Holiday weekend update

Holiday weekend update

Happy King Day! Here is a link to the NPR website that includes a video and a transcript of his “I Have a Dream” speech given August 28, 1963. Dr. King proves that you don’t have to be President to lead the country. He accomplished so much in his tragically shortened life for which we all should be grateful.

From the Congress front, the House of Representatives remains in session this week for Committee business and floor voting while the Senate is on State work period. Govexec lets us know that last Thursday

Lawmakers sounded a rare note of optimism about reaching a spending agreement for the remainder of fiscal 2022 as they look to avoid yet another stopgap measure.  Leaders in both parties called a bicameral, bipartisan meeting “constructive,” saying they shared the goal of setting full-year appropriations by their Feb. 18 deadline. 

From the Omicron front, STAT News informs us that

As the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc, an expert panel at the World Economic Forum delivered a mix of good news and bad news on Monday: More variants will emerge, but vaccine production is accelerating and research is progressing toward a combined shot that may be able to attack these different variants.

On one hand, the world needs to prepare for newer strains that could be more vexing, or the “worst case scenario,” said Annelies Wilder-Smith, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “Omicron will not be the last variant. There’s a high probability we will have another variant coming up. The question is when and will it be less dangerous?”

Wall Street Journal columnist Alyssia Finley offers a column on the benefits of natural immunity created by Omicron breakthrough infections.

study last month by the Oregon Health and Science University found that vaccinated people who experienced breakthrough infections produced higher levels of antibodies that were up to 1,000% more effective than those generated two weeks after a second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. The researchers described this as superimmunity. 

“I think this speaks to an eventual end game,” said co-author Marcel Curlin. “It doesn’t mean we’re at the end of the pandemic, but it points to where we’re likely to land: Once you’re vaccinated and then exposed to the virus, you’re probably going to be reasonably well-protected from future variants.” Dr. Curlin added: “Our study implies that the long-term outcome is going to be a tapering off of the severity of the worldwide epidemic.” * * *

All of this suggests that infection with Omicron is likely to stimulate potent and durable protection against Covid-19—and potentially other coronaviruses—even if it mutates to become more virulent. As Omicron rapidly spreads, people who have been vaccinated or previously infected will develop superimmunity. Covid-19 will become a virus that causes cold- and sometimes flulike symptoms—annoying but rarely deadly or disruptive.

One caveat is that older people generate weaker T-cell responses and memories to infections and vaccines. They’re likely to need annual booster shots. Omicron will end the pandemic by making Covid-19 endemic.

The Journal also offers masking advice which help the FEHBlog finally understand the difference between N-95 and KN-95 masks. “If you can’t get an N95 [which is certified in the US], doctors suggest KN95, KF94 and FFP2 masks, which are certified in China, South Korea and Europe, respectively.”

The Journal also reports that

One year into her tenure as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky acknowledges that she should have communicated certain things better to the American public.

She says the pandemic threw curveballs that she should have anticipated. She thinks she should have made it clearer to the public that new rules and guidelines were subject to change if the nature of the fight against Covid-19 shifted again.

“I think what I have not conveyed is the uncertainty in a lot of these situations,” Dr. Walensky said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

Dr. Walensky deserves credit for making these remarks.

From the FEHB and TRICARE fronts, benefits consultant Tammy Flanagan discusses the merits of enrolling in Medicare Part B when you retire from federal employment at or over age 65.

From the healthcare business front, Revcycle Intelligence calls to our attention the fact that “2021 did not set any records for the number of hospital mergers and acquisitions, but data shows a shift to larger deals between well-established organizations”

The report identified eight “mega-mergers” in which the seller or smaller partner by revenue had over $1 billion in annual revenue. Out of all the announced transactions, that is the largest percentage of announced mega-mergers in the last six years at 16.3 percent. It was also nearly double the percentage of mega-mergers announced in 2020.

The average size of the smaller party in hospital merger and acquisition deals was also up significantly compared to previous years, according to the report. The average size by annual receive increased to $619 million from $388 million in 2020.

The data may point to a new trend in healthcare consolidation.

From the benefit design front, Health Payer Intelligence reports that

Although acupuncture utilization has grown in recent years, only half of acupuncture visits had any form of coverage in 2019, according to a research letter published in JAMA Network Open.

The researchers analyzed acupuncturist visits in Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS) data from 2010 to 2019. Their aim was to uncover the total cost of the visit, the annual out-of-pocket healthcare spending for these visits, the portion of these visits that were covered under the patients’ insurance plans, and the percent of out-of-pocket costs.

The majority of the participants were female and nearly six in ten were White individuals.

Finally MedPage Today gives us a community-oriented story written by “a physician [Avik Chatterjee, MD, MPH] in a shelter-based clinic in Boston, near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, where a large encampment of people experiencing homelessness has emerged. Injection drug use in this area has picked up recently, and overdoses are not uncommon. When people need help, outreach workers and shelter staff run in and call for us.” And clinic doctors and nurses respond to the calls.” His story concludes as follows:

The skills, knowledge, and compassion necessary to address the overdose crisis exist in the community of people who use drugs. Historically, this group of people has been particularly marginalized by healthcare institutions. But people who use drugs are finally starting to demand a seat at the table where decisions are made around research and treatment of substance use disorders. Researchers, clinicians, and policymakers need to come up with creative ways to partner with this community to meaningfully incorporate lived and living experience in designing research and clinical programs.

In the face of one of the biggest health crises of our generation, it’s time to realize that “we’re all family here.”

And the post comes full circle.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year 2022 from unsplash.com.

Welcome 2022!!

