Monday Roundup

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the FEHB Open Season front, OPM issued today its annual open season benefits administration letter identifying FEHB and FEDVIP contract changes for 2023 A/K/A, the Significant Changes letter and appendix. OPM also released its Federal Benefits Fast Facts for the upcoming Open Season.

The Federal Times offers an Open Season overview.

From the No Surprises Act front, Newfront, an insurance brokerage, issued an important reminder on the revised NSA consumer notice that health plans must post by January 1, 2023. Here are the current and future notices.

From the Covid vaccine mandate front, the Miller & Chevalier law firm tells us

On October 14, 2022, the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force released a roadmap for federal contractors of anticipated guidance on how federal agencies would be handling the implementation and enforcement of the federal contractor vaccine mandate and workplace safety requirements of Executive Order 14042, “Ensuring Adequate Safety Protocols for Federal Contractors.”  The Task Force — created by President Biden to provide guidance to federal agencies on handling operational issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic — anticipates a “potential narrowing of the existing nationwide injunction on October 18, 2022.” As a result, the Task Force anticipates the release of three documents: (1) notice from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to federal agencies regarding compliance with injunctions and the inclusion of vaccine mandate clauses in future solicitations and contracts; (2) updates to Task Force guidance on safety protocols for covered contractor and subcontractor workplace locations, including a timeline for implementation; and (3) additional guidance from OMB on “timing and considerations for provision of written notice from agencies to contractors regarding enforcement of contract clauses” implementing vaccine and workplace safety mandates. Notably, until OMB issues the guidance above, agencies are directed not to take any steps to require compliance with the Task Force guidance or enforce any contract clauses implementing the requirements of Executive Order 14042.

This Task Force guidance stems from an August 26, 2022, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit opinion replacing the lower court’s nationwide injunction with an injunction applying to the plaintiffs. However, several other U.S. Courts of Appeals are hearing cases involving this mandate so we may be waiting a while for the OMB guidance.

Also, from the Omicron and siblings front, Beckers Hospital Review discusses the new Omicron variants BQ.1 and BQ1.1.

CDC estimates indicate a new omicron variant, BQ.1, and its descendent BQ.1.1 account for 11.4 percent of cases nationwide. The pair have been dubbed “escape variants” for their ability to escape immunity and are currently most prevalent in New York and New Jersey, where they account for nearly 20 percent of new infections. * * *

Experts are optimistic that the bivalent omicron boosters will offer protection against BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 since they’re descendants of BA.5. (Updated boosters are designed to target the original SARS-CoV-2 strain, BA.4 and BA.5.)

“The bad news is that there’s a new variant that’s emerging and that has qualities or characteristics that could evade some of the interventions we have. But, the somewhat encouraging news is that it’s a BA.5 sublineage, so there are almost certainly going to be some cross protection that you can boost up,” Dr. Fauci said. 

From the monkeypox front, the American Hospital Association reports

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention today reported the first U.S. monkeypox case in a health care worker since the outbreak began in May. The report describes how an emergency department nurse in Florida was exposed to the virus through a needlestick, and recommends approaches to preventing infections in health care workers. CDC also released a report describing five patients who acquired ocular monkeypox, a rare but sight-threatening condition, including four who were hospitalized. The report recommends health care providers advise monkeypox patients to practice hand hygiene and avoid touching their eyes, and consider urgent ophthalmologic evaluation and monkeypox-directed treatment for patients with ocular signs and symptoms.

From the influenza front —

Beckers Hospital Review relates

The U.S. is seeing flu activity rise earlier than usual, with Southern states reporting the highest levels of activity, according to the CDC’s latest FluView report for the week ending Oct. 8. 

Overall, activity remains low, “but increasing in most of the country,” the CDC said. HHS region 4 (Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida) and region 6 (New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana) are reporting the highest levels of flu activity. 

Furthermore, STAT News “talked on Friday with Lynnette Brammer, a flu epidemiologist and team lead for domestic surveillance in the CDC’s influenza division, to get a sense of what the agency is seeing.”

Thinking about this flu season and what you’re seeing so far, what’s your best guess for what’s ahead?

Our syndromic surveillance methods are much trickier to try and interpret now, with Covid in the picture. It just muddies the water, basically.

We’ll have to see if the flu and Covid circulate at the same time. Right now, it looks like Covid is still trending down in a lot of the country, but flu’s going up in a lot of the country.

If individuals start to feel crappy this winter, how will they know if it’s a cold? Flu? Covid?

I think testing is going to be really important given that, for flu and Covid, there are treatments that — particularly for high-risk people — can make a huge difference in how well they are able to get through their illness. So it’s going to be really important to test so physicians can know the appropriate treatment for their patients.

In related news, the Government Accountability Office released a report on routine vaccination rates in our country.

U.S. school children generally have higher rates of vaccination to protect them from preventable illness compared with adults.

We found gaps in adult rates for flu, shingles, tetanus, and pneumococcal (prevents pneumonia and more) vaccines. Among other things:

Adults were about 40% more likely to get the tetanus and pneumococcal vaccines than the shingles vaccine

Vaccination rates for Black or African American and Hispanic or Latino adults were about 13% below that of White adults for each vaccine

Health and Human Services is using social media and its website to raise public awareness on the importance of being vaccinated.

From the ACA reporting front, the Internal Revenue Service issued its Forms 1095-B and 1095-C for 2022. The Service also released an employee fringe benefits guide for federal, state, and local government employers.

From the Rx coverage front, BioPharma Dive predicts “five questions facing drugmakers as third-quarter earnings begin. Alzheimer’s study results, drug pricing law, bring new questions for many of the industry’s top companies.”

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the omicron and siblings front, Govexec and Federal News Network recount today’s oral argument before the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals over the legality of the Administration’s Covid vaccine mandate on federal employees.

