Midweek update

Midweek update

From Capitol Hill, the Wall Street Journal reports

Republicans won a majority of seats in the House of Representatives with a victory in California, the Associated Press said late Wednesday, bolstering their ability to steer the agenda on Capitol Hill after two years of Democratic control of both chambers of Congress and the White House.

The Congressional Research Service released a report on health care provisions expiring at the end of this 117th Congress.

Healthcare Dive adds

With midterm elections resulting in a narrowly divided Congress, the HHS will be free to focus on longstanding priorities for the health department, such as implementing drug negotiation policy within Medicare, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said at the HLTH conference in Las Vegas on Tuesday.

“In a way, we’re now going to be able to concentrate on the work we have to still execute on,” Becerra said,

Under the Inflation Reduction Act passed earlier this year, Congress granted Medicare the power to negotiate how much it pays for certain prescription drugs starting in 2026, and to receive rebates from pharmaceutical manufacturers that hike drug costs above the rate of inflation starting in 2023.

Of course, HHS and its partners have a lot of work on implementing the No Surprises Act. Health Payer Intelligence discusses the good faith estimate and advance explanation of benefits comments that an ERISA plan trade association, ERIC, submitted to the NSA regulators yesterday.

In other HLTH 2022 conference news,

  • Healthcare Dive tells us about Google’s plans for offering personal health records and Maven Clinic‘s efforts to build a maternal health business by, e.g., recently landing a $90 million Series E amid increasing investor focus on women’s health.
  • MedCity News informs us, “Cell and gene therapies are offering patients potentially curative treatments for a growing scope of diseases. Insurance companies are trying to figure out how to pay for them. Industry consultants speaking at the HLTH conference offered some strategies they see payers taking to these new therapies.”

From the federal employee benefits front,

  • Govexec collected all of its current Open Season articles for convenient access.
  • Reg Jones, writing in Fedweek, recommends that federal employees contemplating retirement should retire on December 31, 2022.
  • Govexec reports that the Postal Service is headed into its busy season with far fewer employees than past years.

From the Affordable Care Act front —

  • The FEHBlog ran across this updated reference chart on minimum essential coverage under the ACA.
  • The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force issued its 12th Annual Report to Congress which is titled “High-Priority Evidence Gaps for Clinical Preventive Services.”

From the public health front —

  • Forbes reports “Researchers at the University of Houston have developed a vaccine that could block the effects of fentanyl and prevent addiction, according to a new study that could unlock solutions to the opioid epidemic as more than 150 people die every day from overdoses connected to synthetic opioids.”
  • CNN reports “The five-year lung cancer survival rate has increased 21%, from 21% in 2014 to 25% in 2018, making what experts call “remarkable progress” – but it is still the leading cause of cancer death in the United States. However, in communities of color, a person’s odds of surviving five years after diagnosis are much lower, at only 20%, according to the 2022 State of Lung Cancer report, which was published by the American Lung Association on Tuesday.”
  • The National Institutes of Health tells us “COVID-19 Vaccines Are Safe for People Receiving Cancer Immunotherapy, Study Confirms.”

From the miscellany department —

  • Forbes informs us “UnitedHealth Group’s pharmacy benefit manager Optum Rx Tuesday said it will put three less expensive “biosimilar” versions of Abbvie’s pricey rheumatoid arthritis drug Humira ‘in the same position as the brand’ on the PBM’s preferred list of drugs known as a formulary.”
  • MedTech Dive discusses how Labcorp, Abbott, BD, and Siemens plan to expand the home testing market
  • NCQA looks back at its recent Health Innovation Summit.

Tuesday Tidbits

From the Federal Employee Benefits Open Season front, OPM released its Open Season press announcement today. Its lede is

Thousands of Enrollees Are Leaving Valuable Savings on the Table During Open Season
Enrollees should use Open Season as a period to conduct a wellness or financial check-up and reassess their health needs and coverage

Among other guidance, OPM recommends

Below we’ve provided sample questions to help you assess how you can utilize Open Season to review your benefits and needs to make an informed decision on coverage:

What are my and/or my family’s expected health care needs for 2023? 

* Questions while reviewing your FEHB plan: Am I expecting a new baby? Do I need surgery? Will my medication need change? Does my plan provide a pharmacy mail order option for prescriptions?

* Questions while reviewing FEDVIP: Do I want coverage for my routine dental care? Will I need a crown or root canal? Does my child need braces? Do I need glasses and/or contact lenses? Am I considering laser vision correction surgery?

* Questions while reviewing FSAFEDS: Do I have out-of-pocket expenses I need to consider, such as deductibles, copays, day care, elder care, or over-the-counter drugs and medicines? Do I have medical expenses that may not be covered by my FEHB plan? Do I plan to send my children (under 13) to in-home care or summer camp? 

