Friday Factoids

Friday Factoids

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • Govexec informs us,
    • “President Biden on Thursday nominated former Labor Department Secretary Marty Walsh to serve on the U.S. Postal Service board of governors, potentially giving the administration more representation in supervising the mailing agency. 
    • “Walsh, a former Democratic mayor of Boston, would fill one of two vacancies currently open on the governing board. His nomination comes at a pivotal moment for the Postal Service, which, under the leadership of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, is in the midst of a complete overhaul of the agency’s operations, staffing and pricing strategies. It follows a call earlier this month from dozens of House Democrats who pushed Biden to fill the vacancies to ensure increased oversight of DeJoy’s reforms. * * *
    • “The former secretary’s confirmation would give Biden his sixth nominee to sit on the board that has nine presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed slots. Lee Moak and Bill Zollars both saw their terms expire in December and their seats have been vacant ever since. Walsh would be the fourth Democrat to sit on the board, joining three Republicans and one independent. Federal statute requires no more than five members of the board be of the same party, meaning Biden could choose another Democrat to fill the remaining vacancy.” 
  • Federal News Network discusses OPM’s February 8, 2024, call letter to FEHB and PSHB carriers for 2025 FEHB and PSHB benefit and rate proposals.
  • Bloomberg tells us that a federal judge in Delaware has thrown out Astra-Zeneca’s constitutional and statutory challenge to the government drug price negotiation provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act.
    • “Because AstraZeneca’s participation in Medicare is not involuntary, AstraZeneca does not have a protected property interest in selling drugs to the Government at prices the Government will not agree to pay. Accordingly, AstraZeneca’ s due process claim fails as a matter of law,” the judge wrote.
    • “Among other cases, Connolly pointed to Dayton Area Chamber Commerce v. Becerra on how “participation in the Medicare program is a voluntary undertaking,” and neither the Inflation Reduction Act nor any other federal law requires AstraZeneca to sell its drugs to Medicare beneficiaries.” * * *
    • “AstraZeneca’s loss is another setback for the pharmaceutical industry among the lawsuits challenging the program. A federal judge in Texas dismissed Nat’l Infusion Ctr. v. Becerra for lack of jurisdiction, and a federal judge in Ohio struck down a preliminary injunction that would have halted the program.
    • “Similar suits brought by manufacturers and industry groups are pending for Johnson & Johnson, Bristol Myers Squibb & Co., Novo Nordisk A/S, Novartis AG, Merck & Co., Boehringer Ingelheim, and the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce in Ohio.
    • “The case is AstraZeneca Pharm. LP v. Becerra , D. Del., No. 1:23-cv-00931, memorandum opinion 3/1/24 .”
  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “Pharmacy chains CVS and Walgreens will begin dispensing mifepristone, commonly known as “the abortion pill, in coming weeks.
    • The two chains said Friday they received certification to dispense the pills, following a regulatory shift last year to allow bricks-and-mortar pharmacies to offer the pill with a prescription.
    • “The companies said they would distribute the pill in a way consistent with state laws—meaning it won’t be offered in states that don’t allow legal access to abortion through 10 weeks—and will begin rolling out the pill in a handful of states. Both said they wouldn’t make mifepristone available via mail order. The drug is already available via other mail-order pharmacies and telehealth platforms.”
  • According to MedTech Dive,
    • “Boston Scientific said Friday it has received Food and Drug Administration approval for a drug-coated balloon to treat coronary in-stent restenosis, a condition in which a vessel that previously received a stent narrows again due to plaque or scar tissue.
    • “Approval for the device, which received FDA’s breakthrough designation in 2021, was supported by positive results from the prospective, randomized Agent trial that enrolled 600 patients at 40 U.S. sites, the company said.
    • “We view Agent highly favorably for its statistically significant superiority in what is a difficult-to-treat and common [in-stent restenosis] patient population, which we think could enable rapid physician adoption,” BTIG analyst Marie Thibault wrote Friday in a note to clients.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The Centers for Disease Control relates,
    • “The amount of respiratory illness (fever plus cough or sore throat) causing people to seek healthcare is elevated across many areas of the country. This week, 27 jurisdictions experienced high or very high activity. This number remains stable compared to last week.
    • “Nationally, emergency department visits with diagnosed COVID-19, influenza, and RSV are decreasing.
    • “Influenza test positivity decreased nationally but is increasing in the Central region (including Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska). COVID-19 and RSV test positivity decreased compared to the previous week.
    • “Nationally, COVID-19 wastewater viral activity levels, which reflect both symptomatic and asymptomatic infections, remain at high levels, particularly in the South, but are trending downward.”
  • and more specifically with regard to Covid,
    • “As the 2023-2024 fall and winter virus season ends, it’s clear that the situation surrounding COVID-19 has changed.  It is still an important health threat, but it is no longer the emergency that it once was, and its health impacts increasingly resemble those of other respiratory viral illnesses, including flu and RSV.
    • “CDC released updated Respiratory Virus Guidance in response to the decreasing risk that COVID-19 poses to the population. This updated Guidance includes strategies to protect people at highest risk of getting seriously ill and provides actionable recommendations for people with common viral respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19, flu, and RSV.
    • Keep reading: CDC’s Updated Respiratory Virus Guidance: What to do When You Are Sick.”
  • The New York Times adds,
    • Americans with Covid or other respiratory infections need not isolate for five days before returning to work or school, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Friday, a striking sign of changing attitudes toward the coronavirus.
    • People with respiratory illnesses may resume daily activities if they have been fever-free for at least 24 hours without the aid of medications and if their symptoms are improving, agency officials said. 
    • Acknowledging that people can be contagious even without symptoms, the C.D.C. urged those who end isolation to limit close contact with others, wear well-fitted masks, improve indoor air quality and practice good hygiene, like washing hands and covering coughs and sneezes, for five days.
    • The guidelines apply to Covid, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, among other respiratory ailments, which should make it easier for people to comply, Dr. Mandy Cohen, the C.D.C.’s director, told reporters on Friday.
  • MedPage Today notes,
    • “Early estimates suggest flu shots are performing OK in the current U.S. winter flu season.
    • “The vaccines were around 40% effective in preventing adults from getting sick enough from the flu that they had to go to a doctor’s office, clinic, or hospital, health officials said during a CDC vaccines meeting Wednesday. Children who were vaccinated were roughly 60% less likely to get treatment at a doctor’s office or hospital, they noted.
    • “Officials generally are pleased if a flu vaccine is 40% to 60% effective.”
  • The National Institutes of Health announced,
    • “Researchers at the National Institutes of Health have identified antibodies targeting a hard-to-spot region of the influenza virus, shedding light on the relatively unexplored “dark side” of the neuraminidase (NA) protein head. The antibodies target a region of the NA protein that is common among many influenza viruses, including H3N2 subtype viruses, and could be a new target for countermeasures. The research, led by scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Vaccine Research Center, part of NIH, was published today in Immunity.” * * *
    • “These findings show that the NA dark side has unique, previously untapped epitopes that could be applied to the development of new vaccine and therapeutic strategies. They suggest that antibodies targeting the NA dark side could be useful in combination with antivirals or other types of antibodies for interventions against influenza, as they are effective against influenza viruses with drug-resistant mutations. The researchers also note that NA dark side targets could be included in the next generation of broadly protective vaccines against influenza.”
  • Per BioPharm Dive,
    • “Advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are weighing updates to their recommendation older adults get vaccinated for respiratory syncytial virus, discussing changes at a meeting Thursdaythat would more forcefully encourage some individuals receive a shot.
    • “At the meeting, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices reviewed safety and efficacy data on RSV vaccines sold by GSK and Pfizer, as well as clinical trial data for an experimental shot from Moderna that’s nearing market.
    • “Currently, the CDC recommends adults 60 years or older discuss RSV vaccination with their physician — a process known as “shared clinical decisionmaking.” Advisers debated whether, for some individuals at higher risk, a universal recommendation would be more appropriate. They wanted more data before making a decision, however, likely at a follow-up meeting scheduled for June 26 to June 28.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Crains Grand Rapids [Mich.] Business reports,
    • “Perrigo Co. plc expects to introduce the first oral contraceptive available in the U.S. without a physician’s prescription by mid March. 
    • “The company has “activation plans” in place to promote and drive consumer awareness of Opill at retail stores and for online sales when it goes to market, said President and CEO Patrick Lockwood-Taylor. 
    • “We expect Opill to be available to consumers in-store and online within a few weeks,” Lockwood-Taylor said during a Tuesday morning conference call to discuss Perrigo’s latest quarterly results. “You’ll find it in every store, and you’ll find it everywhere online.” 
  • Beckers Hospital Review lets us know,
    • “Cleveland Clinic posted an operating income of $64.3 million in 2023 after posting a $211.3 million loss in 2022, according to its financial report released Feb. 29. 
    • “The health system had a 0.4% operating margin for the year ended Dec. 31 after posting a -1.6% margin in 2022, according to the report. 
    • “Cleveland Clinic said the improved operating performance was driven by an 11.4% increase in operating revenues, “supported by strong patient demand for both inpatient and outpatient services, that outpaced a 9.1% increase in operating expenses in 2023 compared to 2022.”
    • “The system had a total operating revenue of $14.5 billion and total operating expenses of $13.7 billion in 2023. Cleveland Clinic said the growth in expenses was primarily driven by higher patient volumes and inflationary trends that increase salaries, wages and benefits, supply expenses and pharmaceutical costs.” 
  • According to BioPharma Dive,
    • “Pfizer believes the answer to its sliding valuation lies in oncology. 
    • “The company, which is coming off one of the worst years in its history, unveiled on Thursday a new business unit dedicated to cancer research. The division, created in the wake of Pfizer’s $43 billion buyout of Seagen last year, houses a sprawling portfolio of experimental medicines both companies discovered and acquired through deals. It also includes the marketed drugs Pfizer and Seagen have long been selling for a variety of tumor types. 
    • “Pfizer claims the pipeline it now has could produce more than eight blockbuster medicines by 2030, up from five today, and double the number of patients the company’s drugs currently treat. By then, biologic medicines should account for nearly two-thirds of its oncology revenue, up substantially from the 6% they comprise now, Pfizer said. 
    • “To achieve those goals, Pfizer will need steady sales growth and additional approvals for its currently marketed medicines. It will also need a pipeline of 16 experimental drugs across four broad areas of cancer research to come through in testing.” 

