Friday Stats and More

Friday Stats and More

Based on the CDC’s Covid Data Tracker and using Thursday as the first day of the week, here is the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new Covid cases from the 27th week of 2021 through the 19th week of 2022.

The CDC’s weekly review of its Covid statistics notes

As of May 11, 2022, the current 7-day moving average of daily new cases (84,778) increased 30.7% compared with the previous 7-day moving average (64,863). A total of 82,087,117 COVID-19 cases have been reported in the United States as of May 11, 2022.

Here’s the CDC’s weekly chart of new Covid hospitalizations

The CDC’s weekly review of Covid hospitalization notes, “The current 7-day daily average for May 4–10, 2022, was 2,629. This is a 17.5% increase from the prior 7-day average (2,238) from April 27–May 3, 2022.”

Here’s the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new Covid deaths from the 27th week of 2021 through the 19th week of 2022:

The CDC’s weekly review notes “The current 7-day moving average of new deaths (273) has decreased 15.4% compared with the previous 7-day moving average (322). As of May 11, 2022, 996,376 COVID-19 deaths have been reported in the United States.”

Finally, here is the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of Covid vaccinations distributed and administered from the beginning of the Covid vaccination era through the 19th week of 2022.

Per the CDC’s weekly review, “As of May 11, 2022, the 7-day average number of administered vaccine doses reported (by date of CDC report) to CDC per day was 390,306, an 11.1% decrease from the previous week.”

76% of the U.S. population aged 18 and older are fully vaccinated against Covid, and 50% of that cadre has received the first booster. Likewise, 90% of the U.S. population aged 65 and older is fully vaccinated, and 70% of that cadre has received the first booster. There is work still to be done but the public health community and the U.S citizenry deserves credit for these accomplishments.

To wrap up this week’s Covid stats, let’s include the CDC’s latest Communities report:

As of May 12, 2022, there are 137 (4.25%) counties, districts, or territories with a high COVID-19 Community Level, 453 (14.07%) counties with a medium Community Level, and 2,630 (81.68%) counties with a low Community Level. This represents a small (+1.77 percentage points) increase in the number of high-level counties, a moderate (+4.10 percentage points) increase in the number of medium-level counties, and a corresponding (−5.87 percentage points) decrease in the number of low-level counties. Eight (15.38%) of 52 jurisdictions had no high- or medium-level counties this week.

To check your COVID-19 Community Level, visit COVID Data Tracker.

NPR Shots offers a valuable article describing three ways to get the Paxlovid pill if diagnosed with Covid. The key takeaway from the FEHBlog’s perspective is the need to have a primary care provider in your life.

For those with health insurance and access to their primary care providers or health care team, you can make an in-person or telehealth appointment to get tested (or share your positive test results), assessed for risks and medications and, if eligible, obtain a prescription for the pills. 

You’d then get the prescription filled at a nearby pharmacy

Having a provider that knows your medical history, as well as the details of your current situation, can be very helpful, says Dr. Ulrika Wigert, a family medicine physician at CentraCare in Sauk Center, Minnesota. “Did you test the first day [of symptoms]? Did you test the second day? How sick were you when you tested?” And, if you’re starting to feel better by the time you get the medication, do the benefits of taking the medication outweigh any risks? “Having a provider help navigate that on the individual patient basis” can help guide you through an appropriate course of care, she says. 

STAT News addresses three burning questions about the future of prescribing drugs using telehealth services (not for a PCP visit).

Research by Lori Uscher-Pines, a senior policy researcher at RAND, suggests that providers are starting to prescribe buprenorphine — a controlled substance used to treat opioid use disorder — without in-person visits. But they’re typically more comfortable continuing the prescriptions virtually for patients they’ve already met, compared to taking on new patients virtually.

Still, “very few studies of medication treatment for opioid use disorder via telehealth have shown safety or diversion concerns,” she said. And she noted that one recent study suggested that relaxed restrictions have improved treatment retention for opioid use disorder patients.

Telehealth prescription could help patients in regions with acute clinician shortages — especially of mental health providers — obtain critical medication.

“A key question going forward is how to strike a balance between increasing access to important medications on the one hand and limiting the potential for misuse on the other,” Uscher-Pines said.

In the past, federal and state regulations have required clinicians to frequently examine patients in-person to guard against misuse, addiction, or fraud. “But are there other ways to accomplish this, perhaps ways that actually leverage telehealth rather than restrict it?” she asked.

A better system might involve hybrid care: In-person exams for certain types of prescriptions blended with virtual follow-ups, for instance. But Schwamm cautioned against over-regulating telehealth prescriptions, given that clinical guidelines evolve faster than federal and state policies typically do.

“Whenever you put these kinds of restrictions in place, you are restricting access to care,” he said. “Do we need to require, and is it good medical practice, to require by regulation that the person come in-person? I would argue that we just don’t know.”

It’s complicated.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the Omicron and siblings front

  • The Wall Street Journal has updated its article on Covid boosters.
  • The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) today released “a Final Evidence Report assessing the comparative clinical effectiveness and value of [specific] outpatient treatments for COVID-19 [, principally Pfizer’s pill Paxlovid and Merck’s pill molnupiravir ].

A majority (11-2) found current evidence is not adequate to demonstrate a net health benefit when molnupiravir is compared to symptomatic care alone.

All panelists (13-0) found that current evidence is adequate to demonstrate a net health benefit when Paxlovid is compared to symptomatic care alone.

Due to uncertainty in the net health benefit for molnupiravir, a majority of panelists voted that it represents “low-to-intermediate” long-term value for money.

A majority of panelists found that Paxlovid represents “high” long-term value for money.