OPM does not mention the availability of the FEHB plan’s summary of benefits and coverage (“SBC”), an Affordable Care Act requirement. The FEHBlog recalls visiting friends in Denver who were preparing for their employers’ open season by comparing these short but comprehensive SBCs. For example, the SBCs include a broken-out estimate of the plan’s cost-sharing for having a baby, receiving diabetes treatment for a year, and fixing a broken bone. In addition, the federal government consumer tested the SBCs.

FEHB plans update their SBCs annually in advance of Open Season and post them on their websites, usually on the page with forms and brochures.

The Washington Post has an article on the 2023 Open Season, and Federal News Network offers “a few” other expert views on the 2023 Open Season. Fierce Healthcare adds

Open enrollment is coming soon, and foremost on everybody’s mind as these windows draw nearer is just how much health insurance will cost, according to a survey by Gravie and Wakefield Research.

“Consumers are concerned about the high costs of health coverage impacting their access to healthcare, increasing medical debt and the lack of mental health coverage,” according to a press release from the two companies.

From the Omicron and siblings’ front —

  • Beckers Hospital Review tells us

The CDC revised its “up to date” COVID-19 vaccination term Sept. 30 to include the primary series and the recently authorized omicron-targeting booster.  * * *

The CDC’s website still deems people who are not immunocompromised as “fully vaccinated” two weeks after their second dose of Moderna or Pfizer’s series or two weeks after receiving J&J’s COVID-19 vaccine. 

[However, last Friday’s] decision could update the “fully vaccinated” term that experts have urged regulators to update.

  • HealthLeaders Media reports “Treating COVID-19 patients with Paxlovid significantly reduces hospitalizations and deaths, according to a recent large-scale study by Epic Research.”

AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 pre-exposure prophylactic Evusheld has managed to remain relevant for immunocompromised and other patients when many of its therapeutic peers haven’t with each new Omicron subvariant.

But that win streak may slowly come to a close as the FDA told healthcare providers on Monday that one of the emerging subvariants, BA.4.6, renders Evusheld almost completely useless.

Nationally, BA.4.6 currently makes up about 13% of new cases, compared to just 1% of cases at the beginning of July, according to the CDC. But in some regions, like in Iowa, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska, the BA.4.6 subvariant makes up more than 20% of all Covid-19 cases.

  • David Leonhardt writing in the New York Times Morning column discusses “A Public Health Success Story; We revisit the subject of Covid and racial inequities”. Check it out.
  • The NIH Directors Blog considers “Understanding Long-Term COVID-19 Symptoms and Enhancing Recovery.”

From the mental healthcare front, MedPage Today reports

Suicide risk was higher in people recently diagnosed with dementia, especially younger patients, a case-control study in England showed.

Compared with people who didn’t have dementia, suicides rose in people who received a dementia diagnosis in the past 3 months (adjusted OR 2.47, 95% CI 1.49-4.09), according to Danah Alothman, BMBCh, MPH, of the University of Nottingham in England, and colleagues.

For people under age 65, suicide risk within 3 months of diagnosis was 6.69 times (95% CI 1.49-30.12) higher than in patients without dementia, the researchers reported in JAMA Neurology

From the U.S. healthcare business front, Bloomberg reports on giant drug manufacturer Pfizer’s future

Pfizer Inc. emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic as the world’s most visible drugmaker, but its success has left investors impatient for an encore.

The windfall from the pharmaceutical giant’s Covid vaccine almost doubled its revenue in just one year. And now the shot, coupled with Pfizer’s Covid antiviral pill, is poised to make up more than half of its expected $100 billion of sales in 2022. That’s left Pfizer flush with cash — $28 billion it could spend on the kinds of deals that for decades fueled its growth into an American colossus.

The pressure is clearly on for Pfizer to show that the muscle it built during the pandemic won’t atrophy. Big Pharma companies don’t normally double revenue so quickly, and nobody expects that kind of growth to continue. But one thing’s clear: Pfizer can’t go back to the sluggish path it was on for years.

The American Hospital Association informs us

Operating margins for U.S. hospitals and health systems were down 24% in August compared to a year ago, driven in large part by a 7.2% increase in labor expenses, according to data from over 900 hospitals reported yesterday by Kaufman Hall.

“Nine months into a challenging year, margins have fluctuated wildly,” the report notes. “Although most metrics improved from July to August, organizations are still operating with negative margins and well below pre-pandemic levels.”

From the Medicare front, the American Hospital Association adds

Effective Oct. 1 for five years, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will pay average sales price plus 8%, rather than ASP plus 6%, for biosimilars whose average sales price does not exceed the price of the reference biological product. The payment increase was included in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. For new biosimilars that qualify, the five-year period will begin on the first day of the calendar quarter for which ASP payment for that biosimilar begins under Medicare Part B.

From the electronic health records front, STAT News reports

Epic Systems has revamped its widely criticized sepsis prediction model in a bid to improve its accuracy and make its alerts more meaningful to clinicians trying to snuff out the deadly condition.

Corporate documents obtained by STAT show that Epic is now recommending that its model be trained on a hospital’s own data before clinical use, a major shift aimed at ensuring its predictions are relevant to the actual patient population a hospital treats. The documents also indicate Epic is changing its definition of sepsis onset to a more commonly accepted standard and reducing its reliance on clinician orders for antibiotics as a way to flag the condition.

