Friday Factoids

Friday Factoids

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

From Washington, DC

  • Govexec reports,
    • “In the face of mounting pressure from lawmakers of all political stripes, watchdogs, stakeholders and even members of its own governing board, as well as another financial quarter in the red, leadership of the U.S. Postal Service is doubling down on its controversial plan to overhaul the agency. 
    • “USPS posted a net loss of $1.5 billion in the second quarter of fiscal 2024, though management noted that was trimmed to a $300 million loss after dispensing with costs outside of its control. USPS leaders boasted they have turned a $200 million profit in the first half of the fiscal year using that same metric, which marked a $600 million turnaround compared to the first six months of fiscal 2023.
    • “While First-Class mail volume has continued its longstanding decline, revenue grew in the quarter by nearly $500 million due in large part to the dramatic price increases USPS has instituted. The Postal Service has cut $100 million in costs, driven largely by a reduction in transportation expenses and slashing 9 million work hours. 
    • “On-time delivery of mail, however, has plummeted as USPS has instituted significant reforms to its network as laid out in Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s 10-year Delivering for America plan.” 
  • HHS posted a fact sheet on new government efforts to reduce the impact of spread of avian flu H5N1
  • Senators John Fetterman (D PA) and Tina Smith (D MN) announced a bill, “the United States Senate Commission on Mental Health Act of 2024. The bill would establish a U.S. Senate Commission on Mental Health tasked with providing Congress and the president independent, expert policy recommendations to improve access to and affordability of mental health care services. * * * Full text of the bill can be found here.

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The Centers for Disease Control tells us today,
    • “The amount of respiratory illness (fever plus cough or sore throat) causing people to seek healthcare continues to decrease across most areas of the country. This week, no jurisdictions experienced moderate, high, or very high activity.
    • “Nationally, emergency department visits with diagnosed influenza are decreasing. Emergency department visits with COVID-19 and RSV remain stable at low levels.
    • “Nationally, influenza and RSV test positivity decreased compared to the previous week. COVID-19 test positivity remained stable at low levels.
    • “Nationally, the COVID-19 wastewater viral activity level, which reflects both symptomatic and asymptomatic infections, is minimal.”
  • STAT News reports “Harvard scientists unveil the most detailed map of the brain ever: ‘It’s an alien world inside your own head’”.
    • “On Thursday, [Dr. Jeffrey’ Lichtman and his partners unveiled the results of their [decade long] efforts in the prestigious journal Science, and also posted to the internet renderings of the human brain unlike any ever seen. They came complete with a program that allows viewers to move through a microscopic alien landscape so detailed Lichtman can’t resist waxing poetic when he talks about it.
    • “It’s an alien world inside your own head,” he said. “Neurons themselves are truly awe inspiringly beautiful. There’s no two ways about it.”
    • “True, the insights gleaned from the tiny sample have not yet unraveled the mysteries of autism, schizophrenia, or depression. They can’t yet explain the mechanics of human learning, memory, and personality on the cellular level. But they represent an important first step in that direction, and provide a tantalizing preview of the kind of insights we might see in the decades ahead.”
  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • Bristol Myers Squibb said on Friday that its trial evaluating a combination of cancer treatments failed to meet its primary endpoint.
    • “The company’s trial was evaluating the cancer-drug Opdivo and concurrent chemoradiotherapy, followed by Opdivo plus Yervoy, the brand name for a monoclonal antibody, in treating unresectable, locally advanced non-small cell lung cancer. The trial’s primary endpoint was progression-free survival.
    • “Bristol Myers Squibb said it would fully evaluate the data and work with investigators to share results with the scientific community.
    • “Opdivo and certain combinations with Opdivo are approved treatments for eligible patients with non-small cell lung cancer.”
  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “Cancer diagnoses are on the rise among younger adults, and a new guidebook seeks to arm employers with the tools necessary to tackle this issue.
    • “The Northeast Business Group on Health’s new toolkit highlights actions employers can take to proactively address growing rates for five types of cancer in their workforce: breast cancer, colorectal cancer, head and neck cancer, cancer of the reproductive organs and skin cancer.
    • “There’s a clear business case for putting a focus on cancer, as the cost of therapies continues to increase and patients often require treatment for the long haul, NEBGH Medical Director Mark Cunningham-Hill, M.D., told Fierce Healthcare.
    • “He said that many employers, especially larger firms, have established sophisticated and comprehensive wellness and health programs for their workers. But they can do more to “connect the dots” between those offerings and critical preventive care around cancer and conditions that increase risk factors, like obesity.”
  • USA Data relates,
    • One out of every 42 babies born in the United States in 2021 was conceived using IVF or other assisted reproductive technologies.  
    • Parents who started treatments in 2021 gave birth to 97,128 babies, a 49% increase from 2012. In 2021, 238,126 patients initiated 413,776 IVF or similar treatment cycles, up 135% from 2012. 
    • IVF was most common in Washington, DC, with 5.8% of babies conceived via IVF, Massachusetts (5.4%), and New Jersey (5.0%). Less than one percent of infants born in Puerto Rico were conceived via IVF (0.4%). Alabama (0.6%) and Arkansas (0.7%) also had low rates.  

