Weekend update

Weekend update

Photo by Dane Deaner on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill —

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

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

On Friday, the House Appropriations Committee approved

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

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

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

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

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

This bill includes FEHB and OPM funding.

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

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

From the Omicron and siblings front —

Nature reports

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

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

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

The Wall Street Journal informs us

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

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

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

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

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

From the Monkeypox front, Bloomberg Prognosis tells us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, Precision Vaccines reports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy First Day of Summer 2022

Thanks to Aaron Burden for sharing their work on Unsplash.

From Capitol Hill, the Hill reports

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Omnicron and siblings front —

MedPage Today informs us

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

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

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

Probably not, infectious disease experts say.

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

The American Hospital Association tells us

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

Speaking of hospitals, Beckers Hospital Review reports

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

From the Rx coverage front —

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

From the interoperability and telehealth fronts

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

Finally, STAT News reports

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

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

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

Friday Stats and More

Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s Covid Data Tracker and using Thursday as the first day of the week, here is the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new Covid cases from the 27th week of 2021 through the 23rd week of 2022.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The American Hospital Administration adds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the electronic health record front, Beckers Hospital News reports

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

The Hill reports

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

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

STAT News offers this ray of sunshine

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other virus news, the American Hospital Association tells us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midweek update

From the FEHB front, the Office of Personnel Management released the 2023 call letter for benefit and rate proposals and the related technical guidance letter.

OPM is to be congratulated for releasing the two letters simultaneously. Historically, OPM has released the call letter weeks or months before the technical guidance letter. As a result, carriers cannot start preparing their benefit and rate proposals, due May 31, until they receive both letters.

From the Omicron (and sibling) front, the American Medical Association informs us

The New York Times (3/15, Mandavilli) reports about “17 million Americans received the Johnson & Johnson Covid vaccine, only to be told later that it was the least protective of the options available in the United States.” However, “new data suggest that the vaccine is now preventing infections, hospitalizations and deaths at least as well as the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.” The reasons are unclear, “and not all experts are convinced that the vaccine has vindicated itself.” Still, “the accumulating data nonetheless offer considerable reassurance to recipients of the vaccine and, if confirmed, have broad implications for its deployment in parts of the world.”

From the mental health care front, the American Hospital Association tells us

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration yesterday released a toolkit to help health care providers and others prepare for the July 16 launch of 988, the new phone number for anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts or a mental health or substance use crisis to speak, text or chat with a trained crisis counselor. Authorized by the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020, the three-digit number will operate through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s network of over 200 crisis centers.

“In the longer term, our vision is to build a robust crisis care response system across the country that links callers to community-based providers who can deliver a full range of crisis care services, if needed (like mobile crisis teams or stabilization centers),” SAMHSA notes.

To access the toolkit and other suicide prevention resources, visit SAMHSA’s new 988 website

From the U.S. healthcare front, Healthcare Dive reports

The long-term shift from hospital-based care toward more treatment delivered in the home and ambulatory centers picked up pace during the COVID-19 pandemic and is expected to continue to gain momentum, pressuring revenue growth and margins in the hospital sector, according to new research from Moody’s Investors Service.

Reimbursement changes, risk-sharing, investment in outpatient services including ambulatory surgery centers, advances in drugs and medical devices and greater use of at-home acute care services are among the forces driving the movement away from more expensive hospital inpatient care.

Medicare telehealth visits increased 63-fold during 2020, Moody’s said, citing HHS data. Although hospitals are reporting that telehealth use is receding as more patients return to in-person physician visits, it will likely remain above pre-COVID levels, the ratings agency said.

Kaiser Health News looks at the No Surprises Act from the patient’s perspective. It’s an important article because health plans should help their members keep the new law’s billing protections in perspective.

From the provider of the future front, mHealth Intelligence reports

Though a majority (63 percent) of clinicians worldwide expect most of their consultations to be remote within the next decade, 51 percent believe that telehealth will negatively impact their ability to demonstrate empathy with their patients, a new report revealed.