The changes follow the publication of a series of investigations by STAT that found an earlier version of Epic’s tool resulted in high rates of false alarms at some hospitals and failed to reliably flag sepsis in advance. One of the investigations found that the model’s use of antibiotics as a prediction variable was particularly problematic, resulting in late alarms to physicians who had already recognized the condition and taken action to treat it.

Fierce Healthcare looks into “How Google, Mayo Clinic and Kaiser Permanente tackle AI bias and thorny data privacy problems.”

From the telehealth front, Healthcare Dive reports

Telehealth utilization varied by region from June to July of 2022 and rose 1.9% nationally, according to Fair Health’s monthly tracker data out Monday. 

In the West, Midwest and South, telehealth utilization rose 5.7%, 2.5% and 4.9%, respectively, from June to July. In the Northeast, telehealth use fell 3.3% during that period.

Mental health conditions remained the top diagnoses nationally, and psychiatrists also delivered more virtual care in some regions.

Weekend Update

As we wrap up the last weekend of summer, we can look forward to the House of Representatives and the Senate holding Committee business and floor voting. Yahoo Finance adds

Once again, the threat of a government shutdown looms at the end of the fiscal year, which arrives on September 30. Lawmakers have two weeks to provide funding to keep large swaths of the federal government open and functioning, and the most likely result at this point is a short-term bill called a continuing resolution that funds the government for about 10 weeks, or until mid-December. Lawmakers would then look to pass an omnibus spending package to cover the rest of the 2023 fiscal year.

From the Omicron and siblings front, the Wall Street Journal offers an engaging interview with Moderna’s CEO Stéphane Bancel who “discusses the company’s latest Covid shot and research on using mRNA in seasonal flu vaccines and personalized treatments for cancer.”

From the social determinants of health front, Health Affairs discusses best practices to improve the collection and distribution of race, ethnicity, and language data for use by health care providers and payers. Healthcare payers, in particular, cannot address SDOH issues strategically without having REL data. The FEHBlog’s idea, which he has floated unsuccessfully to date, is to add REL codes to the AMA’s CPT 4 code system, thereby allowing the ready distribution of that data via reliable coders.

Speaking of the distribution of healthcare data, EHR Intelligence reports that “Large Health IT Networks Unveil Plans to Become Qualified Health Information Network (“QHIN”) Under TEFCA.” TEFCA will act as the Electronic Health Records “backbone” to vastly improve health record interoperability, which has long been a national EHR goal.

From the mental healthcare front, last Friday, “the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released the HHS Roadmap for Behavioral Health Integration (Roadmap), which details policy solutions that would help to better integrate mental health and substance use care into the larger health care system and other systems. The Roadmap is based on feedback Secretary Becerra received from patients and providers during more than two dozen stops on his National Tour to Strengthen Mental Health.”

Finally, a government contract expert discusses in Federal News Network why the 1994 federal acquisition reform law (actually the related 1994 and 1996 laws) aiming to simplify the federal procurement process needs a reboot. The FEHBlog heartily agrees.

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

Click here

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.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill —

The Federal Times seeks to project the timeline for implementing the new law requiring the Veterans’ Administration to cover illnesses contracted by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were exposed to burn pit smoke while overseas.

The Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee offer their perspective on the budget reconciliation bill that Senate passed yesterday and the House will take up this Friday.

From the OPM front, the FEHBlog noticed today that its Office of Inspector General (OIG) has posted on its revamped website the OIG’s semi-annual report to Congress for the period ended March 31, 2022. This report is always worth a gander to those who are interested in the FEHB Program.

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

Parents are having their say about the Covid-19 vaccines for children under 5, and for most, the answer so far is no.

More than a month after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended shots for about 17.4 million children ages 6 months through 4 years, about 4% to 5% of them have received a shot, according to the most recent agency data and population estimates from the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

By contrast, the vaccination rate for children 5 to 11 years reached about 18% a month after the CDC first recommended shots last November. The rate now stands at about 38%. * * *

Uptake has varied by state, recent counts from around the U.S. show. In Massachusetts, roughly 40,541 children under 5, about 11% of the state’s population in that age group, have received one dose. In New Jersey, more than 21,000 young children, or 4.6% of the children under 5 in that state, have received one dose. 

A lawyer writing on the Society for Human Resource Management advises “employers with workers who test positive for COVID-19 should follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including its guidelines on quarantining and isolation, to minimize safety and legal risks, even though the guidance is somewhat complex.”

From the public health front, the Department of Health and Human Services announced today its Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) is

awarding nearly $90 million in American Rescue Plan funding to nearly 1,400 community health centers across the country to advance health equity through better data collection and reporting. On Friday, August 5, President Biden issued a proclamation on National Health Center Week to recognize the vital role health centers play in safeguarding the well-being of Americans and honor the heroic staff who keep these facilities running.

