Midweek Update

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.”

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the COVID variant front, David Leonhardt writes in the New York Times as follows:

Covid-19 is once again in retreat.

The reasons remain somewhat unclear, and there is no guarantee that the decline in caseloads will continue. But the turnaround is now large enough — and been going on long enough — to deserve attention.

These declines are consistent with a pattern that regular readers of this newsletter will recognize: Covid’s mysterious two-month cycle. Since the Covid virus began spreading in late 2019, cases have often surged for about two months — sometimes because of a variant, like Delta — and then declined for about two months. * * *

The recent declines, for example, have occurred even as millions of American children have again crowded into school buildings. * * *

I need to emphasize that these declines may not persist. Covid’s two-month cycle is not some kind of iron law of science. * * *

Eventually, immunity will become widespread enough that another wave as large and damaging as the Delta wave will not be possible. “Barring something unexpected,” Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former F.D.A. commissioner and the author of “Uncontrolled Spread,” a new book on Covid, told me, “I’m of the opinion that this is the last major wave of infection.”

The New York Times reports that

Johnson & Johnson is planning to ask federal regulators early this week to authorize a booster shot of its coronavirus vaccine, according to officials familiar with the company’s plans. The firm is the last of the three federally authorized vaccine providers to call for extra injections, amid mounting evidence that at least the elderly and other high-risk groups need more protection.

NBC Boston discusses where the regulators stand in terms of approving a Moderna booster. Moderna submitted its emergency use application on September 1. “Adding to the complexity of further decisions on booster shots, Moderna wants its third dose to be half of the original shots.”

The Food and Drug Administration announced

[issuing] an emergency use authorization (EUA) for the ACON Laboratories Flowflex COVID-19 Home Test, an over-the-counter (OTC) COVID-19 antigen test, which adds to the growing list of tests that can be used at home without a prescription. This action highlights our continued commitment to increasing the availability of appropriately accurate and reliable OTC tests to meet public health needs and increase access to testing for consumers.

Today’s authorization for the ACON Laboratories Flowflex COVID-19 Home Test should significantly increase the availability of rapid, at-home tests and is expected to double rapid at-home testing capacity in the U.S. over the next several weeks. By years end, the manufacturer plans to produce more than 100 million tests per month, and this number will rise to 200 million per month by February 2022.

The manufacturer’s press release adds that

The Flowflex COVID-19 Antigen Home Test is a simple nasal swab test which will soon be available for purchase without a prescription in major retail stores and online. It may be used for self-testing by individuals aged 14 years and older, or with adult-collected nasal swabs from children as young as 2 years old.

In contrast to other home tests which require testing twice within a two-to-three-day period (a process known as serial screening), the Flowflex COVID-19 Antigen Home Test has been authorized for use as a single test by individuals with or without symptoms. This will allow for the distribution of more affordable single-test packaging, resulting in greater access to home testing.

Flowflex COVID-19 tests are already available in many countries outside the U.S., including widespread distribution in the UK through the National Health Service (NHS). The international popularity of this test has led ACON to greatly expand global production capacity at multiple manufacturing sites. This emergency use authorization will now allow ACON to quickly respond to the unmet demand for simple and inexpensive home diagnostics as a critical tool in the fight against COVID-19.

STAT News discusses the pricing considerations for Merck’s pill under development to treat COVID at its symptomatic onset. The article notes

Last June, the U.S. government signed a $1.2 billion deal with Merck for 1.7 million doses, which works out to a $712 unit cost for a five-day treatment course, according to the contract. This assumes the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will authorize emergency use of the pill. Separately, the company has indicated there are plans to produce 10 million doses by the end of this year.

This action suggests to the FEHBlog that Merck can charge a substantially lower price for subsequently manufactured pills.

In today’s column David Leonhardt reminds us that COVID has been a national tragedy, which is unquestionably true in the FEHBlog’s opinion. In that regard, Kaiser Health News explains how COVID deaths have struck rural, black, Hispanic, and Native Americans harder than others which also happens to be the pattern of opioid pandemic deaths as the FEHBlog recalls.

From the COVID regulatory front, the federal departments that regulate the Affordable Care Act and related laws issued ACA FAQ 50. AHIP helpfully explains

The first two FAQs address the recent ACIP and CDC announcements regarding booster doses. The FAQ is intended to notify plans and issuers that the December 12, 2020 ACIP recommendation is the applicable recommendation for purposes of the definition of qualifying coronavirus preventive services under section 3203 of the CARES Act and its implementing regulations.

Plans must cover COVID-19 vaccines and their administration, without cost sharing, immediately once the particular vaccine becomes authorized or approved under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) or approved under a Biologics License Application (BLA). This coverage must be provided consistent with the scope of the EUA or BLA for the particular vaccine, including any EUA or BLA amendment, such as to allow for the administration of an additional dose to certain individuals, administration of booster doses, or the expansion of the age demographic for whom the vaccine is authorized or approved.

The prior Q8 in FAQs Part 44 is superseded to the extent it provides that the coverage requirement effective date is related to the vaccine-specific recommendations of ACIP.

In response to stakeholder questions around COVID-19 vaccine incentives and surcharges, the Departments released three FAQs:

Premium discounts for COVID-19 vaccinations are permitted if they comply with applicable wellness program regulations including the requirement to provide a reasonable alternative standard to qualify. The vaccine incentive program must not exceed 30 percent of the total cost of employee-only coverage and must give individuals eligible for the program the opportunity to qualify for the reward under the program at least once per year.

Plans and issuers may not discriminate in eligibility for benefits or coverage based on whether or not an individual obtains a COVID-19 vaccination.