Developed by Elsevier Health and Ipsos, the Clinician of the Future report includes a quantitative survey, qualitative interviews, and roundtable discussions with nearly 3,000 practicing physicians and nurses worldwide. Of the total number of respondents, 434 were from the US. * * *

Empathy from physicians is becoming increasingly important for patients. A vast majority of clinicians (82 percent) surveyed said that soft skills like listening and displaying empathy have become more critical in the last decade. In the US, 76 percent of clinicians agreed with this statement.

Though the importance of soft skills has grown, the report notes that technical skills will be key in the future.

From the HIMSS Conference in Orlando, Florida, Healthcare Dive holds an interview concerning the FEHBlog leading interoperability innovation of 2022, TEFCA:

Healthcare Dive caught up with Mariann Yeager to talk TEFCA at the HIMSS annual healthcare conference in Orlando on Monday. Yeager is CEO of the Sequoia Project, a nonprofit that was selected in 2019 to serve as the recognized coordinating entity (RCE) charged with developing, updating and maintaining the common agreement and overseeing QHINs.

Yeager shared more details on the timeline of TEFCA implementation, why organizations should join the voluntary framework and how the Sequoia Project and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT are at the beginning of a long process of monitoring and modernizing a living document that, given uptake, could shape the future of health data exchange for decades into the future.

“We’re really proud of the work that we’ve done,” Yeager said.

Check out the full interview.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s Covid Data Tracker and using Thursday as the first day of the week, here is the FEHBlog’s updated weekly chart of new Covid cases:

Not quite as low as we were in early July but very much moving in the right direction. So is the FEHBlog’s updated weekly chart of new Covid deaths, which is considered a lagging indicator.

The epidemiologists have a keen eye out for new worrisome variants. For example, for other troubling variants, Becker’s Hospital News tells us about a relatively new combination of Delta and Omicron known as Deltacron.

The recombinant variant appears unlikely to spread as easily as delta or omicron, William Lee, PhD, vice president of science at Helix, told USA Today. “We have not seen any change in the epidemiology with this recombinant,” WHO COVID-19 technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove, PhD, said of deltacron during a March 9 media briefing. “We haven’t seen any change in severity. But there are many studies that are underway.” 

Here’s the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of Covid vaccinations distributed and administered from the start of the Covid vaccination era in late 2020 until the week ended this past Wednesday.

It is noteworthy that this week, the percentage of Americans aged 18 and older who are fully vaccinated (two doses of mRNA vaccine) cracked 75%. The same cadre is closing in on being 50% boostered. The most at risk, over age 65 cadre is 89% fully vaccinated and 66.7% boostered.

The American Hospital Association adds

In a study of 1,364 children aged 5-15, two doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine reduced the risk of omicron infection by 31% in those under 12 and 59% in older children, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported today. CDC said the study reinforces the importance of vaccination to keep children and teens protected from severe disease, noting that another recent study found the vaccine 92%-94% effective against COVID-19 hospitalization in adolescents during the delta surge and 74% effective against hospitalization in younger children during omicron.

Here’s a link to the CDC’s weekly review of its Covid statistics. This week’s issue focuses on protecting folks at high risk for Covid, such as the immunocompromised.

Who is most likely to become very sick or die from COVID-19?  Your chances increase with age and underlying medical conditions like cancer, diabetes, heart conditions, dementia, and obesity, particularly if you’re not up to date on vaccinations. People with weakened immune systems,* some disabilities, some mental health conditions, and some chronic diseases are also at higher risk. A lot of people might not know they’re at risk for severe illness—review the list to find out if you could be.

Here’s a link to the CDC’s weekly Fluview report, which states that flu activity is increasing in “most of the country.” In this regard, the American Medical Association inform us

Healio (3/10, Downey, Gallagher) reports “interim estimates published Thursday in” the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report “indicate that this season’s influenza vaccine has not been effective.” Based on the data “from more than 3,600 children and adults,” researchers “estimated that the vaccine has been 16% effective against mild or moderate influenza caused by the predominant circulating virus, influenza A(H3N2), with a 95% confidence interval…that suggests vaccination ‘did not significantly reduce the risk of outpatient medically attended illness’ caused by H3N2.”

