Thursday Miscellany

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

Happy Summer Solstice in our northern hemisphere of Mother Earth.

From Washington, DC,

  • Federal News Network lets us know,
    • “With both Senate and House lawmakers advancing legislation that aligns with President Joe Biden’s 2% federal pay raise request, civilian federal employees appear to be a step closer to a smaller pay bump for 2025.
    • “The Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the fiscal 2025 National Defense Authorization Act last week showed support for a 2% raise for DoD civilian workers and a 4.5% raise for military members. In a vote of 22-3 on June 13, committee lawmakers advanced the 2025 NDAA to the full Senate for consideration. The House passed its version of the NDAA last week.
    • “Although the NDAA’s provisions only apply to Defense Department employees, both civilian DoD workers and the rest of the civilian federal workforce on the General Schedule would see the same percentage added to their paychecks, if the raise is enacted.
    • “In House appropriations legislation, committee lawmakers remained silent on the topic of the federal pay raise, indicating a likely alignment with the president’s raise proposal. The GOP-led committee advanced legislation for a fiscal 2025 spending package last week along party lines. The Senate Appropriations Committee has not yet released its versions of fiscal 2025 spending legislation.”
  • The American Hospital Association News tells us,
    • “A United States District Court Judge in Texas today ruled in favor of the AHA, Texas Hospital Association, and hospital plaintiffs, agreeing that Department of Health and Human Services “bulletins” that restrict health care providers from using standard third-party web technologies that capture IP addresses on portions of their public-facing webpages were unlawful final rules and vacating the March 2024 Revised Bulletin.
    • “It’s easy for eyes to glaze over at a thirty-page opinion discussing the administrative esoterica accordant with HIPAA compliance,” United States District Court Judge Mark Pittman wrote today. “But this case isn’t really about HIPAA, the Proscribed Combination, or the proper nomenclature for PHI in the Digital Age. Rather, this is a case about power.…  While the Proscribed Combination may be trivial to HHS, it isn’t for covered entities diligently attempting to comply with HIPAA’s requirements.…  The Court GRANTS the Hospitals’ request for declaratory judgment and DECLARES that the Proscribed Combination, as set forth in the HHS Bulletin of March 18, 2024, is UNLAWFUL, as it was promulgated in clear excess of HHS’s authority under HIPAA.”
  • Bravo!
  • In an interview with Healthcare Dive, Micky Tripathi, the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, discusses his agency’s artificial intelligence strategy.
  • The House Committee on Education and the Workforce announced that “On Thursday, June 27, at 10:15 a.m., the Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions, chaired by Rep. Bob Good (R-VA), will hold a hearing titled “Examining the Policies and Priorities of the Employee Benefits Security Administration.”
  • Kevin Moss, writing in the Federal Times, reminds postal annuitants over the age of 65 and without Medicare Part B about the ongoing, late enrollment penalty free Special Enrollment Period. available to future PSHBP members.
  • BioPharma Dive reports,
    • “The Food and Drug Administration has substantially loosened limits on the first gene therapy for Duchenne muscular dystrophy in a decision that could greatly expand its use even as questions remain about its effectiveness.
    • “The agency on Thursday made the therapy, called Elevidys and sold by biotechnology company Sarepta Therapeutics, available to people with Duchenne who are at least four years of age and have mutations in a specific gene, regardless of whether they can still walk.
    • “For those who are still ambulatory the agency also converted Elevidys’ conditional approval to full, meaning its market availability in that setting is no longer contingent on additional tests. The clearance for Duchenne patients who are non-ambulatory is conditioned on the results of a Phase 3 study called Envision that’s currently underway.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • Cardiology Business informs us,
    • “The American College of Cardiology (ACC) this week published a report card on the excess cardiovascular mortality among Black Americans between 2000-2022.[1] The ACC said it highlights the “persistent and tragic inequities” in cardiovascular care and outlines the years of life lost to the Black community because of higher cardiovascular disease death rates.
    • “The report showed the Black population experienced 1.6 million excess deaths overall and millions of potential life-years lost. Heart disease was the leading cause of age-adjusted excess mortality among Black Americans. This includes deaths due to ischemic heart disease, hypertension, cerebrovascular disease and heart failure.
    • “Our study reveals that Black Americans, because of their higher cardiovascular mortality rates compared with white Americans, have suffered almost 800,000 excess deaths, which translates to about 24 million additional years of life lost between 2000 and 2022,” Journal of the ACC incoming editor-in-chief Harlan M. Krumholz, MD, SM, FACC, who is also senior author of the study, said in a statement. “This staggering figure highlights the critical need for systemic changes in addressing cardiovascular inequities.”
    • “Krumholz said the goal of the report card is to promote accountability and serve as a catalyst for action that addresses the ongoing problem.”
  • The National Institutes of Health’s Director writes in her blog,
    • “Drug-resistant bacteria are responsible for a rise in serious, hospital-acquired infections, including pneumonia and sepsis. Many of these bacteria are classified as “gram-negative,” and are harder to kill than “gram-positive” bacteria. Unfortunately, the limited number of antibiotics that can help combat these dangerous infections can also damage healthy microbes in the gut, leaving people at risk for other, potentially life-threatening infections. Such antibiotic-induced disruption has also been linked in studies to irritable bowel syndrome, colon cancer, and many other health conditions.
    • “There’s a great need for more targeted antibiotics capable of fending off infectious gram-negative bacteria while sparing the community of microbes in the gut, collectively known as the gut microbiome. Now, in findings reported in the journal Nature , a research team has demonstrated a promising candidate for the job. While the antibiotic hasn’t yet been tested in people, the findings in cell cultures suggest it could work against more than 130 drug-resistant bacterial strains. What’s more, the study, supported in part by NIH, shows that this compound, when given to infected mice, thwarts potentially life-threatening bacteria while leaving the animals’ gut microbiomes intact. * * *
    • “These new findings, while promising, are at an early stage of drug discovery and development, and much more study is needed before this compound could be tested in people. It will also be important to learn how rapidly infectious gram-negative bacteria may develop resistance to lolamicin. Nevertheless, these findings suggest it may be possible to further develop lolamicin or related antibiotic compounds targeting the Lol system to treat dangerous gram-negative infections without harming the microbiome.”
  • Per an NIH press release,
    • “Researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have developed a non-chemotherapy treatment regimen that is achieving full remissions for some people with aggressive B-cell lymphoma that has come back or is no longer responding to standard treatments. The five-drug combination targets multiple molecular pathways that diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL) tumors use to survive.
    • “In a clinical trial at NIH’s National Cancer Institute, researchers tested the combination of venetoclax, ibrutinib, prednisone, obinutuzumab, and lenalidomide (called ViPOR) in 50 patients with DLBCL, the most common type of lymphoma. The treatment shrank tumors substantially in 26 of 48 (54%) evaluable patients, with 18 (38%) of those patients’ tumors disappearing entirely, known as a complete response. At two years, 36% of all patients were alive and 34% were free of disease. These benefits were seen mainly in people with two specific subtypes of DLBCL.
    • “The findings were published June 20, 2024, in the New England Journal of Medicine.
  • NIH also posted the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK)  Director’s Update for Summer 2024.
  • STAT News points out,
    • “Gestational diabetes affects one in seven expecting women globally and rates of this troubling condition are rising. Blood glucose levels that become elevated for the first time during pregnancy can lead to severe complications, such as preeclampsia, and increase the risk of stillbirth. And while the condition typically resolves after birth, it is linked to a tenfold increase in the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, along with risks for the child including obesity, cardiovascular disease, and neurodevelopmental disorders. 
    • “Gestational diabetes has long been diagnosed between weeks 24 and 28 of pregnancy. But a recent randomized control study called Treatment of Booking Gestational Diabetes Mellitus, or TOBOGM, which was started in 2018 and whose results were published earlier this year, found that treating gestational diabetes before week 20 reduced the risk of severe perinatal complications, including preterm birth, low birthweight, stillbirth, and respiratory distress. The early treatment was most effective in women who had high blood glucose levels after an oral glucose tolerance test, which measures how well the body can metabolize the sugar in a very sweet, Gatorade-like drink. 
    • “In some cases, women are tested early when they have risk factors such as high blood pressure, obesity, or previous gestational diabetes. But between 30% and 70% of all gestational diabetes cases could be detected much earlier — by the twentieth week of a pregnancy, according to a series published on Thursday in The Lancet by an international group of gestational diabetes researchers.” 
  • and
    • When they work, immunotherapy drugs called checkpoint inhibitors can shrink cancers and, in some cases, eradicate tumors altogether. These drugs, which include Keytruda and Opdivo, are prescribed to hundreds of thousands of patients a year for dozens of different kinds of cancer — but they only work for a minority of them. Most patients ultimately end up progressing or relapsing.
    • In two separate [small] clinical trials published in Science on Thursday, researchers found that adding a drug called a JAK inhibitor created an unexpected synergy with checkpoint inhibitor therapy. The combination helped a majority of patients respond to the immunotherapy and, in one trial, overcome resistance to checkpoint inhibitors.
  • Per Biopharma Dive,
    • “Twice-yearly shots of a Gilead Sciences HIV drug were so effective at preventing infections in a large late-stage clinical trial that study monitors recommend the company stop testing early and offer the drug to all participants.
    • “The trial, called Purpose 1 and run in South Africa and Uganda, compared Gilead’s medicine lenacapavir to once-daily Truvada and background HIV infection rates among cisgender women. Lenacapavir proved superior to both, with zero HIV infections reported in the study group, Gilead said Thursday.
    • “Gilead hopes testing of twice-yearly lenacapavir will prove it an effective and more convenient preventive option for people at risk of HIV infection. The company expects data late this year or early next from another study that involves cisgender men who have sex with men as well as certain groups of people who are transgender or gender non-binary.”
  • Optum discusses “New innovative treatments for hemophilia B, RSV, COPD” in its new edition of its Drug Pipeline Insights Report.
  • Per Medscape,
    • “A single course of treatment with emotional awareness and expression therapy (EAET) was associated with a significantly greater reduction in chronic pain severity than cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), the current psychotherapeutic gold standard, a new study suggested.”
    • “Two thirds of the patients who received EAET reported at least a 30% reduction in pain compared with 17% of those who received CBT. The randomized clinical trial also showed that individuals with depression and anxiety responded more favorably to EAET, a novel finding.
    • The study is one of only a few to directly compare EAET with CBT.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Mercer Consulting notes,
    • “Despite higher healthcare cost trends, fewer than half of large employers (those with 500 or more employees) are likely to take cost-cutting measures next year like raising deductibles or copays, according to Mercer’s new Survey on Health and Benefit Strategies for 2025, with nearly 700 employer participants.
    • “Heading into 2025, employers face the challenge of addressing sharply faster cost growth while keeping healthcare affordable for their workers and offering a competitive benefit package. The survey found that medical plan options that save money by steering employees to quality, cost-efficient health providers — and potentially offer members more affordable coverage – now have significant traction with employer health plan sponsors.
    • “These plans take different forms, but over a third of large employers (36%) are now utilizing high-performance network plans or other alternative medical plans, and 29% are considering it in the near-term. * * *
    • “Many large employers indicated they want a consistent offering nationally. If this is a key priority, then an employer could explore the newer variable copay health plan options or high-performance network products offered by certain national carriers that can backfill with their broad network as needed in some geographies for a consistent national offering. Further, while considering disruption to members is important, it shouldn’t mean avoiding change entirely. A high-performance network option could be offered as a choice at enrollment that provides a richer benefit design or lower payroll contribution option as a tradeoff for the different network.
    • “Additionally, the prevalent variable copay plan options are built on top of national broad network options, so in most cases provider disruption would be minimal.
  • Newfront discusses ten spousal incentive HRA compliance considerations. Spousal incentive HRAs are health reimbursement accounts offered to employees who elect primary coverage from their spouse’s group health plan.
  • Beckers Payer Issues relates,
    • Humata Health, a company that uses AI and machine learning to streamline prior authorization for payers and providers, has closed a $25 million investment. 
    • “The funding was led by Blue Venture Fund (majority of BCBS plans) and LRVHealth (nearly 30 health systems and payers), with participation from Optum Ventures, .406 Ventures, Highmark Ventures and VentureforGood, according to a June 20 news release.
    • “The company said it will use the funding to broaden the scope of its generative AI technologies, expand its customer base, and begin partnering with payers and other entities. Founded in 2023, the company has already partnered with 225 hospitals.”
  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • Eli Lilly is stepping up its campaign against fake and counterfeit weight-loss drugs with more lawsuits against sellers of unapproved products that market themselves as Mounjaro and Zepbound.
    • “The pharmaceutical company said Thursday that it has filed legal actions against med-spas, wellness centers and other entities that sell products purportedly containing tirzepatide, the antidiabetic medication Eli Lilly sells under the brand names Mounjaro and Zepbound.”
  • STAT News interviews Bold Health’s CEO Amanda Rees on “fall prevention, ageism in health care, and ‘movement is medicine’.”
    • “When Amanda Rees was in her twenties she moved in with her grandmother, who was in her 80s, and saw first-hand the issues older adults face with falls and balance. “It really radicalized how I thought about aging,” she said. Serving as her grandmother’s caretaker inspired her to shift into health care and start Bold, a health tech startup that provides at-home digital exercise programs targeted at adults 65 and older.  
    • “Falls among older adults cost the health care system about $50 billion annually, according to the CDC. Rees hopes Bold can help older adults build strength, prevent falls and reduce hospitalizations. The Los Angeles-based startup works with Medicare Advantage members and raised $17 million during its Series A. Rees sat down with STAT to discuss building Bold, the concept of  “movement is medicine,” and the public health crisis of falls.”