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • The Kaiser Family Foundation released a “KFF Health Tracking Poll May 2024: The Public’s Use and Views of GLP-1 Drugs.” Here are the key finding from the poll:
    • “The latest KFF Health Tracking Poll finds that about one in eight adults (12%) say they have ever taken a GLP-1 agonist – an increasingly popular class of prescription drugs used for weight loss and to treat diabetes or prevent heart attacks or strokes for adults with heart disease – including 6% who say they are currently taking such a drug. The share who report ever taking these drugs rises to four in ten (43%) among adults who have been told by a doctor that they have diabetes, a quarter who have been told they have heart disease, and one in five (22%) who have been told by a doctor that they are overweight or obese in the past five years1. Public awareness of GLP-1 drugs has increased in the past year, with about one-third (32%) of adults now saying they have heard “a lot” about these drugs, up from 19% in July 2023.
    • “Most adults who have taken GLP-1 drugs say they took them to treat a chronic condition including diabetes or heart disease (62%), while about four in ten say they took them primarily to lose weight.
    • “About half (54%) of all adults who have taken GLP-1 drugs say it was difficult to afford the cost, including one in five (22%) who say it was “very difficult.” While most insured adults who have taken these drugs say their insurance covered at least part of the cost, even among insured adults about half (53%) say the cost was difficult to afford2.
    • “While 8% of adults ages 65 and older say they have taken a GLP-1 medication for a chronic condition, just 1% say they have ever taken a GLP-1 drug to lose weight, which may reflect Medicare’s lack of coverage for prescription drugs used for weight loss. Nearly four in ten (37%) adults ages 65 and older report being told by a doctor they are overweight or obese in the past five years.
    • “With Medicare currently prohibited by law from covering prescription drugs used for weight loss, six in ten adults say they think Medicare should cover the cost of these drugs when prescribed for weight loss for people who are overweight, including more than half of Democrats, independents and Republicans. Similar shares of the public continue to support Medicare coverage of these drugs for weight loss even after hearing arguments for and against this proposal.”
  • Per BioPharma Dive,
    • “Sanofi will pay vaccine maker Novavax $500 million and take a small equity stake in the Maryland-based company as part of a broad COVID-19 shot alliance, the companies announced Friday.
    • “Through the deal, Sanofi will gain rights to co-market Novavax’s protein-based COVID vaccine globally, excepting certain countries, and a license to combine it with Sanofi’s existing influenza shots. Sanofi will also hold a non-exclusive right to use Novavax’s soap bark tree-derived adjuvant in other products it develops.
    • “Starting next year, Sanofi will book sales of Novavax’s COVID shot and pay Novavax double-digit percentage royalties. The French pharmaceutical company will also support certain R&D, regulatory and commercial expenses.”
  • Per MedTech Dive,
    • “Tandem Diabetes Care is recalling a version of its t:connect app for iPhone because of a fault that could drain insulin pump batteries, the Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday.”Tandem Diabetes Care is recalling a version of its t:connect app for iPhone because of a fault that could drain insulin pump batteries, the Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday.
    • “After updating the app in February, Tandem received 224 injury reports in about two months. The reports related to an issue that caused the app to crash and relaunch, resulting in excessive use of Bluetooth and potentially draining the battery of the connected insulin pump.
    • “The FDA categorized the event as a Class I recall because of the life-threatening potential for pumps to deliver too little insulin. Tandem corrected the fault in an app update in March.”
  • The Wall Street Journal explains why “Getting Alzheimer’s treatment to those who need it poses particular challenges.” For example
    • “The problem isn’t this drug. Sure. It has risks, et cetera,” said Jason Karlawish, co-director, of the Penn Memory Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “But the problem was the drug and the system — namely with a system of care for its delivery.”
    • “Karlawish said his memory center infused its first patient with Leqembi on November 16. He said that in the six months since, the number of patients who have received the drug there has climbed into the double-digits, reaching roughly 50 people. That, he said, required setting up an infrastructure that “either didn’t exist or existed in bits that had to be put together.”
  • MedCity new points out,
    • “Navigation challenges are the top reason consumers stop seeing healthcare providers, while experience issues are the main reason consumers leave their health insurer, a new survey found.
    • “The Accenture report, released last week, surveyed more than 9,700 insured consumers and 8,000 consumers who sought or received care in the prior year. The survey is a follow-up to a 2021 report, which examined why people are loyal or not loyal to their payer or provider.
    • “We wanted to leverage our patient and member experience surveys to continue to track the state of consumerism in health care, assessing how providers and health insurers perform across a number of key touchpoints that drive selection, loyalty, value and ease of use,” said Sarah Sinha, a managing director in Accenture’s health business, in an email.”
  • Insurance Business tells us,
    • “Offering support across a variety of functions including customer service, claims processing, underwriting, and fraud detection, the capability of AI to analyze large datasets and process information will continue to revolutionize insurance.
    • “Nirmal Ranganathan, vice president of engineering, AI, at Rackspace Technology, spoke with Insurance Business on how insurance companies can take advantage of AI to generate cost savings across their businesses.”
    • Check it out.