Wellness incentives that relate to the receipt of COVID-19 vaccinations are treated as not earned for purposes of determining whether employer-sponsored health coverage is affordable. However, vaccine surcharges would not be disregarded in assessing affordability.

The FEHBlog had called attention to the 15 day deadline for plans to convert their systems to accomodate the new vaccine. The regulators have removed that grace period which likely reflects COVID reality.

Also, Becker’s Hospital Review informs us that “To clear up a lot of misinformation surrounding COVID-19 vaccines and HIPAA, HHS published guidelines Sept. 30 for employees and employers to better understand the privacy rule.”

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Roll Call reports that “The House passed a catchall budget package Tuesday [along party lines] that’s intended to avoid a partial government shutdown and debt limit crisis, but it seems likely to come back for a do-over once the Senate works its will.” The Republicans are objecting to combining the debt limit increase with the stop gap measure because “Treasury has said Congress needs to act sometime next month; Wrightson ICAP, a private investment advisory firm, said this week the drop-dead deadline was likely Oct. 25 or 26.”  

Here’s a stunner for you from the Roll Call article:

The bill includes language to temporarily extend how fentanyl — a highly potent opioid — is classified. Fentanyl is responsible for a lion’s share of drug overdose deaths, which have been on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill would extend fentanyl’s status as a so-called “Schedule 1” drug until Jan. 28, 2022. Under current law, the drug would lose its status as a drug with a high risk for abuse on Oct. 22. 

From the Delta variant front —

  • According to the American Hospital Association, “Johnson & Johnson today said its phase 3 trial data confirms its vaccine’s durability and provided evidence of a second, booster shot’s effectiveness against COVID-19. The drug maker said that, over the course of its ongoing phase 3 trial, it found no evidence of the vaccine’s reduced effectiveness, which J&J said is 79% for preventing COVID-19-related infections and 81% for preventing COVID-19-related hospitalizations. J&J furthermore found that a booster shot administered 56 days after an initial dose provided 100% protection against severe/critical COVID-19 for at least 14 days post-final vaccination and 94% protection against symptomatic (moderate to severe/critical) COVID-19 in the U.S. Additionally, boosters resulted in antibody levels four to six times higher than those netted from a single dose.”
  • David Leonhardt in the New York Times understandably criticized federal agencies for dropping the ball on production of rapid COVID tests. “Other countries are awash in Covid tests. The U.S. is not.”

Stefanie Friedhoff, a professor at Brown University’s School of Public Health, recently returned from a visit to Germany and wrote on Twitter about the many benefits of rapid testing that she had seen. A friend’s husband has Parkinson’s disease, and the friend leaves a batch of tests in her hallway for people to take before they enter the home. The day care center where Friedhoff’s sister works has stayed open throughout the pandemic, because the staff and children take frequent tests.

“Imagine what ubiquitous cheap testing could do in the U.S.,” Friedhoff wrote. “It is incomprehensible how the U.S. has failed on testing.”

  • The FEHBlog recalls writing last year at this time about the importance of a vaccine, rapid testing, and a treatment for recently symptomatic people in order to bring the pandemic to a close. We should be grateful for the vaccines but we wouldn’t be in this much of a fix if we also had rapid testing and earlier treatment options.

The American Hospital Association also reports that

U.S. hospitals will lose an estimated $54 billion in net income this year, even after federal relief funds, as higher labor and other expenses and sicker patients impact their financial health during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report by Kaufman, Hall & Associates released today by the AHA. More than a third of hospitals are expected to end 2021 with negative margins. 

“With cases and hospitalizations at elevated levels again due to the rapid spread of the Delta variant, physicians, nurses and other hospital caregivers and personnel are working tirelessly to care for COVID-19 patients and all others who need care,” said AHA President and CEO Rick Pollack. “At the same time, hospitals are experiencing profound headwinds that will continue throughout the rest of 2021.”

From the Rx front

  • Medcity News reports that “The FDA has approved the first biosimilar that references the blockbuster Roche drug Lucentis. The Biogen and Samsung BioLogics joint venture that developed the biologic product have approval to treat three eye conditions that lead to vision loss.” Bravo.

From the tidbits department

Infants who seemed headed for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) had milder symptoms as toddlers if their caregivers were subject to a social communication intervention when infants were just 1 year of age, a randomized clinical trial found.

Infants whose families participated in the intervention exhibited significantly milder ASD symptoms 12 months later compared to those in the control group. They also had lower odds of being diagnosed with ASD by an independent clinician at age 3 years (6.7% vs 20.5%, OR 0.18, 95% CI 0.00-0.68), according to the study group led by Andrew Whitehouse, PhD, of the University of Western Australia.

Non-career employees at the U.S. Postal Service are significantly more likely to get injured on the job and leave their positions than employees with a permanent status, according to a Sept. 16 Government Accountability Office report.

Employees without permanent status at USPS receive lower pay and fewer benefits than their career counterparts, often under the assumption that they will have a path to a career position in the future. But according to GAO, those non-career employees, of which there are more than 200,000 across the U.S., had 50 percent higher rates of injury than career positions and reported the incidents to the Federal Employees’ Compensation Program 43 percent more often.

  • Fierce Healthcare tells us that

Humana leads the industry on customer experience scores and is the only major national payer to land above the industry average, according to a new report from analysts at Forrester.

Forrester polled members of 17 of the largest health plans in the country and found an industry average score of 70.2 on a 100-point scale, which the organization categorizes as an “OK” rating. In 2020, payers averaged 67.5 points, according to the report.

