Midweek update

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.

Friday Factoids

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

Becker’s Hospital Review reports

The weekly rate of emergency department visits and hospitalizations for flu, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus peaked in early December, new CDC data shows. 

The CDC unveiled two data dashboards Jan. 17 that track emergency department visits and hospitalizations for COVID-19, flu and RSV. 

ED visits for flu, RSV and COVID-19 peaked the week ending Dec. 3, hitting a weekly total of 235,850 before falling through December and the first half of January. The nation’s current weekly total was 72,119 as of Jan. 14, according to the ED dashboard. The dashboard uses information from the CDC’s National Syndromic Surveillance Program, which receives data from 73 percent of the nation’s EDs. 

The combined hospitalization rate for flu, RSV and COVID-19 peaked at 22.5 admissions per 100,000 in the week ending Dec. 3. This figure now sits at 9.4 per 100,000 for the week ending Jan. 7, though the CDC said reporting delays may affect the most recent week’s data.

RSV hospitalizations peaked in mid-November, while flu hospitalizations peaked in early December, CDC data shows. COVID-19 admissions also appear to be leveling off nationwide, even as the highly transmissible omicron subvariant XBB.1.5 gains prevalence. This trend suggests the U.S. will see more of a COVID-19 “bump” this winter versus a full-fledged surge, experts told The New York Times.

The CDC’s weekly interpretative review of its Covid stats focuses on these new dashboards this week. The agency’s weekly Fluview report informs us “Seasonal influenza activity continues to decline across the country.”

The Wall Street Journal adds

Three years after health authorities announced the first known Covid-19 case in the U.S., the virus behind the disease remains persistent but thus far hasn’t triggered the severity of the waves seen in prior winters.

A recent climb in hospitalizations and Covid-19 wastewater readings—two key metrics for spotting trends—appears to have stalled following the quick rise of the Omicron XBB.1.5 subvariant. The U.S. was gripped in significantly more deadly waves at this point in the last two winters, though currently there are still hundreds of deaths reported each day. * * *

At least for now, it appears unlikely new variants are going to cause as substantial illnesses and deaths as the virus did early on and in the prior winter waves, said Jay Varma, a physician and epidemiologist who directs Weill Cornell Medicine’s Center for Pandemic Prevention and Response in New York City. He cautioned that more severe mutations could still emerge. “We seem to have settled into somewhat of a detente with the virus,” he said.

Although the FEHBlog will continue to track Omicron and siblings developments, he has decided to replace Friday Stats and More with Friday Factoids.

Medscape tells us

Public health officials have said for some time that use of Paxlovid, approved under an FDA emergency use authorization (EUA) in December 2021, remains far below the proportion of Americans who could potentially benefit from the therapy.

What’s driving the lackluster uptake remains unknown, so Medscape Medical News took a deeper dive into the challenges surrounding Paxlovid prescribing.

Older Americans remain one of the groups at highest risk for COVID-19 adverse outcomes, including hospitalization and severe illness. However, the survey found that providers also remain reluctant to prescribe Paxlovid in this population for multiple reasons. * * *

The survey found that almost half of patients were on a medication that is contraindicated with Paxlovid and that could not be discontinued (44%). Another finding was that almost the same proportion were on a medication that is contraindicated with Paxlovid, but the risk of discontinuing that medication was too high (41%). Also, the researchers found some patients were on a medication that could interact with Paxlovid, but it was unclear how to manage the interaction (29%).

[Medscape medical editor in chief Dr. Eric Topol said that doctors, in some cases, may be overly concerned about the drug interactions. “There’s a straightforward workaround strategy for nearly all the drug interactions — most commonly statins — which can easily be stopped for 5 days,” he said.

Another concern preventing Paxlovid prescription is renal impairment, the survey reveals. More than one third of respondents, 37%, said they did not prescribe the protease inhibitor combination because of concerns over this condition, which can lower how efficiently medications are cleared by the body.

That’s a helpful study.

In other survey news, MedPage Today informs us

Fewer emergency department (ED) visits end with a prescription for opioids, CDC survey data showed.

The percentage of ED visits with an opioid prescribed at discharge fell from 12.2% in 2017-2018 to 8.1% in 2019-2020, reported Loredana Santo, MD, MPH, and Susan Schappert, MA, of the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville, Maryland, in NCHS Data Briefopens in a new tab or window.

The rate of prescribing at discharge also dropped: in 2019-2020, opioids were prescribed at 36.4 ED visits per 1,000 adults, lower than 50.5 per 1,000 in 2017-2018. The decline was similar for both men and women.

In U.S. healthcare business news —

  • Cigna points out the value of integrated health plans a/k/a health plans without carveouts.

A study released today by Cigna (NYSE: CI), a global health service company, finds that triple integration of medical, pharmacy and behavioral benefits resulted in lower health care costs for employers. Conducted by Aon plcThis link will open in a new tab., a leading global professional services firm, the Value of Integration StudyThis link will open in a new tab. [PDF] shows that Cigna’s integrated employer clients saved $148 per member per year in 2021. 

Using a similar study method, Cigna then evaluated the financial impact of engaging employees to participate in health improvement programs, such as wellness coaching. The results show even greater client savings for Cigna integrated employer clients, exceeding $1,400 per member per year.

