Monday Roundup

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.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

The Senate Press Gallery informs us from today’s proceedings

12:22 p.m. Majority Leader Schumer announced that due to Senators Booker and Peters having family illnesses the cloture vote on the Ahuja nomination [to be OPM director] is delayed; and moved the Senate to a period of morning business.

It looks like the Majority Leader is concerned about a close vote. The FEHBlog will continue tracking and best wishes to the Booker and Peters families for speedy recoveries.

Federal Times reports that “Federal employees can enroll, re-enroll or change their flexible spending account coverage during the month of June, as the Office of Personnel Management announced June 14 that it authorized a special enrollment period as part of provisions outlined in the Consolidated Appropriations Act and the American Rescue Plan.”

The Federal Times adds

Because the Consolidated Appropriations Act authorized unlimited carryover of FSA funds for 2020 and 2021, feds that didn’t re-enroll in an FSA plan for 2021 but had remaining money left in their accounts in 2020 may wish to use the special enrollment period to reopen their accounts and gain access to those carried over funds.

The new flexibilities for the 2020 and 2021 plan years also allow enrollees with dependents who would have normally aged out of the program to continue to use those funds until the child is 14, rather than 13, and the government approved hand sanitizer and masks as FSA medical expenses.

In the tidbits department

  • STAT News informs us that “Amazon has made its FDA-cleared Covid-19 test available to consumers online, alongside a consumer diagnostics website where people can view their results. The consumer diagnostics website, AmazonDx.com, was previously only available to Amazon employees. As of Tuesday, however, it appears any customer can sign into the site using the same login information they use to access the shopping portion of the tech giant’s website.  Amazon received FDA authorization for the at-home test kit in May.”
  • Fierce Healthcare tells us that “A JAMA Internal Medicine study is the latest in a string of analyses revealing hospitals’ frequent noncompliance with a new federal mandate requiring them to post prices for medical services. Published Monday, the study found that, as of early March, 83 out of 100 randomly sampled hospitals were noncompliant with at least one of the major requirements of a new rule from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). This decreased slightly to 75 in a parallel review of the country’s 100 highest-revenue hospitals.
  • Healthcare Dive reports that “Humana is acquiring home-based services provider One Homecare Solutions from a private equity firm to beef up its at-home care offerings, as a growing number of payers foray into direct medical delivery. The acquisition of Miramar, Florida-based One Homecare, which does business as Onehome, follows Humana’s decision to snap up home health giant Kindred at Home for $5.7 billion and is meant to boost the insurer’s value-based home health strategy. Financial terms of the deal, expected to close in the second quarter of this year, were not disclosed.”
  • Healthcare Dive also reports that About half of physicians and even more patients said the U.S. healthcare system discriminates against people a great deal, a good amount or somewhat, according to a survey out Tuesday from the nonpartisan research group NORC at the University of Chicago. Patients’ trust in their primary doctor rises with age and income, though 12% of respondents said they have been discriminated against by a healthcare facility, and Black patients were twice as likely to report being discriminated against than White patients, the report found. But 81% of physicians gave their employers either an A or B grade for their efforts to address health equity, and said they’re optimistic their system will improve diversity and equity in the next five years.
  • Health Payer Intelligence discusses “six expectations employers have for provider care coordination Employers are looking for greater price transparency, reduced overtreatment, and improved patient experience, and overall better care coordination from their provider partners.”
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that “A national charity will for the first time buy medical debt, totaling $278 million, directly from hospitals, a push to speed financial relief to patients, many of whom shouldn’t have been billed at all under the hospitals’ financial-aid policies. RIP Medical Debt, which uses donations to wipe out unpaid medical bills, has reached a deal with nonprofit Ballad Health, a dominant hospital system in Tennessee and Virginia, to buy debt owed by 82,000 low-income patients. Many likely qualified for free care under Ballad’s policy but didn’t get it, executives at Ballad involved in the agreement said. The patients lacked applications, they said. RIP Medical Debt will abolish the total amount and is expected to notify households of the debt relief this month. Some bills are 10 years old.” Bravo.

In the OPM rule making agenda department, here are three more found in last Friday’s semi-annual regulatory agenda.