What’s more, the American Hospital Association tells us

[HRSA] today awarded $45.7 million from the American Rescue Plan Act [ARPA]to develop the public health workforce in rural and tribal communities. The grants will help train dental hygienists, medical and dental assistants, doulas and other community health workers; health information technology and telehealth technical support staff; community paramedical workers; and respiratory therapists and care coordinators for patients with long-term COVID-19 effects and chronic medical conditions.

In addition to the ARPA grants, the agency awarded $9.7 million to help hospitals and others establish new medical residency programs in rural communities; $2.9 million to improve health outcomes in rural counties; and nearly $1 million to improve access to care for rural veterans. 

From the No Surprises Act front, Healthcare Dive informs us

The Medical Group Management Association, which represents physician practices, is urging the HHS and the CMS to delay enforcing certain requirements of the No Surprises Act to allow providers time to understand and implement the mandates.

In a letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks La-Sure, MGMA asked that medical group practices be given six months’ notice before enforcement of additional surprise billing requirements.

The provider group requested the enforcement delay following publication of more anticipated rulemaking including an advanced explanation of benefits, continuity of care protections and provider directory requirements. 

The FEHBlog supports the MGMA’s position because Congress goofed in the NSA by not treating the good faith estimate and advance EOB as HIPAA electronic transaction standards.

STAT News discusses the stress that providers and payers are experiencing as they wait for the Labor Department to issue its final rule (following receipt of public comments on its interim final rule) about the NSA’s independent dispute resolution process.

From the Rx coverage front, STAT News reports

Karuna Therapeutics said Monday that a novel combination pill reduced psychosis and related symptoms experienced by patients with schizophrenia, achieving the main goals of a late-stage clinical trial.

With positive study results in hand, the Boston-based biotech intends to submit a marketing application with the Food and Drug Administration by the middle of next year. If approved, the Karuna drug would usher in the first new class of medicines for the treatment of schizophrenia in decades.

Called KarXT, the Karuna drug targets muscarinic acetylcholine receptors in the brain to reduce psychotic symptoms. Current antipsychotics — which mostly block dopamine receptors — have become blockbuster schizophrenia medicines despite causing troubling side effects like weight gain and somnolence. Peak sales for KarXT could also reach into the billions of dollars, analysts forecast.

That’s certainly encouraging.

From the U.S. healthcare business front —

Fierce Healthcare reports

Kaiser Permanente posted a thinned operating margin and nearly $1.3 billion net loss during its second quarter “driven largely by investment market conditions,” according to topline financials for the quarter ended June 30 reported Friday evening.

The massive integrated nonprofit health system notched $23.47 billion in total operating revenues, representing a minor 0.9% dip from the second quarter of last year. Total operating expenses inched nearly 0.2% upward year over year, to $23.38 billion.

The result was an operating income of $89 million (0.4% operating margin) during the most recent quarter, down from the prior year’s $349 million (1.5% operating margin).

“Much like the entire health care industry, we continue to address deferred care while navigating COVID-19 surges and associated expenses. Kaiser Permanente’s integrated model of providing both care and coverage enables us to meet these challenges as demonstrated by our moderate increase in year-over-year operating expenses for the second quarter,” EVP and Chief Financial Officer Kathy Lancaster said in a statement accompanying the filing.

BioPharma Dive informs us

Pfizer on Monday said it has agreed to acquire Global Blood Therapeutics for $5.4 billion in a deal that will hand it a recently approved drug for sickle cell disease, as well as two other experimental medicines for the rare blood condition. Under terms of the deal, Pfizer will pay $68.50 in cash per Global Blood share * * *. * * * Pfizer and Global Blood expect the deal, which has been approved by the boards of directors at both companies, to close as early as the fourth quarter, pending the sign off regulators and Global Blood shareholders. 

Becker’s Hospital Review is running a series on health information interoperability:

Health data interoperability has long been a goal of health IT executives and policy experts. But it’s 2022 — and the healthcare system doesn’t appear all that close to getting there.

Becker’s spoke to experts from health systems, industry and academia on what it will take to create an open exchange of healthcare information in the U.S.

The first entry in the series is a Q&A with Donna Roach, CIO of University of Utah Health in Salt Lake City

Check it out.

Weekend update

Photo by Dane Deaner on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill —

The Senate is on a State work break for the next two weeks which encompasses Independence Day. The House of Representatives will be engaged in Committee business this week through Thursday. Then the House will be on District work break through the end of the following week.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee is holding a hearing tomorrow on an important topic: “Examining the 2022 National Drug Control Strategy and the Federal Response to the Overdose Crisis.”

On Friday, the House Appropriations Committee approved

the fiscal year 2023 Financial Services and General Government bill on a 31 to 22 vote. * * *

The following amendments to the bill were adopted by the full Committee:

Rep. Quigley – The manager’s amendment makes technical and noncontroversial changes to the bill and report. The amendment was adopted by voice vote.