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • Roll Call reports,
    • “Congressional leaders emerged from the White House on Tuesday optimistic about avoiding a partial shutdown of several departments and agencies — after a meeting with President Joe Biden that also focused on the importance of aid to Ukraine.
    • “The speaker said unequivocally he wants to avoid a government shutdown,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters outside the West Wing, adding he did not believe differences on domestic spending were insurmountable.
    • “When he got back to the Capitol, Schumer told reporters that he made clear to Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., that avoiding a shutdown would require another continuing resolution. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also told reporters at the Capitol that leaders seemed to agree at the White House on the need to avert a shutdown.”
  • The Wall Street Journal relates,
    • “The Justice Department has launched an antitrust investigation into UnitedHealth, owner of the biggest U.S. health insurer, a leading manager of drug benefits and a sprawling network of doctor groups.
    • “The investigators have in recent weeks been interviewing healthcare-industry representatives in sectors where UnitedHealth competes, including doctor groups, according to people with knowledge of the meetings.
    • “During their interviews, investigators have asked about issues including certain relationships between the company’s UnitedHealthcare insurance unit and its Optum health-services arm, which owns physician groups, among other assets. 
    • “Investigators have asked about the possible effects of the company’s doctor-group acquisitions on rivals and consumers, the people said.
    • “Spokespeople for UnitedHealth and the Justice Department declined to comment. UnitedHealth executives have said Optum and UnitedHealthcare don’t favor one another, and routinely work with competitors.” 
  • According to Healthcare Dive,
    • “Proposed Medicare Advantage rates for 2025 could have a steeper impact on health plans’ payment than the government expects, according to a new study funded by a payer lobbying group.
    • “The analysis — backed by the Better Medicare Alliance, which represents payers in the private Medicare program — found MA payment per month per beneficiary could drop by 1% next year if the CMS finalizes the changes. In comparison, the CMS expects payments to MA plans to drop 0.16% under its proposal.
    • Study authors warned that when government reimbursement drops, MA benefits for seniors like supplemental benefits and lower premiums and cost-sharing also tend to be reduced. Health insurers have made similar arguments in recent earnings calls lobbying against the rate changes, which could reduce profitability of their MA businesses.”
  • Per an HHS press release,
    • “Today, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through the Administration for Community Living (ACL), announced several new initiatives and resources from ACL’s Direct Care Workforce (DCW) Strategies Center to address the dire shortage of professionals who provide the services many older adults and people with disabilities need to live in the community. These include two technical assistance opportunities to help states strengthen their systems for recruiting, retaining, and developing direct care workers; a national hub to connect states, stakeholders and communities to best practices and other resources related to the direct care workforce; and a webinar series for states and stakeholders focused on a range of direct care workforce topics. These initiatives will help sustain the impact of the $37 billion in American Rescue Plan funding invested to date by states in home and community-based services, and support the comprehensive set of actions and investments included in the President’s executive order to improve care.”
  • Per an OPM press release,
    • “The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released the first-ever government-wide Military-Connected Strategic Plan for FY 2024-2028 to support agencies in their efforts to recruit, hire, and retain military-connected spouses, caregivers, and survivors within the federal government. 
    • “Advancing economic opportunity for military-connected spouses, caregivers, and survivors strengthens our federal workforce and the nation,” said OPM Director Kiran Ahuja. “A good-paying, flexible, and dependable federal job strengthens the economic security of our military families and helps spouses succeed in their own careers, while also supporting their loved ones in uniform. Tackling barriers to recruiting, hiring, and retaining talent also improves our workforce and expands our talent pool to mission-driven public servants who want to give back to their country.” 
  • Federal News Network informs us,
    • “As agencies ramp up recruitment of federal AI professionals, the Office of Personnel Management is highlighting existing workplace flexibilities that can ease the process.
    • “Incentives such as pay bonuses, faster leave accrual, student loan repayments, and telework and remote work can all help agencies more effectively hire AI specialists, OPM said in new federal AI hiring guidance, published Tuesday.
    • “Agencies can extend most — but not all — of the workplace flexibilities to incoming federal AI experts without first needing to get approval from OPM.
    • “For the few flexibilities that require OPM approval — special rates, critical pay and waivers of the recruitment, relocation and retention incentive payment limits — we stand ready to assist agencies and respond to their requests for enhanced compensation tools,” OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said in the guidance.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review adds,
    • “On Feb. 23, Colorado secured a national first by agreeing to establish a price ceiling on a medication, The Denver Post reported. 
    • “The state’s Prescription Drug Affordability Board voted in favor of capping the cost of arthritis drug Enbrel, which has a list price of $1,850.46 for a weekly dose. Colorado legislators createdthe five-member board in 2021 to sniff out medications deemed “unaffordable” and establish a payment limit for state-regulated commercial payers.
    • “By late August, the board will either narrow down an appropriate cost for Enbrel or vote against setting a price ceiling, according to The Denver Post. If established, the price cap would limit how much pharmacies could pay for the drug, and patients and payers would then pay that amount and a fee to cover the pharmacy’s handling costs.” 

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The Food and Drug Administration announced yesterday,
    • “[O]n May 16, 2024, the FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee will meet to publicly discuss and make recommendations on the selection of strain(s) to be included in the 2024-2025 formula for COVID-19 vaccines.  
    • “The FDA anticipates that changes to the vaccine composition may need to be made based on the currently circulating strains of the virus that causes COVID-19. As the agency has previously stated, barring any new major changes to circulating virus, the FDA expects that the composition of COVID-19 vaccines may need to be updated annually, as is done for the seasonal influenza vaccine.
    • “Following any potential recommendations to update the 2024-2025 formula, the FDA anticipates that, subject to appropriate regulatory actions, manufacturers will be able to make updated COVID-19 vaccines available in advance of the fall/winter respiratory virus season.”
  • The National Institutes of Health announced today,
    • “People with type 2 diabetes who underwent bariatric surgery achieved better long-term blood glucose control compared to people who received medical management plus lifestyle interventions, according to a new study supported by the National Institutes of Health. The participants who underwent bariatric surgery, also called metabolic or weight-loss surgery, were also more likely to stop needing diabetes medications and had higher rates of diabetes remission up to 12 years post-surgery. Results of the study were published in JAMA(link is external) and funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of NIH.
    • “While there are many factors involved, and not all of them are completely understood, bariatric surgery typically results in greater weight loss that affects a person’s metabolic hormones, which improves the body’s response to insulin and ability to maintain healthy blood glucose levels,” said Dr. Jean Lawrence, NIDDK project scientist. “These results show that people with overweight or obesity and type 2 diabetes can make long-term improvements in their health and change the trajectory of their diabetes through surgery.”
    • “The current study is a follow-up that combined data from four independent single-center randomized trials conducted at clinical sites in the United States. The original trials, which were conducted between May 2007 and August 2013, evaluated the effectiveness of bariatric surgery compared to intensive lifestyle and medication therapy involving oral and injectable diabetes medications including insulin, for adults with type 2 diabetes and overweight or obesity. While some participants in the study were prescribed GLP-1 agonists as part of their medical management of diabetes, these drugs were not specifically examined in the study. The investigators from the four individual studies pooled their data to provide a larger and more geographically diverse data set to evaluate efficacy, durability, and safety of bariatric surgery to treat type 2 diabetes. Follow-up data were collected through July 2022.”
  • The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force preliminarily recommended an inconclusive grade for Screening and Supplementation of Iron Deficiency and Iron Deficiency Anemia During Pregnancy. The public comment period is open until March 25, 2024.
  • The Centers for Disease Control offers important guidance on diabetes and feet.
    • “About half of all people with diabetes have some kind of nerve damage. You can have nerve damage in any part of your body, but nerves in your feet and legs are most often affected. Nerve damage can cause you to lose feeling in your feet.”
  • BioPharma Dive lets us know,
    • “An experimental weight loss drug developed by Viking Therapeutics helped overweight and obese people lose up to 15% of their body weight after 13 weeks of treatment in a mid-stage trial, the company said Tuesday.
    • “The drug, a potential rival to Eli Lilly’s Zepbound and Novo Nordisk’s Wegovy, led to greater weight loss over that time period than both of those medicines did in clinical testing. However, Wall Street analysts cautioned the effects of Viking’s therapy need to be confirmed in a larger Phase 3 trial.”

From the U.S. public health front,

  • Beckers Hospital Review points out,
    • “UnitedHealth Group estimates 90% of the 70,000-plus pharmacies in the U.S. using Change Healthcare’s platform have modified electronic claims processing to mitigate effects of the cybersecurity incident that hit the company last week.
    • “The remaining 10% have offline processing workarounds, according to a Feb. 26 statement from UnitedHealth Group, which owns Change Healthcare. The cybersecurity issue, believed to be the work of a foreign nation-state-associated cybersecurity threat actor, caused enterprisewide connectivity issues.
    • “UnitedHealth Group reported Optum Rx and UnitedHealthcare have seen few reports of issues, and fewer than 100 out of the 65 million pharmacy benefit manager members have not been able to get their prescriptions. The company has immediately escalated patients that haven’t been able to access prescriptions to preserve continuity of care.
    • “Since identifying the issue on Feb. 21, Change has worked closely with customers and clients to secure access to medications during the network disruption. The company is also working with law enforcement, Mandiant, Palo Alto Networks, and other third parties to investigate and resolve the issues.
    • “We appreciate the partnership and hard work of all of our relevant stakeholders to ensure providers and pharmacists have effective workarounds to serve their patients as systems are restored to normal,” said the statement. “As we remediate, the most impacted partners are those who have disconnected from our systems and/or have not chosen to execute workarounds.”
    • “The company also noted hospitals and health systems have connections with multiple clearinghouses and manual workarounds to continue providing care.”
  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “Signify Health is expanding its in-home diagnostics offering to include a test for heart arrhythmias.
    • “The CVS Health subsidiary said Tuesday that the prevalence of irregular heartbeats is set to grow alongside an aging population. Atrial fibrillation, the most common type of arrhythmia, can be asymptomatic, and there are likely between 1.26 million and 1.52 million undiagnosed cases.
    • “Patients with a heart arrhythmia who are undiagnosed may face symptoms like shortness of breath, chest pain and rapid or irregular heartbeat, and face potential stroke or diabetes.
    • “Through the program, Signify members who are at risk for an arrhythmia are identified, and then its clinical teams will test for contraindications. Members will asked to wear a continuous ECG patch, which tracks continuous cardiac activity, and, after 14 days, the team will review the results for signs of irregular heartbeat.”
  • and
    • “Highmark is teaming up with Epic and Google Cloud to improve the flow of data between payers and providers to enhance care coordination and drive better outcomes.
    • “The goal, the insurer said, is to arm providers with the most valuable data at the point of care, enabling them to improve patient outcomes and close critical care gaps.
    • “We really need better ways to get the right information in front of the clinicians at the right time,” Richard Clarke, Ph.D., senior vice president and chief analytics officer for Highmark Health, told Fierce Healthcare. 
    • “Epic’s Payer Platform allows for “bidirectional” data sharing between the payer and the provider, he said, and Google Cloud’s technology makes it flexible enough to connect with Highmark’s existing systems readily.”
  • Fortune Well writes about a woman whose recently deceased mother’s estate is saddled with an $81,000 air ambulance bill because her mother declined Medicare Part B coverage.
    • “People who are eligible for Medicare are encouraged to sign up for Part B, unless they have private health insurance through an employer or spouse.
    • “If someone with Medicare finds that they are having difficulty paying the Medicare Part B premiums, there are resources available to help compare Medicare coverage choices and learn about options to help pay for Medicare costs,” Meena Seshamani, director of the federal Center for Medicare, said in an email to KFF Health News.
    • “She noted that every state offers free counseling to help people navigate Medicare.”