Midweek Update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • Roll Call reports,
    • “Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., and his top lieutenants on Wednesday morning moved to quell reservations among their conference about the emerging $1.2 trillion-plus final spending package headed for a vote likely on Friday, while their Democratic counterparts did likewise in a separate meeting.
    • “Appropriators were scrambling under a tight timeline to finish drafting the measure, which is taking longer than expected due to a last-minute decision to write a full-year Homeland Security bill. But Johnson told reporters after a GOP conference meeting that text is expected as soon as Wednesday afternoon.
    • “Other sources expected the bill drop to slip to Thursday, with the standard “reading out” of the DHS title, to catch any errors before posting, not even expected to begin until later Wednesday. But no matter: Lawmakers said they expect the chamber to vote as soon as Friday, regardless of a 72-hour review rule. * * *
    • “Final passage wouldn’t come until this weekend at the earliest, and senators are working to accommodate Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who has never missed a vote but will be attending her mother’s funeral on Saturday. That could push votes off until Sunday or Monday, though few are worried at this point about the effects of such a brief funding lapse. 
    • “I don’t think we’ll do a [continuing resolution],” Johnson said.”
  • The American Hospital Association (AHA) News informs us,
    • “The House Energy and Commerce Committee March 20 unanimously passed AHA-supported legislation to reauthorize through 2029 the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act (H.R. 7153), which provides grants to help health care organizations offer behavioral health services for front-line health care workers. The bill also would reauthorize a national campaign that provides hospital leaders with evidence-based solutions to support worker well-being. Without congressional action, the law will expire at the end of this year.”
  • and
    • “Congress should address any statutory constraints that prevent the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and Department of Health and Human Services from adequately helping hospitals and other health care providers impacted by the Change Healthcare cyberattack, AHA said a letter submitted to the House Ways and Means Committee for a hearing March 20 with HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra on fiscal year 2025 funding for HHS.”
  • Govexec tells us,
    • “The top senator with direct oversight of the U.S. Postal Service is calling on its leadership to pause its overhaul of the agency’s mailing network due to potential impacts they are having on delivery, rejecting USPS assertions that is has provided transparency. 
    • “USPS should not continue its nationwide operational reforms until it can prove the changes will not negatively impact mail service, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a letter to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. Agency leadership said in response to the letter it has offered volumes of documents and many staff-level briefings to Congress, though Peters said USPS ignored many of his requests for additional information on its efforts and left Congress uncertain about the fallout that could befall postal customers.”
  • On March 18, 2024, the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs received for final regulatory review an OPM proposed rule with additional requirements and clarifications for the Postal Service Health Benefits Program (RIN 3206-AO59).
  • The AHA News tells us,
    • “U.S. health care organizations should immediately transition away from using certain unauthorized plastic syringes made in China by Jiangsu Caina Medical Co. and Jiangsu Shenli Medical Production Co., and should only use other plastic syringes made in China until they can transition to alternatives, the Food and Drug Administration announced March 19, citing potential quality and performance issues. The recommendations do not apply to glass syringes, pre-filled syringes, or syringes used for oral or topical purposes, FDA said. The agency advises health care providers to confirm the manufacturing location by reviewing the labeling, outer packaging, or contacting the supplier or group purchasing organization.”
  • The Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employee Benefit Security, Lisa M. Gomez, posted on her blog about “Health and Money Smarts for Women.”
  • Fierce Healthcare lets us know,
    • “The Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, is turning 50 this year and lawmakers are curious to hear about how the law could be updated to increase coverage affordability and care access.
    • “Payers and providers, it turns out, have very different ideas on where Congress should focus its efforts.
    • “In response to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s January request for information, lobbying groups representing both sides of the industry weighed in on the act that outlines federal guidelines for employee benefit plans, including employer-sponsored group health plans.”
    • The article delves into these comments.
  • Newfront offers insights about 2024 RxDC reporting considerations. The reports are due June 1, 2025.
  • The Congressional Budget Office released a presentation about “The Federal Perspective on Coverage of medications to treat obesity. Assuming Congress allows Medicare to cover anti-obesity medications (AOM),
  • “The future price trajectory of AOMs is highly uncertain.
    • “CBO expects semaglutide to be selected for price negotiation by the Secretary of Health and Human Services within the next few years, which would lower its price (and potentially the prices of other drugs in the AOM class).
    • “CBO expects generic competition for semaglutide and tirzepatide to start in earnest in the second decade of a policy allowing Medicare Part D to cover AOMs.
    • “New AOMs are expected to become available. The new drugs might be more effective, have fewer side effects, or be taken less frequently or more easily than current medications. Those improvements could translate to higher prices, on average, even if prices decline for drugs that exist today.”
  • See also the Beckers Hospital Review article below on the next generation of AMOs.
  • Healthcare Dive tells us,
    • “The Medicare Advisory Payment Commission, which advises Congress on Medicare policy, is recommending boosting hospital payment rates by 1.5% in 2025 and base physician payment rates by 1.3% above current law, according to its annual report released Friday. 
    • “MedPAC suggested tying the rate of physician payment increasesmoving forward to the Medicare Economic Index, an annual measure of practice cost inflation. MedPAC suggested payments increase “by the amount specified in current law plus 50% of the projected increase in the MEI.”
    • “Provider groups, including the Medical Group Management Association and American Medical Association, have said the proposed payment increases are inadequate.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The Washington Post reports,
    • “More than two-thirds of young children in Chicago could be exposed to lead-contaminated water, according to an estimate by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Stanford University School of Medicine.
    • “The research, published Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, estimated that 68 percent of children under the age of 6 in Chicago are exposed to lead-contaminated drinking water. Of that group, 19 percent primarily use unfiltered tap water, which was associated with a greater increase in blood lead levels.
    • “The extent of lead contamination of tap water in Chicago is disheartening — it’s not something we should be seeing in 2024,” lead author Benjamin Huynh, assistant professor of environmental health and engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in a news release.”
  • The Wall Street Journal relates,
    • “Debi Lucas had a tremor in her arm. Her feet froze when she tried to walk and she fell into her coffee table, busting her lip. 
    • “She went to a neurologist who thought she had Parkinson’s disease. Doctors normally diagnose the neurodegenerative condition by symptoms. Lucas, 59, had them. 
    • “But the neurologist, Dr. Jason Crowell, couldn’t be sure. The symptoms might be related to a traumatic brain injury Lucas suffered in a car accident decades earlier, he thought. Or they might be from her medications. 
    • “To find an answer, Crowell turned to a new test: a skin biopsy that can detect an abnormal protein people with Parkinson’s have inside their nerves. He took samples of skin near her ankle, knee and shoulder and sent them to a lab. 
    • “The results confirmed that Lucas has Parkinson’s. The diagnosis was scary, but Lucas finally knew what was causing her symptoms. “I was glad to have a name on it,” she said. 
    • “The test sped her diagnosis, said Crowell, a movement-disorders neurologist at the Norton Neuroscience Institute in Louisville, Ky. “It just gives me more confidence,” he said. 
    • “The skin test is an important part of progress researchers are making against Parkinson’s, the second-most common age-related neurodegenerative condition, which is on the rise and a major driver of disability, dementia and death. The test Lucas received, made by CND Life Sciences, a medical technology company in Scottsdale, Ariz., is one of a few in use or development to allow doctors to diagnose Parkinson’s based on biology rather than symptoms that can take years to appear“.
  • Medscape explains “why a new lung cancer treatment is so promising.”
  • MedPage Today notes,
    • “The FDA has approved aprocitentan (Tryvio), making it the first endothelin receptor antagonist for the treatment of high blood pressure (BP), Idorsia Pharmaceuticals announced on Wednesday.
    • “The once-daily oral medication is indicated in combination with other antihypertensive drugs to lower BP in adult patients who do not have their BP controlled with other therapies.
    • “It is believed that some people may respond better to the drug’s novel mechanism, as aprocitentan is a dual endothelin receptor antagonist that works differently than conventional diuretics, renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system antagonists, calcium channel blockers, and beta-blockers used to lower BP.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review considers the three generations of weight loss drugs.
    • “Anita Courcoulas, MD, defines GLP-1s as “generation one;” dual GLP-1 and GIPs as the second; and a triple threat of GLP-1, GIP and GCGRs as the third generation of weight loss drugs. 
    • “Dr. Courcoulas is chief of Pittsburgh-based UPMC’s minimally invasive bariatric and general surgery program. She told Becker’s the next class of anti-obesity medications are finally reaching weight loss outcomes seen from gastric sleeve and bypass procedures, the two most common surgeries for trimming pounds. * * *
    • “Dr. Courcoulas said the biggest unknown is long-term durability of these medications, a concern other bariatric experts have raised. 
    • “She expects GLP-GIP-GCGR medications to gain approval and enter the U.S. market next year. 
    • “I think it’s very exciting to realize there are medications that are under investigation now that could come to market that could have even better weight loss results than the two drug [classes] we’re seeing now,” Dr. Courcoulas said.”
  • The National Institutes of Health announced,
    • “SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can damage the heart even without directly infecting the heart tissue, a National Institutes of Health-supported study has found. The research, published in the journal Circulation, specifically looked at damage to the hearts of people with SARS-CoV2-associated acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a serious lung condition that can be fatal. But researchers said the findings could have relevance to organs beyond the heart and also to viruses other than SARS-CoV-2.
    • “Scientists have long known that COVID-19 increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and Long COVID, and prior imaging research has shown that over 50% of people who get COVID-19 experience some inflammation or damage to the heart. What scientists did not know is whether the damage occurs because the virus infects the heart tissue itself, or because of systemic inflammation triggered by the body’s well-known immune response to the virus.
    • “This was a critical question and finding the answer opens up a whole new understanding of the link between this serious lung injury and the kind of inflammation that can lead to cardiovascular complications,” said Michelle Olive, Ph.D., associate director of the Basic and Early Translational Research Program at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of NIH. “The research also suggests that suppressing the inflammation through treatments might help minimize these complications.”
  • and
    • “An investigational gene therapy for a rare neurodegenerative disease that begins in early childhood, known as giant axonal neuropathy (GAN), was well tolerated and showed signs of therapeutic benefit in a clinical trial led by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Currently, there is no treatment for GAN and the disease is usually fatal by 30 years of age. Fourteen children with GAN, ages 6 to 14 years, were treated with gene transfer therapy at the NIH Clinical Center and then followed for about six years to assess safety. Results of the early-stage clinical trial appear in the New England Journal of Medicine
    • “The gene therapy uses a modified virus to deliver functional copies of the defective GAN gene to nerve cells in the body. It is the first time a gene therapy has been administered directly into the spinal fluid, allowing it to target the motor and sensory neurons affected in GAN. At some dose levels, the treatment appeared to slow the rate of motor function decline. The findings also suggest regeneration of sensory nerves may be possible in some patients. The trial results are an early indication that the therapy may have favorable safety and tolerability and could help people with the rapidly progressive disease.
    • “One striking finding in the study was that the sensory nerves, which are affected earliest in GAN, started ‘waking up’ again in some of the patients,” said Carsten G. Bonnemann, M.D., senior author and chief of the Neuromuscular and Neurogenetic Disorders of Childhood Section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), part of NIH. “I think it marks the first time it has been shown that a sensory nerve affected in a genetic degenerative disease can actually be rescued with a gene therapy such as this.”
  • Lifesciences Intelligence reports,
    • “Recently, JAMA Network Open published a study analyzing the association between a healthy diet, sleep duration, and type 2 diabetes (T2D) risk. The study data revealed that habitual short sleep duration was linked to an increased probability of T2D by as much as 41%.
    • “Using data on 247,867 individuals from the UK biobank, researchers divided patients into groups based on their sleeping habits. The stratified groups included normal (7–8 hours per night), mildly short (6 hours per night), moderately short (5 hours per night), and extremely short (3–4 hours per night).
    • “Across all study participants, only 3.2% were diagnosed with T2D; however, the adjusted hazard ratios revealed that the prevalence of T2D was higher among shorter sleep groups. More specifically, the increased probability of T2D was identified in those who slept 5 hours or less per night. Those in the moderate short sleep group were 16% more likely to have a T2D diagnosis. Additionally, those in the extremely short sleep group had a 41% greater likelihood of being diagnosed with T2D.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • BioPharma Dive relates,
    • “Orchard Therapeutics said Wednesday it will offer a new gene therapy to children with a rare, devastating disease at a record-setting wholesale price of $4.25 million. 
    • “The therapy, Lenmeldy, won Food and Drug Administration approval on Monday to treat patients with early-onset metachromatic leukodystrophy, or MLD. The disease, which most often attacks infants between six months and two years of age, robs patients of the ability to walk, talk and function in the world, killing most of its earliest victims within five years of onset.
    • “Lenmeldy’s price tag will leapfrog those of the two most expensive gene therapies available in the U.S. Sarepta Therapeutics sells its Elevidys treatment for Duchenne muscular dystrophy for $3.2 million, while CSL and UniQure’s hemophilia treatment Hemgenix costs $3.5 million.”
  • MedPage Today lets us know,
    • “Despite being a growing percentage of the physician workforce, women physicians continued to be paid less than their male colleagues, a strong body of evidence shows.
    • “While the gender pay gap decreased by 2% from 2021 to 2022 — from 28% to 26% — the gap was still significant, according to online networking service Doximity’s 2023 physician compensation reportopens in a new tab or window.
    • “Women doctors in 2022 earned nearly $110,000 less per year than men physicians, on average, after adjusting for specialty, location, and years of experience. Data from individual states have backed up this figure, too. For instance, in 2022, the Maryland State Medical Society conducted a survey and found that women doctors in Maryland are paid about $100,000 less annually than men.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review lists ten common issues in pharmacies.
  • United Healthcare updated its Change Healthcare cyberattack response website today.
  • HR Daily Advisor explains how companies are exploring the limitations of employee assistance plans amid the country’s mental health crisis.
  • Forbes reports,
    • “Medical diagnosis and procedure codes are so numerous and varied that Debbie Beall, manager of coding at Houston Methodist in Texas, needs a 49-person team to translate the medical notes written by the system’s 1,600 clinicians into the codes needed to bill insurers.
    • “There is a medical code for every imaginable scenario – from “burn due to water-skis on fire” to “spacecraft collision injuring occupant” — and their specificity determines how much the insurance companies pay. Each team member processes anywhere from 70 to 250 claims per day, depending on the complexity, she said. That’s why Beall is so excited about the possibility of using artificial intelligence to speed up the job.
    • “There’s no way I’m ever going to replace coders completely with an AI system,” Beall told Forbes. But for run-of-the-mill procedures performed multiple times a day in a hospital, like X-rays and EKGs? “Yes, an AI engine can do that.”
    • “Beall was one of the first dozen or so people to test a prototype of an AI-powered medical coding tool from electronic health records giant Epic Systems, which had $4.6 billion in revenue in 2022. Based on GPT-4, the large language model that powers the viral chatbot ChatGPT, Epic’s coding assistant prototype ingests and summarizes clinician notes and then tees up the “most likely” diagnosis codes and procedures codes, along with suggestions of “other potential codes,” according to mock ups viewed by Forbes that did not include real patient information. * * *
    • “While Epic has so far focused on using generative AI in back office functions, it has also been working on a patient-facing application that wouldn’t require human review. Krause told Forbes a tool that would help explain the patient’s bill, including their deductible and outstanding balance, could be rolled out by November. “We feel like that’s a fairly benign place to start. It’s not about healthcare at that point, but it’s really about their billing,” he said. “That’s not going to harm a patient in any way.”