In addition, Cigna found that when individuals with specific high-cost conditions and therapies were enrolled in a triple-integrated health plan and needed specialty medicines, the savings for the health plan were:

  • Nearly $9,000 per member per year, increasing to more than $11,000 per member when the specialty drug is for an inflammatory condition like rheumatoid arthritis; and
  • Almost $17,500 per year for members who took specialty drugs and have a confirmed depression diagnosis.
  • Medpage Today reports, “Switching to [employer-sponsored] high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) spelled trouble when it came to diabetes complications, a retrospective cohort study found.” The report studies health savings account (HSA) – eligible HDHPs versus traditional low-deductible plans. The FEHBlog doesn’t understand why the HSAs don’t balance out the two types of coverage. The article doesn’t compute.
  • STAT News relates, “More than a dozen of the country’s large not-for-profit hospital systems descended on this year’s J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference with a subtle but clear message for bankers and municipal investors: Higher costs in 2022 slowed them down, but they are adamant about increasing revenue by expanding their footprints and hiking prices.” Charming.
  • Fierce Healthcare calls our attention to

A new behavioral health solution launched this week aims to make it easier for insurers to connect members with tools that may benefit their mental health care.

Lucet represents the combination of New Directions Behavioral Health and Tridiuum and is a spinout from the Blues network, where its core product cut its teeth. Lucet’s Navigate & Connect platform harnesses a large team of care navigators with an advanced technology stack that allows insurers to better optimize care and access for members.

Shana Hoffman, president and CEO of Lucet, told Fierce Healthcare that the platform enables faster connections to appointments and helps cut through the noise on which solutions a plan may want to bring into the fold.

“What we’re bringing to the market is really an operating system platform for health plans that allows them to reliably connect members to care,” Hoffman said.

  • Health Affairs Forefront analyzes “The Fair Price For One-Time Treatments; How Can We Overcome Existing Market Price Distortions?” Check it out.

Midweek Update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, the Wall Street Journal reports

Kevin McCarthy and his allies launched a new round of talks late Wednesday with a small but stubborn band of conservative holdouts who have blocked his bid for House speaker, as Republicans sought a path forward following a second day of votes without a winner.

Mr. McCarthy didn’t reach the majority in of three votes on Wednesday, deepening doubts about whether he would ever be able to bring enough Republicans to his side and fueling talk of alternatives.

Twenty GOP lawmakers remained opposed, along with all Democrats, blocking the California Republican from getting the necessary majority of the full House. After the sixth vote, the House adjourned and reconvened at 8 p.m. [at which point the House voted 216 to 214 to call it a day and convene at noon on Thursday.]

A flurry of meetings were taking place by early evening with Republicans shuttling between offices. In one major concession, a McCarthy-aligned super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, agreed to stop picking candidates in primaries where the seat is expected to stay in Republican hands.

From the Omicron and siblings front, we have a man bites dog story.

First Nature informs us that “COVID drug Paxlovid was hailed as a game-changer. What happened?
Insufficient investment and fears about rebound and side effects are driving dowthe n use of a lifesaving antiviral.” The FEHBlog, who has had four Covid vaccinations, points his finger at the government for promoting vaccinations, which, while helpful for older and immunocompromised folks don’t prevent the illness yet, over Paxlovid, a treatment for virtually everyone.

Here’s the twist. CNBC reports

A new antiviral pill for Covid was found to be as effective as Paxlovid at curbing mild to moderate illness among people at high risk of severe disease in a Phase 3 trial in China.

The results, published Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine, suggest that the treatment had fewer side effects than Paxlovid, the go-to antiviral for high-risk patients. Around 67% of people who took the experimental pill, called VV116, reported side effects, compared to to 77% who took Paxlovid.

The new pill was also less likely than Paxlovid to cause unexpected side effects due to reactions with other medications, such as those for insomnia, seizures or high blood pressure.

“You have a medication that looks to be just as good as Paxlovid, but less cumbersome,” said Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, an assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore.

VV116 is similar to the antiviral remdesivir, which the Food and Drug Administration has approved as an IV infusion. But the team behind the new drug — pharma companies Junshi Biosciences and Vigonvita Life Science — tweaked the formula so that the body can absorb it in pill form, said Dr. Peter Gulick, an associate professor of medicine at Michigan State University. Gilead Sciences, which developed remdesivir, is testing a similar oral version of its drug.

From the Rx coverage front —

  • STAT News reports “Walgreens plans to seek certification to begin providing abortion pills under new Food and Drug Administration rules that allow the drugs to be distributed by retail pharmacies, the company told STAT on Wednesday.” P.S. FEHB plans can only cover abortion drugs when abortion is necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman, or if the pregnancy arises from incest or rape.
  • The Drug Channels blog tells us

For 2022, brand-name drugs’ net prices dropped for an unprecedented fifth consecutive year. What’s more, after adjusting for overall inflation, brand-name drug net prices plunged by almost 9%.

The factors behind declining drug prices will remain in the coming years—and become even stronger due to forthcoming changes in Medicare and Medicaid. Employers, health plans, and PBMs will determine whether patients will share in this ongoing deflation.

Read on for details and make up your own mind. And please pass the news along to the drug pricing flat earthers (#DPFE) who refuse to accept that brand-name drug prices are falling—or that prescription drug spending is a small and stable portion of overall U.S. healthcare expenditures.

  • Health Payer Intelligence tells us

Insulin costs vary based on insurance coverage type and coverage types that lead to high healthcare spending can force patients to ration their insulin supplies, a report from the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) uncovered.

Healthcare spending for individuals who have diabetes—including diabetes treatment, comorbidities, preventive care, and more—amounted to approximately $446 billion total in 2019. Drug costs, including spending on insulin, were responsible for nearly a third of that amount (32 percent).