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “President Biden is calling congressional leaders to the White House as the clock ticks toward a partial government shutdown Friday night and a Ukraine aid package remains stuck.
    • “The president has called the meeting for Tuesday, seeking to break a logjam. House and Senate leaders have been working to negotiate the details of 12 funding bills totaling $1.6 trillion for federal agencies, which have been operating on temporary extensions since Sept. 30. Funding for the Transportation Department and several other agencies expires after March 1, which would affect some housing, food and veterans’ programs; the rest expires after March 8.” 
  • STAT News reports,
    • “Congress has abandoned its attempt to reform how pharmacy middlemen operate in an upcoming package to fund the federal government, 11 lobbyists and sources following the talks told STAT.”
  • and
    • “Congress will not move forward with a controversial policy to equalize certain Medicare payments to hospitals and physicians’ offices in an upcoming government funding package, five lobbyists and sources following the talks told STAT.”
  • From an HHS press release,
    • “Today, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), announced $36.9 million in notices of funding opportunities for grant programs supporting behavioral health services across the country. Additionally, HHS, through the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), issued guidance that allows states to expand the pool of behavioral health care providers eligible for enhanced federal Medicaid funding, which will better support this critical workforce as well as improve access to care. The guidance also allows states to claim federal dollars for nurse advice lines.”
  • BioPharma Dive tells us,
    • “The Food and Drug Administration on Saturday approved Alvotech and Teva Pharmaceuticals’ Simlandi, a biosimilar of the most popular version of AbbVie’s rheumatoid arthritis drug Humira. The drug, which can be directly substituted by a pharmacist, was rejected by the FDA twice before due to manufacturing issues at a plant in Iceland.
    • “The partners didn’t announce a launch date or a price for Simlandi, which will be the 10th Humira biosimilar reach market since Amgen’s Amjevita arrived on Jan. 31, 2023. Some biosimilars have launched at a steep upfront discount while others have a list price only slightly below Humira’s to allow for negotiation over rebates.
    • “Alvotech also announced a stock sale Monday, raising around $166 million at $16.41 a share. The company had $68 million in cash and equivalents on Sept. 30, after recording losses of $275 million on $30 million in revenue through the first nine months of 2023.”
  • HR Dive informs us,
    • “A federal district court has delayed a National Labor Relations joint employer rule effective date to March 11. Friday marks the second time the start date has been delayed; NLRB previously extended a Dec. 26, 2023, start date to Feb. 26.
    • “This new rule establishes a standard for determining if two organizations are joint employers of particular employees; two entities are joint employers when they co-determine the essential terms of an individual’s employment.”
  • The Census Bureau issued a tip sheet on grandparents and co-resident grandchildren 2021.
    • “According to the 2017-2021 ACS, 5-year estimates, 8.0% of children under age 18 lived in their grandparents’ home.
    • “The proportion of children living with only their grandparents or with their grandparents and one or both parents varied across race and ethnicity. For grandchildren who lived with grandparents, it was more common to also live with both parents or their mother in the household than to live with their father or no parent in the household.
    • “Overall, about 38.6% of children under age 18 who lived with grandparents also lived with two parents. Of all race and Hispanic origin groups, Asian grandchildren had the highest percentage (70.9%) in this living arrangement.
    • “About 16.2% of grandchildren under age 18 living with grandparents were in poverty. The percentage was higher for those in grandparent-maintained households (18.6%) compared to parent-maintained households (12.1%).
    • “About 76.1% of all grandchildren under age 18 living with grandparents lived in households that received public assistance, most commonly through the school lunch program.”
  • The tip sheet drew the FEHBlog’s attention due to FEHB coverage of foster children.
  • Health Reform Beyond the Basics offers an an explanation of the ACA Summary of Benefits and Coverage

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The New York Times offers a 2024 guide to COVID symptoms and treatments.
  • CNN points out,
    • “Cases of norovirus are on the rise in the US, on par with seasonal trends, according to the most recent data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
    • “In the week ending February 17, more than 12% of tests for norovirus – a common and very contagious virus that causes gastrointestinal symptoms – came back positive, CDC data showed. That’s up from 11.5% the week before. Cases are particularly high in the Northeast, where more than 13% of tests came back positive. Positivity rates in the region have been over 13% since late January.
    • “However, these levels are below what they were at this point last season, when about 15% of tests were positive, both nationally and in the Northeast.
    • “Outbreaks of norovirus are most common in the late fall, winter and early spring, according to the CDC.”
  • HR Daily Advisor identifies eight tips to help employees improve mental health in the face of the winter blues.
  • Medscape lets us know that “Eating more than three meals daily, eating earlier, and eating lunch as the largest meal are linked to lower body mass index (BMI) and reduced obesity risk.”
  • The National Institutes of Health announced,
    • “Results from a large clinical trial funded by the National Institutes of Health show that an intervention for anxiety provided to pregnant women living in Pakistan significantly reduced the likelihood of the women developing moderate-to-severe anxiety, depression, or both six weeks after birth. The unique intervention was administered by non-specialized providers who had the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in psychology—but no clinical experience. The results suggest this intervention could be an effective way to prevent the development of postpartum mental health challenges in women living in low-resource settings.
    • “In low resource settings, it can be challenging for women to access mental health care due to a global shortage of trained mental health specialists,” said Joshua A. Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, part of NIH. “This study shows that non-specialists could help to fill this gap, providing care to more women during this critical period.”
    • “Led by Pamela J. Surkan, Ph.D., Sc.D.(link is external), of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, the study was conducted in the Punjab Province of Pakistan between April 2019 and January 2022. Pregnant women with symptoms of at least mild anxiety were randomly assigned to receive either routine pregnancy care or a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)-based intervention called Happy Mother-Healthy BabyThe researchers assessed the participants (380 women in the CBT group and 375 women in the routine care group) for anxiety and depression six weeks after the birth of their child.
    • “The researchers found that 9% of women in the intervention group developed moderate-to-severe anxiety compared with 27% of women in the routine care group. Additionally, 12% percent of women in the intervention group developed depression compared with 41% of women in the routine care group.”
  • According to BioPharma Dive,
    • “An experimental obesity drug from Boehringer Ingelheim and Zealand Pharma succeeded in a mid-stage liver disease study, the latest evidence new weight loss medicines could also help people with metabolic dysfunction-associated steatohepatitis, or MASH.
    • “Summary results disclosed Monday show that up to 83% of trial participants treated with the companies’ drug, survodutide, experienced a significant improvement in their disease without worsening liver scarring, compared to about 18% of those given placebo. The drug met its secondary study goals, notably demonstrating a benefit on liver scarring, the companies said.
    • “Boehringer and Zealand didn’t provide many other details, leaving unanswered questions about the magnitude of survodutide’s effect. The companies also didn’t describe safety findings in depth, although they noted treatment “did not show unexpected safety or tolerability issues” at any of the three doses tested. Data will be presented at an upcoming medical meeting.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Fierce Healthcare reports,
    • “Elevance Health’s CarelonRx will begin offering a weight management program, providing its members access to digital-first coaching and wellness tools.
    • “Behavioral health and social drivers of health screenings will be included in the offerings, according to a news release. The program will help members that take, as well as those that don’t take, GLP-1 medications. It will be available to ASO-integrated clients.
    • “At CarelonRx, we want to ease the complexities of weight loss and weight management, and support healthier lifestyles for our members,” said Paul Marchetti, president of CarelonRx, in a statement. “Our weight management program is unique because it considers a member’s whole health needs, including pharmacy, medical and social drivers of health data, and creates opportunities for care coordination between nutrition and exercise experts, pharmacists, physicians and health plans.”
  • and
    • “Humana tapped data automation company Veda to improve the accuracy of its provider information and ensure seniors have real-time details about in-network providers. The partnership was announced at the ViVE 2024 conference Monday morning. * * *
    • “Founded in 2015, Veda developed an AI platform that enables payers to transform and ingest provider rosters rapidly, reducing turnaround times from weeks to hours, according to the company.
    • “Veda will use its patented automation technology to analyze, verify and standardize Humana’s data to ensure the information is accurate and comprehensive, along with real-time scoring of data quality.
    • “Accurate provider data is a key component of efficient health plan operations, care delivery, interoperability, and ultimately patient satisfaction,” Meghan Gaffney, Veda co-founder and CEO, said. “By addressing the challenges that members may face with finding in-network care providers, Humana is ensuring their members have access to the timely, high-quality care they deserve.”  
    • “Veda says its platform achieves high data accuracy, ensuring quality across networks as measured by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).”
  • and
    • “The cybersecurity incident at Change Healthcare will stretch on for at least another day, according to the latest update from Optum.
    • “The company posted early Monday morning that it is taking multiple angles to get Change’s systems back online, and stressed that it has a “high level of confidence” that other systems within Optum, UnitedHealthcare and UnitedHealth Group are unaffected. * * *
    • “In a statement to CNBC, CVS Health said that while it is continuing to fill prescriptions for customers, it’s not able to process all of its insurance claims. The pharmacy giant added that there is “no indication” that its own systems have been breached.”
  • Reuters notes,
    • “Pharmaceutical companies last year launched new U.S. drugs at prices 35% higher than in 2022, reflecting in part the industry’s embrace of expensive therapies for rare diseases like muscular dystrophy, a Reuters analysis found.
    • “The median annual list price for a new drug was $300,000 in 2023, according to the Reuters analysis of 47 medicines, up from $222,000 a year earlier. In 2021, the median annual price was $180,000 for the 30 drugs first marketed through mid-July, according to a study published in JAMA.”
  • The Society for Human Resource Management relates,
    • “Millions more employees than expected are leaving the workplace in favor of retirement—a phenomenon that stands to have an outsized impact on employers.
    • “The U.S. currently has roughly 2.7 million more retirees than predicted, Bloomberg reports, according to a model designed by an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. That’s up 80 percent from six months ago, when there were roughly 1.5 million more retirees than anticipated. By contrast, prior to the pandemic, there often were fewer retirees than expected.”

Weekend update

From Washington, DC

  • Forbes reports,
    • “Markets are watching as twin deadlines for a government shutdown are approaching on March 1 and March 8. The first deadline impacts four of twelve appropriations areas for the U.S. government, the second the remaining eight.
    • “However, it’s possible that budgets pass in the coming days that avert a shutdown. If not, another continuing resolution, as has avoided previous potential shutdowns, appears likely. Continuing resolutions give lawmakers more time to pass a new budget by essentially rolling forward prior funding measures.
    • “Currently event forecasting site Kalshi, gives an approximately 20% chance of a shutdown by March 4, and estimates that any shutdown before July might last only days. As such, expectations are that a shutdown will likely be avoided and were a shutdown to occur, it would be brief.
    • “However, if no government budget is passed before April, then the Fiscal Responsibility Act may come into effect that could have considerable impact on government spending. That would likely impact economic growth and the trajectory of government debt.”
  • MedTech Dive tells us,
    • The current system for monitoring and recalling medical devices is failing patients, physicians wrote in the journal Health Affairs on Thursday.
    • With the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reviewing device recalls, the physicians looked at the current process to generate suggestions for improving medical device safety in the U.S.
    • The physicians advised the GAO to propose ways to clear barriers to the implementation of unique device identifiers (UDIs) and assess how the FDA can better use the National Evaluation System for Health Technology.

