Monday Roundup

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

Mondays have tended to be good news days for COVID-19 vaccines. As of today, over 50% of Americans over age 18 have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Fierce Healthcare reports that

“CVS Pharmacy has begun stocking its virtual and in-store shelves nationwide with rapid tests for COVID-19—which can be purchased without a prescription and used by anyone regardless of whether or not they are showing symptoms—including three FDA-authorized diagnostics and sample collection kits produced by LabCorp, Ellume and Abbott.”

“Even as vaccines become more widely available, COVID-19 testing remains a critical tool to keep our communities safe,” Walgreens President John Standley said in a statement. Walgreens currently offers on-site testing at more than 5,500 of its pharmacies and plans to expand to 6,000 drive-thru sites by May, using Abbott’s ID NOW portable testing machines.

In addition, earlier this month CVS began offering COVID-19 antibody testing for $38 at 1,100 in-house clinics, using fingerstick blood samples to determine previous infections.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management announced today that the agency

will allow [FSAFEDS] flexibilities permitted under the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021 and the American Rescue Plan Act including allowing full carryover for a health care flexible spending account (HCFSA) and Limited Expense FSA (LEX FSA); extending the grace period for a dependent care flexible spending account (DCFSA); and permitting care for dependents through age 14 for 2020 and 2021 under a DCFSA. In addition, OPM is working with our FSAFEDS contractor, Health Equity, to offer a Special Enrollment/Election Period (SEP) in the near future.  This SEP will allow participants to increase or decrease their current elections for their DCFSA and/or their HCFSA.  In addition, the SEP will allow those who did not re-enroll for 2021 during Open Season in the Fall, the opportunity to enroll in a DCFSA and/or HCFSA for 2021.  Finally, OPM will allow DCFSA participants to increase their election during the Special Election Period to the new IRS maximum of $10,500 for 2021. 

All good news.

What’s more, the Wall Street Journal reported in its Saturday essay about the U.S. airline safety revolution.

Over the past 12 years, U.S. airlines have accomplished an astonishing feat: carrying more than eight billion passengers without a fatal crash.

Such numbers were once unimaginable, even among the most optimistic safety experts. But now, pilots for domestic carriers can expect to go through an entire career without experiencing a single engine malfunction or failure. Official statistics show that in recent years, the riskiest part of any airline trip in the U.S. is when aircraft wheels are on the ground, on runways or taxiways.

The achievements stem from a sweeping safety reassessment—a virtual revolution in thinking—sparked by a small band of senior federal regulators, top industry executives and pilots-union leaders after a series of high-profile fatal crashes in the mid-1990s. To combat common industry hazards, they teamed up to launch voluntary incident reporting programs with carriers sharing data and no punishment for airlines or aviators when mistakes were uncovered.

One wonders whether this successful strategy may be transferable to other pressing safety issues, such as patient safety. In this regard, a friend of the FEHBlog suggested check this Washington Post opinion piece written by a group of psychologists titled “We instinctively add on new features and fixes. Why don’t we subtract instead?
‘Less is more’ is a hard insight to act on, it turns out.” How true.

In other healthcare news —

  • The Kaiser Family Foundation informs us that

a relatively small number and share of drugs accounted for a disproportionate share of Medicare Part B and Part D prescription drug spending in 2019 (Figure 1).

— The 250 top-selling drugs in Medicare Part D with one manufacturer and no generic or biosimilar competition (7% of all Part D covered drugs) accounted for 60% of net total Part D spending.

— The top 50 drugs covered under Medicare Part B (8.5% of all Part B covered drugs) accounted for 80% of total Part B drug spending.

Some recent proposals to lower prescription drug prices have limited the number of drugs subject to price negotiation and international reference pricing. This analysis shows that Medicare Part D and Part B spending is highly concentrated among a relatively small share of covered drugs, mainly those without generic or biosimilar competitors. Focusing drug price negotiation or reference pricing on a subset of drugs that account for a disproportionate share of spending would be an efficient use of administrative resources . . . .

  • Employee Benefits News tells us

New research from Voya shows employees have a bias against HDHPs and the reason for that is as simple as marketing.

“One of the really interesting findings that we saw from the research about why there is that bias comes down to branding, pure and simple,” says Nate Black, vice president of consumer driven health for Voya Financial. “When we replaced the high deductible health plan name and called it something more generic, the share of people choosing high deductible health plans doubled. So just the name itself can have a really significant impact on how people think about what plan they should choose.”