From Capitol Hill and closing the loop on Thursday’s post, the Senate did pass the fiscal year 2022 omnibus appropriations act Thursday night. Roll Call reports

On a 68-31 vote, the Senate passed the 2,700-page, $1.5 trillion omnibus containing all 12 fiscal 2022 spending bills, $13.6 billion in supplemental appropriations to address the crisis in Ukraine and a lengthy list of unrelated measures fortunate enough to ride on the must-pass vehicle. 

From the No Surprises Act front, the FEHBlog had been concerned that the federal regulators were giving up on using the Qualified Payment Amount as a rebuttable presumption in NSA arbitrations which would help tremendously to control out of network benefit and plan legal costs. The FEHBlog therefore was encouraged to find that the federal government has filed a brief with the federal district court for the District of Columbia defending that position in a case raising the same issue. An oral argument on this issue will be heard by District Judge Richard Leon on March 21, 2022, at 3 pm. The FEHBlog will keep an eye on this and the other federal cases raising this issue.

From the electronic health record front, MedCity News interviews the CEO of Epic Systems at the Vive conference. The interview covers interoperability, artificial intelligence and other timely topics.

From the opioid epidemic front, STAT News reports

It was in the mid-2010s, the researchers heard, when “tranq dope” — opioids that contained the veterinary tranquilizer xylazine — took off in Philadelphia. But now, in some places across the U.S., it was appearing in 1 in 5 overdose deaths. A recent study also found the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl in nearly every xylazine-involved death as well, indicating it wasn’t just the tranquilizer causing these overdoses. Experts are still trying to understand the risks of xylazine, but they’re worried because the drug is not an opioid but acts as a sedative, which can increase the risk of a fatal overdose. It might also make it harder to reverse those overdoses with naloxone, which is designed to work on opioids. STAT’s Andrew Joseph has more on how adulterated — and in turn, increasingly dangerous — the U.S. drug supply has become.

Rur roh.

Thursday Miscellany

U.S. Supreme Court building

Let’s start today with news from the litigation front —

The Wall Street Journal reports that in advance of the February 27 deadline,

The Justice Department filed an antitrust lawsuit Thursday challenging UnitedHealth Group Inc.’s $13 billion acquisition of health-technology firm Change Healthcare Inc., arguing the tie-up would unlawfully reduce competition in markets for commercial insurance and the processing of claims.

The deal, announced in January 2021, sought to bring a major provider of healthcare clinical and financial services, including the handling of claims, under UnitedHealth’s Optum health-services arm.

The Justice Department filed its lawsuit in federal court in Washington, saying Change provided key industry technologies that are relied upon by UnitedHealth’s health-insurance rivals, making it a hub for competitively sensitive information. If the deal were allowed, UnitedHealth would have access to data that it could potentially use for its own benefit, at the expense of other insurers, the department alleged. The department also argued the deal would reduce head-to-head competition in the businesses of insurance claims transmission and review, because UnitedHealth competes with Change in those areas.

Healthcare Dive reports

A federal judge in Texas struck down a narrow part of the surprise billing rule that outlines how to resolve payment disputes between payers and providers over out-of-network claims. Wednesday’s ruling is a win for providers who were opposed to the dispute resolution process spelled out by CMS in an interim rule, arguing it favored insurers.

The judge’s ruling essentially tosses out a part of the dispute resolution process that instructs arbiters to begin with the presumption that the qualifying payment amount, or median in-network rate, is the appropriate payment amount for providers.

This is not the final word because the decision, which resulted in a final judgment is appealable to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. A case raising the same issue is currently pending oral argument in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The Hill adds

Katie Keith, a health law expert at Georgetown University, said the ruling is evidence of how hard doctors groups will fight even relatively modest efforts by Congress to cut health care costs.  

The surprise billing action was “one of the few things Congress has tried to do on cost containment,” she said.   

Amen to that.

