Weekend Update

Weekend Update

The FEHBlog is back inside the Beltway after a relaxing week on the Jersey Shore.

Both Houses of Congress will be conducting legislative and committee work this week following Yom Kippur which occurs from sundown tonight until sundown tomorrow. The Senate must pass the compromise continuing resolution funding the federal government through December 11 no later than Wednesday September 30.

On September 30, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will take up the nomination of Chad Wolf to be Secretary of Homeland Security. The Committee continues to defer action of the nomination of John Gibbs to be OPM Director.

Before long OPM will be publicizing the 2021 FEHBP government contribution. The September 1, 2020, OPM Benefit Administration Letter states that OPM will be taking this action in “early October” and early October starts this Thursday October 1. Thanks to Google Alerts, the FEHBlog ran across this Janesville (Wisc.) Gazette article reporting that an FEHB plan called MercyCare with only 80 enrollees understandably will be leaving the FEHB Program at the end of this year.

While driving back from New Jersey the FEHBlog was musing about the uptick in COVID-19 cases. This musing reminded him to provide a link to this lengthy Wall Street Journal article published earlier this month about the “really diabolical” COVID-19 virus. WSJ articles on COVID-19 usually are accessible outside the paper’s paywall.

Taken on its own terms, SARS-CoV-2 is the infectious disease success of the past 100 years.

Almost unmatched in the annals of emerging human contagions, it has parlayed a few chance infections into a pandemic of around 27 million confirmed cases so far.

Doctors long expected the advent of such a virus, but even so, the shrewdness of the coronavirus caught many by surprise, and goes a long way to explaining how the world has struggled to contain it ever since.

“We underestimated it,” said Peter Piot , the head of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and a co-discoverer of Ebola, who fell victim to the coronavirus himself in March.

In any event, looking forward, Healthline offers an update on the state of rapid COVID-19 testing.

In other news

  • Fierce Healthcare reports on UnitedHealthcare’s vision for a path forward on health reform. The study highlights the following policy priorities: 1. Universal coverage, 2. Improving affordability, 3. Enhancing the health experience, and 4. Boosting health outcomes.
  • Fierce Healthcare also provides insights into last week’s final rule creating a process for importing less expensive drugs from Canada. “HHS didn’t comment on whether Canada was on board with any re-importation proposals. The country has vociferously opposed national re-importation measures because of concerns it would dwindle their own drug supplies.” Time will tell. The FEHBlog is not a fan of this sort of drug importation.
  • Healthcare Dive reports that “Microsoft’s video platform, Teams, is integrating directly with electronic health records software to permit clinicians to launch telehealth visits from the EHR.” Microsoft’s first integration deal is with the largest EHR vendor Epic. This will facilitate direct telehealth visits between primary care providers and the patients.
  • Health Payer Intelligence discusses payer strategies for offering home healthcare / remote monitoring to members.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the CDC’s Cases in the U.S. website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 20th through 34th weeks of this year (beginning May 14 and ending August 26; using Thursday as the first day of the week in order to facilitate this weekly update):

and here is the CDC’s latest overall weekly hospitalization rate chart for COVID-19:

Note that today, the CDC revamped its COVID-19 websites. Sharp eyed readers will notice the CDC changed the scale on this hospitalization chart since last Friday. In any event, both charts continue to move in the preferred downward direction.

The CDC added a webpage on how regular folks should select, wear and clean their protective masks. It should be helpful for health plans to share this CDC webpage on their own sites.

Also, Medpage Today interviewed Dr. Anthony Fauci about the ongoing development of monoclonal antibodies to treat COVID-19.

Fauci explained how the mechanism of monoclonal antibodies “is really one of a direct antiviral.” “It’s like getting a neutralizing antibody that’s highly, highly concentrated and highly, highly specific. So, the mechanism involved is blocking of the virus from essentially entering its target cell in the body and essentially interrupting the course of infection,” he said. While Fauci noted the success of monoclonal antibodies to treat Ebola, he added that they are not practical for other viruses that only last a day or two, where the virus may already be cleared once the patient receives the treatment. “If you have a disease that’s serious enough and prolonged enough, such as what we saw with Ebola, and what we are currently seeing with COVID-19, then you have enough opportunities to get the monoclonal antibody to actually work,” he added.

The article notes that work also is underway to develop these antibodies as an HIV treatment.

Managed Healthcare Executive News reports on issues that providers are encountering with electronic prior authorization and efforts to resolve those issues. For example,

[Rose] Moore says one of the obstacles to a more streamlined approach to prior authorizations is the lack of uniformity. “There must be greater collaboration between payers and providers to set universal guidelines on requirements, starting with the high-volume, low-complexity procedure types that consume the greatest administrative cost across the healthcare continuum,” says Moore.

