Catchup Sunday

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.

Federal Employees Benefits Open Season Supplement

While the FEHBlog usually doesn’t post on Saturday, we are now half way through the Federal Benefits Open Season and several helpful articles on that topic have been published over the past week; so here you go.

  • Tammy Flanagan discusses in Govexec.com federal employee and annuitant options in the FEHBP and FEDVIP and federal employee options in FSAFeds program.
  • A couple of FEHBlog reminders on FSAFeds — the contribution caps on dependent and healthcare care flexible spending accounts for federal employees are the maximum permitted by federal law; healthcare FSA accountholders can tap their account before the funds have been deposited while dependent care FSA accountholders must wait until funds have been deposited before making permissible expenditures. The FEHBlog has noticed that OPM promptly updates their FSA plan when Congress or the Internal Revenue Service offers new flexibilities.
  • Walt Francis discusses FEHBP options and offers his quick picks in FEDWeek.
  • FedSmith analyzes FEHBP high deductible plans with health savings accounts and other consumer driven plans.

There are 17 days left in this Open Season.

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 45th weeks of this year (beginning May 14 and ending November 11; using Thursday as the first day of the week in order to facilitate this weekly update):

That’s an eyepopper. 700,000 new cases in one week. Interestingly the CDC’s flu surveillance report as of November 7 continues to state that “Seasonal influenza activity in the United States remains low.” Twin epidemics of course would be worse.

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 November 11).

It’s worth adding that the highest number of weekly deaths occurred just before the start of this chart on May 14. Here a chart covering the period from April 2 through May 13, 2020.

Consequently, while new cases now are skyrocketing, current new weekly deaths (a weekly average of 5,473 over the past six weeks) are significantly lower than the above six week time frame (a weekly average of 10,408). That indicates to the FEHBlog that medical care is improving.

In other news —

  • Govexec.com offers Open Season decision making advice from the folks who write the Consumers’ Checkbook “Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees.” While OPM with carrier input has made great strides in improving its FEHB plan comparison tool. the Checkbook Guide remains the gold standard in the FEHBlog’s opinion. The FEHBlog does purchase the Checkbook Guide and the price is around $11 for online access.
  • FedWeek provides more names on the Biden Administration OPM “landing team.” The FEHBlog is not familiar with any of them for what that’s worth.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

Well, the 2020 Federal Benefits Open Season starts next Monday, November 9. The FEHBlog has noticed that OPM has launched its Open Season 2020 website and Fedsmith.com has made available the FEHBlog favorite annual benefits administration letter, the description of significant FEHBP changes for 2021. There are a lot of interesting HMO plan changes to review.

The FEHBlog was looking for information about the virtual health fairs that OPM and FedPoint are sponsoring this year for federal employees and annuitants. It turns out that FedPoint is new name for Long Term Care Partners. FedPoint p/k/a LTCP administers the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program. The company’s press release explains

FedPoint, which has more than 400 full-time employees and many part-time and contracted employees around the country, is a division of John Hancock Life & Health Insurance Company. The new name was chosen in part to reflect the platforms and service centers the company builds and manages, which function as key points where multiple stakeholders converge, interact, and transact business. Perhaps the most notable example is BENEFEDS, a proprietary online platform and call center built under the auspices of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Through BENEFEDS the company handles enrollment, billing, and customer support functions for enrollees in the large Federal Employees Dental and Vision Insurance Program (FEDVIP).

BENFEDS offers a website with information about 2020 Open Season virtual information offerings for FEDVIP and FEHBP customers. (BENFEDS understandably focuses on FEDVIP but if you click on any of the registration tabs you see that the information concerns the FEHBP, FEDVIP, and FSAFeds. NARFE’s Federal Benefits Institute also offers useful benefit webinars for active and retired Feds.

As tomorrow is the big day, the Centers for Disease Control is offering advice to voters on how to control the risk of contracting COVID-19 at polling places. The FEHBlog voted at a Montgomery County, Maryland, early voting center last Thursday and he found the process to be a well-oiled machine. Kudos.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

The Senate Judiciary Committee sent Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination to the Senate floor today. The Senate will confirm the nomination on Monday and Judge Barrett will be sworn in soon thereafter. Consequently, Judge Barrett will be sitting on Supreme Court bench when the Court hears the Affordable Care Act constitutionality case on November 10. The FEHBlog predicts a 9-0 decision in favor of the law’s constitutionality with the exception of the zeroed out individual mandate.

On the COVID-19 front, Medscape reports as follows:

  • The Food and Drug Administration gave marketing approval to Gilead Science’s “remdesivir (Veklury) today as a treatment for hospitalized COVID-19 patients age 12 and up, making it the first and only approved treatment for the disease.”
  • The Centers for Disease Control updated its COVID-19 social distancing guidance: “Previously, the CDC cautioned against spending 15 minutes or longer in close proximity to an infected person, particularly in enclosed indoor spaces. In a new report published online October 21 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, however, investigators ‘determined that an individual who had a series of shorter contacts that over time added up to more than 15 minutes became infected.'”
  • Dr. Anthony Fauci predicts that “People will likely need to wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines through the end of 2021 and into 2022.”