Insulin users, who tend to be in a more severe stage of the disease, contributed 46 percent of the healthcare spending total among patients with diabetes. Average healthcare spending across the population of insulin users is 4.3 times higher than for non-institutionalized Americans. * * *

Medicare beneficiaries had the highest total out-of-pocket healthcare spending for the drug when compared to privately insured and uninsured individuals’ costs. Medicaid out-of-pocket healthcare spending on insulin was low and hard to estimate.

Most insulin users have either Medicare coverage (52 percent) or private insurance (33 percent). The remainder was covered by Medicaid or reported being uninsured.

It’s worth adding that Medicare covers insulin under Medicare Part B, not Part D.

From the U.S healthcare front —

  • The American Hospital Association relates “U.S. hospitals and health systems continued to experience negative operating margins through November 2022, Kaufman Hall reported today. Median operating margins were down 44% so far this year compared with 2021, as high labor and other costs continued to outpace revenues, according to data from over 900 hospitals.”
  • BioPharma Dive reports “Moderna said Wednesday it will pay $85 million to buy OriCiro Genomics, describing the company’s tools as “best in class” for the synthesis of plasmid DNA.”

From the telehealth front

  • The Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research released a report on the use of telehealth during the Covid era.
  • The Society for Human Resource Management reminds us “Employers [sponsoring health plans including FEHB plans] will have the option to provide pre-deductible coverage of telehealth services for people with high-deductible health plans for another two years [through December 31, 2024].

From the No Surprises Act front, Health Dive digs into the recent CMS report on first-year experience with the NSA’s arbitration process.

The report from regulators provides insight on how the arbitration system is faring so far. It helps paint a picture of how frequently the portal is being used and the types of services payers and providers found themselves fighting over. It also shows what providers have initiated the most disputes.

The vast majority of disputes originated from emergency room visits.

About 81% of disputes (excluding air ambulance services) started in the emergency room.

The entities that initiated the most [arbitrations] were mainly physician staffing and revenue cycle management firms, including TeamHealth and Envision Healthcare, private equity backed practices that staff emergency rooms around the country. As a business strategy, the two work out of network, which can lead to surprise billing if the hospital remains in network, according to a prior study from Yale researchers.

The 10 groups that submitted the most disputes accounted for 75% of all the disputes involving out-of-network emergency services and non-emergency items.

From the public health front, “the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) released the results of its annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), which shows how people living in America reported about their experience with mental health conditions, substance use, and pursuit of treatment in 2021. The 2021 NSDUH national report includes selected estimates by race, ethnicity, and age group. It is the most comprehensive report on substance use and mental health indicators that SAMHSA has released to date.” This HHS announcement summarizes the survey’s findings.

From the OPM front, Federal News Network reports on OPM’s plans to refresh its website, which in the FEHBlog’s opinion can’t come soon enough. “Aside from overhauling its main website, OPM is also planning to make more updates to its retirement services. It’s the area of the agency that encompasses the most legacy — or outdated — technology in all of OPM, [an OPM spokesperson] said. Bravo.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

The Washington Examiner reports that “President Joe Biden signed the nearly $2 trillion omnibus spending bill into law Thursday night while vacationing in St. Croix.”

The New York Times relates,

The Food and Drug Administration’s process for approving the Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm, despite great uncertainty about whether it worked, was “rife with irregularities,” according to a congressional investigation released on Thursday. The agency’s actions “raise serious concerns about F.D.A.’s lapses in protocol,” the report concluded.

The 18-month investigation, initiated by two congressional committees after the F.D.A. approved the drug, also strongly criticized Biogen, Aduhelm’s manufacturer. Internal documentsshowed the company set “an unjustifiably high price” of $56,000 a year for Aduhelm because it wanted a history-making “blockbuster” to “establish Aduhelm as one of the top pharmaceutical launches of all time,” even though it knew the high price would burden Medicare and patients, the report found.

STAT News seconds the Times report:

The downfall of Aduhelm, the first new treatment for Alzheimer’s disease in two decades, is largely the story of a drug company choosing to maximize its potential profits at the expense of patients and taxpayers, according to a congressional investigation that cites thousands of pages of internal Biogen documents.

STAT News also presents eight key takeaway‘s from the Congressional report on Aduhelm’s approval and reports

Pfizer said Thursday that its experimental gene therapy for hemophilia B significantly reduced the number of bleeds patients experienced over a year. 

Data from the 45-patient trial could set the stage for a second gene therapy to be approved for patients with the rare and serious bleeding disorder in as many years. In November, UniQure won approval for Hemgenix, the first hemophilia B gene therapy. 

“The results from this long-awaited study are great news for hemophilia B patients that soon may have access to a second durable treatment option,” Luk Vandenberghe, a gene therapy expert at Harvard, said in a text message, after reviewing the results. 

Looking toward next year, STAT News discusses “three things to watch in chronic disease in 2023: obesity drugs, long Covid and health care costs.”

Consider the already-astronomical cost of chronic disease care in the United States: trillions of dollars devoted to diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, cancer and other conditions, and still so many people unable to access necessary care and treatments. Consider the strain of Covid on the health care system, the decimation of public health staffing, and the scarcity of health care workers — and how all these costs make their way to patients. What bold moves can be made in 2023 to help reduce the cost of care? We’ll see.

Also, from the healthcare cost front, Beckers Hospital Review looks into “Questions about hospitals’ culture, leadership, survival and opportunity come with a trillion-dollar price tag given the importance of hospitals and health systems in the $4.3 trillion U.S. healthcare industry.” 