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The Centers for Disease Control updated its Respiratory Illness Activity Levels website on February 23.
    • “The amount of respiratory illness (fever plus cough or sore throat) causing people to seek healthcare is elevated across many areas of the country. This week, 27 jurisdictions experienced high or very high activity. This number remains stable compared to last week.
    • “Nationally, emergency department visits with diagnosed COVID-19, influenza, and RSV are decreasing.
    • “Influenza test positivity decreased slightly nationally but is increasing in the Northeastern, Mid-Atlantic, and Central parts of the country. COVID-19 and RSV test positivity decreased compared to the previous week.
    • “Nationally, COVID-19 wastewater viral activity levels, which reflect both symptomatic and asymptomatic infections, remain at high levels, particularly in the South, but are trending downward in other areas.”
  • The New York Times reports,
    • “A drug that has been used for decades to treat allergic asthma and hives significantly reduced the risk of life-threatening reactions in children with severe food allergies who were exposed to trace amounts of peanuts, cashews, milk and eggs, researchers reported on Sunday.
    • “The drug, Xolair, has already been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for adults and children over age 1 with food allergies. It is the first treatment that drastically cuts the risk of serious reactions — like anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction that causes the body to go into shock — after accidental exposures to various food allergens.
    • “The results of the researchers’ study, presented at the annual conference of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology in Washington, were published in The New England Journal of Medicine.
    • “For a certain population of food allergy patients, this medication will be life-changing,” said Dr. Robert A. Wood, the paper’s first author and director of the Eudowood Division of Pediatric Allergy, Immunology and Rheumatology at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.”
  • NPR Shots points out,
    • “E-bike injuries have surged, sending thousands of Americans to hospitals in recent years, new research shows. 
    • “Electronic bicycle accidents were particularly hard on riders’ heads, especially the majority of those injured who didn’t wear helmets. 
    • “Helmet use declined by almost 6 percent each year between 2017 and 2022, while the number of e-bike riders with head trauma seeking hospital care shot up 49 fold to nearly 8,000 in 2022, according to research published in JAMA Surgery on Wednesday.
    • “It’s a really significant public health problem,” said Dr. Laura Goodman, a pediatric surgeon and trauma medical director of the Children’s Hospital of Orange County, who was not involved with the study.”
  • The Washington Post explains “How to make your hearing aids more effective and less frustrating. In one study, only 29 percent of those with hearing loss used hearing aids.” 
  • Fortune Well informs us,
    • “A large study in China tracked middle-aged and older adults for 20 years, using regular brain scans, spinal taps and other tests.
    • “Compared to those who remained cognitively healthy, people who eventually developed the mind-robbing disease had higher levels of an Alzheimer’s-linked protein in their spinal fluid 18 years prior to diagnosis, researchers reported Wednesday. Then every few years afterward, the study detected another so-called biomarker of brewing trouble.
    • “Scientists don’t know exactly how Alzheimer’s forms. One early hallmark is that sticky protein called beta-amyloid, which over time builds up into brain-clogging plaques. Amyloid alone isn’t enough to damage memory — plenty of healthy people’s brains harbor a lot of plaque. An abnormal tau protein that forms neuron-killing tangles is one of several co-conspirators.
    • “The new research, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, offers a timeline for how those abnormalities pile up.
    • :The study’s importance “cannot be overstated,” said Dr. Richard Mayeux, an Alzheimer’s specialist at Columbia University who wasn’t involved in the research.
    • [However, t]he findings have no practical implications yet.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Forbes offers very useful rankings of the largest health insurance companies by U.S. overall, individual coverage, group coverage, and by individual U.S. state.
  • Per BioPharma Dive,
    • “BioMarin Pharmaceutical is struggling to sell the first marketed gene therapy for the most common form of hemophilia, announcing on Thursday minimal revenue from the treatment, called Roctavian.
    • “In its latest earnings report, BioMarin said Roctavian generated $2.7 million in sales during the fourth quarter and $3.5 million in all of 2023, as three total patients — two in Germany and one in the U.S. — were treated last year. New CEO Alex Hardy told analysts the company is seeing progress in “market access,” but is “very mindful of the return on investment” with Roctavian.
    • “Roctavian is one of two important new products for BioMarin, which is reviewing its business under new management and deciding what research to continue supporting. The other, a drug for dwarfism called Voxzogo, is surpassing expectations. Sales totaled $146 million last quarter, more than double the previous period.”
  • CNBC reports on how “new sickle cell gene therapies are a breakthrough, but solving how to pay their high prices is a struggle.”
    • “[Michael] Goodwin [, a 36 year old man with sickle cell disease,] worries about the cost. Vertex Pharmaceuticals’ gene therapy Casgevy lists for $2.2 million, while Bluebird Bio’s treatment Lyfgenia lists for $3.1 million.
    • “I do have insurance, but … I already have medical bills,” he said.
    • “Goodwin’s hesitancy to pursue treatment is no surprise to Dr. Julie Kanter, director of the Adult Sickle Clinic at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
    • “My guess is even if we opened the gates today to everybody getting this therapy, at most only 10% of those individuals affected by sickle cell would want this therapy,” said Kanter, who also serves as the president of the National Alliance of Sickle Cell Centers. “And even that would be too much for us to manage right this second.”
    • “More than 100,000 Americans have sickle cell disease, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, and between 50% and 60% of them covered are covered by the federal and state insurance program Medicaid.
    • “Kanter said it will take time to ramp up capacity and to set up facilities across the country to treat patients at scale.
    • “We really hope that having the National Alliance of Sickle Cell Centers will allow us to strengthen our centers to generally care better for people living with this disease, which we haven’t been able to do before because the cost is a problem,” she said.

Friday Factoids

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

From Washington DC

  • Roll Call reports on the state of FY 2024 appropriations negotiations on Capitol Hill. Your guess on the impending outcome is as good as mine.
  • The U.S. Office of Personnel Management released
    • “a new Workforce of the Future Playbook today supporting a federal workforce that is inclusive, agile and engaged, and equipped with the right skills to deliver for the American people. The Playbook provides concrete actions that agencies can take to build and equip the workforce of the future, incorporating new strategies and sharing best practices across government. 
    • “OPM is 100% invested in strengthening the federal workforce,” said OPM Director Kiran Ahuja. “This Playbook is just another example of OPM’s ongoing efforts to equip federal agencies with the tools and resources to hire the right talent and strategically plan for their future workforce. The federal government works best when we leverage the full talent of our nation and workforce – this playbook is full of useful strategies to do just that. * * *
    • “Coming soon, OPM will provide guidance through webinars, training, and technical assistance from subject matter experts to support agencies in their implementation of these strategies. The Playbook will serve as the building block for a future workforce that promotes increased effectiveness and efficiency in service to the American people. Periodic updates will be posted to the Workforce of the Future webpage.” 
  • The Department of Justice announced,
    • “Settlements and judgments under the False Claims Act exceeded $2.68 billion in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2023, Acting Associate Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer and Civil Division Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton announced today. The government and whistleblowers were party to 543 settlements and judgments, the highest number of settlements and judgments in a single year. Recoveries since 1986, when Congress substantially strengthened the civil False Claims Act, now total more than $75 billion. * * *
    • “Of the more than $2.68 billion in False Claims Act settlements and judgments reported by the Department of Justice this past fiscal year, over $1.8 billion related to matters that involved the health care industry, including managed care providers, hospitals, pharmacies, laboratories, long-term acute care facilities, and physicians. The amounts included in the $1.8 billion reflect recoveries arising only from federal losses, but in many of these cases, the department was instrumental in recovering additional amounts for state Medicaid programs. The recoveries in fiscal year 2023 also reflect the department’s focus on key enforcement priorities, including fraud in pandemic relief programs and alleged violations of cybersecurity requirements in government contracts and grants.”
  • Medscape informs us,
    • “The Food and Drug Administration has granted De Novo classification to a sleep apnea feature developed by Samsung for use via the Health Monitor app, according to a company press release.
    • “The sleep apnea feature will be available on watches in Samsung’s Galaxy series in the third quarter of 2024, according to the press release.
    • “The new feature on the app is designed to help users with no previous diagnosis of sleep apnea to detect moderate to severe symptoms over a two-night period.
    • “The sleep apnea feature allows individuals older than 22 years to track their sleep twice for more than 4 hours within a 10-day period. The feature identifies breathing disruptions.”
  • MedTech Dive adds,
    • “The Food and Drug Administration warned patients against using smartwatches or smart rings that claim to measure blood sugar without piercing the skin. 
    • “Officials published the safety notice Wednesday after learning that people are selling wearables that claim to noninvasively monitor blood glucose. The devices are “manufactured by dozens of companies and sold under multiple brand names,” according to the agency. 
    • “The FDA has never authorized a noninvasive wearable that measures or estimates blood glucose values on its own and is concerned inaccurate readings could lead to errors in the management of diabetes.”
  • Govexec reports,
    • “The U.S. Postal Service has continued to see slower mail delivery across the country, with delays picking up as the agency is in the throes of transforming its entire network. 
    • “Postal management has repeatedly pointed to isolated incidents causing temporary disruptions—rather than any systemic issues—to explain the declining performance, though the trend has now persisted for nearly six months and is causing stakeholders and advocates to question the true root of the problem.
    • “USPS is now delivering just 83% of First-Class mail on time during the current fiscal quarter, its worst rate in three years. That is down from 86% in the first quarter and 91% in both the fourth quarter of fiscal 2023 and the same period last year.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The Centers for Disease Control tells us about the changing threat of Covid-19
    • What CDC knows
    • The impact of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has changed dramatically since 2020. Although COVID-19 remains common, when compared to 2020, individual infections are less likely to result in severe illness for most people in the United States. COVID-19 poses the highest risk for older adults, infants, and people with pre-existing medical conditions, and there are multiple ways people and communities can help reduce their risk of infection.
    • What CDC is doing
    • CDC continues to partner with state and local health authorities to collect and share data on COVID-19 community spread, hospitalizations, deaths, and Long COVID.  Additionally, CDC continues to evaluate the effectiveness of prevention and treatment strategies for the virus in order to provide the public the best evidence-based recommendations for reducing their risk from COVID-19.
    • Keep reading: The Changing Threat of COVID-19
  • Medscape notes,
    • Exercising for upwards of 30 minutes most days may help relieve pain in patients who’ve been diagnosed with cancer, according to a study of exercise and pain outcomes from more than 60,000 people, including 10,000 with a history of cancer. 
    • Study participants who’d been diagnosed with cancer and surpassed 150 minutes of moderate activity a week were 16% less likely to report pain than those who did not exercise or who exercised less. Exercise was particularly helpful for those with moderate to severe pain. In general, the more people exercised, the less pain they felt — and that was true for those with and without a history of cancer.
    • “This adds to a large evidence base regarding other benefits of exercise after cancer,” said lead study author Christopher Swain, PhD, a researcher at the University of Melbourne, Australia, who studies how physical activity can protect against cancer. “It would be great for physicians to encourage physical activity” for anyone who’s ever been diagnosed with cancer. 
  • Axios reports,
    • “Americans see poor mental health as one of the biggest threats to public health, ranking just behind obesity and the long-running opioid epidemic, according to the latest Axios-Ipsos American Health Index.
    • The big picture: Almost 9 out of 10 people say their own emotional wellbeing is very or somewhat good, but they view mental health issues as a serious societal threat that now outranks access to firearms, cancer or COVID-19. 
    • “And unlike many other perceived threats, there’s a pronounced generational split about mental health, registering as a much bigger concern for younger adults.
    • “The poll also found all but a small pocket of Americans largely tuned out a winter COVID-19 wave that saw the second-largest number of cases since the start of the pandemic, and the public is skeptical about handing over their care to artificial intelligence.
    • By the numbers: Overall, 17% said mental health was the top threat to public health, while 19% said obesity, 24% said opioids and fentanyl, and 15% said it was access to guns.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • The Employee Benefit Research Institute announced,
    • “New findings released today from the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI)/Greenwald Research Consumer Engagement in Health Care Survey(CEHCS) reported that consumers were overall satisfied with their health plan selection and services, while high deductible plans showed a slight decline in enrollment.
    • “The CEHCS is a survey of privately insured adults that has been conducted annually since 2005. The survey provides reliable national data on the growth of high deductible health plans (HDHP), consumer driven health plans (CDHP) and health savings accounts (HSA) – and the impact on the behavior and attitudes of health care consumers.  The 2023 survey of 2,020 individuals was conducted using an online research panel between Oct. 16 – Dec. 11, 2023. All respondents were between the ages of 21 and 64. * * *
    • “This year’s survey really shows strong evidence that people overall are satisfied with their health insurance.  Satisfaction levels are steady.  We see no majority is complaining and that is key to understanding market needs,” said Paul Fronstin, Ph.D., director, Health Benefits Research, EBRI.
    • “To view the 2023 CEHCS summary report, visit https://www.ebri.org/cehcs-2023.”
  • Chief Healthcare Executive reports,
    • “Nonprofit hospitals are making some progress financially, although the gains remain modest, according to Fitch Ratings.
    • “Of course, it’s saying something that Fitch’s early projections for the 2023 calendar year continue to show operational declines, although they aren’t as steep as 2022.
    • “Overall, Fitch expects the 2023 operating margins to rise into positive territory, albeit barely. The 2023 margins are expected to rise to 0.5% to 0.7%, which remains below pre-pandemic levels.
    • “In 2024, Fitch projects margins should move up to 1.6%.”
  • MedPage Today discusses whether “Artificial intelligence can improve prior authorization.”
    • “Prior authorization has ripple effects on patients and clinicians, but artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to simplify the process, health policy experts said during an online panel discussion hosted by the Kaiser Family Foundation on Thursday.
    • “Troyen Brennan, MD, a former executive at CVS Care and an adjunct professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, defended the process, arguing that it cuts down on unnecessary care. About 15% to 30% of all care in the U.S. healthcare system is ineffective, Brennan said.
    • “Plus, there are “really not any good studies … showing actual harm,” he argued. “There are a lot of surveys from physicians, in particular, that say that there are tremendous delays, but there’s obviously a response bias associated with this.”