From the Omicron front, Medpage Today provides background on a Centers for Disease Control decision permitting

Extended dosing intervals for Pfizer or Moderna vaccines * * * for certain individuals ages 12 to 64 years, not only to lower the risk of vaccine-associated myocarditis, but to potentially improve vaccine effectiveness, CDC staff said on Thursday.

According to the agency’s new interim guidance, young people ages 12 to 39 may especially benefit from a second mRNA dose 8 weeks after their first dose.

However, the regular 3-week interval for Pfizer and 4-week interval for Moderna is appropriate for patients who are moderately to severely immunocompromised, adults ages 65 and up, those who need rapid protection (such as “during high levels of community transmission”), and children ages 5 to 11.

From the social determinants of health front, HR Dive tells us

Though employers have invested increasingly in a variety of healthcare and healthcare-adjacent benefits, few of these efforts effectively address social determinants of health that can negatively affect patient outcomes, according to a report published this month by the Northeast Business Group on Health.

Social determinants of health include factors such as education access and quality; healthcare access and quality; economic stability; neighborhood and built environment; and social and community factors. Differences in these areas lead to disparities not only in terms of health outcomes, but also in cost management and general employee health and well-being, NEBGH said.

Employers can start addressing social determinants by collecting survey data on employees’ needs and risk factors, per the report. From there, NEBGH recommended that benefits design focus on equitable benefits access, such as evaluating what percentage of pay their health plans comprise at different pay levels. Other strategies cited include improving health literacy, taking advantage of partnerships and improving organizational culture around health and well-being, among others.

From the Rx coverage front, Fierce Healthcare discusses CVS Health’s annual Drug Trend Report.

CVS Caremark kept overall drug trend for clients to 2.4% over the first three quarters of 2021, marking multiple years of single-digit trend in drug price growth.

The pharmacy benefit management arm of CVS Health also kept its specialty drug trend to single digits through the third quarter, at an industry-low 5.8%, according to the company’s annual Drug Trend Report released Thursday. Caremark found that 35.9% of its clients saw negative specialty trend in 2021.

In addition, 65.3% saw specialty trend under 10%, according to the report.

The article explains how CVS Health accomplished this feat.

From the Medicare front, CMS announced a redesign of its Accountable Care Organization model

that better reflects the agency’s vision of creating a health system that achieves equitable outcomes through high quality, affordable, person-centered care. The ACO Realizing Equity, Access, and Community Health (REACH) Model, a redesign of the Global and Professional Direct Contracting (GPDC) Model, addresses stakeholder feedback, participant experience, and Administration priorities, including CMS’ commitment to advancing health equity. 

In addition to transitioning the GPDC Model to the ACO REACH Model, CMS is canceling the Geographic Direct Contracting Model (also known as the “Geo Model”) effective immediately. The Geographic Direct Contracting Model, which was announced in December 2020, was paused in March 2021 in response to stakeholder concerns.

Good luck, CMS, with this new model.

Happy Washington’s Birthday

The

The National Archives informs us

George Washington was born in Virginia on February 11, 1731, according to the then-used Julian calendar. In 1752, however, Britain and all its colonies adopted the Gregorian calendar which moved Washington’s birthday a year and 11 days to February 22, 1732.

Americans celebrated Washington’s Birthday long before Congress declared it a federal holiday. The centennial of his birth prompted festivities nationally and Congress established a Joint Committee to arrange for the occasion.

Washington’s Birthday was celebrated [as a federal holiday] on February 22nd [from 1879] until well into the 20th Century. However, in 1968 Congress passed the Monday Holiday Law to “provide uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Mondays.” By creating more 3-day weekends, Congress hoped to “bring substantial benefits to both the spiritual and economic life of the Nation.”

One of the provisions of this act changed the observance of Washington’s Birthday from February 22nd to the third Monday in February. Ironically, this guaranteed that the holiday would never be celebrated on Washington’s actual birthday, as the third Monday in February cannot fall any later than February 21.

Contrary to popular belief, neither Congress nor the President has ever stipulated that the name of the holiday observed as Washington’s Birthday be changed to “President’s Day.”