  • OPM is engaged in joint rule making with HHS to implement a provision of Consolidated Appropriations Act Division BB that Congress did not apply to the FEHB. “This joint rule with HHS would implement the prescription drug reporting requirements that apply to group health plans and health insurance issuers offering coverage in the group and individual markets under section 204 of the No Surprises Act.” OPM already has created aggregated pharmacy data reporting requirements for FEHB carriers.
  • OPM is engaged in joint rule making with HHS on the provider non-discrimination provision of the ACA Section 2706. While this law does apply to the FEHB, it’s unusual that OPM is teaming up with HHS to craft the rule.
  • OPM is engaged in a joint rule making with HHS on reporting requirements related to air ambulance and agent and broker services and HHS enforcement provisions under Division BB of the CAA 2021. OPM does need to create rules on air ambulance reporting related to the No Surprises Act.

Weekend update

Photo by Michele Orallo on Unsplash

The House of Representatives and the Senate will be engaged in Committee business and floor voting this coming week. The Senate’s Executive Calendar states that

Ordered, That at 5 p.m. on Monday, June 14, 2021, the Senate proceed to executive session to resume consideration of the nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson, of the District of Columbia, to be United States Circuit Judge for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Ordered further, That at 5:30 p.m., all post-cloture time expire.

Ordered further, That following disposition of the Jackson nomination the cloture motions with respect to the nominations of Lina M. Khan, of New York, to be a Federal Trade Commissioner for the unexpired term of seven years from September 26, 2017 and Kiran Arjandas Ahuja, of Massachusetts, to be Director of the Office of Personnel Management for a term of four years, ripen.

Ordered further, That with respect to the motions to invoke cloture on Kahn and Ahuja nominations, the mandatory quorum calls required under Rule XXII be waived.

Ordered further, That if any of the nominations are confirmed, the motions to reconsider be considered made and laid upon the table and the President be immediately notified of the Senate’s actions. (Jun. 10, 2021.)

The FEHBlog will continue to keep an eye on Ms. Ahuja’s nomination.

Here’s a link to the Blue Cross FEP website for its COVID-19 vaccination incentive. FedSmith has a complete report on his experience with the new program.

Fierce Healthcare reports that

More than 96% of U.S. physicians have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19, with no significant difference in vaccination rates across regions, according to a new survey from the American Medical Association (AMA).

Of the physicians who are not yet vaccinated, an additional 45% do plan to get vaccinated, the AMA survey data (PDF) shows. The most common reason for not receiving the vaccine was that it was too new and has unknown long-term effects, according to physician responses.

The national AMA survey polled 300 physicians, including primary care doctors and specialists, between June 3-8. It’s the first survey to specifically collect data on practicing physicians’ COVID-19 vaccination rates, according to the AMA.

The survey results show an increase of more than 20% for physicians who have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19 compared to a May 2021 Medscape poll, AMA said.

“Practicing physicians across the country are leading by example, with an amazing uptake of the COVID-19 vaccines,” said AMA President Susan R. Bailey, M.D. in a statement.

In other encouraging news, the Wall Street Journal reports

The proportion of Covid-19 laboratory tests that are coming back positive is at the lowest recorded point since the pandemic took hold in the U.S., a sign of progress as the country moves ahead with reopening. * * *

The proportion of tests coming back positive has been consistently falling since April this year and is now at the lowest point since March 2020, the furthest back the Johns Hopkins data are available.

The low positivity rate [2%] is a signal that the drop in infections is really due to less disease in the country rather than because the U.S. is testing less for the virus, according to epidemiologists. It is another indication of how the U.S. is gaining ground against the Covid-19 pandemic, along with declining case counts, hospitalizations and deaths

“It’s a true reflection of a decrease in overall circulation in the U.S.,” said Anne Rimoin, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. “But we still do have pockets where we’re seeing transmission of the virus, and we need to be careful.”

NBC News adds that “There are only three Covid-19 patients at Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital at North Shore University Hospital, on Long Island, New York — a far cry from when the hospital, which is part of Northwell Health, had as many as 600 patients during the peak of the pandemic. All three patients, who are in the intensive care unit, have one thing in common, said Dr. Hugh Cassiere, director of the hospital’s critical care services: They’re unvaccinated. The trend appears to be occurring at hospitals nationwide. “I haven’t had anyone that’s been fully vaccinated become critically ill,” said Dr. Josh Denson, a pulmonary medicine and critical care physician at Tulane University Medical Center in New Orleans.”

