Midweek update

Midweek update

From the COLA front, FedWeek informs us that

  • A federal retirement COLA of 5.9 percent will be paid in January to those retired under CSRS and 4.9 percent to those retired under FERS who are eligible for COLAs, increases that have been neared in recent decades only twice.
  • The announcement follows completion of the count toward that adjustment with release of the September inflation figure on Wednesday (October 13), which was up 0.4 percent. * * *
  • A 5.9 increase also will be paid on Social Security benefits. That’s primarily of interest to FERS retirees, for whom Social Security is a basic part of the retirement benefit, but also of interest to CSRS Offset retirees who have Social Security coverage as part of their benefit. Also, some “pure” CSRS retirees qualify for Social Security through from military service or earnings covered under that system before, after—and in some cases from outside earnings during—their CSRS working years. In many cases those benefits are reduced by the “windfall elimination provision” however. * * *
  • Congress appears to be on track to accept a raise payout by default of President Biden’s recommendation for a 2.7 percent average raise, with 2.2 percentage points to be paid across the board and the funds for the remainder divided up as locality pay.

From the Delta variant front, MedPage Today offers an interesting article on the efforts of primary care providers to convince their reluctant patients to receive a COVID vaccine.

[Australian social psychologist Matthew] Hornsey [observed] that in a world where the institutional memory of pandemics has been lost, only the perception of vaccine risk remains. With adverse effects making headlines daily, even in mainstream outlets, it’s hard to promote a message of safety.

David M. Oshinsky, PhD, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of medicine at NYU Grossman School of Medicine in New York City, noted the sense of euphoria with the polio vaccine, dubbed at the time as “the peoples’ vaccine.”

Well put.

Also, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) staff today released their vaccination advisory committee briefing book on the one dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. According to the Wall Street Journal’s report

A booster of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine showed signs of significantly bolstering the immune defenses of study subjects, federal health regulators said Wednesday.  The regulators cautioned, however, that data was limited and that they had to rely on J&J’s own analysis for some of the study findings, rather than conducting their own.

The committee will take up the Modern booster tomorrow and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as well as the topic of mixing and matching different COVID boosters on Friday.

From the telehealth front, Employee Benefit News reports that

Telehealth providers have found that their platforms are uniquely suited to address gaps in pediatric behavioral healthcare and are expanding their services to adolescents. Brightline, launched just before the pandemic, offers an “on-ramp” to behavioral health services, Allen says. The platform does an intake assessment and then provides education and 30-minute coaching services for parents and their children.

“Kids are actually more resilient using technology than we expected, and now there’s a strong preference for virtual first behavioral healthcare, because of the privacy and the comfort of delivering care in your home,” Allen says. “If Brightline hired every single pediatric therapist in the entire United States, we would still have a national shortage, so we instead use these tools to figure out what’s an appropriate care pathway and measure whether they’re working.”

From the Rx coverage front, STAT News informs us that Pfizer is backing up one of its expensive lung cancer drugs Xalkori with a insurance company backed warranty.

“In reality, this is for Medicare patients,” said Susan Raiola, president of Real Endpoints, an advisory and analytics firm that tracks reimbursement issues. Why? Medicare co-pays are used toward the so-called donut hole, the term used to describe a temporary limit on what Medicare will pay to cover a drug. The co-pays can add up, though, making refunds more desirable. * * *

To what extent warranties may become commonplace remains to be seen. But the concept may find takers among drug makers marketing high-priced treatments that cost $1 million or more, because winning reimbursement is challenging, according to Emad Samad, president of Octaviant Financial, a firm that is promoting the use of warranties in the pharmaceutical industry.

“So far, no one else has done this,” Samad said of the Pfizer program. “But where warranties will really come into play will be with high-cost treatments, such as gene and cell therapies. These companies will have to change commercial paths with these $1 million to $3 million drugs. They need tools – such as even more innovative warranty structures – so that payers can get comfortable with the varied outcomes potentially transformative therapies could have.”

