Friday Factoids

Friday Factoids

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

From Washington DC

  • The Wall Street Journal reports
    • “President Biden said negotiators were closing in on a deal to cut spending and raise the $31.4 trillion debt limit, seeking to overcome final hurdles on issues regarding the budget as well as requiring more people to work to receive federal benefits.
    • “He said talks are “very close” to reaching an agreement and that he was hopeful that there could be a breakthrough as soon as later on Friday. “I hope we’ll have some clear evidence tonight, before the clock strikes 12, that we have a deal,” he said as he departed the White House for Camp David on Friday evening.
    • “Negotiators are hoping to strike a deal soon in order to set up votes on the legislation next week. The Treasury Department, which is currently using extraordinary measures to avoid exceeding the debt ceiling, estimated Friday that the government could run out of money to pay its bills if Congress doesn’t act by June 5.
    • “Treasury had previously put the deadline as early June, saying it could come as soon as June 1. Any legislation would likely take at least several days to pass both the House and Senate.
  • Govexec tells us
    • “The federal government’s HR agency on Wednesday unveiled new guidance aimed at standardizing and revitalizing employee assistance programs across the federal government, an effort officials said would prioritize employee wellness and improve productivity.
    • “Like many private sector employers, federal agencies often offer employees access to employee assistance programs, which provide services related to maintaining one’s mental and physical health, as well as resources related to substance use issues.
    • “The Office of Personnel Management, spurred by a provision of President Biden’s management agenda tasking agencies with promoting “awareness of employee well-being and [supporting] initiatives that extend beyond the workplace,” underwent a year-long effort to design a “standardized approach” to employee wellness programs, consulting with focus groups, health experts and vendors who provide assistance programs to employers.
    • “The result is a 19-page guidance document for agencies to reassess their assistance program offerings and, if necessary, expand them.
  • The FEHBlog wonders why OPM silos its various benefit programs rather than integrate them to get more bang for the buck.

From the healthcare costs front —

  • Milliman has released its 2023 Medical Index. Milliman estimates the healthcare cost for a hypothetical family of four enrolled in a hypothetical PPO plan is $31,065, a 5.6% increase over 2022.
  • The Medical Group Management Association issued its 2023 Physician Compensation and Productivity Benchmarks.
    • “Productivity remained relatively flat or only slightly increased relative to pre-pandemic benchmarks, with the biggest change in work RVUs posted in dermatology, hematology/oncology, and family medicine (without OB). 
    • “The growth in median total compensation for primary care physicians (PCPs) doubled from 2021 (2.13%) to 2022 (4.41%), but was outpaced by inflation at 7% and 6.5%, respectively. 
    • “Surgical and nonsurgical specialists saw their change in median total compensation cool slightly in 2022, dropping from 3.89% for surgical specialists in 2021 to 2.54% in 2022, and from 3.12% for nonsurgical physicians in 2021 to 2.36% in 2022. 
    • “APPs [advanced practice providers]— who saw the biggest change in median total compensation from pre-pandemic levels — saw their 2022 growth ebb slightly to 3.70%, down from 3.98% growth in 2021.” 

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Beckers Hospital Review points out
    • “There are 293 rural hospitals at immediate risk of closure due to inflation, staffing shortages and other financial stress, according to the Center for Healthcare Quality & Payment Reform
    • “Hospitals at immediate risk of closure have lost money on patient services for multiple years, excluding 2020 during the pandemic, and aren’t likely to receive sufficient funds to cover the losses with public assistance ending, according to the report. These hospitals also have low reserves and more debt than assets.”
  • MedCity News relates
    • “The pandemic prompted a great need for technology-enabled care delivery, so the regulations surrounding reimbursement for these services were tossed out the window in 2020. Now that the public health emergency has ended, the healthcare industry has to figure out how it is going to pay for digital health services going forward.
    • “It’s clear that services like telehealth and remote patient monitoring have potential to provide value, but hospitals and digital health companies need to show payers clearer evidence of the outcomes these care modalities can produce, panelists argued during a Wednesday session at MedCity News’ INVEST conference in Chicago.” 
  • STAT News adds market perspective on the Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of Paxlovid, announced yesterday.
    • “The full approval for treating adults at high risk of progression to severe disease will help Pfizer expand its marketing campaign. U.S. officials plan to work through much of the government’s Paxlovid inventory, which is available for free at pharmacies around the country, before moving to a normal commercial market for the drug. Pfizer has sold the U.S. government nearly 24 million courses at around $530 a course, but it is not clear yet what price the company will charge.”

From the interoperability front —

  • The Pharmacy Times tells us
    • “Integrating Immunization Information Systems (IIS) vaccination records into claims data (collected by health insurers) increased the number of people identified as being vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the results of a study published in JAMA Network Open. Having accurate COVID-19 vaccination data is important for future COVID-19 vaccine studies that capture efficacy and safety, according to the study.
    • “When claims data were supplemented with IIS vaccination records, the proportion of participants with at least one vaccine dose rose from 32.8% to 48.1%. And when IIS vaccine records were included with claims data, the percentage of people who completed a vaccine series increased from 24.4% to 41.9%, varying by state.”
  • Per FCW
    • The Food and Drug Administration is looking to develop standardized “supersets of data” and improve data interoperability, analysis and management across the agency, an official said on Wednesday. 
    • The agency is planning to gather information and seek public input on the use of real-world data in its decision-making processes, according to Jose Galvez, deputy director for the office of strategic programs of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. 
    • Galvez said at the Professional Services Council 2023 FedHealth Summit that the FDA is set to release a Federal Register notice “very shortly” to gain industry input on evaluating new types of data analysis.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From Washington, DC, —