Rep. Stewart #3 – This amendment prohibits the government’s use of cloud computing platforms unless they prevent child exploitation images. The amendment was adopted by voice vote.

A summary of the bill is here. The text of the draft bill is here. The bill report, before the adoption of amendments in full Committee, is here

This bill includes FEHB and OPM funding.

It occurred to the FEHBlog over the weekend that on Friday he did not explain how the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overruling Roe v. Wade impacts the FEHB Program. The short answer in the FEHBlog’s opinion is that it has no impact.

Under the Hyde Amendment whose requirements have been applied to the FEHB via annual appropriations bills for decades, FEHB Program coverage of abortions is limited to abortions in cases of rape, incest, or endangerment of the mother’s life. Federal courts of appeals uniformly have held that the Hyde Amendment preempts more restrictive State abortion limitations. E.g., Planned Parenthood Affiliates v. Engler, 73 F.3d 654 (6th Cir. 1996) (citing precedential authorities).

From the Omicron and siblings front —

Nature reports

The BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants are spiking globally because they can spread faster than other circulating variants — mostly BA.2, which caused a surge in cases at the beginning of the year. But so far, the latest Omicron variants seem to be causing fewer deaths and hospitalizations than their older cousins — a sign that growing population immunity is tempering the immediate consequences of COVID-19 surges.

Nature explores what the rise of BA.4 and BA.5 means for the pandemic.

The FEHB agrees that the complete Nature article is worth reading.

The Wall Street Journal informs us

Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE vaccines modified to target the Omicron variant produced a significantly larger immune response than the companies’ currently available vaccine in a study, they said.

A modified booster shot targeting Omicron specifically increased neutralizing antibody levels 13.5 to 19.6 times higher than the current shot in study volunteers a month after administration, depending on the dose, the companies said Saturday. * * *

The results, coming after Moderna Inc. also found its Omicron-targeting booster produced a stronger immune response, suggest possible benefit to modifying the shots to improve protection against an evolving virus.

The Journal adds that the Food and Drug Administration is considering whether to give emergency use authorization to the Omicron-oriented boosters for fall 2022. Based on the Nature article, it appears that Omicron will still be with us then.

Fortune identifies seven things doctors who treat long Covid want people to know.

From the Monkeypox front, Bloomberg Prognosis tells us

The World Health Organization opted against calling the recent monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.

The outbreak is “clearly an evolving threat,” the WHO said in a statement Saturday, though it doesn’t constitute an international public health emergency “at this moment.” An emergency committee convened on Thursday to discuss the outbreak.

“What makes the current outbreak especially concerning is the rapid, continuing spread into new countries and regions and the risk of further, sustained transmission into vulnerable populations including people that are immunocompromised, pregnant women and children,” according to the statement. “It requires our collective attention and coordinated action now to stop the further spread of monkeypox virus.”

NPR Shots expresses concern that U.S. testing program for this disease is inadequate.

For many of the [201] confirmed cases, health officials don’t know how the person caught the virus. Those infected haven’t traveled or come into contact with another infected person. That means the virus is spreading in some communities and cities, cryptically. 

“The fact that we can’t reconstruct the transmission chain means that we are likely missing a lot of links in that chain,” Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Brown University, says. “And that means that those infected people haven’t had the opportunity to receive medicines to help them recover faster and not develop severe symptoms. 

“But it also means that they’re possibly spreading the virus without knowledge of the fact that they’re infected,” she adds.

In other words: “We have no concept of the scale of the monkeypox outbreak in the U.S.,” says biologist Joseph Osmundson at New York University. “

NPR explains that the monkeypox testing process is much too cumbersome and the CDC hopes to have the process streamlined “sometime in July.”

Meanwhile, Precision Vaccines reports

New influenza vaccine effectiveness data presented at the U.S. CDC’s June 22, 2022 meeting of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) show flu shots worked better during 2021 – 2022 than initially reported.

Published on June 23, 2022, this ACIP data shows flu shots reduced the risk of influenza illness by about 35% among vaccinated people.

Data from October 4, 2021, through April 30, 2022, showed that flu vaccines reduced people’s risk of mild to moderate flu illness caused by H3N2 flu viruses—the most common flu viruses this season—by about one-third overall. * * *

Also, at the meeting, ACIP voted in favor of a preferential recommendation for certain flu vaccines over others for adults 65 years and older in the United States. 

The ACIP voted to preferentially recommend higher-dose flu vaccines (Fluzone High-Dose vaccine and Flublok recombinant vaccine) or adjuvanted flu vaccine (Fluad vaccine) over standard-dose unadjuvanted flu vaccines.

And if one of these vaccines is unavailable at the time of administration, people in this age group should get a standard-dose flu vaccine instead. 