Sixty-three percent of the people surveyed by Voya said they would choose the plan with the lowest deductible. As part of the study Voya designed an experiment asking participants to choose between a PPO and an HDHP. The experiment was set up in a way that the HDHP was always the optimal financial choice, despite this, 65% of those surveyed still chose the PPO plan.

Communicating the long term value of plans connected with health savings accounts is quite important.

  • Here’s a link to the CDC’s website on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause which explains

If you received the vaccine more than three weeks ago, the risk of developing a blood clot is likely very low at this time.

If you received the vaccine within the last three weeks, your risk of developing a blood clot is also very low and that risk will decrease over time.

Contact your healthcare provider and seek medical treatment urgently if you develop any of the following symptoms: severe headache, backache, new neurologic symptoms, severe abdominal pain, shortness of breath, leg swelling, tiny red spots on the skin (petechiae), or new or easy bruising.

If you experience any adverse events after vaccination, report them to v-safe and the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System

The FEHBlog enrolled in v-safe after his first Pfizer vaccination and the CDC has continued to inobtrusively check in weekly. The FEHBlog is happy to help out.

Weekend update

Photo by Tomasz Filipek on Unsplash

Both Houses of Congress are working on floor and committee business this week. Here are links to the House floor schedule, the Senate floor schedule and the Committee business schedule. Nothing particularly interesting from an FEHBP standpoint.

In contrast, this week from Tuesday through Thursday, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and America’s Health Insurance Plans will hold the annual FEHB carrier conference. This will be the longest conference in the FEHBlog’s memory.

In that regard, “The Alliance for Fertility Preservation (AFP) commends the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) for including coverage for fertility preservation in its annual call for benefit and rate proposals from Federal Employee Health Benefit (FEHB) Program carriers. This coverage would allow for fertility preservation services related to infertility caused by medical treatment (iatrogenic infertility).”

The AFP estimates that in the United States, approximately 160,000 people between ages 0-44 are diagnosed with cancer each year. Most of these patients will face treatments including chemotherapy, radiation, and/or surgery that can damage reproductive cells (eggs and sperm), reproductive organs, or impact the ability to carry a pregnancy. Because this damage treatment-based, it can affect patients with any type of cancer. Patients with other conditions requiring similar therapies are also at risk.

Fertility preservation is now considered part of the standard of care for age-eligible patients. Guidelines supporting fertility preservation have been issued by the relevant medical associations, including the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), and the American Medical Association (AMA).

This new benefit for 2022 is a carrier conference topic on Tuesday.

From the COVID-19 front, the FEHBlog and his wife attended the socially distanced and fan-masked Washington Nationals game this afternoon. Walking from the parking lot to Nationals Park, we walked by a CVS pharmacy which had a sign reading COVID-19 vaccinations available here. We went into the pharmacy, and the FEHBlog noticed a staff member at a table waiting to sign up people for the vaccine. The FEHBlog was so happy.

Health Payer Intelligence discusses how the Blue Cross Blue Shield plans are “aiming to be a community resource to ensure shots are administered. Reed Melton, vice president of clinical operations at the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA), told Fierce Healthcare that the group’s member plans are partnering with regional and community organizations to tackle vaccine hesitancy and support administration efforts. “We have a full-court press from Honolulu to San Juan,” Melton said.  At the national level, BCBSA has partnered with Feeding America to offer educational materials on COVID-19 vaccines to people at 200 food banks, which can reach 40 million Americans.”

Last week the Centers for Disease Control reported to providers of care about so-called vaccine breakthrough cases of COVID-19.

Vaccine breakthrough cases occur in only a small percentage of vaccinated persons. To date, no unexpected patterns have been identified in the case demographics or vaccine characteristics among people with reported vaccine breakthrough infections.COVID-19 vaccines are effective. CDC recommends that all eligible people get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as one is available to them.

The Wall Street Journal reports today that

President Biden’s chief medical adviser said he expects Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine to return to use in the U.S. by Friday, after a pause because of concerns about blood clots in several patients. “I would be very surprised…if we don’t have a resumption in some form by Friday,” Dr. Anthony Fauci told CBS’s “Face the Nation,” echoing remarks he made on other networks Sunday.

The American Medical Association has shared information about what physicians should know about this blood clot issue.

The Pause plus Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Here is a link to the joint Food and Drug Administration / Centers for Disease Control statement on the recommended pause in administration of the Johnson and Johnson single dose COVID-19 vaccine that the agencies issued this morning. Becker’s Hospital Review reports that pharmacies and State governments administering the vaccine have implemented this recommendation.