As the FEHBlog mentioned in Friday’s post, the federal government’s semi-annual regulatory agenda was posted on June 11. Over the course of this week, the FEHBlog will highlight the FEHB rule makings. Of note

OPM proposes to amend the Federal Employees Health Benefits Acquisition Regulation (FEHBAR) to update reporting requirements for health insurance carriers providing benefits through the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) Program. In the course of business, FEHB carriers collect pharmacy, enrollment, provider, person-specific medical and pharmacy claims, or in the case of managed care plans, encounter data related to enrollees and family members in order to provide healthcare coverage to those individuals. Under this proposed regulation, FEHB carriers would be required to submit this information to OPM, related to all benefits and services provided under the Program, on no less than an annual basis. This rule clarifies the requirements for FEHB carriers to furnish such reasonable reports, pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 8910, to better enable OPM, as a health oversight agency, to obtain the information necessary for proper administration of the FEHB Program.

View Rule (reginfo.gov) OPM first proposed to create an FEHB identifiable claims data warehouse in 2010. In 2015 OPM reported a massive data breach. Logically OPM should have backed off the idea of an FEHB identifiable claims data warehouse because that would be such an attractive target for hackers. It didn’t; OPM proposed an FEHB rule to create the identifiable claims data warehouse in September, 2019, and the rule making died at the Office of Management and Budget review stage three months later. OPM now has decided to take another bite at the apple; this time with an acquisition regulation.

OPM also has its own No Surprises Act rule making which includes the independent dispute resolution processes. 

This interim final rule with comment would implement additional protections against surprise medical bills under the No Surprises Act, including provisions related to the independent dispute resolution processes. 

New Section 8902(p) of the FEHB Act requires OPM to implement certain No Surprises Act provisions in the FEHB carrier contracts and to extend corollary obligations on healthcare providers by rule making. OPM states that this rule has a statutory deadline of October 1, 2021. HHS also is scheduled to release Part II of its No Surprises Act interim final rule making by the same date. The FEHBlog noted last week that Part I of that HHS rule making which has a statutory deadline of July 1, 2021, is pending OMB review.

Midweek Update

President Biden announced today that June will be a month of action to encourage COVID-19 vaccinations in the U.S. The President has set a goal of 70% of adult Americans having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Independence Day. As of today we are 62.9% according to the CDC. The fact sheet on the announcement lists many private-public efforts underway to provide convenient access to and incentivize people receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

The FEHBlog ran across today a CDC COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy map of our country. The New York Times adds that

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that about a third of unvaccinated adults were unsure whether insurance covered the new vaccine and were concerned they might need to pay for the shot. The concern was especially pronounced among Hispanic and Black survey respondents.

“The conversations we have are like: ‘Yes, I know it’s good. Yes, I want it, but I don’t have insurance,’” said Ilan Shapiro, medical director of AltaMed, a community health network in Southern California that serves a large Hispanic population. “We’re trying to make sure everyone knows it’s free.”

The confusion may represent a lack of information, or skepticism that a bill won’t follow a visit to the doctor. Liz Hamel, director of survey research at Kaiser, said it could reflect people’s experience with the health system: “People may have heard it’s available for free, but not believe it.”

The FEHBlog is concerned that, notwithstanding encouraging press accounts last week, the Food and Drug Administration and Emergent Biosolutions have not yet reached an agreement allowing Emergent to resume manufacturing the one dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine at its Baltimore, MD plant. Kaiser Health News projects no shipments of the one dose vaccine next week (June 7). It seems to the FEHBlog that the one dose vaccine is best suited for pop-up vaccination sites. Hopefully, distribution will resume soon.

Yesterday the FDA issued

safety communication to warn the public to stop using the Lepu Medical Technology SARS-CoV-2 Antigen Rapid Test Kit and the Leccurate SARS-CoV-2 Antibody Rapid Test Kit (Colloidal Gold Immunochromatography) because the FDA has serious concerns about the performance of the tests and believes there is likely a high risk of false results when using these tests. Neither test has been authorized, cleared, or approved by the FDA. The FDA has identified this issue as a class I recall, which is the most serious type of recall. The FDA is aware that these unauthorized tests were distributed to pharmacies to be sold for at-home testing by consumers, as well as offered for sale directly to consumers.

Importantly, HealthDay reports that COVID-19 does not pose a threat to the safety of the United States’ blood supply under existing donor screening guidelines, researchers report.

In FEHB news, the National Federation for the Blind announced on May 19 that

Under a consent decree entered in federal court in the Northern District of Illinois last week [May 13], the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has agreed to take steps to ensure that health benefit information is accessible to blind federal employees, retirees, and other plan participants.