  • ICER presented at the OPM/AHIP carrier conference last month. ICER “is an independent non-profit research institute that produces reports analyzing the evidence on the effectiveness and value of drugs and other medical services. ICER’s reports include evidence-based calculations of prices for new drugs that accurately reflect the degree of improvement expected in long-term patient outcomes, while also highlighting price levels that might contribute to unaffordable short-term cost growth for the overall health care system.”
  • Speaking of the Covid pills, STAT News discusses the use of telehealth services to prescribe them. The upshot, as the FEHBlog understands it, is while using telehealth for this purpose is convenient for patients, experts are unsure whether the telehealth service provides adequate follow-up care to the patient.

Also, from the Rx coverage front, the Food and Drug Administration issued a news roundup today.

From the healthcare business front, BioPharma Dive reports

Pfizer has agreed to acquire Biohaven Pharmaceuticals for $11.6 billion in a deal that turns an existing alliance on a fast-selling migraine drug into a big bet on its future growth.

Pfizer will pay $148.50 per share in cash for each Biohaven share it doesn’t already own, representing a roughly 79% premium to the company’s Monday closing price and a 33% premium to its average share price of $111.70 over the last three months. The deal, which is expected to close early next year, is by far the biggest biotech buyout of 2022, according to data compiled by Biopharma Dive.

Announced Tuesday, the acquisition hands Pfizer full rights to Nurtec ODT, a pill that’s approved in the U.S. and other countries for the treatment and prevention of migraines. Biohaven’s pipeline also includes an experimental nasal spray for migraines, zavepegant, that’s been submitted to U.S. regulators, as well as five additional, preclinical treatments that block the same protein target.

From the mental health parity front, the Labor Department’s Employee Benefits Security Administration announced that the agency will be holding a mental health parity compliance assistance webcast on May 24 from 2-3 pm ET. Here is a link to the announcement which explains how to register for the webcast.

From the patient safety front, the Leapfrog Group “released the spring 2022 Leapfrog Hospital Safety Grade, which assigns a letter grade to nearly 3,000 U.S. general hospitals based on over 30 measures of patient safety.”

At HospitalSafetyGrade.org, the public can find detailed information about a hospital’s performance on patient experience and other safety measures used to grade hospitals.

Across all states, highlights of findings from the spring 2022 Leapfrog Hospital Safety Grade include:

Thirty‐three percent of hospitals received an “A,” 24% received a “B,” 36% received a “C,” 7% received a “D,” and less than 1% received an “F.”

Five states with the highest percentages of “A” hospitals are North Carolina, Virginia, Utah, Colorado, and Michigan.

There were no “A” hospitals in Wyoming, West Virginia, the District of Columbia, or North Dakota.

From the medical research department, Medscape informs us

Eight modifiable risk factors were linked to more than one in three cases of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia in the U.S., a cross-sectional analysis showed.

The eight risk factors — midlife obesity, midlife hypertension, physical inactivity, depression, smoking, low education, diabetes, and hearing loss — were associated with 36.9% (95% CI 36.5-37.3) of Alzheimer’s and dementia cases, reported Roch Nianogo, MD, PhD, of the University of California Los Angeles, and Deborah Barnes, PhD, MPH, of the University of California San Francisco, and co-authors.

The factors most prominently associated with Alzheimer’s and dementia were midlife obesity, at 17.7% (95% [Confidence Interval] CI 17.5-18.0); physical inactivity, at 11.8% (95% CI 11.7-11.9); and low educational attainment, at 11.7% (95% CI 11.5-12.0).

“We published a similar study a little more than 10 years ago, and the most important risk factors then were physical inactivity, depression, and smoking,” Barnes told MedPage Today.

“Today, the top three risk factors are midlife obesity, physical inactivity, and low education,” she observed. “This is important because it suggests that the growing number of people who are obese in the U.S. could have a major long-term impact on dementia rates.”

From the clarification front, the FEHBlog often reminds folks that federal employees who retired under the Civil Service Retirement System before 1984 are not eligible for free Medicare Part A. The FEHBlog dug into this issue today, and he discovered this 2013 Reg Jones Q&A on this topic that the Federal Times published.

Q. I retired in 2009 under CSRS. I am close to 65, and the answer to one of the questions asked states that people in CSRS are not eligible for Medicare because they didn’t pay into Social Security.

I was in CSRS before the change to FERS and stayed with CSRS. I had Medicare deductions taken from my pay from 1983-84 till I retired in 2009.

Do the Medicare funds I paid since 1983 make me eligible for Medicare or just part of it?

So which is right? I need to know so I can do what needs to be done — enroll or not. I’m currently insured under federal BCBS.

A. CSRS employees who retired before Dec. 31, 1983, aren’t eligible for Medicare Part A. Nor are CSRS employees who retired after that date but before having Medicare deductions taken from their pay for 10 years.

On the other hand, they are eligible to enroll in Medicare Part B, which is open to everyone 65 or older.

Consequently, the cadre of 65 and older federal annuitants without Medicare A is larger than the FEHBlog understood. This cadre is relevant to the Postal Reform Act because that law keeps Postal annuitants over aged 65 without Medicare Part in the legacy FEHBP.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

The President has declared May 1 through May 7 to be Public Service Recognition Week. OPM explains

Celebrated annually during the first week of May since 1985, Public Service Recognition Week (PSRW) (external link) is time set aside to honor the men and women who serve our nation as federal, state, county and local government employees. 

Throughout the country, mayors, governors, agency leaders, communities and public service organizations participate in PSRW by issuing proclamations; hosting award ceremonies and special tribute events; and delivering messages about the value of public service.

To that end, Govexec reports the President took the time today to virtually award Presidential Rank Awards to 230 senior federal employees from 37 agencies.

Speaking directly to the career civil service, Biden said: “Over the last 15 months you’ve helped us deliver so much to the American people,” such as the getting Americans vaccinated against COVID-19, delivering economic relief checks, caring for veterans, implementing the infrastructure package and working to restore the public’s faith in government and democracy. He gave a big “thank you” to them as well as their families. 

The FEHBlog heartily agrees.

From the Omicron and siblings front, WebMd informs us

The FDA’s independent panel of advisors will meet in June to discuss the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines for children under age 5, as well as the Novavax vaccine for adults, according to an FDA announcement released Friday.