  • The New York Times reports
    • “Top White House officials and Republican lawmakers were closing in on Thursday on a deal that would raise the debt limit for two years while capping federal spending on everything but the military and veterans for the same period. Officials were racing to cement an agreement in time to avert a federal default that is projected in just one week.
    • “The deal taking shape would allow Republicans to say that they were reducing some federal spending — even as spending on the military and veterans’ programs would continue to grow — and allow Democrats to say they had spared most domestic programs from significant cuts.
    • “Negotiators from both sides were talking into the evening and beginning to draft legislative text, though some details remained in flux.”
  • The Wall Street Journal adds
    • “The Treasury Department is preparing to change how the U.S. processes federal agencies’ payments if the debt ceiling is breached, dusting off a contingency plan crafted after the 2011 borrowing-limit standoff, people familiar with the matter said.
    • “Just days away from becoming unable to pay all of the government’s bills on time unless Congress raises the debt limit, Treasury officials have been quietly laying the groundwork for potentially delaying some payments after June 1.
    • “Under the backup plan created for a debt-limit breach, federal agencies would submit payments to the Treasury Department no sooner than the day before they are due, the people familiar with the talks said. That would represent a change from the current system, in which agencies may submit payment files well before their due dates. The Treasury Department processes them on a rolling basis, often ahead of the deadlines. Some payments are already sent to the department one day early, one person said. 
    • “The plan would enable the Treasury to make daily decisions about whether it can pay all of the government’s bills the next day.”
  • Back to the New York Times,
    • “The [U.S.] House of Representatives passed legislation on Thursday that would make permanent harsh criminal penalties and strict controls on fentanyl-related drugs, with scores of Democrats joining nearly all Republicans in a vote that reflected the political challenges of tackling what both parties consider America’s most pressing drug crisis.
    • “The bill, approved by a vote of 289 to 133, would permanently list fentanyl-related drugs as Schedule I controlled substances, a designation that mandates severe prison sentences for highly addictive, nonmedicinal chemicals, and which is now set to expire at the end of 2024.
    • “The bipartisan vote reflected agreement among Republicans and a solid bloc of Democrats that stiffening penalties for fentanyl-related drugs is a necessary component of the federal response to the crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were roughly 75,000 synthetic opioid overdose deaths in 2022, with fentanyl being a main culprit.”
  • Federal News Network informs us
    • “With many agencies’ return-to-office plans still uncertain, Republicans on the House Oversight and Accountability Committee want to take matters into their own hands.
    • “GOP committee leaders changed their strategy for trying to get more federal telework data, now reaching out directly to agency heads. In a series of 25 letters, the lawmakers asked for up-to-date  numbers of teleworking federal employees, after saying the Biden administration was “not adequately tracking the specific levels of telework.”
    • “The Biden administration “has not provided current data about the specific amount of telework occurring within federal agencies or across the entire federal workforce. Furthermore, it has provided no objective evidence concerning the impact of elevated telework on agency performance — including any deleterious impacts,” lawmakers said in the letters, published May 18.”

From the Rx coverage front —

  • Today the Food and Drug Administration granted full marketing approval to Paxlovid, the Covid treatment pill, which in the FEHBlog’s opinion, brought us to the end of the pandemic. Here’s a link to a MedPage Today report on this FDA action
  • The Institute for Clinical and Economic Research released “a Final Evidence Report assessing the comparative clinical effectiveness and value of resmetirom (Madrigal Pharmaceuticals, Inc.) and obeticholic acid (Ocaliva®, Intercept Pharmaceuticals, Inc.) for non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).”
    • “Independent appraisal committee narrowly voted that currently available evidence for resmetirom is adequate to demonstrate a net health benefit over lifestyle management, whereas current evidence for obeticholic acid was deemed inadequate to demonstrate a net health benefit —
    • “ICER analyses suggest resmetirom would achieve common thresholds for cost-effectiveness if priced between $39,600 – $50,100 per year assuming that short-term effects on liver fibrosis translate into longer-term reductions in cirrhosis; under the same assumptions, obeticholic acid would achieve common thresholds for cost-effectiveness if priced between $32,600 – $40,400 per year.
    • “Payers should develop coverage criteria based on non-invasive testing to foster equitable access to early detection and treatment across diverse communities.
  • BioPharma Dive tells us
    • “Apellis Pharmaceuticals on Thursday became the latest drugmaker to give up on a potential treatment for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurodegenerative disorder that has frustrated researchers for decades.
    • “The decision came after a Phase 2 trial showed no benefit for the drug, known as systemic pegcetacoplan, compared with a placebo. It failed to meet the primary endpoint, measured by a statistical tool called the Combined Assessment of Function and Survival, as well as secondary goals assessing overall function, survival, lung function and muscle strength.
    • “The final results weren’t a total surprise; an independent board monitoring the study had already advised the company not to start a second, “open-label” part of the trial that would have offered the medicine to all participants after the initial 52-week research period. Apellis executives had also signaled to analysts that the trial had a low chance of success.”

From the miscellany department —

  • The National Institutes of Health announced
    • “Initial findings from a study of nearly 10,000 Americans, many of whom had COVID-19, have uncovered new details about long COVID, the post-infection set of conditions that can affect nearly every tissue and organ in the body. Clinical symptoms can vary and include fatigue, brain fog, and dizziness, and last for months or years after a person has COVID-19. The research team, funded by the National Institutes of Health, also found that long COVID was more common and severe in study participants infected before the 2021 Omicron variant.
    • The study, published in JAMA, is coordinated through the NIH’s Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery initiative, a nationwide effort dedicated to understanding why some people develop long-term symptoms following COVID-19, and most importantly, how to detect, treat, and prevent long COVID. The researchers hope this study is the next step toward potential treatments for long COVID, which affects the health and well-being of millions of Americans.
  • The New York Times discusses the miraculous case of a paralyzed man who has begun to walk again thanks to brain and spine “implants that provided a “digital bridge” between his brain and his spinal cord, bypassing injured sections” of his body.
  • HealthDay relates
    • “Older Americans are increasingly likely to log into “patient portals” to access their health care information — but confidence levels vary. 
    • “About 78% of people aged 50 to 80 now use at least one patient portal, according to the new University of Michigan (U-M) National Poll on Healthy Aging. 
    • “Five years ago, just 51% in this age range used patient portals, the researchers said. 
    • “The poll also found that 55% of those who used patient portals had done so in the past month. About 49% had accounts on more than one portal. 
    • “This surge is partly due to the increase in use of telehealth visits, said Denise Anthony, the U-M School of Public Health professor who worked on the poll.
    • “This change makes access to secure portals even more important for older adults who want to see their doctors and other health care providers virtually. It also makes the disparities we found in our poll even more troubling,” Anthony said in a Michigan Medicine news release. 
    • “Older adults with annual household incomes below $60,000, and those who were Black or Hispanic, had lower rates of portal use. These groups were also less likely to say they’re comfortable using a portal.”
  • The Washington Post reports
    • “U.S. authorities have seized increasing quantities of illegal ketamine, according to new research, a trend that coincides with the psychedelic drug’s rising popularity as a treatment for mental health ailments.
    • “The number of ketamine seizures by federal, state and local law enforcement in the United States increased from 55 in 2017 to 247 in 2022, while the total weight increased by more than 1,000 percent over that time, according to a letter published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry. Most of the ketamine was in powder form, which could raise the risk of being adulterated with deadly drugs such as fentanyl.”

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From Washington DC —

Fedweek reports on Postal Services Health Benefit Program developments. The headline is that OPM expects “lots of questions” about the new program, which will launch in 2025. The good news for OPM and everyone effect affected is that the law requires the Postal Service to stand up a PSHBP education program this summer, which includes PSHBP navigators similar to the approach taken with the ACA marketplace.

FedWeek also tells us that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit rejected on procedural grounds a federal employee challenge to the Biden Administration’s Covid vaccine mandate for federal employees. The mandate has been blocked by a preliminary injunction in another federal judicial circuit. In any event, the vaccine mandates will end on May 12, the day after the Covid public health emergencies end.

From Capital Hill –

Fierce Healthcare informs us

A key Senate committee advanced legislation to ban pharmacy benefit manager tactics, such as spread pricing and clawback fees, and heighten transparency of the industry. 

The Senate Commerce Committee passed the PBM Transparency Act of 2023 by a vote of 18 to 9 on Wednesday, advancing the reform legislation to the full Senate. Lawmakers said the legislation is meant to address a source of unfair and deceptive practices that increase drug prices. 