Healthcare Dive informs us about four healthcare story lines that COVID-19 has overshadowed this year — — 1. Price transparency going strong; 2. Companies rush to go public; 3. Surprise billing efforts slow to a crawl, and 4. preference for healthcare at home. The FEHBlog is pleased to reflect that he has been discussing these matters and COVID-19 this year.

Govexec reports on the eight most important birthdays for federal employees from a federal employee retirement standpoint — the birthdays range from ages 50 to 72

The Society for Human Management provides a comprehensive update on employer and health plan sponsored wellness programs which is worth a gander.

Beckers Hospital Review alerts us that “Healthgrades named the recipients of its 2021 Specialty Excellence Awards Oct. 20, which include the top hospitals for critical care.” The article lists the 214 award winners by state.

Saturday October 24 is National Prescription Drug Take Back Day. “Check DEA’s official Take Back Day website for more information and to find year-round collection sites near you.”

Finally in a man bites dog story, the Wall Street Journal headlines tonight on its website that “Walmart sued the federal government in an attempt to strike a pre-emptive blow against what it said is an impending opioid-related civil lawsuit from the Justice Department.” Best defense, etc. The article notes that “Quicken Loans Inc. tried a similar tactic against the federal government in 2015 to avoid being pegged with mortgage fraud, but the Justice Department sued weeks later in a case Quicken settled last year.” The FEHBlog expects the same outcome with this lawsuit.

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

The FEHBlog did catch part of the LAN Summit today. The FEHBlog understands that recordings of the sessions will be available at no cost in the near future.

  • The LAN released a Healthcare Resiliency Framework which is particularly appropriate 2020.
  • The FEHBlog was impressed by a talk given by Alan Levine, the CEO of Ballad Health which was created by the 2018 merger of two rural health systems in southwestern Virginia and eastern Tennessee. This program caught the FEHBlog’s attention:

Ballad Health is implementing the Strong Starts/Strong Pregnancies Program to connect with the 300-member STRONG Accountable Care Community (ACC) it facilitated, which consists of churches, schools, employers, healthcare providers and social services agencies in the Appalachian Highlands. More than 6,000 babies are delivered each year in Ballad Health facilities, and beginning in 2021, Ballad Health and participating independent obstetricians in the region will provide assessments and screenings to help connect families with a community navigator who will work to make sure each child receives the strong start they deserve. This includes connecting families with the supports and services provided by the members of STRONG and other community partners.

Here are a couple of tidbits from the virtual HLTH Conference:

  • Fierce Healthcare reports that “In the months after Walgreens announced a $1 billion partnership with VillageMD to build hundreds of primary care clinics next to its retail pharmacy stores, there are still only a few locations in Houston. “But that will be changing quickly, said Walgreens’ co-Chief Operating Officer Alex Gourlay. “Within the next fiscal year, the company plans to have at least 40 locations open, Gourlay said, speaking at the HLTH 2020 virtual conference Monday. The company has previously said it expects to have at least 500 locations open within the next five years.”
  • Healthcare Dive reports that “Integrated health giant Kaiser Permanente said it intends to put a stronger focus on equity and inclusion in one of Greg Adams’ first major moves as CEO. The Oakland, California-based nonprofit plans to bring ethnicity and race factors into how it evaluates quality and care across the organization, Adams said Monday at the HLTH virtual conference. Kaiser’s board, which finished strategic planning in the middle of the pandemic, is still figuring out what that means in practice.” As a board we made the decision that we would own healthcare disparities for all care that we provide,” Adams said. “We haven’t quite figured out how we’re going to do that… [but] the point the board made is, owning it for a few conditions is not sufficient.”

On the COVID-19 front

  • The NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins has an encouraging post today about COVID-19 vaccine development.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that Johnson & Johnson put a pause on their Phase III vaccine trial in order to investigate an unexpected illness in a participant. The FEHBlog is pleased to read about occasional pauses like this because it shows that the trial system is working.
  • CNN Health reports that “there were 20% more deaths than would normally be expected from March 1 through August 1 in the United States — with Covid-19 officially accounting for about two-thirds of them, according to new research published Monday in the medical journal JAMA.” COVID-19 is one bad disease.
  • A friend of the FEHBlog called to his attention the fact that on October 8, 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services renewed the nationwide public health emergency for the opioid crisis. It is surprising to the FEHBlog that the first such declaration was made only three years ago.
  • This lead the FEHBlog to discover that on October 2, 2020, HHS also renewed the nationwide COVID-19 public health emergency through January 21, 2021. This act extends the CARES Act COVID-19 testing mandate on health plans at least through that date.