The en banc ruling, expected in the next few weeks, could be the last step after a lengthy court battle that has played out through many fits and starts over the last year. Feds for Medical Freedom has previously said it will take its case to the Supreme Court if the Fifth Circuit rules against it, though the high court may be less inclined to weigh in on the case after it already ruled on two vaccine mandate cases in January. If the mandate is ultimately permitted to stand, individual employees could still wind up in the federal circuit if they take their cases to MSPB and appeal further after an initial decision. The mandate has not been enforced since a U.S. district judge in Texas first enjoined it in January.

In other virus news, the Wall Street Journal offers one of its helpful overview articles titled “What to Know About Polio Symptoms, Vaccines and the Virus’s Spread in New York.”

From the healthcare cost front, HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research called attention to a recent agency report about the characteristic “high spenders”:

• In 2019, the top 1 percent of persons ranked by their healthcare expenditures accounted for about 21 percent of total healthcare expenditures, while the bottom 50 percent accounted for only 3 percent.
• Hypertension and osteoarthritis/other non-traumatic joint disorders were the most commonly treated conditions among the top 5 percent of spenders.
• Persons ages 65 and older and Whites were disproportionately represented in the top spending tiers.
• Inpatient hospital care accounted for about 37 percent of spending for persons in the top 5 percent of spenders.
• Over three-quarters of aggregate expenses for persons in the top 5 percent of spenders were paid for by private insurance or Medicare.

From the SDOH front, MedCity News reports about “Information as a social determinant: Three ways Google is addressing health inequity: Google announced three updates at the Google Health Equity Summit, including a new video series partnership, improved search features and an expanded program with Fitbit.”

In coding news, Healthcare Dive tells us

The American Medical Association said its 2023 Current Procedural Terminology code set, released Friday, contains burden-reducing revisions to the codes and guidelines for providers.

The updates to the data-sharing terminology for medical procedures and services are intended to make coding and documentation easier and more flexible, freeing providers from time-wasting administrative tasks that are clinically irrelevant to providing high-quality care to patients, the AMA said.

The modifications follow the 2021 revisions made to the evaluation and management codes for office visit services. They extend to inpatient and observation care services, consultations, emergency department services, nursing facility services, home and residence services and prolonged services.

HHS regulations implementing HIPAA electronic transaction standards require that the CPT be used to code outpatient services.

Monday Round-up

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

Yesterday, the FEHBlog discussed a U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit opinion issued last Friday narrowing the scope of a nationwide injunction that a federal district court had imposed on the Biden Administration’s federal government contractor mandate.

Govexec adds today that

The executive order is still enjoined in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming as a result of the Friday opinion and the injunctions in the other cases, members of the law firm McGuireWoods noted in a post

A spokesperson for the Office of Management and Budget told Government Executive on Monday morning the Justice Department is currently reviewing the decision. “At this time, the nationwide injunction remains in effect, and thus agencies should continue not to take any steps to enforce Executive Order 14042.” 

The nationwide injunction remains in effect at least until the appellate court issues its mandate to the lower court which typically happens in two weeks.

Also from the Omicron and siblings front, the Wall Street Journal discusses best practices for Covid testing while NPR tells us

The federal government is putting a pause on sending free COVID-19 testing kits to Americans starting in September, due to a lack of funding. 

“Ordering through this program will be suspended on Friday, September 2 because Congress hasn’t provided additional funding to replenish the nation’s stockpile of tests,” the ordering website says. 

However, the program is still accepting orders before [next Saturday] Sep. 2. 

From the No Surprises Act front, Mercer Consulting announced

A new prescription drug reporting mandate, adopted as part of the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA) (Pub. L. No. 116-260), requires group health plans and health insurers to report detailed data about prescription drug pricing (including rebates) and healthcare spending. The first reports are due by Dec. 27, 2022, and annually thereafter. The departments of Labor, Treasury, and Health and Human Services will use the information to prepare a biannual, publicly available report. The departments have issued interim final rules (IFR) detailing the data to report and recently updated submission instructions describing the mechanics of the reporting process. The updated instructions provide important information about reporting wellness services, prescription drug expenses that are covered by the pharmacy benefit manager and more.

Download PDF of this article

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Download the 21-page print-friendly article for details on the prescription drug reporting rules and the compliance challenges facing group health plans. This GRIST has been updated to reflect the updated submission instructions.

OPM added FEHB plans to the list of reporting plans and insurers. The initial report on the 2020 plan year is due no later than December 27, 2022.

From the FEHB plan design front, Federal News Network reports

Democratic lawmakers are urging the Office of Personnel Management to follow through on its plans to expand federal employees’ medical coverage to cover infertility diagnoses and treatments.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Government Operations Subcommittee Chairman Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) urged OPM on Monday to ensure all Federal Employee Health Benefits (FEHB) program carriers provide coverage for assistive reproductive technology (ART), which includes in vitro fertilization (IVF), starting in 2023.

The legislators’ demand strikes the FEHBlog as a day late and a dollar short because FEHB carriers and OPM closed their benefit and rate negotiations earlier this month. OPM did ask carriers in the agency’s 2023 call letter to plan on expanding ART coverage or offering a discounted ART network, among other options.

From the maternal health front, the Department of Health and Human Services announced “investments of over $20 million to improve maternal and infant health and implement the White House Blueprint for Addressing the Maternal Health Crisis – PDF. Funding aims to help reduce disparities in maternal and birth outcomes, expand and diversify the workforce caring for pregnant and postpartum individuals, increase access to obstetrics care in rural communities, and support states in tackling inequities in maternal and infant health.”

From the mental healthcare front, Health Payer Intelligence delves into the resources that AHIP has made available.