From the health information technology front, Health Data Management calls out attention to the following

  • “In a [very sensible] letter to Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, several healthcare standards organizations are calling for streamlining and making more predictable the process for submitting attachments as well as modernizing existing rules to improve patient care and reduce burdens on clinicians.”
  • New legal requirements for providers to give an estimated cost of patients’ medical services will be difficult to meet, particularly when multiple organizations are involved in a patient’s care, according to WEDI, the Workgroup on Electronic Data Interchange. Meeting the requirements of the No Surprises Act, which was included as part of a Consolidated Appropriations Act passed late in 2020, will be challenging because there is no standardized process to enable the exchange of cost information among facilities, WEDI notes.”
  • While healthcare organizations see the prevailing trend of increasing patient consumerism, the ability to give patients opportunities to schedule their own appointments is lagging. Many organizations have adopted some capabilities for self-scheduling, according to new research from the Center for Connected Medicine (CCM), yet the use of these tools remains low [because] scheduling solutions lack the right algorithms and that organizations lack standardized scheduling templates across appointment types.”

In particular the second bullet strikes a chord with the FEHBlog as he has pointed out that Congress made a huge mistake by failing add the provider’s good faith estimate and the health plan’s advance explanation of benefits to the list of HIPAA standard transactions.

Happy First Day of Summer 2022

Thanks to Aaron Burden for sharing their work on Unsplash.

From Capitol Hill, the Hill reports

The Senate voted 64 to 34 Tuesday evening to advance an 80-page gun safety bill to strengthen background check requirements for gun buyers under 21, provide funding to states to administer red flag laws and to provide billions of dollars in new federal funding for mental health services.  * * *

Senate Majority Leader Schumer (D-N.Y.) said a successful initial procedural vote would set the bill up to pass by the end of the week.  

Last week, a House Appropriations subcommittee approved the Fiscal Year 2023 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill, which funds OPM and the FEHB Program. The accompanying bill summary points out

  • Office of Personnel Management (OPM) – The bill includes $448 million, an increase of $75 million above the FY 2022 enacted level, for OPM to manage and provide guidance on Federal human resources and administer Federal retirement and health benefit programs.
  • Fosters equality for women and men: Eliminates provisions preventing the FEHBP from covering abortion services.

The House Appropriations Committee will mark up this bill at a meeting scheduled for Friday, June 24.

The U.S. Supreme Court today issued a 7-2 decision holding that the Medicare Secondary Payer law does not permit healthcare providers to make disparate impact claims against health plans. This decision protects ERISA and FEHB Program plans against costly litigation. Fierce Healthcare and Health Payer Intelligence also report on the decision.

From the Omnicron and siblings front —

MedPage Today informs us

Most people who have been infected with COVID-19 in the U.S. in the past couple of months likely had the BA.2 or BA.2.12.1 variant, both lineages of the original Omicron strain of SARS-CoV-2.

Now, BA.4 and BA.5 are here, and they’re starting to make up a larger proportion of U.S. cases.

So if someone was recently infected with a BA.2 lineage, are they mostly protected against reinfection with BA.4 or BA.5?

Probably not, infectious disease experts say.

“It’s expected that there’s probably not much cross-protection between them,” Amesh Adalja, MD, an infectious disease physician at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, told MedPage Today.

The American Hospital Association tells us

More than 1 million prescriptions for the COVID-19 antiviral pills Lagevrio and Paxlovid were dispensed between late December 2021 and May 2022, but dispensing rates were lowest in the most socially and economically disadvantaged communities, according to a study released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a separate study of electronic health records from Kaiser Permanente Southern California over the period, fewer than 1% of patients aged 12 and older who received Paxlovid to treat mild-to-moderate COVID-19 had a COVID-19-related hospitalization or emergency department visit in the next five to 15 days. CDC said the studies “highlight the importance of ensuring access to oral antiviral medicine in treating COVID-19, a key strategy in preventing hospitalization and death.”

Speaking of hospitals, Beckers Hospital Review reports

Healthgrades has recognized 399 hospitals as recipients of its 2022 Outstanding Patient Experience Award, the organization said June 21. This represents the top 15 percent of hospitals in the U.S. for patient experience.  * * * Healthgrades has recognized 399 hospitals as recipients of its 2022 Outstanding Patient Experience Award, the organization said June 21. This represents the top 15 percent of hospitals in the U.S. for patient experience.  * * * View the full list of recipients here

From the Rx coverage front —

  • The Food and Drug Administration released one of its news roundups today.
  • Per Stat News, a group of researchers writing in the Annals of Internal Pharmacy used Mark Cuban’s online pharmacy pricing to puncture Medicare Part D’s pricing on generic drugs.
  • Per Fierce Healthcare, CVS Health is expanding its Project Health program to Richmond, Virginia and Las Vegas. “The healthcare giant announced Tuesday that it will hold 72 events dedicated to seniors and children this year. It is also adding four new mobile units in 2022.”
  • Per Healthcare Dive, Walgreens “has partnered with managed care company Buckeye Health Plan in Ohio to open new Health Corner locations in five of the state’s northeast neighborhoods this summer. * * * About 2.3 million patients will have access to Health Corner services across 60 locations in Ohio, California and New Jersey by the summer’s end, Walgreens said on Tuesday. By the end of this year, Walgreens expects to increase the number of Health Corners from 55 to about 100, including the new Ohio locations.”

