Monday Roundup

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted the federal government’s request to direct three U.S. Courts of Appeals to vacate decisions they made in cases involving the federal government employee Covid vaccine mandate on the ground that the President had withdrawn the mandate. In short, the Court held that the cases are moot.
  • Bloomberg reports,
    • “Employer groups are lining up behind legislation headed to the House floor that would prevent medical groups owned by hospitals from charging more for services than private providers. 
    • “The Lower Costs, More Transparency Act (H.R. 5378) includes provisions that would require “site-neutral” payments for drug administration in off-campus hospital outpatient departments. The measure, which has bipartisan support, could come to a vote in the House as early as Monday. 
    • “Although the measure only applies to Medicare, employers say site-neutral payments could spill over to reduce costs for commercial plans. They argue the additional fees hospital-owned practices are charging aren’t necessary for services that can be safely performed in a doctor’s office, while hospitals counter that the legislation will lead to reduced oversight and lower quality of care.” * * *
    • The American Hospital Association blasted site neutral proposals.
  • P.S. The House of Representatives passed H.R. 5378 by a bipartisan 320-71 vote.
  • According to a press release, “AHIP is pleased to announce the appointment of Mike Tuffin as its next President and CEO, effective January 8, 2024. Tuffin returns to AHIP having served as its Executive Vice President for Public Affairs from 2003 to 2012. He succeeds Julie Simon Miller, AHIP’s General Counsel, who has served as Interim CEO since September 2023.” Good luck.
  • The Sequoia Project is releasing five new TEFCA resources. TEFCA will be the long-overdue backbone for connecting the country’s various electronic health record networks.
  • Mercer Consulting discusses Rx legislative activity to watch in 2024.

From the public health front,

  • Beckers Hospital Review tells us,
    • “Data from the CDC and anecdotal reports form hospital officials suggest respiratory syncytial virus infections have peaked in the U.S., allaying concerns that the nation could see simultaneous surges of COVID-19, flu and RSV.
    • “We think we’re near the peak of RSV season or will be in the next week or so,” CDC Director Mandy Cohen, MD, told NBC News in a Dec. 1 report. 
    • “National data aligns with that forecast. Weekly emergency department visits for RSV had been on the rise since September. Now, they may be coming down again, CDC data indicates. There were 22,321 ED visits for RSV for the week ending Dec. 2, the latest for which data are available. That’s down from 23,500 in the previous week. PCR test positivity rates also fell slightly to 11.7 from 12.7 in the previous week.” 
  • The Washington Post adds,
    • “Up to 5.4 million people in the United States already have been sick with the flu this fall, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency also estimates that flu has caused as many as 55,000 hospitalizations and 4,600 deaths from Oct. 1 through Dec. 2.
    • “As flu season progresses, usually peaking between December and February, the CDC plans to update its tally of flu-related cases weekly. The flu, or influenza, is a highly contagious respiratory infection caused by viruses that spread from person to person, often via droplets expelled through coughing or sneezing.
    • “The flu, like colds and other respiratory illnesses, is more common in cold weather as people tend to spend more time indoors, where viruses can pass more easily from person to person. Also, health experts believe the flu virus survives better in cold weather and cold, dry air weakens people’s resistance.”
  • The CDC has posted the latest COVID statistics.
  • The AP reports,
    • “Health officials on Friday released the first nationally representative estimate of how many U.S. adults have chronic fatigue syndrome: 3.3 million.
    • “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s number is larger than previous studies have suggested, and is likely boosted by some of the patients with long COVID. The condition clearly “is not a rare illness,” said the CDC’s Dr. Elizabeth Unger, one of the report’s co-authors. 
    • “Chronic fatigue is characterized by at least six months of severe exhaustion not helped by bed rest. Patients also report pain, brain fog and other symptoms that can get worse after exercise, work or other activity. There is no cure, and no blood test or scan to enable a quick diagnosis.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review informs us,
    • “Patients taking Novo Nordisk’s weight loss drug Wegovy in 2021 and 2022 were three times more likely to continue taking the medication a year later compared to older weight loss therapies, according to a study published Dec. 6 in Obesity
    • “Researchers from Cleveland Clinic evaluated about 1,000 EHRs between January 2015 and July 2023 among patients who were taking anti-obesity medications. The EHRs were collected from a large health system in Ohio and Florida. 
    • “The weight loss drug with the highest adherence was Wegovy (semaglutide), with 40% of Wegovy patients still filling prescriptions after a year. In comparison, the adherence of orlistat, liraglutide, naltrexone-bupropion and phentermine-topiramate after 12 months ranged between 0% and 19%.” 
  • The American Medical Association lets us know what doctors wish their patients knew about pickleball injuries.