That should be resolvable.

Finally, Govexec.com reports that “The government will begin deferring withholding payroll taxes for federal employees [beginning September 1] to fulfill a memorandum President Trump issued earlier this month, according to a notice from one of its payroll processors.” Because the executive order cannot and does not waive these taxes permanently, this action will get Congressional attention.

Thursday Miscellany

The Wall Street Journal reports that “Around the country, medical centers have begun setting up clinics focused on evaluating and treating Covid-19 patients reporting symptoms that last weeks or months after their initial illness or diagnosis. But the clinics are relatively new and hospitals are still adding resources, so wait lists can stretch months at the ones that exist so far.”

Healthcare Dive informs us that

Rideshare giant Uber is entering the prescription drug delivery business through a new partnership with on-demand prescription platform NimbleRx, the two companies announced Thursday. The partnership is currently live in Seattle and Dallas, with plans to expand to other parts of the country in the coming months, per a release. Nimble and Uber have completed more than 15,000 deliveries since the pilot launched earlier this summer.

Digital delivery marketplace Nimble, based in Redwood City, Calif., is used by more than 700 pharmacies in 34 states, giving the new partnership significant room to scale. Through an integration with Uber Direct, Uber’s delivery platform, the rideshare behemoth’s fleet of drivers will now be another delivery option for consumers.

It’s a crowded space: Retail pharmacy giants CVS Health and Walgreens have invested heavily in prescription home delivery following Amazon’s acquisition of online pharmacy Pillpack two years ago. Established players and startups alike are vying for a cut of runaway drug spending, while pitching better medication maintenance

CVS Health / Caremark and Express Scripts, among other PBMs, offer programs to allow health plan members to receive mail order pharmacy pricing on 90 day maintenance prescriptions at the pharmacy.

The Centers for Disease Control today released “Prevention and Control of Seasonal Influenza with Vaccines: Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices — United States, 2020–21 Influenza Season.”

Routine annual influenza vaccination of all persons aged ≥6 months who do not have contraindications continues to be recommended. No preferential recommendation is made for one influenza vaccine product over another for persons for whom more than one licensed, recommended, and appropriate product is available.

Balancing considerations regarding the unpredictability of timing of onset of the influenza season and concerns that vaccine-induced immunity might wane over the course of a season, vaccination is recommended to be offered by the end of October [2020].

Efforts should be structured to optimize vaccination coverage before influenza activity in the community begins. Vaccination should continue to be offered as long as influenza viruses are circulating and unexpired vaccine is available.

In the same vein, the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) announced yesterday the issuance of a “third amendment to the Declaration under the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act (PREP Act) to increase access to lifesaving childhood vaccines and decrease the risk of vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks as children across the United States return to daycare, preschool and school. ‘Today’s action means easier access to lifesaving vaccines for our children, as we seek to ensure immunization rates remain high during the COVID-19 pandemic,’ said HHS Secretary Alex Azar. The amendment authorizes State-licensed pharmacists (and pharmacy interns acting under their supervision to administer vaccines, if the pharmacy intern is licensed or registered by his or her State board of pharmacy) to order and administer vaccines to individuals ages three through 18 years, subject to several requirements” described in the announcement. Pharmacies have become a convenient administration point for many vaccinations, such as the flu vaccine.

Health Payer Intelligence reminds us that “Although the interoperability rule will not be implemented until mid-2021, payers can be aware of what to expect regarding how this rule will change their processes, as outlined in a recent AHIP brief.” The rule generally applies to plans regulated by HHS. While FEHB plans are not subject to the rule, they can benefit from riding in the slip stream by benefitting from interoperability innovations, such as HL7’s FHIR API standard.

Thursday Miscellany

The Centers for Disease Control updated their guidance on how COVID-19 spreads earlier this week. Here’s the main takeaways from the FEHBlog’s standpoint:

COVID-19 is thought to spread mainly through close contact from person-to-person. * * * Some people without symptoms may be able to spread the virus. The virus that causes COVID-19 is spreading very easily and sustainably between people. Information from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic suggests that this virus is spreading more efficiently than influenza, but not as efficiently as measles, which is highly contagious. In general, the more closely a person interacts with others and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread.

Check it out.

Healthcare Dive reports

The Trump administration on Wednesday proposed changes to how drugmakers can report their prices to Medicaid, seeking to make it easier for pharmaceutical companies and insurers to enter into contracts that tie payment to patient outcomes. Typically, drug contracts are linked to the volume of product sold, providing for larger manufacturer rebates the more a product is prescribed and covered by an insurer. Increasingly, however, drugmakers and insurers have been exploring alternative approaches centered on some measure of a medicine’s value.