  • Federal Benefits Open Season changes took effect yesterday for annuitants and today for employees.
  • The Senate reconvenes for the second session of the 117th Congress tomorrow. The Wall Street Journal reminds us that “The Senate returns for a new session on Monday with Democrats focused on trying to change the chamber’s rules to muscle through elections legislation over Republican opposition, as lawmakers also hope to revive President Biden’s stalled economic and climate agenda.” The Senate also will hold some Committee business this week.
  • The House of Representatives reconvenes on January 10, a week from tomorrow.
  • The Supreme Court will hear oral argument on Friday January 7 about whether or not to stay the OSHA ETS creating a COVID vaccination or testing program for business with 100 or more employees and the CMS vaccination mandate for most healthcare workers.
  • From the Omicron front, David Leonhardt writing in the New York Times illustrates with charts why we have reason to hope that the pandemic will become endemic / a part of life rather than gripping our lives in 2022.

[W]hen the current surge begins receding, it will likely have left a couple of silver linings: Omicron is so contagious that it will have infected a meaningful share of the population, increasing the amount of Covid immunity and helping defang the virus. Omicron has also helped focus Americans on the importance of booster shots, further increasing immunity.

As important, the world has more powerful weapons to fight Covid than it did only a few weeks ago: two new post-infection treatments, one from Merck and a more powerful one from Pfizer, that lower the risk of hospitalization and death. With Pfizer’s treatment, the reduction is by almost 90 percent, according to early research trials.

All of which suggests that the U.S. could emerge from the Omicron wave significantly closer to the only plausible long-term future for Covid — one in which it becomes an endemic disease and a more normal part of daily life. It will still cause illness and death; a typical flu season kills more than 30,000 Americans, most of them elderly. For the foreseeable future, battling Covid — through vaccination, treatment and research — will remain important.

The FEHBlog heartily agrees with these sentiments.

Midweek Update / At Last a COVID Pill!

From the Omicron front, STAT News reports that

The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday authorized Paxlovid, a pill developed and made by Pfizer, as a treatment for Covid-19, a significant step in the battle against the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The drug was authorized for use in people as young as 12 so long as they weigh at least 88 pounds.

The authorization of an oral antiviral to beat back Covid has been eagerly anticipated because such a medicine could reach large numbers of people infected with the virus and prevent them from becoming seriously ill or hospitalized. Existing medicines, such as monoclonal antibodies, must be given intravenously or as injections.

Still, initial supplies of Paxlovid will be limited. Pfizer has said it expects to produce more than 180,000 courses of the treatment this year. The company said Wednesday it now expects to provide 120 million courses by the end of 2022, up from 80 million previously, thanks in part to new contract manufacturers. Pfizer has contracted with the U.S. government to provide 10 million courses by the end of 2022 at a cost of $5.29 billion.

Once readily available, Paxlovid will be the answer to a positive COVID test, rather than 10 days of quarantine or hospitalization. Jingle bells, indeed.

Speaking of the FDA, MedPage Today informs us that

The FDA approved the first monotherapy for bipolar-related depressive episodes, Intra-Cellular Therapies announced Monday.

The atypical antipsychotic lumateperone (Caplyta) gained an indication for the treatment of depressive episodes associated with bipolar I or II disorder in adults, as monotherapy and as adjunctive therapy with lithium or valproate. It was first approved for adults with schizophrenia in December 2019. * * *

“The efficacy, and favorable safety and tolerability profile, make Caplyta an important treatment option for the millions of patients living with bipolar I or II depression and represents a major development for these patients,” said Roger McIntyre, MD, of the University of Toronto, in a statement released by the manufacturer. “Caplyta is approved for a broad range of adult patients including those patients with bipolar II depression who have been underserved with limited treatment options.”

Switching back to the Omicron front, the Wall Street Journal reports that

New data from Scotland and South Africa suggest people infected with the Omicron variant of coronavirus are at markedly lower risk of hospitalization than those who contracted earlier versions of the virus, promising signs that immunity as a result of vaccination or prior infection remains effective at warding off severe illness with the fast-spreading strain.

The findings begin to fill in unknowns around the severity of the disease caused by Omicron, a major variable critical to health authorities around the world as they gauge how to react to the new variant.

Scientists are still unsure how the positive findings around hospitalizations will stack up against another major variable: Omicron’s much increased transmissibility. Both variables are likely to change depending on local conditions, such as the proportion of the population that has been vaccinated against Covid-19.

“This is a qualified good news story,” said Jim McMenamin, incident director for Covid-19 at Public Health Scotland, and one of the authors of the Scottish study, at a briefing. “It’s important we don’t get ahead of ourselves. A smaller proportion of a much greater number of cases can still mean a substantial number of people that might experience severe Covid infections that could lead to hospitalization.”

From the COVID vaccine mandate challenge front, the Journal also tells us that

The Supreme Court on Wednesday said it would hold fast-track oral arguments early next month to consider whether the Biden administration can enforce Covid-19 vaccine-or-testing rules for large private employers, as well as vaccine requirements for many healthcare workers.

The cases, set for argument on Jan. 7, could go a long way to determining how much latitude the administration has to combat the coronavirus pandemic in the workplace.

The high court issued a pair of short, written orders to schedule the arguments, in response to a growing pile of emergency appeals asking the justices to intervene.

The cases haven’t yet been fully litigated in the lower courts; the Supreme Court will be deciding whether the Biden administration rules can be implemented for now. But practically speaking, the court’s decision is likely to determine whether the requirements survive. 

Curiously, it does not appear that the stay of the government contractor mandate will be presented to the Supreme Court. Instead the parties have agreed to expedite briefing and the oral arguments on the merits of the case.

From the OSHA ETS front, the Society for Human Resource Management reports that


Now that a federal appeals court has revived the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) emergency temporary standard (ETS), covered employers will need to prepare a written COVID-19 vaccination-or-testing policy by Jan. 10.