Next steps —

CDC will convene a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) on Wednesday to further review these cases and assess their potential significance. FDA will review that analysis as it also investigates these [six] cases. Until that process is complete, we are recommending a pause in the use of this vaccine out of an abundance of caution. This is important, in part, to ensure that the health care provider community is aware of the potential for these adverse events and can plan for proper recognition and management due to the unique treatment required with this type of blood clot.

STAT News adds

Experts applauded the decision as the right thing to do.

“The pause is a prudent step to take, because when very serious adverse events occur that are also very rare, what matters most is ‘very serious,’” said John Moore, an immunologist at Weill Cornell Medicine. “Not only are individual members of the public at some risk, but so is the wider confidence in the Covid-19 vaccines.”

“It’s a reasonable but unproven assumption that the J&J and AstraZeneca vaccine safety concerns are linked by being related to an immune response against an adenovirus component,” he said. “So, FDA and scientists need time to better understand what is going on, which means a pause is the right course of action.”

And now for the tidbits

  • Modern Healthcare reports that the House today joined the Senate in delaying otherwise required 2% cuts in Medicare payments for the remainder of 2021. The means that CMS will be giving the Medicare Administrative Contracts its approval to resume paying Medicare claims once the President signs the bill into law.
  • Healthcare Dive reports that “Salt Lake City-based Intermountain [which sponsors an FEHB HMO] is acquiring air ambulance company Classic Air Medical in a bid to better coordinate virtual and physical care for rural patients. Snapping up Classic, which operates aircraft in eight western states and has a significant overlap with Intermountain’s telehealth footprint, is meant to make it easier to transport high-need patients to the closest medical facility equipped for their needs, the nonprofit system said in a Monday statement.”
  • The Department of Health and Human Services “have published several new resources to help states, vaccination providers, and others leading COVID-19 response activities improve access to vaccines for people with disabilities and older adults. These resources clarify legal requirements, illustrate some of the barriers to vaccine access faced by people with disabilities and older people, and provide strategies – and examples of how the aging and disability network can help employ them – to ensure accessibility.”
  • FedSmith explains “the Difference Between Postponed and Deferred FERS Retirement While postponed and deferred retirement sound similar, there are big differences for FERS federal employees who retire early with these options.” You only receive lifetime FEHB coverage in retirement with a postponed FERS retirement.
  • The trade association of prescription drug manufacturers Phrma has launched a new public relations campaign about its patient centered agenda while the Campaign for Sustainable Rx Prices “launched [its own] campaign Tuesday encouraging policymakers to act on campaign promises to hold Big Pharma accountable and lower prescription drug prices.” And so it goes.

Midweek Update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

Bloomberg reports today that

The B.1.1.7 variant of the coronavirus, first found in the U.K., has overtaken the initial form of the virus in the U.S. and is now the country’s most common strain, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at a briefing that the version had overtaken other mutations that have emerged, as well as the initial version of the virus in the U.S.

The Centers for Disease control has identified the B.1.1.7 variant as a “variant of concern” which means

A variant for which there is evidence of an increase in transmissibility, more severe disease (increased hospitalizations or deaths), significant reduction in neutralization by antibodies generated during previous infection or vaccination, reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines, or diagnostic detection failures.

Here is the CDC’s breakdown on the B.1.1.7. variant:

Name
(Pango lineage)
Spike Protein SubstitutionsName
(Nextstraina)
First DetectedBEI Reference IsolatebKnown Attributes
B.1.1.7Δ69/70
Δ144Y
(E484K*)
(S494P*)
N501Y
A570D
D614G
P681H
20I/501Y.V1United KingdomNR-54000external icon~50% increased transmission 5

Likely increased severity based on hospitalizations and case fatality rates 6
Minimal impact on neutralization by EUA monoclonal antibody therapeutics 7, 14
Minimal impact on neutralization by convalescent and post-vaccination sera 8,9,10,11,12,13,19

WebMD adds that “Of the three “variants of concern” recognized by the World Health Organization and the CDC, studies have shown that the mRNA vaccines created by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, as well as the Novavax vaccine, remain highly effective against the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first recognized in the United Kingdom. * * * Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, and Pfizer are all exploring options to make their vaccines more effective against the variants [of concern].”

The Wall Street Journal offers a helpful tip — “Pharmacies and health officials are making a plea to Americans who received their Covid-19 vaccines: Cancel the other shots you booked.” That is sensible advice.