At the top of the list, Humana earned a 74.8 score, dethroning 2020’s top health plan, Florida Blue, which fell to fourth place with a 71.9. Kaiser Permanente’s health plan landed in the second-place slot with a 73.8 score, and Highmark placed third, earning a 72.9.

Rounding out the top five is Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, which rose from a 10th-place ranking in 2020’s report, Forrester found.

Congrats, Humana and the other high scorers.

Thursday Miscellany

Happy National Women’s Equality Day! Health and Human Services Department leaders offered their views on this occasion.

From the Delta variant front

  • Becker’s Hospital Review tells us that “The FDA has extended the shelf life of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine from six months to nine months, the agency said Aug. 24.  The shot can now be stored at temperatures up to minus-76 degrees Fahrenheit, up from minus-130 degrees Fahrenheit, for up to nine months, up from six months.  The agency said the updated shelf life applies to batches that expired before the extension, as long as they were stored at proper temperatures.” The
  • The Wall Street Journal offers an FAQ article on COVID 19 vaccination boosters.
  • The Society for Human Resource Management discusses employer policies, similar to the federal government’s, which require routine COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated employees.
  • Bloomberg reports that COVID-19 testing has regained popularity to such an extent that “CVS Health Corp. is limiting customers’ purchases of rapid, over-the-counter Covid-19 tests, with a maximum of six packages available online and four in its pharmacies, as the spread of the delta variant spurs demand.  Put in place this week, the limits apply to Abbott Laboratories’s BinaxNOW along with a test from the startup Ellume, according to an email from a CVS spokesperson. Both tests are available without a prescription.” According to the article, Abbott is ramping up its production of these tests.

In employment news, Govexec reports that “the U.S. Postal Service is planning to hire 100,000 employees in 2021, looking to fill vacancies that have contributed to logjams in the mailing agency’s network and widespread delivery delays. * * * The Postal Service is currently seeking drivers, letter carrier assistants, mail handlers, processing clerks and others.”

Health Payer Intelligence informs that

Employers are anticipating that the coronavirus pandemic will continue to have a long-term impact in 2022, particularly in the areas of mental health and chronic disease needs, according to Business Group on Health’s recent 2022 Large Employers’ Health Care Strategy and Plan Design survey. The researchers surveyed 136 large employers in June 2021. These employers provided healthcare coverage for a total of more than 8 million employees and dependents.

That roughly matches the FEHB’s enrollment.

Speaking of mental healthcare

  • Fierce Healthcare tells us about “a recent study by CertaPet, a telehealth company, which analyzed the 50 most populous U.S. cities to find the best and worst places to live for mental health treatment.” According to this survey Denver sits at the top and Dallas rests on the bottom.
  • Healthcare Dive reports that “Meditation and mindfulness startup Headspace and on-demand mental healthcare app Ginger have announced plans to merge into a single company, called Headspace Health, valued at $3 billion, the two companies said Wednesday. The two startups focused on mental health and wellness have each raised more than $200 million in venture funding from investors. As Headspace Health, the two companies will offer support for mental health symptoms from anxiety to depression to more complex diagnoses, selling direct to consumer and to employers and health plans.”

Finally the FEHBlog was surprised to read in the Wall Street Journal that

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a Texas affiliate withdrew a suitfiled to block parts of a federal rule requiring insurers and employers to disclose prices they pay for healthcare services and drugs. The withdrawal, in a filing late Wednesday, came after the Biden administration delayed enforcement of provisions of the rule that were the focus of the suit. * * *Daryl Joseffer, senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber Litigation Center, said in a statement that the Biden administration decision “was a positive and constructive response to our lawsuit.” There are still “significant issues” with the rule, he said, and “we’ll continue to monitor the developments, and that includes evaluating whether in the future the Chamber will bring a new lawsuit.” An email sent Friday by the Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce to the U.S. Chamber, viewed by The Wall Street Journal, said it wanted to withdraw from the suit “based on feedback from community leadership.”

PCMA, the prescription benefit manager trade association, continue to pursue its similar lawsuit pending in the D.C. federal court (No. 1:21-cv-02161).

Midweek update

From the Delta variant front, the Safer Federal Workforce group issued updated guidance for federal employees receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. In short, federal agencies should

  • Allow employees to take up to 4 hours of administrative leave to get any COVID-19 dose.
  • Allow employees to take up to 2 days of administrative leave for adverse reactions to any COVID-19 vaccination dose.

Federal News Network informs us that

Nearly one month after the Biden administration first announced plans to adopt a vaccine and testing policy for federal employees and contractors, managers — presumably the ones charged with implementing and enforcing the new program on the ground level — say they’re still looking for answers about how it’ll work. * * *

Guidance has been “minimal” and the planning to date has been “stressful” for managers and supervisors, said Craig Carter, national president of the Federal Managers Association.

Professional associations don’t have exact data and they’re relying on anecdotal conversations with their members about the vaccine. But considering a little more than half of all Americans are fully inoculated against COVID-19 — and the federal workforce is in many ways a representative subset of the American public — they assume roughly 50% of the nation’s 2.1 million federal employees are unvaccinated.

That means agencies may potentially need to test about 1 million federal workers once or twice a week, the associations said.

Few things drive the FEHBlog crazier than the use of the full U.S. population as a COVID-19 vaccination benchmark because people under age 12 cannot be vaccinated at this point. 62.7% of Americans over 18 and 81.3% of Americans over 65 are fully vaccinated according to the CDC website. The FEHBlog therefore expects that at least two thirds of federal employees are fully vaccinated. The percentage should skew higher because as the FEHBlog has noted about 20% of the federl workforce is under a COVID vaccination mandate as opposed to attestation. Nevertheless, testing about 600,000 federal employees once or twice a week is no picnic for federal managers.

