Midweek update

Midweek update

Thanks to Alexandr Hovhannisyan for sharing their work on Unsplash.

From the Omicron and siblings front —

The Wall Street Journal reports

The Biden administration has agreed to pay $3.2 billion for 105 million doses of Pfizer Inc.’s Covid-19 vaccine.

The deal would provide supplies for the federal government’s planned fall booster campaign, which administration officials are devising to blunt a potential wave in cases, possibly driven by variants of the Omicron strain now spreading across the U.S.

Under the deal, the federal government would have the option to buy 195 million additional doses, the Health and Human Services Department said Wednesday. Pfizer, which developed and makes the vaccine with partner BioNTech SE, would make whatever type of vaccine federal health regulators decide should be featured in the fall campaign.

The American Hospital Administration informs us

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response and Food and Drug Administration this week extended the shelf life for certain refrigerated lots of the COVID-19 combination monoclonal antibody therapies REGEN-COV and Evusheld. They extended the shelf life for REGEN-COV from 24 months to 30 months and the shelf life for Evusheld from 18 months to 24 months. FDA last year authorized the therapies for emergency use to prevent COVID-19 in certain adults and children. REGEN-COV is not currently authorized in any U.S. region because it is unlikely to be effective against the omicron variant and subvariants.

Health IT Analytics tells us “The National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) All of Us Research Program has announced that health data from 20,000 people who have had SARS-CoV-2 is now available to researchers in the US, expanding the program’s dataset to encourage the study of long COVID, social determinants of health (SDOH), and health disparities.”

Also, from the SDOH front, MedPage Today informs us

Maternal mortality rates substantially increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study using data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

After March 2020, maternal deaths increased by 33.3%, which was higher than the 22% overall excess death estimate expected to result from the pandemic, reported Marie Thoma, PhD, of the University of Maryland in College Park, and Eugene Declercq, PhD, of Boston University.

The rate of maternal deaths before the pandemic was 18.8 per 100,000 live births, which increased to 25.1 per 100,000 live births during the pandemic, the authors noted in a research letter published in JAMA Network Open. * * *

The largest increases were seen in Hispanic and Black women, which was in line with maternal mortality rates before the pandemic. Hispanic women saw a relative change of 74.2% (8.9 deaths per 100,000 live births), and Black women saw a 40.2% relative change (16.8 deaths per 100,000 live births), while white women saw a 17.2% relative change (2.9 deaths per 100,000 live births).

From the monkeypox front, the Department of Health and Human Services announced

an enhanced nationwide vaccination strategy to mitigate the spread of monkeypox.  The strategy will vaccinate and protect those at-risk of monkeypox, prioritize vaccines for areas with the highest numbers of cases, and provide guidance to state, territorial, tribal, and local health officials to aid their planning and response efforts.

Under the strategy, HHS is rapidly expanding access to hundreds of thousands of doses of the JYNNEOS vaccine for prophylactic use against monkeypox in areas with the highest transmission and need, using a tiered allocation system. Jurisdictions can also request shipments of the ACAM2000 vaccine, which is in much greater supply, but due to significant side effects is not recommended for everyone.  * * *

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices currently recommends vaccination for those at high risk following a confirmed monkeypox exposure. Given the large number of contacts and difficulty in identifying all contacts during the current outbreak, vaccine will now be provided to individuals with confirmed and presumed monkeypox exposures. This includes those who had close physical contact with someone diagnosed with monkeypox, those who know their sexual partner was diagnosed with monkeypox, and men who have sex with men who have recently had multiple sex partners in a venue where there was known to be monkeypox or in an area where monkeypox is spreading.

The American Hospital Association adds

CDC yesterday activated its Emergency Operations Center to monitor and coordinate the emergency response to monkeypox and mobilize additional CDC personnel and resources. The agency has expanded testing capacity for the virus since May 18, when the first U.S. case in the global outbreak was confirmed, to include up to 78 state public health laboratories and five commercial laboratory companies. As of June 28, 306 U.S. monkeypox cases have been reported

From the Dobbs case front

  • CNBC reports “CVS is removing its earlier purchase limit on emergency contraceptive pills. The chain said that ‘sales have since returned to normal and we’re in the process of removing the purchase limits.'”
  • HHS’s Office for Civil Rights announced “new guidance to help protect patients seeking reproductive health care, as well as their providers.”

In general, the guidance does two things:

1. addresses how federal law and regulations protect individuals’ private medical information (known as protected health information or PHI) relating to abortion and other sexual and reproductive health care – making it clear that providers are not required to disclose private medical information to third parties; and

2. addresses the extent to which private medical information is protected on personal cell phones and tablets, and provides tips for protecting individuals’ privacy when using period trackers and other health information apps.

According to recent reports, many patients are concerned that period trackers and other health information apps on smartphones may threaten their right to privacy by disclosing geolocation data which may be misused by those seeking to deny care. * * *

The guidance on the HIPAA Privacy Rule and Disclosures of Information Relating to Reproductive Health Care may be found at https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/privacy/guidance/phi-reproductive-health/index.html.

The guidance on Protecting the Privacy and Security of Your Health Information When Using Your Personal Cell Phone or Tablet may be found at https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/privacy/guidance/cell-phone-hipaa/index.html.

From the FDA front, BioPharma Dive identifies five FDA decisions to watch in the third quarter of 2022 which starts on Friday.

From the Affordable Care Act front, the Internal Revenue Service released a draft of the 2022 Form 1095-B which FEHB and other health plans offering minimum essential coverage must make available to their enrollees.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, MedPage Today reports on yesterday’s House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on the federal response to the drug overdose crisis. Both parties flogged the government agency witnesses. It’s worth reading. This epidemic merits more attention that Covid at this point in the FEHBlog’s view.