On June 7, the FDA’s vaccine committee will review the Novavax shot, which could become the first new COVID-19 vaccine to hit the U.S. market in more than a year. The shot is already authorized in more than three dozen countries, including across Europe.

The FDA has also selected three possible dates — June 8, 21, and 22 — to discuss the shots for kids under age 5. The dates are tentative because the companies haven’t completed their submissions, the agency said.

The FEHBlog is pleased to read about these developments because the Novovax shot which uses a traditional vaccination approach may be acceptable to the vaccine inquisitive and the country needs a vaccine for younger children.

STAT News adds

Pfizer released news late Friday that Paxlovid, the antiviral currently subject to a big push from the U.S. government, failed to prevent people living with Covid patients from catching the infection.

The news is one of several bad headlines for the new Covid pill, but one experts say doesn’t affect the medicine’s primary use: treating people who are already sick.

Paul Sax, clinical director of the division of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said he would “absolutely” prescribe Paxlovid to people at high risk of severe disease who have Covid. “Without hesitation,” he said. “Because the net benefit in the high risk study was extremely high.”

From the Affordable Care Act front, Health Affairs Forefront has posted the second part of Katie Keith’s three-part series on last week’s HHS final 2023 notice of ACA benefit and payment parameters. The second part concerns changes specific to the ACA marketplace or exchange plans.

From the Rx coverage front, Health Affairs informs us

UnitedHealthcare is restricting insurance coverage of Aduhelm across all of its health plans, saying the drug “is unproven and not medically necessary for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease due to insufficient evidence of efficacy,” according to the company’s new policies.

Physicians who plan on giving Aduhelm to UnitedHealthcare patients will need to obtain prior approval from the insurance company, effective June 1. Patients also need to be in an approved clinical trial.

UnitedHealthcare’s decision follows Medicare, which said last month it would only pay for the costly infusion drug for patients who participate in a clinical trial. UnitedHealthcare is the largest Medicare Advantage insurer in the country, covering 8 million people older than 65 and people with disabilities, making this policy particularly important for older Americans on those private plans.

The FEHBlog expects UHC’s announcement to be the tip of the eventual iceberg of similar Aduhelm coverage decisions.

Following up on previous stories mentioned in the FEHBlog, the Wall Street Journal reports

Online pharmacy company Truepill Inc. said it is temporarily halting prescriptions for Adderall and other controlled substances used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and partner Cerebral Inc. told its clinicians to direct those orders to patients’ local pharmacies.

Cerebral, an online mental-health company based in San Francisco that describes Truepill as its preferred pharmacy, informed its clinicians of Truepill’s decision in a Friday email viewed by The Wall Street Journal. The email said Truepill would no longer support mailing Schedule 2 controlled substances, including Adderall and Vyvanse, “to any of their customers.”

Truepill said that, “out of an abundance of caution,” it is temporarily pausing all fulfillment of Schedule 2 substances while it evaluates appropriate next steps. It said Schedule 2 substances such as Adderall make up less than 1% of its total prescription volume. Truepill didn’t provide a list of other partners affected by its decision.

Some of the nation’s largest pharmacies have blocked or delayed prescriptions over the past year from clinicians working for telehealth startups that have sprung up to treat ADHD, according to pharmacies and people familiar with the issue.

The Journal reported last week that pharmacies including Walmart Inc., CVS Health Corp. and Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. have blocked or delayed prescriptions for companies treating ADHD online or have blocked individual prescribers, according to people familiar with the issue.

That was the right outcome as far as the FEHBlog is concerned.

In U.S. Supreme Court news, Business Insurance reports “Private plaintiffs cannot be reimbursed for emotional distress damages under the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled” last Thursday in the linked opinion. The Affordable Care Act provision at issue is the ACA’s convoluted individual non-discrimination provision, Section 1557.

From the healthcare business front, Fierce Healthcare tells us

Outpatient volumes and revenue for hospitals and health systems showed a robust rebound in March as expenses eased due to fewer extremely sick patients, a new report said. 

Consulting firm Kaufman Hall released its latest hospital flash report Monday (PDF) detailing the impact of system finances for the month of March. A key takeaway from the report is that while actual hospital margins were negative for the third month in a row, outpatient revenues had a massive bump.

“While the road to recovery remains long for many hospitals, these trends indicate some pressures of the pandemic may be lifting,” said Erik Swanson, senior vice president of data and analytics with Kaufman Hall, in a statement. 

From the mental healthcare front,

Fierce Healthcare reports

Mental health concerns are on the rise across the board, and especially among Blacks, seniors, young adults and LGBTQIA people, a new survey finds.

CVS Health and Morning Consult polled more than 2,200 adults in early April and found that 59% of respondents have experienced challenges with their mental health or that of a friend or family member. That is a 9% increase over 2020 survey data.

More than half (57%) of people surveyed who identify as LGBTQIA expressed concern about their own mental health, 20 percentage points higher than other groups included in the study. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of those aged 18 to 34 said they experienced such concerns either themselves or for a friend or family member, up 12 percentage points from 2020.

The survey also found an 11 percentage point increase in mental health concerns among Black respondents compared to pre-COVID levels. A double-digit increase was also found among people over age 65; about 40% reported mental health concerns for themselves or family and friends, up 10 percentage points from 2020.

AHIP describes ten ways that people can get the mental healthcare services that they need.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the Omicron and siblings front —

The American Hospital Association informs us

The share of the U.S. population with antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2 virus in their bloodstream increased from 34% in December 2021 to 58% in February 2022, including 75% of children, according to a study released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study tested blood samples during the COVID-19 omicron period for antibodies produced in response to infection but not in response to COVID-19 vaccines. Children had the highest rates of infection-induced antibodies and adults 65 and older the lowest, with the greatest increases over the period in age groups with the lowest COVID-19 vaccination coverage. 