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • American Hospital Association (AHA) News reports,
    • “AHA Feb. 22 voiced support for the Child Suicide Prevention and Lethal Means Safety Act (H.R. 7265), legislation that would provide funding for training programs to help health care workers identify patients at high risk for suicide or self-harm. The bill would also provide grants to facilitate suicide prevention training at health professions schools.”  
  • and
    • “Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee Ranking Member Bill Cassidy, R-La., Feb. 21 released a report proposing ways to modernize the existing HIPAA framework and protect health and other data not covered by HIPAA. Responding to Cassidy’s request for information on the issue last year, AHA asked Congress to urge the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights to immediately withdraw a rule that would violate HIPAA and its implementing regulations; explore how to better require entities not covered by HIPAA to protect patient privacy; and strengthen HIPAA preemption.”
  • Roll Call tells us,
    • “The House Democratic Women’s Caucus has asked the biggest insurance association to urge insurers to comply with contraceptive coverage requirements and Biden administration guidance issued in January, according to a letter shared first with CQ Roll Call. * * *
    • “The Democratic Women’s Caucus wrote to AHIP President and CEO Mike Tuffin on Thursday urging the group to have its members follow the suggestions HHS outlined. 
    • “Despite repeated clarification of these requirements from the Departments, multiple investigations — including by the House Oversight Committee — have revealed that plans routinely violate the [2010 health care law] by refusing to cover certain products, imposing administrative hurdles like prior authorizations and step therapy (fail first protocols), and requiring patient cost-sharing,” wrote the 143 House members as well as 13 senators.
    • “The members asked Tuffin to respond if insurance plans will be adopting the standard and when; how plans that will not adopt the standard intend to comply with the coverage requirement and if any member plans have been using techniques to deny coverage as described in the HHS guidance. 
    • “The letter also seeks clarity on which plans have an exceptions process publicly available on their websites for when a therapeutically equivalent product does not work for a patient.
    • “The letter requests a response by March 1.”
  • MedTech Dive notes,
    • Better Therapeutics has received breakthrough device status for a digital therapeutic designed to treat adults with advanced liver disease, the company said Tuesday.
    • The Food and Drug Administration awarded the designation after seeing the results of a clinical trial that linked the digital cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to reductions in liver fat.
    • Better Therapeutics won FDA authorization in Type 2 diabetes in July but, like the wider digital therapeutics sector, has struggled to allay concerns about commercialization. The company has discussed substantial doubts about its ability to continue as a going concern. 
  • Mercer Consulting projects “the 2025 inflation-adjusted amounts for health savings accounts (HSAs), high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) and excepted-benefit health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs) will all rise from 2024 levels. These unofficial 2025 amounts are determined using the Internal Revenue Code (IRC)’s cost-of-living adjustment methods, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) published Chained Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (C-CPI-U) values through January 2024, and Mercer’s projected C-CPI-U values for February and March.”
  • “The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force posted today a final research plan on screening for HIV. The draft research plan for this topic was posted for public comment from November 30, 2023, to January 3, 2024. The Task Force reviewed all of the comments that were submitted and took them into consideration as it finalized the research plan. To view the final research plan, please go here.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • MedPage Today calls our attention to the following
    • “More than 134,000 cancers might have gone undiagnosed during the first 10 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study of national trends in cancer incidence.
    • “Annual cancer incidence fell almost 30% short of the expected rate from March through December 2020. The difference represented potentially 134,395 undiagnosed cancers during that period. Diagnosis of early- and late-stage cancers declined. Prostate, breast, and lung cancers accounted for the most potential missed cases. Overall, rates of “screenable” cancers decreased by 13.9% versus expected rates. * * *
    • “It is important that we continue to evaluate the trends identified in this study as U.S. cancer incidence data for years after 2020 become available,” the authors wrote. “Pandemic-associated disruptions will continue to affect rates of cancer incidence, and how long it will be until we fully recover is still unknown.”
    • “Beyond incidence, it is important that we measure the pandemic’s contribution to future trends in cancer mortality and survival,” they added. “With a near 10% reduction from expected rates in overall late-stage incidence from March to December 2020, there will undoubtedly — and unfortunately — be a subsequent rise in cancer mortality. How substantial a rise and for how long will provide a more complete picture of the consequences of COVID-19 disruptions on the burden of cancer in the U.S.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that “There’s No Easy Way to Stop Taking Ozempic. Those who go off weight-loss drugs risk regaining weight, but staying on them forever isn’t always a realistic option.” Quite a conundrum. The article discusses approaches to stopping the medicine and alternatives, such as bariatric surgery.

  • The National Institutes of Health announced,
    • “A research project supported by the National Institutes of Health has developed a tool to rapidly and inexpensively diagnose sarcoidosis, a chronic inflammatory disease marked by the growth of tiny lumps called granulomas in the lungs and other organs in the body. The tool, which uses a simple blood test, could allow for selective use of more invasive diagnostic tests often used to identify the disease. The findings published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
    • “Currently, diagnosing sarcoidosis isn’t a straightforward process, and requires tissue removal and testing with additional screenings to rule out other diseases, such as tuberculosis or lung cancer,” said James Kiley, Ph.D., Director of the Division of Lung Diseases at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, part of NIH. “Using a blood test will help diagnose faster, particularly in those organs that are more challenging to biopsy and with less harm to the patient.”
  • The NIH Director, in her blog discusses “A Potential New Way to Prevent Noise-Induced Hearing Loss: Trapping Excess Zinc.”
    • “Hearing loss is a pervasive problem, affecting one in eight people aged 12 and up in the U.S.1 While hearing loss has multiple causes, an important one for millions of people is exposure to loud noises, which can lead to gradual hearing loss, or people can lose their hearing all at once. The only methods used to prevent noise-induced hearing loss today are avoiding loud noises altogether or wearing earplugs or other protective devices during loud activities. But findings from an intriguing new NIH-supported study  exploring the underlying causes of this form of hearing loss suggest it may be possible to protect hearing in a different way: with treatments targeting excess and damaging levels of zinc in the inner ear.”
  • STAT News points out “Embryo loss is integral to [in vitro fertilization] IVF. [The] Alabama ]Supreme Court]’s ruling equating embryos with children jeopardizes its practice.” For more information, listen to this Advisory Opinions podcast from the Dispatch.

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “Fourteen organizations representing providers, payers, consumer technology companies and employers are teaming up to cut through the noise and raise higher standards for finding digital health solutions that work and are worth the investment.
    • “The new Digital Health Collaborative, supported by the Peterson Health Technology Institute, brings together provider groups, purchasers and end users and initial work will focus on pulling together a national purchaser survey, grantmaking and convenings, the organization said.
    • “The Peterson Health Technology Institute formed in July 2023, armed with $50 million in funding, to evaluate digital health technologies and help cut through the hype to identify innovations that actually benefit patients. PHTI focused on providing independent, evidence-based assessments of emerging products, something that is currently lacking in the market.”
  • BioPharma Dive tells us,
    • “Moderna shares rose by as much as 10% Thursday morning after the COVID-19 vaccine developer reported fourth quarter profit that beat Wall Street expectations of a net loss during the final three months of 2023.
    • “Full-year sales of $6.7 billion matched estimated numbers Moderna disclosed in January, but were down by about two-thirds versus 2022 as COVID vaccination rates declined substantially last year. The company has restructured its manufacturing operations in response to match the lower demand.
    • “Moderna forecasts $4 billion in sales this year, with some expected to come from an experimental vaccine for respiratory syncytial virus that’s under regulatory review in the U.S. and several other countries.”
  • McKnight’s Long Term Care News lets us know,
    • “A shortage of registered nurses in the first two years of the pandemic was probably temporary, according to a new report. That’s because the workforce rebounded in 2022 and 2023, the authors said. Even still, a lot of RNs aren’t going back to hospitals and are moving into other settings including nursing homes and long-term care communities, authors of the report said.
    • “The study, published on Feb. 16 in JAMA Health Forum, noted that the workforce of RNs fell by about 100,000 employees in 2021. That decrease was the largest drop in a single year in the past 40 years. In 2022, hiring started to go back up, according to data from the US Bureau of the Census Current Population Survey. 
    • “The data included RNs between the ages of 23 and 69 who were employed between 1982 and 2023. The researchers also used another cohort of data on employment trends by birth year and age to project the age distribution and employment of RNs through the year 2035. There were 455,085 RNs included in the study. In 2022 and 2023, there were 3.35 million full-time RNs, which is 6% higher than in 2019 when there were 3.16 million nurses.”
  • Per Healthcare Dive,
    • “Walgreens is planning to close its remaining VillageMD clinics in Florida as the beleaguered retail giant continues to cut costs.
    • VillageMD operated 52 clinics in Florida, but 14 have closed to date. The remainder will shutter by March 15, according to multiple news reports citing Walgreens. The closures fully exit VillageMD from Florida, one of its largest markets and a key target for value-based primary care chains given the state’s large population of elderly patients with chronic health needs.
    • “Walgreens did not share details of what’s driving the closures. But analysts say Walgreens may have struggled getting enough doctors and patients into the smaller clinics, which are co-located within Walgreens stores.”
  • Beckers Hospital News notes,
    • “Grubhub has teamed up with CVS Pharmacy to deliver health and wellness products to consumers in 48 states. 
    • “Grubhub users can now access thousands of products on the mobile ordering and delivery platform from more than 6,000 CVS locations nationwide. * * *
    • “CVS is the second national drugstore chain to partner with Grubhub, behind Rite Aid. Walgreens has also teamed up with Doordash and Uber to deliver medications and other health products.”
  • Per HR Dive,
    • “Business advocates and the U.S. Department of Labor can resume their fight over independent contractor regulations, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided Monday (Coalition v. Su).
    • “The litigation began after the Biden administration in 2021 nixed a Trump-era rule on the issue. Business groups challenged that withdrawal, arguing DOL overstepped its authority. A federal district court judge agreed, and the Biden administration appealed that ruling to the 5th Circuit. The appeals court issued a stay pending DOL’s publication of a new rule.
    • “Biden’s DOL finalized its own version of the regulations in January, with a March 11 effective date, leading the 5th Circuit to lift its stay Monday at the request of the business groups. The court also vacated the lower court’s opinion at DOL’s request, sending it back for the court to revisit.
    • “Considering this and other litigation related to the new regulations, a court could very well put the upcoming rules on hold, an employment law attorney told HR Dive last month; but with the effective date just weeks away, employers should monitor developments closely, he said.”