Seven strategic themes emerged from the list of ways that payers have helped members manage their mental health needs:

* Helping members find the right providers

* Creating opportunities for care through telehealth, online platforms

* Designing new payment models

* Expanding and educating the mental healthcare workforce

* Offering population-based services

* Supporting caregivers

* Expanding research and awareness

The article expounds on each of these themes.

From the U.S. healthcare business front, Fierce Healthcare reports

Months of inching performance gains were upended in July as the nation’s hospitals logged “some of the worst margins since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kaufman Hall wrote in its latest industry report. * * *

What’s more, seven straight months of negative margins “reversed any gains hospitals saw this year” and has the advisory group forecasting a brutal year for the industry.

“July was a disappointing month for hospitals and put 2022 on pace to be the worst financial year hospitals have experienced in a long time,” Erik Swanson, senior vice president of data and analytics with Kaufman Hall, said in a statement. “Over the past few years, hospitals and health systems have been able to offset some financial hardship with federal support, but those funding sources have dried up, and hospitals’ bottom lines remain in the red.” * * *

The silver lining in Kaufman Hall’s report were total expenses that, although up 7.6% from July 2021, saw a modest 0.4% decline since June. Those savings came squarely among supply and drug expenses as total labor costs and labor expense per adjusted discharge still grew 0.8% and 3.5%, respectively, since June. Increases in full-time employees per adjusted occupied bed “possibly” suggest increased hiring, the group wrote in the report.

From the electronic health record interoperability front, Becker’s Health IT informs us

Judy Faulkner, CEO of Epic, discussed the company’s vision to build a nationwide health IT infrastructure last week at the annual Users Group Meeting while dressed as Amelia Earhart, according to The Cap Times

Ms. Faulkner has a history of dressing as characters and historical figures for her highly anticipated keynote address at the meeting every year, and this year she chose Ms. Earhart, the iconic female pilot, as a nod to the meeting’s theme: A Night at the Museum. She talked about new technologies and expectations for Epic and its data platform, Cosmos. * * *

“We are building a nationwide health IT infrastructure to connect the different parts of healthcare,” Ms. Faulkner told the crowd.

Epic’s largest competitor in the hospital market, Oracle Cerner, is also on a mission to digitally connect the U.S. healthcare system. Larry Ellison, chair, co-founder and chief technology officer of Oracle, revealed in June the company’s plans to build a unified national healthcare database after acquiring Cerner earlier this year for $28.4 billion. His vision of a national healthcare database includes anonymized data from hospitals, clinics and providers to give real-time information about patients’ health as well as public health statistics.

Weekend Update

Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore

Congress’s State / District work break ends next Monday Labor Day.

From the Omicron and siblings front, Federal News Network tells us that last Friday the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which is based in Atlanta, issued a ruling on the federal government’s appeal of a district court preliminary injunction of the Biden Administration’s Covid vaccination mandate on federal government contractors.

The three-judge panel’s majority found that a narrower injunction to block the mandate would have been warranted, and that once the case is fully litigated, the plaintiffs are at least “reasonably” likely to win their claim that the president can’t use his authority under procurement law to mandate vaccines for contractors.

But the court found Georgia District Court Judge Stan Baker went too far by applying the injunction nationwide during the case’s earliest stages last December. Instead, the court ruled, the injunction can only apply to the handful of parties who actually sued. * * *

In this case, that means the government is barred from enforcing the mandate against members of the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), and state agencies from seven states that were part of the same suit: Georgia, Alabama, Idaho, Kansas, South Carolina, Utah and West Virginia. * * *

The administration completely suspended enforcement of the contractor mandate right after Judge Baker’s decision last December, and hasn’t yet said how it will respond to the new ruling partially lifting his injunction. A spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget did not immediately respond to an inquiry Friday evening.

From the healthcare cost front, Fierce Healthcare informs us

Healthcare price increases during the past year pale in comparison to those seen across the rest of the economy, suggesting that the healthcare sector has so far been spared from the full impact of 2022’s rapid inflation.

Healthcare’s upward price movement has so far been led by hospitals and nursing homes as opposed to other medical care spend, per an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data released Wednesday.

Policy analysts affiliated with the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Peterson Center on Healthcare wrote that those quicker increases are likely a reflection of staff shortages and rising average wages and are likely to continue “unless hospitals can find ways to operate with fewer staff.”

With health prices often set in advance by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services or private insurance contracting, however, the analysts wrote that “the relatively high rate of inflation seen in the rest of the economy may eventually translate to higher prices for medical care. This may lead to steeper premium increases in the coming years.”

In post-Dobb’s news, the Department of Health and Human Services brings us up to date on the steps that the Biden Administration has taken to protect access to abortion services. Most recently,

Secretary Xavier Becerra and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure issued a letter to U.S. governors inviting them to work with CMS and apply for Medicaid 1115 waivers to provide increased access to care for women from states where reproductive rights are under attack and women may be denied medical care. The letter also underscored that current or proposed abortion restriction laws do not negate providers’ responsibilities to comply with federal laws protecting access to emergency health care. Also today, HHS issued a report and plan of action in response to the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Supreme Court decision. 

From the mental healthcare front, NPR brings us inside the operations of 988 call centers in Pennsylvania.

The 2020 law enacting the 988 number also allows states to pass legislation to add a small fee to cell phone bills as a permanent source of funds for 988 and associated mental health services. So far, only four states have done so, and only two more have proposed legislation.

Pennsylvania is not one of those states, and doesn’t have any other funding plan implemented. That worries Kevin Boozel, who heads the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

“This is life or death,” Boozel says. “And you can’t halfway do it.”

He pointed out that Pennsylvania has decided to hold back on publicizing the new 988 number until next year. The fear is that too many calls could flood the system, and counties need more time to set up funding, hire workers and build capacity for things like those mobile crisis teams.