“Vaccination remains the safest strategy for preventing complications from SARS-CoV-2 infection, including hospitalization among children and adults,” the authors said. 

and

Starting this week, the Administration will allow all pharmacies in the federal pharmacy program to order free oral antiviral treatments directly from the federal government, the White House announced today. The Administration hopes to double the number of participating pharmacies to 40,000 in the coming weeks, and to launch new Test-to-Treat locations that offer the Pfizer and Merck pills, which the Food and Drug Administration authorized in December to treat COVID-19 in patients at risk of progressing to severe disease. Pharmacies also can continue to receive the pills through their state or territorial health department. The Administration said it is working to improve the Test-to-Treat patient experience, including through telehealth options; and to provide more guidance on COVID-19 treatments to prescribers and clinicians.

The New York Times adds more details to this AHA blurb. In short, “experts say that efforts to reach at-risk Americans remain complex and inefficient.”

Medscape adds “Contrary to popular belief, no association appeared between the number of intensive care unit beds and COVID-19 deaths, based on a review of data from all 50 states between March 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021.”

The Wall Street Journal further reports

Pfizer Inc. and partner BioNTech SE asked U.S. health regulators to authorize a booster dose of its Covid-19 vaccine for children 5 to 11 years old.

The request Tuesday to the Food and Drug Administration comes after the companies said earlier this month that a third shot safely generated a strong immune response in the youngsters, including significantly increased antibody levels against the Omicron variant. 

A thumbs-up from the FDA would expand eligibility of boosters to the roughly 28 million children in the U.S. Booster doses are now available for people as young as 12 years old in the U.S., and regulators recently greenlighted second boosters for people who are 50 years old and up or who have weakened immune systems

In FEHB news, OPM issued a paper describing the 2021 highlights of OPM’s FEHB Plan Performance Assessment system. In the FEHBlog’s view, OPM’s PPA system could be improved by (1) seeking plan input on all PPA changes, including, for example, the benchmark change to ALOB and (2) implementing changes for the first measurement year following the change, not the year in which the change is made. Both of these changes are consistent with federal administrative law, in the FEHBlog’s opinion. Also, OPM should use the carrot incentive more than the stick.

In healthcare business news,

Healthcare Dive tells us

Hospitals are experiencing a “massive surge” in expenses for items such as labor, drugs and supplies amid rising inflation, the American Hospital Association said in a report on Monday.

Labor is a particular stressor, making up more than half of hospitals’ total expenses. Overall, hospital labor expenses per patient increased almost 20% from 2019 to 2021, the AHA said. 

The powerful hospital lobby urged Congress to help address these headwinds by adding money to the provider relief fund and creating flexibility on advanced Medicare repayments, among other items.

Medpage Today informs us

Nearly three-fourths of U.S. physicians opted for employment with hospitals, health systems, or other corporate entities, such as private equity firms and health insurers in the pandemic era, according to a new report.

In 2021, 73.9% of physicians were hospital- or corporate-employed, up from 69.3% at the start of 2021, 64.5% at the start of 2020, and 62.2% at the start of 2019, according to the nonprofit Physicians Advocacy Institute (PAI) and consulting firm Avalere. That equates to 484,100 employed physicians, up from 423,800, 391,000, and 375,400 at the start of 2021, 2020, and 2019, respectively.

Perhaps these two trends are related? On the one hand, more physician employees create more hospital expenses. On the other, a hospital receives additional health plan payments for services provided by physician employees. In all likelihood, the revenue exceeds the expense in this case.

From tidbits department,

  • AHRQ reports on “Geographic Variation in Inpatient Stays for Five Leading Mental Disorders, 2016–2018.”

CAQH CORE, the author of national operating rules for the HIPAA-covered administrative transactions, recently released new operating rules to enhance information exchange and healthcare operations related to benefits coverage and supplemental documentation. * * *

The new CAQH CORE Attachments Operating Rule aims to improve the exchange of attachments, a long-standing industry issue. The guidelines will establish key infrastructure and data content requirements, helping providers send electronic health plans documentation to support a claim or prior authorization in a uniform format, the press release stated.

Reassociation or linking the attachment with the original prior authorization request or claim submission is one of the most significant pain points in the attachment workflow, CAQH CORE added.

The new guidelines also offer updates to enhance the exchange of critical eligibility and benefit information related to telemedicine, prior authorization, remaining coverage benefits, procedure-level information, and tiered benefits between health plans and providers.

The second newly released rule, the CAQH CORE Eligibility & Benefits Data Content Rule, intends to enhance provider knowledge regarding their patients’ coverage, leading to more timely care and accurate billing.

Finally, CAQH CORE revised its rules for infrastructure, which now calls for greater health plan system availability and less frequent periods of downtime.

  • Health Payer Intelligence notes “Applying an out-of-pocket spending cap to Medicare Part D could be a tool for promoting health equity, according to an insight from Avalere.”

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the No Surprises Act front, the FEHBlog nearly fell off his chair when he noticed this Healthcare Dive article:

The Department of Justice intends to appeal a federal judge’s ruling that sided with providers over a challenge to the surprise billing rule, according to a Friday filing from the DOJ in the Eastern District of Texas.  

The Texas Medical Association sued the federal government over its interpretation of the No Surprises Act, arguing the rule leans too heavily on one factor arbiters are supposed to consider when resolving payment disputes between payers and providers.      

Federal Judge Jeremy Kernodle’s February ruling said nothing in the bill passed by Congress instructs arbiters to “weigh any one factor … more heavily than the others,” indicating the rule conflicts with the bill.

The Justice Department noticed an appeal to the Fifth Circuit in the referenced Friday, April 22, filing with the District Court. That notice effectuates the appeal. The FEHBlog will keep an eye on the dockets to learn whether the Justice Department will seek a stay of the February ruling while the case is on appeal.