Under the ETS, employers may choose to require vaccination or allow covered employees who are unvaccinated to wear a mask and provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test on a weekly basis. The start date for the testing requirement has been extended to Feb. 9, but many other components of the ETS take effect on Jan. 10, such as the requirement for employers to determine the vaccination status of each employee and develop a written policy.

“Keep it simple,” recommended Eric Hobbs, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Milwaukee. “Do not include anything in the plan that you can’t follow through on.”

The Supreme Court is unlikely to rule on the OSHA ETS mandate stay before January 10, 2022.

From the Federal employee compensation front, Federal News Network reports that

President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed an executive order making federal pay raises official for many civilian employees in 2022.

As expected, General Schedule employees will receive an across-the-board federal pay raise of 2.2% in 2022, plus an additional 0.5% locality pay adjustment, to total a 2.7% average increase.

An Office of Personnel Management official confirmed the 2.7% federal pay raise to Federal News Network Wednesday evening. The agency hasn’t yet posted detailed pay tables describing pay rates for each locality pay area.

The raises take effect Jan. 1, or more specifically during the first pay period in January.

Under OPM’s regulations, Open Season changes take place on January 1 for annuitants and on the first day of the first pay period in the new year for employees. GSA’s federal employee calendar for 2022 shows that January 2 is the first day of the first pay period for next year.

From the Affordable Care Act front, the FEHBlog apologizes that he left a sentence off yesterday’s post about the current federal fiscal year’s PCORI fee. To close the unintended loop, IRS Notice 2022-04 states that “The applicable dollar amount that must be used to calculate the [PCORI] fee imposed by sections 4375 and 4376 for policy years and plan years that end on or after October 1, 2021, and before October 1, 2022, is $2.79” per bellybutton.

Weekend update

Photo by Jessica Delp on Unsplash

Congress has lowered the curtain on the first session of the current two year long Congress, the 117th in our Nation’s history.

Roll Call reports that

Sen. Joe Manchin III said on Sunday that he can’t support the sweeping social safety net and climate change package that President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders have made their top legislative priority.

The West Virginia Democrat’s opposition is likely the final nail in the massive $2 trillion-plus “Build Back Better” legislation given the Senate’s 50-50 split, unless extensive changes are made that would result in key provisions being scuttled.

“I can’t vote for it and I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation,” Manchin told “Fox News Sunday.” “I just can’t. I’ve tried everything humanly possible.  I can’t get there … This is a ‘no.’ “

Of course, the legislative struggle over the BBB bill is not over but at least we should enjoy a peaceful holiday period.

From the Omicron front, Bloomberg reports that

Lockdowns in the U.S. will likely not be necessary even as Covid-19 cases increase, according to President Joe Biden’s top medical adviser, Anthony Fauci. Even so, many hospitals may be strained as the omicron variant spreads, especially in regions with lower levels of vaccination, he said. 

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called on the federal government to step up supplies of tests and treatments to the city amid a spike in infections caused by the omicron variant. New York state broke a record for new infections for the third consecutive day.

From the COVID mandate challenge front —

Since last Wednesday

  • The Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals lifted the nationwide stay on the CMS healthcare provider COVID vaccine mandate, but left the stay in place for 24 states which had obtained their own stays. The federal government has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to lift the stays applicable to those 24 states. The Supreme Court has allowed the respondent states until December 30, 2021, to respond to the federal government’s motion.
  • The American Hospital Association (“AHA”) reports in the wake of the Court action that “CMS’s website states that CMS “has suspended activities related to the implementation and enforcement of [the mandate] pending future developments in the litigation.” AHA has confirmed with CMS that this statement applies nationwide and remains accurate even after the Fifth Circuit’s order staying the nationwide effect of the Louisiana district court’s preliminary injunction. 
  • The Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals lifted the nationwide stay on the OSHA ETS COVID vaccination screening program. The State of Georgia has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate the stay.
  • The American Hospital Association reports again in the wake of the Court action that “OSHA has announced that it is ‘exercising enforcement discretion with respect to the compliance dates of the’ mandate. OSHA states that ‘it will not issue citations for noncompliance with any requirements of the [mandate] before January 10 and will not issue citations for noncompliance with the [mandate’s] testing requirements before February 9, so long as an employer is exercising reasonable, good faith efforts to come into compliance with the standard.’ OSHA has also promised to ‘work closely with the regulated community to provide compliance assistance.’”
  • The Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the nationwide stay on the government contractor mandate. The federal government is expected to ask the Supreme Court to lift this stay tomorrow.
  • It certainly appears that all three mandate issues will be presented to the Supreme Court simultaneously. 

In Affordable Care Act news, CMS announced on Friday that

Health insurers have provided approximately $2 billion in rebates for the 2020 reporting year to an estimated 9.8 million consumers, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is announcing today. Insurers were generally required to provide such rebates and notice of any rebates owed to consumers no later than September 30, 2021. Rebate payments can be provided in the form of a premium credit, lump-sum check, or, if a consumer paid the premium using a credit card or direct debit, by lump-sum reimbursement to the account used to pay the premium.

CMS released a list today of all insurers owing Medical Ratio Loss (MLR) rebates for the 2020 reporting year, with total amounts by state and market. The CMS market breakdown estimate includes approximately 4.8 million consumers in the individual market and 5 million employees in the group market (this represents 2.6 million employees in the small group market, and 2.4 million employees in the large group market). 

Today’s release also includes the Public Use Files (PUFs) containing the data from all health insurers’ final MLR filings for the 2020 reporting year. 

For more information visit: https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Programs-and-Initiatives/Health-Insurance-Market-Reforms/Medical-Loss-Ratio

Link to PUFs here: https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Data-Resources/mlr

If federal employee compensation news, Govexec tells us that

[Last] week, the President’s Pay Agent, which is made up of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, Acting Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young and Office of Personnel Management Director Kiran Ahuja, issued its annual report ahead of President Biden’s executive order finalizing an average 2.7% pay raise in 2022. The pay agent declined to issue waivers based on a locality’s number of authorized positions, but approved Carroll County’s addition to the Davenport, Iowa, locality pay area due to the fact that it recently has met the 2,500 employee threshold.