Midweek Update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • The House Appropriations Committee tells us, “Today, the House Appropriations Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee met to consider its Fiscal Year 2025 bill. The measure was approved by the Subcommittee.”
  • This bill provides appropriations for OPM and the FEHBP. The Committee summary of the bill describes its OPM appropriations as follows —
    • “Provides $477 million for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which is $31.4 million below the FY25 Budget Request and $29.1 million above the FY24 enacted level.”
  • Govexec informs us,
    • “Senate Democrats have vowed to move quickly on legislation protecting Americans’ access to in vitro fertilization and other forms of assistive reproductive technology, including a provision expanding federal workers’ access to those treatments as part of the government’s employer-sponsored health insurance program.
    • “On Monday, Sens. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., introduced the Right to IVF Act, a repackaging of three separate previously introduced bills on reproductive health services.
    • “Included is the Family Building FEHB Fairness Act, first introduced last year by Duckworth, which would require the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program to cover additional costs associated with IVF, and would expand coverage to all types of assisted reproductive technology, such as gamete and zygote intrafallopian transfer.”
  • Govexec also pointed out this OPM Inspector General brief that summarizes OPM OIG recommendations that have been open for more than six months as of March 31, 2024. The FEHBlog understands why the FEHB open recommendations remain outstanding
  • Healthcare Dive lets us know,
    • “Congress appears to be inching toward injecting more transparency into a controversial program that forces drugmakers to give safety-net hospitals steep discounts on drugs.
    • “It would be a win for pharmaceutical manufacturers, which have long lobbied that hospitals be required to account for their savings in the 340B program — or that it be overhauled entirely.
    • “The latter appears unlikely, after lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed blanket support for 340B during a House Oversight and Investigations subcommittee hearing on Tuesday. However, members said they approved of more oversight to try and stop financial gaming in the program.
    • “Though “we’re all in support of 340B … I think nearly all of us agree that the status quo is not acceptable,” said Rep. Larry Bucshon, R-Ind.”
  • Yesterday, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force released a final recommendation concerning “Falls Prevention in Community-Dwelling Older Adults: Interventions.” Its recommendations align with the recommendations currently in force.
  • Thompson Reuters Practical Law relates,
    • “In litigation under the No Surprises Act (NSA), a district court concluded that there is no cause of action for health providers to enforce awards involving surprise billing disputes under the NSA’s independent dispute resolution (IDR) process (Guardian Flight LLC & Med-Trans Corp. v. Health Care Serv. Corp.(N.D. Tex. May 30, 2024)).”
  • The American Hospital Association News shares the organization’s “comments [submitted’ June 5 on the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ inpatient prospective payment system proposed rule for fiscal year 2025, expressing support for several provisions, including certain policies supporting low-volume and Medicare-dependent hospitals, and several aspects of CMS’ quality-related proposals. However, AHA raised concerns about the rule’s proposed payment updates.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • CNN reports,
    • “About 61% of US adults will have cardiovascular disease by 2050, new research from the American Heart Association predicts. The biggest driver of this trend will be the large number of people who have or will develop high blood pressure, which makes them much more likely to develop dangerous problems like a heart attack or stroke.
    • “Other cardiovascular problems include heart attacks, arrhythmias like atrial fibrillation or a-fib, heart failure and congenital heart disease. * * *
    • In the research published Tuesday, the association predicts that 45 million adults will have some form of cardiovascular disease – excluding high blood pressure – or will have a stroke in 2050, up from 28 million in 2020.
  • The New York Times reports,
    • One of the nation’s premier medical advisory organizations has weighed in on long Covid with a 265-page report that recognizes the seriousness and persistence of the condition for millions of Americans.
    • More than four years since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, long Covid continues to damage many people’s ability to function, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, a nongovernmental institution that advises federal agencies on science and medicine.
  • and
    • “A committee of advisers to the Food and Drug Administration voted on Wednesday to update the formula for the Covid vaccine ahead of an anticipated fall immunization campaign, now an annual step to try to offer better protection against versions of the virus in circulation.
    • “The unanimous vote by the 16 advisers recommends a formula aimed at combating the variant JN.1, which dominated infections in the United States in February, or a version of it. In recent weeks, JN.1 has been overtaken by descendants known as KP.2 and KP.3.
    • “In the coming weeks, the F.D.A. is expected to formally recommend a variant target for vaccine makers for the next round of shots in the late summer or early fall. Any decision involves some educated guesswork, given that any new vaccine formula won’t be available until months after a variant becomes dominant.
    • “It’s becoming clear that the ideal timing for a vaccine composition decision remains elusive,” said Jerry Weir, an official with the F.D.A.’s vaccine division.”
  • Per Biopharma Dive,
    • “A saliva test may improve screening for prostate cancer by identifying people at higher risk based on genotype, researchers said Friday.”A saliva test may improve screening for prostate cancer by identifying people at higher risk based on genotype, researchers said Friday.
    • Data presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting suggest the test can support prostate cancer diagnosis in people who are missed by other screening methods.
    • “The researchers are now comparing the saliva test to several screening methods such as fast MRI scans and prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood tests to determine the best approach.”
  • and
    • “Eli Lilly’s drug tirzepatide — sold as Zepbound for obesity — continues to show promise in the liver disease MASH. Clinical trial data disclosed in an abstract ahead of a European medical conference indicates that, after one year, the shot helped improve liver fibrosis without worsening MASH in just over half of treated participants, compared with 30% of those given placebo. Lilly had hinted at the study’s success earlier this year, but the full data will provide a more complete view of tirzepatide’s potential. The abstract’s release comes one day after Viking Therapeutics released trial data for its MASH pill VK2809 and less than two months after Madrigal Pharmaceuticals won U.S. approval of the first MASH drug.”
  • The Institute for Clinical and Economic Research “today posted Protocol outlining how it will conduct the fourth annual assessment of how well major insurers’ prescription drug coverage policies align with a set of fair access standards. These standards were developed by ICER with expert input from patient advocates, clinician specialty societies, payers, pharmacy benefit managers, and life science companies.”
  • Per MedPage Today,
    • “The CDC finalized new guidelines that recommend doxycycline post-exposure prophylaxis (doxy PEP) for at-risk gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender women (TGW) to prevent bacterial sexually transmitted infections (STIs).”The CDC finalized new guidelines that recommend doxycycline post-exposure prophylaxis (doxy PEP) for at-risk gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender women (TGW) to prevent bacterial sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
    • “Healthcare providers should discuss and offer doxy PEP to people in these populations with a history of at least one bacterial STI — specifically syphilis, chlamydia, gonorrhea — in the last 12 months, Lindley Barbee, MD, of the CDC’s National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, and colleagues wrote in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.”
    • “Doxy PEP represents the first new STI prevention tool in decades, at a time when innovation in the nation’s fight against STIs is desperately needed,” said Barbee in a CDC statement.
  • The National Institutes of Health announced,
    • “The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, has released its plan for advancing H5N1 influenza basic research and translating those findings into strategies and interventions that can benefit people. The research agenda focuses on four key objectives: increasing understanding of the biology of H5N1 viruses and the factors that influence their ability to transmit and cause disease; developing and evaluating prevention strategies, such as vaccines; advancing existing and novel treatments, including antivirals and monoclonal antibodies; and supporting strategies for detecting H5N1 virus. The NIAID Research Agenda for 2024 H5N1 Influenza – May 2024 aligns with the NIAID role in the federal public health response to the U.S. outbreak of H5N1 influenza in people, dairy cows and other animals.”The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, has released its plan for advancing H5N1 influenza basic research and translating those findings into strategies and interventions that can benefit people. The research agenda focuses on four key objectives: increasing understanding of the biology of H5N1 viruses and the factors that influence their ability to transmit and cause disease; developing and evaluating prevention strategies, such as vaccines; advancing existing and novel treatments, including antivirals and monoclonal antibodies; and supporting strategies for detecting H5N1 virus. The NIAID Research Agenda for 2024 H5N1 Influenza – May 2024 aligns with the NIAID role in the federal public health response to the U.S. outbreak of H5N1 influenza in people, dairy cows and other animals.”
  • The Washington Post reports, “Male birth control gel shows promise in early-stage clinical trials. “A National Institutes of Health official said the findings marked a milestone, even if the product is probably years away.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • KFF informs us,
    • The Medical Loss Ratio (MLR) provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) limits the amount of premium income that insurers can keep for administration, marketing, and profits. Insurers that fail to meet the applicable MLR threshold are required to pay back excess profits or margins in the form of rebates to individuals and employers that purchased coverage.
    • In the individual and small group markets, insurers must spend at least 80% of their premium income on health care claims and quality improvement efforts, leaving the remaining 20% for administration, marketing expenses, and profit. The MLR threshold is higher for large group insurers, which must spend at least 85% of their premium income on health care claims and quality improvement efforts. MLR rebates are based on a 3-year average, meaning that rebates issued in 2024 will be calculated using insurers’ financial data in 2021, 2022 and 2023 and will go to people and businesses who bought health coverage in 2023.
    • This analysis, using preliminary data reported by insurers to state regulators and compiled by Mark Farrah Associates, finds that insurers estimate they will issue a total of about $1.1 billion in MLR rebates across all commercial markets in 2024. Since the ACA began requiring insurers to issue these rebates in 2012, a total of $11.8 billion in rebates have already been issued to individuals and employers, and this analysis suggests the 2012-2024 total will rise to about $13 billion when rebates are issued later this year.
  • TechTarget calls our attention to the fact that “As providers seek to advance patient-centered care, many behavioral health organizations are turning to their EHR vendors to support integrated care models, according to a KLAS report.” Yippee.
  • Beckers Hospital Review lets us know,
    • “U.S. bankruptcy Judge Chris Lopez authorized the sale dates for Dallas-based Steward Health Care’s 31 hospitals during a June 3 hearing. “U.S. bankruptcy Judge Chris Lopez authorized the sale dates for Dallas-based Steward Health Care’s 31 hospitals during a June 3 hearing. 
    • “The sales will be conducted in two rounds. The first round, which includes the health system’s physician group, Stewardship Health, and all Steward hospitals excluding its Florida facilities and some of the Texas hospitals, will have a bid deadline of June 24 and a first sale hearing July 11.
    • “The second round includes Steward’s Florida hospitals and four of its Texas facilities, with a bid deadline of Aug. 12 and a sale hearing of Aug. 22.”
  • Beckers Payer Issues tells us about the payers that landed on the 2024 Fortune 500.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • Roll Call reports,
    • “Lawmakers released a more than $1.2 trillion, six-bill appropriations package early Thursday morning, less than 48 hours ahead of a Friday night deadline for this second and final wrapup measure for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. 
    • “Both parties were touting “wins” in the package well before unveiling the massive 1,012-page bill, which had already won President Joe Biden’s blessing and pledge to sign it “immediately.” That, plus the lure of a two-week recess, should help get the package over the finish line, though it seems likely to slip past the 11:59 p.m. Friday cutoff for the current stopgap spending law.
    • “But lawmakers weren’t really sweating the prospect of a weekend funding lapse, given its limited impact on government operations — especially with Friday’s expected House passage likely to be a strong signal of congressional intent to keep the lights on.”
  • The bill includes appropriations for OPM (pages 247 – 250) and its Inspector General (page 250) plus the three now standard appropriations measures:
    • A prohibition against imposing full Cost Accounting Standards coverage on FEHB carriers. Division B, Section 611, page 268.
    • The Hyde amendment limiting FEHB coverage of abortions to cases “where the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term, or the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape or incest.” Division B, Section 613 and 614, pages 268 – 269.
    • A contraceptive prescription drug coverage mandate with conscience protections for FEHB plans and healthcare providers. Division B, Section 726, page 298.
  • The American Hospital Association News discusses HHS appropriations, which also are included in this bill.
    • “The House may vote on the measure Friday, with Senate action expected over the weekend. A short government shutdown may occur over the weekend, depending how long it takes both chambers to pass the measure and for President Biden to sign it into law.” 
  • Govexec points out “the nine biggest agency and program reforms in the final FY24 spending package.”
  • The Wall Street Journal scoops,
    • “Some Medicare members could get help paying for the popular new weight-loss drug Wegovy—as long as they have a history of heart disease and are using it to prevent recurring heart attacks and strokes.
    • “Medicare Part D drug-benefit plans—which are administered by private insurers—may cover anti-obesity medications if the drugs receive approval for an additional use that is considered medically accepted under federal law, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services told The Wall Street Journal on Thursday. * * *
    • “Some Medicare members could get help paying for the popular new weight-loss drug Wegovy—as long as they have a history of heart disease and are using it to prevent recurring heart attacks and strokes.
    • “Medicare Part D drug-benefit plans—which are administered by private insurers—may cover anti-obesity medications if the drugs receive approval for an additional use that is considered medically accepted under federal law, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services told The Wall Street Journal on Thursday.”
  • STAT News adds,
    • “Early data regarding the use of GLP-1 medications like Ozempic and Wegovy to treat addiction is “very, very, exciting,” Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said Thursday.
    • “But even as she expressed enthusiasm for the new drugs’ potential, Volkow criticized pharmaceutical companies for neglecting a moral imperative to develop new addiction treatments — but acknowledged that the health system more broadly doesn’t incentivize drug companies to treat the U.S. drug crisis with urgency.”
  • The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force finalized its research plan for re-evaluating its September 2019 recommendations on the topic of medications to reduce the risk of breast cancer.
  • Beckers Health IT interviews Alexandra Mugge, chief health informatics officer at CMS, about the agency’s efforts “to expedite prior authorizations, through digitization and better data exchange, saving the healthcare industry $15 billion over a decade — in the hopes of one day having the decisions made instantaneously, right in the EHR.”