From the Omicron and siblings front —

  • Bloomberg’s Prognosis reviews progress being made in the development of Covid vaccines administered nasally. Nasal vaccines have a better shot at preventing COVID than injected vaccines.
  • The American Hospital Association reports “The Food and Drug Administration today expanded its approval for remdesivir (Veklury) to include pediatric patients under age 12 who test positive for SARS-CoV-2 and are hospitalized or at high risk of progressing to severe COVID-19. The patient must be at least 28 days old and weigh at least 3 kilograms (about 7 pounds). FDA said the approval is supported by a clinical study of 53 pediatric patients as well as trials in adults, given the similar course of disease in adult and pediatric patients.”
  • Medical Dialogues informs us the World Health Organization has recommended Pfizer’s Paxlovid Covid pill over remdesvir, Merck’s pill and monoclonal antibodies for patients with milder forms of Covid and nevertheless at high risk of hospitalization from the disease, e.g. the elderly, the immunocompromised, and the unvaccinated.
  • WebMD News tells us “COVID-19 was the third-leading cause of death in the United States in 2021 for the second straight year, with only heart disease and cancer causing more deaths, the CDC said Friday. * * * The overall number of COVID deaths in 2021 increased around 20% over 2020, when around 384,000 people died from the virus, the CDC said. COVID deaths in 2021 peaked for the weeks ending Jan. 16 and Sept. 11, following holiday periods.”

The WebMD article offers other interesting public health nuggets. For example,

About 693,000 people died of heart disease in 2021, with 605,000 dying of cancer and 415,000 of COVID, the CDC said, citing provisional data that might be updated later.

Unintentional injuries were the fourth-leading cause of death, increasing to 219,000 in 2021 from 201,000 in 2020. Influenza and pneumonia dropped out of the top 10 leading causes of death and suicide moved into 10th place.

Overall, about 3,458,697 deaths were reported in the U.S. last year. The age-adjusted death rate was 841.6 deaths per 100,000 people, an increase of .7% from 2020. The 2021 death rate was the highest since 2003, the CDC said.

From the healthcare business front, Fierce Healthcare reports

Change Healthcare has found a buyer for its payment integrity arm, ClaimsXten, though the sale is contingent on the closure of its merger with UnitedHealth Group.

According to a filing submitted Monday to the Securities and Exchange Commission, ClaimsXten will be sold off to an affiliate of TPG Capital for a base purchase price equal to $2.2 billion in cash. UnitedHealth is listed as the seller.

From the reports department —

  • The National Bureau of Economic Research offers a working paper titled “Pharmacy Benefit Managers and Vertical Relationships in Drug Supply: State of Current Research.”
  • Per HR Morning, “Employer support [of their workforces] is happening in the areas of increased prioritizing employee assistance programs (EAPs), expanded wellness benefits and greater attention to work/life balance. That’s according to Ragan’s 2022 Communications Benchmark Report that surveyed close to 1,000 communicators across industries on opportunities and changes.”
  • Per Health Payer Intelligence, Humana has produced an issue brief that provides “an overview of the policymaking landscape surrounding social determinants of health data collection.”

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 are the FEHBlog’s weekly charts of new Covid cases and deaths

Here is a link to the CDC’s weekly review of COVID statistics. Among those statistics are the following:

New Hospital Admissions

The current 7-day daily average for April 6–April 12, 2022, was 1,446. This is a 1.3% increase from the prior 7-day average (1,427) from March 29–April 4, 2022.

Here’s the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of Covid vaccinations distributed and administered from the beginning of the Covid vaccination era to the latest week ending last Wednesday, April 13.

For the second week in a row, Covid vaccines distributed and administered have increased materially.

The CDC’s principal point in this week’s Covid statistical review is the following:

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have delayed or avoided medical care, including routine, urgent, and emergency care. If it’s something you’ve neglected, it’s time to jump back in—consider putting “get a checkup” on top of your to-do list, especially if you’re at risk for heart disease. Regular checkups provide the opportunity to prevent, screen for, and manage chronic conditions, and to get routine vaccinations.

The FEHBlog agrees that the best step a person can make on the road to a healthy life is to establish a relationship with a primary care doctor.

In other Omicron and siblings news —

MedPage Today informs us

The FDA granted an emergency use authorization (EUA) to the first COVID-19 test that can detect the virus in breath samples, the agency announced on Thursday.

Dubbed the InspectIR COVID-19 Breathalyzer, the test uses gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to rapidly detect volatile organic compounds associated with SARS-CoV-2. Patients breathe into a disposable straw on the device — which is about the size of a piece of carry-on luggage, according to the agency — and results are returned in less than 3 minutes. The test is intended for healthcare settings where samples can be collected and analyzed, such as mobile testing sites, doctor’s offices, and hospitals.

Cool.

Kaiser Health News tells us

The federal “test-to-treat” program, announced in March, is meant to reduce covid hospitalizations and deaths by quickly getting antiviral pills to people who test positive. But even as cases rise again, many Americans don’t have access to the program.

The program allows people with covid symptoms to get tested, be prescribed antiviral pills, and fill the prescription all in one visit. The federal government and many state and local health departments direct residents to an online national map where people can find test-to-treat sites and other pharmacies where they can fill prescriptions.

But large swaths of the country had no test-to-treat pharmacies or health centers listed as of April 14. * * *

Even people who regularly see a doctor may be unable to get a prescription in time, and that’s where the program comes in. Before the pandemic, 28% of Americans didn’t have a regular source of medical care, with rates even higher for Black and Hispanic Americans. 

See above re PCPS and no bueno.

The article adds

Truepill, a company that provides telehealth and pharmacy technology, offers online covid assessments through its website findcovidcare.com * * *. The company has filled more than 10 million prescriptions in the past five years.

The service, available in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., costs $25 to $55. Though insurance isn’t accepted, the cost is comparable to insurance copays for in-person doctor appointments. Prescriptions can be sent to a local pharmacy for no additional charge or shipped to a home overnight via FedEx for a $20 fee.