Challenges aside, In Centre County, Herr McCann emphasizes that calling the hotline works. In most cases, just talking with someone is enough to defuse a crisis.

“When they have someone who is empathetic and who listens, that connection helps them,” she said. That lets people know that “it isn’t hopeless. There is hope out there. There is help out there.”

From the health benefit plan design front, Fierce Healthcare reports

Bicycle Health, a virtual provider for opioid use disorder treatment, has announced it is now part of Cigna Evernorth’s behavioral health network.

The startup’s services will now be available to all Evernorth and Cigna health plan customers in the 24 states where Bicycle Health operates. The potential reach is millions of patients, the company told Fierce Healthcare without disclosing additional details. 

In Postal Service news, Govexec reports

More than 200 post offices and other U.S. Postal Service facilities are set to shed some of their operations as soon as this year as the mailing agency seeks to consolidate those functions at larger buildings, according to documents shared by management. 

The changes will mean letter carriers no longer go to their local facility to pick up mail for their route, instead traveling farther distances after starting at a consolidated location. The impacted post offices will still conduct their retail operations, but many of the back-end functions will be stripped away and relocated. They are connected to an initial 10 buildings that USPS previously announced it was standing up in previously closed facilities, as well as an additional 11 centers. 

Most post offices around the country operate as delivery units, meaning mail carriers go to them to pick up mail and packages for their routes before bringing them to homes and businesses. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has repeatedly decried this model, saying it is inefficient and can lead to as many as dozens of such units in one metropolitan area. Instead, he is looking to open “sorting and delivery centers” around the country, as well as larger mega-centers, that can take on more work in less space. Letter carriers will have to travel farther to take mail to its final destination, but DeJoy said it will save costs on the contracted trucks that USPS hires to bring mail between various facilities.

The impacted sites are located in Georgia, New York, Texas, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, West Virginia, Kentucky, Washington, North Carolina, Indiana and Arkansas. The initial consolidations are expected to begin as soon as next month. 

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Federal News Network discusses the federal employee pay raise angles presented by the House financial service and general appropriations bill which cleared the House Appropriations Committee last Friday. Federal News Network indicates that the bill leaves the door open for the Senate to also accept the President’s proposed 2023 4.6% pay raise for federal employees and the military.

From the Dobbs case front, Govexec.com reports

President Joe Biden announced two actions immediately after the ruling: one directing the Department of Health and Human Services to safeguard access to contraception and medication abortion, and another protecting travel for medical appointments.

To those ends,

  • Govexec tells us that OPM today confirmed that its policy allowing federal employees to apply sick time to travel out of state remains in effect after the high court struck down Roe v. Wade, and
  • The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that a meeting was held today between Affordable Care Act regulators, including the HHS and Labor Department Secretaries, and health plan executives to emphasize the importance of full compliance with the ACA’s contraceptive coverage with no cost-sharing mandate when delivered in-network. The ACA regulators also issued a letter to health plans making the same point.

The FEHBlog ran across this NPR Shots article which explains that the Plan B or morning-after pill is considered a contraceptive and not an abortion drug. The Wall Street Journal informs us

Some of the nation’s biggest retailers are rationing over-the-counter emergency contraceptive pills as demand spikes following the Supreme Court ruling overturning a constitutional right to abortion.CVS Health Corp.,  Walmart Inc., and Rite Aid Corp. were limiting purchases of the pills, which were in short supply or out of stock Monday morning on major retailer websites. CVS and Rite Aid were limiting purchases to three. Walmart had some pills available without limits, but only in cases where they wouldn’t ship until next month. Pills available this week were limited to four or six.

From the Omicron and siblings and monkeypox front

  • Govexec reports on a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit decision order rehearing a federal employee vaccine mandate case which upheld the mandate on lack of plaintiffs’ standing to challenge the mandate. The mandate nevertheless has remained on hold while the case winds it way through the appellate court.
  • USA Today reports on when and how to access the monkeypox vaccine.

From the Medicare front, HHS announced

a new model aimed at improving cancer care for Medicare patients and lowering health care costs. CMS’ Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (Innovation Center) designed the Enhancing Oncology Model (EOM) to test how to improve health care providers’ ability to deliver care centered around patients, consider patients’ unique needs, and deliver cancer care in a way that will generate the best possible patient outcomes. The model will focus on supporting and learning from cancer patients, caregivers, and cancer survivors, while addressing inequities and providing patients with treatments that address their unique needs.

From the reports and studies department —

  • The next issue of Health Affairs offers a bevy of articles on Type 2 diabetes and pre-diabetes which are available at this link.
  • The Congressional Budget Office has made available examples of the work performed by its Health Analysis Division.
  • HealthDay reports “More than 18 million Americans have now survived cancer, a new report shows. The American Cancer Society (ACS) and the U.S. National Cancer Institute collaborated on the report to estimate cancer prevalence and help public health officials better serve survivors.”
  • mHealth Intelligence calls our attention to a telehealth-oriented  Healthcare Experience Report: 2022 released by Zocdoc. The FEHBlog was pleased to read “Mental health continues to hold a place of dominance in telehealth. In May of 2020, 2021, and 2022, the percentage of mental health visits that occurred virtually was 74 percent, 85 percent, and 87 percent, respectively.” Hub and spoke telehealth, e.g, Teladoc, brings mental health care in-network thereby lowering benefit costs while improving access to care.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Medpage Today suggests that prior authorization practices are under Congress’s spotlight.

From the Omicron and siblings front–

  • The Wall Street Journal offers an interesting report on the ups and downs of Omicron and its siblings.
  • Govexec tells us about recent Safer Federal Workforce changes to “its COVID-19 protocols to draw more distinctions between the policies for vaccinated and unvaccinated workers, including those related to travel and paid leave.”

