Friday Stats and More

Friday Stats and More

Based on the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 14th week of 2020 through the second week of this year (beginning April 2, 2020 and January 13, 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 noted that the new cases and deaths chart shows a flat line for new weekly deaths  because new cases greatly exceed new deaths. Accordingly here is a chart of new COVID-19 deaths over the same period April 2, 2020 through January 13, 2021:

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

The CDC reports that as of today at 9 am roughly 10.6 million American have received one dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine and 1.6 million American have received both doses. 1.1 million doses of the vaccines were administered yesterday in total.

President-elect Biden announced additional members of his COVID-19 response team today, including

David Kessler, Chief Science Officer of COVID Response
David A. Kessler, M.D., who serves as a co-chair of the COVID-19 Task Force for President-elect Joe Biden, was the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration from 1990 to 1997, under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. 

Per the American Hospital Association, this role will assume the responsibilities of the current head of Operation Warp Speed.” Beckers Hospital Review informed us on January 13 that “Moncef Slaoui, PhD, chief advisor of Operation Warp Speed, submitted his resignation at the request of President-elect Joe Biden’s team, although he’ll stay on for another month to oversee the transition to the new administration, CNBC reported Jan. 12. To close the loop NPR reports that the Biden Administration plans to retire the Operation Warp Speed moniker.

Also on the COVID-19 vaccine front, the Wall Street Journal reports tonight that

If manufacturing projections previously put forth by companies hold up, Mr. Biden’s pledge to administer 100 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines during the first 100 days of his presidency should be possible, according to manufacturing and supply chain experts. But efforts to significantly ramp up vaccines and curtail spread of the virus will depend on state partnerships and public buy-in for some public health measures. * * *

The success of the vaccination push rests in part on available supplies and the ability of a workforce to provide shots. Mr. Biden’s plan seeks to address both challenges through the expanded use of the Defense Production Act and a call for letting more people, including retired medical professionals, administer vaccines with training. He would also expand the use of pharmacies to provide vaccines.

The federally backed community vaccination centers would involve the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Guard and state and local teams. The administration would use federal resources and its emergency contracting authority to help launch the centers.

Midweek Update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

Bloomberg reports that Johnson & Johnson now expects to receive Food and Drug Administration emergency use authorization for its single dose COVID-19 vaccination in late February or early March 2021 which is later than initially anticipated.

J&J’s vaccine offers advantages in ease of distribution and administration [over the currently authorized Pfizer and Moderna vaccines]. Health systems have been navigating relatively complex two-shot campaigns for vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. J&J’s shot will likely protect people with a single dose, and can be stored at refrigerator temperatures for three months; the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines must be frozen. Speaking Wednesday at a JPMorgan Healthcare Conference event, [Moncef] Slaoui said he expects the J&J shot to have 80% to 85% efficacy, surpassing the objective the company outlined in its clinical trial design.

Speaking of the virtual annual JPMorgan Healthcare Conference, the National Law Review reports on Day 1 of the conference here and Day 2 of the conference there. Take a gander at this interesting tidbit from Day 1

[Blue Shield of California CEO] Paul Markovich spoke to the need for real-time quality information that can result in real-time feedback and incentivization to physicians and other providers, rather than the costly and slow HEDIS pursuits we see today.  One health plan noted that it spends about $500 million a year going into physician offices looking at medical records for HEDIS pursuits, but the information is totally “in the rearview mirror” as it is too old when finally received and digested to allow for real-time treatment changes, improvement or planning.  Markovich suggested four initiatives (including the above, pay for value and shared decision making through better, more open data access) that he thought could save $100 billion per year for the country.  Markovich stressed that all of these four initiatives required a digital ecosystem and asked for help and partnership in creating one. He also noted that the State of California is close to creating a digital mandate and statewide health information exchange that could be the launching point for this exciting vision of data sharing and a digital ecosystem where the electronic health record is the beginning, but not the end of the healthcare data journey.