The Wall Street Journal reports that

  • U.S. Covid-19 hospitalizations have surpassed 100,000 for the first time since January, nearly doubling since the start of August. While the figure remains below the country’s winter peak, hospitals in some parts of the U.S. are straining under the load, and officials in states including Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Idaho have requested extra personnel and resources.
  • “Federal regulators are likely to approve a Covid-19 booster shot for vaccinated adults starting at least six months after the previous dose rather than the eight-month gap they previously announced, a person familiar with the plans said, as the Biden administration steps up preparations for delivering boosters to the public.”

The Journal also offers its perspective on the lay of the land for COVID-19 tests.

Employee Benefits News tells us that

According to the most recent Mental Health Index by Total Brain and the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, feelings of anxiety increased 94% from June to July, and incidences of PTSD have spiked 83% over the past six months.

While employees of all ages are struggling to maintain good mental health, workers aged 40-59 saw the highest increases in stress, anxiety and feelings of negativity, compared to July’s data. These workers cited return to work and back to school plans as the main drivers of their fears.

The average age of a federal employee is close to 50 years old.

From the federal employee benefits front, Reg Jones discusses the pluses and minuses of deferred annuities.

It’s a fact of life that many people work for a number of years in a job and, for one reason or another, leave before they are eligible to retire. What’s different for those who work for the federal government is that during their working time there, deductions have been taken from their pay toward a civil service annuity.

While many who resign from the government ask for a refund of those contributions, some do not (often because they were not even aware that they could). Those who leave their contributions in the fund – especially those who weren’t even aware that they could get a refund – are the people I want to talk to today, as well as any of you who are thinking about resigning from the government before retirement eligibility.

Here’s why: If you leave your contributions in the retirement fund, you will be entitled to a deferred annuity if you meet some fairly minimal requirements [as explained in the article].

In healthcare business news

  • Fierce Healthcare reports that “Hospitals and health systems’ economic recovery hit the brakes in July with mounting COVID-19 admissions, escalating expenses and early evidence that consumers are again postponing elective and outpatient care. Per the latest monthly report from Kaufman Hall, countrywide margins and volumes remained below pre-pandemic numbers but dipped most severely in the South and Midwest, where COVID-19 has had the greatest impact. The firm said it expects these trends to continue in the coming months.”
  • Healthcare Dive tells us that “GuideWell, the parent company of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida, is set to acquire Triple S Management, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Plan and largest insurance carrier in Puerto Rico. The $900 million cash deal will add another company to GuideWell’s portfolio of health-focused subsidiaries. After the deal is complete, Triple S will become a wholly owned subsidiary of GuideWell and will continue to operate under the same brand name and management team, the two companies said Tuesday. The deal is expected to close in the first half of next year and is subject to regulatory approvals.”
  • Fierce Healthcare also reports that “Carbon Health, a primary care provider combining brick-and-mortar clinics with virtual services, bought two separate clinic chains to expand its national primary care footprint. The company bought Southern Arizona Urgent Care’s nine clinics in Tucson, Arizona, and Med7 Urgent Care’s four clinics in Sacramento, California, bringing its total to 83 clinics across 12 states. This acquisition underscores the company’s goal of becoming the largest national healthcare provider, fueled by its recent $350 million funding news.

Midweek Update

From the Delta variant front –

  • In a joint statement, a group of high ranking HHS public health experts explained today that

“We have developed a plan to begin offering [COVID-19 vaccination] booster shots this fall subject to FDA conducting an independent evaluation and determination of the safety and effectiveness of a third dose of the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines and CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) issuing booster dose recommendations based on a thorough review of the evidence. We are prepared to offer booster shots for all Americans beginning the week of September 20 and starting 8 months after an individual’s second dose. At that time, the individuals who were fully vaccinated earliest in the vaccination rollout, including many health care providers, nursing home residents, and other seniors, will likely be eligible for a booster. We would also begin efforts to deliver booster shots directly to residents of long-term care facilities at that time, given the distribution of vaccines to this population early in the vaccine rollout and the continued increased risk that COVID-19 poses to them.

“We also anticipate booster shots will likely be needed for people who received the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine. Administration of the J&J vaccine did not begin in the U.S. until March 2021, and we expect more data on J&J in the next few weeks. With those data in hand, we will keep the public informed with a timely plan for J&J booster shots as well.”

The FEHBlog will be in line for his third dose of the Pfizer vaccine when the time comes.

  • The Wall Street Journal reports that “Early data from Israel suggests a booster shot of Pfizer Inc.’s Covid-19 vaccine can significantly improve immunity in those aged 60 and above, as the U.S. and other countries plan additional doses to increase protection against the highly infectious Delta variant.”
  • Health Affairs reports on a study suggest”[ing] that the early COVID-19 vaccination campaign was associated with reductions in COVID-19 deaths. As of May 9, 2021, reductions in COVID-19 deaths associated with vaccines had translated to value of statistical life benefit ranging between $625 billion and $1.4 trillion.” The smartest move that the government made was to prioritize the elderly who suffered the most deaths during the pre-vaccination era of COVID-19.

From the federal employee vaccination screening program front, the Safer Federal Workforce task force issued a set of FAQs on COVID-19 testing employees, contractors and visitors who cannot attest to receiving a COVID-19 vaccination. The FEHBlog was pleased to read that the FAQs impose the testing cost on the agencies, not on the FEHB Program, which is the proper legal outcome under the federal CARES Act (unnumbered FAQ 3). Federal News Network makes its own observations on the Testing FAQs here.