From the public health front, the Wall Street Journal reports

A measles outbreak among mostly unvaccinated children in Ohio that local health officials feared could take months to control has slowed in the past week, giving hope that what was expected to be a lengthy battle could be cut short.

The total number of cases since the outbreak began in November reached 82 on Thursday, but new cases have fallen off significantly in the last seven days or so, said Mysheika Roberts, Health Commissioner for the city of Columbus.

“It could be much worse,” Dr. Roberts said Thursday. “I’m hoping due to our outreach in the community, and the community’s willingness to roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated, that we might be starting to see the end of this. But obviously, it’ll take several weeks and days before we’ll know if this is actually over.”

From the Rx coverage front, Medscape tells us

Merck & Co Inc’s COVID antiviral molnupiravir speeds up recovery but does not reduce the hospitalisation or death rate in higher-risk vaccinated adults, detailed data from a large study showed on Thursday. * * *

When Merck originally tested molnupiravir, it was found 30% effective in reducing hospitalisations, but that was in unvaccinated patients.

In the latest study, led by University of Oxford researchers, nearly all of the more than 25,000 patients in the study had received at least three vaccine doses.

These results demonstrate that vaccine protection is so strong that there is no obvious benefit from the drug in terms of further reducing hospitalisation and deaths, said study co-author Jonathan Van-Tam from the University of Nottingham.

The drug was, however, effective in reducing viral load and can help hasten patient recovery by roughly four days, researchers estimated based on study data. 

In interesting social news,

About 2.6 million couples are saying “I do” this year [2022] — roughly 600,000 more than in prepandemic years, according to The Knot, a company that offers wedding-planning tools, a vendor marketplace and a gift-registry platform. 

The wedding boom is the byproduct of two years of the pandemic, when many ceremonies were postponed or pared down, says Lauren Kay, executive editor of The Knot. And ceremonies this year have a whole new vibe. Now, “people feel empowered to personalize, push the envelope—rules are out the window,” Mrs. Kay says. * * *

This year, “weddings are back, and people are excited to celebrate,” Mrs. Kay says. In 2023, weddings in the U.S. will likely return to prepandemic levels at 2.1 million, according to internal research from The Knot.

  • The Washington Post looks into “Why do people like being tipsy? Here’s how alcohol affects the brain. The buzz produced by alcohol comes from a cocktail of pharmacology and social ingredients, research shows.” The article also discusses how to enjoy alcoholic beverages responsibly.

Finally, the Department of Health and Human Services announced

a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), entitled Safeguarding the Rights of Conscience as Protected by Federal Statutes, which proposes to restore the longstanding process for the handling of conscience complaints and provide additional safeguards to protect against conscience and religious discrimination. * * *

Public comments on the NPRM are due 60 days after publication of the NPRM in the Federal Register.

The NPRM may be viewed here: https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/conscience-rule-nprm.pdf – PDF

Thursday Miscellany

From Capitol Hill, the American Hospital Association tells us

The Senate today passed (68-29) an amended version of the $1.7 trillion omnibus appropriations bill that funds the federal government through the end of the current fiscal year. The legislation also includes many provisions affecting hospitals and health systems.

The Senate also passed another short-term continuing resolution through Dec. 30 to allow time for the more than 4,000-page legislation to be enrolled and for President Biden to sign it. This ensures there will be no interruption of services or federal shutdown.

The omnibus spending bill, which includes relief from Medicare cuts and extensions of rural and telehealth programs, as well as the Dec. 30 continuing resolution, now go to the House, which is expected to consider them today . The president is expected to sign the short-term continuing resolution before current funding for the government expires at 11:59 p.m. ET on Dec. 23, and to sign the omnibus later next week.

The Wall Street Journal adds, “House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) said the House would vote on the bill Friday.”

In other 2023 Consolidated Appropriations Act or omnibus news

  • The Hill reports on “last minute” changes to the omnibus, including provisions assisting nursing and pregnant workers.
  • Mercer Consulting alerts us to a two-year-long extension of telehealth flexibilities available to high deductible plans with health savings accounts.
  • Think Advisor and the Wall Street Journal provide an overview of the Secure 2.0 Act provisions in the omnibus. The Secure 2.0 Act affects 401(k) plans offered to employees and IRAs. The key provision that takes effect for 2023 is an increase in the required minimum distribution age from 72 to 73.
  • The Wall Street Journal reviews the other omnibus provisions affecting businesses.

From the public health front —

Beckers Hospital Review informs us

While the respiratory “tripledemic” continues to slam emergency rooms and children’s hospitals, there are two glimmers of hope on the horizon, according to a Dec. 22 report in The New York Times. 

COVID-19, the flu and respiratory syncytial virus attack the body in different ways, and there are varying levels of disease severity across the U.S. Today, some scientists say RSV has peaked in most parts of the country.

“I think it’s likely that the RSV season has peaked in most parts of the country,” said Virginia Pitzer, ScD, an infectious disease epidemiologist at New Haven, Conn.-based Yale School of Public Health. “I think that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Additionally, there’s reason to believe next winter won’t be as burdensome for the American population and healthcare organizations.

Ironically, the safety precautions used to help stem the pandemic in the past couple of years have also kept adults and children from being exposed to the viruses that typically circulate this time of year, said Dr. Pitzer.

“There was a bit of a buildup of susceptibility at the population level,” she added. “It’s a worse than normal winter, but one that hopefully will not be repeated next year.”STS

The American Hospital Association tells us

The Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America today recommended hospitals and health systems no longer routinely screen symptom-free patients for COVID-19 upon admission or before procedures and rely instead on enhanced layers of infection prevention interventions.