Friday Factoids

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

From Washington, DC

  • The Federal Times reports,
    • “It took 13 years — with some stops, starts and stumbles in between — but as of today, the federal government now has a single website designed to deliver detailed, searchable information about all federal programs.
    • “The Office of Management and Budget flipped the switch Thursday on the new Federal Program Inventory, a platform it’s been building via various pilot efforts since December 2020. Officials acknowledge it doesn’t yet capture every single program: For now, only “domestic assistance” programs are included. But that broad category encompasses most federal spending, ranging from Social Security and Medicare to the smallest community block grant programs.
    • “As of now, the database includes spending and performance data on 2,388 programs, said Diedre Harrison, OMB’s deputy controller.”
  • The FEHBlog cannot locate the FEHBP in this database, FYI. What’s more,
    • “The Treasury Department and the IRS are calling on teleworking employees to return to the office for half of their workdays, starting in a few months.
    • “IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel told employees in an email Thursday that teleworking employees will need to return to the office 50% of the time, on any given month, starting on May 5.
    • “Our top priority, regardless of where employees are located at any point in time, will continue to be meeting our goals of serving taxpayers, ensuring tax compliance and maintaining our vital technology and operations,” Werfel wrote.
    • “The return-to-office plans will only impact IRS executives, managers and non-bargaining unit employees with telework agreements in the National Capital Region. The decision affects IRS headquarters, the agency’s New Carrollton Federal Building and other offices in the Washington, D.C. area.”
  • Healthcare Dive points out,
    • “The federal government received 13 times more surprise billing disputes in the first half of 2023 than it expected to receive in a full year, according to new CMS data.
    • “And the amount is growing each quarter, contributing to a growing backlog and straining the capacity of the system regulators set up to arbitrate disputes over medical bills between providers and health insurers.
    • “Of the 288,810 disputes filed in the first six months of 2023, fewer than half were closed, and arbiters rendered payment decisions in under a third of cases. Of those, providers won 77% of payment determinations, while health plans prevailed in 23% — noteworthy statistics given providers have argued the arbitration process is unfairly weighted toward insurers.”
  • The Commonwealth Fund discusses the status of creating a separate version of the No Surprises Act for ground ambulances.
  • Newfront fills us in on federal claim substantiation rules for flexible spending accounts, health reimbursement accounts, and health savings accounts.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “Novartis and Roche Holding said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved their Xolair treatment to reduce allergic reactions following the exposure to one or more foods.
    • “The pharmaceutical companies on Friday said Xolair has been approved for patients aged one year and older with the IgE-mediated food allergy.
    • “Patients taking Xolair for food allergies should continue to avoid all foods they are allergic to, the companies added.
    • “Xolair, a prescription biologic medicine that is given as an injection, shouldn’t be taken as an emergency treatment for allergic reactions.”
  • BioPharma Dive adds,
    • “The Food and Drug Administration will decide by June 21 whether to loosen the restrictions surrounding use of Sarepta Therapeutics’ gene therapy for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, the company said Friday
    • “Sarepta’s gene therapy, Elevidys, was granted a conditional OK last June for children between 4 and 5 years of age who have Duchenne and can still walk. Sarepta aims to convert that nod to a full approval for all people with Duchenne and a confirmed mutation to a specific gene, even though Elevidys failed to hit its main goal in a study meant to confirm its benefits. 
    • “Sarepta, for its part, has argued that the collective evidence it’s accrued proves Elevidys is impacting the disease. Analysts appear optimistic of its chances, given the agency won’t convene a group of outside experts to review its request.”  

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The Centers for Disease Control tells us
    • In September 2023, CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended updated 2023–2024 (monovalent XBB.1.5) COVID-19 vaccination for all persons aged ≥6 months to prevent COVID-19, including severe disease. Many variants co-circulated during fall 2023; the JN.1 lineage became predominant in January 2024. Few estimates of updated 2023–2024 vaccine effectiveness (VE) are available.
    • What is added by this report?
    • Receipt of updated COVID-19 vaccine provided approximately 54% increased protection against symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection compared with no receipt of updated vaccine. Vaccination provides protection against JN.1 and other circulating lineages.
    • What are the implications for public health practice?
    • All persons aged ≥6 months should receive updated 2023–2024 COVID-19 vaccine. CDC will continue monitoring COVID-19 VE, including against severe disease and for expected waning.
  • The CDC called attention to its website on RSV prevention.
  • MedCity News offers
    • “Three Tips To Improve Health Plans’ Chronic Conditions Management 
    • “During a virtual panel, leaders from across the industry shared their advice on how health plans can do a better job of achieving their goals for chronic management. For example, one executive said health plans should utilize remote monitoring tools for centralized observation and be wary of using the wrong metrics.” 
  • Benefits Pro lets us know,
    • “Older Americans may forego elective surgeries because they are worried about out-of-pocket expenses and time away from work, along with potential exposure to COVID-19.
    • “This is according to a study by the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation, which discovered that these factors tend to dissuade older Americans from going through with surgeries more than concerns about pain or the recovery process.
    • “Nearly half of those who said they were very concerned about cost and more than half of those who were very concerned about taking time off of work ended up not having a surgery they were considering, the study found. However, those who were concerned about surgery-related pain were just as likely as those with no concerns about pain to go ahead with surgery.”
  • Medscape calls attention to “How the New MRSA Antibiotic Cracked AI’s ‘Black Box.'”
    • “The MIT study is part of the Antibiotics-AI project, a 7-year effort to leverage AI to find new antibiotics. Phare Bio, a nonprofit started by MIT professor James Collins, PhD, and others, will do clinical testing on the antibiotic candidates.
    • “Even with the AI’s assistance, there’s still a long way to go before clinical approval.
    • “But knowing which elements contribute to a candidate’s effectiveness against MRSA could help the researchers formulate scientific hypotheses and design better validation, Lee noted. In other words, because they used explainable AI, they could be better positioned for clinical trial success.”
  • The New York Times reports,
    • “Growing numbers of children and adolescents are being prescribed multiple psychiatric drugs to take simultaneously, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Maryland. The phenomenon is increasing despite warnings that psychotropic drug combinations in young people have not been tested for safety or studied for their impact on the developing brain.
    • “The study, published Friday in JAMA Open Network, looked at the prescribing patterns among patients 17 or younger enrolled in Medicaid from 2015 to 2020 in a single U.S. state that the researchers declined to name. In this group, there was a 9.5 percent increase in the prevalence of “polypharmacy,” which the study defined as taking three or more different classes of psychiatric medications, including antidepressants, mood-stabilizing anticonvulsants, sedatives and drugs for A.D.H.D. and anxiety drugs.”
  • AP reports,
    • “Smoking has surpassed injecting as the most common way of taking drugs in U.S. overdose deaths, a new government study suggests.
    • “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called its study published Thursday the largest to look at how Americans took the drugs that killed them.
    • “CDC officials decided to study the topic after seeing reports from California suggesting that smoking fentanyl was becoming more common than injecting it. Potent, illicit versions of the painkiller are involved in more U.S. overdose deaths than any other drug.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Healthcare Dive informs us,
    • “CommonSpirit Health cut its operating losses in the three months ended Dec. 31by working with payers to speed the rate of reimbursement for services and implementing cost containment measures, according to earnings released on Thursday.
    • “The Chicago-based health system reported an operating income of $356 million for the quarter. Normalized for the California provider fee program, CommonSpirit logged an operating loss of $87 million. In the same period last year, CommonSpirit reported an operating loss of $440 million.
    • “CommonSpirit said supply and salary inflation continues to vex the system. Salaries and benefit expenses increased $413 million, or 9.3%, year over year, primarily due to higher salary costs.”
  • RevCycle Intelligence adds,
    • “Rural healthcare’s outlook just worsened, according to a new analysis from Chartis, a healthcare advisory firm.
    • “The updated analysis of key indicators such as rural hospital operating margin, facility closures, and loss of access to care and services paints a grim picture for rural hospitals in the US, particularly independent providers.
    • “Half of rural hospitals are operating in the red, the analysis found, and that percentage increased from 43 percent a year ago. More independent rural hospitals are operating at a loss at 55 percent, while 42 percent of health system-affiliated rural hospitals have a deficit. The analysis noted that almost 60 percent of rural hospitals in the US are now affiliated with a health system.
    • “With more rural hospitals facing revenue losses, 418 facilities are “vulnerable to closure,” the analysis showed.
    • “America’s rural hospitals have been battling against drivers of instability for more than a decade, but this newest research suggests this crisis has accelerated quickly to previously unseen levels,” Michael Topchik, national leader of The Chartis Center for Rural Health, said in a statement. “To learn the percentage of rural hospitals in the red has shifted 7 [percent] and now includes half of all rural hospitals is startling and should serve as an urgent call to action for everyone invested in rural healthcare.”
  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “Nearly all healthcare executives believe new digital health technologies are worth the cost, even though they have yet to see a financial return from it, a new survey reveals.
    • “The inaugural Health Pulse Survey was conducted by Ernst & Young and reached more than 100 payer and provider administrative executives across the U.S. It found that the appetite for digital health solutions has risen, particularly since COVID-19. The pandemic was a catalyst for the industry.
    • “COVID prompted a lot of digital health tech investments by payers and providers—it was out of necessity,” Kaushik Bhaumik, EY’s U.S. health technology leader, told Fierce Healthcare. “People had to connect with their patients through digital channels.” 
  • Reuters reports,
    • “A small but rapidly growing number of U.S. adolescents began treatment with Novo Nordisk’s weight-loss drug Wegovy last year, a powerful new tool to address record rates of pediatric obesity, according to data shared exclusively with Reuters.
    • “In the first 10 months of 2023, 1,268 children ages 12 to 17 with an obesity diagnosis started taking Wegovy, according to U.S. insurance claims data compiled by health technology company Komodo Health.”

Happy Lincoln’s Birthday!

Our greatest President, Abraham Lincoln, was born on February 12, 1809, in Hodgenville, Kentucky.  RIP.