It’s always good to have a Plan B.

From the FEHB front, OPM issued a final, final rule concerning a Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021 provision extending the opportunity for tribal employers to enroll employees at certain tribal schools to join the FEHB Program.

From the Social Determinants of Health Front, Fierce Healthcare calls to our attention

a Northeast Business Group on Health guide for employers looking to tackle obesity and diabetes through a racial lens. “Obesity, Diabetes and Health Equity: What Employers Can Do” lays out a step-by-step approach. Key among them is embedding health outcomes within other diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Another big recommendation is to build benefits to address obesity and diabetes that are based in clinical best practices.

In the FEHBlog’s view, OPM’s 2023 call letter asks carriers to address member obesity issues in this manner.

From the Rx coverage front, the Wall Street Journal reports

After Covid-19, vaccine makers’ next big target is a respiratory virus that kills up to 500 children a year nationwide and has been among the leading causes of U.S. hospitalizations for decades.

The respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, infects nearly everyone at some point, causing mild, cold-like symptoms for most people. But it can lead to serious health problems such as difficulty breathing and pneumonia for infants and older adults.

Now several drugmakers including Pfizer Inc., Johnson & JohnsonModerna Inc. and GlaxoSmithKline PLC are testing shots that infectious-disease specialists say show promise at safely preventing RSV disease. Initial development of most of these vaccines predated the current pandemic, but the rapid success in finding effective Covid-19 vaccines has energized the RSV effort, according to analysts.

Good luck.

From the federal government front

  • Meritalk provides a Who’s Who in implementing the President’s Management Agenda. The article explains “As the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) effort to transform the President’s Management Agenda from a list of goals into actionable policy steps gathers steam, OMB is fleshing out its list of Federal agency officials who are taking on leadership roles not only for the three major PMA pushes but for numerous strategic goals within each of them.” The OPM Director Kiran Ajuha is one of three senior federal executives in charge of the PMA’s workforce issues.
  • Federal News Network offers an interview with the Postmaster General Louis Dejoy.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Roll Call reports

Senate negotiators have reached agreement on a $10 billion pandemic relief package that includes funding for domestic needs but not international aid, according to two Senate aides who were not authorized to speak publicly.

The deal crystallizes an informal “agreement in principle” the parties reached last week to provide $10 billion for near-term pandemic needs by repurposing unspent funds from prior relief laws.

The Wall Street Journal adds

The White House backed the deal and urged Congress to pass the bill promptly, while noting it was less than the $22.5 billion the administration had requested for vaccines, boosters, treatments and testing.

“We will continue to work with Congress to fund our remaining domestic needs,” said Press Secretary Jen Psaki in a statement. She added that the White House would continue to press for funding global vaccination efforts.

The FEHBlog noticed that the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a business meeting last Wednesday. The Committee favorably reported the President’s nomination of Kristin Boyd to be OPM Inspector General by voice vote (with Sen. Hawley (R Mo.) voting no). The next step for Ms. Boyd’s nomination is the Senate floor.

Last week, the House of Representatives passed a Secure 2.0 bill applicable to private sector defined contribution plans. The Senate is likely to approve the bill too. The Society for Human Resource Management has reviewed the bill’s provisions.

From the Omicron and siblings front —

  • Becker’s Hospital Review informs us “The World Health Organization is monitoring a new omicron variant — dubbed XE — that’s a hybrid of BA.1, the original omicron strain, and BA.2, a highly transmissible subvariant.” The hybrid is estimated to be 10% more contagious that BA.2.
  • American Hospital Association tells us “Beginning today through the end of the public health emergency, Medicare Part B beneficiaries may obtain up to eight free over-the-counter COVID-19 tests per month through eligible health care providers and pharmacies, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced.” Medicare Part B beneficiaries can obtain the free tests by showing their Medicare identification card.
  • The American Medical Association discusses “How we will know when COVID-19 has become endemic.” The FEHBlog tends to think that we are there.
  • The Centers for Disease Control announced

The new nationwide Test to Treat initiative provides quick access to free treatment for COVID-19. Through this program, people can get tested and – if they are positive and treatments are appropriate for them – receive a prescription from a health care provider, and have their prescription filled all at one location. 
These “One-Stop Test to Treat” sites are available at hundreds of locations nationwide, including pharmacy-based clinics, federally qualified health centers, and long-term care facilities. 
People can continue to be tested and treated by their own health care providers who can appropriately prescribe these oral antivirals at locations where the medicines are distributed. 
A call center 1-800-232-0233 is available every day from 8:00 am to midnight ET to get help in more than 150 other languages.
The Disability Information and Access Line is available to help people with disabilities access services. Call 1-888-677-1199, Monday-Friday from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm ET or email DIAL@usaginganddisability.org.

From the CMS front, the agency announced that “the updated MMSEA Section 111 GHP User Guide version 6.5 has been posted to the GHP User Guide page on CMS.gov. Refer to Chapter 1 for a summary of updates.” Section 111 is a system that has been in place for about 12 years. Section 111 helps CMS keep tabs on Medicare beneficiaries and beneficiaries using data group health plans, including FEHB plans, automobile and liability insurers, and attorneys for injured Medicare beneficiaries.

CMS also released “the Announcement of Calendar Year (CY) 2023 Medicare Advantage (MA) Capitation Rates and Part C and Part D Payment Policies (the Rate Announcement).”

From the healthcare conference front, Fierce Healthcare tells us about the 2022 Health Datapalooza and National Health Policy Conference being held today and tomorrow in Arlington, VA.

From the federal employment front, Govexec reports

Federal employees can hold elected partisan office while also working at their agencies, a key panel found in a ruling setting a new precedent for civil servants. 

Rodney Cowan did not have to give up his role as a county commissioner in Tennessee or be removed from his job with the U.S. Postal Service, the recently reconstituted central body of the Merit Systems Protection Board said in a decision last week. It was one of the first decisions of MSPB’s central board as it addresses its backlog of more than 3,500 cases that have piled up during its five years without a quorum. 