The Department of Health and Human Service reports today that “more than half a million consumers have already signed up for health insurance through HealthCare.gov as a result of the Biden Administration’s Special Enrollment Period (SEP) for the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency. * * * Today’s report from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), which covers plan selections from February 15 to March 31, also shows gains in enrollment among historically uninsured communities, including Black consumers and Americans near the poverty level. Of applicants who identified a race, 17% identified as Black – compared to about 11% in both 2020 and 2019 during the same time period. Among consumers requesting financial assistance, 41% report being at or slightly above the federal poverty level, compared to 38% in 2020 and 33% in 2019.” The SEP continues until August 15, 2021. Will / can HHS make the open enrollment permanent?

In other heathcare / healthcare business news:

  • Healthcare Dive reports “UnitedHealth Group has named longtime executive Brian Thompson as the new chief executive officer of its health benefits business, UnitedHealthcare, the biggest private payer in the U.S.”
  • The CDC discusses the “Surprising Link Between Chronic Kidney Disease, Diabetes, and Heart Disease.”

Risk factors for each condition are similar and include high blood sugar, high blood pressure, family history, obesity, unhealthy diet, and physical inactivity.

High blood sugar can slowly damage the kidneys, and, over time, they can stop filtering blood as well as they should, leading to CKD. Approximately 1 in 3 adults with diabetes has CKD.

When the kidneys don’t work well, more stress is put on the heart. When someone has CKD, their heart needs to pump harder to get blood to the kidneys. This can lead to heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States. Change in blood pressure is also a CKD complication that can lead to heart disease. Luckily, preventing or managing one condition can help you prevent and manage the others and lower the risk for more complications [as explained in the article].

  • The Labor Department today issued FAQs and model forms to help ERISA governed plans implement the free COBRA continuation coverage available from April 1 through September 30, 2021, for COBRA-eligible folks who lost their ERISA coverage due to an involuntary termination or reduction in hours. This offer does not extend to FEHB enrollees who are covered under a different continuation of coverage program colloquially known as TCC>
  • Fedweek offers Reg Jone’s column on benefits available on the death of a current federal employee. These are very valuable rights that protect the employee’s family.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Bloomberg reports that “President Joe Biden said [today] he wants all American adults eligible for a coronavirus vaccine by April 19, two weeks earlier than his previous goal. All but two states are already set to meet that goal, with Oregon and Hawaii having planned to open up vaccines to all non-minors on May 1.”

Yesterday, the Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”) released a report finding that “The principal mode by which people are infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) is through exposure to respiratory droplets carrying infectious virus. It is possible for people to be infected through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects (fomites), but the risk is generally considered to be low.” As this BBC News article illustrates, last Spring we were quite worried about contracting COVID-19 from contaminated surfaces. In any event, thank heavens that we have the vaccines.

Federal News Network reports that front line federal employee access to the COVID-19 vaccine depends upon their employing agency.

If you are a federal employee working in the field, like Food and Drug Administration inspectors, Forest Service rangers or Custom and Border Protection officers, getting a COVID-19 vaccine from your agency isn’t a sure thing.

The Department of Homeland Security is making an all-out effort to vaccinate all 300,000 employees.

Other agencies like the Agriculture Department or the IRS are asking employees to take a path through their state and local governments.

This inconsistent application of agency support for “frontline” workers to receive one of the three inoculations has the potential to create a have and have nots among agencies.

Hopefully as the COVID-19 vaccine supply continues to expand and access restrictions are removed, these unfortunate quirks in the process will be ironed out quickly.

In other healthcare related tidbits

  • On April 12, the CDC will be sponsoring its decennial meeting on healthcare associated infections.
  • The Food and Drug Administration released a COVID-19 update today. The FEHBlog wonders when the FDA will take up granting full marketing approval for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and when AstraZeneca will file an emergency use authorization with the FDA for its COVID-19 vaccine. Those steps take us closer to ironing out the process quirks.
  • MedPage Today reports that

A personalized, hands-on care strategy for patients struggling with addiction was effective at reducing hospital readmission, a randomized trial found. In a comparison of hospitalized adults with substance use disorder involving opioids, cocaine, or alcohol, those who received Navigation Services to Avoid Rehospitalization (NavSTAR) care saw far better outcomes than those who simply received treatment as usual, according to Jan Gryczynski, PhD, of the Friends Research Institute in Baltimore, and colleagues.