Senators Chuck Grassley (R Iowa) and Maggie Hanson (D NH) have “introduced the Healthy Moms and Babies Act to improve maternal and child health care. The United States has a maternal health crisis that particularly affects women of color and those living in rural America. The Healthy Moms and Babies Act would achieve its goal by

  • Coordinating and providing “whole-person” care, supporting outcome-focused and community-based prevention, and supporting stillbirth prevention activities and expanding the maternal health workforce.  
  • Modernizing maternal health care through telehealth to support women of color and women living in rural America. 
  • Reducing maternal mortality and high-risk pregnancies including C-section births, and improving our understanding of social determinants of health in pregnant and postpartum women.

STAT News relates

The future of Alzheimer’s treatments and coverage hung heavily over lawmakers’ Wednesday [March 22 Senate Finance Committee] hearing with Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.

Dotted throughout the hearing room for Becerra’s testimony on the president’s proposed health care budget for 2024 were purple-clad advocates for Alzheimer’s disease treatments, who Democrats and Republicans alike acknowledged repeatedly throughout the hearing. But while senators from both parties pushed for speedy approvals and Medicare coverage of new drugs for the disease, they unsurprisingly diverged on how to manage the costs.

At the center of discussions was a controversial Medicare decision, last year, not to cover Biogen’s Aduhelm except through clinical trials, a decision later extended to Eisai’s Leqembi. The Food and Drug Administration approved both via the accelerated pathway, with limited data on either drug’s effectiveness. The drugmakers are required to follow up with more extensive data proving each medicine’s benefit.

CMS expects to revisit this Medicare decision publicly this summer.

Beckers Hospital Reviews highlights

For about an hour and a half on March 22, four pharmaceutical supply experts outlined ideas to lawmakers to reform the nation’s slippery access to critical drugs. 

The FDA reports 130 drugs are currently in shortage; the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists says there are 302. Recently, the availability of vital drugs for cancer patients and emergencies has shrunk, and the closure of a U.S. drugmaker could put more out of stock. 

The hearing waded through causes of shortages — including manufacturing delays and opaque supply data. Some members on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs pushed back on some pitched solutions, such as changing FDA practices and working to control drug prices.

In 2022, the number of new drug shortages increased by 30 percent, according to a report released by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hours before the hearing began.

“Colleagues and other hospitals have asked me to respond to the never-ending game of drug shortage Whac-A-Mole,” Andrew Shuman, MD, chief of the clinical ethics service center for bioethics and social sciences in medicine for the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, said during the hearing. 

The House Ways and Means Committee’s Health subcommittee held a hearing yesterday on healthcare costs. The American Hospital Association submitted  a letter to the subcommittee that “shared how rising labor and other costs for hospitals and health systems are exacerbating workforce shortages and delaying patient access to care.”

Looking forward, Mercer Consulting identifies innovation in cancer treatment and prevention as the next frontier and McKinsey and Co. explores the pharmacy of the future.

From the miscellany department —

  • Medscape reports
    • “Use of nirmatrelvir-ritonavir (Paxlovid) in older adults with risk factors for severe disease was associated with a roughly 25% lower risk of a post-COVID condition (PCC), a retrospective study of Veterans Affairs data showed.
    • “In the cohort of over 280,000 patients with a confirmed COVID case, 13% of those prescribed nirmatrelvir-ritonavir went on to develop a PCC over the following 6 months compared with 18% of those who were not prescribed the antiviral (relative risk [RR] 0.74, 95% CI 0.72-0.77), Ziyad Al-Aly, MD, of the VA St. Louis Health Care System in St. Louis, and colleagues reported.” Fehblog observation: Go Paxlovid!
  • Per Beckers Hospital Review
    • 42% of adults in the U.S. are living with obesity, meaning they have a body mass index of 30 or higher, according to an analysis from NORC at the University of Chicago. 
    • Researchers used 2013 to 2021 data from the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System to estimate obesity rates at the national and state level. To account for any reporting biases in the BMI measure, NORC adjusted BMI distribution to that of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey for corresponding time periods. NORC also created an interactive map to present its findings. 
    • The article lists estimated state obesity rates for 2019 to 2021, ranked from highest (Mississippi – 51%) to lowest (Colorado 34%). FEHBlog observation At least one-third of every state’s population is morbidly obese, and yet we wonder why the life expectancy of Americans is dropping.
  • Medscape notes
    • For women who are overdue for cervical cancer screening, mailing self-sampling kits for high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) is a cost-effective means of increasing screening uptake, reveals an analysis of a large US trial.
    • The finding comes from a randomized trial in almost 20,000 women, which compared women who received a mailed HPV testing kit with those who did not. The results show that mailing was most cost-effective in women aged 50-64 years and in those who were only recently overdue for cervical screening.
    • The study was published by JAMA Network Open on March 22.
    • “These results support mailing HPV kits as an efficient outreach strategy for increasing screening rates in US health care systems,” say the authors, led by Rachel L. Winer, PhD, MPH, Department of Epidemiology, University of Washington School of Public Health, Seattle, Washington. (FEHBlog observation: Good idea.)

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

The Wall Street Journal reported this morning that maternal mortality cases in the U.S. spiked in 2021, rising from around 850 to 1200 nationwide. From examining Journal reader comments, the FEHBlog ran across a helpful breakdown of maternal deaths per U.S. state.  The lowest maternal death rate is in California, and the highest maternal death rate is in Louisiana.  The breakdown points out what the States with the lowest rates are doing right and what the States with the highest rates are doing to remedy the problem. Healthcare is local.

The FEHBlog also was directed to this article from the T.H. Chan public health school at Harvard:

October 21, 2022 – Women in the U.S. who are pregnant or who have recently given birth are more likely to be murdered than to die from obstetric causes—and these homicides are linked to a deadly mix of intimate partner violence and firearms, according to researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Homicide deaths among pregnant women are more prevalent than deaths from hypertensive disorders, hemorrhage, or sepsis, wrote Rebecca Lawn, postdoctoral research fellow, and Karestan Koenen, professor of psychiatric epidemiology, in an October 19 editorial in the journal BMJ.

The U.S. has a higher prevalence of intimate partner violence than comparable countries, such violence is often fatal, and it frequently involves guns, Lawn and Koenen noted. They cited one study that found that, from 2009–2019, 68% of pregnancy-related homicides involved firearms. That study also found that Black women face substantially higher risk of being killed than white or Hispanic women.

I also located the CDC’s website on keeping new mothers alive.

This evening the Journal discussed why our country’s maternal mortality rate is so high.

Finally, STAT News reports that this afternoon the Centers for Disease Control announced preliminary 2022 maternal mortality figures.

Deaths of pregnant women in the U.S. fell in 2022, dropping significantly from a six-decade high during the pandemic, new data suggests.

More than 1,200 U.S. women died in 2021 during pregnancy or shortly after childbirth, according to a final tally released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2022, there were 733 maternal deaths, according to preliminary agency data, though the final number is likely to be higher.