Midweek Update

From the Capitol Hill front, Roll Call reports that

The Senate easily passed the annual defense policy bill on Wednesday, authorizing $768 billion in defense spending for fiscal 2022.

The final tally for the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act was 88-11. * * *

The legislation marks the 61st straight year that Congress has passed the NDAA. President Joe Biden is expected to sign it into law shortly.

The Federal Times discusses the federal employment aspects of the new law.

The Wall Street Journal adds that “Democrats braced for weeks of delay and uncertainty on their roughly $2 trillion education, healthcare and climate package they had hoped to finish by year end, as efforts faltered to secure the pivotal support of Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) for the bill.”

From the Omicron front Bloomberg informs us that

The results from initial studies of the omicron variant of the coronavirus are starting to roll in almost daily, and early suspicions are gaining more support. The mutation is much better at infecting—70 times faster than delta and the original strain. But the severity of illness is likely to be much lower, according to a study from the University of Hong Kong, echoing earlier observations from doctors in South Africa where the variant was first observed. The supercharged speed of omicron’s spread in the human bronchus was found 24 hours following infection, according to the university. However, the study found it replicated in lung tissue much less efficiently than earlier mutations, which may signal “lower severity of disease.”

The FEHBlog ran across not one but two articles prognosticating about the extension of no cost sharing coverage of at home rapid antigen COVID tests scheduled for next month:

  • The Society for Human Resource Management points out a Mercer consulting report on the coverage issue.

HR consultancy Mercer explained: “Under existing guidance (see FAQ Part 43, Q/A-4), at-home COVID tests must be covered without participant cost-sharing, but only when ordered by an attending health care provider who has determined the test is medically appropriate based on current accepted standards of medical practice.”

Mercer noted that “group health plans and insurers currently may (but are not required to) provide coverage of at-home tests without participant cost-sharing even absent a health care provider’s determination of medical necessity. While we await important details, it seems quite possible that forthcoming guidance will significantly expand the scope of required coverage of at-home COVID testing without participant cost-sharing, in short, by eliminating the need to involve a health care provider.”

  • Health Payer Intelligence notes that “In a letter to CMS, the Alliance of Community Health Plans (ACHP) has requested that the federal government establish certain requirements for at-home COVID-19 testing coverage.” ACHP letter builds on Mercer’s concerns.

From the substance use disorder front —

Overdose deaths involving the synthetic opioid, illicitly-manufactured fentanyl (IMF), skyrocketed across the country from 2019 to 2020, researchers found.

Between July 2019 and December 2020, IMF-involved overdose deaths nearly doubled in the West (93.9%), increased 65% in the South and 33% in the Midwest, reported Julie O’Donnell, PhD, of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control in New Orleans, and colleagues.

Moreover these deaths were quick, as 56% of people who died from an IMF-involved overdose did not have a pulse when first responders arrived on the scene, and approximately 40% of IMF-involved deaths also involved a stimulant, O’Donnell’s group wrote in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

  • The NIH HEAL Initiative reported that texting and related apps can be used to lengthen use of drugs taken to treat opioid use disorder. Here’s the background:

Medications such as methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone are highly effective for treating opioid use disorder. Yet only a fraction of people who could benefit actually receive these medications. Worse, about half of those who start taking them discontinue use within the first 6 months of treatment. Research has shown that the longer people continue treatment, the better their outcome is and the lower their risk of overdose.

  • On the bright side, NIH also reports that

The percentage of adolescents reporting substance use decreased significantly in 2021, according to the latest results from the Monitoring the Future survey of substance use behaviors and related attitudes among eighth, 10th, and 12th graders in the United States. In line with continued long-term declines in the use of many illicit substances among adolescents previously reported by the Monitoring the Future survey, these findings represent the largest one-year decrease in overall illicit drug use reported since the survey began in 1975. The Monitoring the Future survey is conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health.

From the this and that department —

  • Health Affairs unveiled the National Health Care Spending Report for 2020:

US health care spending increased 9.7 percent to reach $4.1 trillion in 2020, a much faster rate than the 4.3 percent increase seen in 2019. The acceleration in 2020 was due to a 36.0 percent increase in federal expenditures for health care that occurred largely in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, gross domestic product declined 2.2 percent, and the share of the economy devoted to health care spending spiked, reaching 19.7 percent. In 2020 the number of uninsured people fell, while at the same time there were significant shifts in types of coverage.

  • The Wall Street Journal graphically points out that emergency room charges can vary significantly for common emergencies in downtown Boston.
  • Fierce Healthcare tells us that

UnitedHealth Group has pushed back the deadline for its nearly $8 billion acquisition of Change Healthcare, according to a new filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Change said in the filing that UnitedHealth informed the company that it was pushing back the deal’s outside date to April 2022. Previous filings suggested that the acquisition could close as early as late February.

Within the merger agreement, both companies have the right to push back the outside date.

UnitedHealth and Change are awaiting the completion of an investigation into the merger by the Department of Justice, which has been probing the deal on antitrust grounds.

Weekend Update

Congress will remain in session for Committee business and floor voting.

The focus of attention will be the President’s Build Back Better Act. The Senate Finance Committee released the text of its portion of the Senate version of the BBB Act yesterday. The Wall Street Journal explains that

President Biden this week will lobby Sen. Joe Manchin, the centrist West Virginia Democrat, in an attempt to lock in a deal on a roughly $2 trillion social-policy and climate bill that Democrats hope to finish by Christmas.