  • Health Payer Intelligence informs us that

A digital therapeutic weight loss program led to major medical cost savings, according to a Rally Health Inc. study that points to wellness programs as cost-effective strategies to tackle the obesity epidemic. The study published in Obesity examined program data over a three-year period to analyze medical cost trends for those participating in Rally Health’s Real Appeal weight loss intervention program.

Researchers compared medical costs for a group of participants in the digital therapeutic wellness program with costs for a control group of non-participants. The control group was selected to match the intervention group in terms of health risk, baseline medical costs, age, gender, geographic region, and chronic conditions.

The study found that the wellness programming resulted in significant weight loss. There was an average weight loss of 3 percent for 4,790 program participants who attended at least one session over a 52-week period. In addition to providing positive member outcomes, the wellness program lowered medical expenditures significantly. Costs for the intervention cohort were 12 percent less than costs for the control group. What’s more, the savings of the wellness program cohort were 2.3 times more than program costs, marking significant return on investment.

  • Adam Fein reports in his Drug Channels blog that

The drug channel is consolidating, both vertically and horizontally. For evidence, look no further than Drug Channels Institute’s estimates of pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) market share, which are shown in the chart below. For 2020, DCI estimates that the three biggest PBMs [CVS Health (including Caremark and Aetna), the Express Scripts business of Cigna, and the OptumRx business of UnitedHealth Group] accounted for more than three-quarters of total equivalent prescription claims. * * * This concentration helps plan sponsors and payers, which can maximize their negotiating leverage by combining their prescription volumes within a small number of PBMs. 

Weekend update

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Both Houses of Congress remain in session this coming week for floor voting and committee business.

Bloomberg reports that

New U.S. Covid-19 cases declined by almost 100,000 last week to the fewest since early October, while an average of 1,326 people died of the disease each day, data compiled by Johns Hopkins University and Bloomberg show. The week’s death toll of 9,284 was the lowest since mid-November. U.S. immunization has expanded amid a growing supply of vaccines and a drive by President Joe Biden’s administration to help roll them out. The U.S. vaccination rate over the last week was about 2.5 million doses per day * * *.

Here’s a link to the CDC’s website on demographic characteristics of Americans who have received the COVID-19 vaccination(s).

HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality is holding its annual Patient Safety Awareness Week from March 14 to March 20.

From the FEHB front

  • FedWeek recently informed us about how getting married affects federal employee benefits.
  • FedSmith and Govexec each discuss planning for coordination of benefits with FEHB and Medicare in retirement.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

The President signed the American Rescue Plan (H.R. 1319) into law today.

Mercer provides a useful overview of the provisions of the law affecting employers. The COBRA subsidy discussed in the article does not apply to the temporary continuation coverage applicable to federal and postal employees. The COBRA subsidy in any event is only available to employees who lost health coverage due to involuntary termination of employment or reduction in hours.

On the bright side, the new law “increases the income exclusion for employer-provided dependent care assistance programs — for example, employee pretax contributions to dependent care FSAs — from $5,000 to $10,500 (and from $2,500 to $5,250 for a married individual filing a separate return) for 2021.” The FEHBlog expects that OPM will adopt this FSA change because the dependent care FSA is fully funded by the employee with no insurance risk to the employer.

Katie Keith in Health Affairs digs into the law’s financial support for the Affordable Care Act marketplace and its beneficiaries.

From the COVID front —

  • The White House has announced that the Biden administration will seek to “make every adult in the U.S. eligible for vaccination no later than May 1.” This fact sheet explains that steps that will be taken to make good on that plan.  The FEHBlog believes that this is an achievable goal.
  • David Leonhardt in the New York Times offers an interesting take on herd immunity from COVID-19. He explains that

Herd immunity is more like a light dimmer. The more people develop immunity — either from having been infected or from being vaccinated — the less easily the virus will spread.

Nearly 30 percent of Americans have now had the virus, according to Youyang Gu, a data scientist. (That includes many people who have never taken a Covid test.) About 18 percent have received at least one vaccine shot. There is some overlap between these two groups, which means that about 40 percent of Americans now have some protection from Covid.

Had these people been exposed to the virus a year ago, they could have become infected — and then spread Covid to others. Today, many are protected.

What’s more Mr. Leonhardt’s first dose of vaccination figure (18%) reflects the total U.S. population. However the vaccines generally are available only to people over 18 years of age. The Centers for Disease Control reports today that 25.1% of that population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The FEHBlog nearly fell off his share today when he noticed a new statistic on the CDC site showing that 62.4% of the U.S. population over age 65 has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. That’s great news.