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • MedCity News identifies five trends shaping healthcare business strategies for 2024.
    • M&A
    • Generative AI
    • Workforce Challenges
    • Outsourcing
    • Affordability
  • Per Fierce Healthcare and because many FEHB plans offer global coverage
    • “More than half of global health insurers are expecting significant increases in healthcare costs over the next several years, according to a new report.
    • “Analysts at advisory firm WTW surveyed 266 insurers across 66 countries and found that 58% are bracing for “higher or significantly higher” cost increases in the three upcoming years. The report found that global medical costs increased by 10.7% in 2023, a record high and up from a 7.4% increase in 2022.
    • “The average cost trend insurers expect is 9.9% next year, which accounts for variations in rates between regions. For example, the estimated rate of cost increases decreased from 10.9% in 2023 to 9.3% in 2024, while it’s projected to rise from 11.3% in 2023 to 12.1% in 2024 in the Middle East and Africa, according to the report.”
  • Fierce Healthcare also reports,
    • “Healthcare technology giant Epic is leveraging its massive clinical research database, with data on 226 million patients, to develop a next-generation decision support tool for clinicians.
    • “Elevance Health, formerly Anthem and the nation’s second-largest insurer, leverages its clinical data platform, called Health OS, and artificial intelligence to help providers close gaps in care and reduce burdensome paperwork, according to CEO Gail Boudreaux.
    • “The insurer’s goal is to break down data silos and integrate data on patients’ physical, mental and social health into a longitudinal patient record within electronic health record (EHR) systems, Boudreaux said during the Forbes Healthcare Summit this week in New York City.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review identifies the eight most influential drugs approved by the FDA this year, according to GoodRx, while the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER)
    • published its latest report on Unsupported Price Increases (UPI) of prescription drugs in the United States. Among the top 10 drugs with net price increases in 2022 that had substantial effects on US spending, ICER determined that eight lacked adequate new evidence to support any price increase. The analysis also found that one of three Medicare Part B drugs with high list price increases in 2021 lacked adequate supporting new evidence, directly raising annual out-of-pocket expenses for Medicare patients by up to $680 per year.”
  • Beckers Payer Issues offers seven prior authorization updates.
  • Beckers Hospital Review identifies nine hospitals already cleared to administer the new CRISPR treatment for sickle cell anemia that FDA approved last week. Also, “[re]ad more about the treatment and experts’ reactions here.” 