Officials say the 2022 maternal death rate is on track to get close to pre-pandemic levels. But that’s not great: The rate before Covid-19 was the highest it had been in decades.

The CDC counts women who die while pregnant, during childbirth, and up to 42 days after birth. Excessive bleeding, blood vessel blockages, and infections are leading causes.

Covid-19 can be particularly dangerous to pregnant women, and experts believe it was the main reason for the 2021 spike. Burned out physicians may have added to the risk by ignoring pregnant women’s worries, some advocates said.

In 2021, there were about 33 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births. The last time the government recorded a rate that high was 1964.

What happened “isn’t that hard to explain,” said Eugene Declercq, a long-time maternal mortality researcher at Boston University. “The surge was Covid-related.”

The FEHBlog’s goal is to provide perspective on this vital issue.

From the Omicron and siblings front, MedPage Today informs us

An FDA panel recommended the agency grant full approval to nirmatrelvir-ritonavir (Paxlovid) for treating high-risk COVID-19.

By a vote of 16-1 on Thursday, the Antimicrobial Drugs Advisory Committee said the totality of evidence supports the traditional approval of the oral antiviral, which has been widely used since late 2021 under an emergency use authorization to reduce the risk of hospitalization or death in outpatients at risk for severe outcomes.

“Besides oxygen, Paxlovid has probably been the single most important treatment tool in this epidemic, and it continues to be,” said Richard Murphy, MD, MPH, of the White River Junction VA Medical Center in Hartford, Vermont.

The Mercer consulting firm considers employer approaches to coverage of Covid tests following the end of the public health emergency.

Employers have some important decisions to make over the next two months before the COVID Public Health Emergency (PHE) comes to an end on May 11. One is how to handle cost-sharing for PCR and other COVID tests and related services provided by a licensed healthcare or otherwise authorized provider. Under the PHE, group health plans had to cover testing received either in- or out-of-network at no cost to participants. 

We recently polled recipients of our New Shape of Work newsletter to ask whether they planned to impose cost-sharing requirements once allowed. Of the more than 1,000 readers who responded, about half indicated that their organization will  not make any change when the PHE ends:  22% will continue to cover PCR testing at 100% both in- and out-of-network, and 29% say that they require COVID testing at their worksites and provide it at no cost.  Only about a fourth (26%) will now require cost-sharing from participants even when they use an in-network facility for testing; about another fourth (23%) will add a cost-sharing requirement only for out-of-network services.   

Personally, the FEHBlog would opt for restoring a cost-sharing requirement only for out-of-network services.

From the Rx coverage front

  • STAT News tells us, “Following the lead of its rivals, Sanofi will cut the price of its most widely prescribed insulin in the U.S. by 78% and also place a $35 cap on out-of-pocket costs for commercially insured patients who take the treatment, which is called Lantus. The moves will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2024.”
  • The Mercer consulting firm offers its perspective on coverage of the new era of weight loss drugs, e.g., Ozempic.

For plans covering weight-loss medications, adding prior authorization criteria can help manage cost growth. These include requirements such as a certain body mass index (BMI), co-morbid conditions, enrollment in a behavior modification program, and/or reduced calorie diet. Upon initiation of therapy, patients and clinicians should partner to create a comprehensive plan to achieve goals and use the medication purposefully alongside a targeted and managed lifestyle program. The plan should include a discussion regarding medication discontinuation when/if goals are met to prevent relapse and weight regain/ weight cycling. Medical nutrition therapy (MNT) with a registered dietitian should be covered; ideally 14 in-person or telenutrition sessions.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, self-monitoring, motivational interviewing, structured meal plans, portion control and goal setting are recommended interventions. Ideally, patients would progress from dietary intervention (covered MNT or weight management solution), to weight loss medications, and then, potentially, to bariatric surgery.  

In recognition of Patient Safety Awareness Week, the Partnership to Fight Infectious Disease announced, making March 18 a day of action to raise awareness of the need to #squashsuperbugs so that we can all do our part to prepare and perhaps even prevent a future pandemic due to antibiotic resistance.

From the No Surprises Act front, Fierce Healthcare reports

An “astronomical” number of surprise billing arbitration dispute cases is impacting the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), a top agency official said.

Education and communication are integral to an “orderly transition” in the handling of independent dispute resolutions for out-of-pocket charges, the official said. The agency has grappled with legal issues and implementation hiccups surrounding a controversial process for settling feuds between payers and providers on out-of-network charges.

“We are seeing more than expected number of disputes getting to that last stopgap part, which is the independent dispute resolution part,” said Ellen Montz, director of CMS’ Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight. Montz spoke during a session Wednesday at the AHIP Medicare, Medicaid, Duals & Commercial Markets Forum in Washington, D.C. 

The agency is also seeing a lot of ineligible cases that don’t qualify for the dispute resolution process, which requires a third party to choose between out-of-network charges submitted by the payer and provider. 

These ineligible cases require “a lot of casework, phone calls and back and forth to determine eligibility,” Montz said. 

From the Medicare front, Healthcare Dive tells us

The group that advises Congress on Medicare policy is recommending updating base physician payment rates by 1.45% for 2024, according to its annual March report out Wednesday.

The Medicare Advisory Payment Commission, or MedPAC, did not make recommendations for ambulatory surgery center payment updates or for Medicare Advantage plans.

The commission did note concern with MA plan coding intensity, and said Medicare now spends more on MA enrollees than it would have spent had those enrollees remained in fee-for-service plans.

The FEHBlog doubts that this MedPAC report made anyone happy.

From the federal employee benefits front, FedWeek reminds folks that while the dependent care flexible spending accounts available to federal employees typically are used for child care, they also can be used for senior care in certain circumstances.

Midweek Update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

From the Affordable Care Act front, the WTW consulting firm informs us

Group health plans and health insurance issuers will not be required to submit certain information on air ambulance services by March 31, 2023 (the deadline included in an example in the proposed regulations). The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has informally confirmed that since final regulations have not yet been issued, no reporting is required in 2023.

Also following up on recent posts, Healthcare Dive tells us that

Amazon completed its $3.9 billion acquisition of primary care chain One Medical on Wednesday, significantly increasing its healthcare offerings with the addition of physical medical clinics.


UnitedHealth has closed its $5.4 billion acquisition of home health business LHC Group, continuing a trend of payers elbowing into direct care delivery.

In other U.S. healthcare business news, Forbes points out that

Aledade, a startup that helps primary care doctors enter into value-based contracts with insurers, has acquired artificial intelligence software company Curia. The acquisition follows a pilot program, where Aledade used Curia’s predictive algorithms to identify 8,000 patients to get them enrolled in a special end-of-life care program. 

In a bit of good regulatory news for the FEHB Program, the CMS has delayed for up to one year final rulemaking on a civil monetary penalty rule for Medicare secondary payer violations. The proposed rule issued in Feburary 2020 treated FEHB plans and other group health plans inequitably as compared to non-group health plans, including trial lawyers. The FEHBlog is glad that CMS is trying to create a fair rule.

In other regulatory news, the Food and Drug Administration announced filing civil monetary penalty complaints against four e-cigarette manufacturers.