In legislative / regulatory news —

  • Healthcare Dive reports that Xavier Becerra will soon receive a Senate floor vote on his nomination to serve as Secretary of Health and Human Services.
  • Govexec reports that “Postmaster General Louis DeJoy will soon request a $40 billion investment into the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service for organizational and workforce improvements, saying the money will help address longstanding challenges the mailing agency faces.  The funds would go toward infrastructure updates such as larger facilities and new package sortation equipment, DeJoy told a panel of the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday [March 11], and reducing turnover in the USPS workforce.”
  • Healthcare Dive also discusses hospital pricing information that has been gleaned from the online reports required by the federal government’s hospital pricing transparency rule. It’s not pretty.

Catchup Sunday

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend.

HHS issued several final rules on Thursday and Friday last week, none of which apply directly to the FEHBP:

  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS”) issued a final rule intended to streamline health plan prior authorization request to providers. America’s Health Insurance Plans, the health insurer trade association, was unimpressed. This rule applies to HHS’s own programs, e.g., Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, the Qualified Health Plans in the ACA marketplace.
  • CMS also a final Calendar Year (CY) 2022 Medicare Advantage and Part D Rate Announcement, finalizing Medicare Advantage (MA) and Part D payment methodologies for CY 2022. Here’s a link to the fact sheet.
  • HHS also issued part of the final CY 2022 Notice of Benefit and Payments Parameters required by the Affordable Care Act. Katie Keith outlines the notice on the Health Affairs blog, noting

On January 14, 2021, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released its final 2022 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters rule, joined in part by the Treasury Department. Historically, the “payment notice” adopts major changes for the next plan year in areas such as the exchanges and the risk adjustment program. Here, however, the final 2022 payment notice adopts only a subset of the policies considered in the proposed 2022 payment notice. This subset of policies includes the most controversial changes that had been included in the proposed rule. The final rule was accompanied by a fact sheet and a press release.

  • A friend of the FEHBlog called to his attention the fact that the Trump Administration HHS never published its proposed HIPAA privacy rule changes, announced December 10, 2020, in the Federal Register. (The HIPAA Privacy Rule does apply to the FEHBP.) What’s more the rule making cannot be found on the Federal Register’s latest public inspection list. The Biden Administration HHS will now have the opportunity to reconsider these “final actions” as well as what to do if anything with the proposed privacy rule changes.

The FEHBlog noticed that on January 7, 2021, the HHS Secretary extended the opioid crisis public health emergency another 90 days into April 2021.

Healthcare Dive informs us that

  • The Federal Trade Commission sent orders to six health insurance companies to obtain patient-level claims data for inpatient, outpatient, and physician services from 2015 to 2020, the agency said Thursday.
  • The FTC wants to figure out how hospitals’ acquisitions of physician practices has affected competition.  
  • The agency sent orders to some of the nation’s largest insurance companies, including UnitedHealthcare, Anthem, Aetna, Cigna, Florida Blue and Health Care Service Corporation.

Federal government personnel moves:

  • The Boston Globe reports that “President-elect Joe Biden on Friday nominated Eric Lander, a pioneer in the study of the human genome and the founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, to be his chief science adviser in a newly created Cabinet position. If confirmed by the Senate, Lander will be the first science adviser to serve in a presidential Cabinet * * *.
  • Medical Design and Resourcing reports that Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) “veteran Dr. Janet Woodcock has been tapped as interim FDA commissioner by the Biden administration, according to published reports.” Dr. Woodcock currently serves as the FDA’s Director of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.
  • Bloomberg Law reports that Dr. “Francis S. Collins will stay on as NIH director under the Biden administration, making him one of the few biomedical agency directors to span three presidents.”
  • Govexec.com reports that “President-elect Joe Biden has named Jason Miller as his government management czar, tapping a former Obama administration economic adviser for the key role in setting the president’s management and federal workforce agenda. * * * Should Miller be confirmed by the Senate, he would serve under OMB Director-designate Neera Tanden if she is confirmed and replace Michael Rigas, who is serving in the OMB management role—and that of Office of Personnel Management director—in an acting capacity. The last Senate-confirmed official to hold the management position was Margaret Weichert, a Trump nominee who served concurrently as acting OPM director. Biden has yet to name a head of OPM.”
  • The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service offer a Biden Administration political appointee tracker.