Nevertheless, from the Omnicron and siblings front

The Wall Street Journal reports

The easily spread Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants represent more than half of all U.S. Covid-19 cases, federal estimates showed, ramping up pressure as a spring surge stretches into summer. 

The two variants represented a combined 52% of cases for the week ended June 25, according to estimates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released on Tuesday. The variants were most prevalent—an estimated 60% of cases—in a five-state region that includes Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and New Mexico.

What’s more also per the Journal

Federal health authorities moved a step closer to authorizing modified Covid-19 booster shots that better target the Omicron variant and could be rolled out by the fall.

Vaccine advisers to the Food and Drug Administration, which includes doctors and public-health specialists, voted 19 to 2 to recommend updating Covid-19 vaccines to target the Omicron variant.

The recommendation, which the FDA doesn’t have to follow but often does, suggests the agency may go ahead and direct vaccine makers Pfizer Inc., its partner BioNTech SE and Moderna Inc. to proceed with plans to roll out modified boosters.

The vote didn’t specify whether the modified boosters should only target Omicron, or target both Omicron and the ancestral strain of the coronavirus, though several committee members said they preferred a dual-target approach. 

The vote also didn’t specify whether the modified shots should target more recent subvariants of Omicron now dominant in the U.S. * * *

Many members of the committee said they thought it should target the recent subvariants of Omicron, known as BA.4 and BA.5.

After the vote, Dr. Peter Marks, who heads the FDA’s vaccines division, said he took away from the meeting support for shots that target the ancestral strain as well as BA.4 and BA.5.

The options for a fall booster shot include sticking with current vaccines or using updated, Omicron-targeted vaccines that have shown promise in clinical studies. Another option: Use boosters that target more recent Omicron subvariants, including BA.4 and BA.5, but that haven’t been tested in people.

From the hospital systems front, the American Hospital Association informs us

U.S. hospitals and health systems continued to face difficult financial and operational headwinds in May, according to the latest report by Kaufman Hall, based on data from more than 900 hospitals.

“Nearly halfway through 2022, margins are cumulatively negative,” the report notes. “While some metrics have normalized, hospitals continue to perform below pre-pandemic levels, and there is an uncertain outlook for the rest of the year.”

Hospitals continue to see higher labor costs and fewer hours worked, “a sign of inflation and an indicator that long-standing labor shortages are likely worsened by increased turnover,” the authors said.

In addition, the Lown Institute has released its 2022 rankings of socially responsible hospital systems in the U.S. According to the Institute’s press release,

Sixty-six U.S. hospitals earned the distinction of “most socially responsible” by the Lown Institute, a think tank known for its evidence-based assessments of America’s healthcare providers. To achieve this designation, hospitals earned “A” grades across measures of health equity, value, and outcomes. 

Launched in 2020, the Lown Institute Hospitals Index for Social Responsibility draws attention to leading and lagging institutions nationwide, and provides benchmarks for hospitals to measure how well they serve their patients and communities. 

From the medical research front —

The National Institutes of Health announced

A Phase 1 clinical trial of a novel influenza vaccine has begun inoculating healthy adult volunteers at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. The placebo-controlled trial will test the safety of a candidate vaccine, BPL-1357, and its ability to prompt immune responses. The vaccine candidate was developed by researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The single-site trial can enroll up to 100 people aged 18 to 55 years and is led by NIAID investigator Matthew J. Memoli, M.D. * * *

“With the BPL-1357 vaccine, especially when given intranasally, we are attempting to induce a comprehensive immune response that closely mimics immunity gained following a natural influenza infection,” said Dr. Memoli. “This is very different than nearly all other vaccines for influenza or other respiratory viruses, which focus on inducing immunity to a single viral antigen and often do not induce mucosal immunity.”

“Our study will examine the safety of BPL-1357 and also will allow us to assess the importance of mucosal immunity against flu and whether a strategy of inducing both the cellular and antibody arms of the immune system can provide broader protection against the ever-changing influenza virus,” he added.

For additional information about the trial, visit clinicaltrials.gov and search on the trial identifier NCT05027932.

MedTech Dive tells us

If a knee talks, who’s listening? 

That’s the question facing orthopedic surgeons and rehab physicians as they learn to work with a new knee replacement that incorporates sensors and processors to send data about how the joint works from deep inside the patient’s body. 

It’s one of a growing number of devices sending data to physicians to help them monitor their patients, including continuous glucose monitors and wearables to monitor for heart arrhythmia. With this influx of information, medtech companies are still ironing out how to make the data useful for doctors. * * *

“The talking knee is a reality,” Indiana-based Zimmer Biomet announced at the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons’ conference last year. The company was presenting its new knee-implant extension with an embedded sensor just days after receiving de novo clearance from the Food and Drug Administration. 

Now, Zimmer, which developed the device along with California-based Canary Medical, Inc., a company that creates sensors for medical devices, has begun selling the smart knee implant, called Persona IQ. It can measure a patient’s range of motion, step count, stride length, and walking distance from inside the human body. Still, physicians don’t yet know how to use this data to help patients [due to lack of time currently]. * * *

Eventually, sensors will detect problems with implants, help patients adjust their gait or provide data to predict patient outcomes. Meanwhile, competitors are creating systems that use wearable sensors to track patient recovery and hinting at their own plans for sensor-embedded implants. 

Bill Hunter, Canary’s founder and chief executive, said in an interview that medical technology companies are already unleashing a wave of sensor-loaded devices in other sectors.