In healthcare utilization news, Healthcare Dive reports that

  • More than one in 10 adults ages 16 to 64 said they delayed or went without needed healthcare services due to virus fears in the past 30 days, an April survey from the Urban Institute funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found. 
  • One in 10 parents delayed seeking care for their children for that reason, according to the report published Wednesday.
  • Hispanic and Black adults, along with adults with lower incomes, reported delaying care at higher rates than other groups. Adults with chronic health problems were also more likely than those without such conditions to say they went without needed care.

It’s worth noting that this survey was conducted during the month that vaccinations became widely available and before the Delta variant broke out.

In other healthcare news

  • Govexec reports that “Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Wednesday that the agency is launching a new organization to focus on disease forecasting.  The Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics will be a hub for research and innovation aimed at mitigating the effects of future disease threats. Its launch comes as the federal government continues to fight the coronavirus pandemic and now the rapidly spreading Delta variant. It will build on current modeling efforts at the agency. * * * The center’s initial funding will come from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan enacted in March for coronavirus relief.”
  • The NCQA Blog discusses the hospital at home movement in the U.S. “Humana Home Solutions​ Vice President Dr. Amal Agarwal estimated that up to 35% of Medicare Advantage spending might be addressable at home. As Mayo Clinic Platform President John Halamka explained, hospital at home also “brings the family back into wellness.” This matters because family involvement affects patient satisfaction.” Interestingly the experts explained that hospital at home care is best suited for mid-level acuity patients, not folks who need the ICU or folks who don’t require hospitalization.

Dr. Halamka used an accessible and memorable analogy to outline the long-term possibilities for hospital at home.

He explained that the tractor manufacturing company John Deere transformed itself into a data company by covering its tractors with sensors. The sensors report back information about the weight and volume of crops that customers harvest—soybeans, for example. The predictive value of the information reported to John Deere is so high that the data are now used to forecast soybean prices.

Likewise, Americans are filling their homes and strapping to their bodies millions of behavioral and biometric sensors.

“We are instrumenting homes with sensors to gather patient data that we can use to understand not only that patient’s progression, but aggregating and analyzing that data [to] understand the progression of similar patients,” said Halamka.

Well put, Doctor.

  • In support of extending initiatives like this to rural areas of the country, the Department of Health and Human Services announced today “key investments that will strengthen telehealth services in rural and underserved communities and expand telehealth innovation and quality nationwide. These investments—totaling over $19 million—are being distributed to 36 award recipients,” such as “Telehealth Centers of Excellence (COE) program: $6.5 million is being awarded to 2 organizations to assess telehealth strategies and services to improve health care in rural medically underserved areas that have high chronic disease prevalence and high poverty rates. The Telehealth COEs will be located in academic medical centers and will serve as telehealth incubators to pilot new telehealth services, track outcomes, and publish telehealth research. The COEs will establish an evidence-base for telehealth programs and a framework for future telehealth programs.’

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

The American Hospital Association (“AHA”) reports that “Lawmakers in the U.S. Senate this weekend unveiled the text of a bipartisan infrastructure package that has been under negotiation for several months. The package does not rescind any Provider Relief Funds as an offset for the package, though it does extend the Medicare sequester for one additional year, through fiscal year 2031.” Fierce Healthcare points out two other healthcare provisions in the bill. Fierce Healthcare adds that

The Senate is expected to vote this week on the package. It will then consider a $3.5 trillion package that could clear the chamber via a procedural move called reconciliation that ensures budget bills can pass via a simple majority and bypass the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster.

Democrats have sought to add more healthcare related provisions in the $3.5 trillion package, including adding dental, vision and hearing benefits to Medicare.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, told Fierce Healthcare last week that he is working to add drug pricing provisions into the package, including giving Medicare the authority to negotiate for lower prices.

From the Delta variant front

  • Federal News Network discusses federal employee reaction to the President’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate.
  • The Society for Human Resource Management offers solid advice to employers on how businesses should respond to the Delta variant.
  • The American Medical Association discusses how providers can address high blood pressure problems worsened by the pandemic.

From the employee perspective front, Health Payer Intelligence tells us that “Employees are looking for employers to bolster preventive care services, mental healthcare, and access to employees’ providers in their employer-sponsored health benefits, a Marathon Health survey revealed. The researchers surveyed over 1,100 employees—all of whom were working full-time—and 430 human resource leaders in June 2021. “While Americans prize healthcare above every other benefit, our survey also indicates employees and employers see major shortcomings in their healthcare plans. This is especially true when it comes to cost, preventive care, and mental health,” Jeff Wells, co-founder and chief executive officer of Marathon Health, summarized in the press release.”

From the regulatory front today the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services finalized the fiscal year 2022 Medicare Part A payment policies for inpatient hospital care.

Before taking into account Medicare disproportionate share hospital (DSH) payments and Medicare uncompensated care payments, the increase in operating payment rates, increases in capital payments, increases in payments for new medical technologies, increases in payments due to implementation of the imputed floor, and other changes will increase hospital payments in FY 2022 by $3.7 billion, or 3.1 percent. CMS projects Medicare DSH payments and Medicare uncompensated care payments to decrease in FY 2022 compared to FY 2021 by approximately $1.4 billion. Overall, CMS estimates hospitals payments will increase by $2.3 billion.

Here is a link to the AHA’s generally favorable reaction to the final rule.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash
  • On the COVID-19 front, David Leonhardt in the New York Times provides valuable insights on how to think about COVID-19 cases that have broken through vaccinations. “

Different vaccinated people are going to make different decisions, and that’s OK. I find the risk of breakthrough infections to be small enough that I’m not going to make major changes to my behavior.