Passage hinges largely on the support of Mr. Manchin, who hasn’t endorsed the legislation. He has repeatedly raised concerns about the cost of the bill and the potential effect of new government spending on inflation. Messrs. Biden and Manchin plan to talk early this week, a Senate aide said.

Senator Manchin’s vote is critical because the Democrat’s can’t lose one vote in the evenly divided Senate as the Republicans in the Senate all intend to vote against the bill. The Journal adds

With Democrats holding the narrowest congressional majority in decades, passing the sweeping bill is akin to threading yarn through a tiny needle. Democrats already navigated past opposition from Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema on several of the tax increases they originally had proposed, making revenue-generation intended to pay for the legislation difficult.

Ms. Sinema hasn’t endorsed the House-passed bill. Democrats have also needed to write a bill that lawmakers from the party’s most progressive wing would support, along with centrists.

Because the Senate bill will not mirror the already passed House bill, the two Houses of Congress might convene a conference committee. Time will tell.

Tomorrow is the last day of the current Federal Benefits Open Season. OPM explains that

The Federal Benefits Open Season ends at 11:59 pm Eastern Time on Monday December 13, 2021 for the Federal Employees Dental and Vision Insurance Program (FEDVIP) and the Federal Flexible Spending Account Program (FSAFEDS). Open Season for the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHB) ends at 11:59 pm, in the location of your electronic enrollment system, on Monday December 13, 2021.

From the No Surprises Act front, the Kaiser Family Foundation offers a consumer friendly overview of the law’s provisions that take effect on January 1, 2021. Basically, FEHB plans will pay certain out-of-network (“OON”) providers (emergency care, air ambulance, and OON providers when the patient is treated at an in-network facility) a qualifying payment amount (“QPA”), net of the in-network cost sharing amount which is the member’s financial responsibility. If the provider is dissatisfied with the QPA, he or she must work out the matter with the health plan. The member therefore is held harmless against the outcome of that controversy.

These QPA provisions, however, are inapplicable to claims submitted for FEHB plan members who have primary Medicare coverage or in the case of fee for service plans have primary Medicare Part A only. Also if another payer is primary to the FEHB plan, e.g., a spouse’s plan, then the primary plan is responsible for compliance with the No Surprises Act. The FEHB plan is responsible only for making the secondary payment, which usually equals the primary plan’s deductibles and co-insurance.

From the health care business front, Medcity News informs us that

After a challenging quarter, insurance company Bright Health is raising $750 million in financing. In an unusual move, another insurance company is joining as an investor. Cigna Ventures and Bright’s largest shareholder, New Enterprise Associates, both participated in the financing.

Head of Cigna Ventures Tom Richards talked about potential opportunities to collaborate with NeueHealth, Bright’s provider enablement platform to help practices move to value-based contracts.

“We seek to be partners of choice and we look forward to exploring new ways that NeueHealth and Evernorth can potentially provide services to each other’s customers and clients,” he said in a news release.

From the Omicron front, Bloomberg reports (recall last week’s post about U.S. experts tracking the U.K.’s experience with Omicron because the United Kingdom started to experience Omicron cases before the U.S.):

Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned the U.K. is facing a “tidal wave” of omicron infections and set an end-of-year deadline for the country’s booster vaccination program. Infections in the U.K. from the new variant doubled in the last day and now make up a third of new cases in London. 

Anthony Fauci, U.S. President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, said omicron appears able to evade vaccines and some Covid-19 treatments but that a booster shot can increase protection. At least 30 U.S. states are reporting cases of the variant.  

CNBC adds that “Covid booster shots are “optimal care” as the deadly virus continues to mutate and spread, but the U.S. government is staying firm for the time being on the definition of fully vaccinated, top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said Sunday.”

Midweek Update

From the Omicron front, and as a public service, the FEHBlog notes this Wall Street Journal A-hed article from yesterday explaining the proper pronunciation of Omicron:

“There isn’t one way of saying Omicron,” said Armand D’Angour, professor of classical languages and literature at the University of Oxford. “First of all, you know, we’re not there, we haven’t recorded it.”

Egbert Bakker, professor of ancient Greek at Yale University, says the letter is pronounced “AWE-mee-kron” in both modern and ancient Greek. But he is open to other forms: “Some people would say ‘oh-MIKE-ron,’ that is the Americanized way. I wouldn’t do it but I don’t think it’s completely unacceptable.”

Isn’t Egbert a perfect name for an Ivy League professor of foreign languages?

Also, the Wall Street Journal reports that

Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE  said that a third dose of their Covid-19 vaccine neutralized the Omicron variant in lab tests but that the two-dose regimen was significantly less effective at blocking the virus.

A third dose increased antibodies 25-fold compared with two doses against the Omicron variant, the companies said. Still, two doses may prove effective in preventing severe illness from Covid-19, they said, because immune cells are able to recognize 80% of parts of the spike protein that the vaccine targets.

The results were issued in a press release by the companies, and weren’t peer reviewed and published in a scientific journal.

As of today, just over 200 million Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID according the CDC. Next Tuesday December 14 will mark the first anniversary of COVID vaccinations outside of trials in the U.S.

From the Federal Benefits Open Season front, FedWeek reminds us that

December 13 is the last day of the current open season for electing or changing coverage in FEHB and FEDVIP for the 2022 plan (calendar) year of each program.

If current enrollees make no changes, they will retain the same coverage next year, subject to new premium rates and coverage terms. In practice, only single-digit percentages change plans, levels of coverage within plans that have more than one, or type of enrollment (between family coverage and self plus one, for example).

In contrast to the FEHB and FEDVIP programs, a new enrollment is required each year for those who want a health care flexible spending account, a dependent care account, or both in the following year. The dependent care maximum remains $5,000 while the health care maximum is rising $2,850.

OPM encourages FEHB plan enrollees to use its online FEHB and FEDVIP Plan comparison tools.