From the medical research front, MedPage Today reports

Patients with mild to moderate COVID-19 treated with the oral antiviral ensitrelvir within 5 days of symptom onset saw their symptoms resolve a day earlier, according to data from a phase II/III randomized trial.

Median time to symptom resolution was 24.3 hours earlier for patients treated with 125-mg ensitrelvir compared with those receiving placebo (P=0.04), reported Takeki Uehara, PhD, senior vice president of drug development and regulatory science at Shionogi and Co. in Osaka, Japan, during the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections. * * *

Ensitrelvir is a novel 3C-like protease inhibitor that targets the SARS-CoV-2 virus. “Because of its mode of action, ensitrelvir maintains antiviral activities across various different types of variants, including recently circulating Omicron variants,” Uehara said.

Of note, follow-up of patients continued out to 3 months and 6 months to evaluate the drug’s effectiveness on long COVID.


An important new study came out last week in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), which found that a candidate vaccine against RSV was highly effective in preventing lower respiratory tract (read: lung) disease [in adults]. The study also found the vaccine prevented severe disease.

The study has many of the features you want to see from a well-conducted study: the vaccine was compared to placebo and the study was blinded, meaning that participants and the scientists carrying out the analysis were not aware of who got what. The study had nearly 25,000 participants and was carried out across 17 nations.

The vaccine was found to be over 80% effective against lower respiratory tract disease (the main outcome the study was designed to measure) and 94% effective against severe disease. This is great news.

.From the Rx coverage front —

  • Bloomberg relates “Eli Lilly & Co said on Tuesday that all doses of its new diabetes drug Mounjaro are now available after social-media enthusiasm about the drug’s weight-loss benefits sparked a two-month-long shortage.”


  • The Wall Street Journal reports
    • Drugs like Ozempic have become so popular among people seeking to lose weight that they are now in short supply for patients with diabetes who depend on the medicines.
    • Diabetes patients said they are spending hours trying to find nearby pharmacies that have their prescriptions in stock. If they don’t, some patients have had to reduce dosing of Ozempic and similar drugs to stretch out their supplies, or switch to alternative drugs.
    • The shortfalls are making it harder for people with diabetes to keep their blood-sugar levels low and limit their risk of complications like kidney disease and damage to blood vessels, doctors said.  * * *
    • Novo Nordisk A/S, which sells Ozempic, has been moving to expand production capacity. People may still experience periodic shortages, however, Chief Executive Lars Fruergaard Jorgensen said, because the work hasn’t been finished while demand may remain high. 
  • Biopharma Dive tells us
    • By and large, doctors appear to be comfortable prescribing biosimilar drugs, the copycat version of biologic medicines like inflammatory disease drug Humira or eye treatment Lucentis. But they aren’t yet sure the discounts offered are enough to justify switching patients who are stable on the brand-name products, according to an annual report from healthcare distributor Cardinal Health released Wednesday. * * *
    • [A] majority of physicians from the three Humira-prescribing specialties [rheumatology, gastroenterology and dermatology] said they were “very” or “somewhat” comfortable prescribing biosimilars, including 100% of gastroenterologists. Among the ophthalmologists, 48% said they were “uncomfortable from a clinical standpoint” among their primary concerns prescribing biosimilars.
    • When asked which patients they are most likely to prescribe a biosimilar, the most common response among the Humira-prescribing specialists was “existing patients for whom payers have mandated a biosimilar,” suggesting that insurers’ policies will drive uptake. However, 40% of rheumatologists said “new patients” would be the most likely people to get a biosimilar prescription.
  • Drug Channels offers its annual update on copay assistance accumulator and maximizer programs.

From the miscellany department –

  • The Milbank Memorial Fund issued a Baseline Scorecard Tracking Support for High Quality Primary Care. The baseline leaves a lot of room for improvement.
  • Fierce Healthcare informs us that CMS recently has issued price transparency warnings to hospitals, 300 of which have been satisfactorily resolved.
  • Health Payer Intelligence reports
    • While Medicare Advantage enrollment has increased by 1.5 million beneficiaries in 2023, this marks a slower growth compared to the last three years, according to data from Chartis.
    • The analysis reflects Medicare Advantage enrollment, plan, and pricing data from January 2019 to January 2023.
    • Between 2019 and 2023, Medicare Advantage enrollment has grown by 2.1 percent. As of January 2023, 46 percent of all Medicare beneficiaries are enrolled in Medicare Advantage, translating to 29.5 million people. * * *

Happy Presidents’ Day

Mount Rushmore

The House of Representatives and the Senate are on District/State work breaks this week.

Govexec alerts us, “Labor Secretary Marty Walsh will be leaving the Biden administration in mid-March to become executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association.” 

Federal News Network offers an update on implementing the Postal Service Health Benefits Program that takes effect on January 1, 2025. The article expresses concern about a tight timeline for implementation. The article does not consider OPM’s January 2023 decision to allow FEHB plans to offer Medicare Part D EGWPs in 2024. That welcome decision puts the new PSHBP and the existing FEHB on a similar footing.

While the new PSHBP will be more tightly integrated with Medicare Part B., the benefits of that phased in change will develop over time. For example, although the Postal Services will offer a one-time, penalty-free Part B Special Open Enrollment Period next year for annuitants over 65 who did not elect Part B, early retirees under 65 and active employees over age 64 on January 1, 2025, will be exempt from the PSHBP’s mandatory Part B election requirement.

In other FEHB news, AHIP has made available a topic overview for the March 29 – 30 OPM AHIP FEHB Carrier Conference.

In OPM news, Meritalk breaks down last week’s inaugural DEIA Annual Report from OPM’s Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (ODEIA).

From the Omicron and siblings front, the Wall Street Journal and Fierce Healthcare report on the Covid death rate. The Journal points out, “Deaths caused by Covid are heavily concentrated among the elderly, an analysis of CDC data shows. In recent weeks people 75 years and older have represented about seven of every 10 Covid-19 deaths.” Fierce Healthcare provides this perspective:

The JAMA Network Open study concluded that “COVID-19 due to the Omicron variant was associated with a higher risk of in-hospital mortality compared with patients with influenza. This indicates that the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant should still be taken seriously, and improved prevention and treatment strategies are still highly relevant, although overburdening of the health care system has become less likely over time.”

Fortune Well tells us about the importance of cardiac care following even a mild case of Covid.

In a bid to determine why and how COVID can affect the heart, Dr. Andrew Marks, a cardiologist and biophysics professor at Columbia University, and Steven Reiken, a research scientist in his lab, studied heart tissue from people who died of COVID, in addition to the hearts of mice that had been infected with COVID.

Among their findings, which they’ll present Monday at the 67th Annual Biophysical Society Meeting in San Diego:

  • Heart tissue from humans shows increased levels of oxidative stress and inflammation, and changes in calcium levels due to damage to the system that regulates them in the heart. Such alterations can lead to arrhythmia or heart failure, according to the researchers.
  • Chest pain and tachycardia, or an unusually fast heartbeat, are common long-term among COVID survivors.
  • Heart tissue from mice shows an increased percentage of fibrosis and dilation of fibers—a common signal of early cardiomyopathy, which makes it more difficult for the heart to pump blood and can result in heart failure.
  • The death of heart cells and blood clots in the hearts of mice who had been infected with COVID-19 were also observed.