Health Payer Intelligence informs us that

The tension between payers and pharmaceutical companies over drug pricing has carried into 2021, as evidenced by a press release from America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) criticizing pharmaceutical companies for January 2021 drug pricing increases.

“Americans are being hurt by out-of-control drug prices, which are set and fully controlled by Big Pharma alone,” Matt Eyles, president and chief executive officer of AHIP, said in a related blog post.

“The incoming Biden-Harris administration should focus on bipartisan, workable solutions to protect patients, taxpayers, and all Americans from higher drug prices, especially in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.”

Meanwhile STAT News reports that

In an unexpected move, the high-profile billionaire [Mark Cuban] has launched the Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug Company, which its website says is “dedicated to producing low-cost versions of high-cost generic drugs” and claims that everyone will get the same low price for every drug it makes.

As part of its mission, the company pledged to provide “radical transparency” about its manufacturing, distribution, and marketing costs. The plan is to add a flat 15% margin to wholesale prices to ensure profitability, but Cuban also promised there will be no hidden costs, no middlemen, and no rebates available only to insurers.

“This is our first step towards taking on the pricing of generic drugs,” Cuban tweeted in announcing the company, which will start by producing a medicine to treat parasites, but plans to introduce more than 100 other medicines by the end of 2021. There are also plans to build a factory in Dallas by next year, according to its web site.

The article reminds us that

[In 2018] several large hospital systems form[ed] Civica Rx, a nonprofit that contracts with manufacturers to ensure sufficient supplies to hospitals across the U.S. The idea is to entice companies, which make injectable and infused medicines but have a minimum amount of sales, to ramp up investment in production. The Civica network, which began with $100 million in capital and loans from three philanthropic organizations, now has more than 50 health systems that represent more than 1,200 hospitals and over 30% of all licensed U.S. hospital beds. The nonprofit is also teaming with the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association and 18 of its health plans to supply copycat medicines and combat rising prices.

Bleeping Computer provides us with an update on the SolarWinds backdoor hack, including an explanation of how the hack was implemented and the hacker’s various malware strains.

A week ago, the FBI, CISA, and the NSA also disclosed in a joint statement that a Russian-backed Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) group is likely behind the SolarWinds hack.

“The U.S. government and many private-sector experts have stated the belief that a foreign nation-state conducted this intrusive operation as part of a widespread attack against America’s cyberinfrastructure,” SolarWinds CEO Sudhakar Ramakrishna said today.

“To date, our investigations have not independently verified the identity of the perpetrators.”

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Good news. The Wall Street Journal reports

The Trump administration is releasing second doses of coronavirus vaccines that were reserved for booster shots and is urging states to give the vaccine to anyone age 65 and older, as well as to people with pre-existing health conditions, a shift in strategy that vastly expands the pool of those eligible for shots while presenting another hurdle for the logistics of administering the vaccine at state and local levels.

Starting in two weeks, doses will be allocated based on the pace that states say they are administering the vaccine, as well as the size of a state’s population of people age 65 and older. 

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced the plan on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Tuesday. “We now believe that our manufacturing is predictable enough that we can ensure second doses are available to people from ongoing production. So everything is now available to our states and our health-care providers,” he said.

The government had been allocating about half of newly available doses from Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc. to states since the vaccine rollout began last month. Federal officials said there is enough supply to ensure booster shots will be available and that they won’t extend the current recommended dosing schedules.

Drug makers expect to be able to produce enough vaccine doses to accommodate the new plans, vaccine manufacturers and supply-chain experts say.

The Journal also explains that while scientists are confident that the COVID-19 vaccines will protect you from contracting the disease, they don’t know yet whether they will prevent you from spreading the disease asymptomatically.

“Most vaccines prevent disease as opposed to preventing infection,” says Anna Durbin, a professor of international health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who is working on the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine trial and previously worked on the Pfizer vaccine trial. She believes Covid vaccine studies will eventually show a reduction in asymptomatic transmission but not a complete elimination.