From the telehealth front —

Healthcare Dive reports that

— COVID-19 was no longer among the top five telehealth diagnoses nationwide in September, though use of virtual care rose overall, according to new data from nonprofit Fair Health.

— In August, COVID-19 was among the top five diagnoses nationally and in every U.S. census region except the Northeast. In September, the only region where the it ranked in the top five was the Midwest.

— However, national telehealth use (measured as a percentage of all medical claim lines) rose more than 2% in September for the second straight month as the delta variant gained a foothold in the U.S. following a sustained period of decline early this year.

Kaiser Health News discusses the provider push for expanded coverage of audio-telehealth services.

From the benefit design front, Health Payer Intelligence tells us that

UnitedHealthcare has launched a new employer-sponsored health plan for Arizona residents that seeks to prioritize customer support experiences and lower member premiums.

The Doctors Plan of Arizona is the result of a partnership between the payer and the accountable care organization (ACO) Banner Health Network. The plan will serve Maricopa and Pinal County residents who receive employer-sponsored health coverage.

Banner Health Network frequently partners with health plans and providers to increase access to affordable care, the press release noted. The ACO’s network includes primary and specialty care physicians.

Through the Doctors Plan of Arizona, members will gain access to Banner Health’s network of more than 5,000 physicians and 15 medical centers.

Additionally, the plan will offer members a chance to potentially save up to 15 percent on premiums compared to other traditional health plans. The plan will also offer zero-dollar copays for primary care and urgent care visits, around-the-clock access to telehealth visits, and care coordination from the member’s primary care provider.

UnitedHealthcare will work to improve the customer experience with a personalized concierge approach. The payer’s Doctors Plan of Arizona will include a customer service team that has access to patient data from the provider and the health plan, allowing for more streamlined coordination, the press release stated.

The FEHBlog’s love affair with the ACO concept has not abated.

Health Payer Intelligence also discusses nutritional benefits.

Payers face a variety of challenges in expanding nutritional benefits, particularly due to the lack of ability to measure outcomes, but there are ways to navigate this uncertainty, according to a report from McKinsey & Company (McKinsey).

Among American adults who have at least one chronic condition, 60 percent also have poor nutrition, the report noted. This social determinant of health tends to occur hand-in-hand with some of the most expensive conditions in the US such as hypertension, obesity, and diabetes.

Check out the McKinsey report and the article for nutritional benefit tips.

Finally the Internal Revenue Service today released its draft Fringe Benefits Tax Guide for 2022 which may come in handy for 2022 budgeting purposes.

Weekend Update

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

The House and the Senate will be holding Committee business and floor votes this week. Yesterday when writing up Cybersecurity Saturday, the FEHBlog could not find any fresh news on the National Defense Authorization Act (“”NDAA”) vote. The NDAA often includes federal procurement law changes and this year may include cyberbreach and cyber-ransom payment notice requirements.

The Wall Street Journal reports today that

Congress is expected to focus this week on the defense policy bill known as the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, which was held up in the Senate last week over provisions regarding Russia and China. Instead of the Senate passing its own bill, a compromise bill—negotiated by leadership in the House and Senate—is expected to come to the House for a vote as early as this week.

The Journal further reports that Congressional leadership is working on the debt ceiling issue which may come to a head mid-month and hoping to bring the Build Back Better multi-trillion dollar budget reconciliation bill to a vote before Christmas.

The House of Representatives’ Postal Reform bill (H.R. 3076) would create a new Postal Service Service Health Benefits Program within the FEHB Program. The PSHBP would be tightly integrated with Medicare with respect to annuitant coverage. For that reason, the bill initially was referred to the House Oversight and Reform, Energy and Commerce, and Ways and Means Committees.

A friend of the FEHBlog called to his attention the fact that last Friday December 3, the Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means Committee were granted an extension for further consideration of the bill ending not later than Jan. 21, 2022. Of course, the Oversight and Reform Committee approved a substitute bill for House floor voting on May 13.

The ongoing Federal Employee Benefits Open Season ends on a week from tomorrow December 13, a few day following the end of Medicare Open Enrollment period which ends this week on December 7.

From the Delta variant front —

  • Today’s Washington Post has an interesting article on early analyses of the Omicron variant. The Post notes that

The omicron variant is likely to have picked up genetic material from another virus that causes the common cold in humans, according to a new preliminary study, prompting one of its authors to suggest omicron could have greater transmissibility but lower virulence than other variants of the coronavirus.FAQ: What to know about the omicron variant of the coronavirus

Researchers from Nference, a Cambridge, Mass.-based firm that analyzes biomedical information, sequenced omicron and found a snippet of genetic code that is also present in a virus that can bring about a cold. They say this particular mutation could have occurred in a host simultaneously infected by SARS-CoV-2, also known as the novel coronavirus, and the HCoV-229E coronavirus, which can cause the common cold. The shared genetic code with HCoV-229E has not been detected in other novel coronavirus variants, the scientists said.

The study is in preprint and has not been peer-reviewed.

  • National Public Radio offers conservative yet sensible guidance filled with expert opinions on how to navigate the holiday season without contracting COVID. For example,

The good news is, you don’t have to hibernate like it’s 2020. Experts note we’re in a much different place than we were last winter, with COVID-19 vaccines and boosters now widely available. There’s good hope that the current vaccines offer protectionagainst severe disease with omicron. 

That said, if this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that when you don’t know what you’re dealing with, “we should invoke the precautionary principle,” says Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease physician at Stanford University. 

In other words, don’t panic, but do be thoughtful about what risks you want to take.

In the FEHBlog’s opinion, that’s sound approach to living one’s life.

Holiday Weekend Update

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

Congress returns from the holiday weekend tomorrow for Committee business and floor voting. The Wall Street Journal reports that

Democrats will sort through a heavy pile of to-do items when they return to Washington, including ironing out disagreements over their Build Back Better bill, keeping the government funded and boosting the debt limit before the U.S. runs out of money to pay its obligations.