From the Food and Drug Administration front,

  • Per a press release,
    • “Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Duvyzat (givinostat) oral medication for the treatment of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) in patients six years of age and older. Duvyzat is the first nonsteroidal drug approved to treat patients with all genetic variants of DMD. It is a histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitor that works by targeting pathogenic processes to reduce inflammation and loss of muscle.
    • “DMD denies the opportunity for a healthy life to the children it affects. The FDA is committed to advancing the development of new therapies for DMD,” said Emily Freilich, M.D., director of the Division of Neurology 1, Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “This approval provides another treatment option to help reduce the burden of this progressive, devastating disease for individuals impacted by DMD regardless of genetic mutation.”
  • MedTech Dive informs us,
    • Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Abiomed recalled its Impella left sided blood pumps for risk that the devices could perforate the heart during a procedure. The recall began on Dec. 27 with Abiomed updating its instructions for use.
    • The Food and Drug Administration identified the recall as a Class I event, the most serious type of recall, in a Thursday notice. The agency has received 129 reports of serious injuries, including 49 deaths, related to the problem. 
    • Abiomed’s Impella heart pumps, which are used to support the heart during procedures or during cardiogenic shock, were the subject of four Class I recalls last year, including the latest recall. The company also received an FDA warning letter for quality problems with Impella and software used in the device that had not been authorized by the agency.

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The CDC shares with us,
    • Data from the National Vital Statistics System
      • Life expectancy for the U.S. population in 2022 was 77.5 years, an increase of 1.1 years from 2021.
      • The age-adjusted death rate decreased by 9.2% from 879.7 deaths per 100,000 standard population in 2021 to 798.8 in 2022.
      • Age-specific death rates increased from 2021 to 2022 for age groups 1–4 and 5–14 years and decreased for all age groups 15 years and older.
      • The 10 leading causes of death in 2022 remained the same as in 2021, although some causes changed ranks. Heart disease and cancer remained the top 2 leading causes in 2022.
      • The infant mortality rate was 560.4 infant deaths per 100,000 live births in 2022, an increase of 3.1% from the rate in 2021 (543.6).
  • STAT News adds,
    • “The U.S. recorded 107,941 drug overdose deaths in 2022, according to a new federal report — a total that marks an all-time record but also shows signs that the country’s overdose rate may finally be leveling off after years of steady increase.
    • “The 2022 total marks only a slight increase from the drug death toll of 106,699 the year before, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The flattening of drug death rates could provide a rare glimmer of hope amid the bleak U.S. drug crisis, which has seen overdose rates rise inexorably for the past two decades and especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.
    • “A large majority of those deaths were driven by the potent synthetic opioid fentanyl. Since emerging in the drug supply in the mid-2010s, fentanyl has increasingly come to dominate the U.S. illicit drug market. Even as fentanyl deaths have skyrocketed, the share of deaths involving other opioids — like heroin, methadone, and prescription painkillers — has decreased.”
  • The Washington Post reports,
    • “After once losing hope because of end-stage kidney disease, a 62-year-old man is now the first living person to receive a genetically edited kidney from a pig, according to doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital who performed the landmark surgery Saturday.
    • “Richard Slayman, whom doctors praised for his courage, is doing well after the four-hour surgery and is expected to be discharged from the Boston hospital soon, officials said.
    • “The advance, which builds on decades of work, gives hope to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who depend on dialysis machines to do the work of their failing kidneys. Each day, 17 Americans die awaiting a kidney transplant, a problem further complicated by unequal access given to Black and other patients. Doctors expressed hope that using pigs to vastly increase the supply of kidneys might correct the inequity.”
  • The Wall Street Journal lets us know,
    • “A new class of anticoagulant drugs on the horizon is taking fresh aim at one of cardiology’s toughest challenges: how to prevent blood clots that cause heart attacks and strokes, without leaving patients at risk of bleeding.
    • “At least a half-dozen experimental blood thinners are in development that inhibit a protein called factor XI, one of several blood factors that regulate how the body forms clots. * * *
    • “Any factor XI agent that reaches the market would likely represent an important advance over drugs called factor Xa inhibitors, a blockbuster class of medicines dominated by Eliquis and Xarelto. Since they were approved just over a decade ago, these drugs have supplanted warfarin as the standard-of-care anticoagulant to prevent stroke in patients with the heart-rhythm disorder atrial fibrillation as well as other indications.”
  • HealthDay informs us,
    • “About 1 in every 10 U.S. children ages 5 to 17 has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to the latest government statistics.
    • “The data from the National Health Interview Survey covers the years 2020 through 2022 and came from in-person or phone interviews involving a representative sample of American homes.
    • “It found that 11.3% of school-age children have been diagnosed with ADHD, with boys more likely to have this diagnosis (14.5%) than girls (8%), according to report authors Cynthia Reuben and Nazik Elgaddal, of the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).
    • “ADHD is diagnosed more often among white children (13.4%) than Black youngsters (10.8%) or Hispanic (8.9%) kids, the survey also showed. 
    • “Family income seemed to matter, too:  As income levels rose, the rate of child ADHD diagnoses declined.”
  • WTW, an actuarial consulting firm, offers insights on hepatitis C, HPV vaccine and value based insurance design.

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • STAT News reports,
    • “The last decade has seen billions of dollars flow into digital health companies that promise to improve outcomes for the 38 million Americans living with type 2 diabetes. Their products aren’t cheap, but in the long term, they pitch to health plans and employers that these digital tools will help cut health care costs by preventing serious complications like amputation and kidney failure.
    • A systematic review by the Peterson Health Technology Institute found, though, that digital tools used to manage diabetes with the help of finger-stick blood glucose readings don’t result in clinically meaningful improvements over standard care. As a result, they don’t reduce health care spending — they drive it up.
    • “Most of the solutions in this category do not deliver clinical benefits that justify their cost,” Caroline Pearson, executive director of the institute, told STAT. Despite finding that some populations may benefit, the report concludes that current evidence doesn’t support broader adoption for most products.”
  • Plan Sponsor notes,
    • “In the face of rising health care expenditures and out-of-pocket spending, average health savings account balances have also steadily increased since the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new data from the Employee Benefit Research Institute.
    • “The average HSA balance rose to $4,418 at the end of 2022 from $2,711 at the start of the year, the most recent data available in EBRI’s database, given that participants can still contribute to 2023 HSAs until taxes are due in April.
    • “Jake Spiegel, a research associate at EBRI, says he sees this trend continuing in 2023 and into the start of 2024 as well.
    • “EBRI’s analysis revealed two predominant factors associated with higher average account balances. The first was that age is strongly associated with higher HSA balances: the older the accountholder, the higher the average balance.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review lets us know,
    • “Change Healthcare said it has reinstated Amazon cloud services for two of its platforms a month into a cyberattack against the company.
    • “The UnitedHealth Group and Optum subsidiary said March 20 it restored Amazon Web Services from backups for Assurance, a claims and remittance management program, and claims clearinghouse Relay Exchange. Change said it rebuilt authentication services for the solutions on a new network with the help of cybersecurity firms Palo Alto Networks and Mandiant, a Google subsidiary. The company said it is also testing the security of the external-facing parts of those applications.”
  • Per the Society for Human Resource Management,
    • “Employees are experiencing more mental health struggles and overall negative feelings about their work, underscoring an “urgent need” for employers to take more aggressive measures to help with their benefits offerings.
    • “Employees are now more likely to experience negative feelings at work, including stress (12 percent more likely) and burnout (17 percent more likely) than they were pre-pandemic (2019), according to new data from MetLife. Employees are also 51 percent more likely to feel depressed at work than they were pre-pandemic as they face what the insurer calls a “complex macro environment and permacrisis state”—a state which has included the pandemic, persistent high inflation, international turmoil and war, and more.
    • “Those are among the findings in MetLife’s 22nd annual U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study, released March 18—data indicating that employers may have to revisit benefits offerings to not only support employees, but retain them.”
  • HR Dive explains “How menopausal and other reproductive health benefits can help retain women” and “Data shows that fertility treatments are extremely valuable to workers who need them. Here’s why one people officer is working on integrating them.”
  • STAT News relates,
    • “Just as Pfizer spooked Wall Street after its record pandemic revenue came parabolically back to earth, BioNTech, the company’s Covid-19 vaccine partner, is now dealing with investor malaise of its own.
    • “Shares in the German firm fell about 5% yesterday, hitting a 52-week low, after the company reported disappointing financials. BioNTech’s cut of Covid vaccine revenue fell by about more than three-quarters last year, missing analyst estimates and leading the company to lower its projections for 2024.
    • “Now BioNTech, much like Pfizer, is making the case that its future in oncology will compensate for the rapid erosion in demand for Covid vaccines. The company has more than 20 cancer medicines in its pipeline, including late-stage treatments for tumors of the breast and lung that could hit the market in the next two years.”
  • Per Healthcare Dive,
    • “Walgreens-backed VillageMD sold 11 locations in Rhode Island to Boston-based medical group management firm Arches Medical Partners for an undisclosed sumArches said Wednesday.
    • “The practices, which include about 75,000 patients, joined Arches on March 2, according to VillageMD’s website. 
    • “The deal follows VillageMD clinic closures. The primary care chain recently exited Florida — once one of chain’s largest markets — and plans to withdraw from its home state in Illinois next month.”