“Having this ability for the device to provide the clinician with actual feedback from inside the body has implications in most every major medical device,” he said. “So I do believe that you will see this showing up in all kinds of different ways.”

Time will tell but the FEHBlog’s money is on the sensor companies. Fascinating article.

Midweek Update

From the Omicron and siblings front —

The Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practice meets Thursday to vote on recommending the Moderna Covid vaccine for younger folks aged 6 through 17. This drug would be an alternative Pfizer’s Covid vaccine for that age group. Assuming the ACIP votes in favor of the Moderna vaccine, then CDC Director must approve their recommendation for the health plan coverage with no cost-sharing mandate to kick in.

Medical Economics informs us

Electronic messages and postcards with primary care physicians’ (PCP) names got Black and Latino patients in the door for their COVID-19 vaccines.

Although the effects were “relatively modest,” if applied on a larger scale, an additional 238,000 Black and Latino older adults may have been vaccinated across the United States, according to a new study.

Kaiser Permanente Northern California’s Division of Research examined the effectiveness of standard and culturally tailored electronic messages and mailings from patients’ own PCPs encouraging COVID-19 vaccines from March 29 to May 20, 2021. The results were published in an original investigation, “Effect of Electronic and Mail Outreach from Primary Care Physicians for COVID-19 Vaccination of Black and Latino Older Adults: A Randomized Clinical Trial,” in the journal JAMA Network Open.

The study involved 8,287 patients aged 65 years and older, around the California Central Valley, Fresno, South Sacramento and San Jose, divided into three groups.

This study again illustrates the value of health plans teaming with primary care providers.

From the nicotine front, the Wall Street Journal devined from the federal government’s Spring 2022 regulatory agenda, posted Tuesday, that

The Biden administration is moving forward on a plan to mandate the elimination of nearly all nicotine in cigarettes, a policy that would upend the $95 billion U.S. cigarette industry and, health officials say, prompt millions of people to quit smoking.

The plan, unveiled Tuesday as part of the administration’s agenda of regulatory actions, likely wouldn’t take effect for several years. The Food and Drug Administration plans to publish a proposed rule in May 2023, though the agency cautioned that date could change. Then the agency would invite public comments before publishing a final rule. Tobacco companies could then sue, which could further delay the policy’s implementation.

Also the Journal reports

The Food and Drug Administration is preparing to order Juul Labs Inc. to take its e-cigarettes off the U.S. market, according to people familiar with the matter.

The FDA could announce its decision as early as this week, the people said. The marketing denial order would follow a nearly two-year review of data presented by the vaping company, which sought authorization for its tobacco- and menthol-flavored products to stay on the U.S. market.

Uncertainty has clouded Juul since it landed in the FDA’s sights four years ago, when its fruity flavors and hip marketing were blamed for fueling a surge of underage vaping. The company since then has been trying to regain the trust of regulators and the public. It limited its marketing and in 2019 stopped selling sweet and fruity flavors.

The company’s legal actions likely are in development now.

From the Rx coverage front —

Fierce Healthcare calls to our attention expert opinions rendered on better controlling prescription drug costs at an AHIP conference. The experts agreed that all of the stakeholders need to be at the negotiating table.

Scott Gottlieb, M.D., former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, on a panel at AHIP’s 2022 conference * * * said the challenge for regulators looking to address drug prices is the fact that a one-size-fits-all solution will not work in this market. He said instead that policymakers should consider pharmaceuticals in three buckets: drugs that are in an active market with significant rebate activity; drugs that currently monopolize the market but will lose that monopoly in the near future; and drugs that are likely to monopolize a market in the long term.

“I think we need to think about the market as those three segments and think about different policy solutions for each of them,” [and attention should be focused on the third category] Gottlieb said.

The FEHBlog agrees with the experts about the importance of engaging all of the stakeholders. There are no bad guys here at least in the FEHBlog’s view.

From the preventive services front, Medscape reports

There is not enough evidence to recommend for or against taking most vitamin and mineral supplements to prevent heart disease, stroke, and cancer, a new report by the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) concludes.

However, there are two vitamins — vitamin E and beta-carotene — that the task force recommends against for the prevention of heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Evidence shows that there is no benefit to taking vitamin E and that beta-carotene can increase the risk for lung cancer in people already at risk, such as smokers and those with occupational exposure to asbestos, it notes.

These are the main findings of the USPSTF’s final recommendation statement on vitamin, mineral, and multivitamin supplementation to prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The statement is published in the June 21 issue of JAMA, along with an evidence reporteditorial, and patient page.

Medscape adds that this USPSTF decision aligns with a 2014 recommendation on the same topic.

From the lab test coverage front, Fierce Healthcare reports

Optum is launching a new health plan solution that aims to reduce unnecessary testing and ensure that patients are receiving the screenings that are best for them.

The laboratory benefit management tool will assist insurers in aligning lab tests with clinical guidance and will automate large parts of lab benefit administration, Optum said in an announcement provided first to Fierce Healthcare.

The company estimates that insurers could save between $12 to $36 per member per year, or about $3 billion.

Tests that lack clinical indications can lead to unneeded sample collection form patients as well as a higher risk of false positive results, which can compound unnecessary healthcare costs. There is a dearth of industry standards and efficacy data around lab tests, making it common for results to be misinterpreted or tests to be misused.

Fierce Healthcare adds that Optum is selling this tool to all health plans.

From the U.S. healthcare front, U.S. News and World Report offers 2022 rankings on the healthiest counties in the U.S. The FEHBlog recently moved from Montgomery County Maryland to Hays County Texas. Both counties score about 55 out of 100 in the rankings.

Weekend update

Thanks to Alexandr Hovhannisyan for sharing their work on Unsplash.