Finally Federal News Network reports that “Social Security recipients will get a modest 1.3% cost-of living-increase in 2021, but that might be small comfort amid worries about the coronavirus and its consequences for older people. The increase amounts to $20 a month for the average retired worker, according to estimates released Tuesday by the Social Security Administration. That’s a little less than this year’s 1.6% cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA. The COLA affects the personal finances of about 1 in 5 Americans, including Social Security recipients, disabled veterans and federal retirees, some 70 million people in all.”

Weekend update

Thanks to ACK15 for sharing their work on Unsplash.

Congress does not plan to hold votes this week. The Senate Judiciary Committee begins Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination confirmation hearing tomorrow.

Fox Business brings us up to date on the COVID-19 relief bill negotiations, and Federal News Network outlines new federal employment bills to watch.

This week the HLTH conference will virtually occur. Healthcare Dive describes five conference highlights.

On the afternoon of Tuesday October 13, the HCP-LAN will hold its virtual summit meeting. The FEHBlog has enjoyed these summits and, in contrast to HLTH, there’s no charge to attend. “The 2020 LAN Virtual Summit will center around how value-based payment models and the larger health care system have adapted to become more responsive and resilient in the wake of the public health emergency.”

On Thursday October 15, the Medicare Open Season begins. This is time when Medicare beneficiaries can enroll in or switch Medicare Advantage and Part D plans. The Open Season end on December 7.

Hopefully this week also will spotlight OPM’s 2020 Open Season announcement.

In recent news —

  • Health Payer Intelligence discusses a PriceWaterhouseCoopers report on strategies that health plans are implementing to control prescription benefit costs.
  • The Wall Street Journal considers “Lessons for the Next Pandemic—Act Very, Very Quickly / Scientists and public-health leaders are working on new ways to find infections before they spread; smarter lung scans and screening blood samples.” It’s never too early to start evaluating and planning.
  • The Federal Times reports on the virtual ceremony held to honor the federal employees who received the 2020 SAMMIE awards. SAMMIE is short for Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals. Congratulations SAMMIE winners.
  • NPR reports that

When developing a vaccine, scientists have a few strategies to try. They can take a piece or component of the bacteria and use that to trigger an immune response in a person. They can kill the pathogen and use its corpse as the vaccine. Or they can take a live pathogen and weaken it in the lab.

The latter are called “live, attenuated vaccines,” and over the past century, scientists have noticed something peculiar about these vaccines: They seem to offer some protection, not just from the targeted disease, but also against many different diseases, including respiratory infections.

COVID-19, of course, is a respiratory infection.

The nasal flu vaccine, in contrast to the injection, is a “live, attenuate vaccine.” However, it is only available to certain age groups. The Centers For Disease Control explains “The nasal spray flu vaccine is approved for use in healthy non-pregnant individuals, 2 years through 49 years old. People with certain medical conditions should not receive the nasal spray flu vaccine.” Of course, this is a conversation to hold with your doctor if you are eligible for the nasal flu vaccine.

Monday Round-up

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

For fun, the FEHBlog went down the OPM.gov rabbit hole to find the dates on which the the following year’s FEHB and FEDVIP premiums were announced. Since 2004 (the FEHBlog could not find the 2009 and 2010 press releases), the announcement was made eleven times in September and four times in October. The latest date was October 7 in 2014. Since that date the release dates range from September 28 (in 2015 and 2018) to October 7. So OPM has not set a new record yet.

In this regard, the Society for Human Resources Management reports today that

Employers expect a moderate health plan cost increase next year of 4.4 percent, on average, compared to this year, according to early results from HR consultancy Mercer’s National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans 2020.

The increase, based on 1,113 employer responses since early July, is marginally lower than a recent forecast by the nonprofit Business Group on Health, which in August expected a 5.3 percent increase in health plan premiums for 2021. But Mercer’s projection is within the broad range of 4 percent to 10 percent forecast by consultancy PwC’s Health Research Institute over the summer.

Mercer projects that 2020 will end with a 3.3 percent health benefit cost increase, which is still largely in line with the average annual cost growth over the past several years. Still, health benefit cost growth is now far outpacing the consumer price index and wage growth, both of which have slowed significantly.

The President, who returned to the White House from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center this evening, signed an executive order on Saturday. The executive order concerns “Saving Lives Through Increased Support For Mental- and Behavioral-Health Needs. It establishes a “Coronavirus Mental Health Working Group (Working Group) is hereby established to facilitate an ‘all-of-government’ response to the mental-health conditions induced or exacerbated by the pandemic, including issues related to suicide prevention. The Working Group will be co-chaired by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, or his designee, and the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, or her designee.”

It’s a bit of surprise to the FEHBlog that as Federal News Network reports the federal government has not yet given affected employees the option to decline the Administration’s temporary payroll tax deferral.