The party’s $2 trillion education, healthcare and climate package, which passed the House before the Thanksgiving recess, now heads to the 50-50 Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) is hoping to approve the legislation before Christmas.

Senate Democrats need to reach unanimous agreement on the policy proposals and work through expected procedural challenges, both of which could mean changes to the package. * * *

Republicans blocked an attempt to vote on a bipartisan slate of 20 amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act, a $777.9 billion annual defense-policy bill, before leaving for Thanksgiving break. Democrats set up a procedural vote Monday at a 60-vote threshold on a substitute bill that has GOP amendments. If 60 senators agree to move forward, final passage could happen soon.

Meanwhile, funding for current government programs runs out after Friday, Dec. 3, giving lawmakers just days to pass legislation preventing a government shutdown. Some Democrats have pushed for a very short-term extension of government funding, possibly through Dec. 17, while Republicans are seeking an extension that lasts into 2022.

Some Republicans have signaled that they would accept holding funding for existing government programs flat for the fiscal year, which would preserve funding levels negotiated under the Trump administration. Democrats want to increase funding levels.

Prof. Katie Keith, writing in the Health Affairs blog, provides an overview of the healthcare provisions found in the version of the Democrat’s $2 trillion social and climate oriented budget reconciliation bill, a/k/a the Build Back Better bill which is now pending before the Senate as noted by the Wall Street Journal above. Two of the bill’s provisions would impact group health plans, presumably including FEHB plans:

“Beginning with the 2023 plan year, group health plans and insurers offering individual or group health insurance coverage would be required to cover certain insulin products on a pre-deductible basis and with limited cost sharing. Cost sharing would be capped at $35 or 25 percent of the negotiated price, whichever is lower, for a 30-day supply of insulin. Any associated out-of-pocket costs would be counted towards a consumer’s annual deductible and out-of-pocket maximum. CBO estimates that these new requirements will cost, on average, $2 billion annually. * * * The legislation would define both “insulin” and “selected insulin products” and makes clear that plans and insurers could charge higher cost sharing for products that do not meet these definitions. Higher cost sharing could also apply if a consumer receives the selected insulin products from an out-of-network provider.”

The Wall Street Journal adds that “[The Senate Majority Leader] Mr. Schumer said at a press conference in New York last weekend that the insulin cap could face procedural problems.”

The other Build Back Better bill’s provision affecting group health plans would require insurers and prescription benefit managers to semi-annually report to employers and other plan sponsors on prescription drug spending in their health plans.

The report would reflect information on dispensed drugs, utilization, costs, out-of-pocket spending, drug manufacturer copay assistance, and compensation paid to brokers and other consultants, among many other data elements laid out in the law. The law would impose civil monetary penalties for violating these requirements, and insurers and PBMs could not enter into contracts with gag clauses that prevent these disclosures.

Group health plans, insurers, and PBMs could restrict public access to cost data but would have to disclose reported information to federal officials. Federal agencies would also be required to develop separate, more limited reporting requirements. This requirement would go into effect for plan years that begin on or after January 1, 2023.

This reporting requirement seems to duplicate Section 204 of the No Surprises Act. Speaking of unnecessary complexity, health plan expert Robert Moffitt reminds us in the Hill that Congress has not yet bothered to repeal the dormant MultiState Plan Program provisions in the Affordable Care Act.

As explained in this KFF article, the Build Back Better bill also would allow the federal government authority to negotiate certain drug prices for the Medicare program, and moreover Section 8926 of the Build Back Better bill (HR 5376) would require FEHB plans to participate in this “fair price negotiation program.”

From the Delta variant front, we learned on Friday that the Delta variant has a new competition named the Omicron variant. The Wall Street Journal explains that

The WHO designated the strain a “variant of concern,” formally alerting health authorities around the world to the extra risks it appears to carry. To qualify as a variant of concern, a new virus strain has to be proved to be more contagious, lead to more serious illness or decrease the effectiveness of public-health measures, Covid-19 tests, treatments or vaccines.

Other variants of concern include the Delta variant, which is now dominant world-wide, and the Alpha variant, which drove a deadly wave of infections across Europe and the U.S. last winter and spring.

STAT News adds that

“Right now there are many studies that are underway,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s technical lead on Covid-19, said Friday. “There is a lot of work that is ongoing in South Africa and in other countries to better characterize the variant itself, in terms of transmissibility, in terms of severity, and any impact on our countermeasures, like the use of diagnostics, therapeutics, or vaccines. So far, there is little information, but those studies are underway, so we need researchers to have the time to carry them out.”

She added: “It will take days to weeks for some of these studies to be undertaken.” * * *

For now, perhaps the most pressing questions about Omicron are: Is it more transmissible than even the Delta variant, and if so, how much? And to what extent can it evade immune protection generated by earlier infections or vaccines?

On the transmissibility question, experts will watch closely to see how Omicron continues to play out in South Africa and elsewhere. * * *

With new variants, vaccines can lose a step at blocking infections — particularly if the antibodies they elicit aren’t able to recognize the virus as well — but still largely maintain their ability to guard against severe disease and death because of the broader immune response, including T cells. This has happened already to varying degrees with other variants, to the greatest extent with the Beta variant and even to some extent with Delta. It’s also possible that if there’s a greater degree of immune escape, a higher percentage of breakthrough cases will lead to serious outcomes. That wouldn’t point to complete vaccine failure — but it would point to reduction in vaccine effectiveness.

In other news —

The obesity rate among emerging adults — who researchers defined as individuals aged 18 to 25 years — increased more than 26 percentage points over a 42-year span, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data show. * * * *

“Emerging adulthood may be a key period for preventing and treating obesity given that habits formed during this period often persist through the remainder of the life course,” Ellison-Barnes and colleagues wrote. “There is an urgent need for research on risk factors contributing to obesity during this developmental stage to inform the design of interventions as well as policies aimed at prevention.”

