temperatures for up to two weeks instead of ultra-cold conditions. * * * “Alternative temperature for transportation and storage will help ease the burden of procuring ultra-low cold storage equipment for vaccination sites and should help to get vaccine to more sites,” Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said.

In other COVID-19 news

  • The AP informs us that “February is usually the peak of flu season, with doctors’ offices and hospitals packed with suffering patients. But not this year. Flu has virtually disappeared from the U.S., with reports coming in at far lower levels than anything seen in decades.” It’s a silver lining in the COVID-19 cloud.  
  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service released updated guidance today for health plans, including FEHB plans, on coverage of COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.
  • Bloomberg reports that

States should maintain Covid-19 restrictions such as mask wearing and capacity limitations as case numbers halt their decline, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday, citing the circulation of new variants and infection rates that remain alarmingly high.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky issued a sobering warning during a press briefing Friday, where she said the more contagious B.1.1.7 variant, first found in the U.K., now accounts for an estimated 10% of current U.S. cases, and that variants in California and New York also appear to spread more easily.

“Things are tenuous — now is not the time to relax restrictions,” Walensky said. “The latest data suggest that these declines may be stalling, potentially leveling off at still a very high number. We at the CDC consider this a very concerning shift in the trajectory.”

  • STAT News punctured a CDC recent statistic as follows:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made headlines last week when it announced that Covid-19 had reduced the average life expectancy of Americans in 2020 by a full year. The news seemed to starkly illustrate the devastation wrought by our nation’s worst public health crisis in 100 years.

But there was a problem. The pandemic’s appalling toll could not have reduced life span by nearly that much. My own estimate is that when Covid-19’s ravages in 2020 are averaged across the country’s entire population, we each lost about five days of life.

The CDC’s mistake? It calculated life expectancy using an assumption that is assuredly wrong, which yielded a statistic that was certain to be misunderstood. * * * The CDC’s report boils down to a finding that bears no relation to any realistic scenario. Running the 2020 gauntlet for an entire life results in living one year less on average than running that same gauntlet in 2019.

In other healthcare news, Fierce Healthcare informs us that

Cigna will acquire telehealth platform MDLive, the insurer announced Friday morning.

Cigna has been a longtime partner of and investor in MDLive and will fold it into its Evernorth subsidiary, which houses its health services business. The deal is expected to close in the second quarter of 2021, pending regulatory approvals.

Cigna said that it expects to deliver $20 in earnings per share this year, including impacts of the acquisition, and will present additional details about the deal at its investor day on March 8.

Finally, the FEHBlog has been continuing to review the draft Postal Service bill creating a Postal Service Health Benefits Program. He has updated Wednesday’s post on the topic and he wishes to point out an important clarification on how the bill would treat Postal Service annuitants. Per the Committee staff memorandum:

The bill would require future retirees to enroll in Medicare in order to participate in the Postal Employee Benefits Program (similar to the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program but established as a separate risk pool). However, the bill includes several exceptions:

  • Residents of foreign countries and others without access to Medicare providers would not automatically be enrolled in Medicare; and
  • Retirees who do not have the requisite 40 quarters of creditable service would not be automatically enrolled in Medicare. This would include many Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) retirees.
  • In addition, current retirees would be granted a three-month grace period from the Medicare penalty for late enrollment but would not be required to enroll.

This helps explain why NARFE is willing to support the bill.