The consent decree resolves a lawsuit brought in 2019 by Jamal Mazrui, a retired blind federal employee, and the National Federation of the Blind, America’s civil rights organization of the blind.

Among other steps, OPM will ensure that health-benefit information on opm.gov is accessible and will notify all providers of federal employee health benefits that they must make their own federal employee benefits websites and mobile apps accessible or face potential consequences to their contracts.

For more details, here’s a link to consent decree which advises FEHB plan carriers to expect an OPM carrier letter on the settlement this month. With regard to timing the consent decree states (pp. 8 – 9) that

The carrier letter will utilize a phased-in approach, instructing carriers to either submit a certification that the Carrier FEHB Electronic Content on their websites and mobile applications is conformant with WCAG 2.0 AA or submit work plans pursuant to which (in the absence of any relevant legal exception(s)), logins, secure messaging, Explanations of Benefits, and ID cards would be conformant with WCAG Requirements by January 1, 2023, with a requirement of full conformance of the carrier’s Carrier FEHB Electronic Content with WCAG 2.0 AA on their mobile applications and their websites by January 1, 2024.

America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) has “announced a refreshed brand and updated mission that better aligns with its work, goals, and commitments. Moving forward, the industry trade association will go simply by AHIP. The organization has also unveiled a new logo, conveying a more modern, more inclusive and even more active AHIP, along with a new tagline: Guiding Greater Health. AHIP believes that health insurance providers play a critical role in making health care better and coverage more affordable and accessible for everyone. Its new mission and brand reflect AHIP’s commitment to innovation, solutions, equity and delivering results for every patient in every community.” Good luck.

In an encouraging medical test development, MedPage Today reports that

A simple blood test, coupled with brief memory tests, showed who will develop Alzheimer’s disease in the future with a high degree of accuracy.

Combining plasma phosphorylated tau (p-tau), APOE genotype, and scores from 10-minute executive function and memory tests predicted Alzheimer’s disease onset within 2 to 6 years among people with memory complaints with 90% certainty, reported Oskar Hansson, MD, PhD, and Sebastian Palmqvist, MD, PhD, both at Lund University in Sweden, and colleagues.

When dementia experts examined the same patients, they were about 71% accurate, the researchers noted in Nature Medicine. * * *

As of now, it’s been tested only on patients who have been examined in memory clinics, he added. “Our hope is that it will also be validated for use in primary healthcare as well as in developing countries with limited resources.”

The Society for Human Resource Management points out four take aways from last week’s EEOC guidance to employers about COVID-19 vaccination inquiries and incentives.

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 21st week of this year (beginning April 2, 2020, and ending May 26, 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 significantly exceeds new deaths. Accordingly here is a chart of new COVID-19 deaths over the period (April 2, 2020, through May 26, 2021):

Finally here is a COVID-19 vaccinations chart over the period December 17, 2020, through May 26, 2021 (five months) which also uses Thursday as the first day of the week:

The Centers for Disease Control observes that “COVID-19 cases and deaths in the United States have dropped to their lowest levels in nearly a year, and the number of people vaccinated continues to grow. As of May 27, 2021, nearly 133 million people in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, and the national percentage of COVID-19 tests that came back positive over the last 7 days was less than 3%”

Also on the COVID-19 vaccine front, Healthcare Dive reports that

Federal equal employment opportunity laws do not prohibit policies requiring that all employees who physically enter a workplace receive a COVID-19 vaccination, so long as such policies comply with the reasonable accommodation provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act as well as other applicable laws, according to technical assistance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission updated May 28.

Title VII and the ADA require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who, because of a disability or a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance, do not get vaccinated for COVID-19, unless providing an accommodation would pose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business, EEOC said. Employers with such a requirement also may need to respond to allegations that the requirement has a disparate impact on, or disproportionately excludes, an employee based on protected characteristics including age, race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

Employers also may offer incentives to employees to voluntarily show documentation or confirmation that they have received a COVID-19 vaccine, but the agency outlined some limits in the event that employers are incentivizing employees to voluntarily receive a vaccine administered by an employer or its agent. An employer may offer an incentive to employees to provide documentation or other confirmation from a third party not acting on the employer’s behalf, such as a pharmacy or health department, that employees or their family members have been vaccinated.