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Maddy Weiss on Unsplash

Happy First Day of Spring!

From Washington, DC,

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “Lawmakers who are finishing writing six annual spending bills have resolved a last-minute roadblock over border funding, setting the stage for Congress to review and approve the legislation on a tight timeline that could take them to the brink of a partial government shutdown this weekend. 
    • “Congressional negotiators late Monday reached a deal on the provisions within the Department of Homeland Security’s funding bill. That bill got caught in an 11th-hour tangle with the White House over border spending, which has become a top issue in many swing states during the 2024 presidential-election year.
    • “In a statement Tuesday morning, Speaker Mike Johnson (R., La.) said an agreement has been reached on the Homeland Security funds, and House and Senate committees have begun drafting bill text to be “prepared for release and consideration by the full House and Senate as soon as possible.”
    • “President Biden said Tuesday that a path on the remaining funding legislation had been finalized and he would sign the measure immediately when it gets to his desk.”
  • Per a House Budget Committee press release,
    • “Today, the House of Representatives advanced House Budget Committee legislation, H.R. 766, the Dr. Michael C. Burgess Preventative Health Savings Act (PHSA), to the Senate by a voice vote. 
    • “The historic accomplishment marks the first time in history that a bipartisan bill with sole Budget Committee jurisdiction has been brought to the Floor under a suspension of the House rules. * * *
    • One of the major barriers to deploying modernized and innovative policies that would unequivocally curb the cost of health care is the antiquated process used for calculating congressional cost estimates on proposed health care legislation.
    • Congressional scorekeepers have traditionally focused solely only on the short-term valuation of a policy rather than capturing the long-term economic impact.
    • But today, with passage of H.R. 766, that changes. This bill seeks to improve the methodology of Congress’ broken budgetary process by providing policymakers with a more accurate cost estimate of the long-term cost savings from preventive health care policies.”
  • Per an HHS press release,
    • “Today, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), announced a new voluntary model that empowers primary care providers in eligible Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) to treat people with Medicare using innovative, team-based, person-centered proactive care. A key part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s efforts to further promote competition in health care, the ACO Primary Care Flex Model (ACO PC Flex Model) will provide a one-time advanced shared savings payment and monthly prospective primary care payments (PPCPs) to ACOs. The advanced shared savings payments provide ACOs with needed resources and flexibility to cover costs associated with forming an ACO (where relevant) and administrative costs for required model activities. PPCPs will be distributed by ACOs to primary care practices, giving them improved resources and flexibility to provide care that best suits individuals’ needs.” * * *
    • “The ACO PC Flex Model is a five-year voluntary model that will begin on January 1, 2025. CMS is planning to select approximately 130 ACOs to participate in the model. Organizations interested in participating must first apply — either as new ACOs or renewing ACOs — to the Shared Savings Program. Shared Savings Program Applications are open May 20, 2024 – June 17, 2024. The ACO PC Flex Model Request for Applications (RFA) is planned to be released in the second quarter of 2024.
    • “For Frequently Asked Questions about the Primary Care Flex Model, please visit: https://www.cms.gov/priorities/innovation/innovation-models/aco-primary-care-flex-model/faqs.
    • “For a fact sheet on the model, please visit: https://www.cms.gov/files/document/aco-pc-flex-fs.pdf – PDF.”
  • Yesterday, HHS’s Office for Civil Rights offered guidance to HIPAA covered entities and business associates about their use of online tracking technologies.
    • “Compliance with the Security Rule helps lower the risk of unauthorized access to ePHI collected through a regulated entity’s website or mobile app that could lead to harm to individuals. Therefore, OCR is prioritizing compliance with the HIPAA Security Rule in investigations into the use of online tracking technologies. OCR’s principal interest in this area is ensuring that regulated entities have identified, assessed, and mitigated the risks to ePHI when using online tracking technologies and have implemented the Security Rule requirements to ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of ePHI. OCR investigations are fact-specific and may involve the review of technical information regarding a regulated entity’s use of any tracking technologies. OCR considers all of the available evidence in determining compliance and remedies for potential noncompliance.”
  • The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force issued the following final recommendation today:
    • “For children and adolescents younger than 18 years without signs and symptoms of or known exposure to maltreatment: The evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of primary care interventions to prevent child maltreatment. [Grade I]”
  • Beckers Payer Issues discusses what fifteen insurers and trade associations explored with Biden Administration officials yesterday about the Change Healthcare situation.
    • During the meeting, stakeholders discussed how progress has been made in reestablishing claims processing systems, though small, rural and safety-net providers specifically are still reporting issues with cash flow.
    • Many healthcare organizations will require third-party certification of Change’s cybersecurity before reconnecting to its systems, in which UnitedHealth was urged to provide a timeframe around. Payers were also asked to analyze their internal data to determine which providers need more support and to engage with them directly.
    • According to Reuters, payers said they would accelerate payments to Medicare and Medicaid providers, along with providing loans to Medicaid providers.”
  • Here is a link to the HHS readout from this meeting.
  • The U.S. Postal Service reminded its retirees with Part A only about the opportunity to enroll for Medicare Part B with no late enrollment penalty during a special enrollment period beginning April 1, 2024. The Postal Service is picking up the late enrollment penalty cost. This is a good deal.
    • “The one-time PSHB SEP is from April 1, 2024, to Sept. 30, 2024. Individuals eligible for the PSHB SEP will receive notification by U.S. Mail™ in March 2024.
    • “All required information must be returned in the envelope provided and postmarked by Sept. 30, 2024.”
  • The Food and Drug Administration announced,
    • “On Monday, the FDA launched a new portal for patients, consumers and health care professionals to report potential drug shortage issues directly into CDER’s NextGen system without creating a NextGen account. 
    • “Since 2017, NextGen has been a way for regulated industry to communicate with the FDA, including submitting information on shortages, discontinuations, and anticipated supply disruptions. Non-industry stakeholders without a NextGen account previously reported information about potential shortages to the FDA’s Drug Shortages Staff by email. The new public portal allows anyone to submit shortage information through an online form directly into NextGen.  
    • “Expanding access to NextGen’s shortage reporting beyond regulated industry will allow for greater consistency and ease of reporting by outside stakeholders, and greater efficiency in tracking and responding to these reports.” 

From the public health and medical research front,

  • MedPage Today informs us,
    • “Investigation of an early signal for stroke associated with COVID-19 bivalent vaccines turned into suspicion of high-dose or adjuvanted flu shots instead, based on a large U.S. population-based study.
    • “When researchers inspected a large Medicare database, they found no evidence of a significantly elevated risk for stroke at 1-21 days or 22-42 days after vaccination with either of the mRNA COVID vaccines distributed for the 2022-2023 respiratory season when compared with the 43-90 day control window, reported researchers led by Yun Lu, PhD, a statistician of the FDA in Silver Spring, Maryland.
    • “There was a significant excess of nonhemorrhagic stroke for people with concomitant administration of Pfizer-BioNTech’s bivalent vaccine plus a high-dose or adjuvanted influenza vaccine during the 22-42 days risk window (risk difference of 3.13 out of 100,000 doses); and a significant excess of transient ischemic attack for people with concomitant administration of Moderna’s bivalent COVID vaccine plus a high-dose or adjuvanted influenza vaccine during the 1-21 days risk window (risk difference of 3.33 out of 100,000 doses).
    • “But the researchers found that people with administration of a high-dose or adjuvanted influenza vaccine alone (without concomitant COVID vaccination) had an elevated risk for the combined outcome of nonhemorrhagic stroke or transient ischemic attack in both the 1-21 days risk window (risk difference of 1.65 per 100,000 doses) and 22-42 days risk window (risk difference of 1.60 per 100,000 doses).
    • “This finding suggests that the observed association between vaccination and stroke in the concomitant subgroup was likely driven by a high-dose or adjuvanted influenza vaccination,” the investigators reported in JAMA.”
  • Medscape lets us know,
    • “The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has cleared the twiist automated insulin delivery (AID) system (Sequel Med Tech, LLC; Manchester, NH) for people aged 6 years or older with type 1 diabetes
    • “The system comprises a novel insulin pump developed by Sequel’s research and development partner DEKA and uses the FDA-cleared Tidepool Loop algorithmthat was originally developed through patient-led, open-source initiatives.
    • “The twiist AID system has the capacity to work interchangeably with different integrated continuous glucose monitors (iCGMs), and Sequel will announce their initial iCGM partner closer to market launch, Sequel CEO and co-founder Alan Lotvin, MD, told Medscape Medical News
    • “It is the first AID system that directly measures volume and flow of insulin delivery, which enables it to rapidly detect obstructions or occlusions, usually within about 20 minutes, Lotvin explained. “

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “Elevance Health has inked a deal to acquire Kroger Specialty Pharmacy.
    • “The grocery chain announced Monday that an agreement is in place, saying it’s expected to close in the back half of 2024 pending regulatory approvals. Elevance intends to add Kroger Specialty Pharmacy to its CarelonRx business, which houses its pharmacy benefit management services.
    • “Financial terms of the sale were not disclosed.”
  • Per BioPharma Dive,
    • “AstraZeneca is the latest large pharmaceutical company to make a sizable bet on radiopharmaceutical drugs for cancer, agreeing on Tuesday to acquire longtime biotechnology partner Fusion Pharmaceuticals in a deal worth up to $2.4 billion.
    • “AstraZeneca will acquire all of Fusion’s shares for $21 apiece, or about $2 billion. The British drugmaker could add another $3 per share via a financial instrument known as a “contingent value right” if Fusion meets an unspecified regulatory milestone. Should Fusion hit that mark, the buyout would be worth $2.4 billion.” 
  • Beckers Health IT offers six takeaways from last month’s HIMSS conference.