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From Washington, DC

  • The Hill reports,
    • “Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is ramping up the pressure on Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to avoid a government shutdown by moving first on a stopgap funding bill that will pass the Senate this week, a few days before the Sept. 30 deadline.     
    • “The Senate’s plan is to send the bill to the House and put pressure on McCarthy to bring it to the floor for a vote it would pass with bipartisan support if given the chance, said senators who are calculating how the endgame will play out.”   
  • The Department of Health and Human Services released a letter from Secretary Xavier Becerra to “the health payer community.” This is the paragraph that grabbed the FEHBlog’s attention:
    • “I also know that, with the end of the public health emergency, the requirement to cover COVID-19 vaccinations furnished by out-of-network providers generally has ended. However, if a plan or issuer does not have a provider in its network who can provide a qualifying coronavirus preventive service, the plan or issuer must cover the item or service when furnished by an out-of-network provider and may not impose cost-sharing with respect to the item or service. We want to underscore the public health importance of reducing barriers to coverage however possible and urge you to consider any and all ways to reduce these barriers. It is critical to help your members navigate your network, particularly to help people understand the differences between your medical and pharmacy network as appropriate.  We know you are already looking for ways to smooth these issues and hope that will continue. In the meantime, we will do our part to urge consumers to seek in-network providers when possible.”
  • Fierce Healthcare tells us about a D.C. conference at which attendees encouraged the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to offer Medicare coverage for the new generation of anti-obesity drugs.
    • “Healthcare organizations are continuing to push the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to rethink its coverage policy for anti-obesity medications.
    • “These medicines are not covered by Medicare Part D, because existing statutory exclusion is in place for these drugs that do not cover “agents when used for anorexia, weight loss or weight gain,” according to a press release. In a joint press conference hosted by health experts at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips and the Obesity Action Coalition, advocates laid out a legal basis in support of covering GLP-1s, stating that they can target obesity rather than describing the drugs solely in terms of their effects on weight.
    • “Obesity is a disease that has multiple causes and consequences not limited to weight,” said Michael Kolber, a healthcare partner at Manatt Health, to reporters. “There are many drugs that cause weight loss or weight gain, even if that’s not why they’re being prescribed.”
  • Politico helpfully points out
    • “As the Biden administration pushes to make insurers cover mental health care on par with physical care, there’s a similar push from lawmakers and advocates for electronic health records, Ben reports.
    • “Mental health and substance-use providers weren’t allowed to get billions in federal subsidies for adopting EHRs in the 2009 HITECH Act, which advocates argue has led to significant disparities in uptake between behavioral and physical health providers. While data varies, one recent federal estimate found that 49 percent of psychiatric hospitals have certified electronic health records compared to 96 percent of general and surgical hospitals.
    • “Without the funding, the behavioral health industry didn’t invest in robust behavioral health-specific electronic health systems, said Alisa Chestler, a Baker Donelson attorney with digital health expertise.
    • “Legislation from Reps. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) and Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) and Sens. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) would add $20 million in annual grant funding through ONC for behavioral health EHR adoption. Advocates hope it will get into the final SUPPORT Act reauthorization package aimed at addressing the opioid epidemic. The package expires Sept. 30 without Congressional action.
    • “Al Guida, a lobbyist speaking on behalf of the Behavioral Health IT Coalition, said the lack of EHR adoption in behavioral health prevents such care from being integrated into primary care. David Bucciferro, chair of the HIMSS Electronic Health Record Association, added that it hurts care coordination.”

From the public health front,

  • In a surprise to the FEHBlog, MedPage Today informs us
    • “Both nirmatrelvir-ritonavir (Paxlovid) and molnupiravir (Lagevrio) were associated with a reduction in death during the COVID-19 Omicron era, a large retrospective study of electronic health records from the Cleveland Clinic showed.
    • “Compared with not receiving any treatment, nonhospitalized COVID patients who received nirmatrelvir-ritonavir saw an 84% reduction in mortality (adjusted hazard ratio 0.16, 95% CI 0.11-0.23) and those who took molnupiravir saw a 77% reduction in death (adjusted HR 0.23, 95% CI 0.16-0.34), according to Danyu Lin, PhD, of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and colleagues. * * *
    • “We show that these two drugs work very similarly,” Lin told MedPage Today. “The fact that molnupiravir works as well as Paxlovid is an interesting finding, and I would say this finding is not inconsistent with existing literature.”
    • “Indeed, earlier this week, the American College of Physicians (ACP) issued an updated version of its practice guidelines for outpatient management of COVID in the Omicron era and continued to recommend both antivirals equally.” 
    • That’s very good news.
  • Precision Vaccinations discusses the four vaccinations now available to pregnant people in their third trimester.
  • The Institute for Clinical and Economic Research issued “a Draft Evidence Report assessing the comparative clinical effectiveness and value of sotatercept (Merck & Co) for pulmonary arterial hypertension. This preliminary draft marks the midpoint of ICER’s eight-month process of assessing these treatments, and the findings within this document should not be interpreted to be ICER’s final conclusions. * * * On October 5, 2023, as part of ICER’s Early Insights Webinar Series, ICER’s Chief Medical Officer, David Rind, MD will present the initial findings of this draft report.”
  • Per MedPage Today,
    • “The declines in body weight that patients experience with injectables like semaglutide (Ozempic, Wegovy) and tirzepatide (Mounjaro) are no exception to the concept that nothing lasts forever.
    • “Eventually, everybody reaches a “plateau,” even on newer GLP-1 receptor agonists. It’s a phase at which the body reaches a new “settling point,” specialists said, and weight, along with other metabolic markers like blood pressure and HBA1c stabilize, or fluctuate only slightly. For some, this may mean a gradual increase in appetite or “food noise”; others may be able to maintain their current state.
    • “Studies have shown that, on average, this plateau happens at a little over a year with semaglutide. Even so, physicians say some patients are surprised to learn that there’s a limit to what these medications can do.
    • “Everyone will plateau, of course. No one on my watch has disappeared. No one has vanished,” Jody Dushay, MD, an endocrinologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, told MedPage Today. “It’s alarming to me that people find that surprising, but everyone will reach a plateau and there’s no way to know when you start the medication what that will be, what percent weight loss that will be, and how quickly they will reach it.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Beckers Hospital Review tells us,
    • “Rite Aid proposed closing nearly a fourth of its 2,100 pharmacies and declaring bankruptcy, people familiar with the matter told The Wall Street Journal in a Sept. 22 story. 
    • “The outlet recently reported the pharmacy chain is preparing to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy as it faces $3.3 billion in debt and numerous lawsuits over its alleged role in the opioid epidemic. Chapter 11 bankruptcies are commonly used to reorganize a company’s structure to continue its business while paying creditors over time. 
    • “The bankruptcy discussions include a plan to close between 400 and 500 of its stores while either having creditors take the remaining pharmacies or selling them. Rite Aid is also considering an auction to sell sections of the business, such as its Elixir pharmacy unit.”
  • Cigna announced,
    • “investing $1 million in national and community-based organizations this fall to address food insecurity among older Americans. Collectively, the funds are expected to provide more than 3 million meals to people in need, increase access to 1.88 million pounds of fresh produce, and save 21 million gallons of water and 2.89 tons of CO2e emissions in responsible food distribution, supporting better health and positively impacting the environment.”
    • “Fifty-six innovative programs spanning 12 states received critical financial support enabling them to reach thousands of seniors who face food insecurity. The organizations range from local Meals on Wheels chapters and food banks to senior- and veteran-focused coalitions and centers. The sponsorships will also fund food- and nutrition-based programs, such as food pantries, mobile food deliveries, and nutritional meal boxes.”  