Thursday Miscellany

As you may be able to tell, it’s a late FEHBlog post because the FEHBlog was returning home to Dripping Springs, TX, last night from our Nation’s capital.

In case, here are some highlights from Washington DC.

  • The GAO released a troubling report on our country’s fiscal health this week. Here’s a link to a Wall Street Journal Opinion Watch podcast about the report. The podcast is about 20 minutes long, and it may make your hair stand on edge.
  • Mercer Consulting discusses changes to the RxDC reports due annually on June 1.
    • “CMS released instructions for the third prescription drug data collection (RxDC) reports due June 1, 2024 – and they may cause plan sponsors to reconsider whether they need to make “plan level” submissions, instead of relying on their vendors to make “aggregate” submissions on their behalf. The good news is that the instructions largely mirror prior versions, so plan sponsors should be able to build off prior RxDC reporting efforts. However, for the first time, CMS plans to enforce the “aggregation restriction”—a provision in the 2021 regulations that CMS suspended for the first two reporting cycles. As explained [in the article], the reinstated aggregation restriction may cause headaches for some plan sponsors, who find that they can no longer rely on their PBM’s aggregate submission of pharmacy data but must instead submit plan level data. Other plan sponsors may welcome the opportunity to do a plan level submission so they can obtain otherwise unavailable prescription drug data.”
  • Per Govexec,
    • “With federal budget talks still unresolved less than a month away from Congress’ latest deadline, the Office of Personnel Management said Friday that the decade-long pay freeze for senior political appointees like Vice President Kamala Harris and others will remain in effect.
    • “In a Feb. 9 post, OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said that under January’s continuing resolution that extended federal funding to agencies until March 1 and 8, certain senior political appointees will continue to see their payable pay rates remain at current levels at least through the latter budget deadline, when Congress will have to decide whether it will continue to fund the federal government. 
    • “Future Congressional action will determine whether the pay freeze continues beyond March 8, 2024,” Ahuja said. “Until such time, the OPM guidance issued on Dec. 21, 2023, regarding the pay freeze for certain senior political officials continues to be generally applicable in applying the pay freeze in 2024.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “There isn’t a silver bullet to maintaining mental acuity or warding off dementia [as we age], scientists of aging say. But a combination of genetics, healthy lifestyle habits and factors such as cleaner air and good education have been linked to prolonged mental agility.  * * *
    • “Genetics is thought to play a role in brain maintenance, as does diet, exercise and a person’s risk of vascular disease. More education, mental stimulation and social connectivity have been associated with improved cognitive reserve.
    • “Better brain maintenance and cognitive reserve might help keep symptoms of dementia at bay. Almost 50% of people 40 and older think they will likely develop dementia, according to a 2021 AARP survey. The actual number of U.S. adults 65 and older with dementia is closer to 10%, a 2022 study found. * * *
    • “Sleeping too little—or too much—can also lead to cognitive problems. Activities including yoga and tai chi, the Chinese martial art, could help improve cognitive function, research suggests. 
    • “Hearing loss is a risk factor for dementia, too. Lost hearing might cause the brain to atrophy more quickly and can make people more isolated, said Dr. Dung Trinh, chief medical officer of the Healthy Brain Clinic. Hearing aids can help preserve mental fitness.”
  • AHA News adds,
    • “About half of U.S. health care workers have witnessed racial discrimination against patients and say discrimination against patients is a crisis or major problem, according to a survey released Feb. 15 by the Commonwealth Fund and African American Research Collaborative. Younger workers and workers of color were more likely than their older or white counterparts to say they witnessed discrimination, as were workers at facilities with more patients of color. About six in 10 Black health care workers and four in 10 Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander workers say they have been discriminated against because of their race or ethnicity. 
    • “While most health care workers see positive efforts from employers to address discrimination, a majority of Black, Latino, and AAPI workers worry about retaliation if they raise discrimination concerns. When asked about potential solutions, more than two-thirds of health care workers thought the following could help: providing an easy way to anonymously report situations involving racism or discrimination; creating opportunities to listen to patients and health care professionals of color; examining treatment of non-English-speaking patients; and training health care staff to spot discrimination.” 
  • Employee Benefit News offers three suggestions on how employers can help employees hold cancer at bay with preventive screenings.
    • “A new report from healthcare platform Color Health shows that although 80% of employers are concerned by rising cancer costs and 96% of benefits leaders agree early detection is the best solution, the majority of focus is devoted to post-diagnosis treatment, rather than evidence-based screenings. 
    • “According to the report, three out of four employers say they are placing more emphasis on screening, early detection and risk prevention efforts, but they are going to have to go beyond their current benefits setup: Only a quarter believe their current health plans meet the screening needs of their workforce, and three-quarters say employees are not being adequately screened by their primary care provider. Leaders report that 40% of employees are not compliant with screenings in general, and for the most deadly forms of cancer — lung and bronchus — the American Lung Association reports that only 6% of people eligible get screened. 
    • “The assumption [has been that] if we cover mammograms and colonoscopies and lung CTs, then people will actually get them, and that’s turned out to be false,” says Othman Laraki, Color Health’s CEO. “The big driver for that is that for non-acute care services, availability is not the same thing as access.” 