  • The Federal Employee Benefits Open Season ends two weeks from tomorrow, December 13, 2021.
  • Precision Vaccinations reminds us that an FDA advisory committee will meet on Tuesday November 30 to “discuss Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) 000108, submitted by Merck & Co. Inc., for emergency use of molnupiravir oral capsules for treatment of mild to moderate COVID-19 in adults who are at risk for progressing to severe COVID-19 and/or hospitalization.” The New York Times adds that

In briefing documents posted to the F.D.A.’s website on Friday, agency reviewers did not take a position on whether the drug should be authorized, though they found that the clinical trial data did not show any major safety concerns and that the drug was effective in preventing severe disease. * * *

Merck’s initial estimate that the drug reduced hospitalization and death by 50 percent came from an early look at results from 775 study participants. The updated figure announced on Friday came from more than 1,400. In the final analysis, the participants who received molnupiravir had a 6.8 percent risk of being hospitalized, and one patient died. Those who received a placebo had a 9.7 percent risk of being hospitalized, and nine died.

Dr. David Boulware, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Minnesota, said he expected the drug would still receive emergency authorization. If the expert committee endorses it and the F.D.A. heeds the recommendation, the treatment could be authorized in the United States as soon as next week.

“The reduction in hospitalization is a little bit less, but there is still a big mortality benefit if you start early,” he said.

Thursday Miscellany

OPM Headquarters a/k/a the Theodore Roosevelt Building

The FEHBlog discovered OPM’s Agency Financial Report for the 2021 fiscal year, dated November 2020, on its website tonight. The most interesting discussion of the FEHB begins at page 125, the start of OPM’s response to the Inspector General’s top management challenges paper.

From the Delta variant vaccine front, Politico reports tonight that

The Food and Drug Administration on Friday is expected to authorize Moderna’s Covid-19 booster shot for all adults — a move that would come in tandem with the clearance of Pfizer-BioNtech’s booster for widespread use, two people with knowledge of the matter told POLITICO.

The decision comes just days after Moderna officially asked the FDA to green-light its booster for Americans 18 and older, and reflects the administration’s growing unease over the recent rise in Covid-19 cases across the nation.

The FDA had previously planned to authorize Pfizer’s booster shot this week, enabling the government to roll out shots to millions more people ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.

But after Moderna filed a similar request on Wednesday, officials began debating whether to speed that authorization along as well, the people with knowledge of the matter said.

The FDA declined to comment.

From the Open Season front, Govexec discusses how to get the biggest bang for your buck in dental benefits if you are a federal or postal employee / annuitant.

From the telehealth front, Fierce Healthcare informs us that

In a report from Quest Diagnostics released Monday, 67% of the over 500 primary care physicians surveyed said they fear they missed signs of drug abuse in their patients during the pandemic.

And nearly all of them were prescribing those often-misused drugs—a whopping 97% reported prescribing opioids within 6 months of taking the survey.

Their concerns extend beyond the pandemic into telemedicine use today. Only 50% of physicians said they were confident they could recognize signs of drug misuse during telehealth visits, a far cry from the 91% that said the same of in-person patient interactions.

From the Rx coverage front, the Wall Street Journal reports that

CVS Health Corp. said Thursday it will close 900 stores over the next three years, nearly 10% of its U.S. locations, while adding more health services at remaining locations.

The largest U.S. pharmacy chain said it would close 300 stores a year while adding primary-care offices at certain sites as well as converting more stores into so-called health hubs with offerings such as diagnostic testing, mental-health services and hearing exams.

“The company has been evaluating changes in population, consumer buying patterns and future health needs to ensure it has the right kinds of stores in the right locations for consumers and for the business,” CVS said in a statement.

A CVS spokesman said the company doesn’t yet have a list of which stores are closing, a process that will begin early next year. 

From the strategy front, Federal News Network tells us that

The Biden administration on Thursday laid out the vision for its President’s Management Agenda, detailing three broad goals and four values that will drive a multi-year, multi-faceted effort throughout the government.

The initial vision is a roadmap that explains how the administration will build capacity within government agencies to make good on the president’s broader agenda, Jason Miller, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, said.

“The how matters. This president has been clear from day one that how we do things shapes what we can do,” Miller told reporters Wednesday evening.

To that end, the Biden administration said values of equity, dignity, accountability and results would drive its PMA priorities. Each priority has multiple underlying strategies.

Those priorities are:

Strengthening and empowering the federal workforce

Delivering excellent, equitable and secure federal services and customer experiences

Managing the business of government to “build back better”

“This simple, yet powerful three-part approach builds on lessons learned across administrations, while also repairing damage done over time to the federal government, by strengthening its capacity to deliver results,” Miller said.

The administration wanted to keep the PMA simple, and it explicitly wanted to avoid setting “dozens and dozens of new initiatives,” Miller added.

Meritalk adds

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) are set to release their four-year strategic plan later this month, according to OPM Director Kiran Ahuja, who previewed what the Federal government can expect to see in that plan.

During an FCW event today, Ahuja said the four-year strategic plan is currently “in OMB’s hands and will be released fairly soon.” Ahuja also said the plan will focus on rebuilding the Federal workforce.

“We have an opportunity to remake it, both in the early career talent that we need to bring in, as well as the importance of professional development opportunities,” Ahuja said.

She went on to say the plan will also focus on the Federal workforce becoming “the model employer,” through both telework and remote work flexibilities, as well as “a whole range of efforts,” including providing support to the Federal workforce and leaning in to “a hybrid work environment and being an example there.”

It seems like yesterday that OPM released its last four year plan in 2018.