“The small benefits that could come from asymptomatic testing at this stage in the pandemic are overridden by potential harms from delays in procedures, delays in patient transfers, and strains on laboratory capacity and personnel,” said Thomas R. Talbot, M.D., MPH, the chief hospital epidemiologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and a member of the SHEA Board of Directors. “Since some tests can detect residual virus for a long period, patients who test positive may not be contagious.”

STAT News reports

[According to a CDC report, a] baby born in the U.S. in 2021 has a life expectancy of 76.4 years, down from 77 years in 2020 and the lowest level the CDC has recorded since 1996. The age-adjusted death rate for Covid rose by 22.5% between 2020 and 2021, while death rates from unintentional injuries — one-third of which come from overdoses — rose by 12.3%.

HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Quality and Researched refreshed its Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project Fast Stats website. The site provides “summary statistics on inpatient stays, emergency department visits, and priority topics, by select characteristics.”

From the OPM front, OPM’s medical director, Dr. Ron Kline announced today on Linked In that he is leaving OPM to take a new position beginning January 17, 2023 as

the Chief Medical Officer of the Quality Measurement and Value-Based Incentives Group (QMVIG) at the Center for Clinical Standards and Quality (CCSQ) at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).

QMVIG is responsible for developing, evaluating and supporting the implementation of quality measurement programs across the entire federally-supported health care continuum. This includes Medicare’s Quality Payment Program and the Inpatient (i.e. Hospital) Quality Reporting Program. These measures and policies guide these innovative programs to improve healthcare quality for all Americans.

Best wishes, Dr. Kline, and thanks for your work with the FEHB over the past 3 1/2 years.

From the Rx coverage and medical research fronts –

MPR reports

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Actemra (tocilizumab) for intravenous (IV) use to treat COVID-19 in hospitalized adults who are receiving systemic corticosteroids and require supplemental oxygen, noninvasive or invasive mechanical ventilation or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO).

ICER released evidence reports on Alzheimer’s Disease treatments (draft) and hemophilia A and B (final) STAT News explains

The latest Alzheimer’s disease treatment from Eisai and Biogen needs to be cheaper than $20,000 a year to be cost-effective, according to a draft analysis from an influential nonprofit organization published Thursday.

The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review, or ICER, dug into the evidence for lecanemab and concluded that the drug’s demonstrated benefits, a modest but statistically significant delay in the advance of Alzheimer’s, are worth between $8,500 and $20,600 per year. ICER’s calculations, which could change in response to public comment over the next month, are based on metrics meant to quantify the value of improvements to quality of life.

Eisai, which is leading the effort to commercialize lecanemab, has not disclosed how much it will charge for the medicine, saying only that it will prize affordability and access. That will soon change, as the drug, a twice-monthly infusion, is expected to win a preliminary Food and Drug Administration approval by Jan. 6. * * *

Lecanemab’s safety has come into sharp focus over the past two months after three patients died of major brain bleeds.

Regarding hemophilia therapies, ICER observes

The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) today released a Final Evidence Report assessing the comparative clinical effectiveness and value of etranacogene dezaparvovec (Hemgenix, CSL Behring,) for hemophilia B. ICER also updated the previous Hemophilia A assessment on valoctocogene roxaparvovec (Roctavian™, BioMarin).  

Key recommendations stemming from the roundtable discussion include:

  • The value of high-impact single and short-term therapies should not be determined exclusively by estimates of long-term cost offsets, particularly when the existing standard of care is acknowledged to be priced significantly higher than reasonable cost-effective levels.
  • Payers should work with manufacturers to develop and implement outcomes-based agreements to address the uncertainty and the high cost of gene therapies for hemophilia.
  • At least one national payer has suggested to patient representatives that step therapy with emicizumab is being considered prior to provision of coverage for Roctavian. Clinical experts and patient experts view this approach as lacking any clinical justification and appears to be only a method for trying to avoid the high one-time fee for gene therapy while assuming that patients may switch insurers before the cost-saving potential of gene therapy is fully realized. In short, step therapy does not appear to be a reasonable consideration for this treatment.

ICER’s detailed set of policy recommendations, including comprehensive considerations for establishing evidence-based prior authorization criteria, is available in the Final Evidence Report and in the standalone Policy Recommendations document.

NIH announced

Scientists used patient stem cells and 3D bioprinting to produce eye tissue that will advance understanding of the mechanisms of blinding diseases. The research team from the National Eye Institute (NEI), part of the National Institutes of Health, printed a combination of cells that form the outer blood-retina barrier—eye tissue that supports the retina’s light-sensing photoreceptors. The technique provides a theoretically unlimited supply of patient-derived tissue to study degenerative retinal diseases such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD). 

Amazing.

From the miscellany department, the Wall Street Journal and MedPage Today explore the new AI text tool known as ChatGPT. From the Journal article

If you haven’t yet tried ChatGPT, OpenAI’s new artificial-intelligence chatbot, it will blow your mind. Tell the bot to write you anything—an email apologizing to your boss, an article about the world’s richest hamster, a “Seinfeld” script set in 2022—and it spits out text you’d think was written by a human. Knowledge of the topic, proper punctuation, varied sentence structure, clear organization. It’s all there.

We have a bipartisan Omnibus bill

From Capitol Hill, the Washington Post reports

The Senate on Tuesday took the first formal step toward advancing a bipartisan, roughly $1.7 trillion deal to fund the U.S. government, as Democrats and Republicans raced to avert a shutdown in the final days of the year.