“Doctors should be aware of heart changes related to COVID-19 infections and should be looking for them,” Marks says. He hopes his research leads to increased awareness among medical providers of the virus’s potentially stealthy cardiac fallout—and, eventually, treatments for those whose hearts have been damaged by the pathogen.

MedPage Today adds

People who took the antiviral Paxlovid to treat COVID-19 infections were not more likely to get back-to-back bouts of the virus, a new study shows.

The findings offer clarity amid concerns that the use of Paxlovid, which works by stopping the spread of the virus in the body, increased the risk of COVID-19 rebound.

“Rebound is a re-emergence of symptoms and an uptick in viral load after a period of recovery,” the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy explained in a summary of the study.

Researchers found that patients who received Paxlovid, another antiviral called Lagevrio, or no antiviral medication had rebounds at similar rates, ranging from 4.5% to 6.6%.

From the medical research front, the Wall Street Journal reports

A fist that opened and shut. A once-limp arm that moved from her side. Two women whose strokes left them with partial paralysis for years saw life trickle back to their limbs when electric pulses were delivered to the back of their spinal cord as part of a pilot study. 

Neurologists said the approach, reported Monday in the journal Nature Medicine, could be transformative for stroke survivors, many of whom have some arm impairment after the event.

“I think it is amazing,” said Helmi Lutsep, a neurologist at Oregon Health & Science University, who wasn’t involved with the study. “I think patients will be thrilled if this comes to fruition.” 

The pilot study was convincing but it would take much larger studies and a decade or more to know if stroke patients generally could benefit, according to Nick Ward, a neurologist at the University College London who wasn’t involved with the study.  

From the U.S. healthcare business front, the Wall Street Journal informs us why “Walgreens CEO Bets on Doctors Over Drugstores in Search for Growth; Rosalind Brewer is shifting the chain’s focus to medical clinics,” like Village MD.

The strategy is guided by Ms. Brewer’s belief that the nation’s second-largest drugstore chain is in a business that she says no longer works. Industry growth is chronically slow, she said. Meanwhile, a shortage of workers is further cutting into revenue because the chain has had to reduce pharmacy hours.  

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Laura Ockel on Unsplash

From the Omicron and siblings front, HealthDay tells us

Paxlovid remains a powerful weapon against the Omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5, new research shows

The antiviral continued to protect against hospitalization and death in patients [including the immunocompromised] who took it

Research is ongoing to see if Paxlovid also guards against newer Omicron variants such as XBB.1.5 and BQ.1

From the public health front —

  • Medscape reports that the five-year survival rate in pancreatic cancer is increasing.
  • MedPage Today explains that while there’s no ‘Recipe’ to reduce dementia risk, here’s how to discuss it with patients until more evidence emerges.
  • The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force reaffirmed a Grade D recommendation against routine serologic screening for genital herpes simplex virus infection in asymptomatic adolescents and adults, including pregnant persons.

From the healthcare quality front

  • Beckers Hospital Review shares Healthgrades’ 2023 list of top hospitals for joint replacement by state.
  • The National Committee for Quality Assurance opened its 2023 HEDIS public comment period yesterday. The comment period closes on March 13.

From the Medicare front —

  • The Department of Health and Human Services unveiled three models for reducing prescription drug costs charged to Medicare beneficiaries, including two-dollar generic drug prescriptions for Medicare Part D.
    • “Under this model (the Medicare High-Value Drug List Model), Part D plans would be encouraged to offer a low, fixed co-payment across all cost-sharing phases of the Part D drug benefit for a standardized Medicare list of generic drugs that treat chronic conditions. Patients picking plans participating in the Model will have more certainty that their out-of-pocket costs for these generic drugs will be capped at a maximum of $2 per month per drug”.
  • Beckers Payer Issues reports, “Medicare beneficiaries who enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan may need less retirement savings to cover their healthcare costs, an analysis published Feb. 9 by the Employee Benefits Research Institute found.”
  • Fierce Healthcare informs us
    • “Health insurers and the Biden administration are at loggerheads over whether Medicare Advantage (MA) plans will see a pay cut next year, the ramifications of which come amid increased regulatory scrutiny for the popular program.
    • “Insurer groups and some politicians charge that the latest 2024 payment rule will wind up being a 2.27% cut to MA plans after considering risk adjustment changes and other factors. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has pushed back, arguing that isn’t true.”
  • STAT News relates, “Medicare advisers on Tuesday recommended that the program alter its requirements for drugs, diagnostics, and medical devices that face coverage restrictions [such as the Biogen Eisai Alzheimers Disease drugs] to make the process more transparent and better incorporate diversity data.”
    • Speaking of which, USA Today reports
      • One in 10 new drugs was cleared by federal drug regulators in recent years based on studies that didn’t achieve their main goals, a new study shows.
      • The study by Harvard and Yale researchers found that of 210 new therapies approved by the Food and Drug Administration from 2018 through 2021, 21 drugs were based on studies that had one or more goals, or endpoints, that wasn’t achieved. Those 21 drugs were approved to treat cancer, Alzheimer’s and other diseases.
      • Researchers said the findings raise questions about whether the federal agency’s drug approvals lack transparency about some products’ safety and effectiveness. 

In hospital pricing transparency news —

  • Healthcare Dive discusses a JAMA-published study of available hospital pricing data, which produced head-scratching results.
  • Beckers Hospital Review explains four ways CMS is trying to improve hospital price transparency in 2023. Good luck with that.

From the HR department

  • The Society for Human Resource Management tells us
    • Employers need to understand that the timeline for submitting their demographic data to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is somewhat different this year. The agency recently confirmed that EEO-1 reporting for 2022 data is scheduled to begin in mid-July. In recent years, the starting points and deadlines for data collection have varied.”
    • “All private employers with 100 or more employees and federal contractors with 50 or more employees must file EEO-1 reports each year that summarize employee headcount by sex, race/ethnicity, and job category. This component of data collection, called Component 1, does not include pay data.
  • HR Dive explores how the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act protects pregnant workers beginning this June and how do those accommodations stack up to the federal Family and Medical Leave Act? 
  • HR Dive also notes, “Short breaks of fewer than 20 minutes taken by hourly, non-exempt employees who telework or must be counted as compensable time under the Fair Labor Standards Act — as is the case for employers working from an employer’s own location — Jessica Looman, principal deputy administrator of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Administration, wrote in a Field Assistance Bulletin published Thursday.”

From the tidbits department

  • Healio advises “Adolescents and young adults with type 1 diabetes who primarily attend diabetes clinic visits via telehealth have better overall attendance and less diabetes distress compared with those who attend in person, according to study data.”
  • MedCity News states, “Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a 23% increase in alcohol abuse and a 16% increase in drug abuse, and people in self-isolation reported a 26% higher consumption than usual, according to the National Library of Medicine. Some apps are trying to meet this need, including Sober Sidekick and SoberBuddy.”