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • Because this is the FEHBlog, the lede tonight necessarily is OPM’s announcement naming the carriers who are currently prepared Postal Service Health Benefit Program benefit and rate proposals. Good luck to them all.
  • FedWeek notes,
    • “President Biden has issued an open letter to federal employees thanking them for their “tireless service on behalf of our country.”
  • and
    • “While seeking a January 2025 raise of 2 percent (see related story), the White House’s fiscal 2025 budget proposal cites several initiatives related to federal pay.
    • “In addition to year-to-year pay increases, the Administration is pursuing structural reforms to enhance the competitiveness of the Federal pay system,” it says.
  • Reg Jones, writing in Fedweek, fills us in on benefits available upon the death of a federal employee or annuitant.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services provided a readout from “Biden-Harris Administration Convening with Health Care Community Concerning Cyberattack on Change Healthcare. Leaders from HHS, White House, DOL, and the health care community convened to discuss ways to mitigate harms to patient and providers caused by the cyberattack.”
  • The Food and Drug Administration “advised consumers in Some Medicines and Driving Don’t Mix to make sure they know if their prescription or over-the-counter medication can cause side effects that may make it unsafe to drive. Most medications won’t affect consumers’ ability to drive safely or operate other heavy machinery, but some do.”
  • The Buck consulting firm points out why “maintaining creditable coverage may prove difficult for some employer sponsored plans in 2025.”
  • STAT News discusses the treatment impact of new federal methadone rules.
    • “The federal government is reforming methadone care for the first time in over two decades. But how far do the changes actually go?
    • “To many methadone clinics, the Biden administration’s recent refresh of the rules governing opioid treatment programs represents an unprecedented opportunity to offer care that is more compassionate and responsive to patients’ needs. To many patient advocates, however, it simply nibbles around the edges. 
    • “The reality is likely somewhere in between: It will depend, in large part, on whether state-level regulators embrace the changes, and whether individual clinics actually implement them. In reform-oriented states, and at patient-centered clinics, the new rules could make a world of difference for people seeking addiction treatment.” 
  • The Office of National Coordinator for Healthcare Information Technology, Micky Tripathi, in his blog, looks forward to “HTI-2 & ONC’s Commitment to Furthering the Vision of Better Health Enabled by Data.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • BioPharma Dive reports,
    • “Roche’s experimental Alzheimer’s disease drug trontinemab showed “best-in-class” potential based on its ability to quickly clear clumps of amyloid protein from the brains of patients enrolled in a small clinical trial, the company said Monday.
    • “A majority of patients receiving the highest dose of the drug, which is specially designed to penetrate brain tissue, saw their amyloid levels drop below detectable levels after 12 weeks, Roche executives said in an investor presentation on the pharmaceutical giant’s neurology pipeline.”
  • Reuters tells us, “Pfizer  said on Tuesday its drug, Adcetris, extended survival in patients with the most common type of lymphoma in a late-stage study, bolstering efforts to expand the use of the treatment gained through its $43 billion purchase of Seagen [in 2023].
  • MedPage Today lets us know,
    • “Pragmatic implementation of an automated online behavioral obesity treatment program that included 9 months of active maintenance helped people with overweight or obesity lose a clinically significant amount of weight by 12 and 24 months, a randomized trial showed. * * *
    • “This pattern persisted at 24 months, reported J. Graham Thomas, PhD, of the Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center in Providence, Rhode Island, and colleagues in JAMA Internal Medicine.
    • “This study shows that a fully automated online obesity treatment program can produce beneficial results for many patients in real-world primary care settings,” Thomas told MedPage Today. “We were encouraged to find that the online weight-loss program performed just as well in real-world primary care practices as it does in our previous highly controlled clinical trials.”
    • “These patients lost weight “at rates comparable” to those seen in studiesopens in a new tab or window in which the researchers were completely hands-on in every aspect of the program, he added.
    • “Because the treatment program is online and fully automated, Thomas said it is quite practical for widespread implementation across primary care practices. “The data show that the primary care clinicians were able to implement the program independently, and patients were able to use it successfully.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review adds,
    • “Hospital transplant departments have strict cutoffs for patients with higher body mass indexes because of the increased risk of complications, but GLP-1s such as Ozempic and Wegovy are helping more patients be eligible for surgery. 
    • “Potential transplant donors and diabetic patients who otherwise would not be able to undergo surgery because of their BMI are now quickly dropping weight. Popular GLP-1s, including Ozempic, and GLP-1s and glucose-dependent insulinotropic polypeptides, such as Mounjaro and Zepbound, are dramatically helping these weight loss efforts.” 
  • Medscape cautions,
    • “Novo Nordisk’s CEO on Friday said the company was working with authorities in several countries to tackle counterfeit versions of its popular diabetes drug Ozempic, as new reports emerge of patient harm across the world.
    • “This is something we take very seriously,” Lars Fruergaard Jorgensen, CEO of the Danish drugmaker, told Reuters. * * *
    • “Jorgensen, echoing comments from the FDA’s Califf, also said compounded semaglutide in the United States was a serious health issue, and that the raw materials, or active pharmaceutical ingredients (API), for these products were coming from unregulated facilities in Asia and elsewhere. 
    • “We don’t know them, and we have really no insights or ability to understand what the API is in a certain compounded product,” he said.
    • “While fake drugs often do not contain any of the medication advertised, compounded drugs are custom-made medicines that are based on the same ingredients as branded drugs. Because Wegovy and Ozempic are in short supply, they can be legally produced by licensed pharmacies in the U.S.
    • “Further reports obtained by Reuters through FOIA requests show that one person died last year from abnormal blood clotting after taking a drug that was advertised as compounded semaglutide. Three others suffered severe vomiting and nausea, sensory loss in their legs, and a drop in blood platelet levels.”
  • The U.S. Census Bureau announced,
    • “An additional 573,000 people died in the United States during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic but “excess mortality” at the national level masks substantial variations by state, age, sex, and race and ethnicity, according to new U.S. Census Bureau research recently published in Demography.
    • “Excess mortality” refers to deaths from any cause above what is expected from recent mortality trends.
    • “This research shows the pandemic widened the mortality gap between the nation’s Black and White populations and completely erased the mortality advantage of the Hispanic population in relation to the non-Hispanic White population.”
  • The National Institutes of Health announced‘,
    • “Two phase 2 clinical trials to test the safety and effectiveness of three treatments for adults with autonomic nervous system dysfunction from long COVID have begun. The autonomic nervous system acts largely unconsciously and regulates bodily functions, such as heart rate, digestion and respiratory rate. Symptoms associated with autonomic nervous system dysfunction have been among those that patients with long COVID say are most burdensome. The trials are part of the National Institutes of Health’s Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery (RECOVER) Initiative, a nationwide research program to fully understand, diagnose and treat long COVID. Other RECOVER phase 2 clinical trials testing treatments to address viral persistence and neurological symptoms, including cognitive dysfunction (like brain fog), launched in July 2023. * * *
    • “People 18 years of age and older who are interested in learning more about these trials can visit https://trials.RECOVERCovid.org/autonomic or ClinicalTrials.gov and search identifier NCT06305793, NCT06305806 and NCT06305780. Please do not contact the NIH media phone number or email to enroll in these trials.”
  • The Wall Street Journal warns,
    • “Ultra-processed foods may not only affect our bodies, but our brains too.
    • “New research suggests links between ultra-processed foods—such as chips, many cereals and most packaged snacks at the grocery store—and changes in the way we learn, remember and feel. These foods can act like addictive substances, researchers say, and some scientists are proposing a new mental-health condition called “ultra-processed food use disorder.” Diets filled with such foods may raise the risk of mental health and sleep problems
    • “The science is still early and researchers say there is a lot they don’t know. Not all ultra-processed foods are equal, some scientists say, adding that some might be good for you. A diet high in ultra-processed foods has been linked with obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease, but researchers are still figuring out exactly why, beyond calorie counts and nutrient composition. 
    • “Makers of foods such as processed meats and muffins defend their products, and note that there isn’t a consistent, universally accepted definition of ultra-processed food.”

From the HIMSS Conference in Orlando,

  • HIMSS offers an article about “Google Cloud’s debut of new genAI advancements for healthcare at HIMSS24. In total, the company is offering its cloud clients updates to Vertex AI Search, Healthcare Data Engine and MedLM, designed to improve patient care.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • HR Dive reports,
    • “Nearly half of U.S. workers don’t have the benefits they need at work, according to the results of a survey by Perceptyx, an employee experience company. Of the 1,500 full-time employees surveyed, 59% said they had “benefits envy” of friends’ and family members’ healthcare coverage.
    • “When it comes to benefits equity, the survey found that medical, maternity and mental health are the “magic trifecta,” Emily Killham, senior director of people analytics, research and insights at Perceptyx, said. “When employees have access to all three, women and men feel equally that their needs are met.”
    • “Yet 53% of those surveyed said they don’t have mental health coverage, 51% don’t have maternity leave, and 25% don’t have any medical benefits, per the results.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review informs us,
    • “Healthgrades recognized 832 hospitals with its 2024 Patient Safety Excellence Awards and Outstanding Patient Experience Award. Only 79 of those hospitals received both awards. 
    • “The dual recipients spanned 27 states. Texas had the most dual recipients with 13 honorees — including four Baylor Scott and White Health and four Houston Methodist hospitals.”
    • The article lists the dual recipients.
  • Beckers Payer Issues relates,
    • “Selective contracting with primary care physicians may be one factor behind lower per-patient expenses in Medicare Advantage, a study published in the March edition of Health Affairs found. 
    • “The study examined 4,456,037 traditional Medicare patients who visited 151,679 primary care physicians. The physicians who participated in Medicare Advantage networks had $433 lower costs per patient than the regional average of physicians. 
    • “The quality measures for physicians participating in Medicare Advantage were similar to the regional average, the study found. 
    • “Physicians who did not participate in any MA networks cost $1,617 more per patient per year than those participating in MA networks, and they had lower quality measures. 
    • “The findings suggest that “managed care tools, particularly selective contracting with primary care physicians” contribute to lower costs in Medicare Advantage, the authors concluded. Though the differences in cost are most likely attributable to differences in practice style, that could also serve as a mechanism for plans to select healthier patients, the authors wrote.” 
  • Health Payer Intelligence adds,
    • “The average Medicare Advantage premium has remained low and stable, with many beneficiaries choosing plans with a zero-dollar monthly premium, according to data from eHealth, Inc.
    • “eHealth’s seventh annual Medicare Index Report includes data from over 190,000 applications for Medicare insurance products submitted to eHealth during the annual enrollment period for 2024 coverage.
    • “The average monthly premium for Medicare Advantage plans chosen by eHealth customers for 2024 is $9, the same as last year and up slightly from $6 in 2022. The popularity of plans with zero-dollar premiums contributed to the low average.”
  • HealthDay informs us,
    • “The cost to American families of caring for a child with a mental health condition jumped by almost a third between 2017 and 2021.
    • “It now costs an average $4,361 more per year for a U.S. family to care for a child with a mental health condition, compared to families without such children, a new study has found.” 

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From Washington, DC

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • President Biden proposed Monday a $7.3 trillion budget for the next fiscal year that would raise taxes on wealthy people and large corporations, trim the deficit and lower the costs of prescription drugs, child care and housing.
    • “The proposal isn’t expected to gain momentum in Congress, but will be a cornerstone of Biden’s re-election campaign as he looks to contrast his economic policies with those of presumed Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. The administration has yet to reach an agreement with Congress on the budget for the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, and House Republicans have blasted Biden’s new proposal as reckless.
    • “The fiscal 2025 budget would cut the deficit by $3 trillion over the next decade, and it would raise taxes by a net total of $4.9 trillion, or more than 7% above what the U.S. would collect without any policy changes.” 
  • Here’s a link to the OMB page for the FY 2025 budget.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services offers a fact sheet on the budget measures impacting health insurance.
  • Govexec delves into the significant program reforms found in the budget details.
  • Federal News Network adds,
    • “For 2025, the White House is pushing for a more modest 2% federal pay raise for the roughly 1.5 million federal employees on the General Schedule.
    • “If enacted, most civilian federal employees would see the boost to their paychecks starting in the first full pay period of January 2025. Military members would receive a 4.5% raise next year, according to the budget request.
    • “The percentage adjustment would be the smallest pay raise since President Joe Biden took office. Federal employees received raises of 5.2%4.6% and 2.7%, in 2024, 2023 and 2022, respectively. In all three years, Biden’s federal pay raise proposals were finalized without intervention from Congress.
    • “The Biden administration said it opted for the smaller raise proposal for 2025 due to financial constraints agencies are expected to face over the next fiscal year.”
  • The U.S. Office of Personnel Management posted its FY 2025 Congressional Budget Justification and Annual Performance Plan. Here are OPM’s legislative proposals for FEDVIP and FEHBP/PSHBP:
    • “Expand Family Member Eligibility Under FEDVIP;
    • “Expand FEDVIP to Certain Tribal Employers;
    • “Expand FEHB to Tribal Colleges and Universities;
    • “Preempt State/Local Taxation of FEDVIP Carriers to Align with FEHB Carriers;
    • “Shorten FEDVIP Contract Terms to Allow Flexibility for New Carriers;
    • “Require Coverage of Three Primary Care Visits and Three Behavioral Health Visits Without Cost-Sharing;
    • “Limit Cost-Sharing for Insulin at $35 per Month.”
  • These proposals generally are retreads from earlier performance plans. If at first you don’t succeed, etc.