Why is this relevant to the FEHBP? “The Medicaid best price policy requires drug manufacturers to give Medicaid programs the best price among nearly all purchasers [Medicare Part D is excepted].” So for example, if a prescription drug manufacturer cuts a deal for value based drug pricing, the VBD pricing cannot drop below the Medicaid price. If the manufacturer can cut the same deal with Medicaid under this proposed rule, then everyone benefits. This is a proposed rule that won’t go into effect until later this year at best.

Fierce Healthcare reports that

Health Care Service Corp., which owns and operates Blue Cross plans in five states, has tapped Epic to develop a data exchange platform between health plans and providers. HCSC health plans will be able to exchange medical information with health providers in its networks that use Epic’s electronic health record (EHR) software. The contract is one of the first of its kind between Epic and a large insurer, according to the companies.

Given the importance of clinical data in government and large employer healthcare quality programs imposed on health plans, including OPM’s Plan Performance Assessment, this certainly won’t be the last such deal.

Monday Musings

Here’s a musing for you. The FEHBlog expects that everyone is familiar with the spiritual titled “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.” Well after reviewing lots of news, the FEHBlog to paraphrase this spiritual sometimes feels like the only person in America who believes that the U.S. healthcare system can pull us through this pandemic.

The House and Senate announced today that each body of Congress will be returning to Capitol Hill next Monday May 4. Welcome back.

In a decision sure to delight health insurers that took the initial plunge with the ACA marketplaces back in 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today in a virtually unanimous opinion that the U.S. owes many of those insurers a total of roughly $12.3 billion for unappropriated yet mandated risk corridor payments. The only dissenter was Justice Alito who agreed that the government owed the money but questioned whether there was a private right of action under the ACA to sue the government for the money. It’s not a crazy thought because the government is generally protected against lawsuits by a doctrine known as sovereign immunity.

The FEHBlog thought that this would be a good opportunity to update readers on the major commercial COVID-19 testing sites:

Castlight offers a COVID 19 testing directory which organizations can link to their own websites.

Verily Health, which is an affiliate of Alphabet/Google, has “launched COVID-19 Pathfinder— a new set of tools that provide on-demand access to COVID-19 information directly from a hospital or health system website.” Cool.

In a bit of good news for HHS, Fierce Healthcare reports that the EPIC, the electronic health record (“EHR”) giant, has switched from “fiercely” opposing to supporting the HHS EHR interoperability rules. “Epic controls more than a quarter of the hospital EHR market, according to KLAS Research, and, among hospitals with 500 or more beds, Epic has a 58% market share.”

Tuesday Tidbits

Today the Senate passed a bill expanding funding for the Small Business Administration’s COVID-19 relief programs ($370 billion), healthcare providers ($75 billion) and COVID-19 testing ($25 billion). The Wall Street Journal further reports that “the bill now goes to the House, which is expected to vote on it Thursday.” The President has tweeted that he will sign it when both Houses of Congress pass it..

Speaking of COVID-19 testing, Labcorp announced today that “it has received an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The EUA permits nasal swab specimens to be collected at home using the Pixel by LabCorp™ COVID-19 test home collection kit if recommended by a healthcare provider after completing a COVID-19 questionnaire.” Furthermore, CVS Health announced today that it has opened another large scale drive up COVID testing site in Dearborn Michigan.

As anticipated the Department of Health and Human Services informed the public today about

a policy of enforcement discretion to allow compliance flexibilities regarding the implementation of the interoperability final rules announced on March 9th in response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) public health emergency. ONC, CMS, and OIG will continue to monitor the implementation landscape to determine if further action is needed.

Absent this new policy, the rules would have been fully enforceable on January 1, 2021.

Finally the FEHBlog ran across today this long, handy AHIP prepared list of benefit improvements and related actions that its health plan members have made in response to the COVID-19 emergency. Bravo.

Interesting Ideas

Health Payer Intelligence reports that CIGNA and SCAN Health Plan are teaming up to reach out to Medicare Advantage members in an effort to help them with senior loneliness during the great hunkering. SCAN’s “employees are calling on seniors, starting with the most at-risk and isolated. During their birthday and welcome calls, SCAN’s Senior Advocates—individuals who are both members and SCAN Health Plan employees—listen for potential social determinants of health needs.” What a great approach for FEHB plans to follow.

STATNews discusses the value of using chest CT scans to reliably reliably supplement other forms of COVID-19 testing in our country.

STATNews also has developed a new electronic dashboard to gauge the readiness of rural counties in the U.S. to deal with the COVID-19 emergency or other pandemics. The developers are seeking public comment on the dashboard. This dashboard should have benefits beyond the current emergency.