Happy Juneteenth and Fathers’ Day!

Following the observance of Juneteenth tomorrow, the Senate and the House of Representatives will be in session for floor voting and Committee business this week.

The Washington Post reports “A congressional deal for billions of dollars in additional coronavirus funding appeared all but dead Thursday [June 16] after Senate Republicans accused the White House of being dishonest about the nation’s pandemic funding needs.” The FEHBlog expects we have not heard the end of this issue.

From the Omnicron and siblings front —

The Wall Street Journal reports

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that children as young as 6 months receive newly authorized Covid-19 shots, the final step to making the vaccines available.

The CDC said Saturday that the young children should receive either the two-dose series from Moderna Inc. or the three-dose series made by Pfizer Inc. and partner BioNTech SE.

As soon as Monday, children under 5 years, who haven’t been able to get vaccinated during the pandemic, could start getting inoculated.

The Journal also offers articles about what parents with younger kids should know about the new Covid vaccines and — what everybody wants to know — whether researchers can develop a Covid vaccine that “lasts.” On the latter point, “New variants have weakened the protection of the current shots, which require unpopular boosters. Scientists and the White House are exploring options for more durable protection, but success could take years.”

On a related note, Precision Vaccinations tells us

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported today the number of pneumonia-related fatalities continues to outpace both COVID-19 and Influenza. * * *

In the USA, common causes of viral pneumonia are influenza, respiratory syncytial virus, and SARS-CoV-2 viruses. A common cause of bacterial pneumonia is Streptococcus pneumoniae.

The good news is pneumonia is a vaccine-preventable disease, and the U.S. FDA has approved two types of pneumococcal vaccines, PCV13, and PPSV23. * * *

Unfortunately, the CDC’s data shows that in 2020, the percentage of adults who received a pneumococcal vaccination was just 25.5%.

FEHB plans may want to focus on this issue given the Program’s demographics.

From the U.S. healthcare front, the American Medical Association provides background on its freshly inaugurated President, Dr. Jack Resneck, Jr., and gives an account of Dr. Resneck’s inaugural address. Good luck, Dr. Resneck.

Midweek update

Photo by Michele Orallo on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Medtech Dive reports

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions voted Tuesday to send a bill to the Senate that would reauthorize the Food and Drug Administration to collect user fees from device- and drug-makers for the next five years. 

A provision would require the FDA to finalize guidance that would create a category of over-the-counter hearing aids within a month of the bill’s passage. The FDA last issued a proposed guidance in October.

Committee Ranking Member Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., questioned on Tuesday whether the FDA should have that expanded authority, despite co-sponsoring legislation that would change how diagnostic tests are regulated, including laboratory-developed tests.

Fierce Healthcare adds

The American Hospital Association (AHA) penned a last-ditch letter to congressional leaders pleading for Medicare sequester cuts slated to take effect July 1 to be halted in light of the financial strain many of the nation’s hospitals are expected to face throughout 2022.

Congress had initially paused the 2% payment cut as part of the CARES Act when the COVID-19 pandemic began to threaten providers’ bottom lines. Sequestration cuts were continually punted downfield until last December, when a bill was signed to resume a 1% cut in April and the full 2% in July.

With half a month to go, AHA Executive Vice President Stacey Hughes warned majority and minority leaders Tuesday that financial relief from the pending cut is necessary for hospitals “to maintain access to care for the patients and communities they serve.”

From the Supreme Court, the American Hospital Association gleefully informs us

The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled unanimously in favor of the AHA and others, reversing a 2020 [U.S.] court of appeals decision upholding the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services to significantly cut payments to certain hospitals that participate in the 340B Drug Pricing Program, and thereby threatening access to care for patients.

The Supreme Court held that “HHS’s 2018 and 2019 reimbursement rates for 340B hospitals were contrary to the statute and unlawful.” Noting that “340B hospitals perform valuable services for low-income and rural communities but have to rely on limited federal funding for support,” the Supreme Court observed that “this case has immense economic consequences, about $1.6 billion annually.”

Despite those serious practical impacts, the Supreme Court concluded that “[u]nder the text and structure of the statute,” the case is “straightforward” as a matter of law: “Because HHS did not conduct a survey of hospitals’ acquisition costs, HHS acted unlawfully by reducing the reimbursement rates for 340B hospitals.”

From the Omicron and siblings front —

The Wall Street Journal reports

Health experts advising U.S. health regulators backed giving Covid-19 vaccines from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE and from Moderna Inc. to children as young as 6 months old

The panel voted 21 to 0 in a pair of votes on Wednesday in support of expanding access to the vaccines.

The positive recommendations will likely lead soon to expanding the U.S. Covid-19 vaccination campaign to the 19.6 million children from 6 months to under 5 years of age, one of the last groups of people in the U.S. waiting for shots.

The Food and Drug Administration, which doesn’t have to follow the panel’s recommendations but usually does, is expected to authorize the shots within days. Vaccinations could begin as early as June 21, according to the Biden administration.

and

Moderna Inc. is planning to test its Covid-19 vaccine in babies 3 months to 6 months old, the youngest age group studied to date.

The Cambridge, Mass., company said Wednesday it is in the final stages of planning the study, to be called BabyCove and expected to begin enrolling as many as 700 babies in September.

BabyCove would be the first study of Moderna’s vaccine in infants younger than 6 months.

STAT News adds

Pfizer said Tuesday that a much-watched study of its antiviral Paxlovid in patients who have Covid but don’t have risk factors for severe disease failed to show a benefit in speeding alleviation of Covid symptoms, but did seem to prevent doctor’s visits and hospitalizations.