In other news —

  • Today, the President released his Fiscal Year 2022 U.S. budget. Here is a link to the Office and Management and Budget’s fact sheet. OPM’s budget information may be found beginning on page 1211 of the Appendix.
  • Yesterday, the Milliman consulting firm released its 2021 Medical Index. Peering into its crystal ball, Milliman states that “We project healthcare costs will grow by approximately 8.4% for the MMI family from 2020 to 2021. This rate, driven by a forecasted rebound in healthcare utilization, is higher than historical healthcare cost increases and gross domestic product (GDP) growth over the past five years.”
  • Healthcare Dive informs us that “Despite the financial turmoil COVID-19 wrought on U.S. medical practices over the past year, physician income has remained relatively steady, according to a new survey by the Medical Group Management Association. The survey — which included 185,000 providers among more than 6,700 physician-owned and hospital-owned practices — concluded they experienced flat or modest income growth in 2020. While compensation for primary care physicians — traditionally one of the lowest-paid specialties — grew, most specialist physicians either experienced small bumps or decreases in their income. Many medical specialties also experienced a decrease in patient encounters last year — a nearly inevitable outcome after many elective procedures were postponed in order to keep hospital capacity low enough to treat COVID-19 patients. However, the MGMA survey concluded that most practices saw patient volumes return to normal by mid-summer of 2020. Analysts predict the trend will continue to grow in 2021.” Agreed.
  • Recycle Intelligence informs us that “Hospital revenue, volumes, and margins increased in April 2021 both year-to-date and year-over-year, but have a long way to go in terms of COVID-19 recovery, according to a report by health care consulting firm Kaufman Hall. Despite the increases, hospital financial performance is down compared to last month.”
  • Last but not least, the Wall Street Journal reports that “A pathbreaking pill for lung cancer from Amgen Inc. was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, adding a new potential blockbuster to the biotech giant’s aging stable of drugs. The drug, called Lumakras, was approved Friday to treat a portion of lung cancer patients with a particular genetic mutation who have already tried other therapies. The mutation, known as KRAS, is among the most common found in cancers, but researchers struggled for so many years to find a medicine that can treat it that the mutation came to be considered ‘undruggable.’” Bravo. The Journal adds that “The company will charge $17,900 a month for the drug in the U.S., an Amgen spokeswoman said. Analysts project the drug could eventually ring up more than $1 billion in annual sales.”

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the COVID-19 front:

  • Beckers Hospital Review reports that

Of the more than 123 million people fully vaccinated as of May 17, just 1,949 breakthrough cases involving hospitalizations or death had been reported to the CDC. 

Three more [CDC] findings:

  • Ninety-three percent of cases involved hospitalizations. Of these, 25 percent involved people who were asymptomatic and hospitalized for reasons not related to COVID-19.
  • Eighteen percent of all reported cases were fatal. Of these deaths, 18 percent involved people who were asymptomatic and died for reasons unrelated to the virus. 
  • In total, 79 percent of all reported cases involved people aged 65 or older.

The new data comes after the CDC changed how it tracks breakthrough COVID-19 cases among fully vaccinated Americans. As of early May, the agency only monitors the most severe cases.

  • The New York Times’ Upshot column discusses opinions on how vaccinated parents can do in terms of socializing activities with children under 12 years of age, the minimum age threshold for COVID-19 vaccination,

As vaccinated Americans return to many parts of their prepandemic lives this summer, one group will be left out: children under 12, who cannot yet be vaccinated. So what should families with young children do when everyone else starts socializing again?

We asked experts as part of an informal New York Times survey. The group of 828 who responded included epidemiologists, who study public health, and pediatric infectious disease physicians, who research and treat children sick with diseases like Covid-19.

They noted that this phase was temporary. Pfizer has said vaccines for children ages 2 and up could come as soon as September. Of the survey respondents with young children, 92 percent said they would vaccinate their own children as soon as a shot was approved. (Only five said no; some were undecided.) In the meantime, families with young children may need to retain more precautions, like masking and distancing, than their childless friends do. But they said some minimally risky activities could help counteract the mental health effects of pandemic living.

  • David Leonhardt also in the New York Times believes that vaccination hesitancy is affecting the working class.

Public health experts believe that there are specific strategies that can narrow the vaccination divide [between classes].

One is information. About 25 percent of unvaccinated people remain unsure whether somebody who previously had Covid should still get the vaccine, according to Kaiser. The answer is yes: Almost everybody 12 and older should.