From the interoperability and telehealth fronts

  • Epic, the largest purveyor of electronic health record systems in the U.S., announced “its plan to join a new health information exchange framework to improve health data interoperability across the country. The Trusted Exchange Framework and Common Agreement (TEFCA) will bring information networks together to help ensure that all people benefit from complete, longitudinal health records wherever they receive care. In the future, TEFCA will expand to support use cases beyond clinical care, such as public health.” That’s a big boost for TEFCA, which will serve as the backbone for the nation’s EHR systems.
  • AHRQ offers research on telehealth for women’s preventive healthcare services.

Finally, STAT News reports

President Biden will soon nominate Arati Prabhakar, a physicist and former DARPA director, to serve as his next top science adviser, the White House announced on Tuesday.

If confirmed by the Senate, Prabhakar would replace the genomics researcher Eric Lander, who resigned as the head of the White House science office in February amid a workplace-bullying scandal.

The new post would be Prabhakar’s third tour as head of a federal science office. She ran DARPA, the high-stakes military research agency, from 2012 to early 2017, and served as director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the 1990s.

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 is the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new Covid cases from the 27th week of 2021 through the 23rd week of 2022.

The CDC’s weekly review of its Covid statistics observes “As of June 8, 2022, the current 7-day moving average of daily new cases (109,032) increased 8.0% compared with the previous 7-day moving average (100,916).”

Here’s is the CDC’s latest weekly report of new Covid hospitalizations:

The CDC’s weekly review notes “The current 7-day daily average for June 1–7, 2022, was 4,127. This is an 8.0% increase from the prior 7-day average (3,820) from May 25–31, 2022.”

Here’s the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new Covid deaths over the same period as new cases:

The CDC’s weekly review adds “The current 7-day moving average of new deaths (306) has increased 18.6% compared with the previous 7-day moving average (258).” Over 2/3s of the U.S. population is now fully vaccinated.

Here’s the FEHBlog weekly chart of Covid vaccinations distributed and administered from the beginning of the vaccination era at the 51st week of 2020 through the 23rd week of 2022:

The CDC’s weekly review states “As of June 8, 2022, the 7-day average number of administered vaccine doses reported (by date of CDC report) to CDC per day was 290,078, a 15.6% decrease from the previous week.”

The American Hospital Administration adds

An initial 10 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine are available for children under age 5 if the Food and Drug Administration authorizes and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for children in this age group, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dawn O’Connell said yesterday during a White House briefing.

FDA’s vaccine advisory committee will meet June 14-15 and the CDC’s advisory committee June 17-18 to consider whether to authorize and recommend the vaccines for this age group, after which the agencies will issue their respective decisions.

“It will take some time to position these vaccines across the country, and vaccinations can’t begin until CDC has made its decision,” O’Connell said. “But we also know that many parents have been waiting for a long time, so we will be working 24/7 until every dose is shipped and delivered.”

The Administration last week opened pre-ordering of doses for states, tribes, territories and other partners, and estimates that 85% of children under 5 live within 5 miles of a potential vaccination site, she said.

The CDC’s weekly review sums things up as follows:

As of June 9, 2022, there are 314 (9.75%) counties, districts, or territories with a high COVID-19 Community Level, 1,052 (32.67%) counties with a medium Community Level, and 1,854 (57.58%) counties with a low Community Level. This represents a small (+2.20 percentage points) increase in the number of high-level counties, a moderate (+9.57 percentage points) increase in the number of medium-level counties, and a corresponding (−11.77 percentage points) decrease in the number of low-level counties. Fifty-two (100%) of 52 jurisdictions* had high- or medium-level counties this week.

To check your COVID-19 Community Level, visit COVID Data Tracker. To learn which prevention measures are recommended based on your COVID-19 Community Level, visit COVID-19 Community Level and COVID-19 Prevention.

From the unusual viruses front, the American Hospital Association tells us

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention today reported over 1,300 monkeypox cases globally, including 45 in the United States. While no deaths have been reported and the overall risk to the U.S. public remains low, officials encouraged clinicians to review the CDC’s latest guidance and individuals to talk with their health care provider if they develop symptoms or need to get tested.

According to CDC, monkeypox spreads through direct contact with an infected person’s body fluids, sores or materials that have touched them, such as clothing or linens. It may also spread through respiratory secretions when people have close, face-to-face contact.

Smallpox vaccines are effective at protecting people against monkeypox when given before exposure and may also help prevent the disease or make it less severe. According to CDC, the Strategic National Stockpile currently holds about 72,000 doses of JYNNEOS smallpox vaccine and will soon receive an additional 300,000 doses from the manufacturer. The U.S. also has ordered another 500,000 doses for delivery later this year. In addition, the SNS holds over 100 million doses of an older smallpox vaccine (ACAM2000). 

From the electronic health record front, Beckers Hospital News reports

Oracle’s primary mission is improving the complex healthcare system with technology, according to Larry Ellison.