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.” 

Weekend update

Photo by Michele Orallo on Unsplash

From Washington, DC —

From the mental health coverage front —

  • Fierce Healthcare tells us,
    • “The United Health Foundation, the company’s philanthropic arm, each year releases America’s Health Rankings, which dive into major healthcare trends across the country. The latest analysis of that data examines how different populations are experiencing the rising tide of mental health concerns.
    • “For example, adults with disabilities were 3.5 times more likely to report frequent mental distress and 3.5 times more likely to have had a major depressive episode in the last year.
    • “This data is highlighting the need to take a closer look,” said Yusra Benhalim, M.D., senior national medical director at Optum Behavioral Health Solutions, in an interview. “I think we need to kind of lean in a little bit more and understand what the experience is like for individuals with disabilities.”
  • Health Affairs Forefront considers whether the private sector lead in addressing this mental health equity crisis. The FEHBlog thinks it can.

From the generative AI front —

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “Hundreds of doctors across the U.S. have entrusted recordings of their private talks with patients to a startup promising to turn the conversations into usable medical records through artificial intelligence.
    • “The technology makes multiple errors while producing the reports, such as failing to use correct medical terminology and adding medicines a patient isn’t taking, according to current and former workers.
    • “To fix those errors, health-tech startup DeepScribe relies on 200 human contractors to listen to the medical conversations and revise the records, the company’s founders said. The workers also use Google searches to find billing codes.”
  • This reminds the FEHBlog of a situation that occurred nearly thirty years ago. A client decided to use then new scanning technology to feed paper claims into its claims system for auto-processing. The client wound up needing at least a hundred people to correct errors in the scans. Over time the technology improved, and human assistance dropped off to reasonable levels. The FEHBlog is certain that, in due time, generative AI will be able to create these reports without human assistance.

From the U.S. healthcare business front, NPR warns providers have begun to bill patients and their health plans for responding to messages posted on the provider’s patient portal. Before long, generative AI will be able to reply on the doctor’s behalf.

From the wellness front, Fortune Well shares expert advice on four habits that aging folks need to adopt, besides exercise, to stay fit.

Check out last Monday’s Econtalk episode in which Russ Roberts interviews Lydia Dugdale about her book, the Lost Art of Dying.

Midweek Update

The FEHBlog hopes his readers enjoyed their Fourth of July weekend. The FEHBlog certainly did.

From Washington, DC —

  • FedWeek informs us
    • “The House version of the annual defense authorization bill would require DoD and OPM to conduct a “comprehensive review of the civilian workforce on FEHB to ensure that all family members and dependents who are currently receiving benefits are in fact eligible.”
    • “The language, inserted as an amendment to a bill that could come to floor voting in the upcoming weeks, would be the most concrete response to date regarding an issue that has been the subject of repeated warnings from OPM’s inspector general’s office and most recently from the GAO: ineligible persons being covered in the program as family members.”
  • FEHBlog note — The largest internal control problem with FEHB eligibility stems from the fact that OPM does not take advantage of the HIPAA 820 electronic enrollment roster, which allows health plan carriers to reconcile premium to headcount. For example, if the carrier finds via the HIPAA 820 that it is not receiving premiums on a self and family enrollee, then the outcome may be disenrolling the individual and their covered family members in a fair way. In the FEHBlog’s view, it does not make sense to move forward with a family member eligibility audit until the HIPAA 820 transaction is operational in FEHB. That is the most logical first step.
  • Federal News Network provides us with background on OPM’s new employee assistance program guidance. In the FEHBlog’s opinion, OPM should team up EAPs with FEHB plans in order to better coordinate their respective coverages.
  • Fedweek also explains for the benefit of federal and postal employees how to continue FEGLI coverage into retirement.
  • Healthcare Dive relates
    • “The CMS is proposing to cut Medicare reimbursements to home health agencies by 2.2% next year, or $375 million less than providers received in 2023, according to draft regulation released Friday. 
    • “The agency said the proposed rule includes a 2.7% payment bump that’s offset by a 5.1% cut related to the Patient-Driven Groupings Model, which aimed to better sort patients into different payment categories by clinical need and other factors.
    • “The reimbursement changes also reflect an estimated 0.2% increase due to an updated fixed-dollar loss ratio, according to regulators.”

From the public health front —

  • CBS News reports
    • “Nearly 1 in 4 U.S. adults and older teens had still not caught COVID-19 by the end of last year, according to new estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while 77.5% had antibodies from at least one prior infection. The figures are based on the final batch of results from the agency’s nationwide studies of antibodies in Americans ages 16 and up. * * *
    • “Virtually every American ages 16 and older — 96.7% — had antibodies either from getting vaccinated, surviving the virus or some combination of the two by December, the CDC now estimates. The study found 77.5% had at least some of their immunity from a prior infection. * * *
    • Rates were similar among men and women. Black and White people also have similar prior infection rates, between 75% and 80%. 
    • Among other racial and ethnic groups, Asian Americans had the smallest proportion of people with antibodies from a prior infection, at 66.1%, while Hispanic people had the highest, at 80.6%.

From the Rx and medical devices coverage front —

  • BioPharma Dive points out
    • “Moderna on Wednesday said it’s submitted applications to regulatory agencies around the world in a bid to win approval of a new vaccine to fight respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, in older adults.
    • “The company filed with regulatory agencies in Europe, Switzerland and Australia and began a rolling submission to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the vaccine, which is currently known as mRNA-1345. Future applications are planned for other nations as well.
    • “Moderna’s submissions come two months after the FDA approved the first RSV vaccine, developed by GSK. The agency cleared a second RSV shot from Pfizer weeks later. Both products are approved for use in patients who are at least 60 years old, the same group Moderna aims to treat.”
  • Forbes reports
    • “On Wednesday, medtech giant Abbott announced that its new leadless pacemaker system, Aveir DR, has been approved by the FDA. This is the first time the FDA has given a thumbs up to a device of this type for two different chambers of the heart, which opens up this technology to nearly any patient who needs a pacemaker.
    • “From a clinical perspective, we know that leadless pacing offers a number of important advantages to patients in terms of getting away from the complications related to traditional pacemakers,” says Leonard Ganz, a cardiologist and Abbot’s chief medical officer for cardiac rhythm management. “This will expand the number of patients who can benefit from leadless pacing many, manyfold,” he tells Forbes.” * * *
    • “Although pacemakers have been life-changing for millions of people, they do carry downsides, explains Ganz, in particular, risk of infection both from the surgical procedure needed to implant them as well as the leads themselves should their insulation become compromised. Leadless pacemakers, by contrast, are much smaller, don’t require surgical implantation and have no wires connected to the heart. Instead, they are injected using a catheter in a vein and placed directly in the heart in a way that allows for removal if need be. All of these factors significantly reduce the risk of complications.
    • “The first leadless pacemaker, manufactured by Medtronic, was cleared by the FDA in 2016. Abbott’s first leadless pacemaker, the Aveir VR, was approved by the FDA in March 2022. [In contrast to the new Abbott device, b]oth of these products only work in a single chamber of the heart. About 80% of the patients that require a pacemaker need shocks in two cardiac chambers in order to keep the desired heart rhythm.”
  • The New York Times discusses “food noise,” which the new weight loss drugs dissipate.
    • “The active ingredient in Ozempic and Wegovy is semaglutide, a compound that affects the areas in the brain that regulate appetite, Dr. Gabbay said; it also prompts the stomach to empty more slowly, making people taking the medication feel fuller faster and for longer. That satiation itself could blunt food noise, he said.
    • “There’s another theoretical framework for why Ozempic might quash food noise: Semaglutide activates receptors for a hormone called GLP-1. Studies in animals have shown those receptors are found in cells in regions of the brain that are particularly important for motivation and reward, pointing to one potential way semaglutide could influence cravings and desires. It’s possible, although not proven, that the same happens in humans, Dr. Hwang said, which could explain why people taking the medication sometimes report that the food (and, in some cases, alcohol) they used to crave no longer gives them joy.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front