In a random note, the Washington Post shares opinions on current telephone etiquette which the FEHBlog found illuminating.

Thursday Miscellany

From Washington, DC –The Wall Street Journal reports

  • “The Senate passed wide-ranging legislation Thursday [night] that suspends the $31.4 trillion debt ceiling [until January 1, 2025] while cutting federal spending, backing a bipartisan deal struck by President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to avert an unprecedented U.S. default.
  • “The 63-36 vote reflected support from both Democrats and Republicans, with backers saying the need to raise the nation’s borrowing limit outweighed concern about provisions related to military and domestic spending and energy policy, among other contentious issues.
  • “The measure now goes to the president for his signature with several days to spare before Monday, when the Treasury Department has said that the government will run out of money to pay all of its bills.”
  • The Journal further informs us,
    • “President Biden plans to pick former North Carolina Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen to lead the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to people familiar with the planning. * * *
    • “Cohen, a medical doctor like Walensky, served in the Obama administration as chief of staff at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. She helped implement the Affordable Care Act and new payment models at the agency.
    • “She also served as North Carolina’s health secretary for nearly five years into 2021, helping lead the state through the Covid-19 pandemic. She is an executive at Aledade, a network of independent primary-care practices. * * *
    • “The White House and the CDC declined to comment. Cohen’s selection for the role was earlier reported by The Washington Post. The role doesn’t require Senate confirmation.”
  • Healthcare Dive tells us,
    • “The CMS on Wednesday issued a final rule lifting the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for workers in healthcare facilities that receive federal funding as soon as early August. The rule, which will go into effect 60 days after being published in the Federal Register, would withdraw regulations requiring the vaccines for healthcare workers that went into effect last year following a number of legal challenges.
    • “The CMS said it will not be enforcing the provisions between now and August.”