Lawmakers voted 70-25 to begin debate on the 4,155-page measure, known in congressional parlance as an omnibus, which would fund key elements of President Biden’s economic agenda, boost defense programs, and provision an additional $44.9 billion in emergency military and economic assistance for Ukraine.

The lumbering Senate sought to move with uncharacteristic haste after congressional leaders released the full text of the bill in the early hours of the morning, capping off months of intense legislating.

Becker’s Hospital CFO Review, the American Hospital Association, and Politico Pulse offer healthcare takeaways from the omnibus. Of note, Congress laid the groundwork for a soft landing following the public health emergency by addressing Medicaid, the AMA’s concern about the impending Medicare Part B cut (“narrowing the cut to 2 percentage points in the year ahead with a scheduled cut of 3.25 percentage points in 2024″) and extending Medicare telehealth flexibilities and most other Pandemic tied flexibilities through 2024.

Govexec and Federal News Network provide omnibus insights on federal agency and employment issues. Of note, Congress implicitly gave the green light to a 4.6% raise for federal employees in 2023, broken out into a 4.1% across-the-board increase and the remainder allocated to locality pay.

Meanwhile, the FEHBlog wishes to point out that the omnibus includes the three now standard FEHB appropriations measures — the Hyde Amendment restrictions on abortion coverage (Division E summary at 63), the prohibition on applying full Cost Accounting Standards coverage to FEHB contracts (Division E summary, p. 93) and the contraceptive coverage mandate (Division E summary at 68).

What’s more, the OPM appropriations measures include the following

Exploring Tools for Prescription Drug Price Transparency in the Federal Employee Health Benefits (FEHB) Program.- OPM is directed to explore and evaluate the benefits and potential overall cost savings resulting from FEHB Carriers’ implementation of Internet-based self-service tools that deliver transparency and clinical decision support on prescription drug costs to its members. OPM is directed to report to the Committees one year after enactment of this Act, contingent on the availability of funding for this study.

In No Surprises Act news, the Internal Revenue Service issued guidance on calculating the qualifying payment amounts in 2023.

For qualifying payment amounts calculated by increasing the median contracted rate for 201913, the qualifying payment amounts for items and services furnished in 2023 are determined by taking the qualifying payment amounts calculated for items and services furnished in 2022 and multiplying the 2022 adjusted qualifying payment amounts by the percentage increase from 2022 to 2023, that is, 1.0768582128.

For example: An item is furnished in 2023. The median contracted rate for the item on January 31, 2019 was $1,500. The 2022 adjusted qualifying payment amount for the item was $1,597 ($1,500 x 1.0648523983). The 2023 adjusted qualifying payment amount for the item is $1,720 ($1,597 x 1.0768582128).

The notice also provides QPA adjustment guidance for plans that began after January 31, 2019.

From the Omicron and siblings front, the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) released “an update to the health benefit price benchmark for nirmatrelvir/ritonavir (Paxlovid™, Pfizer) for the treatment of COVID-19.” 

Based on the current evidence, ICER’s health-benefit price benchmark (HBPB) for Paxlovid is $563-$906 per treatment course. 

ICER’s HBPB is a price range suggesting the highest US price a manufacturer should charge for a treatment, based on the amount of improvement in overall health patients receive from that treatment, when a higher price would cause disproportionately greater losses in health among other patients in the health system due to rising overall costs of health care and health insurance. In short, it is the top price range at which a health system can reward innovation and better health for patients without doing more harm than good.

Of course, at this time, the federal government is covering the cost of Paxlovid for Americans. That may change in 2023 because, contrary to the FEHBlog’s expectation, the omnibus does not appear to include additional funding for Covid vaccines and treatment. However, the FEHBlog is confident that the federal government will find the money if it wants.

From the U.S. healthcare business front, Healthcare Dive tells us

  • Looking to further boost its growing cell therapy business, Gilead Sciences on Wednesday said it plans to acquire Tmunity Therapeutics, a private biotechnology company trying to develop newer, better CAR-T treatments.
  • CAR-T uses genetically engineered T cells to help the body fight diseases like cancer. Gilead currently markets two such products, Yescarta and Tecartus, which it obtained through the $12 billion purchase of Kite Pharma in 2017. Combined, sales of Yescarta and Tecartus were just under $400 million in the third quarter, a nearly 80% increase from the same three-month period a year prior.
  • Gilead said that buying Tmunity should complement Kite’s cell therapy research capabilities by providing a new technology platform, a slate of preclinical- and clinical-stage programs, and a strategic partnership with the University of Pennsylvania. Financial terms of the acquisition weren’t disclosed. The companies expect their deal to close early next year.

In good news, Health Payer Intelligence informs us

The majority of Americans are satisfied with their employer-sponsored health insurance and cited it as the most important benefit an employer can offer, according to a poll conducted by Seven Letter Insight for the Protecting Americans’ Coverage Together (PACT) campaign.

The poll surveyed 2,334 individuals with employer-sponsored health plans between November 14 and November 19, 2022. * * *

Overall satisfaction with employer-sponsored coverage was also high. Most respondents (93 percent) said they were satisfied with their insurance, with 54 percent saying they were highly satisfied. Eighty-seven percent agreed that their plans were affordable, and 73 percent thought their insurance was worth what they paid.

When respondents were asked to describe their employer-sponsored coverage, affordable, high-quality, and comprehensive were the top descriptions, the survey noted.

From the miscellany department —

  • Medscape provides an in-depth look at the progress in the fight against aging.
  • Beckers Hospital Review identifies the top five patient safety issues for 2023.
  • Govexec reports on the progress the federal government’s Merit Systems Performance Board has made since Congress restored the Board’s quorum last May after five years without one.