From the federal employment front, the Society for Human Resource Management explains how the federal government is “struggling mightily to recruit, retain and develop the talent it needs to succeed and earn the reputation of being a “model employer.” Agencies and their HR leaders are working to upgrade antiquated systems and processes. The new-hire process currently takes an average of 100 days to complete, double that of the private sector.” Good luck.

From the Rx coverage front, Prime Therapeutics announced last week

Leading pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) Prime Therapeutics LLC (Prime) analyzed its real-world data to assess clinical outcomes and drug waste differences between medically integrated dispensing (MID) and central specialty pharmacy dispensing of oral cancer therapies. This study of a Prime pilot program showed a potential average savings opportunity of $1,800 per medication dose change at a MID pharmacy compared to a central fill specialty pharmacy. Results reinforced Prime’s position of the advantages of the MID model, on which its IntegratedRx™ program is based.

With the MID model, care providers – including doctors and pharmacists – have access to prescribing history, test results and other important patient information in the EMR. This coordination informs the care team earlier than the traditional model. This early look has potential to help lower the number of 30-day prescriptions going to waste.

Prime’s MID pilot program was implemented in early 2021 within three oncology practices and across three Blue Plans’ commercially insured lives to prove the potential care and cost advantages with this distinct model compared to a centralized specialty pharmacy model. Study participants were prescribed oral drugs that did not require dispensing and shipment from a payer-directed specialty pharmacy to the oncologist (aka white bagging).

From the studies department —

  • Health Payer Intelligence informs us “More consumers reported that their health plans are offering transparency tools and overall consumer awareness about the availability of transparency tools has grown, according to a study conducted on behalf of HealthSparq.”
  • MedPage Today discusses a study finding that weight loss, even when achieved by bariatric surgery, will reduce the risk of obesity-related cancer. The FEHBlog wonders if weight loss produced by the current, effective weight loss drugs would have a similar health impact.
  • mHealth Intelligence notes that “To reduce the amount of time spent in a virtual waiting room, researchers from the University of California San Diego conducted a pilot that used text messaging to provide patients with a meeting link when their provider was ready to see them, finding it to be a successful alternative.”
  • The New York Times reports on a GlaxoSmithKline “checkpoint inhibitor” drug trial conducted on eighteen rectal cancer patients. The drug wiped out the cancer in all of those patients. Quite amazing. According to the Times experts indicate that the trial needs to be replicated.
  • BioPharma Dive reports “Twenty-four years ago, a drug called Herceptin changed how doctors treat breast cancer. Its approval in 1998 made it possible to target the aggressive breast tumors tied to a gene called HER2. Other drugs quickly followed Herceptin and, over the years since, have substantially improved survival for people with the disease. A quarter of a century later, another shift in treatment could be on the horizon. At the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting, AstraZeneca and Daiichi Sankyo are presenting results proving that, for the first time, a targeted medicine can help metastatic breast cancer patients whose tumors express only low levels of HER2. Clinical trial data revealed at ASCO and published in The New England Journal of Medicine Sunday show the drug, Enhertu, halved the risk of cancer progression compared to chemotherapy and reduced the risk of death by 36%.”
  • The Guardian tells us “Taller people have an increased risk of peripheral neuropathy, as well as skin and bone infections, but a lower risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, according to the world’s largest study of height and disease. A person’s height raises and reduces their risk of a variety of diseases, according to the research led by Sridharan Raghavan of the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center in the US. The findings are published in the journal PLOS Genetics.”

From the potpourri department, check out this NIH Newsletter for June 2022.

Weekend update

CPhoto by Mark Tegethoff on Unsplash

Happy Easter and Passover.

Congress continues with its State / District work period for a second week. Congress resumes its work on Capitol Hill next week.

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

In the latest phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, federal and local officials are telling people to decide for themselves how best to protect against the virus. 

Health officials are leaving it up to people to assess if they need booster shots, whether to wear a mask and how long to isolate after a positive test. Businesses, schools and other entities are scaling back specific guidelines as they prepare for a return to normal.

The question of when older adults should get a second vaccine booster is the latest example of the government shifting decisions from broad-based community outreach to personal choice. People 50 years and older can get the additional booster at least four months after their first, but health authorities aren’t pushing those eligible to get the shots. 

That’s sensible. Bloomberg’s Prognosis adds

Nearly a third of employers who previously required Covid-19 shots have dropped or plan to drop the requirement by the end of this year, according to a forthcoming survey from the consulting firm Willis Towers Watson. (Read the full story here.)

From the Social Determinants of Health front, Fierce Healthcare reports

Optum Ventures is investing in senior care startup DUOS to help fuel the company’s growth and build out its technology capabilities.

Launched in 2021, New York-based DUOS helps place expert personal assistants, called “Duos,” into the homes of seniors. The company works directly with consumers as well as with payer and provider organizations.

and

Kaiser Permanente has doubled its Thriving Communities Fund to $400 million, unlocking more money to build affordable housing and other value-based investments. 

The nonprofit healthcare provider’s announcement Thursday comes as the Biden administration is pressing for the industry to tackle social risk factors such as food and housing insecurity.  * * *

Insurer UnitedHealth Group earlier this month announced a $100 million investment in affordable housing, bringing its total housing investment to $800 million. The insurer has created more than 19,000 housing units as part of the initiative. 

CVS also invested $114 million in affordable housing in 2020, hoping to also set aside certain units for the homeless and seniors. 

The major investments in housing come as the healthcare industry is pressing to tackle social risk factors. 

From the novel approaches front

Health Payer Intelligence informs us

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan is making at-home genetic testing available to members as part of a precision medicine approach to care.

The payer will cover genetic testing through Blue Care Network, the company’s nonprofit health maintenance organization (HMO), which covers 840,000 members.

“Our first priority with the Blue Cross Personalized Medicine program is to ensure that a physician is able to provide the right medication, at the right dose, as early in the process as possible,” said Scott Betzelos, MD, chief medical officer and vice president of HMO strategy and affordability at Blue Care Network.