Even if vaccines don’t prevent transmission completely, they can still help populations achieve herd immunity if enough people take them, says Arnold Monto, an epidemiology professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health who chairs the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee. “We can still accomplish a lot even if it is demonstrated that there is still some asymptomatic infection occurring post-vaccination,” says Dr. Monto.

STAT News reports that the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association (“PCMA”) has asked the federal district court in DC to block a Trump Administration rule preventing the use of prescription drug manufacturer rebates in the Medicare Part D program. PCMA contends that the CMS rule impermissibly conflicts with a statutory exemption permitting the use of such rebates in Medicare Part D. Of course.

The Biden administration, which is set to take office on Jan. 20, could also choose not to defend the rebate policy in court, thus mooting the lawsuit.

Biden has not yet taken a position on eliminating drug rebates, but a number of prominent Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have spoken out against the policy as a ndout to the pharmaceutical industry.

Studies —

The death rate from cancer in the U.S. dropped 2.4% from 2017 to 2018, the biggest single-year decline on record and a sign of the impact of new treatments on lung cancer especially, the American Cancer Society said.

It was the second year in a row with a record-setting drop, and the progress continues gains that have been made for more than a quarter-century, the cancer society said in a report published Tuesday. The researchers analyzed cancer mortality data from 1930 to 2018, before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Overall, the cancer mortality rate has fallen 31% since its peak in 1991, according to the report, which was published online in the journal CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. The latest decline left the mortality rate at 149 deaths for every 100,000 people in the general population in 2018, according to the American Cancer Society.

Use of telehealth jumped sharply during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic shutdown, with the approach being used more often for behavioral health services than for medical care, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

Between mid-March and early May 2020, telehealth was used by more than 40% of patients with a chronic physical health condition and by more than 50% of those with a behavioral health condition, according to findings published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Overall, almost half of the people who were undergoing treatment when the pandemic shutdown began reported using some form of telemedicine.

Researchers found that the use of telehealth for behavioral health conditions was lower among women and among people over the age of 60. Use of telehealth also was lower among non-Hispanic whites relative to non-Hispanic Blacks, and was lower among those with less than a high school education relative to those with a college degree.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has released a COVID-19 Vaccine Toolkit for health insurance issuers and Medicare Advantage plans. The toolkit’s purpose is as follows:

CMS is committed to ensuring that the private health insurance industry has the necessary tools to respond to the COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE). As safe and effective COVID- 19 vaccines become available, CMS issued this toolkit to help health insurance issuers and Medicare Advantage plans identify the issues that need to be considered and addressed in order to provide coverage and reimbursement for vaccine administration. Because COVID-19 vaccines will be federally purchased, this toolkit primarily focuses on vaccine administration. CMS remains available to provide technical assistance to issuers, Medicare Advantage plans, and other stakeholders. This toolkit:
• Provides a list of operational considerations for issuers and Medicare Advantage plans as they design their approach to promoting COVID-19 vaccinations and information on how issuers and Medicare Advantage plans can communicate with providers and enrollees on vaccinations and coverage;
• Outlines legislative and regulatory provisions applicable to issuers that ensure that enrollees can receive a COVID-19 vaccine in a convenient setting, with no out-of-pocket costs;
• Encourages issuers and Medicare Advantage plans to implement streamlined processes to quickly administer COVID-19 vaccine coverage; and • Describes how issuers and Medicare Advantage plans can maximize the number of their enrollees who get vaccinated once a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available

Meanwhile the Centers for Disease Control have released facts sheets on what to expect after you receive your first dose of COVID-19 vaccine and how to improve ventilation in your house during the great hunkering down.