  • Segal Consulting delves into health plan prior authorization practices.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that “Some hospitals that spent big on nurses during the pandemic are now short on cash; Distressed institutions are closing unprofitable services, selling assets to avoid default on debts.” Ruh-roh!
  • Forbes reports
    • “Rite Aid reported a quarterly loss of more than $306 million as the drugstore chain grapples with the loss of customers from its Elixir pharmacy benefits business as executives work to turn around the struggling drugstore chain.
    • “Rite Aid, which has closed more than 140 unprofitable stores in the last two years, reported a fiscal first-quarter loss of $306.7 million, or $5.56 per share, for the period ended June 3, 2023. That compares with a loss of $110.2 million, or $2.03 per share, in last year’s first quarter.”

From the fraud, waste, and abuse front, HealthTech explains how the Justice Department is using advanced analytics to combat healthcare fraud.

From the medical research front, the National Institutes of Health announced that “The first clinical trial of a three-month TB treatment regimen is closing enrollment because of a high rate of unfavorable outcomes with the investigational course of treatment.” The FEHBlog appreciates NIH’s transparency.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Healthcare Dive tells us

  • “On Wednesday, lawmakers hammered CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure on a variety of healthcare issues in her first appearance before a congressional panel since being confirmed to her post.
  • “One of the hearing’s biggest themes was site neutrality, as members of the House Energy and Commerce health subcommittee queried the administrator on why the government pays hospital-owned outpatient sites more than other physician offices for the same services.
  • “Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed support for enacting site-neutral payments, policies fiercely opposed by hospitals because they would lower revenue. * * *
  • “Members of the health subcommittee on both sides of the aisle suggested site-neutral payment reforms would save the government money and tamp down on provider consolidation.”

Fingers crossed.

CNBC reports

  • Medicare will cover the new Alzheimer’s treatment Leqembi for all patients eligible under the medication’s label if the Food and Drug Administration fully approves the drug in July, a federal official told members of Congress on Wednesday.
  • “The official, Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, testified before Congress Wednesday for the first time since her confirmation as administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.”

In other Rx coverage news, STAT News informs us.

  • “The drug giant Eli Lilly said Thursday that its diabetes drug Mounjaro helped patients with the condition lose 15.7% of their body weight in a clinical trial, a result that Wall Street analysts expect to pave the way for the therapy’s approval as a weight loss treatment.
  • “Mounjaro is the latest drug in a class known as GLP-1s or incretins — the same class as Novo Nordisk’s Ozempic, which has become a sensation because of its ability to help patients lose weight. Mounjaro has shown the potential to lead to even greater weight loss than Ozempic, and industry experts expect that it will eventually generate many billions of dollars in annual sales. Analysts at SVB Securities projected in December that Mounjaro sales could reach $26.4 billion by 2030.
  • “Eli Lilly on Thursday also announced quarterly earnings of $1.64 per share, adjusted for one-time items, slightly below analyst expectations, on sales of $6.96 billion. Sales were hurt because of a comparison to a year ago when the company’s Covid-19 monoclonal antibodies were still on the market. Mounjaro sales for the first quarter were $586 million, largely for people with diabetes, compared to an analyst consensus of $433.2 million.”

According to the American Hospital Association,

  • “The Food and Drug Administration yesterday approved the first fecal microbiota product taken orally to prevent recurrent C. difficile infection.
  • “Today’s approval provides patients and healthcare providers a new way to help prevent recurrent C. difficile infection,” said Peter Marks, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. “The availability of a fecal microbiota product that can be taken orally is a significant step forward in advancing patient care and accessibility for individuals who have experienced this disease that can be potentially life-threatening.”

The Mayo Clinic adds

  • Clostridioides difficile (klos-TRID-e-oi-deez dif-uh-SEEL) is a bacterium that causes an infection of the large intestine (colon). Symptoms can range from diarrhea to life-threatening damage to the colon. The bacterium is often referred to as C. difficile or C. diff.
  • Illness from C. difficile typically occurs after use of antibiotic medications. It most commonly affects older adults in hospitals or in long-term care facilities. In the United States, about 200,000 people are infected annually with C. difficile in a hospital or care setting. These numbers are lower than in previous years because of improved prevention measures.
  • People not in care settings or hospitals also can develop C. difficile infection. Some strains of the bacterium in the general population may cause serious infections or are more likely to affect younger people. In the United States, about 170,000 infections occur annually outside of health care settings, and these numbers are increasing.

Beckers Hospital Review points out,

  • “Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug Co. decreased 35 drug prices April 26, according to a news release shared with Becker’s
  • “The company began selling a few dozen generics in January 2022, and since then, Cost Plus Drugs has added about 1,000 more drugs, including four brand-name drugs, partnered with three pharmacy benefit managers and teamed up with independent pharmacists to complement its mail-order pharmacy business.  

From the public health front, Mercer Consulting explains that

Ending the HIV epidemic in the United States is finally within our reach, but it will require all sectors of society, including employers, working together to ensure that the most powerful HIV prevention and treatment tools in history reach those who need them the most. – Health Action Alliance

“Mercer has joined a coalition of companies to help achieve what was once thought impossible – the end of the HIV epidemic in the US by 2030. Scientific advancements over the past four decades have made it possible to dramatically reduce new cases of HIV, which currently number nearly 35,000 per year in the United States. A key obstacle is misinformation, discrimination, and stigma around HIV. When we support people affected by HIV, we make it easier for everyone to lead healthy lives.

“Current HIV prevention and treatment tools mean it’s easier than ever for people to stay healthy and prevent the spread of the virus:

  • “Rapid, non-intrusive HIV tests can be done without needles, and results are available within 20 minutes or less.
  • “The use of PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) can prevent people without HIV from contracting the disease. It’s available as a daily pill or a shot taken every eight weeks.
  • “A range of new antiretroviral treatments (ARTs) make it possible for people with HIV to live long, healthy lives. In addition to maintaining health, people who take their ARTs as prescribed and who achieve and then maintain an undetectable viral load have effectively no risk of sexually transmitting the virus to an HIV-negative partner.”

Mercer’s article also identifies five ways to address HIV in the workplace.