Midweek update

From our Nation’s capital, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra made a statement honoring Black History Month which began today.

The Wall Street Journal reports

President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy began face-to-face debt-ceiling discussions [today], with the latter expressing cautious optimism that they can come to a deal to avoid the first-ever default of the country’s debt.

The Hill tells us

  • Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has pulled Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who tried to oust him as the Senate’s top Republican in a bruising leadership race, off the powerful Commerce Committee.  
  • McConnell also removed Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who supported Scott’s bid to replace McConnell as leader, from the Commerce panel, which has broad jurisdiction over a swath of federal agencies.  

Speaking of federal agencies, Healthcare Dive informs us

The Federal Trade Commission is penalizing GoodRx for sharing users’ sensitive health information with advertisers, in the agency’s first enforcement action under the Health Breach Notification Rule.

The FTC filed an order with the Department of Justice on Wednesday that would prohibit GoodRx from sharing user health data with third parties for advertising purposes, among other guardrails. GoodRx has also agreed to pay a $1.5 million fine, though the company admitted no wrongdoing. The order needs to be approved by a federal court in order to go into effect.

Also, the President issued a Statement of Administration Policy objecting to Republican legislative efforts to end the national and public health emergencies for the Covid pandemic without further delay. The Statement explains why the White House has opted to end those emergencies on May 11.

In that regard, Health Payer Intelligence notes

CMS announced that there will be a special enrollment period on the Affordable Care Act marketplace for individuals who lose their Medicaid coverage due to the public health emergency unwinding.

“Today, CMS is announcing a Marketplace Special Enrollment Period (SEP) for qualified individuals and their families who lose Medicaid or CHIP coverage due to the end of the continuous enrollment condition, also known as ‘unwinding,’” the FAQ sheet explained.

The special enrollment period will stretch from March 31, 2023 to July 31, 2024. In order to be eligible for the special enrollment period, individuals must be eligible for Affordable Care Act marketplace coverage and must have lost their Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), or Basic Health Program (BHP) coverage.

From the Omicron and siblings front, Beckers Hospital Review points out

The FDA altered its emergency use authorizations on Paxlovid and Lagevrio, two COVID-19 treatments, on Feb. 1 to revoke a requirement for a positive COVID-19 test before a provider can prescribe them. 

“The agency continues to recommend that providers use direct SARS-CoV-2 viral testing to help diagnose COVID-19,” the FDA said in an emailed statement. But, “in rare instances, individuals with a recent known exposure (e.g., a household contact) who develop signs and symptoms consistent with COVID-19 may be diagnosed by their healthcare provider as having COVID-19” even if they test negative.

From the public health front —

  • The Commonwealth Fund issued a report titled “U.S. Health Care from a Global Perspective, 2022: Accelerating Spending, Worsening Outcomes.” The FEHBlog’s perception is quite sunny compared to this gloomy report.
  • The National Institutes of Health is celebrating American Heart Month.
  • The National Cancer Institute offers an interesting newsletter on its work.
  • The Wall Street considers dangerous fungi that are infecting people as a result of climate change.

From the No Surprises Act front, according to Healthcare Dive, the Texas Medical Association has filed a fourth lawsuit concerning the law. This time the TMA objects to the regulators’ entirely appropriate decision to increase the arbitration administration fee from $100 split between the parties to $700 similarly split. The arbitration or IDRE process was being bombarded with arbitration requests from providers. The fee increase will focus more provider attention on the open negotiation period that precedes the arbitration. “The suit also challenges the laws’ restrictions on batching claims, which allows arbitration processes only on claims with the same service code, requiring providers to go through a separate payment dispute process for each claim related to an individual’s care episode, according to the suit.” Quelle domage.

From the U.S. healthcare business front

  • Beckers Payer Issues reports, “Humana posted revenues of nearly $93 billion in 2022 and a net loss of $15 million in the most recent quarter, according to its year-end earnings report published Feb. 1.  The company also appointed Steward Health Care President Sanjay Shetty, MD, to lead its healthcare services business, CenterWell, which includes pharmacy dispensing, provider and home health services. Dr. Shetty will start April 1. In addition, the company promoted its Medicare president, George Renaudin, to president of Medicare and Medicaid, effective immediately.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review examines whether Amazon can disrupt the pharmacy industry.

From the Medicare front, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released

the Calendar Year (CY) 2024 Advance Notice of Methodological Changes for Medicare Advantage (MA) Capitation Rates and Part C and Part D Payment Policies (the Advance Notice). CMS will accept comments on the CY 2024 Advance Notice through Friday, March 3, 2023. CMS will carefully consider timely comments received before publishing the final Rate Announcement by April 3, 2023.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Roll Call reports

The Biden administration will send its budget for the next fiscal year up to Capitol Hill on March 9, according to a memo from top White House aides.

That’s about a month later than the statutory deadline, which is the first Monday in February, though that target is often missed and there’s no penalty for doing so.

National Econonic Council Director Brian Deese and Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young laid out the timing in a memo to “interested parties” that also discussed agenda topics for Wednesday’s scheduled meeting between President Joe Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

The memo, first reported by ABC News, said Biden will ask McCarthy to “commit to the bedrock principle that the United States will never default on its financial obligations,” a reference to the upcoming fight over the statutory debt ceiling. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has warned that the U.S. could be in danger of missed payments by early June if Congress doesn’t act to raise or suspend the $31.4 trillion debt limit.

The memo also says Biden will urge McCarthy and House Republicans to release their own fiscal 2024 budget blueprint that spells out the spending cuts they want to attach to any debt limit deal and how their budget will balance if they plan to extend expiring tax cuts.

Senator Tina Smith (D MN) and a bipartisan group of colleagues sent several large health insurers a letter requesting answers to questions about ghost networks. It turns out the ghost networks are online provider directories with errors. The FEHBlog thinks that the Senators should be pressuring the No Surprises Act regulators to implement the provider directory accuracy provision in that law.

From the Omicron and siblings front, the New York Times explores why Paxlovid, a reliable treatment, is underprescribed by doctors.

Doctors prescribed it in about 45 percent of recorded Covid cases nationwide during the first two weeks of January, according to White House data. In some states, Paxlovid is given in less than 25 or even 20 percent of recorded cases. (Those are likely overestimates because cases are underreported.)

Why is Paxlovid still relatively untapped? Part of the answer lies in a lack of public awareness. Some Covid patients also may decide that they don’t need Paxlovid because they are already vaccinated, have had Covid before or are younger. (My colleagues explained why even mild cases often still warrant a dose of Paxlovid.) * * *

Experts have increasingly pointed to another explanation for Paxlovid’s underuse: Doctors still resist prescribing it. Today’s newsletter will focus on that cause.

Some doctors have concerns that are rooted in real issues with Paxlovid and inform their reluctance to prescribe it. But experts are unconvinced that those fears are enough to avoid prescribing Paxlovid altogether, especially to older and higher-risk patients.