As this is the FEHBlog, it is worth noting that Federal News Network has reported on the OPM’s Inspector General’s report on the impact of COVID-19 on the FEHBP. The OIG’s analysis was found in its September 2020 semi-annual report to Congress. Federal News Network queries “What about 2022, or future years for that matter, when FEHB enrollees flock back to their doctor’s offices again for those checkups and preventative procedures they’ve been putting off?”

Bear in mind that all health U.S. plans including FEHB plans experienced a V shaped drop in claims at the height of the great hunkering down last Spring. Many preventive tests are not required annually. The FEHBlog got his routine physical last summer by a combination of a holding a televisit with the doctor and giving blood etc. at the doctor’s office. Furthermore, prescription drug claims have held steady throughout the pandemic and flu cases remain “unusually low” during this winter. We will get through this together. When we reach the new normal, the healthcare sky will not fall in, at least in the FEHBlog’s view.

Happy Hannukah

Hanukkah greeting template. Nine candles and wishing. Hand drawn sketch illustration. White, yellow and blue colors

The eight day long Jewish holiday of Hannukah begins tonight. Best wishes to those who are celebrating this holiday.

This evening. STAT News reports

A panel of outside experts on Thursday recommended the Food and Drug Administration issue an emergency use authorization to the Covid-19 vaccine being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, a vaccine that appeared to be highly efficacious in a Phase 3 clinical trial.

The 17-4 vote came after a long day in which members of the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, or VRBPAC, discussed a wide range of issues related to the vaccine, including concerns about vaccinating people with severe allergies and 16- and 17-year-olds, as well as issues regarding vaccination during pregnancy or lactation.

Although the FDA does not have to follow the panel’s recommendation, it is widely expected to do so. The rollout of Covid-19 vaccine could then begin in the United States in a matter of days.

The FEHBlog watched on You Tube a good chunk of the discussion preceding the vote. The FEHBlog was surprised that the motion presented to the Committee would extend the emergency use authorization to 16 and 17 year olds. He thought that the the minimum age would be 18 years old, and the committee members who voted against the bill were pediatricians concerned about the 16 to 17 year olds. Another member who was not a physician argued that the emergency use authorization use authorization should be limited to health care workers and nursing home residents, the initial phases approved by the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. In any event, the FEHBlog was pleased by the decisive vote. At the close of the virtual committee meeting the Chairman reminded the members that they would be meeting next Thursday December 17 to consider an emergency use authorization for the Modern vaccine.

Speaking of voting, the Senate did not take up today the one week long extension of continuing resolution funding the federal government or the FY 2021 national defense authorization act which the House approved yesterday. The Senate needs to act on the continuing resolution tomorrow. The Wall Street Journal reports that negotiations over another COVID-19 relief bill continue.

A friend of the FEHBlog called to his attention the Department of Health and Human Services website on combatting the COVID-19 virus. It’s quite comprehensive.

In other news today, the HHS Office for Civil Rights, which enforces the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules, proposed changes to the Privacy Rule.

The proposed changes to the HIPAA Privacy Rule include strengthening individuals’ rights to access their own health information, including electronic information; improving information sharing for care coordination and case management for individuals; facilitating greater family and caregiver involvement in the care of individuals experiencing emergencies or health crises; enhancing flexibilities for disclosures in emergency or threatening circumstances, such as the Opioid and COVID-19 public health emergencies; and reducing administrative burdens on HIPAA covered health care providers and health plans, while continuing to protect individuals’ health information privacy interests.

A friend of the FEHBlog shared this HHS fact sheet on this proposed rule. The proposal has a 60 day comment deadline which will end during the Biden Administration.

HHS’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services proposed new rules to crack down on prior authorization practice by Medicaid, CHIP, and QHP marketplace plans. (Medicare does not permit prior authorization.)

The rule would require payers in Medicaid, CHIP and QHP programs to build application programming interfaces (APIs) to support data exchange and prior authorization. APIs allow two systems, or a payer’s system and a third-party app, to communicate and share data electronically  Payers would be required to implement and maintain these APIs using the Health Level 7 (HL7) Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) standard. 

Building on that foundational policy, this rule would require impacted payers to implement and maintain a FHIR-based API to exchange patient data as patients move from one payer to another. In this way, patients who would otherwise not have access to their historic health information would be able to bring their information with them when they move from one payer to another, and would not lose that information simply because they changed payers.  

These proposed changes would also allow payers, providers and patients to have access to more information including pending and active prior authorization decisions, potentially allowing for fewer repeat prior authorizations, reducing burden and cost, and ensuring patients have better continuity of care.