From the U.S. healthcare business front —

  • Healthcare Dive reports
    • “Teladoc beat Wall Street expectations in the first quarter and raised its 2023 guidance as a result, with management citing growing demand for chronic care offerings among employers and health plans.
    • “Teladoc’s revenue grew 11% year over year to $629 million in the first quarter, the company reported aftermarket Wednesday. Despite inflationary headwinds, direct-to-consumer mental health business BetterHelp’s revenue grew 21% year over year to $279 million. BetterHelp had almost half a million users in the quarter.”
  • MedTech Dive notes
    • “Quest Diagnostics on Thursday said it agreed to pay up to $450 million to acquire Haystack Oncology, an early-stage company focused on liquid biopsy testing to detect residual or recurring cancer.
    • “The announcement came as Secaucus, N.J.-based Quest reported a 10.7% drop in first-quarter revenue to $2.33 billion, compared to a year ago, on a faster-than-expected decline in COVID-19 testing as the public health emergency approaches an end.
    • “Revenue in Quest’s base business, excluding COVID testing, rose 10% to $2.21 billion, bolstered by strong volume growth across customer types, CEO James Davis said on the company’s earnings call.

Finally, Tammy Flanagan writing in Govexec discusses what is the best age for a federal employee to retire.

Monday Roundup

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
Strength to Love, 1963.

Happy Martin Luther King Day!

Following today’s national holiday, both Houses of Congress are on State / District work breaks until next week.

Today’s blog is focused on preventive care topics.

  • HR Advisor discusses the Dos and Don’ts of Employee Wellness Programs. The FEHBlog dearly wishes that OPM would create a connection between the federal agency employee wellness and assistance programs and its FEHB plans. Doing so would help employees better navigate federal employee benefits.
  • NPR Shots offers encouraging news on a new initiative:

The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline received over 1.7 million calls, texts and chats in its first five months. That’s nearly half a million more than the old 10-digit Suicide Prevention Lifeline fielded during the same period the year before. Launched in mid-July last year, the 988 number is modeled on the 911 system and is designed to be a memorable and quick number that connects people who are suicidal or in any other mental health crisis to a trained mental health professional. Not only are more people reaching out, more are being connected to help.  Federal data shows that the Lifeline responded to 154,585 more contacts – including calls, text messages and chats – in November 2022 than the same month the year before. The number of abandoned calls fell from 18% in November 2021 to 12% last November.

  • The American Medical Association tells us what doctors want their patients to know about preventing cervical cancer. The upshot is HPV vaccines and HPV and pap smear testing. The article discusses topics such as the timing of testing and may be worth sharing with plan members
  • Speaking of vaccinations, Precision Vaccination informs us

Women can give their babies protection against whooping cough (pertussis) before their little ones are even born, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved a second, safe vaccine that prevents whooping cough from achieving that goal.

When these (Tdap) vaccines are given during pregnancy, it increases antibodies in the mother, which are transferred to the developing fetus.

On January 10, 2023, the FDA announced the Adacel® vaccine (Tetanus Toxoid, Reduced Diphtheria Toxoid, and Acellular Pertussis Vaccine, Adsorbed) is now approved for immunization during the third trimester of pregnancy.

As well as an active booster immunization against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis for use in persons 10 through 64 years of age.

  • Kaiser Family News explores when pregnant women with severe nausea should seek medical care. The FEHBlog expects this is why NCQA and OPM encourage a visit to the OB-GYN in the first trimester.
  • A Govexec contributor offers a simple exercise regimen for office workers.


Midweek Update

From the Omicron and siblings front —

The Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practice meets Thursday to vote on recommending the Moderna Covid vaccine for younger folks aged 6 through 17. This drug would be an alternative Pfizer’s Covid vaccine for that age group. Assuming the ACIP votes in favor of the Moderna vaccine, then CDC Director must approve their recommendation for the health plan coverage with no cost-sharing mandate to kick in.

Medical Economics informs us

Electronic messages and postcards with primary care physicians’ (PCP) names got Black and Latino patients in the door for their COVID-19 vaccines.

Although the effects were “relatively modest,” if applied on a larger scale, an additional 238,000 Black and Latino older adults may have been vaccinated across the United States, according to a new study.

Kaiser Permanente Northern California’s Division of Research examined the effectiveness of standard and culturally tailored electronic messages and mailings from patients’ own PCPs encouraging COVID-19 vaccines from March 29 to May 20, 2021. The results were published in an original investigation, “Effect of Electronic and Mail Outreach from Primary Care Physicians for COVID-19 Vaccination of Black and Latino Older Adults: A Randomized Clinical Trial,” in the journal JAMA Network Open.

The study involved 8,287 patients aged 65 years and older, around the California Central Valley, Fresno, South Sacramento and San Jose, divided into three groups.

This study again illustrates the value of health plans teaming with primary care providers.

From the nicotine front, the Wall Street Journal devined from the federal government’s Spring 2022 regulatory agenda, posted Tuesday, that

The Biden administration is moving forward on a plan to mandate the elimination of nearly all nicotine in cigarettes, a policy that would upend the $95 billion U.S. cigarette industry and, health officials say, prompt millions of people to quit smoking.

The plan, unveiled Tuesday as part of the administration’s agenda of regulatory actions, likely wouldn’t take effect for several years. The Food and Drug Administration plans to publish a proposed rule in May 2023, though the agency cautioned that date could change. Then the agency would invite public comments before publishing a final rule. Tobacco companies could then sue, which could further delay the policy’s implementation.

Also the Journal reports

The Food and Drug Administration is preparing to order Juul Labs Inc. to take its e-cigarettes off the U.S. market, according to people familiar with the matter.

The FDA could announce its decision as early as this week, the people said. The marketing denial order would follow a nearly two-year review of data presented by the vaping company, which sought authorization for its tobacco- and menthol-flavored products to stay on the U.S. market.

Uncertainty has clouded Juul since it landed in the FDA’s sights four years ago, when its fruity flavors and hip marketing were blamed for fueling a surge of underage vaping. The company since then has been trying to regain the trust of regulators and the public. It limited its marketing and in 2019 stopped selling sweet and fruity flavors.

The company’s legal actions likely are in development now.

From the Rx coverage front —

Fierce Healthcare calls to our attention expert opinions rendered on better controlling prescription drug costs at an AHIP conference. The experts agreed that all of the stakeholders need to be at the negotiating table.

Scott Gottlieb, M.D., former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, on a panel at AHIP’s 2022 conference * * * said the challenge for regulators looking to address drug prices is the fact that a one-size-fits-all solution will not work in this market. He said instead that policymakers should consider pharmaceuticals in three buckets: drugs that are in an active market with significant rebate activity; drugs that currently monopolize the market but will lose that monopoly in the near future; and drugs that are likely to monopolize a market in the long term.

“I think we need to think about the market as those three segments and think about different policy solutions for each of them,” [and attention should be focused on the third category] Gottlieb said.

The FEHBlog agrees with the experts about the importance of engaging all of the stakeholders. There are no bad guys here at least in the FEHBlog’s view.

From the preventive services front, Medscape reports

There is not enough evidence to recommend for or against taking most vitamin and mineral supplements to prevent heart disease, stroke, and cancer, a new report by the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) concludes.

However, there are two vitamins — vitamin E and beta-carotene — that the task force recommends against for the prevention of heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Evidence shows that there is no benefit to taking vitamin E and that beta-carotene can increase the risk for lung cancer in people already at risk, such as smokers and those with occupational exposure to asbestos, it notes.

These are the main findings of the USPSTF’s final recommendation statement on vitamin, mineral, and multivitamin supplementation to prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The statement is published in the June 21 issue of JAMA, along with an evidence reporteditorial, and patient page.

Medscape adds that this USPSTF decision aligns with a 2014 recommendation on the same topic.

From the lab test coverage front, Fierce Healthcare reports

Optum is launching a new health plan solution that aims to reduce unnecessary testing and ensure that patients are receiving the screenings that are best for them.