From the Omicron front, Medscape reports

Average daily COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are continuing to fall in the U.S., providing a signal that the Omicron variant is receding across the country.

* * *

Deaths are also beginning to decline, with an average of about 2,100 daily, according to the data tracker from The New York Times. More than 2,500 daily deaths were being reported in early February.

Medpage Today adds

The Omicron sublineage BA.2, which raised alarms because of its transmission advantage, accounts for just 4% of cases in the U.S., and experts suggested it’s not likely to reverse the current downward trend of cases overall.

BA.2 has certainly increased in prevalence, but its been a slow trajectory, according to CDC data. BA.1.1, another Omicron sublineage, actually became the dominant strain in the U.S. in mid-January, the agency reported, with the original lineage, B.1.1.529, currently accounting for about 23% of U.S. cases.

“The BA.2 Omicron variant is increasing in prevalence slowly in both CDC and private data,” tweeted Scott Gottlieb, MD, former FDA commissioner and current Pfizer board member. “While it may become a dominant strain in time, it appears increasingly unlikely that it will cause a significant change in the downward trajectory of the current epidemic wave.”

That has certainly been the case for South Africa, where BA.2 accounts for nearly 100% of cases, according to Tulio de Oliveira, PhD, of the Centre for Epidemic Response & Innovation in Stellenbosch.

“This comes on a background of decreasing infections,” de Oliveira tweeted. The country now has a 7-day average of about 2,500 daily infections, down from a peak of about 23,000 in mid-December.

“At present, the Omicron BA.2 is not of great concern in South Africa,” he tweeted. “But our network is following very close and is alerted to its emergence.”

From the Covid vaccination mandate front, the Society for Human Resource Management reports that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ordered the lower court to reconsider whether United Airlines vaccination mandate offered sufficient protection under Tittle VII to religious objectors.

From the No Surprises Act front, the American Hospital Association tells us

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will host a conference call for health care providers Feb. 23 at 2 p.m. ET on the No Surprises Act’s continuity of care, provider directory and public disclosure requirements. To participate in the Special Open Door Forum, dial 888-455-1397 and reference passcode 5109694. Slides for the call are available here. Participants may email questions in advance to Provider_Enforcement@cms.hhs.gov. A recording will be available after the call through Feb. 25 by dialing 866-373-4993.

The slide deck is quite detailed.

Healthcare Dive adds

The cost of being transported by ground ambulance has increased steadily over the past five years, according to a new report from nonprofit Fair Health, threatening patients with few protections from balance billing in disputes between insurers and ambulance providers.

More ambulance trips are billing payers for advanced life support ( ALS), denoting a higher level of care (and reimbursement) than basic life support (BLS) services. Private insurers’ average payments for those trips increased 56% between 2017 and 2020, from $486 to $758, according to the analysis. Before accounting for discounts negotiated with payers, the rate that ambulance operators charged for trips jumped 23% in the same time period and now average almost $1,300.

However, the average reimbursement for advanced life support ambulance rides climbed by 5% for patients covered by Medicare, from $441 to $463, suggesting the government program is keeping a lid on rising costs.

Although at this point only air ambulance charges are subject to the No Surprises Act, this type of report could lead Congress to expand the law to include ground ambulance charges.

From the medical research front, Biopharma Dive informs us

Eli Lilly is again upping its investment in genetic medicine, announcing Tuesday plans to establish a Boston research center that will use RNA- and DNA-based technologies to develop new drugs.

The Lilly Institute for Genetic Medicine will take up 334,000 square feet in Boston’s Seaport neighborhood, with occupancy slated to begin in 2024. Lilly, which has earmarked around $700 million for the project, expects the institute to grow from 120 employees to 250 within five years. Roles will include data scientists, chemists and research biologists with expertise in genetic medicine.

Alongside drug development, the institute will take a page from another Lilly venture — Lilly Gateway Labs — and offer shared lab and office space to support biotechnology startups in the area. Use of the shared space, Lilly said, could create as many as 150 additional new jobs once it’s fully occupied.