The FEHBlog doubts that we have heard the last word on this issue.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill

Roll Call tells us

Senators negotiating a COVID-19 supplemental funding package have an “agreement in principle” to provide roughly $10 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services to stock up on waning domestic supplies for combating the virus, according to Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

Blunt, the top Republican on the Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said both parties have tentatively agreed to offsets for the $10 billion that would repurpose unspent funds from prior pandemic relief laws.

The offsets negotiators agreed to include $2.2 billion from unused grant funds for venues like zoos and theaters and $2 billion in untapped assistance to the aviation and manufacturing industry, Blunt said. His comments to reporters came after a Republican Conference lunch in which lead GOP negotiator Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah briefed his colleagues on the agreement in principle. 

Fierce Healthcare informs us

The House [of Representatives] passed a bill on Thursday that caps the out-of-pocket cost of insulin at $35 a month for beneficiaries in Medicare Part D and for certain group and individual plans.

The Affordable Insulin Now Act, which passed the House via a 232 to 193 vote, comes as work in the Senate continues on a bipartisan alternative that could bring additional changes. * * *

Private plans would also be required to offer first-dollar coverage of insulin without any deductible, according to an analysis from the Congressional Budget Office. 

The cap on cost-sharing for private insurance plans would implement in 2023.

The Hill offers a related article explaining why insulin prices are so “troubling” high.

HR Dive reports

Among the provisions of this month’s $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill, Congress included a revival of an exemption that allowed high-deductible health plans to cover telehealth before individuals meet their deductible.

The provision was originally created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which sunset at the end of 2021. The provision will resume April 1 but will again sunset at the end of this year.

From the Omicron and siblings front, the Wall Street Journal discusses the state of Covid treatments and offers its advice on who should seek out a second Covid booster besides the immunocompromised.

From the OPM front, Govexec projects OPM’s actions over the next 18 months based on the FY 2022 to FY 2026 strategic plan released last Monday. In short, “Hire, Hire, Hire.”

Govexec also discusses efforts underway by OPM, the Social Security Administration and the Thrift Savings Plan to improve the customer service experience of federal employees and retirees. Good luck with that.

From the research front the National Institutes of Health announced

Scientists have published the first complete, gapless sequence of a human genome, two decades after the Human Genome Project produced the first draft human genome sequence. According to researchers, having a complete, gap-free sequence of the roughly 3 billion bases (or “letters”) in our DNA is critical for understanding the full spectrum of human genomic variation and for understanding the genetic contributions to certain diseases. The work was done by the Telomere to Telomere (T2T) consortium, which included leadership from researchers at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), part of the National Institutes of Health; University of California, Santa Cruz; and University of Washington, Seattle. NHGRI was the primary funder of the study.

Analyses of the complete genome sequence will significantly add to our knowledge of chromosomes, including more accurate maps for five chromosome arms, which opens new lines of research. This helps answer basic biology questions about how chromosomes properly segregate and divide. The T2T consortium used the now-complete genome sequence as a reference to discover more than 2 million additional variants in the human genome. These studies provide more accurate information about the genomic variants within 622 medically relevant genes. * * *

The now-complete human genome sequence will be particularly valuable for studies that aim to establish comprehensive views of human genomic variation, or how people’s DNA differs. Such insights are vital for understanding the genetic contributions to certain diseases and for using genome sequence as a routine part of clinical care in the future. Many research groups have already started using a pre-release version of the complete human genome sequence for their research.  

From the mental healthcare front, the American Hospital Association calls our attention to a new GAO report.

Consumers with health coverage experience challenges finding in-network mental health providers, who may not be accepting new patients or have long wait times to see them, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office. Factors contributing to these challenges include low reimbursement rates for mental health services and inaccurate or out-of-date information on provider networks, GAO said. The report also looks at ongoing and planned federal efforts to address these challenges, for example by increasing the mental health workforce, mental health system capacity and oversight of health plan compliance with mental health parity laws.

This squib caused the FEHBlog to recall a comment that he heard at a conference — Four out of five doctors are in-network but only one out of five mental health providers are in-network with the notable exception of hub and spoke telemental services.

Yesterday the FEHBlog suggested that in return for three free primary care visits and three behavioral health visits, plan members should name and use their in-network primary care provider and primary mental health provider. The FEHBlog is sticking with this idea for the in-network primary care provider but he recognizes the idea may be premature for the in-network primary mental health provider. Of course, creating a looser standard for free mental health care compared to primary care is compliant with the federal health parity rule. The reverse would violate the often fuzzy non-quantitative treatment limitations created by the law.

From the miscellany department —

  • STAT News tells us “With Medicare expected to cover a projected 80 million people by 2030,He entrepreneurs and investors are cashing in on what analysts see as an inevitable shift in health care away from the hospital and into the homes of aging patients.” The publication identifies five related technology trends.
  • Fierce Healthcare reports “Virtual care startup Hims & Hers is teaming up with Carbon Health to offer patients in California with direct access to providers for in-person medical appointments at clinics. The collaboration will provide easy and comprehensive access to a broader range of care options through the Hims & Hers platform, company executives said.”
  • Health Payer Intelligence informs us “Large employers are investing more in their wellness program design in 2022 and their programs revolve around hybrid work environments, job satisfaction, and equity, the Business Group on Health found in a survey.”

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

The President released his Administration’s fiscal year 2023 proposed budget today. Here are links to OMB’s budget website and a Roll Call overview of the proposal.

Here is OPM’s budget wishlist (Budget at 130):

  • Amend administration of tribal FEHB enrollment system
  • Expand family member eligibility under FEDVIP (presumably increasing the age limit for eligible children from 22 to 26)
  • Expand FEDVIP to tribal employees
  • Expand FEHB to tribal colleges and universities.