The laboratory benefit management tool will assist insurers in aligning lab tests with clinical guidance and will automate large parts of lab benefit administration, Optum said in an announcement provided first to Fierce Healthcare.

The company estimates that insurers could save between $12 to $36 per member per year, or about $3 billion.

Tests that lack clinical indications can lead to unneeded sample collection form patients as well as a higher risk of false positive results, which can compound unnecessary healthcare costs. There is a dearth of industry standards and efficacy data around lab tests, making it common for results to be misinterpreted or tests to be misused.

Fierce Healthcare adds that Optum is selling this tool to all health plans.

From the U.S. healthcare front, U.S. News and World Report offers 2022 rankings on the healthiest counties in the U.S. The FEHBlog recently moved from Montgomery County Maryland to Hays County Texas. Both counties score about 55 out of 100 in the rankings.

Weekend Update / Monday Roundup

Photo by Michele Orallo on Unsplash

The Senate will and the House of Representatives will be engaged only in Committee business this coming week.

From the Omnicron and siblings front —

  • Fortune reports “The U.S. is experiencing a sixth wave of COVID, with over 90,000 confirmed new cases a day and a 20% increase in hospitalizations over the past two weeks. The actual number of new cases per day likely sits at a half-million or more, “far greater than any of the U.S. prior waves, except Omicron,” writes Dr. Eric Topol, the executive vice president of Scripps Research and a professor of molecular medicine, in a recent blog post on the maps.” It’s hard to argue against this point.
  • Bloomberg Prognosis offers a useful Q&A on when you can back to life after a case of Omicron. Here is a link to the CDC’s guidelines on isolation and quarantine due to Omicron.
  • The FEHBlog noticed that 75% of the American population age 12 and older is fully vaccinated against Covid.
  • The American Medical Association discusses how Covid telemonitoring sets the model for other acute conditions.

From the Aduhelm front, the Wall Street Journal reports

The commercial failure of Biogen Inc.’s drug Aduhelm is putting new focus on the state of research into the causes of Alzheimer’s disease.

More than six million people in the U.S. are living with the progressive type of dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, an advocacy group. 

Aduhelm was hailed as a potential blockbuster that targeted a root cause of the disease by clearing a sticky protein known as amyloid from the brain. Abnormal accumulations of amyloid called plaque and tangles of another protein known as tau are characteristic features of the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.

“If you cut the brain open and amyloid plaque is absent, Alzheimer’s was not the cause of disease,” said Jeffrey Cummings, director of the Chambers-Grundy Center for Transformative Neuroscience at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

But research into the benefits of targeting amyloid in Alzheimer’s patients has been mixed. There are more questions than answers about the role amyloid plays in the development of the disease, neurologists say. 

“Alzheimer’s is a complex disease. It’s unlikely that a single mechanism is contributing to it,” said Maria Carillo, the Alzheimer’s Association’s chief science officer. * * *

More than 140 drugs are in the pipeline as potential Alzheimer’s treatments, including drugs that target tau and microglia function, according to a survey of registered clinical trials in the U.S. Three other amyloid-targeting monoclonal antibodies, which are in the same class as Aduhelm, are in development. One, called lecanemab, was submitted this month by co-developers Biogen and Japan-based Eisai Co. to the Food and Drug Administration for potential approval.

Time will tell.

From the preventive care wellness front —

  • Medscape reports an “alarming increase in esophageal cancers in middle-aged adults. The study’s author,  Bashar Qumseya, MD, MPH, recommends that people with multiple risk factors for these cancers, i.e., obesity, diet, and gastroesophageal reflux disease, should undergo an endoscopy at the time of their first colonoscopy at age 45.
  • The American Medical Association identifies steps that patients can follow to reverse pre-diabetes.

The FEHBlog just discovered that the Weekend Update did not go out on Monday morning. So here are Monday’s items that normally would have been posted in the Monday Roundup —

More from the Omicron and siblings front —

BioPharma Dive reports

Three doses of Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine met the Food and Drug Administration’s bar for success in a trial studying the shot in children younger than 5 years old, the companies said Monday. The FDA has tentatively scheduled a meeting of outside advisers to review the data in three weeks.

The agency delayed review of the vaccine in the youngest children earlier this year after a December review of data indicated a two-shot series didn’t spur an immune response that was likely to protect against disease. When Pfizer and BioNTech disclosed that data, they announced plans to test immune response and efficacy after three shots.

The announcement comes days after U.S. officials warned of a new surge of COVID-19 cases as mask mandates have been lifted and while immunity from vaccination and previous infections wanes. The FDA has granted emergency use authorization for as many as four shots of Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine — an initial two-dose series followed by two periodic boosters — for adults at least 50 years old.

Reuters adds U.S. “Health officials are considering extending the eligibility for a second COVID-19 vaccine booster dose to people under 50 amid a steady rise in cases, with the United States seeing a threefold increase over the past month.”

Bloomberg Prognosis recommends carrying around a portable carbon dioxide monitor to help prevent Covid or at least remind you to mask up and / or move along:

Carbon-dioxide monitors can assess how Covid-risky a space is because they help tell you whether you’re breathing in clean air. They measure the concentration of carbon dioxide, which people exhale when they breathe, along with other things like, potentially, virus particles. The more well-ventilated a space, the lower the reading on my monitor’s screen — meaning not only less carbon dioxide but also less of the stuff like Covid that might make people sick. 

One place I didn’t expect this to be an issue was airplanes, because you hear so much about their top-of-the-line air quality systems. But in fact, some of the highest carbon dioxide readings on my travels were taken on flights, specifically during the boarding process.

It turns out that during boarding and deplaning, air systems aren’t typically running. Those periods are risky because people are mingling more than they do during a flight, says Joe Allen, an associate professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who carries around his own CO2 monitor.

“We’ve been warning about this,” Allen says. 

Fresh air is important for our health in ways that go well beyond Covid, but it’s also largely invisible. Carbon-dioxide monitors can change that. 

What will they think of next?

The FEHBlog confesses that he took his eye off the flu virus this year. Beckers Hospital Review informs us “The CDC estimates there have been at least 6.7 million flu illnesses, 69,000 hospitalizations and 4,200 flu-related deaths so far this season.”

In other virus news, Reuters reports “Infection with adenovirus, a common childhood virus, is the leading hypothesis for recent cases of severe hepatitis of unknown origin in children that have led to at least six deaths, U.S. health officials said on Friday [May 20]. Furthermore,

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said it is continuing to investigate whether 180 cases identified in 36 states and territories since last October represent an increase in the rate of pediatric hepatitis or whether an existing pattern has been revealed though improved detection.

From the mental healthcare front, Fierce Healthcare tells us

Mental health concerns are on the rise among teens, and the impact on parents and families is an unmet need employers could address, new data from Cigna’s Evernorth show.

The pandemic has significantly worsened mental health among teens and young adults, with 25% experiencing depressive symptoms and 20% experiencing anxiety symptoms, a JAMA study shows. About 80% of the 1,000 parents included in Cigna’s survey said their children are struggling with their mental health.

Nearly one-fifth (18%) of parents say their child’s needs are negatively impacting their job performance and productivity, according to the survey. In addition, 55% said they do not have enough support from their employer, and 1 in 7 said they were forced to leave or stay out of the workforce to manage their teenager’s needs.

“I think there’s going to be a long tail for these kids and also their family members,” Stuart Lustig, M.D., national medical executive for behavioral health at Evernorth, told Fierce Healthcare. “I think we’re in this for the long haul.”