Additionally, because of the small number of hospitalizations overall in the study, it failed to produce a statistically significant finding on whether patients who had previously been vaccinated against Covid were hospitalized less often if they received Paxlovid.

The data in no way invalidate earlier results that show that Paxlovid prevents hospitalizations and saves lives in patients at high risk of severe Covid. But the results, published in a press release, are likely to take time for experts to digest and understand.

From the unusual viruses front, the American Hospital Association explains

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention yesterday [June 14] updated its guidance to help clinicians evaluate and test patients with relevant history, signs and symptoms for monkeypox. Over 1,800 monkeypox or orthopoxvirus cases have been reported globally this year, including 72 in the United States. According to CDC, the virus does not spread easily between people without close contact, so the risk to the general population remains low.

The World Health Organization plans to change monkeypox’s name next week.

From the healthcare business front

Anthem will officially become Elevance Health on June 28, and, as part of its corporate rebrand, it’s also launching new brands for two of its subsidiaries.

The insurer will consolidate its healthcare services businesses under one umbrella, called Carelon. Carelon is a combination of the word “care” with the suffix “lon,” which means full or complete, representing the company’s ambition to offer an end-to-end care experience.

Carelon will include Anthem’s in-house pharmacy benefit manager Ingenio Rx as well as recent acquisitions such as Beacon Health Options, a behavioral health provider, and myNEXUS, a home healthcare company. Carelon will serve 1 in 3 people in the U.S., according to the announcement.

and

Humana is moving its pharmacy brands under the CenterWell umbrella.

Humana Pharmacy and Humana Specialty Pharmacy will now operate as CenterWell Pharmacy and CenterWell Specialty Pharmacy, respectively, the insurer announced. Enclara Pharmacia and Humana Pharmacy Solutions, the company’s pharmacy benefit management arm, will maintain their original branding.

“The CenterWell brand symbolizes our ongoing and strong commitment to keeping members, customers and patients at the center of everything we do,” said Scott Greenwell, Humana Pharmacy Solutions president, in a statement.

  • Morning Consult discusses how CVS Health and Walgreens retained “high customer trust” in 2021.

From the benefit design front, Employee Benefits News offers the case for health savings accounts. The FEHBlog is already sold.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the Omicron and siblings front, MedPage Today reports

A committee of independent vaccine experts recommended that the FDA grant an emergency use authorization (EUA) for the two-dose Moderna COVID-19 vaccine for kids ages 6 to 17 years.

The Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) voted 22-0, agreeing unanimously that the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks in two age groups: kids ages 6 to 11 years and teens ages 12 to 17. They recommended two 50-mcg doses for the younger kids and two 100-mcg doses for teens.

The Wall Street Journal adds

The FDA will consider the vote in making a final decision on whether to clear the vaccine for use in children 6 years and older. * * * An FDA authorization could come within days. It would open the use of Moderna’s vaccine to children for the first time in the U.S., and give anyone still intending to inoculate their children 6 years and older against Covid-19 a second option.

Medpage Today also informs us

Only a very small number of high-risk patients with COVID-19 experienced “rebound symptoms” after being treated with nirmatrelvir/ritonavir (Paxlovid), a retrospective study found.

Among nearly 500 patients, 93% of whom were fully vaccinated, two patients were hospitalized due to symptoms that were not directly related to “rebounding” within a month and required care in the intensive care unit (ICU), and four experienced rebound symptoms at a median of 9 days (interquartile range [IQR] 7-14.5), reported Nischal Ranganath, MD, PhD, of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and colleagues.

All rebound symptoms were resolved with symptom-directed treatment, and no deaths were reported in any patients after 30 days following their initial COVID-19 diagnosis, the group noted in Clinical Infectious Diseases.

“We found that rebound phenomenon was uncommon in this group of patients,” said co-author Aditya Shah, MBBS, also of the Mayo Clinic, in a statement. “The four individuals who experienced rebound represent only 0.8% of the group, and all of them recovered quickly without additional COVID-directed therapy.”

That’s certainly good news to read.

From the Rx coverage front, the Drug Channels blog tears apart a recent JAMA study concluding that the pricing of recently launched drugs has skyrocketed in recent years.

[T]he study’s headline conclusion is highly misleading. The authors obscure the real story with mathematical sleight-of-hand that misrepresents the underlying data and overlooks the true nature of today’s pharmaceutical innovations. 

Most notably, the authors discount the fact that the most expensive new drugs treat ultra-rare conditions affecting extraordinarily small patient populations. Their policy recommendations would therefore have a devastating impact on these patients and their hope for treatments and cures. 

As Nobel prize winner Ronald Coase observed: “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess to anything.”

And the Dr. Fein can back up his conclusion.

From general healthcare front, Kaiser Health News offers thought provoking articles about

The first article draws an important distinction between medical care and SDOH. Unfortunately, the second article reminds us that no good deed goes unpunished. If the government simply had relied on personal responsibility (outside of Medicaid), we would not find ourselves in this pickle.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the Omicron and siblings front, the Wall Street Journal reports

A Covid-19 vaccine developed by Sanofi SA and GSK PLC to target the Beta strain of the virus produced a stronger antibody response against variants of Omicron when given as a booster compared with certain first-generation shots, two studies have found.

The results are the latest indication that tweaking vaccines can nudge antibody responses in the direction of new variants, possibly helping to shore up immunity as the virus mutates. The study results may also provide an opportunity for Sanofi and GSK, two vaccine giants that were late to develop Covid-19 immunizations, to play a role in providing booster shots.