From the patient safety front,

  • HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reminds us that this is Patient Safety Awareness Week.
  • Fierce Healthcare tells us,
    • “Through no fault of their own, clinicians who started practicing medicine in the last several years didn’t have the same early experience as those who came before them–before the pandemic laid bare critical weaknesses in our healthcare system,” Marcus Schabacker, M.D., president and CEO of ECRI, said in a release. “ECRI’s top patient safety concern is a call to action to set new clinicians up for success through a ‘total systems safety’ approach and assess and redesign the environments in which clinicians are trained, onboarded, mentored and supported.”
    • “Among the recommendations proposed by ECRI and its affiliate, the Institute for Same Medication Practices (ISMP), in the patient safety report are new collaborative partnerships between healthcare and academic to support hands-on and simulation-based learning, as were wellness programs and adopting “a culture of safety that empowers newly trained clinicians to report safety events.”
    • “Just behind new hire challenges in ECRI’s 2024 ranking was concern that healthcare staff’s workarounds for barcode medication administration systems could lead to an increase in medication safety events.
    • “These workarounds occur when drug’s barcode can’t be scanned due to damage on a label, or when a medication hasn’t yet been added to an organization’s system, ECRI explained. This can lead to back-charting, proxy scanning, unlogged medication administration and ignored system alerts, and has historically been to blame for a majority of technology-related medication safety issues, according to the report.”
  • USAA Today reports,
    • “Beginning this year, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced it would cover navigation services for older Americans on Medicare. The agency also established billing codes for hospitals and doctors to bill health insurance companies for navigator services.
    • “The Biden administration announced that seven large private health insurance companies have agreed to cover navigator services: Aetna, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, Elevance Health, Health Alliance Plan, Humana, Priority Health and Select Health.
    • “In addition, 40 cancer care centers and clinics will extend navigator services to patients. The list includes high-profile cancer care centers such as Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, the Duke Cancer Institute, Northwell Health and the Mayo Clinic.
    • “This is about making sure that a growing number of Americans can get access as they need it,” Arati Prabhakar, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, told USA TODAY. “The companies that have signed up to provide insurance coverage for these services … reach 150 million Americans.”

From the Food and Drug Administration front,

  • BioPharma Dive informs us,
    • “The Food and Drug Administration has expanded the label for Novo Nordisk’s fast-selling weight loss drug Wegovy following study results that proved the medicine can protect heart health. 
    • “The agency on Friday approved use of Wegovy to reduce the risk of heart attacks, strokes or death in people with cardiovascular disease and who are either obese or overweight. The drug should be used alongside exercise and a reduced-calorie diet, the agency said. 
    • “Wegovy, part of a popular class of medicines that control blood sugar and appetite, is already approved for use in treating obesity. The drug generated about $4.5 billion in sales in 2023 despite manufacturing issues that made it difficult for the company to meet surging demand.” * * *
    • “The FDA clearance issued Friday is one step in that direction. It was based on the results of a large study, the results of which were published in The New England Journal of Medicine last year, showing that treatment with Wegovy reduced the risk of heart attack, stroke or cardiovascular death by 20% compared to a placebo.” 
  • MedTech Dive lets us know,
    • “A Food and Drug Administration advisory committee has voted that the benefits of a new agent used in Lumicell’s breast cancer imaging tool outweigh the risks.
    • “The committee, which convened last week, assessed evidence that the tool can detect residual cancer in real-time during breast conserving surgery. Detecting residual cancer during surgery could reduce the need for additional procedures.
    • “While the committee supported the risk-benefit profile of the agent, pegulicianine, by a 16-2 vote, many of the experts noted its limitations, with one panelist who voted yes saying that the “incremental benefits outweigh the small risks of anaphylaxis.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • David Leonhardt writing in the New York Times reflects on the fourth anniversary of the beginning go of the Covid shutdown in the U.S.
  • The American Medical Association tells us what doctors wish their patient knew about sickle cell disease.
  • The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review posted a “Final Evidence Report on Treatment for Schizophrenia An independent appraisal committee voted that current evidence is not adequate to demonstrate superior net health benefits for KarXT compared to generically available aripiprazole; if long-term data confirm KarXT’s benefits and lack of weight gain, it would achieve common thresholds for cost-effectiveness if priced between $16,000 to $20,000 per year.
  • Beckers Hospital Review relates,
    • “Pfizer’s shortage of penicillin G benzathine injection, an antibiotic for syphilis and other bacterial infections, is now predicted to last until the end of 2024. 
    • “Pfizer previously said the medication’s supply would rebound by the end of June, but in a March 8 update on the FDA’s drug shortage website, the drugmaker said the estimated recovery date is the fourth quarter of 2024. 
    • “Two solutions are in limited availability and another, the 600,000 [iU]/1 mL solution, is unavailable until its next shipment in April. 
    • “The FDA first reported the supply issue in April 2023, and Pfizer then said it would end within five months. A year later, clinicians are rationing penicillin, and the U.S. is importing solutions from a France-based drugmaker as syphilis rates dramatically increase.”

From the HIMSS global conference front,

  • This week, HIMSS is holding its popular global conference in Orlando, Florida.

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Fierce Healthcare discusses lobbying efforts to obtain a Congressional extension of Medicare’s hospital at home program.
  • Healthcare Dive notes,
    • “Elevance Health said on Monday it closed its deal to acquire infusion and drug therapy company Paragon Health.
    • “Under the deal, the insurer will expand Plano, Texas-based Paragon’s real estate footprint and scale up operations, according to the announcement. Paragon will operate under CarelonRx, Elevance’s pharmacy services segment.
    • “An Elevance spokesperson declined to share financial terms of the deal. However, Axios, citing sources familiar, reported the purchase would run Elevance over $1 billion.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review ranks 34 health systems by operating margin.
  • Medscape informs us,
    • “A Maryland firm that oversees the nation’s largest independent network of primary care medical practices is facing a whistleblower lawsuit alleging it cheated Medicare out of millions of dollars using billing software “rigged” to make patients appear sicker than they were.
    • “The civil suit alleges that Aledade, Inc.’s, billing apps and other software and guidance provided to doctors improperly boosted revenues by adding overstated medical diagnoses to patients’ electronic medical records.
    • “Aledade did whatever it took to make patients appear sicker than they were,” according to the suit.”
  • HR Dive reminds us,
    • “The U.S. Department of Labor’s independent contractor final rule went into effect Monday, after businesses scrambled last week to have it enjoined or halted through a preliminary injunction
    • “DOL announced the final rule in January, more than a year after it proposed changes to its evaluation of workers’ independent contractor status in October 2022. 
    • “The new “totality-of-the-circumstances” framework uses six nonexhaustive factors to determine workers’ independent contractor status, including the nature and degree of control over the work, extent to which the work performed is an integral part of the employer’s business and permanence of the arrangement. 

Thursday Miscellany

From Washington, DC,

  • Federal News Network reports
    • “The Office of Personnel Management had a busy year, managing to push out plenty of proposed regulations during 2023 that aim to reform federal hiring and improve workforce challenges.
    • “Even more plans and changes appear to lie ahead, though many may come in smaller bites, and require leadership from chief human capital officers (CHCOs) and other workforce experts in government.
    • “We are fundamentally rethinking hiring in government,” OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said during a Dec. 12 CHCO Council meeting. “Our big focus has been on utilizing pooled hiring, where multiple agencies with the same need can take advantage of one hiring action … It is so incredible of a tool that we have at our disposal right now.”
  • Govexec identifies the five agencies that did the most hiring in the fiscal year that ended September 30, 2023, with support from the White House.
  • The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force released for public comments a draft research plan to form a recommendation on medication to reduce breast cancer risk. The public comment deadline is January 31, 2024.
  • HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality posted “Social and Structural Determinants of Maternal Morbidity and Mortality: An Evidence Map.” That’s certainly worth a gander.
  • Bloomberg reports,
    • “The US Food and Drug Administration has seized thousands of units of counterfeit Ozempic, Novo Nordisk A/S’s diabetes drug that’s been adapted into a blockbuster weight-loss treatment, and warned against using them.
    • “The regulator advised wholesalers, retail pharmacies, health care practitioners and patients to check the product they have received and not distribute or sell products labeled with lot number NAR0074 and serial number 430834149057.
    • “The FDA and Novo are testing the seized products and don’t yet have information about the drugs’ identity, quality, or safety.”
  • Kiplinger provides a useful overview of Medicare Part B and D’s income-adjusted premiums for 2024, known as IRMAA. The 2024 IRMAA is calculated based on the taxpayer’s 2022 adjusted gross income. The article explains how to obtain an IRS redetermination of 2024 IRMAA due to a life-changing event, for example.

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “Covid-19 infections and hospitalizations are rising this holiday season, mostly in people who have had the virus before
    • “A newer Omicron subvariant known as JN.1 is the culprit behind almost half of new cases in the U.S. The World Health Organization classified JN.1 as a variant of interest on Dec. 19 and said it was spreading rapidly worldwide. 
    • “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the variant’s speedy spread suggests it is either more transmissible than other circulating variants or better at evading our immune systems. But existing vaccines, treatments and tests still work against it, the CDC said.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review identifies the ten States where COVID hospital admissions are the highest and where COVID hospital admissions are rising the fastest.
  • Fierce Healthcare considers whether GLP-1 patients can stop taking the drug and keep the weight off.
    • “While the current clinical paradigm for GLP-1 treatment requires lifelong medication at the highest dose, Calibrate is exploring whether members can be transitioned off of medication while sustaining their results,” shared a Calibrate spokesperson in a statement with Fierce Healthcare. “Accordingly, Calibrate is the first and only program with a proactive plan to get members off of medication.”
    • “That program, Calibrate says, was designed with evidence-based lifestyle interventions and is a more realistic approach for patients who don’t want to stay on GLP-1s forever. The company pointed to a 2018 study in The Obesity Society that shows 10% weight loss is the average attainable weight patients can realistically attain.
    • “Unlike the STEP 1 trial, where participants regained two-thirds of their prior weight loss after ceasing semaglutide utilization but continuing lifestyle intervention, Calibrate conducted its own analysis of 512 of its members to see if it’s possible to keep the weight off through the Calibrate program by tapering the drug’s usage. Its results showed that 93% sustained greater than 10% weight loss six to 12 months after beginning to taper off GLP-1 drugs.
    • “Calibrate advises speaking with a doctor to determine if GLP-1 tapering is appropriate for them but said it could be advisable at a normal BMI or if a patient plateaus for more than three months at a maximum dose of a GLP-1 medication.”
  • NBC News reports,
    • “Eating fewer carbohydrates can slow weight gain over time. But it’s not enough to just cut back on carbs. 
    • “An analysis of data from nearly 125,000 healthy adults revealed that replacing refined carbs — white bread, white rice or sugary cereals —with whole grain foods and cutting back on animal-based fats and proteins appeared to lessen the amount of weight people gained over a four-year period, according to the report published Wednesday in JAMA Network Open. 
    • “When it comes to a low-carbohydrate diet, quality is paramount,” said the study’s senior author, Dr. Qi Sun, an associate professor in the departments of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “The things people need to pay attention to are high-quality carbohydrates.”
  • Health Day lets us know,
    • “Colon cancer screening is a known lifesaver, but the benefit may be even bigger than experts previously assumed
    • “New statistical analysis finds recommended screening cuts the 10-year incidence of the disease from 1% to 0.5%, double that of prior estimates
    • “Mentioning this to patients should boost colon cancer screening rates, researchers hope.”
  • Medscape tells us that cardiologists are not happy with the Lown Institute’s recent report about the overutilization of coronary stents.
    • “Lown “used an extremely liberal definition of overuse,” said Wayne Batchelor, MD, FACC, chair of the Interventional Council at the ACC, noting that overuse covered any stent placed during a nonemergency.
    • “We don’t just do procedures to try to save lives in very acute situations,” he said. “We also do procedures to try to improve symptoms and quality of life,” said Batchelor, director of Interventional Cardiology at the Inova Schar Heart and Vascular Institute in Fairfax, Virginia.
    • “Batchelor said that drawing conclusions from claims data alone in this report is improper because “it’s devoid of all the clinical information that a doctor and patient would want to discuss to make a decision as to whether or not a stent would provide a meaningful benefit to the patient.”
  • and
    • discusses changes to the adult vaccination schedule for 2024.