Fierce Healthcare tells us

Cigna’s Evernorth is teaming with the Behavioral Health Center of Excellence (BHCOE) to more effectively measure the quality of care for people with autism.

The partnership will allow the two to collaborate on creating measures that will help people with autism and their caregivers track the efficacy of their treatment. The partners plan to start with measures for applied behavior analysis (ABA), which is the most well-researched and effective intervention for people with autism spectrum disorder.

The lack of common performance measures for ABA makes it hard to track outcomes among providers, according to the announcement.

Midweek Update

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

From the Omicron and siblings front —

The Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra renewed the declaration of a public health emergency due to Covid for another 90 days from April 16. Roll Call provides background on this expected decision.

Beckers Hospital Review summarizes an interview the White House’s new COVID-19 response coordinator, Ashish Jha, MD, recently gave to NPR. The article describes Dr. Jha as optimistic.

Roll Call also offers its perspectives on the CDC’s Covid vaccination strategy.

Some experts question boosting with vaccines modeled on the original virus as new variants sweep the globe. The immune system responds most quickly to variants it has already encountered, and evidence has shown that people infected with a significantly different variant of a virus can potentially suffer worse reactions when a new wave hits. 

But it’s not yet clear if this is the case with COVID-19 or whether the current vaccines have broad enough protection to neutralize this phenomenon, known as “original antigenic sin.” 

“Theoretically, repeated exposure to an older variant formula may drive our immune system to concentrate too much on old features and not on new features,” Katelyn Jetelina, an assistant professor at University of Texas Health Science Center, wrote in her Substack newsletter. “But despite some truly surprising evolutionary leaps of the virus (like Omicron) we have not seen any convincing evidence of OAS among humans, which is great news.”

There’s also disagreement in the medical community about whether more COVID-19 shots of any kind are necessary for the broader public beyond the elderly and high-risk. The debate has muddled the message on already confusing booster recommendations.

“The FDA and CDC have kind of come out with, like, a lukewarm, ‘Yeah, you can do this,’ as opposed to, ‘Run and do it now.’ And you know, that’s going to leave most people confused,” said Jen Kates, Kaiser Family Foundation director of global health and HIV policy. 

In this regard, the Wall Street Journal discusses “Why It Is Hard to Know Who Needs a Covid Booster: Mysterious T Cells: Vaccine experts aren’t certain who under 65 years should get a second booster–and when–because the response of T cells is poorly understood.”

Researchers and U.S. health officials measuring whether Covid-19 vaccines work have largely focused on the body’s first-line defense, called antibodies. The Food and Drug Administration recently cleared a second booster shot partly based on real-world research out of Israel showing the extra dose restored antibody levels that had waned and reduced risk of infections.

“You have T cells that are not waning to the same degree and are likely a big part of what’s going to keep you out of the hospital,” said John Wherry, director of the Institute for Immunology at the University of Pennsylvania.

The presence of T cells, vaccine experts say, might explain why many vaccinated people who tested positive for Covid-19 several months after their inoculations managed to avoid severe cases.

The T cells continue to work against the virus, according to the experts and studies, after antibodies have waned or lost effectiveness because of a variant. 

Some studies have found that T cells from Covid-19 shots persist for at least half a year after initial series of vaccination. A study by researchers at La Jolla Institute and published in the journal Cell in March found that the T cells lasted six months and were about 80% as effective against Omicron as other variants. 

Lingering T cells might reduce the need for many healthy people to get a second booster dose within months of their first, some vaccine experts say. In fact, there might be diminishing returns from getting boosters over time if T-cell levels eventually plateau or slowly drop over time as people get more shots, researchers say.

There is limited evidence to go on, however. * * * Dr. Wherry said his lab expects to publish data soon showing that T cells after the initial series of vaccines remain in the body for at least nine to 12 months. “We are building the plane as we’re flying,” Dr. Wherry said. 

From the Covid vaccine mandate for federal employees front, Govexec follows up on last week’s decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit lifting the preliminary injunction on that mandate. The FEHBlog noted earlier this week that the federal government has asked the Fifth Circuit to accelerate the effective date for that action. Govexec tells us that the plaintiffs’ attorneys have opposed the government’s motion and intend to petition the Court for a rehearing or a rehearing en banc.

The White House announced “Additional Actions in Response to Vice President Harris’s Call to Action on Maternal Health.” Of interest to FEHB carriers, the fact sheet explains

  • “Birthing-Friendly” Hospital Designation: CMS is proposing the “Birthing-Friendly” hospital designation to drive improvements in maternal health outcomes and maternal health equity. The “Birthing-Friendly” hospital designation would assist consumers in choosing hospitals that have demonstrated a commitment to maternal health. The Administration announced this new designation during the White House Maternal Health Day of Action Summit.
    • Initially, the designation would be awarded to hospitals based on attestation that the hospital has participated in maternity care quality improvement collaboratives and implemented best practices that advance health care quality, safety, and equity for pregnant and post-partum patients.
    • Data will be submitted by hospitals for the first time in May 2022, and CMS will post data for October to December 2021 in fall 2022. Criteria for the designation may be expanded in the future.

OPM’s call letter for 2023 benefit and rate proposals suggested that carriers keep an eye on this initiative.

Speaking of government initiatives, Federal News Network brings us up to date on the TEFCA initiative that would create a backbone for the country’s regional health data networks, among other data resources.

From the government reporting front, HR Dive informs us

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission today opened 2021 data collection reporting for its Employment Information Report (EEO-1), Standard Form 100, Component 1. The filing deadline is May 17, 2022, EEOC said.

Generally, private employers with at least 100 employees must submit an EEO-1 Component 1 report. So must federal contractors with 50 or more employees. 