Benefits Pro reports that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is poised to release proposed rules addressing the level of incentives employers may lawfully offer to encourage employee participation in wellness programs that require disclosure of medical information. “

Because the {Americans with Disabilities Act] ADA and [Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act] GINA do not define “voluntary,” the NPRM proposes that in order to comply with the acts, employers may offer no more than a “de minimis” incentive to encourage participation in wellness programs. The exception would be for “wellness programs that are part of, or qualify as, group health plans and that require employees to satisfy a standard related to a health factor to receive a reward or avoid a penalty,” according to the proposed rule under the ADA.

Under the GINA regulation, the proposed rule makes an exception that would allow incentives for genetic information “when a wellness program offers an employee an incentive in return for his or her family member providing information about the family member’s manifestation of disease or disorder.”

Weekend Update

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On January 7, 2021, the Secretary of Health and Human Services extended the COVID-19 public health emergency for another 90 days from January 21 until April 21, 2020. The COVID-19 testing mandate and emergency use authorizations used for the vaccines hinge on the existence of the public health emergency.

Speaking of which NPR reports that people in the U.S. are beginning to receive the booster doses of the COVID-19 vaccines.

Many health care workers and others at high risk who had the Pfizer shots in mid December lined up for their “booster” shot this week, due to be given 21 days after the initial dose. * * * So far, there don’t appear to be widespread problems with people missing their second dose, but experts say it’s still early and the feasibility of a two-shot mass vaccine effort will be tested in the coming weeks, especially as those who received the Moderna vaccine await their follow up shot, which comes 28 days after the first.

A opinion piece in Bloomberg further advises

Take a look at the pipelines of Moderna and BioNTech. They include drug trials for treating cancers of the breast, prostate, skin, pancreas, brain, lung and other tissues, as well as vaccines against everything from influenza to Zika and rabies. The prospects appear good.

Progress, admittedly, has been slow. Part of the explanation [BioNTech founders Drs.] Sahin and Tureci give is that investors in this sector must put up oodles of capital and then wait for more than a decade, first for the trials, then for regulatory approvals. In the past, too few were in the mood.

Covid-19, fingers crossed, may turbo-charge all these processes. The pandemic has led to a grand debut of mRNA vaccines and their definitive proof of concept. Already, there are murmurs about a Nobel Prize for Kariko. Henceforth, mRNA will have no problems getting money, attention or enthusiasm — from investors, regulators and policymakers.

That doesn’t mean the last stretch will be easy. But in this dark hour, it’s permissible to bask in the light that’s dawning

Friday Stats and More

Based on the CDC’s Cases in the U.S. website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 14th week of 2020 through 1st week of this year (beginning April 2, 2020, and ending January 6, 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 noted that the new cases and deaths chart shows a flat line for new weekly deaths  because new cases greatly exceed new deaths. Accordingly here is a chart of new COVID-19 deaths over the period April 2, 2020 through January 6, 2021.

Because this week the CDC began to update its COVID-19 vaccinations data on a daily basis the FEHBlog was able to create this vaccines distributed and initially administered over the 51st week of 2020 through the first week of 2021 (December 23, 2020 through January 6, 2021):

Over the past four daily reports, the number of initial COVID vaccines administered increased steadily from 273,209 doses on January 4 to 748,313 doses yesterday. Per the AMA’s Morning Rounds

USA Today (1/6, Weintraub) reports HHS Secretary Alex Azar told governors to vaccinate as many people against SARS-CoV-2 as possible and warned to not let “perfection be the enemy of the good,” referring to priority plans. Azar said that with up to 70% of distributed vaccines still on shelves, states should focus on vaccinating the most people rather than prioritizing certain groups.

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

UPI reports today that

At least half of COVID-19 transmission globally may have been caused by symptom-free infected people unknowingly spreading the virus to others, a study published Thursday by JAMA Network Open found.

In addition, nearly one in four cases of virus spread involves infected people who remain asymptomatic, the researchers estimated.

The findings highlight the importance of public health measures such as social distancing, mask-wearing and hand-washing — even for people who don’t feel sick — in preventing the spread of the virus, they said.