I would feel differently if I lived in a community with a lower vaccination rate — or if I lived with somebody who was vulnerable to Covid because of an immunodeficiency. And the current surge in cases has changed my thinking. I will again wear a mask sometimes when in close contact with strangers, even if it has little tangible effect. The main reason to do so, as Dowdy said, is to contribute to a shared sense that we have entered a worrisome new phase of the pandemic.

  • Fierce Healthcare reports that “Dozens of healthcare professional organizations including the American Hospital Association, America’s Essential Hospitals and the Association of American Medical Colleges have released joint or individual statements calling for providers to implement mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies for healthcare personnel.” The Wall Street Journal adds that “A significant uptick in Covid-19 cases across the U.S. is leading to new vaccination mandates for public employees, with the Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday becoming the first federal agency, California the first state, and New York the first major city to announce requirements for their workers. “epartment of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said healthcare personnel who work in or visit Veterans Health Administration facilities or provide direct care to people the VA serves would have eight weeks to get vaccinated. Officials in the state of California and New York City said Monday they would require their workers to either be vaccinated against Covid-19 or be tested at least weekly for the virus. California’s order, which also applies to those who work in healthcare settings, goes into effect in August. The New York City mandate begins after Labor Day.”
  • The Wall Street Journal also reports “The U.S. has purchased 200 million additional Covid-19 vaccine doses from Pfizer Inc. and partner BioNTech SE at a higher price than previous deals. The U.S. is paying about $24 a dose, according to Pfizer, up from the $19.50 that the government paid in its earlier deals to supply the country. The deal brings the total purchased from the U.S. to 1 billion doses. The companies said they expect to deliver 110 million of the additional doses by the end of the year, with the rest by the end of next April.  While demand has largely stalled in recent weeks, additional demand could open up if the vaccine is cleared for use in younger children. Pfizer is testing the vaccine in children under 12 years old, and has said it hopes to begin having data available before the end of the year.  The new agreement is in addition to the one announced last month for 500 million doses that the U.S. is scheduled to donate to the rest of the world.”
  • In this regard, the Washington Post reports that “Federal regulators have requested that vaccine companies expand their trials to test coronavirus shots in several thousand school-aged children before seeking [emergency use authorization] — a move intended to assess whether a rare inflammation of the heart muscle that has been seen in young adults shortly after vaccination is more common in younger age groups.”
  • STAT News provides its perspective on the current surge. STAT suggests that this surge is accelerating faster than last summer’s surge which is not surprising because the Delta variant is much more contagious that the variant in circulation last summer.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) has announced that it ‘will invest more than $1.6 billion from the American Rescue Plan to support testing and mitigation measures in high-risk congregate settings to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and detect and stem potential outbreaks.’
  • Today, in commemoration of “the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) jointly published guidance on how “long COVID” can be a disability under the ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act.  The guidance is on the HHS website and on the DOJ website.

Also today, HHS announced phase 2 of the HPV vaccination campaign for young adults.

Currently, only 40% of young adults in the United States have received one or more doses of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, and only 22% have completed the vaccine series.i The HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health’s Office on Women’s Health is launching the second phase of the HPV VAX NOW campaign to address this gap. The initial campaign launched on January 6, 2021 to support healthcare providers who counsel young adults in Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas by providing resources to promote effective HPV vaccine recommendations. The second phase of the campaign will target young adults ages 18–26 in the same three states, with the long-term goal of empowering all to complete the HPV vaccine series.

In health equity developments

  • The American Academy of Actuaries has released a paper on health equity from an actuarial perspective that is worth a gander.
  • Patient Engagement HIT discusses how “a new study [in the New England Journal of Medicine] revealing unequal opioid and pain medication prescription access between White and Black patients is calling into question the prevalence of implicit bias in medicine.” The researchers concluded that “We do not know whether or how these differences affect patient outcomes, because both opioid underuse and overuse can cause harm. We do know that skin color should not influence the receipt of pain treatment. “Our overall observations and system-specific reporting should prompt action by providers, health system administrators, and policymakers to explore root causes, consequences, and effective remediation strategies for racially unequal opioid receipt.”
  • In that regard, Kaiser Health News discusses the pros and cons of state and local government monitoring of opioid prescriptions.

When efforts to establish Missouri’s statewide monitoring program stalled, St. Louis County established one in 2017 that 75 local jurisdictions agreed to participate in, covering 85% of the state, according to the county health department. The county now plans to move its program into the state one, which is scheduled to launch in 2023.

Dr. Faisal Khan, director of the county department, said he has no doubt that the St. Louis program has “saved lives across the state.” Opioid prescriptions decreased dramatically once the county established the monitoring program. In 2016, Missouri averaged 80.4 opioid prescriptions per 100 people; in 2019, it was down to 58.3 prescriptions, according to the CDC.

Khan acknowledged that a monitoring program can lead to an increase in overdose deaths in the years immediately following its establishment because people addicted to prescription opioids suddenly can’t obtain them and instead buy street drugs that are more potent and contain impurities.

But he said a monitoring program can also help a physician intervene before someone becomes addicted. Doctors who flag a patient using the monitoring program must then also be able to easily refer them to treatment, Khan and others said.

“We absolutely are not prepared for that in Missouri,” said Winograd, of NoMODeaths. “Substance use treatment providers will frequently tell you that they are at max capacity.”

The FEHBlog would rather see expansion of treatment facilities that loosening standards on opioid prescribing.

Midweek update

Photo by Piron Guillaume on Unsplash

Yesterday, “at her first meeting of the Chief Human Capital Officers (CHCO) Council, Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Director and Council Chair, Kiran Ahuja, announced that the CHCO Council’s functions will be restored to OPM, after the Council’s leadership and administration were bifurcated between OPM and General Services Administration (GSA) since 2019.”  Sic semper attempted GSA merger.