The proposals are expected to take effect in January 2023. Good ideas. The pubic comment period ends on January 4, 2021, but the final rule no doubt will be in the hands of the Biden administration. The American Medical Association must be happy though.

In Govexec, benefits consultant Tammy Flanagan discusses FEHBP options for annuitants with primary Medicare A and B coverage. The FEHBlog is always impressed by the creative benefit designs that FEHB plan carriers offer members.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the CDC’s Cases in the U.S. website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 20th through 48th weeks of this year (beginning May 14 and ending December 2; using Thursday as the first day of the week in order to facilitate this weekly update):

 

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

The dip of the right side of this chart always happens and is not indicative of a drop in hospitalizations.

The FEHBlog has noted that the new cases and deaths chart shows a flat line for new weekly deaths  because new cases greatly exceed new deaths. Accordingly here is a chart of new COVID-19 deaths over the same period (May 14 through December 2):

This week’s dips on the right sides of the COVID 19 new cases and deaths charts are valid.

It’s worth adding that as of November 28, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control’s Fluview reports that “Seasonal influenza activity in the United States remains lower than usual for this time of year.” If anything proves that people are using masks and social distancing effectively this statistic does. COVID-19 simply is a stronger virus than the flu but it would be bad news to have a twin pandemic.

From the COVID-19 vaccine front, Fierce Healthcare reports that

After a bombshell report Thursday from the Wall Street Journal claiming Pfizer and BioNTech suddenly scaled back distribution targets for their mRNA-based coronavirus vaccine in 2020, the drugmaker said those revised plans were nothing new and, in fact, had been laid out last month. In announcements since, the company has quoted the new numbers. * * *

Pfizer is planning to distribute up to 50 million doses of its shot, dubbed BNT162b2, by the end of the year, a significant cut from the 100 million doses the drugmaker initially intended. Back in November, those plans were revised due to a slower-than-expected manufacturing scale-up and raw material shortages, a Pfizer spokesman said. 

Also, on the bright side, “Antibody levels stayed elevated in the 90 days after people received the second dose of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, raising hopes that the prophylactic can provide protection for one year.” Keep hope alive.

From the COVID-19 relief front, the Wall Street Journal reports that “A sharp decline in job growth in November further prodded lawmakers to reach an agreement on coronavirus relief, as negotiators hurried to craft a bill before a government funding deadline at the end of next week. * * * Rank-and-file lawmakers are still negotiating the details of the bipartisan proposal, including the language specifying how to distribute aid to state and local governments and the duration of a legal liability shield for businesses, health-care providers and schools. They are expected to continue crafting the text of the agreement, which also puts money toward schools, vaccine distribution and small business, through the weekend.” It will be telling if the negotiators release legislative language on Monday.

Also from Congress, Federal News Network informs us that

Federal employees who put off travel plans or simply didn’t have the time or flexibility to take time off this year will have a little more leeway with their unused annual leave in 2021. The latest version of the National Defense Authorization Act includes a provision that will allow federal employees to carry over an additional 25% of their annual leave into 2021. Conferees unveiled the details of their agreement for the 2021 NDAA, which is considered must-pass legislation, Thursday evening. * * *

[Also, ]Nearly a year after Congress passed paid parental leave benefits into law for federal employees, lawmakers are poised to correct a few mistakes with the original bill and expand coverage to the entire workforce.

The final NDAA agreement includes a provision that will ensure paid parental leave coverage to workers at the Federal Aviation Administration, non-screener personnel at the Transportation Security Administration and health professionals at the Veterans Health Administration, as well as any other Title 38 employees. Congressional employees, Article I judges, presidential appointees and employees of the District of Columbia courts and Public Defender Service are also covered in the final NDAA provisions.

The provision would go in effect as if they were immediately enacted after the passage of last year’s NDAA, meaning that an FAA or VHA employee expecting a new child on or after Oct. 1 should be entitled to receive paid parental leave benefits.

Finally, the Health and Human Services Department announced today “the creation of a False Claims Act Working Group (Working Group) that enhances its partnership with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) to combat fraud and abuse by identifying and focusing resources on those who seek to defraud the American taxpayers. HHS regulates over a third of the United States economy. In 2020, HHS provided over $1.5 trillion in grants and other payments to public and private recipients, including for healthcare items and services. In addition, HHS is one of the largest government contractors, paying over $170 billion in 2020 to thousands of contractors. In combating COVID-19, HHS has administered unprecedented levels of taxpayer support for private individuals and organizations.” OPM and its Inspector General, to their credit, have maintained a similar working group with FEHBP carriers for decades.