From Washington, DC,

  • The Federal Times reports,
    • “By the second week in February lawmakers are supposed to be busy picking apart the White House’ budget request with an eye towards policy debates in coming months. But the process hasn’t worked that way in recent years.
    • “Administration officials earlier this month announced their fiscal 2025 budget proposal would arrive more than a month late — on March 11 — marking the fourth consecutive year that Biden has missed the statutory deadline for a spending plan in early February.”
  • Federal News Network explains,
    • “For decades, Federal Executive Boards have been at the forefront of bridging together the nationwide federal workforce. Stretching from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Boston, Massachusetts — Seattle, Washington, to South Florida, and many places in between, FEBs have a large network already underway. Even so, recent changes to the decades-old program will refresh how FEBs function moving forward.
    • “Federal News Network has spent months connecting with FEB leaders all across the country to learn more about what they do, the impact they have had in their local areas, and their plans in store for the future. Over the next week, we’ll be focusing on four different regions of the country — one per day:
    • Eastern Region (Feb. 12) | Southern Region (Feb. 13) | Central Region (Feb. 14) | Western Region (Feb. 15).”
    • Check it out.
  • According to this press release,
    • “The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), announced today that two additional organizations—CommonWell Health Alliance and Kno2—have been designated as Qualified Health Information Networks™ (QHINs™) capable of nationwide health data exchange governed by the Trusted Exchange Framework and Common AgreementSM (TEFCASM). ONC has led a multi-year, public-private process alongside its Recognized Coordinating Entity®, The Sequoia Project, Inc., to implement TEFCA, which was envisioned by the 21st Century Cures Act to support nationwide interoperability. TEFCA became operational in December 2023 with the designation of the first five QHINs—eHealth Exchange, Epic Nexus, Health Gorilla, KONZA, and MedAllies.
    • “CommonWell Health Alliance and Kno2 can immediately begin supporting the exchange of data under the Common Agreement’s policies and technical requirements along with the other designated QHINs. QHINs are the pillars of TEFCA network-to-network exchange, providing shared services and governance to securely route queries, responses, and messages across networks for health care stakeholders including patients, providers, hospitals, health systems, payers, and public health agencies.”
  • STAT News reports,
    • “A federal district judge [in Austin, Texas] on Monday granted the Biden administration’s request to dismiss a lawsuit challenging Medicare’s new drug price negotiation program from the drug industry lobbying organization PhRMA. * * *
    • “However this [decision] wasn’t about the substance of those groups’ arguments. The Texas judge dismissed one of the co-plaintiffs, the National Infusion Center Association, from the case because it didn’t have subject matter jurisdiction to bring the lawsuit. And because NICA was the only party to the lawsuit in Texas, the whole case got tossed.
    • “That means the Biden administration still has to brace for battles in Washington D.C., New Jersey, and Delaware, where a judge recently heard arguments in an AstraZeneca suit against the negotiation plan.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • MedPage Today points out,
    • “Blood protein profiles predicted future dementia in healthy adults, a large longitudinal study showed.
    • “Blood samples from over 50,000 people in the U.K. Biobank showed that four proteins — glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP), neurofilament light (NfL), growth differentiation factor-15 (GDF-15), and latent-transforming growth factor beta-binding protein 2 (LTBP2) — consistently were associated with subsequent all-cause dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or vascular dementia over 14 years, according to Jin-Tai Yu, MD, PhD, of Fudan University in Shanghai, and co-authors.”
  • The Hill reports,
    • A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the rate of preterm births rose by 12 percent nationally between 2014 and 2022. 
    • Manisha Gandhi, chair of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Clinical Practice Guidelines Committee, told The Hill’s Alejandra O’Connell-Domenech that several factors could be at play. 
    • “We are seeing more patients with obesity, higher risks for hypertension or preeclampsia … seeing more diabetes,” Gandhi said. “Potentially some of those risk factors that lead to earlier delivery could be playing a role.” 
    • Environmental factors such as exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals and air pollution may also be contributing to the rise in preterm births. 
  • The Wall Street Journal lets us know,
    • “Uterine is the only cancer for which survival has fallen in the past four decades, the American Cancer Society said. The disease will kill some 13,250 women in the U.S. this year, the group estimates, surpassing ovarian cancer to become the deadliest gynecologic cancer. 
    • “Case rates have been increasing by about 1% annually over the past decade, with steeper rises for Black and Hispanic women. Rising obesity rates are partly to blame because excess weight increases estrogen levels that can fuel the cancer, researchers said. And fewer women are getting their uteruses removed to treat abnormal bleeding or noncancerous fibroids, leaving them exposed to the risk cancer develops in the organ as they age.
    • “But those factors alone don’t explain the rise. The disease, more common after menopause, is rising across age groups including in women under 50 for reasons that aren’t completely clear. * * *
    • “Uterine cancer, also called endometrial cancer, comes in two forms. The more common one is slow-growing, linked to elevated estrogen levels, and curable when caught early. The rarer type isn’t hormonal and is harder to treat. Cases of this more aggressive kind are increasing faster and driving rising death rates. 
    • “Chemical hair straighteners have been linked to uterine cancer risk. The Food and Drug Administration plans in July to propose a ban on formaldehyde in hair straightening or smoothing products. 
    • “I don’t think it’s just hair products, sadly,” said Dr. Premal Thaker, a gynecologic surgeon at Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis. “There’s more diabetes, more obesity, and there’s probably something else that we just don’t know.” 
  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “An “overwhelming” 88% of respondents reporting healthcare discrimination in a new screening initiative were Black, according to a new Humana study.
    • “The report focused on the structural determinants of health as opposed to the more common social determinants of health. While such social determinants center on the conditions in which people live, work, play, learn and worship, structural determinants focus on the economic and social experiences and policies that influence health such as discrimination and health literacy. Both social and structural determinants are often interrelated, according to the study authors. 
    • “The study, published in the American Journal of Managed Care, is the first of its kind by a U.S. insurer to focus on the structural determinants of health, aspects which are “critical” but often overlooked, Humana said.
    • “The healthcare discrimination finding was somewhat problematic given a small sample size and how exactly to frame and ask questions but was nevertheless quite instructive, said co-author J. Nwando Olayiwola, M.D., chief health equity officer and senior vice president at Humana.” 
  • According to an NIH press release,
    • “Scientists have identified an area within the brain’s frontal cortex that may coordinate an animal’s response to potentially traumatic situations. Understanding where and how neural circuits involving the frontal cortex regulate such functions, and how such circuits could malfunction, may provide insight about their role in trauma-related and stress-related psychiatric disorders in people. The study, led by scientists at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a part of the National Institutes of Health, was published in Nature.
    • “Experiencing traumatic events is often at the root of trauma-related and stress-related psychiatric conditions, including alcohol use disorder (AUD),” said the study’s senior author, Andrew Holmes, Ph.D., senior investigator in NIAAA’s Laboratory of Behavioral and Genomic Neuroscience. “Additionally, witnessing others experience traumatic events can also contribute to these disorders.”
  • MedPage Today explains how patients are using artificial intelligence tools.
    • “It’s no secret that patients have been using Dr. Google for years. The introduction of ChatGPT is ushering in a new era. ChatGPT and other types of artificial intelligence have their drawbacks. Still, they can offer a range of benefits to healthcare providers and patients alike.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “Kaiser Permanente wrapped up its fiscal year with $329 million of operating income (0.3% operating income), net income of $4.1 billion and more than $100 billion in both operating revenues and expenses, the Oakland, California-based nonprofit announced Feb. 9.
    • “The rebound performance follows sizable losses during 2022, when the system logged a $1.3 billion operating loss (-1.3% operating income) off of $95.4 billion in operating revenues and $96.7 billion in operating expenses. It had also weathered a net loss of $4.5 billion due to a $3.2 billion loss across “other income,” which largely reflected down investments.
    • “I want to thank the people of Kaiser Permanente for their hard work in 2023 to provide members and patients with a positive experience at all touch points while also embracing new ways to drive efficiencies, improve access, and advance health outcomes,” said Chair and CEO Greg A. Adams said in a press release sharing the year’s top-line financial results. “Together, we navigated another challenging year and are on a path to deliver on our mission and bring our distinct brand of value-based care to more people.”
  • Per BioPharma Dive,
    • “Gilead Sciences will acquire CymaBay Therapeutics and the biotechnology company’s liver disease drug in a $4.3 billion deal announced Monday.
    • “The proposed buyout would hand Gilead an experimental medicine for primary biliary cholangitis, or PBC, a chronic condition characterized by the toxic build-up of bile acid in the liver. CymaBay disclosed Monday that the Food and Drug Administration has accepted its application for the drug, called seladelpar, and will decide on approval by mid-August.”
  • Health IT Analytics notes,
    • “The American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) has launched its AI Resource Hub to provide healthcare and health information (HI) stakeholders with knowledge around the use of non-clinical artificial intelligence (AI) tools.
    • “In response to the rise of AI utilization in healthcare, AHIMA partnered with Alazro Consulting to interview experts in the space and AI implementers representing over 200 hospitals and 1,000 clinics across the United States. These structured interviews were then used to develop AHIMA’s newest white paper, upon which the AI Resource Hub is based.  
    • “One of the white paper’s major findings is that the use of AI in healthcare is growing as organizations turn to the technology to optimize efficiency and workflows. These tools are often deployed to support health information management, clinical care, operations, and revenue cycle management.”
  • Fierce Healthcare identified its Fierce 15 of 2024.
    • “This year’s 15 honorees recognized a significant gap in the market, whether it’s for personalized GI care, opening up access to mental health or addressing loneliness among seniors with a robot companion. They then set to work to build forward-thinking solutions to address a specific problem.
    • “They are all taking a fresh angle to long-standing problems in healthcare, such as harnessing AI to streamline clinical documentation or using virtual care to treat the root causes of obesity.”

Friday Factoids

From Washington, DC

  • The U.S. Office of Personnel Management released its call letter for benefit and rate proposals for 2025 FEHB and Postal Service Health Benefit (PSHB) plans. Not surprisingly, the 2025 call letter focuses on the launch of the PSHB Program on January 1, 2025. The next step will be for OPM to issue its technical guidance. The benefit and rate proposals are due on May 31, 2024.
  • Fierce Healthcare reports,
    • “A bipartisan group of senators announced Friday that it is working on new legislation for “long-term reforms” to physician payments under Medicare and other program changes.
    • “In a joint release, U.S. Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nevada; Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee; John Barrasso, R-Wyoming; Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan; Mark Warner, D-Virginia; and Minority Whip John Thune, R-South Dakota said they have formed a “Medicare payment reform working group.”
    • “The lawmakers plan to proposes changes to the physician fee schedule and “make necessary updates” to 2015’s Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA), they said, and “in the coming weeks” will be seeking feedback from stakeholders.”
  • The Department of Health and Human Services announced,
    • “On Thursday, February 8, 2024, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra addressed the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. for its historic Headliners Luncheon.
    • “During his address, he urged the nation to shift from an “illness-care system” to a “wellness-care system.” He also highlighted the Biden-Harris Administration’s work to increase access to quality, affordable health care, lower health care costs, including the cost of prescription drugs, and protect access to reproductive health care.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The Centers for Disease Control tells us,
    • What CDC knows
      • BA.2.87.1, a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was identified in South Africa by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. CDC is closely tracking this variant because of the large number of mutations when compared to previous variants. At this time, BA.2.87.1 has not been identified in clinical specimens outside South Africa. Because this is a newly emerging variant, there is not as much additional data about its potential impact. So far, the public health risk for this new variant appears low.
    • What CDC is doing
      • CDC continues to track the appearance and spread of new variants around the world through genomic surveillance. CDC is working closely with partners in South Africa to gather the latest information on BA.2.87.1. CDC and its partners are continually assessing potential impacts to vaccines, tests, and treatments.
    • Keep reading: CDC Tracks New SARS-CoV-2 Variant, BA.2.87.1
  • Here is a link to the CDC’s Covid Data Tracker.
  • ABC News adds,
    • “The flu virus is hanging on in the U.S., intensifying in some areas of the country after weeks of an apparent national decline. 
    • “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data released Friday showed a continued national drop in flu hospitalizations, but other indicators were up — including the number of states with high or very high levels for respiratory illnesses.
    • ““Nationally, we can say we’ve peaked, but on a regional level it varies,” said the CDC’s Alicia Budd. “A couple of regions haven’t peaked yet.”
  • MedPage Today lets us know,
    • “The CDC has published its first comprehensive laboratory recommendations for syphilis testing.
    • “Published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reportopens in a new tab or window, the new recommendations include approaches for laboratory-based tests, point-of-care tests, sample processing, and how laboratories should report test results to clinicians and health departments.
    • “The recommendations are primarily for clinical laboratory or disease control personnel, but also for clinicians to understand how to collect and process specimens, interpret test results, and counsel and treat patients, according to CDC researchers led by John Papp, PhD, of the agency’s National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention in Atlanta.”
  • Mercer Consulting suggests that rising cancer rates call for a comprehensive strategy.
    • “A comprehensive cancer strategy includes both support for employees as they cope with the physical and emotional stresses of a cancer diagnosis, and effective care management to help ensure the patient receives quality care quickly in the most appropriate setting — which can lead to better outcomes and better use of healthcare dollars. Just over a third of large employers (34%) provide a specialized cancer care management program. These programs assist with care coordination, support compliance with treatment regimens, find applicable clinical trials, and connect families to local community resources and to other solutions the employer offers.  
    • “Centers of Excellence or site-of-care navigation programs, offered by 24% of large employers, help ensure that members are treated by quality providers with relevant experience and expertise. Hotlines, caregiver and family advocacy services, and financial planning services can help employees and their families deal with the day-to-day challenges of the cancer journey.”
  • Milliman Consulting offers some use cases for AI in healthcare and their implications for health insurers.
  • Per BioPharma Dive,
    • Takeda Pharmaceutical plans to quickly begin late-stage testing of an experimental drug for narcolepsy, which, if successful, could help the company enter what Wall Street analysts see as a multibillion-dollar market.
    • There are two kinds of narcolepsy, with a key difference being that “Type 1” can involve a sudden loss of muscle control. Takeda has been testing its drug, known as TAK-861, as a potential treatment for both, and on Friday disclosed high-level results from a pair of studies that each focused on one type.
    • “Takeda said the Type 1 trial, which evaluated 112 patients, found those given its drug as opposed to a placebo experienced statistically significant and “clinically meaningful” improvements in wakefulness at the eight-week mark. The company now intends to begin Phase 3 trials in the first half of its fiscal year, which begins April 1.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Per Healthcare Dive,
    • “Primary care providers Indianapolis-based Marathon Health and Denver-based Everside Health completed their merger on Thursday, and will operate as Marathon Health.
    • “The Marathon executive team — CEO Jeff Wells and executive chairman Ben Evans — will stay intact post-merger, while Everside Health CEO Chris Miller will depart the company, according to a company spokesperson. Marathon declined to disclose financial details of the deal.
    • “The new Marathon Health will have a physical presence in 41 states at 680 health centers and provide virtual healthcare in all 50 states.” 
  • and
    • “One Medical is closing several offices and moving its chief financial officer to a role focused on growth as Amazon attempts to reallocate internal resources to cut costs.
    • “One Medical plans to close offices in New York City, Minneapolis and St. Petersburg, Florida, by the end of February, according to an internal email obtained by Business Insider. The company will also downsize its San Francisco office space to one floor.
    • “An Amazon spokesperson confirmed the changes to Healthcare Dive and said the company is reducing its investment in corporate office space given many One Medical corporate employees work remotely.”
  • MedTech Dive informs us,
    • “Fresenius Medical Care has received 510(k) clearance for its high-volume hemodiafiltration dialysis therapy system, the company said Thursday.
    • “The device, the 5008X Hemodialysis System, uses both diffusion and convection to remove waste products from the blood of kidney disease patients. Using diffusion, the standard mechanism for hemodialysis, and convection is intended to improve the removal of larger waste products.
    • “Fresenius plans to start a broad market launch next year and push to establish hemodiafiltration, which is already widely used in Europe, as the new standard of care in the U.S.”
  • Health Payer Intelligence points out “KLAS Report Reveals Top-Performing Vendors for Payer Services. The top-performing vendors varied across payer services, with Zelis ranking high for payment accuracy and integrity and ZeOmega succeeding in care management.”