From the public health front —

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “There is a test that could diminish the toll of the nation’s top cancer killer—if people would use it. Doctors are pushing harder to make that happen.
    • “Lung cancer kills upward of 127,000 people in the U.S. each year. The toll has waned in recent years thanks to declining smoking rates and new treatments, but it remains the deadliest cancer for Americans by far. 
    • “A CT scan can catch the disease early to help save lives. The five-year survival rate when lung cancer is caught early is about 60%, compared with around 7% if it is caught after disease has spread, according to the American Lung Association. Medical groups recommend annual, low-dose scans starting at 50 for people who smoke heavily or recently quit. Insurers often cover the test. 
    • “It’s low-hanging fruit for the country,” said Dr. Patrick Hwu, president and chief executive of the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla. “It would save the most lives immediately.”
  • The Journal also lets us know,
    • “About 3.66 million babies were born in the U.S. in 2022, essentially unchanged from 2021 and 15% below the peak hit in 2007, according to new federal figures released Thursday.
    • “The provisional total—3,661,220 births—is about 3,000 below 2021’s final count, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. Final government data expected later this year could turn that small deficit positive. * * *
    • “Absent increases in immigration, fewer births combined with ongoing baby boomer retirements will likely weigh on the labor force supply within the next 10 years, said Kathy Bostjancic, chief economist at Nationwide, an insurance and financial-services company.
    • “You’re going to have a real shortage of workers unless we have technology somehow to fill the gap,” Bostjancic said.”
  • The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force released a final research plan for its Perinatal Depression: Preventive Interventions project.
  • The Department of Labor points out,
    • [Last week,] “the White House released the first-ever U.S. National Plan to End Gender-Based Violence. The plan lays out a roadmap for a whole-of-government effort to prevent and address gender-based violence in the United States. One of the groundbreaking aspects of this plan is that it reflects principles from the International Labor Organization’s Convention on Violence and Harassment in the World of Work, recognizing gender-based violence and harassment in the “world of work,” which includes not only traditional workplaces but anywhere workers are paid, in places workers take rest breaks, in work-related training, and through work-related communications.” 
  • HR Dive reports,
    • “The percentage of employees in the general U.S. workforce who tested positive for marijuana after a job accident reached a 25-year high in 2022, according to data released May 18 by Quest Diagnostics.
    • “In 2022, 7.3% of the general workforce (private sector employees in non-safety-sensitive jobs) tested positive for marijuana in a post-accident urine test, up from 6.7% in 2021, according to Quest’s latest Drug Testing Index. After rising steadily each year for the past 10 years, the 2022 positivity rate reflected a 204% jump since 2012, Quest said. 
    • “The increase in post-accident marijuana positivity rates corresponds with the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in certain states, starting in 2012 with Colorado and Washington, Quest noted in a news release. The DTI data “provide compelling evidence that increased use of cannabis products can contribute to greater risk for injuries in the workplace,” Katie Mueller, a National Safety Council senior program manager, stated.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front —

  • Beckers Hospital Review shares Newsweek’s list of top-ranked maternity hospitals in the U.S.
  • The American Hospital Association reports
    • “Following discussions between the American Hospital Association (AHA) and United Healthcare (UHC), the insurer late yesterday announced a refocused gastroenterology (GI) policy that relies on additional provider education rather than prior authorizations to address the insurer’s concerns about possible overutilization. The refocused policy avoids potential care denials for patients, particularly vulnerable patients, and will not impact the coverage and payment of claims for these services. The GI policy, which pertains to certain non-screening endoscopy and colonoscopy services, goes into effect today, June 1.
    • “UHC will instead implement a 7-month, or potentially longer, pilot program to collect data that substitutes notification and submission of standard clinical data when services are delivered for prior authorization, removing the risk of potential care delays and claim denials. This data will be applied to UHC’s gold-carding program, beginning sometime in 2024, in order to exempt physicians that are routinely aligned with the insurer’s guidelines. The insurer has yet to determine any additional controls that will be placed on non-gold-carded clinicians at the end of the pilot.”
  • Healthcare Dive tells us
    • “BJC HealthCare and Saint Luke’s Health System announced Wednesday they had signed a non-binding agreement to merge, creating a $10 billion health system serving patients in Missouri, Kansas and Illinois. 
    • “The 28-hospital system would keep their current brands and operate from two headquarters, with the St. Louis base focusing on eastern Missouri and southern Illinois, while the Kansas City, Missouri, headquarters serves western Missouri and parts of Kansas. 
    • “BJC and Saint Luke’s said they’re planning to reach a definitive agreement “in the coming months,” assuming no regulatory hurdles. They expect the deal to close by the end of the year.”
  • and
    • “Oak Street Health plans to enter Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas and Virginia beginning this summer, the value-based primary care chain for seniors announced Tuesday.
    • “The expansion will grow the footprint of Chicago-based Oak Street, which was acquired by CVS for $10.6 billion, to 25 states.
    • “Oak Street also plans to open additional centers in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania this year, according to a release.”