What’s more, according to the Journal

A panel of advisers to the Food and Drug Administration is set to meet Tuesday [June 14] to consider whether use of Moderna Inc.’s Covid-19 vaccine should be expanded to include children ages 6 through 17.

The advisory committee is expected to vote Tuesday afternoon on whether the benefits of vaccinating children in this age group outweigh the risks. The FDA will consider the vote in making a final decision on whether to clear the vaccine for use in children 6 years and older.

An FDA authorization could come within days. It would open the use of Moderna’s vaccine to children for the first time in the U.S., and give anyone still intending to inoculate their children 6 years and older against Covid-19 a second option.

Moderna’s vaccine has been authorized for use in adults 18 years and older since late 2020, while use of the other leading Covid-19 vaccine, from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE, was expanded to anyone 5 and older last year.

From the FTC investigation front, FierceHealthcare updates us on the recently launched FTC investigation of the six largest PBMs. In other FTC news, Healthcare Dive tells us

** UnitedHealth and LHC Group have been hit by a request for additional information on their acquisition from the Federal Trade Commission, as regulators take an increasingly active role in overseeing healthcare M&A.

** The second request extends the waiting period the FTC has to challenge the deal. UnitedHealth agreed to acquire home health and hospice provider LHC for $5.4 billion in March.

** https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/regulators-unitedhealth-lhc-request-merger/625343/?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Issue:%202022-06-13%20Healthcare%20Dive%20%5Bissue:42394%5D&utm_term=Healthcare%20DiveIn a filing with the SEC on Friday, the companies said they have been complying with regulators and will continue to do so.

Speaking of home health care, Home Health News discusses Aetna’s interest in the topic.

Aman Gill, Aetna’s director of product strategy and innovation, told Home Health Care News last month that a home health acquisition was “on the table” for the company. 

This past week, at HHCN’s VALUE event, Aetna CMO Dr. Kyu Rhee reiterated the company’s commitment to the home as a setting of care. He also explained how care delivery has changed over the course of the last few years.

“We’ve been committed to home health and virtual care during the pandemic,” Rhee said. “And in our Medicare program, we’ve delivered tens of thousands of healthy at-home visits as well. … So my challenge to us as we think about the opportunity we have now and the next stage of this pandemic is: Are we going to persist in those values and make sure that the system delivers on those values, that hopefully we’ve learned over the last couple of years?”

From the Rx coverage front, the Food and Drug Administration announced

the [agency approved Olumiant (baricitinib) oral tablets to treat adult patients with severe alopecia areata, a disorder that often appears as patchy baldness and affects more than 300,000 people in the U.S. each year. Today’s action marks the first FDA approval of a systemic treatment (i.e. treats the entire body rather than a specific location) for alopecia areata.

“Access to safe and effective treatment options is crucial for the significant number of Americans affected by severe alopecia,” said Kendall Marcus, M.D., director of the Division of Dermatology and Dentistry in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “Today’s approval will help fulfill a significant unmet need for patients with severe alopecia areata.”

The drug initially was FDA-approved for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis in 2018.

From the HIPAA Privacy Rule front, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through its Office for Civil Rights (OCR), announced

issuing guidance on how covered health care providers and health plans can use remote communication technologies to provide audio-only telehealth services when such communications are conducted in a manner that is consistent with the applicable requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) Privacy, Security, and Breach Notification Rules, including when OCR’s Notification of Enforcement Discretion for Telehealth – PDF is no longer in effect. * * *

The Guidance on How the HIPAA Rules Permit Health Plans and Covered Health Care Providers to Use Remote Communication Technologies for Audio-Only Telehealth may be found at: https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/privacy/guidance/hipaa-audio-telehealth/index.html.

Midweek Update

From Capitol Hill, Roll Call reports that FY 2023 appropriations work is gearing up.

From the Omicron and siblings front

The Wall Street Journal reports the following good news

Moderna Inc. said a modified [mRNA based] Covid-19 booster shot provided a stronger immune response than the company’s original vaccine against the Omicron variant in a new study. 

The Cambridge, Mass., company said Wednesday it will submit preliminary data from the study to U.S. health regulators in the coming weeks with the hope of making the modified booster shot available in late summer.

Researchers found that the levels of neutralizing antibodies against Omicron among people getting the modified shot were 1.75 times higher than in people who received a booster shot of the original vaccine, Moderna said.

and

AstraZeneca PLC said a study found its Covid-19 antibody treatment cut the risk of severe disease when given soon after symptoms develop, paving the way for its broader use.

The development comes at a time when the use of antibody treatments—once a mainstay for patients at high risk of developing severe Covid-19—has been complicated by the rise of the Omicron family of variants, which are less susceptible to some of the treatments. The treatments also face fierce competition from the more-convenient antiviral pills.

AstraZeneca’s antibody drug, called Evusheld, was found in its latest clinical trial to ward off severe disease in people who had already developed symptoms, according to results published late Tuesday in the Lancet Respiratory Medicine. The trial was conducted prior to the rise of the Omicron variant, but AstraZeneca has said that laboratory testing shows the antibody continues to work against the highly infectious strain.

The Food and Drug Administration released a revised checklist for prescribing the Pfizer Covid pill Paxlovid. While the checklist is intended for healthcare provider reference, it could be helpful to patients and health plans as well.

From the unusual virus front, STAT News offers an interesting article on how the hard lessons of the AIDS virus is shaping the U.S. response to monkeypox. The article notes

  • “[T]he monkeypox strain now in circulation is infinitesimally milder than HIV — zero fatalities have been reported out of the more than 1,000 cases so far.”
  • “Monkeypox isn’t transmitted sexually but by close contact with the disease’s hallmark pustules.”