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • The FEHBlog listened to the House Oversight and Accountability Committee’s markup of HR 6283, the Delinking Revenue from Unfair Gouging Act. Is there such as thing as fair gouging? In any case, the FEHBlog was relieved by the amount of bipartisan opposition to the bill. However, as explained in this STAT News article, the Committee Chairman James Comer (R Ky) steered an amended version of the original bill through his Committee this morning. Like Committee members with doubts about the bill, the FEHBlog looks forward to the Congress Budget Office report on the measure.
  • The American Hospital Association (AHA) News reports
    • “In a statement submitted to the House Ways and Means Committee for a hearing Feb. 6 on chronic drug shortages, AHA recommended Congress enact legislation to diversify manufacturing sites and sources for critical pharmaceutical ingredients; support an increase in end-user and supply chain inventories for critical medications; develop a rating system for drug maker quality management processes; identify essential drugs needing more domestic manufacturing capacity; and require drug makers to disclose where their products are made and when demand for essential drugs spikes.” 
  • and
    • “The Health Resources and Services Administration Feb. 6 requested vendor proposals to support changes to governance, technology and operation of the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, as authorized by Congress last year. HRSA also directed the current OPTN vendor, the United Network for Organ Sharing, to standardize and update data reporting for greater accountability and equity in organ procurement and transplant practices. HRSA indicates that the scope and scale of the contract awards will be contingent on final 2024 appropriations.”
  • The Department of Health and Human Services announced,
    • releasing the National Public Health Strategy to Prevent and Control Vector-Borne Diseases in People (VBD National Strategy). As directed by the 2019 Kay Hagan Tick Act—named after the U.S. Senator who died due to complications from a tickborne illness—HHS led a four-year process with civilian agencies and defense departments to deliver this strategy. Co-led by the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the strategy identifies and describes federal priorities to detect, prevent, respond to, and control diseases and conditions caused by vectors in the United States.
    • “Vector-borne diseases are a global threat, with national security, economic, and health implications for the United States. As the federal government continues to proactively strengthen its response to this threat, HHS and CDC plan to develop future iterations of the VBD National Strategy with opportunities for public engagement. Read the VBD National Strategy.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review tells us,
    • “Respiratory syncytial virus vaccinations could soon extend to adults aged 50-59. 
    • “Arexvy, which was initially approved by the FDA in May 2023 for administration in adults over 60, has been granted priority review in the U.S. for use in adults ages 50-59.
    • “If approved, it will become the first RSV vaccine available for the age group, according to a Feb. 6 news release. 
    • “The FDA is slated to make a decision on the drug’s approval for the new age group by June 7.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • Medscape informs us,
    • “Lowering the recommended age for baseline prostate-specific antigen (PSA) would reduce prostate cancer deaths by about 30% in Black men without significantly increasing the rate of overdiagnosis, according to new screening guidelines from the Prostate Cancer Foundation.
    • “Specifically, baseline PSA testing in Black men should begin at age 40-45, sooner than current guidelines recommend, and should be followed by regular screening intervals, preferably annually, at least until age 70, a multidisciplinary panel of experts and patient advocates determined based on a comprehensive literature review.”
  • Per the Food and Drug Administration,
    • On Monday, the FDA issued an outbreak advisory warning consumers not to eat, sell, or serve recalled brands of cheeses, sour creams (cremas), or yogurts manufactured by Rizo Lopez Foods, Inc. The FDA and CDC, in collaboration with state and local partners, are investigating illnesses in a multi-year, multistate outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes infections linked to queso fresco and cotija cheeses manufactured by Rizo Lopez Foods, Inc., of Modesto, California. There are 26 illnesses with 23 hospitalizations in 11 states. The firm has recalled several dairy products and has temporarily ceased the production and distribution of these products while their investigation is ongoing. The FDA’s investigation is ongoing, and the FDA will continue to update this advisory as information becomes available.”
  • Per KFF,
    • “About 1 in 5 adolescents report symptoms of anxiety or depression, according to a KFF analysis of a new federal survey of teen health.
    • “While some teens are getting mental health care, a significant share say they are not receiving the therapy they need due to costs, fear of what others will think, and/or not knowing how to get help.”
  • The American Medical Association lets us know what doctors wish their patients knew about iron deficiency.
  • Healio notes,
    • “Infants aged younger than 3 months and children with a history of prematurity experience the highest rates of hospitalization for respiratory syncytial virus, according to study findings published in Pediatrics.
    • “Last year, two new tools became available to combat RSV, the leading cause of infant hospitalization in the United States: a vaccine for pregnant people and a new monoclonal antibody.” * * *
    • “Most RSV-associated hospitalizations occurred in healthy, term infants,” Meredith L. McMorrow, MD, MPH,a researcher in the CDC’s Coronavirus and Other Respiratory Viruses Division said. “This is why allbabies need protection from either maternal RSV vaccination or nirsevimab during their first RSV season.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review offers five Ozempic updates.

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • BioPharma Dive reports,
    • “Sales of Eli Lilly’s diabetes drug Mounjaro exceeded $5 billion in 2023, its first full year on the market, the company said Tuesday, in the latest sign of surging demand for the therapy and other medicines of its kind.
    • “Mounjaro’s fast launch helped drive Lilly’s revenue last year to $34 billion, a 20% increase over 2023. Fourth quarter revenue of $9.4 billion eclipsed analysts’ consensus expectations by 5%, Leerink Partners’ David Risinger wrote in a note to clients.
    • “Lilly said Mounjaro now accounts for 27% of total prescriptions in the U.S. for injectable “incretins,” the fast-selling group of drugs that work by modulating hormones that control insulin production. Sales of an older drug in this class, Lilly’s Trulicity, fell 4% in 2023 to $7 billion, but still led Lilly’s business.
    • “The obesity drug Zepbound, which contains the same active ingredient as Mounjaro, launched in the fourth quarter and brought in sales of $176 million through Dec. 31.”
  • STAT News adds,
    • “Eli Lilly reported during its fourth-quarter earnings call that tirzepatide, which is sold commercially as Mounjaro or Zepbound, succeeded in a Phase 2 test as a treatment for the liver disease MASH. Around 74% of adults in the trial taking the drug were free of MASH after 52 weeks, compared to approximately 13% of the placebo group.”
  • Wait, there’s more from Bloomberg,
    • Eli Lilly & Co.’s blockbuster diabetes drug Mounjaro, which is commonly used off-label for weight loss, is again in short supply due to increased demand.
    • “There will be limited availability of higher doses of the treatment through early March, according to a US Food and Drug Administration database that tracks shortages. So far, the FDA doesn’t list Mounjaro’s sister drug Zepbound, which is approved for weight loss, on its shortage list, though the two contain the same active ingredient.
    • “The company is continuing to ship all doses to wholesalers, but anticipates intermittent backorders of higher doses over the next month, a Lilly spokesperson said in an emailed statement. 
    • “We recognize this situation may cause a disruption in people’s treatment regimens and we are moving with urgency to address it,” the spokesperson said.”
  • BioPharma Dive points out
    • “The Japan-based pharmaceutical firm Eisai had hoped that, by the end of March, 10,000 patients in the U.S. would be taking its closely watched drug for Alzheimer’s disease. But that goal now seems lofty, following updates in the company’s latest earnings report.
    • “Eisai developed the drug, called Leqembi, in partnership with Biogen, and is leading its commercialization. As with an earlier Alzheimer’s therapy from the two companies, Leqembi’s launch started off slow. Yet Eisai and Biogen have argued that recent decisions from drug regulators and insurers should significantly increase both prescriptions and sales.
    • “Still, growth doesn’t appear to be coming as quickly as the companies want. Eisai recorded 1.1 billion yen, or roughly $7.4 million, in revenue from Leqembi between October and December — around half of what Wall Street analysts had generally expected, according to Michael Yee of the investment bank Jefferies.
    • The company also said Leqembi had been administered to a total of 2,000 U.S. patients as of Jan. 26, with another 8,000 or so on a waiting list. Eisai maintains the 10,000 patient milestone could be hit in a few months, though the team at Jefferies believes it might take longer “given launch dynamics have been slow to begin with.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review reports,
    • “San Francisco-based UCSF Health has signed a $100 million definitive agreement with San Francisco-based Dignity Health to take on two of its hospitals: Saint Francis Memorial Hospital and St. Mary’s Medical Center, both of which are in the city.”San Francisco-based UCSF Health has signed a $100 million definitive agreement with San Francisco-based Dignity Health to take on two of its hospitals: Saint Francis Memorial Hospital and St. Mary’s Medical Center, both of which are in the city.
    • UCSF Health began acquisition talks with Dignity Health, part of Chicago-based CommonSpirit Health, for the two hospitals in July. 
    • “Under the acquisition, which UCSF Health hopes to close by this spring, the hospitals will be renamed UCSF Health Saint Francis Hospital and UCSF Health St. Mary’s Hospital, respectively, according to a Feb. 5 UCSF news release.”
  • Per Healthcare Dive,
    • “Providence will refund payments and forgive outstanding medical debt for nearly 100,000 low-income Washington residents to settle a 2022 lawsuit alleging the health system skirted its charity care obligations, according to a Thursday announcement from Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
    • “The Renton, Washington-based operator will refund approximately $20 million to over 30,000 patients who were billed improperly and forgive $137 million for more than 65,000 additional patients, in what the AG called the “largest resolution of its kind in the country.”
    • “The settlement is the latest win for the AG, who has successfully brought other health systems into compliance with the state’s charity care law, which offers reduced or free medical care for approximately half of Washingtonians based on financial status.”
  • and
    • “Centene has become the second major health insurer to warn investors of an impending funding decrease in Medicare Advantage — if regulators finalize 2025 rates as proposed.
    • “New payment parameters released by the CMS last week would cause Centene’s MA rate to fall 1.3%, CFO Drew Asher said during a Tuesday morning call discussing the payer’s fourth-quarter earnings results.
    • “However, this dip is before Centene risk scores its enrollees, a process which should result in an overall increase in MA reimbursement next year, Asher said. Humana disclosed similar concerns in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Monday.”