Mercer writes about the most pressing requirement of the Consolidated Appropriations Act – preparing and document comparative analyses to document compliance with the non-quantitative treatment limitations requirements under the federal mental health parity law. Mercer notes that

In case plan sponsors need more motivation to step up compliance efforts, we’re also seeing more litigation against plan sponsors and insurers alleging MHPAEA violations and breach of fiduciary duties under ERISA. In late 2020, in Wit v United Behavioral Health (UBH), a class action lawsuit ended with a decision by a federal court granting the plaintiffs the full extent of relief they requested and requiring UBH to reprocess nearly 67,000 mental health and substance use disorder (MH/SUD) benefit claims that were denied between 2011 and 2017. The federal court held that UBH breached its fiduciary duty to plan participants based on its use of overly restrictive medical necessity guidelines that resulted in the improper denial of more than 67,000 MH/SUD claims. This is just one example of the more than 100 lawsuits filed in the past several years alleging various MHPAEA and ERISA claims review violations relating to exclusions for ABA therapy, coverage for residential and other treatment facilities, medical necessity standards, and other items.

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

STAT News reports that “Nancy Messonnier, a top federal health official involved in the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, predicted on Tuesday [in an interview with STAT] that delays in the administration of the shots would improve soon.” (On the bright side, the CDC has begun to update its COVID-19 vaccinations site daily. Around 275,000 initial doses were administered yesterday.) Furthermore

During the discussion Tuesday, Messonnier said she hoped the supply of vaccine would expand greatly in the spring, a time when the shots could be made more widely available to the general public, not just people with certain jobs or health conditions. But making the vaccine is only one step: successfully inoculating the vast majority of the population will require major efforts to educate the public, to build out accessible sites where people can easily get vaccinated, and to ensure individual people show up when it’s their turn to get the shot.

Health Payer Intelligence updates on how three large payers “extended temporary COVID-19 benefits in 2021.” Technically the COVID-19 public health emergency period expires on January 21, 2021, but unquestionably the federal government will extend that period for another 90 days before then.

Under the Affordable Care Act, effective January 1, U.S. Preventive Services Task Force A and B recommendations made two years earlier become eligible for health plan in-network coverage with no member cost-sharing. If you pick out from the USPSTF list those recommendations that received an A or B grade in 2019, you will find ten recommendations that are eligible for “no additional cost” coverage in 2021. Fierce Healthcare provides insights into how health plan members can take advantage of one of those 2019 recommendations -“The USPSTF recommends that clinicians offer preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP) with effective antiretroviral therapy to persons who are at high risk of HIV acquisition.”

On the OPM front, Federal News Network lets us know that

Federal employees who forfeited vacation time in excess of the usual annual leave carryover limit at the end of 2020 may be able to get some of those days back for use later this year, thanks to a policy in the new annual defense authorization law. The Office of Personnel Management on Tuesday issued detailed guidance covering the new annual leave policy and instructed agencies to implement it.

On the mergers and acquisitions front —

  • Fierce Healthcare reports that “Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Tufts Health Plan officially combined Jan. 1. The deal, announced in August 2019, comes about a decade after the organizations attempted to merge in 2011. * * * The combined Massachusetts organization will serve 2.4 million members. Both the Tufts and Harvard Pilgrim brands will be in the market for a period of time, the organizations said.”
  • Healthcare Dive reports that health insurer “Centene has entered into a definitive agreement to acquire Phoenix, Arizona-based Magellan Health for $2.2 billion, or $95 per share, the payer said Monday. Magellan will operate independently under the Centene umbrella. Executives said the combination will result in one of the nation’s largest behavioral health platforms as the two will provide behavioral services to about 41 million members in the U.S. The deal also boosts Centene’s already established footprint in government sponsored health plans with the addition of 5.5 million lives and another 2.2 million to add to its pharmacy benefit management platform.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

Govexec.com provides an update on COVID-19 vaccine administration by federal agencies to their employees. A friend of the FEHBlog asked him today whether he knew how long it took for a COVID-19 to provide protection following the injection. Good question. The New York Times reported last week that “The protective effects of vaccines are known to take at least a couple of weeks to kick in.” To wit,

Data from Pfizer’s clinical trials suggests the vaccine might start safeguarding its recipients from disease around one or two weeks after the first injection. A second jab of mRNA, delivered three weeks after the first, helps immune cells commit the virus’s most prominent features to memory, clinching the protective process.