Healthcare Dive reports that

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working to automate generation and transmission of COVID-19 case reports to deliver data put in provider EHRs directly to public health agencies.

For providers that don’t have EHRs with the ability to electronically send case reports, CDC is creating a FHIR-based app [called eCR Now] to connect COVID-19 electronic case reporting (eCR) to existing health IT infrastructure to confirm cases and route the data to appropriate end users. The goal is to give public health officials a more accurate, timely picture of the pandemic.

The FEHBlog is quite a fan of the FHIR API.

This is the time of the year when the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) hold events that allow citizens to safely dispose of unused prescription drugs. Obviously these events are not being held this April. The DEA has creates a website on safe householder disposal of unused prescription drugs. It’s good information for health plans to share with members.

Tuesday Tidbits

The FEHBlog listened to the federal government’s COVID 19 press conference on the drive home from work. The Surgeon General urged listeners to visit coronavirus.gov. When the FEHBlog arrived home, he checked out the website and it turns out to be another url for the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID-19 website that he takes a peak at daily. At least the FEHBlog hasn’t been misdirecting readers. Here is today’s COVID-19 scorecard:

Person-to-person spread36
Under Investigation528
Total cases647

The FEHBlog learned late this afternoon that COVID-19 concerns have caused OPM and AHIP to cancel the annual FEHBP carrier conference which was scheduled to run from April 1 to April 3 in lovely Crystal City Virginia. The FEHBlog while disappointed understands the decision because the event jams hundreds of people together in one hotel ballroom.

Yesterday’s Health and Human Services rules on electronic health record (“EHR”) interoperability and data blocking gave a big boost to HL7’s FHIR specification. “FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources) Specification is a standard for exchanging healthcare information electronically.” The FEHBlog was excited to hear about the FHIR specification early last year because it appeared to be a solution to the nagging EHR interoperability problem. HHS appears to have jumped into the FHIR specification pool with both feet.

This morning the FEHBlog listened to a HIMSS webinar on FHIR accelerators. The four HL7-designated FHIR accelerators are leading the FHIR charge to solve interoperability problems in different spheres:

  • The DaVinci Project is focused using FHIR to fix healthcare business to business exchange issues.
  • The Carin Alliance is focused on using FHIR to fix healthcare business to consumer exchange issues.
  • CodeX is focused on using FHIR to share clinical trial appropriate data found in EHRs with researchers in an effort to find cancer cures.
  • The Gravity Project is focused on sharing social determinant of health data found in EHRs with healthcare businesses for care coordination and SDOH benefit purposes.

Good luck to them all.

Monday Musings

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management issued additional COVID-19 guidance and FAQs on Saturday March 7. The Federal News Network summarizes OPM’s issuances here.

Here are the Centers for Diseases Control’s March 9 COVID-19 statistics for the U.S.

  • Travel-related 72
  • Person-to-person spread 29
  • Under Investigation 322
  • Total cases 423

The CDC has issued guidance for people at risk of contracting serious illness from COVID-19. According to the CDC,

Early information out of China, where COVID-19 first started, shows that some people are at higher risk of getting very sick from this illness. This includes:

  • Older adults
  • People who have serious chronic medical conditions like:
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Lung disease

Becker’s Hospital News reports on a study recently published in the Journal of American Medical Association. The study which was conducted in Singapore finds that from a contagion standpoint the COVID-19 virus does not linger in the air but it does contaminate surfaces.

As predicted, the Trump Administration released its final electronic health record interoperability and data blocking rules today. The objective of the rules is to give patients better access to their health records. The rules take effect as early as January 1, 2021. The implementation of the interoperability rule is staged over time.

Here are links to the government fact sheets on the final interoperability rule and the final data blocking rule. WEDI, which an information technology advisor to the HHS Secretary, prepared a helpful comparison of the proposed and final data blocking rules.

Healthcare Dive reports on industry reaction to the final rules. Healthcare Dive explains

The CMS rule requires Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Medicare Advantage plans and Affordable Care Act exchange plans to provide their collective 125 million patients with free electronic access to their personal health data, including medical claims and encounter information including cost, by 2021.

MA plans, state Medicare and CHIP programs, CHIP managed care entities, Medicaid managed care plans and qualified health plans in the federal exchanges now have to “implement, test, and monitor” a Health Level Seven FHIR-compliant API, which the government has selected as the new national standard.

Those plans also have to make their provider directories available to current and potential enrollees through the API technology, too (excepting the federal exchanges, which already do so), by 2021, with the hope insurers will carry over those practices to private plans as well.

Finally it’s worth noting that HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research has deemed this to be Patient Safety Awareness Week.