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Health IT Analytics brings us up to date on the Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resource (FHIR).
    • “Using standardized application programming interface (API) standards, FHIR allows developers to create apps that transcend this document-based environment. Applications can be plugged into a basic EHR operating system and feed information directly into the provider workflow, avoiding pitfalls of document-based exchange, which often requires providers to access data separately.
    • “But FHIR APIs require health IT developers to publish FHIR endpoints in a standardized format, according to a 2022 blog post written by Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) officials. By developing the Lantern tool — which consumes public endpoint data, tests the accessibility of these endpoints, and then reports capability information to a public-facing dashboard — ONC worked with health IT stakeholders to form consensus around a standard format to publish FHIR endpoint lists.
    • “A slew of providers, developers, and vendors have created tools that leverage the data standard. The use cases for the standard are nearly limitless and include some of the major challenges preventing healthcare organizations from increasing patient engagement, developing robust population health management programs, and diving into advanced, intelligent clinical decision support.”

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • STAT News informs us,
    • “The Senate health care committee will consider a sweeping bill next week meant to combat the opioid epidemic, according to four lobbyists and a congressional aide familiar with the legislation. 
    • “The proposal would reauthorize a number of programs first created by the SUPPORT Act, an addiction-focused bill that Congress first passed in 2018. Many of those programs’ authorizations expired earlier this year, however, leading addiction treatment advocates to fret that lawmakers — and specifically the committee’s chairman, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — no longer view the issue as a priority.    
    • “If passed, the legislation would mark Capitol Hill’s first major action this year on the addiction crisis. Current data shows that roughly 110,000 Americans are dying of drug overdoses each year. Roughly 85,000 of those overdoses involve opioids.” 
  • The Department of Health and Human Services announced,
    • “Today, United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy is launching the 5-for-5 Connection Challenge, calling on Americans to take five actions over five days to build more connection in their lives. Dr. Murthy recently issued this challenge to students across the country on his “We Are Made to Connect” College Tour, which concluded just last week. Now, as we enter the holiday season, the 5-for-5 Connection Challenge aims to inspire people of all ages to build, strengthen, and prioritize their relationships.
    • “For the next two weeks, from December 4th – December 15th, the Surgeon General will encourage people to take five actions over five days that express gratitude, offer support to, or ask for help from people in their lives. These types of actions are outlined in the Surgeon General’s Advisory on Our Epidemic of Loneliness – PDF as some of the ways that people can catalyze social connection. As outlined in the Advisory, social connection can advance physical, mental, and cognitive health, and it is even associated with a decreased risk of mortality.”
  • MedTech Dive tells us,
    • “The Food and Drug Administration is evaluating the potential for plastic syringes made in China to suffer problems such as leaks and breakages.
    • “Officials began the investigation after receiving information about quality issues associated with “several Chinese manufacturers of syringes” that made them concerned that some devices “may not provide consistent and adequate quality or performance.”
    • “The FDA is advising consumers and healthcare providers to check where syringes are made and “consider using syringes not manufactured in China, if possible.” The advice applies to plastic syringes used for injecting fluids into, or withdrawing fluids from, the body.”

In FEHB Open Season news, Govexec offers helpful, last-minute advice from Kevin Moss.

From the public health and medicare research front,

  • U.S. News and World Report points out,
    • “After a period of limited change, COVID-19 activity is increasing again especially in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions,” the CDC said in a report published Friday.
    • “Federal health officials are likely watching the increase given that they expect a “moderate” winter wave of coronavirus and this could be the start of it. Holiday gatherings and travel are also typically followed by an increase in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.
    • “COVID-19 vaccination rates, meanwhile, have been disappointing for many.
    • “CDC Director Mandy Cohen told Congress this week that about 16% of Americans have gotten the updated COVID-19 vaccine.
    • “That’s not enough,” Cohen said.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review notes,
    • “So far this year, the CDC estimates there have been at least 1.8 million illnesses, 17,000 hospitalizations, and 1,100 deaths from flu in the U.S. 
    • “Influenza A continues to be the dominant strain in circulation, making up around 82% of cases, while influenza B is only accounting for around 18%. 
    • “Louisiana and South Carolina are still reporting the highest levels of flu activity in the country. 
    • “Nine states are experiencing high activity levels, but less than the two states above, including: California, New Mexico, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Colorado, Florida and Tennessee. 
    • “Cases are also high in New York City and Puerto Rico.”
  • The Journal of the American Medical Association presented the following study results:
    • Question  Is smoking still decreasing among US adults and do the trends vary by age, income, and race and ethnicity?
    • Findings  In this cross-sectional study of 353 555 adults responding to the 2011 to 2022 National Health Interview Surveys, adults younger than 40 years had dramatic declines in smoking prevalence during the last decade, especially among those with higher incomes. In contrast, relatively slow declines were observed among adults aged 40 to 64 years, with no decrease in smoking among those 65 years or older.
    • Meaning  These findings suggest that the precipitous decline in smoking among younger adults should be maintained, but that additional efforts are required to further reduce smoking in older adults.”
  • The American Medical Association explains “What doctors wish patients knew to improve their mental health.”
  • Per Endocrinology Advisor, “Decreased mortality risk is associated with concomitant reductions in glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c) and body weight among patients with type 2 diabetes, according to study results published in Diabetes Obesity and Metabolism.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Fierce Healthcare profiles ten women of influence in U.S. healthcare. Check it out.
  • BioPharma Dive reports
    • “Roche on Monday agreed to acquire biotechnology company Carmot Therapeutics in a deal that bulks up the Swiss pharmaceutical giant’s pipeline with a group of weight loss drugs in early clinical testing.
    • “Roche will pay $2.7 billion upfront for the Berkeley, California-based Carmot. Roche could owe as much as $400 million more in future payments to Carmot shareholders, among them The Column Group and RA Capital, if certain milestones are met. The companies expect the acquisition to close next year.
    • “The deal hands Roche a trio of drugs in human testing for obesity, an area of pharmaceutical research that has been catalyzed by the success of weight loss medicines like Wegovy and Zepbound. Their progress has fueled a gold rush among large drugmakers, a number of which are either advancing in-house medicines or inking deals to acquire new prospects.”
  • and
    • “The Food and Drug Administration granted conditional approval to Eli Lilly’s oral cancer drug Jaypirca in two types of blood cancer, expanding its use from a rare type of lymphoma to people with leukemia and lymphoma patients who have previously received two other treatments, the company said Friday.
    • “Jaypirca is the fourth of a group of drugs called BTK inhibitors, a class that includes AbbVie and Johnson & Johnson’s Imbruvica and AstraZeneca’s Calquence. It gained approval earlier this year and posted $42 million in sales through Sept. 30.
    • “With this approval, Jaypirca can now be used in chronic lymphocytic leukemia or small lymphocytic lymphoma after patients have been treated with AbbVie and Roche’s Venclexta and another BTK inhibitor. Lilly said a Phase 3 trial meant to confirm Jaypirca’s accelerated approval has already met its primary goal.”
  • HR Dive discusses “Why EAPs go unused despite growing mental health awareness; Many factors contribute to the historic underutilization of employee assistance programs, despite their value as an access point to quality care.”
  • Medscape offers an infographic on how doctors grade their EHR systems while MedCity News explains how improved coding quality by healthcare providers can prevent denials and improve cash flow.
  • Health Payer Intelligence adds,
    • “Payers are investing in healthcare IT resources to support cost optimization and improve member experience, according to a study from EY-Parthenon and KLAS Research.
    • “As payers face operational and financial pressures, they are turning to healthcare IT solutions for help. Researchers sought to understand what strategies payers prioritize, how much they spend on healthcare IT resources, and what future investments look like.
    • “The study findings reflect responses from over 100 executives across payer entities serving commercial, Medicare, and Medicaid populations. Around 70 percent of respondents were traditional payers; the remaining were provider-sponsored, third-party administrators, and management services organizations.”
  • According to Healthcare Dive,
    • “A merger between major health insurers Cigna and Humana would go through the wringer of an intense antitrust review, but could come out finalized, experts say.
    • “Though, to receive the regulatory green light, a combined company would probably have to emerge looking different from the Cigna and Humana of today. * * *
    • “Gaining regulatory approval — especially if a challenge further ties up the process in the courts — could set a deal’s finalization back by a year or more. But, due to a lack of direct competition between the two, Cigna and Humana could be allowed to combine, creating a healthcare powerhouse with roughly $300 billion in annual revenue.”
  • and
    • “For-profit hospital chain HCA Healthcare’s Houston affiliate announced last week it completed its acquisition of 11 free-standing emergency departments from SignatureCare Emergency Centers. 
    • “HCA Houston Healthcare, which operates a network of 13 hospitals and nine outpatient surgery centers, now has 26 free-standing emergency departments in the area in addition to hospital-based emergency rooms, according to a Friday press release.
    • “The SignatureCare centers will be re-branded to HCA Houston ER 24/7. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.
  • and
    • “Rural hospital chain Lifepoint Health and Ascension Saint Thomas announced a joint venture last week to co-own Highpoint Health, a four-hospital system in Tennessee currently operated by Brentwood, Tennessee-based Lifepoint.
    • “The hospitals and care sites will be co-branded with Ascension Saint Thomas, but will be majority-owned and operated by Lifepoint, according to the release. The companies declined to comment on the cost of the buy-in.
    • “The health systems have partnered before. Ascension Saint Thomas partnered with Kindred Rehabilitation Services, a Lifepoint business unit, in 2022 to jointly own Ascension Saint Thomas Rehabilitation Hospital in Nashville.” 

Friday Factoids

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • The Department of Health and Human Services discusses its efforts to support rural healthcare.
  • Today, the proposed No Surprises Act regulation that would change current Independent Dispute Resolution processes was published in the Federal Register. OPM’s proposed FEHB rules changes are described on page 75,808 and may be found on page 75,851.
  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service issued FAQs on its new final rule imposing civil monetary penalties on Section 111 reporting violations. The rule, which impacts FEHB carriers, becomes enforceable on October 11, 2024.
  • Congressman Gerry Connolly (D VA) released a “statement in support of the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) expansion of infertility coverage benefits for Federal Employee Health Benefits (FEHB) program enrollees.” The FEHBlog is pleased to read about Congressman Connolly’s support.
  • The Office of the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology created a blog post titled “Coming in Hot! TEFCA Will Soon Be Live and Add Support for FHIR-Based Exchange.” The post indicates that this critically important electronic health record key to data sharing will be going live soon.
    • “Our TEFCA timelines will remain aggressive and ambitious as ONC and the RCE help support the industry to usher in a new era of data exchange for the United States.
    • “For more information on TEFCA in general, please check out the RCE resources and sign up for the RCE newsletter and monthly public calls.”
  • Govexec reports, “The Office of Personnel Management on Friday announced new plans aimed at helping the federal government’s HR agency better weather the annual surge of retirement applications from departing federal employees that occurs each winter.” Good luck.
  • HR Dive reports,
    • “The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission opened its 2022 EEO-1 Component 1 data collection Oct. 31. Reports must be submitted by Dec. 5, the agency said in a news release
    • “The EEO-1 Component 1 report is a mandatory demographic data report the EEOC requires from all private-sector employers with 100 or more employees, and from certain federal contractors.
    • “EEOC’s Office of Enterprise Data and Analytics released a booklet to help filers complete the process. It has also provided a Filer Support Team Message Center and other resources, the agency said.”