The window for reporting has been shortened significantly compared to the last two years, with HR given a little over one month to complete the form.

Gee, the FEHBlog understood that the Covid public health emergency had been extended.

From the medical research from LifeSciences Intelligence reports

A major international study recently identified 75 genes associated with an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, including 42 new genes not previously discovered. 

The study involving UK Dementia Research Institute researchers enrolled over 100,000 individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and over 600,000 healthy individuals across the UK, US, Australia, and Europe. Researchers studied the differences in their genetic makeup. 

Notably, 60–80% of disease risk is based on genetics. Therefore, researchers must continue to uncover the biological causes and develop treatments for the millions of people affected globally.  

From the mental healthcare front, Beckers Hospital Review offers a suicide rate of each U.S. state and the District of Columbia in 2020, according to a ranking Kaiser Family Foundation released on April 12. The national age-adjusted suicide rate was 13.5 per 100,000 people in 2020. Wyoming had the highest rate and the District of Columbia the lowest.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill —

Roll Call informs us

The House Appropriations Committee is tentatively planning to take up its fiscal 2023 spending bills in June, teeing up potential floor votes in July, according to people familiar with the schedule.

Subcommittees would mark up their 12 annual bills from June 13 to June 22. The full committee would hold its markups from June 22 through June 30.

The top four appropriators in the House and Senate, known as the “four corners,” are expected to meet shortly after the two-week recess this month to begin discussions aimed at reaching a bipartisan agreement on overall discretionary spending levels for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

STAT News tells us

A bipartisan group of four key lawmakers unveiled a long-shot policy that aims to alleviate one of the American health care industry’s most embarrassing problems: mind-bogglingly high prices for insulin, a drug millions of Americans need to survive.

The policy outline released Monday is a reboot of a three-year-old bill introduced by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine). It would dangle a carrot for drugmakers to lower their list prices. Insurers and middlemen wouldn’t get to keep fees for diabetes drugs — but only if drugmakers lower list prices for drugs back to 2006 levels. It would also make sure patients with Medicare or private insurance don’t pay more than $35 per month for their insulin, though it would not offer the same protection to the uninsured.

Federal News Radio follows up on last week’s Senate confirmation of Kristin Boyd to be the first Senate-confirmed OPM Inspector General in over six years.

From the Omicron and siblings front —

Fierce Healthcare calls attention to a Commonwealth Fund report on the efficacy of Covid vaccines

COVID-19 vaccinations have blunted the worst waves of the pandemic, preventing millions of deaths, limiting strain on the U.S. healthcare system and producing “substantial cost savings” in healthcare spending, according to new estimates published Friday by the Commonwealth Fund.

From the first authorizations in December 2020 through March 2022, COVID-19 vaccination was estimated to have averted roughly 2.3 million deaths and 66.2 million additional infections, per the analysis.

Further, the push for shots in arms was found to have prevented 17 million hospitalizations in the U.S. and saved the country’s healthcare system just shy of $900 million in total spending, notwithstanding the country’s savings related to workplace absences and deaths.

The Wall Street Journal reports

The risk of developing inflammatory heart conditions after Covid-19 vaccination is relatively low, two large studies found, especially when compared with the heart-related risks from Covid-19 disease itself and from vaccines against other diseases [such as the flu].

“The overall message is that you can never consider risk in isolation,” said Jason Perry Block, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and a co-author of the CDC’s analysis.

Concerns over potential side effects from Covid-19 vaccines are one reason some eligible adults in the U.S. say they haven’t gotten the shots, according to public-opinion surveys. About 70% of eligible Americans have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, according to the CDC.

In considering the cardiac risks associated with Covid-19 vaccines, Dr. Block said people “also have to consider the risk on the other hand. If you don’t get vaccinated and do get infected, the risk is higher of cardiac complications.”

From the Covid vaccine mandate front —

A federal district court in Georgia preliminarily enjoined the federal government’s vaccine mandate on its contractors. The federal government appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. The appeal was argued before a panel of three judges last Friday. Federal News Network adds

A three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit says it remains unclear whether the Biden administration has the authority to impose a COVID-19 vaccine mandate on federal contractor employees.

The administration told the court last Friday that federal contracting law gives the president broad authority to set the terms of the federal government’s contracts, including making sure contractors have enough healthy employees to complete their contracts with agencies on time.

The judges,  however, repeatedly said during oral arguments that the federal government has a high bar to clear, in order for the court to overturn a lower court’s injunction barring the administration from enforcing the mandate.

The 11th Circuit likely will issue its opinion next month.

The Hill reports on the latest developments in the federal government’s vaccine mandate on its workforce.

The Biden administration on Monday asked a federal appeals court to clear a procedural hurdle that remained after a key legal victory last week and allow the administration to quickly resume enforcement of its COVID-19 vaccine mandate for federal employees.  

The request to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, if granted, would effectively reinstate the public health policy after it was put on hold across the country in January by a federal judge in Texas.

* * *

The administration’s request Monday would move up the timeline for the panel’s judgment to take effect, which is currently not set to occur until May 31. 

From the SDOH front, Health Payer Intelligence informs us

UnitedHealthcare announced that it will expand a program to advance maternal health equity in for minority communities in North Carolina.

“Access to quality maternal health care will help close the gap on health inequity in our state,” said Anita Bachmann, chief executive officer of UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of North Carolina. “We are honored to partner with Mountain Area Health Education Center and SistasCaring4Sistas of North Carolina to address disparities and outcomes with the expanded doula program.”

The payer partnered with the community-based organization SistasCaring4Sistas to expand access to the organization’s program, Doulas for Social Justice.