Weekend update

The House of Representatives and the Senate will be in session this week for limited Committee business and floor voting.

The Wall Street Journal explains

Lawmakers will return to the Capitol this week with a singular focus of passing a sweeping bipartisan spending bill to avert a shutdown and fund the government through September, despite opposition from many House Republicans.

The massive bill is expected to total around $1.7 trillion and could be released as early as Monday. It would fund government agencies and programs and allow those agencies to distribute grants and contracts to the private sector. 

Because it is the last piece of legislation that Congress will pass in this session, lawmakers have spent weeks lobbying to attach other bills, including funding for Ukraine, changes to tax policy and a measure to update how Congress deals with disputes over certifying presidential-election results. * * *

The Senate is expected to vote on the bill first. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) has been part of the negotiations and set a deadline of Thursday to reach a deal—a day before the money runs out—but he said his patience was limited and that he wouldn’t allow talks to stretch past Christmas. 

From the Omicron and siblings front, NPR Shots provides insights on Paxlovid.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends treatment for patients at risk of severe disease, hospitalization and death, which includes anyone who’s 50 and older (risk increases with age), people who are unvaccinated and people with certain medical conditions, such as obesity, chronic lung disease, heart disease or a weakened immune system.

But exceptions can be made. A colleague who is under 50 told her doctor she was feeling worse each day after her positive COVID test and had a history of pneumonia. The doctor wrote a Paxlovid prescription. * * *

[In addition to you doctor or pharmacist, t]he federal government has a “Test to Treat” locator to see where you can be tested for free and, if you test positive and are eligible, leave with the drug. Spots include community health centers and some pharmacies. 

Pharmacies may also send the pills to your home for prescriptions the doctor calls in. Walgreens just announced free Paxlovid delivery via Door Dash and UberEATS; CVS will send it the same day for a fee. * * *

Since Paxlovid has to be taken within five days of symptoms starting to work, you might contact your doctor’s office to find out what steps to take if you test positive and think you need the drug. * * *

Paxlovid is the best option for reducing the risk of severe disease. The last monoclonal antibody treatment for COVID-19 lost its FDA authorization last month because it is ineffective against currently circulating variants. That leaves Paxlovid; remdesivir, which requires an outpatient infusion over three days at a hospital or treatment center; and molnupiravir [the other pill], which studies put at only 30% effective in treating the virus. In addition, some doctors are treating immunocompromised patients with convalescent plasma.

Bloomberg Prognosis discusses expiration dates on at-home Covid tests.

The Food and Drug Administration has extended the shelf-lives of 14 brands of tests. Consumers can look up their specific brand and even the lot number to see the correct expiration dates. Brands including iHealth, from a subsidiary of Andon Health in China, Abbott Laboratories’ BinaxNow and ACON Labs Inc.’s Flowfex now last up to 12  months, 15 months and 21 months, respectively. The FDA advises against using at-home Covid tests past their expiration date.

Health plans and Medicare continue to provide at-home Covid tests at no cost, and the federal government resumes mailing out free at-home Covid tests tomorrow.

From the telehealth front —

mHealth Intelligence tells us

Implementing a telehealth navigator program helped improve video visit attendance, providing clinics with a positive financial return, according to a new study published in JAMA Network Open.

The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically drove up the use of telehealth. Like many other healthcare provider organizations, Boston-based Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center implemented and scaled telehealth visits. But they found that technical issues could hamper video visits, prompting some video visits to be converted into audio-only visits via the telephone, according to the study authors.

The medical center implemented a patient navigator pilot program to reduce barriers to video visit attendance. Through the program, a patient navigator contacted patients one day before their video visit appointment to provide technical support. The navigator went through the steps required for the patient to connect to their visit and addressed frequently asked questions.

The Wall Street Journal reports

Remote treatment of mental-health problems surged in the pandemic, as in-person treatment became difficult while pandemic-driven isolation increased anxiety and depression.

Digital mental-health companies plunged in, promising to provide millions with access to high-quality care by video, phone, and messaging.

Many of the businesses, however, put a premium on growth. Investor-backed, they deployed classic Silicon Valley tactics such as spending heavily on advertising and expansion while often using contractors instead of employees to control costs. A strategy designed for mundane businesses such as food delivery, the formula can be badly suited to the sensitive activity of treating mental-health problems.

No bueno. The article is focused on stand-alone telemental health services.

In the spirit of the Season, Bloomberg Prognosis tackles the question of “Eggnog Made With Raw Eggs Safe.”

“Eggnog may be safely made at home by using egg substitutes, whole, liquid or pasteurized eggs,” Darin Detwiler, a food-safety expert at Northeastern University, says. “These products need no further cooking to kill harmful bacteria.”

Pasteurized eggs are gently heated in their shells to a high-enough temperature to kill any bacteria without cooking the egg. They are pretty widely available, though the texture isn’t always exactly the same as an unpasteurized egg.  

If you are making eggnog the old-fashioned way, Detwiler has some advice for that, too.

“Cook the egg mixture to 160℉ and refrigerate it quickly in several small containers,” he says. “Then it will cool quickly.”

Jingle bells, all.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the Federal Employee Benefits Open Season front, the Federal Times offers a detailed report on FEHB infertility coverage. The article answered one of the FEHBlog’s outstanding questions:

In October, the White House Office of Personnel Management, which acts the human relations department for the federal workforce, unveiled four new plan options that will provide some form of assisted reproductive technology, or ART, for a total of 18 FEHB plan options in 2023.