The chair, co-founder and chief technology officer of Oracle said in a June 9 virtual public presentation the company plans to vastly improve care delivery, outcomes and public health policy while also lowering costs. Oracle acquired Cerner in a $28.4 billion transaction earlier this week and has plans to modernize the platform, taking it from a documentation and billing system to a complete source of information about an individual’s healthcare. The EHR would also have virtual care capabilities, be interoperable and expand clinical trial accessibility.

“Together, Cerner and Oracle have all the technology required to build a revolutionary new health management information system in the cloud,” Mr. Ellison said. “That system will deliver much better information to healthcare professionals. Better information will fundamentally transform healthcare.”

Oracle aims to build a unified database for patient information, similar to the unified financial database with credit information, accessible to healthcare providers and public health officials. The database would have anonymized data from hospitals, clinics and providers across the U.S. and provide up-to-the-minute information about patients’ personal health as well as public health statistics, such as the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 or available hospital beds in a particular state.

“We’re building a system where the health records, all American citizens’ health records, not only exist at the hospital level, but they are all in a unified national healthcare database,” Mr. Ellison said. “The national database solves the data electronic health record fragmentation problem.”

Aim high. Assuming security and privacy challenges can be addressed, such a database could be a public health game changer.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

The Hill reports

White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha issued a dire warning Thursday that the U.S. will be increasingly vulnerable to the coronavirus this fall and winter if Congress doesn’t swiftly approve new funding for more vaccines and treatments.

In an Associated Press interview, Jha said Americans’ immune protection from the virus is waning, the virus is adapting to be more contagious and booster doses for most people will be necessary — with the potential for enhanced protection from a new generation of shots.

STAT News offers this ray of sunshine

Epidemiologist David Dowdy of Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health said that, despite the case increases, hospitalization and death rates overall remain relatively low compared with earlier periods in the pandemic — a reflection of how much immunity there is in the population.

“In some ways, this is encouraging, in that we’re starting to see a divergence between the number of cases and the number of hospitalizations and deaths,” Dowdy said. “But it’s also a little bit discouraging that we’ve been through all this and we’re still seeing a flat line and an uptick in the number of people getting admitted to the hospital and in people dying.”

In the FEHBlog’s view, the coordinator should stop fighting the Delta pandemic by focusing attention on better government distribution of Pfizer’s Paxlovid, which can cure the Omicron if taken timely. Kaiser Health News discusses this continuing and vexing distribution problem.

Unquestionably a need to focus attention on vaccinations and boosters remains essential. Govexec and Kaiser Health News ask why one-third of Americans over 65 have not received the first booster. Nearly all Americans over 65 are fully vaccinated. The article explains

People 65 and older account for about 75% of U.S. covid deaths. And some risk persists, even for seniors who have completed an initial two-dose series of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine or gotten one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Among older people who died of covid in January, 31% had completed a first vaccination round but had not been boosted, according to a KFF analysis of CDC data

FEHB plans are well-positioned to help with this effort, given their demographics.

In other virus news, the American Hospital Association tells us

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention yesterday updated its testing guidance for clinicians treating children with hepatitis of unknown cause. The agency is investigating 109 potential hepatitis cases of unknown cause in U.S. children since last October, including five deaths. More than 90% of the patients were hospitalized, 14% received liver transplants and more than half had a confirmed adenovirus infection, but officials still don’t know the actual cause of their hepatitis and cautioned that it may take time to assess the evidence and learn more. Potential cases also have been reported in the United Kingdom and other countries. 

Following up on last night’s hospital system merger news, Healthcare Dive reports

The Advocate Aurora Health and Atrium Health merger is likely to get a close review from the Federal Trade Commission as the Biden administration has taken a tougher stance on healthcare consolidation, antitrust and legal experts say. * * *

“I don’t think anything of this size in a healthcare transaction today is going to get rubber stamped,” said Bill Horton, a partner at Jones Walker who focuses on healthcare transactions. * * *

“Historically, the FTC concern in hospital and healthcare institution mergers has been the geographic overlap,” Horton said.

Advocate Aurora and Atrium do not have any geographic market overlap. The systems span six separate states through the Midwest and South.

“It doesn’t raise the same red flags, but it doesn’t mean that it gets waved through,” said Leemore Dafny, a Harvard Business School professor and former deputy director of healthcare and antitrust at the FTC.

The FTC is likely to examine whether the two systems negotiate with the same insurers even if they’re in different geographic locations, Dafny said.

From the interoperability front, Health Data Management offers an interesting take on government efforts to meet lofty public health goals for Data Modernization Initiative.

From the mental health care front, and to end on a high note, Health Payer Intelligence informs us

Consumers reported having positive experiences with their employer-sponsored mental and behavioral healthcare coverage during the coronavirus pandemic, a survey conducted on behalf of AHIP discovered.

“Health insurance providers are working every day to support Americans by helping them find the mental health support and counseling they need at a price they can afford,” Matt Eyles, president and chief executive officer of AHIP, said in a press release.