The North Carolina Attorney General announced “a historic $26 billion agreement that will help bring desperately needed relief to people across the country who are struggling with opioid addiction. The agreement includes Cardinal, McKesson, and AmerisourceBergen – the nation’s three major pharmaceutical distributors – and Johnson & Johnson, which manufactured and marketed opioids. The agreement also requires significant industry changes that will help prevent this type of crisis from ever happening again. The agreement would resolve investigations and litigation over the companies’ roles in creating and fueling the opioid epidemic. State negotiations were led by Attorneys General Josh Stein (NC) and Herbert Slatery (TN) and the attorneys general from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.”

Healthcare Dive informs us that “Anthem, the nation’s second largest insurer [and a Blue Cross licensee], saw robust membership growth during the second quarter, adding 1.9 million members, a 4.4% increase over the prior-year period. The growth was fueled entirely by government programs, largely Medicaid and Medicare, while commercial membership declined slightly.  The Indianapolis-based insurer raised its forecast for the full year as its performance in the second quarter outperformed expectations. Even though COVID-19 cases continue to rise due to the delta variant and non-COVID-19 care resumes, Anthem’s medical loss ratio of 86.8% came in below company and analyst expectations.”

Healthcare Dive further reports that “Americans’ medical debt may have reached $140 billion last year, significantly higher than past estimates and outweighing all other types of personal debt in the U.S., according to a new study published in JAMA. Researchers analyzed a tenth of all credit reports from rating agency TransUnion to find nearly one in five Americans had medical debt in collections in June last year — more than any other type. Debt was significantly more concentrated in states that had yet to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. The analysis reflects care provided prior to COVID-19, but early data shows the pandemic has likely only exacerbated the perennial issue of medical debt in the U.S.” The FEHBlog is surprised that one decade into the Affordable Care Act this issue has not diminished.

In another downbeat but important story, AHIP tells us that “price gouging on COVID-19 tests by certain providers continues to be a widespread problem, threatening patients’ ability to get the testing they need.”

The FEHBlog also ran across the following three interesting articles in Forbes:

  • “Most hospital executives will say it’s impossible to run a business on Medicare rates. The government health insurance program for seniors pays less for services than it costs to deliver them and private insurance has to make up the difference. But Eren Bali doesn’t buy the cost-shifting argument. The serial entrepreneur who grew up in rural southeast Turkey believes the issue isn’t the rates but an outdated system using old technology. “There’s so much waste because providers are so used to charging through the roof in this country, they’ve never thought about being efficient,” says Bali, 37, the CEO and cofounder of Carbon Health.” This article is a day brightener.
  • “UnitedHealth Group is rolling out an increasing number of partnerships to “address health equity challenges” across the U.S.” The article adds that “UnitedHealth’s effort comes as the company and rivals including Anthem, CVS Health’s Aetna health plan unit, Humana and others address social determinants of health as insurers intensify strategies to reduce costs and improve outcomes beyond covering traditional medical treatments.”
  • “The coronavirus pandemic forced many hospitals to confront an uncomfortable truth: they were sitting on troves of patient data but, despite tens of millions of dollars spent on electronic health records and IT infrastructure, couldn’t extract useful insights to help treat the virus ravaging the wards. This experience was the tipping point that pushed a group of 17 hospitals to come together, including three new members announced this week, to raise $95 million for a startup called Truveta.” The article adds that “The aim of the company is to enable hospitals to monetize patient data that has been de-identified in ways that may both improve existing treatments and develop new ones. With the addition of Texas-based Baylor Scott & White Health, Maryland-based MedStar Health and Texas Health Resources, the hospital-governed Truveta now says it represents organizations that provide 15% of patient care in the United States. The Seattle, Washington-based startup is helmed not by a veteran of the healthcare world, but by former Microsoft executive Terry Myerson, who’s better known for his work on Windows and Xbox.”

Welcome Director Ahuja

OPM Headquarters a/k/a the Theodore Roosevelt Building

OPM’s new Director Kiran Ahuja was sworn in today. Here is a link to the OPM press release on the festivities.

Health Payer Intelligence informs us that “The Alliance of Community Health Plans (ACHP) has proposed a number of recommendations to improve the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) program’s plan comparison tool in order to boost quality and enrollment, according to a recent issue brief.” ACHP’s action is timely because OPM has been focusing attention on the plan comparison tool in consultation with interested carriers and presumably other stakeholders.

According to a Committee press release, “The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government today approved by voice vote its fiscal year 2022 bill. [This is the bill that funds OPM and the FEHB.] For fiscal year 2022, the draft bill includes $29.1 billion in funding, an increase of $4.8 billion over 2021.” 

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R Iowa) announced

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) today joined Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) to introduce the Drug-price Transparency for Competition (DTC) Act, a bill that would require price disclosures on advertisements for prescription drugs, in order to empower patients and reduce spending on medications. Last week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report – requested by Durbin and Grassley – which found direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertisements of prescription drugs contribute to an enormous amount of Medicare costs. Specifically, the DTC Act would require DTC advertisements for prescription drugs and biological products to include a disclosure of the list price, so that patients can make informed choices when inundated with drug commercials. 

Speaking of drug prices, let’s take a look at recent news on the new Alzheimer’s Disease drug, Aduhelm.