From the Rx coverage front —

  • STAT News reports,
    • “In a bold move, Coherus BioSciences plans to sell a biosimilar version of Humira — one of the world’s best-selling medicines — at a steep discount, and will work with Mark Cuban’s generic drug company to make the medicine available directly to consumers for even less.
    • “Specifically, the Coherus medicine will carry a $995 list price for a carton of two autoinjectors, an 85% discount from the $6,922 that AbbVie charges for Humira, which is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and other conditions. At the same time, Coherus will sell its drug at a discount to the Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug Company, which will market the treatment for about $579.
    • “The lowball pricing for the drug, which will become available in July, has the potential to alter one of the most closely watched product rollouts by pharmaceutical companies in many years. After enjoying a monopoly that yielded billions of dollars in annual sales, AbbVie is expected to face at least eight biosimilar rivals to Humira by the end of the year.”
  • BioPharma Dive relates,
    • “Medicare on Thursday affirmed plans to limit coverage for certain Alzheimer’s disease drugs, but signaled it’s taking steps to ensure broader access should one of the medicines receive full Food and Drug Administration approval.
    • “In a statement, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said they would cover drugs like Eisai and Biogen’s Leqembi when patients and their doctors participate in a registry for collecting data on how the treatments work in the real world. The stance is in line with the agency’s current policy, but describes a process that analysts viewed as relatively straightforward to fulfill.
    • “However, the nonprofit Alzheimer’s Association, which has previously attacked Medicare’s policy, criticized the registry requirement and said it “will create unnecessary hurdles to coverage.” The agency’s plan will soon be tested as Leqembi — currently cleared on a conditional basis in the U.S. — is up for full FDA approval, with a decision expected by July.”

Friday Factoids

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

From the public health report, here are the CDC’s Covid Data Tracker and the CDC’s FluView this week. Covid cases and hospitalizations continue to trend down, while Covid deaths leveled off after reaching a pandemic low last week. FluView notes, “CDC estimates that, so far this season [which runs from October through April], there have been at least 26 million illnesses, 290,000 hospitalizations, and 18,000 deaths from flu.”

The American Hospital Association adds

The Food and Drug Administration today released final guidance for transitioning medical device enforcement policies and emergency use authorizations established during the COVID-19 public health emergency to normal operations. The Biden Administration plans to end the COVID-19 PHE declaration on May 11. The COVID-19 EUA declaration for COVID-19 diagnostics, personal protective equipment, other medical devices, and drug and biological products will remain in effect until there is no longer a “significant potential” for a COVID-19 PHE or the authorized devices or products have been approved.

From the Covid vaccine mandate front, per Fierce Healthcare, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit held en banc (all of the active judges not a three judge panel), held that Feds for Medical Freedom have standing to challenge the Covid vaccine mandate on federal employees. This means that the nationwide preliminary injunction that has blocked enforcement of the mandate remains in force.

As you may recall, earlier this week, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reached the opposite result. Such a split in decisions from different circuits is grounds for the Supreme Court to review the case, if requested (cert petition). It remains to be seen whether the end of the public health emergency also will bring down the curtain on the various Covid vaccine mandate challenges.

In other litigation news, Beckers Hospital Reviews brings us up to date on Cigna’s efforts to prevent a former executive from joining CVS Health.

From the opioids PHE front, the Wall Street Journal reports that the U.S. government has begun deploying X-ray scanners for trucks crossing the border from Mexico, first in Brownsville, Texas:

The scanners in Brownsville beam energy at a truck in varying levels of intensity. Beaming less energy at the cab allows drivers to stay inside, speeding the process. Directing more energy at the trailer produces an image of the truck that officials can use to spot suspect material within. Sometimes the payload is illicit drugs including fentanyl. * * *

The U.S. aims to deploy 123 large-scale scanners along the border by fiscal 2026, growing its ability to perform nonintrusive scans to 70% of cargo vehicles and 40% of passenger vehicles, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Historically, the U.S. has only performed such scans on 17% of cargo vehicles and 2% of passenger vehicles, the office said.

Adding more scanning technology has to be part of an effort that includes trying to reduce drug demand and the odds overdoses will prove fatal, said David Luckey, a senior Rand Corp. researcher. He co-led a team that produced a report last year for a commission on synthetic opioids that includes members of Congress and law-enforcement agencies.

“There’s no silver bullet,” he said.

From the No Surprises Act front, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra told the Senate Budget Committee on March 22

Becerra said the agency has received more than 10 times as many No Surprises Act claims than it expected when the law was first implemented. Many of these claims are frivolous, he said, because there is no cost to payers or providers to file a claim. 