From the public health front,

  • The Centers for Disease Control posted its inaugural issue of FluSight for the current flu season. Here’s the kickoff forecast.
  • Health Payer Intelligence explains how public and private payers cover healthcare for the LGBTQ+ community.
  • The Institute for Clinical and Economic Research published
    • “its third annual “Barriers to Fair Access” assessment of prescription drug coverage policies (Report |Supplemental Materials) within US commercial insurance and the Veterans Health Administration. The analysis found that major payer coverage policies for 18 drugs often met fair access criteria for cost sharing, clinical eligibility, step therapy, and provider restrictions. However, the report’s findings suggest that major improvements are needed in the transparency of coverage policy information for consumers and in detailing out-of-pocket costs for patients.” 
  • Beckers Hospital Review shares CMS statistics on emergency department wait times across our country.
  • The Wall Street Journal gives advice on how to avoid the gloom associated with turning the clock to standard time this weekend.
    • “Daylight hours affect our brain chemistry. As days grow shorter, light receptors in the eyes receive less light and send a signal to the brain about what chemicals to produce, says Lina Begdache, associate professor of health and wellness studies at Binghamton University. 
    • “Our brains begin producing more melatonin—the sleep-related hormone—and less serotonin, which enhances mood and controls appetite. When the brain starts making more melatonin at 4 p.m. due to the earlier dusk, people can feel prematurely sluggish, which can affect mood, diet, exercise and sleep patterns.  
    • “Focusing on improving one area that is affected by the time change, such as exercise, can help the others and might be more doable than trying to improve everything at once, says Begdache, the associate health and wellness studies professor.  * * *
    • “If you improve your diet, you’re more likely to exercise more. And if you exercise more, you’re more likely to sleep better,” says Begdache, who led a 2021 study on mental well-being and seasonal changes. “
  • The FEHBlog personally likes having more sunlight in the morning.

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Here’s a link to the American Medical Association’s reaction to the 2024 Medicare Part B pay cut announced this week. The pay cut is a wash for FEHB carriers because the cut applicable to Medicare prime annuitants will be offset by price increases for younger members. The big problem is that the cut will drive more doctors out of Medicare Part B. When the FEHBlog, who is on traditional Medicare, lived inside the Beltway, his primary care doctor joined the crowd of local PCPs who had dropped out of Medicare. When the FEHBlog moved to Texas last year, he had no problem finding a PCP who takes Medicare, and what’s more, his PCP participates in an accountable care organization. Access to affordable healthcare and dental care is better in central Texas than inside the Beltway, at least for now. The FEHBlog agrees with the AMA that Congress needs to step up.
  • BioPharma Dive informs us,
    • “Moderna on Thursday shifted its revenue forecast for the year to “at least” $6 billion from a previous range of between $6 billion to $8 billion, a change it said reflected COVID-19 vaccination trends in the U.S.
    • “The biotechnology company also disclosed third-quarter earnings showing a net loss of $3.6 billion, driven mainly by non-cash charges of $3.1 billion related to a “manufacturing resizing” and a tax charge. Shares slumped 6% Thursday on the news but traded up Friday morning.
    • “Moderna said it plans to break even in 2026 through “disciplined investment” and launches for new products like its mRNA flu and respiratory syncytial virus vaccines as well as a combination flu and COVID shot.”
  • MedTech Dive shares medtech executives’ views on the new GLP-1 obesity drugs.
    • “Strong patient interest in GLP-1 drugs to treat obesity has prompted medtech companies to take a hard look at the potential impact on demand for procedures like bariatric surgery and products such as glucose monitors and sleep apnea devices.
    • “The potential threat to medical device sales has spooked investors, who have sold shares in companies across the sector.
    • “Fears that medications such as Ozempic, Mounjaro and Wegovy, which are used for diabetes and weight loss, will eventually reshape treatment for a variety of diseases have driven the most severe correction in the medtech sector since the onset of COVID-19, wiping out about $370 billion in market capitalization, according to Mizuho analyst Anthony Petrone.”

Friday Factoids

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

From Washington, DC

  • The American Medical Association News informs us,
    • “The Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and the Treasury Oct. 27 issued a proposed rule intended to improve how the No Surprises Act independent dispute resolution process functions in response to feedback and challenges shared by stakeholders. The public will have 60 days to submit comments. The rule would require plans to include claim adjustment reason codes and remittance advice remark codes, among other new information, with the initial payment or notice of payment denial for certain items and services subject to the NSA protections. The rule proposes changes to the batching requirements so that Items and services could be batched in the same payment determination if they are: furnished to a single patient on one or more consecutive dates of service and billed on the same claim form (a single patient encounter); billed under the same service code or a comparable code under a different procedural code system; or anesthesiology, radiology, pathology and laboratory items and services billed under service codes belonging to the same Category I CPT code section, as specified in the agencies’ guidance. Batched items would be limited to 25 items or services in a single dispute. Lastly, the proposed rule would amend certain requirements related to the open negotiation period preceding the IDR process, the initiation of the process, the dispute eligibility review, and the payment and collection of administrative fees and certified IDR entity fees.”
  • The proposed rule will be published in the Federal Register next Friday, November 3, and the proposal creates a sixty-day public comment period.
  • Here’s a link to the government’s fact sheet on the proposed rule.
  • The FEHBlog noticed that the proposed rule would run open negotiations through the government’s IDR portal, which will increase the government’s administrative costs. It strikes the FEHBlog that the proposed rule could have established a process for the open negotiation for the parties to follow. The proposed rule will require health plan system changes, which is always expensive.
  • Also today, the Department of Health and Human Services wrote to stakeholders, including health plans, reminding them the cost of Paxlovid and other Covid drugs is shifting from the government to the private sector beginning on November 1.
  • STAT News reports,
    • “The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday approved an Eli Lilly drug that takes a new approach to treating ulcerative colitis, a chronic inflammatory disease that can cause intense gastrointestinal pain and distress.
    • “The therapy, dubbed Omvoh, is an antibody that blocks IL-23p19, an immune signaling molecule that plays a key role in sustaining the disease. It’s the first treatment to target this particular pathway in ulcerative colitis. The drug’s approval comes after two late-stage trials found that patients taking Omvoh showed a significant improvement in symptoms after both three months and a year compared with those given a placebo, and that the therapy had minimal side effects.
    • “Omvoh’s list price will be $9,593 per month for intravenous delivery and $10,360 per dose injected beneath the skin. A company spokesperson told STAT that patients who have the drug covered by commercial insurance may pay as little as $5 per month for up to 30 months.”

From the public health front,

  • Health Payer Intelligence points out,
    • “Americans are feeling more optimistic about their well-being than last year, but financial concerns and mental health challenges are still negatively impacting their health, according to a report from The Cigna Group.
    • “The second annual Vitality in America study reflects responses from 10,000 adults collected in June 2023 by Morning Consult. The study uses the Evernorth Vitality Index, a subjective measure of health and well-being, to assess Americans’ experiences with personal health, finances, and job satisfaction.
    • “Almost half of respondents said they look forward to each new day, up from 43 percent in 2022. However, fewer adults said they prioritize their physical health (39 percent), feel capable of managing their emotions (45 percent), and can financially support themselves (40 percent).
    • “The top driver of stress among US adults was finances (40 percent), followed by housing conditions (25 percent), work (25 percent), family or social relationships (25 percent), and health (24 percent).”
  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “More patients are accessing their medical records online via patient portals or apps and are doing so more often than in years past, according to the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC).
    • “From 2020 to 2022, the portion of U.S. adults who reported being offered access to their medical records by a provider or insurer increased 24% to about 3 in 5, the office wrote in a recent data brief. The percentage who said they were offered access and used it jumped 50% during the same period, from 38% to 57%, according to ONC.
    • “Together these findings demonstrate increased patient demand for and use of online health information by individuals in recent years,” the office wrote in the brief, citing data from the 6,252-respondent 2022 Health Information National Trends Survey.
    • “Patients who were offered access to their online medical records also used them more frequently—54% reported accessing their records at least three times during 2022, compared to 38% in 2020 and 26% in 2017.”
  • Healthcare IT News notes,
    • “The emergence of telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting surge in the adoption of telemedicine are helping address patients’ needs without major signs of safety concerns, according to a study by Kaiser Permanente.
    • “The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, analyzed more than 1.5 million adult patients at Kaiser Permanente Northern California in 2021, and compared treatment and follow-up visits among primary care telemedicine (video and telephone) and in-person office visits.
    • “Of the 2,357,598 primary care visits analyzed, just over half (50.8%) utilized telemedicine, which broke down to just under 20% composed of video visits and 31.3% telephone visits.
    • “The findings indicate that medication prescriptions were lower for video and telephone visits at 38.4% and 34.6%, respectively, compared to in-person visits at 46.8%. Additionally, follow-up appointments within seven days were less frequent for in-person visits (1.3%) compared to video (6.2%) and telephone (7.6%) visits.”
  • Per Medscape,
    • “Among the 3188 people with type 2 diabetes who were adherent to their tirzepatide (Mounjaro, Lilly) regimen in four pivotal trials of the agent, a quarter achieved at least a 15% cut from their baseline body weight after 40–42 weeks of treatment, and researchers found seven baseline variables that were significantly linked with a higher incidence of this level of weight loss.
    • “These findings help inform which people with type 2 diabetes are most likely to achieve greater body weight reduction with improved cardiometabolic risk factors with tirzepatide,” say the authors.”
  • HR Dive offers advice to employers about how to extend a helping hand to employees in their first trimester of pregnancy.

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Mercer Consulting offers plan design advice to self-fund health plan sponsors. For example,
    • “Commit to affordable plan designs. One of the biggest reasons people delay care is because they can’t afford to pay for care. Encourage use of preventive care and chronic condition management. 
    • “Provide advocacy support to help plan members get to the most appropriate care and setting. 
    • “Review the emerging spectrum of virtual care for options to help rein in costs while making care more accessible and affordable to plan members. 
    • “Now is the time to consider the long list of network options that exist in the market today and could result in cost savings.   
    • “If you haven’t explored reference-based pricing, you might want to do so. The protections offered by the No Surprises Act make this a more attractive and less risky option for plan members. 
    • “Make mental health a priority. People with medical conditions often have mental health needs. People with mental health needs often develop medical conditions. It is an investment you can’t afford to overlook. 
    • “Focus on pharmacy. Prescription drug costs are a top driver of medical plan cost increases mostly associated with new drugs and the cost of specialty drugs.” 
  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • Big Pharma is almost finished with the cough and cold medicine business.
    • French drug giant  Sanofi said Friday it plans to spin off its consumer-health business, which includes well-known brands like allergy medicine Allegra and the pain treatments IcyHot and Aspercreme.
    • — to hive off a division selling over-the-counter medicines and other retail products to focus on more commercially lucrative but scientifically riskier prescription drugs.
    • Once the split is completed as early as the fourth quarter of next year, there will be just one consumer-health business left under the umbrella of a big drugmaker parent. Germany’s Bayer will be the largest drugmaker with such a business. 
    • Sanofi and its rivals have made the moves in the hunt for higher margins and faster sales growth. “It allows Sanofi to become a pure-play biopharma company. We’ll be more agile and more focused in our areas of key areas of strength,” Chief Executive Paul Hudson said.
    • Yet the companies lose the crutch of a reliable source of cash flow and now face more pressure to hit on breakthrough medicines with large sales potential.