The National Institutes of Health announced

Women who had ever experienced sexual violence in their lifetime — including sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment — were more likely to develop high blood pressure over a seven-year follow-up period, according to findings from a large, longitudinal study of women in the United States. The research, funded by the National Institutes of Health and published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, indicated that sexual violence was a common experience, affecting more than 20% of the women in the sample.

“Our results showed that women who reported experiencing both sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment had the highest risk of hypertension, suggesting potential compounding effects of multiple sexual violence exposures on women’s cardiovascular health,” said Rebecca B. Lawn, Ph.D.(link is external), of the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, lead author on the study.

From the healthcare initiative front, the Centers for Disease Control detailed its Million Hearts 2027 initiative.

From the virtual care front, Healthcare IT News tells us

The American Medical Association, in conjunction with Manatt Health, published a report this week exploring the ways that virtual care and other digital tools can accelerate the adoption of the integrated delivery of behavioral and physical healthcare.  

In the report, the organizations note that behavioral health integration is essential for solving the country’s dire need for access to services.  

“The demand for behavioral health services is significant and rising, but so is the potential for digital technology to support the integrated delivery of physical and behavioral health services,” said AMA President Dr. Gerald Harmon in a statement.  

Moreover, in Health Affairs, the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology Micky Tripathi discusses delivering on the promise of health information technology in 2022.

From the healthcare business front, Healthcare Finance reports

The Department of Justice has until Saturday, February 27 to block the merger between UnitedHealth Group and Change Healthcare, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing on February 17.

The filing, by Change, was done in accordance with a timing agreement made with the DOJ. In November 2021, the two companies agreed not to consummate their merger before February 22. 

The timing agreement provides the DOJ with 10 days’ notice to sue to block the deal. 

“Effective February 17, 2022, UnitedHealth Group and the Company provided such notice to the DOJ,” Change said in the filing. “Accordingly, the DOJ now has until February 27, 2022 to initiate litigation to block the consummation of the merger.”

The DOJ is preparing the lawsuit to block UnitedHealth from purchasing Change, according to Seeking Alpha.

From the awards front

  • STAT News released its inaugural STATUS List which “recongizes standout individuals in health, medicine, and science. And although there are countless contenders to choose from, we’ve selected just 46 — an homage to the number of chromosomes in human DNA.”
  • OPM “announced a call for nominations for the 2022 Presidential Rank Awards (PRAs). A Presidential Rank Award is one of the most prestigious awards in the federal career civil service, and these awards are critical to recognizing the hard work and important contributions of dedicated civil servants in the American federal workforce. The awards – which recognize exceptional performance by members of the career Senior Executive Service (SES) and Senior Career Employees – reflect the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to supporting the federal workforce and recognizing federal employees who serve with distinction.” The nomination deadline is March 25, 2022.  

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the Capitol Hill front —

The Wall Street Journal reports

Sen. Marsha Blackburn lifted a hold on a stopgap bill needed to avoid a partial government shutdown this weekend after she won a commitment from the Biden administration that it wouldn’t fund pipes for smoking illicit substances through a substance-abuse program. * * *

[Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch] McConnell said Tuesday that he expected there to be some amendment votes in conjunction with the vote on the so-called continuing resolution. “I think it will all be worked out,” he said. “There’s no danger of a government shutdown.”

The House of Representatives held a pro forma, the four-minute-long session this morning at which

[The] Clerk notified the House that she had received the following message from the Secretary of the Senate on February 14, 2022, at 6:30 p.m.: That the Senate agreed to return the papers to the House of Representatives at their request for H.R. 3076 [the Postal Reform Act of 2022] * * *.

The House is not scheduled to resume floor voting until February 28 and the Senate will be on a State work period next week so Congressional passage of this bill may not occur until next month.

FInally Roll Call reports

The Senate on Tuesday confirmed Robert Califf to lead the Food and Drug Administration, 50-46, a much narrower vote than when he previously held the position during the Obama administration, though many thought the latest vote could be even closer.