“What I’m doing for a living is weighing the benefits and the risks for everything,” said Dr. Robert Wachter, the chair of the medicine department at the University of California, San Francisco. In deciding whether to prescribe Paxlovid, he said, the benefits significantly outweigh the risks.

This isn’t very encouraging.

From the U.S. healthcare business front —

Beckers Hospital Review reports

Six years after regulators approved Amjevita, a biosimilar to the nation’s most lucrative drug, Humira, Amgen’s drug jumped on the U.S. market Jan. 31 with two list prices.

The biosimilar to AbbVie’s most profitable drug will either cost 5 percent or 55 percent less than Humira’s price, according to Amgen. Humira costs $6,922 for a month’s supply, meaning Amjevita’s price — depending on the buyer — will be $6,576 or $3,115. The higher price is designed to entice pharmacy benefit managers, and the lower one is for payers, according to Bloomberg

As Humira’s 20-year, $114 billion, 247-patent-strong monopoly ends with the first biosimilar, more copycat versions are set to premiere in the next few months.

STAT News dives deeper into the implications of Amgen’s pricing approach.

AHIP responded yesterday to CMS’s final Medicare Advantage plan audit rule.

“Our view remains unchanged: This rule is unlawful and fatally flawed, and it should have been withdrawn instead of finalized. The rule will hurt seniors, reduce health equity, and discriminate against those who need care the most. Further, the rule would raise prices for seniors and taxpayers, reduce benefits for those who choose MA, and yield fewer plan options in the future. 

“We encourage CMS to work with us, continuing our shared public-private partnership for the health and financial stability of the American people. Together, we can identify solutions that are fair, are legally sound, and ensure uninterrupted access to care and benefits for MA enrollees.” 

Is the next step the courthouse?

Money Magazine offers a list of hospitals that provide bariatric surgery with Leapfrog safety grades.

From the mental healthcare front, Fierce Healthcare tells us

Parents can now be added alongside providers, health insurers and employers to the list of stakeholders with growing concerns about mental health, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.

The study found that 40% of parents call the fact that their children might be struggling with anxiety and depression their No. 1 concern—something they’re extremely or very worried about—followed by 35% of parents who put the fear that their children are being bullied into that category.

From the tidbits department —

  • The NY Times lists ten nutrition myths that experts wish would be forgotten.
  • The NIH Directors blog explains why a “New 3D Atlas of Colorectal Cancer Promises Improved Diagnosis, Treatment.”
  • The National Association of Plan Advisors points out that “Despite a rebound in out-of-pocket health care spending in 2021, health savings account (HSA) balances increased on average over the course of the year, the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) recently found. Its analysis of HSA balances, contributions, and distributions also found, “patients sought health care services more frequently in 2021—and spent more out of pocket, as well—than they did in 2020, yet the average end-of-year balance was higher than the average beginning-of-year balance.”

Weekend update

Congress is back in our Nation’s capitol this week. The House is considering legislative business but is not holding hearings. The Senate is holding hearings and floor votes.

The Wall Street Journal reports

A deeply divided Congress will return to work this week, pushing ahead with partisan priorities in the Senate and House while also gearing up for a fight over how lawmakers will address raising the debt ceiling before a potential default later this year.

The Senate, narrowly controlled by Democrats as it opens its new session, is expected to focus primarily on confirming President Biden’s executive and judicial nominees in the coming weeks. Immigration is emerging as one area of possible compromise after a group led by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I., Ariz.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas) co-hosted a bipartisan delegation of senators to the Texas and Arizona borders during the January recess. 

House Republicans, back from a weeklong break, will dive into investigations focused on Mr. Biden, his family and his administration, starting with a hearing on border security early next month that will feature testimony from border patrol agents.

The American Medical Association outlines its wish list for improvements in the Medicare payment system.

From the Omicron and siblings front

The American Medical Association tells us about what doctors wish their patients knew about Covid reinfections. Oddly the article does not mention the availability of Paxlovid treatment.

Medscape informs folks over age 65 about what they need to know about taking Paxlovid.

The message from infectious disease experts and geriatricians is clear: Seek treatment with antiviral therapy, which remains effective against new covid variants.

The therapy of first choice, experts said, is Paxlovid, an antiviral treatment for people with mild to moderate covid at high risk of becoming seriously ill from the virus. All adults 65 and up fall in that category. If people can’t tolerate the medication — potential complications with other drugs need to be carefully evaluated by a medical provider — two alternatives are available.

The upshot is the older Americans and immunocompromised American should create a treatment plan in consultation with their primary care providers before Omicron shows up at the door.

NPR offers us an update on the state of rapid Covid testing

As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its fourth year, a negative result on a little plastic at-home test feels a bit less comforting than it once did.

Still, you dutifully swab your nostrils before dinner parties, wait 15 minutes for the all-clear and then text the host “negative!” before leaving your KN95 mask at home.

It feels like the right thing to do, right?

The virus has mutated and then mutated again, with the tests offering at least some sense of control as the Greek letters pile up. But some experts caution against putting too much faith in a negative result.

The NPR article provides the details.

In other public health news, Fortune Well reports

A so-called “super strain” of gonorrhea—against which many types of antibiotics are less effective or not effective at all—has been identified in the U.S. for the first time, health officials said Thursday, [January 19] raising further concern that a post-antibiotic era is approaching.

The case, identified in Massachusetts, was successfully treated with ceftriaxone, an antibiotic recommended to treat the disease, state health officials said in a news release. A higher-than-recommended dose wasn’t required to clear the infection, a state public health spokesperson tells Fortune, though the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently doubled the recommended dose.

The newly identified strain showed reduced susceptibility to three types of antibiotics and resistance to an additional three, including penicillin. It marks the first U.S. case in which all recommended drugs were less effective or completely ineffective, the state health department said in a Thursday bulletin to clinicians.

The case serves as “an important reminder that strains of gonorrhea in the U.S. are becoming less responsive to a limited arsenal of antibiotics,” health officials said in a statement.

The U.S. is experiencing “a rising epidemic of sexually transmitted disease,” Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, tells Fortune, with some experts referring to the issue as a “hidden epidemic.” 

No bueno.

From the mental health care front

  • NPR Shots discusses when patients can opt for chat therapy from a free chatbot., e.g., Wysa .
  • Bloomberg Prognosis calls our attention to a dementia quiz.

Most cases of dementia aren’t linked to lifestyle. But in as many as four in 10 cases, external risk factors — everything from educational level, brain injury and hearing loss to excessive drinking and smoking — may play a role, a report by The Lancet Commission found in 2020. This week, Alzheimer’s Research UK, a charity that funds science and education about dementia, launched an online quiz that draws on that study to help people zero in on what they could change in their own lives to help improve the health of their brains. 

“Much of this is about helping people understand that they can be empowered to affect their risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” Paul Matthews, director of the UK Dementia Research Institute at Imperial College London, said in a briefing hosted by the Science Media Centre. “We need to give people the knowledge to make these choices.” 

For what it’s worth, The FEHBlog took the quiz which is offered by the British Alzheimers Disease Association. The FEHBlog found it worthwhile.