Biopharma Dive reports that “AbbVie raised the list prices of many of its drugs on Jan. 1, while Biogen hiked the price tag of its old multiple sclerosis treatment Tysabri, part of broad, sector-wide increases typically taken at the start of a new year. The hikes could feature in calls for drug pricing legislation as a new Congress and new administration begin work.” Timing is everything.

Here a few loose ends that have been tied up.

  • According to Healthcare Dive, “Haven, the high-profile, secretive venture to lower healthcare costs backed by Amazon, J.P. Morgan and Berkshire Hathaway, is suspending operations in February after three years, the company announced Monday. Haven caused waves when launched in 2018, with a lineup of notable hires from within the healthcare industry. However, the nonprofit, independent company is now closing with little concrete to show, hinting at the difficulty of reforming the complex insurance system and curbing rising costs in the deeply entrenched healthcare industry. Haven said in a statement on its website that Amazon, J.P. Morgan and Berkshire Hathaway would use the information it gained moving forward and continue working to create programs addressing the health needs of their combined 1.2 million employees. Shares of major U.S. insurers got a bump in Monday trading following the news, with UnitedHealthcare and Humana each climbing more than 2% since noon.”
  • According to Fierce Healthcare, “New York Life completed its acquisition of Cigna’s group life, accident and disability insurance businesses in a deal valued at $6.3 billion.” Cigna like CVS Health / Aetna has decided to focus its attention on healthcare.
  • Congress.gov reported today that the Senate has returned to the President his nomination of Craig Leen to be OPM Inspector General because the Senate failed to act on the nomination during the 116th Congress. The President may renew the nomination for the 117th Congress.

Thinking about the OPM Inspector General caused the FEHBlog to check to see whether the latest OPM Inspector General semi-annual report to Congress (period ended September 30, 2020) is online and by golly it has been posted right here. The lead article in the report discusses the impact of the COVID-19 public health emergency on the FEHBP. The management response to the Inspector General’s report is available here.

Saturday Stats and More

Based on the CDC’s Cases in the U.S. website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 14th through 52nd weeks of this year (beginning April 2 and ending December 30; 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 noted that the new cases and deaths chart shows a flat line for new weekly deaths  because new cases greatly exceed new deaths. Accordingly here is a chart of new COVID-19 deaths over the period (April 2 through December 30):

The CDC’s COVID-19 Vaccine tracker has not been updated since last Wednesday morning At that time roughly 2.8 million initial doses had been administered. The American Hospital Association and the American Medical Association have posted helpful information about the currently available COVID-19 vaccines. The Food and Drug Administration offers a comprehensive year end report.

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

The FEHBlog took a look at a couple of the hospital chain websites and could not find the price information required by the HHS hospital price transparency rule. However, FEP Blue, the largest FEHB plan, announced the availability of their FEP Cost Advisor Tool.

Today is the last day of the 116th Congress. The Wall Street Journal informs us that among the provisions in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, is the following

Flexible spending accounts. Many workers with FSAs that allow them to use pretax dollars to pay for unreimbursed health expenses (like glasses) or dependent-care expenses (like summer camp) didn’t use all the money in their 2020 accounts because of the pandemic. The IRS had limited ability to ease FSA rules, but Congress has now done so. 

Participants in such plans can carry over unused funds from 2020 to 2021 and 2021 to 2022, or for up to 12 months for companies with fiscal years. For dependent-care accounts, the law extends the age limit from 12 to 13 for some carried-over funds. For workers to take advantage of these changes, company plans must often opt into the new rules.