Califf’s confirmation means the Biden administration has a permanent FDA commissioner during the COVID-19 pandemic after 13 months with longtime agency official Janet Woodcock acting as its leader.

Califf needed bipartisan support to cross the finish line. Retiring Sens. Patrick J. Toomeyof Pennsylvania and Roy Blunt of Missouri joined four Republicans who sit on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to confirm Califf.

From the Omicron front, the Wall Street Journal offers interesting commentary from Dr. Marc Siegal about the Novovax vaccine which is the subject of an emergency use authorization at the Food and Drug Administration.

The Novavax vaccine is based on tried and true technology. It involves growing the virus’s spike protein in moth cells and then combining it with an adjuvant, a chemical that amplifies the protein’s effect on the immune system. Whereas the mRNA vaccines signal human cells to make part of the protein, Novavax injects it directly as a “nanoparticle,” which induces a robust immune response (antibodies and T-cells). Side effects appear to be minimal: flulike symptoms, headache, temporary fatigue and pain at the injection site.

There are several reasons to think that Novavax may give a more powerful boost than a third or fourth mRNA shot. For one thing, the nanoparticle includes the whole spike protein, which could provoke a more complete immunity. So could the glycosylation of the spike—the addition of a sugar molecule in insect cells, which isn’t what the virus is expecting. Perhaps most important, the adjuvant (known as Matrix-M1), which comes from the inner bark of a Chilean soapbark tree, is very high in quality and has been used to make a malaria vaccine effective.

From the health equity front, Health Payer Intelligence discusses a Northeast Business Group on Health report on strategies for making progress on resolving inequities created by social determinants of health. Check it out.

In a similar vein, the Agency of Healthcare Research and Quality blog post on integrating patient-generated health data into electronic health records.

The 63-year-old patient has hypertension. With encouragement from his family, he checks his blood pressure daily using a digital blood pressure monitor. And thanks to advances in digital technology, he saves each reading on a mobile application whether he’s at home, at work, or on vacation.

What is the reward for his persistence? With his health data easily integrated into his electronic health record, his primary care doctor has a fuller picture of his health—one that is not limited to the traditional snapshot taken in an exam room. Using that data, he and his physician can have more informed conversations about treatment options and next steps.

While this scenario accurately recognizes that today’s patients can easily collect their own health data outside of the clinical setting, many ambulatory care practices lack the technical infrastructure, functional workflows, workforce capacity, and training to support the intake and use of patient-generated health data (PGHD).

With those challenges in mind, AHRQ has released a new guide on increasing the use of PGHD, one that provides practical tools for ambulatory care practices to implement PGHD programs and improve patient outcomes. It includes tips, ideas, and learning activities to let users tailor solutions to their needs. To our knowledge, this is the first practical guide that includes detailed considerations and steps for implementing a PGHD program.

The AHRQ guide may be helpful to health plan case managers, too.

From the tidbits department

  • Roll Call and Fierce Healthcare offer different takes on the public comments submitted on the Centers for Medicare Services controversial proposed national coverage deterimination on Biogen’s Alzheimers Disease drug Aduhelm. A final decision is expected in April.
  • The CDC encourages people with pre-diabetes to become heart health role models.

Cigna’s Evernorth is adding Monument’s virtual care services to its behavioral health network, the insurer announced Tuesday.

The platform is now available to all Evernorth clients and to Cigna members in employer plans or Affordable Care Act marketplace plans in 20 states.

Monument offers an evidence-based, virtual treatment program for alcohol use disorder. Evernorth said in the announcement that alcohol use has been on the rise for the past several decades, and that some 60% of people have reported higher alcohol intake under the pandemic.

Weekend Update

Both Houses of Congress will be engaged in Committee business and floor voting this week as we are now less than one month away from the expiration of the current continuing resolution funding the federal government. That resolution runs through February 18.

From the Omnicron front, the New York Times reports that ‘

New coronavirus cases have started to fall nationally, signaling that the Omicron-fueled spike that has infected tens of millions of Americans, packed hospitals and shattered records has finally begun to relent.