“Everyone’s just filing all sorts of claims, and these arbitrators are trying to figure out what cases to handle,” Mr. Becerra said. “That’s what’s bogging down the system. 

The  agency is staying true to Congress’ intent with the law, Mr. Becerra said, but more legislative action is needed to deal with the high number of claims. 

“What we’re trying to do is have a system that works. I plead with you to help us make sure that we get to the legitimate cases, so a provider that’s looking for real payment, or an insurer that’s saying, You’re asking for too much,’ we can adjudicate that,” Mr. Becerra said. 

The FEHBlog is metaphysically certain that providers are submitting 99.4% of the faulty arbitration claims. While the law is working for patients, Congress should tweak that law as the good Secretary requests.

From the U.S. healthcare business front, Fierce Healthcare informs us

Average physician pay fell by 2.4% from 2021 to 2022, and that decline in physician compensation comes at a time when U.S. healthcare workers are facing significant challenges, including economic strains, a growing physician shortage issue and high rates of work-related burnout, according to the sixth annual Physician Compensation Report from professional medical network Doximity. 

Fierce Healthcare’s report is chock-a-block full of summary data from this report.

In other news

  • The New York Times reports
    • The prevalence of autism spectrum disorder in American children rose between 2018 and 2020, continuing a long-running trend, according to a study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday. In 2020, an estimated one in 36 8-year-olds had autism, up from one in 44 in 2018. The prevalence was roughly 4 percent in boys and 1 percent in girls.
    • The rise does not necessarily mean that autism has become more common among children, and it could stem from other factors, such as increased awareness and screening.
    • “I have a feeling that this is just more discovery,” said Catherine Lord, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles medical school, who was not involved in the research. “The question is what’s happening next to these kids, and are they getting services?”
  • HR Dive discusses a recent survey on employee use of employer-sponsored mental health benefits.
  • CNBC tells us
    • Drugmakers Sanofi and Regeneron * * * released data on a jointly developed drug that shows promise in treating COPD.
    • The drug is already approved for asthma and some skin conditions, such as eczema, but it could become the first new treatment in over a decade for COPD. 
    • The results are a win for Dupixent, as competing COPD drugs from drugmakers such as AstraZeneca and GSK struggle to make successful strides toward approval. 

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From Washington DC —

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

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

From Capital Hill –

Fierce Healthcare informs us

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

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

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

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

STAT News relates

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

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

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

CMS expects to revisit this Medicare decision publicly this summer.

Beckers Hospital Reviews highlights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the miscellany department —

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

Happy Winter Solstice

Winter is not only coming; winter is here.

From Capitol Hill, the Wall Street Journal reports

Senators were bracing for a late night in the Capitol, as the timing of votes on the $1.65 trillion omnibus spending bill and possible amendments remained uncertain and the Friday night deadline to avoid a government shutdown crept closer. 

The Senate could start voting on amendments later Wednesday, teeing up a late night or early morning of voting, even as they also attend an address to Congress in the evening by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Adding to the pressure, senators are looking to get out of town ahead of winter storms expected in coming days.

“We’re still working on an agreement to vote on amendments and pass the omnibus tonight,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said Wednesday night. “We aren’t there yet, we’re making progress.” Once the Senate passes the measure, it would move to the House, which is expected to approve it quickly.

Politico Pulse, STAT News, and the Washington Post offer follow-up stories on the healthcare provisions in the omnibus. Of note, the Washington Post confirms

Congress again rebuffed the White House’s request for new dollars to combat the coronavirus. Last month, Biden administration officials urged lawmakers to approve about $9.25 billion in emergency funds to help ensure access to vaccines and treatments while supporting new research into long covid.

The battle over more funds has been ongoing since the spring, and Republicans have refused to budge, with one Senate GOP aide telling The Health 202 that they want further explanations on how the federal government has spent billions previously allocated for its pandemic response. 

Politico Pulse adds

A long list of measures aimed at tackling the ongoing opioid crisis is in the bill, including $1,575,000,000 in state grants to go toward substance abuse prevention and treatment. It also incorporates significant provisions of the Mainstreaming Addiction Treatment Act, including the elimination of a DEA requirement that clinicians get an extra certification to prescribe buprenorphine, and the NOPAIN Act, which improves access to FDA-approved non-opioid therapies for outpatient surgical procedures.