Those are offered by carriers Triple S-SaludUPMC Health Plan, Indiana University Health Plan, Foreign Service Benefit Plan, and Health Net of California Southern.

One new plan option, under CDPHP, will provide a non-FEHB benefit for discounted ART.

From the Omicron and siblings front —

The New York Times tells us “People who took the antiviral drug Paxlovid within a few days after being infected with the coronavirus were less likely to be experiencing long Covid several months later, a large new study found.” The federal government should be promoting Paxlovid and flu treatments at least as much as it promotes vaccines.

Because winter is coming the Centers for Disease Control reminds us about the importance of home ventilation.

Improving ventilation can help you reduce virus particles in your home and keep COVID-19 from spreading. You may or may not know if someone in your home or if a visitor to your home has COVID-19 or other respiratory viruses. Good ventilation, along with other preventive actions, can help prevent you and others from getting and spreading COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses.

Health IT Analytics reports

Researchers from New York University’s Machine Learning for Good Laboratory (ML4G Lab), Carnegie Mellon University, and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYC DOHMH) have developed an automated machine-learning system designed to detect rare or previously unseen disease clusters.

According to the press release shared with HealthITAnalytics via email, current automated systems used to identify public health threats rely on “syndromic surveillance” to detect existing threats but can fall short of identifying new ones.

“Existing systems are good at detecting outbreaks of diseases that we already know about and are actively looking for, like flu or COVID,” said NYU Professor Daniel B. Neill, PhD, director of the ML4G Lab, in the press release. “But what happens when something new and scary comes along? Pre-syndromic surveillance provides a safety net to identify emerging threats that other systems would fail to detect.”

Bravo.

With the new year less than two months away, Med City New informs us “Consumer research firm Forrester recently predicted major trends that would shape healthcare in 2023. Healthcare stakeholders should prepare for key changes, such as care becoming even more inaccessible for rural patients[, more remote patient monitoring for chronically ill patients] and additional retail entrants into the clinic space.

On a related note, Becker’s Hospital Review identifies the ten states with the most rural hospitals at immediate risk of closure — 1. Mississippi 24; 2. Tennessee 17, and 3. Kansas 16.

In other U.S. healthcare business news

Healthcare Dive reports

  • VillageMD has agreed to acquire medical practice Summit Health for $8.9 billion including debt, the primary care provider announced Monday.
  • VillageMD, which is majority owned by pharmacy chain Walgreens, and Summit Health, the parent company of CityMD, plan to combine their provider locations and VillageMD’s experience with value-based care to help accelerate the transition to risk for payer clients.
  • Cigna’s health services division Evernorth is also taking a stake in the deal, and will become a minority owner in VillageMD at the deal’s close, expected in the first quarter of 2023.

Fierce Healthcare summarizes 3rd quarter earnings reports from major health insurers.

Fierce Healthcare also announced its ten 2022 Women of Influence in Health award winners.

This year’s honorees cover the breadth of the industry, from providers to payers to health tech, and represent some of the industry’s largest companies as well as up-and-coming innovators. Each has been pivotal in helping their organizations—and their patients—navigate some of the most complicated years that we’ve ever faced.

Kudos to the winners.

The Goverment Accountability Office released a report titled “Private Health Insurance: Markets Remained Concentrated through 2020, with Increases in the Individual and Small Group Markets.”

Several companies may be selling health insurance in a given market, but, as we previously reported, most people usually enroll with one of a small number of insurers. Known as market concentration, this can result in higher premiums due to less competition in the market.

We found this pattern continued in 2019 and 2020, with the markets for individuals and for small employers generally becoming more concentrated. Specifically, three or fewer health insurers held at least 80% of the market share for both of these markets in at least 42 states.

From the healthcare quality front, the HHS Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research released

  • a draft Evidence Map of Social and Structural Determinants of Health Risk Factors for Maternal Morbidity and Mortality; the public comment deadline is December 4, 2022.

Also, Fierce Healthcare tells us

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI) released a report Monday updating its strategic vision for implementing value-based care, including detailing its progress since the vision was released last year. One of the key new strategies focused on creating greater care coordination between primary care doctors and specialists, especially surrounding the types of models the center puts out.

From the mental healthcare front, the National Institutes of Health’s NIH in the News for November 2022 features an article on clinical depression for patients.

From the medical device front, the Wall Street Journal reports

Medtronic PLC medical device reduced the blood pressure of people with tough-to-treat hypertension in a closely watched study, but not significantly beyond what medications achieved.

The device cut a crucial measure of blood pressure by only about two points more than the average reduction in study volunteers who didn’t get the procedure, researchers said Monday.

Despite falling short of the study’s main efficacy goal, Medtronic said it has completed its application to the Food and Drug Administration for approval of the device, based on its safety and ability to meet certain secondary goals in the latest study as well as positive data from earlier studies.

If the FDA approves it, the device could offer a new, nonmedication treatment option for people with blood pressure that remains high despite treatment with drugs. It could also be a big-selling product for Medtronic. * * *

Medtronic’s experimental device, Symplicity Spyral, is used to perform a minimally invasive procedure known as renal denervation. 

In renal denervation, doctors insert a spiral-shaped catheter into an artery near the patient’s groin, through which a generator delivers radio-frequency energy to nerves in arteries near the kidneys. These nerves can become overactive and fuel high blood pressure. The device essentially burns these nerves so that they don’t contribute to high blood pressure.

Renal denervation has potential to be a one-time treatment, though researchers are still following patients to see how the benefit lasts.