More and more states have passed a peak in new cases in recent days, as glimmers of progress have spread from a handful of eastern cities to much of the country. Through Friday, the country was averaging about 720,000 new cases a day, down from about 807,000 last week. New coronavirus hospital admissions have leveled off.

Even as hopeful data points emerge, the threat has by no means passed. The United States continues to identify far more infections a day than in any prior surge, and some states in the West, South and Great Plains are still seeing sharp increases. Many hospitals are full. And deaths continue to mount, with more than 2,100 announced most days.

But following a month of extraordinary rates of case growth, blocklong lines at testing centers and military deployments to bolster understaffed I.C.U.s, the declining new-case tallies offered a sense of relief to virus-weary Americans, especially in the Northeast and parts of the Upper Midwest, where the trends were most encouraging. After another round of masking up or hunkering down, some were considering what life might look like if conditions continued to improve. 

Bloomberg adds

The omicron variant spreads so rapidly that sometimes it feels as if resistance is futile. It’s disheartening to hear of omicron infecting people who are up-to-date on their shots and wear an N95 mask every time they leave home. Even some well-known public-health experts are getting infected. But that doesn’t mean everyone is going to get it. 

What it does mean is that life is profoundly unfair. In some of us, the Covid-19 vaccines work quite robustly, even against omicron. In others, the vaccines’ effect is weaker. Chalk this up to the spectacular diversity of the human immune system, which is partly regulated by some of the most varied genes in the human body. 

A recent study led by Harvard and MIT showed that about 20% of people get much poorer protection from their vaccines against omicron. They’re still better off than completely unvaccinated people, but this variability could account for some of the fully vaccinated people who’ve been hospitalized in the omicron wave.

According to the American Medical Association (AMA), here’s what physicians want their patients to know about Omicron. “The AMA has developed frequently-asked-questions documents on COVID-19 vaccination covering safety, allocation and distribution, administration and more. There are two FAQs, one designed to answer patients’ questions (PDF), and another to address physicians’ COVID-19 vaccine questions (PDF).”

From the Rx coverage front, the New York Times offers an interview with CVS Health’s CEO Karen Lynch. For example,

What do you see as the most effective ways that we could reduce health care costs for everyday Americans? And what’s your company’s role in doing that?

There’s a couple of things. One is there’s the site of care. Our role is offering an alternative site of care, either in our retail locations, or in the home with virtual connections. We’re entering into the primary care space because we believe that primary care has real significant influence over the cost of health care.

And I’m pretty passionate about the fact that the head is attached to the body, and most people experience behavioral health issues when they are experiencing physical health issues. We only deal with the physical health. We don’t deal with the behavioral health part, and I think there’s more we can do.

Healthcare Dive provides us with industry perspective on last week’s launch of TEFCA which is intended to vastly improve interoperability by linking together regional health information exchanges.

The goal of TEFCA is to get rid of individual legal agreements between health information networks, health plans, providers and other entities by instituting one common agreement that qualified networks and their participants sign onto, paring back on administrative burden. The framework standardizes the operational side of data exchange, while raising the privacy and security bar for entities that want to be certified as qualified health information networks (QHINs), groups of organizations that agree to the same data-sharing infrastructure. * * *

Getting a nationwide network of groups of organizations that agree to the same data-sharing infrastructure could significantly streamline patient care across different geographies.

For example, if a patient from Virginia takes a vacation to California and ends up in an emergency room, doctors currently do the best they can to treat them without their medical record, which can contain valuable information about preexisting conditions, allergies and other health factors. But with a nationwide QHIN infrastructure, clinicians can query all participating networks for that patient’s data and use it to inform their clinical choices, Barrett said.

That budding future all centers on buy-in. * * *

Many, including ONC, are optimistic on TEFCA adoption, citing the competitive disadvantages to nonparticipation.

The hope is that the more networks use it, the more its value proposition will be proved. Patients will inquire why their provider doesn’t have their data from other facilities, and the provider will then wonder why the exchanges it’s a participant in aren’t qualified to work with other networks, Lee Barrett, CEO of EHR standards development organization EHNAC said.