Another promising strategy is making shots even more convenient. Employers can help by hosting on-site vaccinations and giving workers paid time off — including the day after the shot for people who experience side effects. Drugstores and supermarkets can accept walk-ins, as some already do. Government officials can send mobile, walk-in clinics into more communities. (Text your ZIP code to 438829 — or text “VACUNA” for Spanish — and you’ll find your local options.)

“We’ve just got to remove all the barriers,” Brodie said.

Finally, friends and relatives can turn a vaccination into something more than just a shot. “Say, ‘Let’s do this together. Let’s do something, so if you get vaccinated, let’s grab dinner after. Let’s celebrate together,’” Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez, a New York pediatrician, told CNN.

  • A friend of the FEHBlog called attention to this American Psychology Association “Stress in America survey conducted in late February 2021 found 42% of U.S. adults reported undesired weight gain since the start of the pandemic, with an average gain of 29 pounds.” Whoa Nelly!
  • The FEHBlog’s dogs pointed out this American Hospital Association report that “a new study from researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and others suggests that people infected with COVID-19 have a distinct body odor that specially trained dogs can rapidly detect with up to 94.3% sensitivity and up to 92% specificity. The study found dogs could detect the odor on clothing samples from individuals, including those who were asymptomatic, had low viral loads and two different strains. The study has yet to be peer reviewed and replicated in real-world settings, but shows promise as a way to screen individuals for COVID-19 testing at airports and other public places, the authors said.” Man’s best friend indeed.

In a Monday mishmosh of other healthcare news

  • A Wall Street Journal reporter discusses her own postpartum illness that nearly resulted in another maternal death.

The U.S. has a maternal mortality rate double that of most other high-income countries, including Britain, Canada and Australia, according to the New York City-based Commonwealth Fund, a healthcare research foundation. The CDC says that about two-thirds of pregnancy-related deaths are preventable; factors include lack of access to care, delayed diagnoses and missed warning signs. Black women and those on Medicaid are disproportionately affected.

To help address this, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommended in 2018 that women have contact with their providers much sooner than six weeks—within three weeks after birth for low-risk women and sooner for women at higher risk of complications. (The roughly 30% of women who have cesarean sections sometimes already have a follow-up appointment after two weeks.)

The doctors who authored the 2018 recommendations said such a major change is challenging. “It is old habits. This is a huge culture shift,” said Tamika Auguste, chairwoman of Women’s and Infants’ services at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, who co-wrote the recommendations. My midwife said that in her two decades of practice, she has seen most women after about six weeks and found it effective.

Wouldn’t telehealth provide a Goldilocks solution here?

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists also supports in-home visits by a nurse in the days after birth, which is a standard practice in other high-income countries but isn’t always covered by insurance in the U.S. * * * Even doctors who support adding more care say it’s hard to find the right balance. “We don’t know how much contact or care that we need that would be beneficial,” said Mark Clapp, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

See above telehealth suggestion.

  • UPMC’s Health Plan has a created a virtual concierge for its members using Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Home Assistant.
  • The Pew Charitable Trust has released an interesting report on the impact of state No Surprise billing laws on healthcare costs.

Eighteen states have passed surprise billing laws since 2014, most of them in the past three years. Last year, former President Donald Trump signed a federal version that covers self-funded health plans, including those offered by many employers, as opposed to the individual and commercial health plans regulated by states.

The concerns stem from guidelines states have established to help impartial arbitrators resolve disputes between providers and insurance carriers over how much should be paid for surprise, out-of-network bills.

“An upward trend in payments for out-of-network care could push rates higher in in-network contracts,” health policy researchers at Georgetown University wrote in a blog post last month. “These costs, in turn, could push premium costs higher for employers and consumers.”

A healthy lifestyle can lower dementia risk, even among those with a family history of cognitive decline, according to a study presented Thursday during an American Heart Association conference held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This includes eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, not smoking or drinking alcohol to excess and maintaining good sleep habits and a healthy body weight, the researchers said during the Epidemiology, Prevention, Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health Conference.

Adults ages 50 to 73 who embrace at least three of the behaviors can reduce their dementia risk by 30%, the data showed.

Those with a family history of dementia who followed at least three of the behaviors had a 25% to 35% reduced risk for the condition compared to those who followed two or fewer.

  • The National Committee for Quality Assurance issued an illuminating blog post describing the digital changes taking place with its HEDIS healthcare quality measures which play an important role in OPM’s FEHB Plan Performance Assessment system.