From the Rx coverage front, Medpage Today informs us

The combination GIP and GLP-1 receptor agonist tirzepatide (Mounjaro [manufactured by Eli Lilly]) could soon be the next new treatment option for people with overweight or obesity, researchers reported.

In the 72-week, phase III SURMOUNT-1 clinical trial, people with obesity, but without diabetes, on 15 mg of the once-weekly injectable had a mean percentage change in weight of -20.9% (95% CI -21.8 to -19.9%) versus -3.1% (95% CI -4.3 to -1.9) with placebo, according to Ania M. Jastreboff, MD, PhD, of the Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, and colleagues.

and

An open-source automated insulin delivery (AID) system — also known as a do-it-yourself system — was both safe and effective for patients with type 1 diabetes, according to the CREATE trial.

Over 24 weeks, users of the AID system spent more time in target glucose range (70 to 180 mg/dL) — an average of 14% longer — than those who were using sensor augmented pump therapy without automation, reported Martin de Bock, PhD, of the University of Otago in Christchurch, New Zealand, during a presentation at the American Diabetes Association (ADA) annual meeting.

The open-source AID system consists of the OpenAPS algorithm from a version of AndroidAPS implemented in a smartphone, paired with the DANA-i insulin pump and Dexcom G6 continuous glucose monitor. The researchers previously published additional information on the ins and outs of the algorithm in the Journal of Diabetes & Metabolic Disorders.

“Open-source AID, despite not being [FDA] regulated … is safe and efficacious in children and adults with type 1 diabetes compared to sensor augmented pump therapy,” de Bock noted. 

The American Diabetes Association offers more details on this significant development here.

From the transparency front, the Wall Street Journal tells us

Two Georgia hospitals on Wednesday were hit with federal financial penalties for failing to disclose their prices, marking the first such enforcement action taken under federal rules that have met with uneven compliance since taking effect in January 2021.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which is responsible for enforcing the rules, levied fines on Northside Hospital Atlanta and Northside Hospital Cherokee. The two hospitals, which are owned by Northside Hospital, together face penalties totaling roughly $1.1 million.

Perfect timing; right before the enforcement period for the transparency in coverage rule applicable to health plans begins on July 1.

Weekend Update

Congress is back on Capitol Hill this week for floor voting and Committee business. Roll Call notes

Lawmakers return next week for a busy June, with Senate Republicans tested by politically wrought gun talks and President Joe Biden dealing with a spate of crises and headaches.

The Hill identifies the five “looming disputes” out of 33 pending disputes that the Supreme Court is expected to decide this month which typically is the last month of its October 2021 Term. Although not found among the Hill’s cases, here’s a Medicare secondary payer act case that has not been decided yet and could impact FEHBP.

Marietta Memorial Hospital Employee Health Benefit Plan v. DaVita Inc., No. 20-1641 [Arg: 03.1.2022 Trans./Aud.

Issue(s): (1) Whether a group health plan that provides uniform reimbursement of all dialysis treatments observe the prohibition provided by the Medicare Secondary Payer Act that group health plans may not “take into account” the fact that a plan participant with end stage renal disease is eligible for Medicare benefits; (2) whether a plan that provides the same dialysis benefits to all plan participants, and reimburses dialysis providers uniformly regardless of whether the patient has end stage renal disease, observe the prohibition under the Medicare Secondary Payer Act that a group health plan also may not “differentiate” between individuals with end stage renal disease and others “in the benefits it provides”; and (3) whether the Medicare Secondary Payer Act is a coordination-of-benefits measure designed to protect Medicare, not an antidiscrimination law designed to protect certain providers from alleged disparate impact of uniform treatment.

From the Omicron and siblings front —

The Wall Street Journal reports

The latest Covid-19 wave in the U.S. has shifted westward, hitting places like the San Francisco area, while pressure eases in recent Northeast hot spots.

The Western U.S. region, which includes mountain and coastal states, has recently eclipsed the Northeast to have the nation’s highest rate of known cases per 100,000 people, a Wall Street Journal analysis of CDC data shows. Recent increases in parts of the West come amid declines in the Northeast.

NPR Shots provides more background on the Novovax Covid vaccine that the FDA advisory committee will consider for emergency use authorization this Tuesday. NPR Shots adds

The federal government is trying to decide what kind of booster people should get in the fall to try to blunt the severity of a possible new wave of infections next winter. The panel of FDA advisers will meet late this month to consider which strains of the coronavirus should be targeted by updated vaccines.

From the mental health coverage front, the American Hospital Association released a TrendWatch about the pandemic’s adverse impact on mental health. Also, Healthcare Dive informs us that while telehealth use dropped in February and March 2022, according to a Fair Health study,

Teletherapy continued to remain robust, snagging the top procedure spot for telehealth visits in March and representing 26% of virtual claim lines, the report noted. Mental health conditions claimed 65% of diagnoses across all regions. Likewise, social workers remained the most popular specialty in telehealth claims for the second month in a row.

From the value-based care front, Health Payer Intelligence discusses how payers can move providers away from fee-for-service contracts to value-based contracts. It’s worth a read.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s Covid Data Tracker and using Thursday as the first day of the month, here is the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new Covid cases from the 27th week of 2021 through the 22nd week of 2022:

The CDC’s weekly review of its Covid statistics explains “As of June 1, 2022, the current 7-day moving average of daily new cases (100,684) decreased 8.5% compared with the previous 7-day moving average (110,081).”

Here’s the CDC’s current chart of new Covid hospitalizations:

The CDC’s weekly statistical review notes that “The current 7-day daily average [of new Covid hospitalizations] for May 25–31, 2022, was 3,789. This is a 4.7% increase from the prior 7-day average (3,619) from May 18–24, 2022.