From the Aduhelm front, Fierce Healthcare reports on payers’ cheerful reaction to last week’s CMS Medicare coverage decision of that expensive drug only at the clinical trial level. “We appreciate that when these treatments receive an accelerated FDA approval, Medicare will cover for patients in [Food and Drug Administration] or [National Institutes of Health] approved trials,” according to a statement from insurance lobbying group AHIP.”

From the miscellany department

  • The Wall Street Journal reports about “New apps and telehealth services [that] are providing women in middle age more access to health expertise, education and support to help them during menopause [such as MenoLife].”
  • The Department of Health and Human Services shares Secretary Becerra’s remarks at the White House Medical Debt Event with Vice President Harris. Here is a link to the Administration’s fact sheet describing new actions to lessen the burden of medical debt and increase consumer protection. According to the fact sheet,

These actions will help:

Hold medical providers and debt collectors accountable for harmful practices;

Reduce the role that medical debt plays in determining whether Americans can access credit – which will open up new opportunities for people with medical debt to buy a home or get a small business loan;

Help over half a million of low-income American veterans get their medical debt forgiven; and,

Inform consumers of their rights.

  • Medpage offers an interesting account of how a doctor is trying to make sure that his patients get the medical screening tests that they need.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s Covid Data Tracker and using Thursday as the first day of the week, here are the FEHBlog’s weekly charts of new Covid cases and deaths from the 27th week of 2021, a low points of cases and death, and the 14th week of 2022, another lull but not quite as low.

The CDC’s Weekly Review of its COVID statistics issued today notes “The current 7-day daily average for March 30–April 5, 2022, was 1,406. This is a 10.3% decrease from the prior 7-day average (1,567) from March 23–29, 2022.”

Here’s the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of Covid vaccinations administered and distributed since the beginning of the Covid vaccination era through this week, again using Thursday as the first day of the week.

The administration of Covid vaccines popped us this week. Over 75% of the U.S. population aged 18 and older are fully vaccinated. Nearly half (48.6%) of that cadre is boostered. The Weekly Review’s commentary discusses the importance of vaccinating children.

COVID-19 vaccines have undergone—and continue to undergo—the most intensive safety monitoring in U.S. history, and adverse events are rare. Vaccinating children is the single best way to protect them from severe illness associated with COVID-19. 

From Capitol Hill, the Wall Street Journal reports

Senators had also hoped to move forward on the coronavirus vaccines and treatments package, but progress quickly bogged down over Republican efforts to amend the bill to extend a pandemic-era immigration policy called Title 42—which allows Border Patrol agents to quickly turn away migrants at the southern border—with some Democrats siding with the GOP. Senators said they ran out of time, and the break could help end the logjam, even if it means the aid will need to wait at least several weeks.

“We’ll see where the discussions go, but my assumption is during the course of the break they’ll be some conversations between people who are interested in advancing it and see if we can make any headway on coming up with a process,” said Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.) on the Covid aid.

“I don’t think we’re leaving anything hanging up in the air that we’re not going to be able to continue to work with afterwards,” said Sen. Angus King (I., Maine), who caucuses with Democrats.

Congress is on State / District work periods for the next two weeks.

From the Rx coverage front, Health Affairs offers a fascinating article leading with an HHS Inspector General report on biosimilar drug use in the Medicare Part D program. The article blossoms into a broader look at biosimilar use in America. For example,

Last fall, two academics from the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics and the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy analyzed the available biosimiliars and found these were, on average, 30% less expensive than the underlying brand-name biologics. This represented a savings of about $665 off the average price.

Perhaps the biggest boost, though, will occur when biosimilar versions of Humira begin entering the U.S. market next year. This is expected to kick-start a wave of increased biosimilar usage between now and 2027, by which time the worldwide market should roughly double to $20 billion, according to Bernstein analyst Ronny Gal.

“The savings we identified with increased biosimilar use, while modest, could be significant once biosimiliar versions of Humira come on the market,” said [Melissa] Baker [from the HHS Office of Inspector Genera]. “Part D spending for Humira is in the billions of dollars.” The HHS OIG report noted that Humira and Enbrel accounted for more than $5 billion in Part D spending and nearly half of Part D spending on biologics in 2019.

From the Aduhelm front, Fierce Healthcare tells us

Leaders of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) sought to present a united front a day after CMS approved narrow Medicare coverage of the Alzheimer’s disease drug Aduhelm.

FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, M.D., and CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure issued a joint statement Friday to address criticism of CMS’ decision that Medicare only cover Aduhelm and similar products for beneficiaries in a qualifying clinical trial. Critics have charged CMS is trying to undermine the FDA’s approval decisions as the agency cleared the drug last year via accelerated approval.

“The work of both of our agencies is critical to ensure that medical products are available to people across the country,” the agency leaders said in a statement.

From the mental healthcare front, Health Payer Intelligence informs us

CVS Health and its payer arm, Aetna, aimed to make strides in the healthcare industry in 2021 by delivering affordable healthcare services to members, increasing access to virtual and mental healthcare, and implementing initiatives to advance health equity, according to the payer’s 2021 Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) report. The report reflects data from January 1 to December 31, 2021.

Well done.

Finally, the FEHBlog ran across this helpful Kaiser Family Foundation preventive services tracker website.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires new private health insurance plans to cover many recommended preventive services without any patient cost-sharing. For adults, the required services are recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), and the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) based on recommendations issued by the Institute of Medicine Committee on Women’s Clinical Preventive Services.  As new recommendations are issued or updated, coverage must commence in the next plan year that begins on or after exactly one year from the recommendation’s issue date.

This tracker presents up-to-date information on the adult preventive services nongrandfathered private plans must cover, by condition, including a summary of the recommendation, the target population, the effective date of coverage, and related federal coverage clarifications.

For more information, see the fact sheet Preventive Services Covered by Private Health Plans under the Affordable Care Act.

This tracker also applies to FEHB plans. Thanks, KFF.