  • Yesterday, Biogen issued a bulleted defense of its pricing, which is $56,000 annually per patient. STAT News points out “For families and physicians grappling with the historic approval this month of the controversial Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm, there’s no shortage of unanswered questions. But a critical one has largely been overlooked: Once patients start taking the medication, how will they know when it’s time to stop? “We don’t have any guidance on how long to give this medication to someone who doesn’t experience adverse events,” said William Mantyh, a behavioral neurologist at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center. “With a drug like aducanumab where the upfront demonstrated efficacy is up in the air, it really makes it hard for a clinician to figure out when to stop the drug based on a patient’s clinical symptoms.”
  • Axios interviewed AHIP CEO Matt Eyles on Aduhelm pricing. In response to an Axios question on acceptable pricing, Mr. Eyles responded that “The best information we have is what [the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review] puts out.” ICER stated on June 7 that “At the ICER public meeting on aducanumab on July 15, 2021, we will tackle important questions [about Aduhem] with all stakeholders at the table. We will also address the question of fair pricing for a drug that now seems likely to become one of the top selling drugs in the history of the United States. ICER’s preliminary draft report calculated a fair annual price to lie between $2,500-$8,300. Even in our most optimistic cost-effectiveness scenario — which ignores the contradictions within the two pivotal trials and presumes that only the positive trial captures the true benefits of treatment — aducanumab’s health gains would support an annual price between $11,100-$23,100. The list price of $56,000 per year announced today by the drug maker far exceeds even this optimistic scenario. Our report notes that only a hypothetical drug that halts dementia entirely would merit this pricing level. The evidence on aducanumab suggests that, at best, the drug is not nearly this effective. Nonetheless, even at the lower range of the estimated number of eligible patients, at this price the drug maker would stand to receive well in excess of $50 billion per year even while waiting for evidence to confirm that patients receive actual benefits from treatment.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that “Eli Lilly & Co. plans to submit its Alzheimer’s drug for market clearance under an expedited review this year, in a sign that regulators are encouraging development of treatments for the disease after a recent approval. Lilly said Thursday that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had designated the company’s experimental Alzheimer’s drug, called donanemab, for the agency’s accelerated approval process. The FDA decision comes after the agency cleared Biogen Inc.’s Aduhelm, the first Alzheimer’s therapy to receive approval in nearly two decades but one that has drawn criticism from doctors and researchers skeptical the drug works. * * * Donanemab performed better in a trial than Biogen’s drug did in its trials, and health insurers and patients would probably prefer it over Aduhelm, J.P. Morgan analyst Chris Schott said in a note to investors.“Donanemab’s approval would be a major blow to Aduhelm’s commercial prospects,” Brian Skorney, a Robert W. Baird & Co. analyst, said in a research note. “We think it would make zero sense for FDA to approve Aduhelm, but not donanemab.” Ah, competition.

In other drug pricing news, Fierce Healthcare tells us that

Cigna is launching a new program that aims to incentivize eligible members to switch to biosimilar drugs.

Under the new Shared Savings Program, members will be offered a one-time $500 debit card for healthcare services or medications if they make the decision to switch to a biosimilar, according to an announcement provided first to Fierce Healthcare.

The program will be made available first to [approximately 7,000] eligible patients taking Remicade, a brand-name biologic that treats a number of inflammatory conditions such as Crohn’s disease and psoriasis. Remicade infusion costs can vary, but Cigna claims data suggest the average regimen costs $30,000 per year, with expenses growing depending on the site of administration.

Two biosimilars for the drug, Avsola and Inflectra, will be moved to the insurer’s preferred tier in July. Eligible customers and their providers will be notified by Cigna about their eligibility to participate in the Shared Savings Program in the coming weeks, the insurer said.

In COVID-19 news —

  • Fierce Biotech reports that “The FDA green-lit its first antibody test that doesn’t use blood samples to check for evidence of a COVID-19 infection and instead relies on simple, painless mouth swabs. Developed by Diabetomics, the rapid, lateral-flow diagnostic received an agency emergency authorization allowing it to be used at the point of care for adults and children. Designed to deliver a result within 15 minutes, the CovAb test also does not require any additional hardware or instruments. When administered at least 15 days after the onset of symptoms, when the body’s antibody response reaches higher levels, the test demonstrated a false-negative rate of less than 3% and a false-positive rate of nearly 1%, according to the company.” 
  • The New York Times reports that the Baltimore Maryland factory that had been producing the single dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine remains shuttered which Congress investigates its owner Emergent Biosolutions.
  • The NIH Director’s blog informs us about new NIH research on how Immunity generated from COVID-19 vaccines differs from an Infection. “The good news so far is that, unlike the situation for the common cold, we have now developed multiple COVID-19 vaccines. The evidence continues to suggest that acquired immunity from vaccines still offers substantial protection against the new variants now circulating around the globe. The hope is that acquired immunity from the vaccines will indeed produce long-lasting protection against SARS-CoV-2 and bring an end to the pandemic. These new findings point encouragingly in that direction. They also serve as an important reminder to roll up your sleeve for the vaccine if you haven’t already done so, whether or not you’ve had COVID-19. Our best hope of winning this contest with the virus is to get as many people immunized now as possible. That will save lives, and reduce the likelihood of even more variants appearing that might evade protection from the current vaccines.” Amen to that.

In a bit of Thursday miscellany

  • Patient Engagement reports that “Optum is bringing healthcare right into Utah’s backyard, rolling out a new Optum Mobile Health Clinic to improve care access for individuals in Optum Care Network Utah. The mobile health clinic, a 45-foot-long vehicle with two private exam rooms, a waiting room, and an imaging lab, is set to address the leading care access barriers experienced by Utahns.” Well done.
  • A friend of the FEHBlog called his attention to the NIH report on an engaging study suggesting scientists may need to rethink which genes control aging.