Here’s the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new Covid deaths from the 27th week of 2021 through the 22nd week of 2022:

The CDC’s weekly statistical review adds “The current 7-day moving average of new deaths (244) has decreased 23.1% compared with the previous 7-day moving average (318).” 

Here’s the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of Covid vaccinations distributed and administered from the beginning of the vaccination era in December 2020 through the 22nd week of 2022.

According to the CDC’s weekly statistical review,

Overall, about 258.7 million people, about 221.4 million people, or 66.7% of the total U.S. population, have been fully vaccinated.* Of those fully vaccinated, about 103.5 million people have received a booster dose,** but 49.0% of the total booster-eligible population has not yet received a booster dose. As of June 1, 2022, the 7-day average number of administered vaccine doses reported (by date of CDC report) to CDC per day was 343,662, a 9.5% decrease from the previous week.

To wrap up the statistic review, the CDC’s weekly statistical review tells us

As of June 2, 2022, there are 240 (7.45%) counties, districts, or territories with a high COVID-19 Community Level, 733 (22.76%) counties with a medium Community Level, and 2,247 (69.78%) counties with a low Community Level. This represents a slight (−0.53 percentage points) decrease in the number of high-level counties, a small (+1.37 percentage points) increase in the number of medium-level counties, and a corresponding (−0.84 percentage points) decrease in the number of low-level counties. Fifty-one (98.1%) of 52 jurisdictions had high- or medium-level counties this week.

To check your COVID-19 Community Level, visit COVID Data Tracker. To learn which prevention measures are recommended based on your COVID-19 Community Level, visit COVID-19 Community Level and COVID-19 Prevention.

In other Covid news

The Wall Street Journal reports

Novavax Inc.’s vaccine was 90% effective at preventing Covid-19 in its pivotal trial, but the performance came before the emergence of the Omicron variant that has eluded vaccines more than earlier strains, U.S. health regulators said.

The Food and Drug Administration also expressed concern Friday that six people developed heart-inflammation conditions known as myocarditis and pericarditis, out of about 40,000 people who had taken Novavax’s vaccine during various studies. 

The agency released its evaluation of Novavax’s Covid-19 vaccine ahead of a meeting of outside advisers who are scheduled to discuss next week whether the agency should recommend authorization of the shot.

The FDA staff’s appraisal suggests the vaccine could face a tough round of questioning from advisers weighing the shot’s uncertain efficacy against Omicron with potential heart risks.

This suggests an unfortunate outcome. The Novovax vaccine was developed using a traditional approach may be acceptable to the vaccine inquisitive.

In healthcare business news

  • Health Leaders Media informs us “Health insurers are not holding up their end of the bargain on mutually accepted prior authorization reforms, according to a new physician survey by the AMA.” The FEHBlog is growing concerned that the AMA is winning the prior authorization war.
  • Fierce Healthcare tells us “Optum has invested heavily in building out its provider enterprise. But executives at UnitedHealth Group say it’s still early days for the endeavor.”
  • Healthcare Dive reports “The Federal Trade Commission is suing to block two separate hospital mergers, the agency said Thursday. The FTC has sued to block HCA Healthcare’s acquisition of Steward Health Care System, alleging that the deal would reduce competition in Utah and ultimately raise prices. In another suit, the FTC is moving to block RWJBarnabas Health from acquiring Saint Peter’s Healthcare in New Jersey, alleging ‘overwhelming evidence’ that the deal would harm patients in the form of less choice and higher prices.”
  • The Healthcare Dive article adds

The FTC has now challenged numerous hospital deals this year following its latest action.

Rhode Island’s two largest health systems abandoned plans to merge in February about a week after the FTC sued to block the deal.

New Jersey’s largest health system, Hackensack Meridian Health, lost its appeal challenging the FTC’s move to prevent a tie-up with Englewood Hospital, one of the last independent hospitals in the area.

Bristol Myers Squibb is buying biotech Turning Point Therapeutics, announcing Friday a $4.1 billion deal that will give the pharmaceutical company an experimental drug that targets mutations found in lung cancer and other solid tumors.

The deal values Turning Point at $76 a share, more than double the $34.16 at which shares closed on Thursday and four times the biotech’s $18 initial public offering price in 2019. Yet the buyout price is well below the company’s peak of $133 a share in February 2021, which gave it a market value of $6.6 billion.

The company’s lead drug, called repotrectinib, has advanced through Phase 2 testing in lung cancer patients whose tumors harbor a mutation called ROS1. Repotrectinib would compete against Roche’s Rozlytrek, if approved. Bristol Myers expects to gain Food and Drug Administration clearance in the second half of 2023.

That’s a lot of money.

From the studies department

Fierce Healthcare points out

As the industry puts a focus on mental health coming out of COVID-19, a new study suggests that loneliness may be a key place to start.

Research from Cigna and Morning Consult finds that more than half (58%) of U.S. adults would be considered lonely. This is on par with pre-pandemic research, which found that 61% of adults are lonely, and made for a seven percentage point increase from 2018.

Loneliness and mental health issues are closely linked, according to the study. Adults with mental health concerns were twice as likely to feel lonely compared to those with strong mental health. The study also found that minorities and younger people were also more likely to be dealing with loneliness.

Three-quarters (75%) of Hispanic adults and 68% of Black adults are classified as lonely, according to the study, figures both substantially higher than the rate of loneliness in the general population. Seventy-nine percent of adults aged 18 to 24 said they feel lonely, compared to 41% of seniors aged 66 and over.

The FEHBlog wishes his readers a weekend full of family and friendship.