OPM typically does adopt such changes for FSAFeds.

Federal News Network reports that yesterday the Senate joined the House of Representatives in overriding the President’s veto of the FY 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. The Senate did not join the House in approving a $2000 direct stipend COVID relief proposal.

Federal News Network also reports that

With hours to spare before the new year, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Thursday night implementing a federal pay raise for civilian employees and military members in 2021. Civilian employees will receive a 1% across-the-board federal pay raise in 2021. There are no additional locality pay adjustments this year.

Weekend update

Photo by Clarisse Meyer on Unsplash

According to the Wall Street Journal, the House of Representatives will be voting tomorrow to override the President’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act, 2021 (H.R. 6395). Under the Constitution the voting threshold for an override is 2/3s of the body. If the House votes to override, the Senate will hold its vote on Tuesday.

Tomorrow December 28 is the deadline for the President to sign the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021 (H.R. 133) without an intervening government shutdown. Congress presented the bill to the President for his signature on Christmas Eve. The President has expressed his preference for a $2,000 direct stipend instead of the bill’s $600 stipend and opposition to certain foreign aid appropriations. The Hill reports that “A bipartisan group of lawmakers from both chambers of Congress on Sunday reissued their call for President Trump to sign a nearly $1 trillion COVID-19 relief package [which is part of H.R. 133]— or to immediately veto it.” The House likely will pass a separate bill with the $2000 stipend tomorrow.

P.S. The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post report Sunday night that the President has signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act into law, thereby releasing COVID-19 relief and avoiding a government shutdown. Tomorrow the FEHBlog will continue his discussion of the Affordable Care Act changes in this law.

Today December 27 is the effective date for health plan coverage of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to plan members under the CARES Act. Precision Vaccinations reports that the Centers for Disease Control released updated guidance on the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna mRNA based vaccines over the weekend. The widely used guidance states that

‘Until experts learn more about the protection that COVID-19 vaccinesprovide under real-life conditions, people who decide to get vaccinated should continue to follow all current guidance to protect themselves against COVID-19 after they are vaccinated.’

As of 9 am on December 26, the CDC reported that nearly 2 million first dose of one these vaccine have been administered to subgroup 1a — front-line healthcare workers and nursing home patients.

Govexec reports that frontline postal workers will receive the COVID-19 vaccine in subgroup 1b which currently is in the on deck circle.

The exact timing of the distributions for postal workers and the logistics of delivering the shots remain in flux and will be subject to availability and state plans. States are still in their initial Phase 1a distribution to frontline health care workers and nursing home residents. Unlike several other federal agencies such as the Veterans Affairs Department and Indian Health Service, USPS was not slated to receive its own distribution of doses to vaccinate employees directly. CDC’s advisory group recommended bringing vaccination sites close to workers such as those at the Postal Service to ensure ease of access.  

The FEHBlog mentioned hearing a Doctors on Demand medical director talking about the challenge in retaining mental health practitioners to handle the surge in telehealth requests for those services. The FEHBlog noted that this hub and spoke telehealth approach helpfully expands mental health provider networks for plan members.

Fierce Healthcare informs us about a research study concluding

The growth in telehealth [during the public health emergency] was not fueled by COVID-19 concerns but by visits for behavioral health issues and chronic conditions, according to a new study of Doctor On Demand data.

The largest increases in telemedicine visits during the COVID-19 pandemic were attributable to scheduled behavioral health appointments, such as therapy and psychiatry visits, and chronic illness visits, according to a peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research this month.

It is the FEHBlog’s hunch that garden variety med surg telehealth visits were conducted via direct connections between doctor and patient rather than via a hub and spoke service like Doctors on Demand. From a quality standpoint, it likely is better for the hub and spoke service to gap fill rather than serve as a primary care provider.