Midweek Update

Photo by Mark Tegethoff on Unsplash

Govexec reports that at the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s business meeting today, the Committee advanced to the Senate floor the nominations of Kiran Ahuja to be OPM Director along party lines and the three nominations of Postal Service Governors with bipartisan margins. The FEHBlog expects these nominations to be brought to the Senate floor next month.

From the COVID-19 front:

  • The Wall Street Journal informs us that “Vaccines appear to be starting to curb new Covid-19 infections in the U.S., a breakthrough that could help people return to more normal activities as infection worries fade, public-health officials say. By Tuesday, 37.3% of U.S. adults were fully vaccinated against Covid-19, with about 2.7 million shots each day. * * * With the U.S. recently averaging at least 50,000 new daily cases, the pandemic is far from over. But the U.S. is nearing a nationwide benchmark of having 40% of adults fully vaccinated, which many public-health experts call an important threshold where vaccinations gain an upper hand over the coronavirus, based on the experience from further-along nations such as Israel.”
  • Today the Centers for Disease Control released a report on the mRNA vaccines. Here are the highlights which support the Journal’s report particularly as over 2/3s of Americans over age 65 are fully vaccinated.

Clinical trials suggest high efficacy for COVID-19 vaccines, but evaluation of vaccine effectiveness against severe outcomes in real-world settings and in populations at high risk, including older adults, is needed.

What is added by this report?

In a multistate network of U.S. hospitals during January–March 2021, receipt of Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines was 94% effective against COVID-19 hospitalization among fully vaccinated adults and 64% effective among partially vaccinated adults aged ≥65 years.

What are the implications for public health practice?

SARS-CoV-2 vaccines significantly reduce the risk for COVID-19–associated hospitalization in older adults and, in turn, might lead to commensurate reductions in post-COVID conditions and deaths.

  • The Wall Street Journal also reports that “Covid-19 tests for people to use to get quick results at home are finally becoming available to buy at pharmacies and retailers. Yet an obstacle might stand in the way of regular use: cost. * * * The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently cleared over-the-counter sales of two of these rapid at-home screening tests, one from Abbott Laboratories and another from Quidel Corp. 

Major pharmacies recently said they plan to sell a two-pack of Abbott’s test for nearly $24, while Walmart says it will charge just under $20. The price for Quidel’s test hasn’t been released, though Quidel has indicated it will be less than $30 for a pair.

“Twenty-five dollars for a Covid test, I think most people would pay that once. But would they pay it every week or every two weeks?” says Zoe McLaren, a health economist and an associate professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “It’s not designed to be a one-time cost.”

Dr. McLaren and medical-testing experts expressed hope that prices would drop if more companies get clearance to sell paper-strip tests. * * * Public-health authorities say they are glad to see the tests in stores, and the tests will be valuable tools for checking symptoms or for specific occasions, such as traveling or visiting relatives.

From the Medicare front

  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released yesterday a proposed fiscal year 2022 Medicare Part A inpatient prospective payment system rule. “The proposed increase in operating payment rates for general acute care hospitals paid under the IPPS that successfully participate in the Hospital Inpatient Quality Reporting (IQR) Program and are meaningful electronic health record (EHR) users is approximately 2.8 percent. This reflects the projected hospital market basket update of 2.5 percent reduced by a 0.2 percentage point productivity adjustment and increased by a 0.5 percentage point adjustment required by legislation.”
  • Healthcare Dive provides its perspective on the proposal which evidently was well received by the hospital industry. “[T]he American Hospital Association applaud[ed] the provision that removes the requirement that hospitals report privately negotiated rates with Medicare Advantage payers on Medicare cost reports and another that repeals market-based weight methodology for determining payments.”

On the FEHB front

  • FedSmith advises that “Federal employees facing a future with children aging out of TRICARE should consider enrolling in an FEHB policy. This is because FEHB plans provide coverage for children in the family option up to age 26. Additionally, the family FEHB premium for the employee, spouse, and children may be less than the cost of the TYA option for one individual. FEHB employees who are eligible for TRICARE and interested in having their children covered in an FEHB plan have to enroll during Open Season. Federal employees with TRICARE also need to enroll in a plan at least a year ahead of retirement for the FEHB plan to be continue in retirement.” Interesting.

On the artificial intelligence front, Forbes lists its top 50 AI companies to watch. Enjoy.

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.