OPM also released the agency’s FY 2022 to FY 2026 strategic plan today. Here is a link to OPM’s lookbook on that plan. The lookbook (p. 9) identifies one current agency priority goal related to the FEHBP (out of six in total)

Improve customer experience by making it easier for Federal employees, annuitants, and other eligible persons to make more informed health insurance plan selection. By September 30, 2023, complete user-centered design and develop a minimum viable product for a new, state-of-the-art FEHBP Decision Support Tool that will give eligible individuals the necessary information to compare plan benefits, provider networks, prescription costs, and other health information important to them and their families.

In other government reports, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued

the 2021-2030 National Health Expenditure (NHE) report, prepared by the CMS Office of the Actuary, that presents health spending and enrollment projections for the coming decade. The report notably shows that despite the increased demand for patient care in 2021, the growth in national health spending is estimated to have slowed to 4.2%, from 9.7% in 2020, as supplemental funding for public health activity and other federal programs, specifically those associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, declined significantly.

From the Omicron and siblings front —

  • The Centers for Disease Control posted a new “Quarantine and Isolation Calculator — A tool to help determine how long you need to isolate, quarantine, or take other steps to prevent spreading COVID-19.”
  • The Institute for Clinicial and Economic Review issued an evidence report on four Covid outpatient treatments, including the Pfizer and Merck Covid pills.

This Evidence Report will be reviewed at a virtual public meeting of the Midwest CEPAC (Midwest England CEPAC) on April 12, 2022. The Midwest England CEPAC is one of ICER’s three independent evidence appraisal committees comprising medical evidence experts, practicing clinicians, methodologists, and leaders in patient engagement and advocacy.
Register here to watch the live webcast of the virtual meeting.

ICER’s evidence ratings for the treatments reviewed include:

Sotrovimab delivers at least a small net health benefit when compared to no active treatment, with the possibility of a substantial net health benefit (“B+”).

[Merck’s] Molnupiravir is at least comparable to no active treatment, with the potential of a small net health benefit (“C+”).

[Pfizer’s] Paxlovid delivers at least a small net health benefit when compared to no active treatment, with the possibility of a substantial net health benefit (“B+”).

Fluvoxamine is at least comparable to no active treatment, with the potential of a small net health benefit (“C+”).

From the health equity front, Health Leaders Media reports

Despite willingness to address social drivers of health, two-thirds of physicians report inadequate time or ability to act, according to a new survey report.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Nearly all physicians reported that at least one social driver of health affected the health outcomes of all or some their patients.

Financial instability (34% of patients) and transportation problems (24% of patients) were the top two social drivers of health experienced by physicians’ patients.

A solid majority of physicians (80%) reported that addressing social drivers of health is essential to improve health outcomes and decrease healthcare costs.

From the Rx coverage front, the FEHBlog noticed today that GoodRx has added a telehealth option to its website.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

Readers — The FEHBlog wrote the Weekend Update post yesterday, but the publish button didn’t do the job. As a result, the Weekend update post was not emailed out yesterday but you can read it on our firm’s website.

From Capitol Hill, Roll Call updates us on Administration efforts to obtain additional Covid funding.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md, said last week that lawmakers were looking at other previously appropriated pandemic funding that could be reallocated to pay for the $15.6 billion package lawmakers had agreed on.

The White House is urging Congress to pass the supplemental package [totallling $22.5 billion] without offsets, as it did with bipartisan support early in the pandemic.

But Republicans are unlikely to back any COVID aid package without sufficient offsets.

From the Omicron and siblings front —

  • The Wall Street Journal seeks to inform its readers about available Covid treatments.
  • Medscape explains why doctors are finding hurdles to use Covid pills to treat the disease. “Doctors hailed the pills as a huge advance in the fight against COVID-19 partly because of their convenience compared to other treatments that require infusions or injections. But patients can miss the pills’ short window if they dismiss symptoms like a headache or sniffles and wait [more than five days after symptoms present] to see if they go away before seeking help.” This appear to be where the test to treatment program can help, but where is promised website?

In other healthcare news —

  • Healthcare Dive considers what is holding up the widespread adoption of hospital at home programs.
  • Fierce Healthcare offers an interview with Javier Rodriguez, the CEO of the leading dialysis company DaVita.
  • Health Payer Intelligence discusses AHIP’s views on the advantages of applying value based care approaches to maternity services.

From the upcoming events front

  • AHIP informs us

The Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs will host a virtual event on Tuesday, March 22nd – 3:30pm-4:30pm to hear from Josh Peck, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Engagement, about communications resources to encourage those who are eligible to get their COVID- 19 booster.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Peck will share background and information on how to access resources to support your efforts. Following the presentation there will be time for Q & A.

PEC Brief: Payers

Tuesday, March 22nd | 3:30 – 4:30 PM EDT

Zoom Meeting Link | Passcode: 591497 Meeting ID: 160 756 9170

Dial by your location

+1 669 254 5252 US (San Jose) +1 646 828 7666 US (New York) +1 551 285 1373 US

  • The Centers for Disease Control tells us

Tuesday, March 22nd is Diabetes Alert Day—an annual wake-up call to inform the public about the seriousness of diabetes. Did you know:

  • More than 37 million people in the United States have diabetes, and 1 in 5 of them don’t know they have it.
  • 96 million US adults have prediabetes, but more than 8 in 10 of them don’t know they do.
  • In the last 20 years, the number of adults diagnosed with diabetes has more than doubled as the American population has aged and obesity has increased.

If you have diabetes, you’re not alone! Join us on social media this Diabetes Alert Day to share your tips on living well with diabetes and learn what others are doing too.

WHO: We’ll be talking to our followers (that means YOU too) to hear their tips and strategies on managing diabetes, diabetes-friendly food hacks, and more!

WHEN: Tuesday, March 22nd from 9:30 AM to 5 PM ET.

WHERE: You can find us on Twitter or Facebook when you use or search for #TipsForDiabetes.

WHY: To spread awareness and connect with others who are living with diabetes.