STAT News explains how the omnibus breathes new life into Medicare’s hospital-at-home program.

What’s more, this week the Senate confirmed the nominations of Rob Schriver to be OPM Deputy Director and Richard Revesz to be director of OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

From the judicial front –

  • The Society for Human Resource Management tells us, “The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that the federal government cannot enforce a COVID-19 vaccine mandate on federal contractors. The court’s Dec. 19 decision found that the Biden administration overstepped its authority with the vaccine mandate.”
  • Healthcare Dive discusses the latest hearing before Judge Kernodle in the second Texas Medical Association challenge to the No Surprises Act independent dispute resolution rule. The FEHBlog finds this to be a premature lawsuit at best.

From the public health front

The nose knows why some people still can’t smell long after recovering from Covid-19.

A haywire immune response in the olfactory system was found to explain why some people still can’t smell long after symptoms of the disease have abated, according to a small, peer-reviewed study published Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine. In some cases, the immune or inflammatory response was detected in patients with smell loss up to 16 months after recovery from Covid-19.

Compared with people who can smell normally, patients with long-term smell loss had fewer olfactory sensory neurons, cells in the nose responsible for detecting smells and sending that information to the brain. Patients with lingering loss of smell had an average of 75% fewer of the neurons compared with healthy people, said Brad Goldstein, a study co-author and sinus surgeon at Duke University.

“We think the reduction of sensory neurons is almost definitely related to the inflammation,” Dr. Goldstein said.

  • HHS announced “making an additional supply of Tamiflu available to jurisdictions to respond to an increased demand for the antiviral during this flu season, including through the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS). Jurisdictions will work with their ASPR Regional Teams to evaluate any requests for Tamiflu through the SNS, ensuring that states, territories, and tribes receive the assistance they need without affecting our nation’s preparedness for a future pandemic flu.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review discusses how five payers are addressing maternal health.
  • A JAMA article examines whether “the new CDC Opioid Prescribing Guidelines will help correct the course in pain care.”

From the drug development and distribution front

The Institute for Clinical and Economic Research “posted its revised Evidence Report assessing the comparative clinical effectiveness and value of the following treatments for multiple sclerosis (MS):

Monoclonal Antibodies

  • natalizumab (Tysabri®, Biogen)
  • ofatumumab (Kesimpta®, Novartis)
  • ocrelizumab (Ocrevus®, Genentech)
  • rituximab (Rituxan®, Genentech, and biosimilars)
  • ublituximab (TG Therapeutics)

Oral Therapies

  • dimethyl fumarate (Tecfidera®, Biogen, and generics)
  • diroximel fumarate (Vumerity®, Biogen)
  • monomethyl fumarate (Bafiertam®, Banner Life Sciences)
  • fingolimod (Gilenya®, Novartis)
  • ozanimod (Zeposia®, Bristol Myers Squibb)
  • ponesimod (Ponvory®, Janssen)
  • siponimod (Mayzent®, Novartis)
  • teriflunomide (Aubagio®, Sanofi)

Science reports,

As enthusiasm mounts for a new experimental antibody that appears to slow cognitive decline in some Alzheimer’s patients, a third death linked to the drug during its clinical testing may amplify concerns about its safety. Science has obtained medical records showing a 79-year-old Florida woman participating in an ongoing trial of the antibody died in mid-September after experiencing extensive brain swelling and bleeding, as well as seizures. Multiple neuroscientists who reviewed the records at Science’s request believe her death was likely caused by the antibody, lecanemab.

“The brain swelling and the microhemorrhages … could be a serious side effect of the study medication,” and should be evaluated by trial investigators, says Ellis van Etten, a neuroscientist and neurologist at Leiden University.

Biopharma Dive informs us

  • Pfizer has started dosing patients in a Phase 2 study of its entry into a closely watched class of drugs for treating diabetes and obesity.
  • The dosing of the first patient with the drug, dubbed PF-07081532, triggered a $10 million payment to partner Sosei Heptares, the Japanese drugmaker said Wednesday. Pfizer scientists working with Sosei’s technology discovered the medicine, and Pfizer is responsible for developing it.
  • Pfizer aims to bring a once-daily oral treatment into a class of medicines known as GLP-1 agonists, which stimulate the body to produce insulin by acting on natural body hormones known as glucagon-like peptides. Most of the approved GLP-1 agonists must be injected.

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.