From the medical devices front, Healthcare Dive informs us that the “FDA has awarded the latest crop of breakthrough device designations, granting regulatory privileges to investigational products including liquid biopsy tests for Alzheimer’s disease and bladder cancer. Check out the list.

From the medical research front, the National Institutes of Health announced that “A commonly available oral diuretic pill approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration may be a potential candidate for an Alzheimer’s disease treatment for those who are at genetic risk, according to findings published in Nature Aging. The research included analysis showing that those who took bumetanide — a commonly used and potent diuretic(link is external) — had a significantly lower prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease compared to those not taking the drug.” Fingers crossed.

Weekend Update

The U.S. House of Representatives is engaged in Committee business this week following Columbus Day and the Senate is on State work break / recess. The House also is expected to vote this week on the temporary debt limit increase.

The Medicare Open Season begins on Friday October 15.

From the Federal Benefits Open Season front, Federal News Network discusses the No Surprises Act (“NSA”) which takes effect on January 1, 2022. The NSA addresses three types of surprising billing — out of network emergency care; out of network care at in-network facilities and out-of-network air ambulance services. It does not address situations where the patient chooses out of network medical or mental health care or ground ambulance services. The article appropriately concludes

Of course, these [NSA] changes shouldn’t mean federal employees toss the basic rules of choosing an appropriate health insurance plan.

[Walt] Francis suggests FEHB participants check with their doctors each year to ensure they’re planning to stay within their preferred network — and then do some research about what new benefits are coming to your current plan and the others.

The plans change every year, and nearly all insurance providers add new benefits or perks to compete with others and respond to OPM’s priorities for the FEHBP.

From the mental healthcare front, the Wall Street Journal reported last week that “Finding a therapist who takes insurance was tough before the pandemic. Now, therapists and patients say, an increase in the need for mental-health care is making the search even harder.”

Especially in big cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., demand for mental-health care is so strong that many experienced therapists don’t accept any insurance plans, they say. They can easily fill their practices with patients who would pay out of pocket, they add. Therapists who do take insurance are often booked up. And in many smaller towns and rural areas, there are few mental-health professionals at all. Finding a provider who takes insurance, or lowering your rates in other ways, is possible but often takes legwork that can be draining when you are already grappling with mental-health issues.

[Among other approaches] Telehealth can provide access to a broader pool of providers, including therapists who are farther away from you. [Health plan sponsored telehealth providers are always in network.]

Insurance companies say they are trying to increase access to therapists. Anthem Inc. says it added about 2,000 additional providers to its telehealth platform during the early days of the pandemic to handle increased demand. UnitedHealth Group Inc. says it has grown its network of mental-health-care providers by 50% in the past five years to more than 260,000 nationwide.

As for therapists’ complaints of low reimbursement rates, Anthem health plans “routinely review reimbursements to ensure that providers receive market rates,” the company said in a statement. Margaret-Mary Wilson, UnitedHealth Group’s associate chief medical officer, says the company uses data on how patients are improving to financially “reward providers for delivering care with better outcomes.”

Fortune offers a fascinating article about Aetna’s preventive approach to mental health care. Among other tools the authors point out

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are also valuable modes of preventing escalated mental health concerns, as they provide 24/7 life assistance across a wide range of issues that can lower risks of feeling overwhelmed, anxious or depressed. In fact, one study found that companies with EAPs see a 24% improvement in life satisfaction and a 10% reduction in workplace distress among their workers. But we need to better inform people that EAPs are more than a workplace productivity tool. Aetna’s Resources for Living, which provides EAP services,is one example of a resource that supports those facing stress and anxiety, family conflict, legal and financial issues, grief and loss and even loneliness among our Medicare members.

Federal agencies and the Postal Service offer robust employee assistance programs to their employees independent of the FEHB Program and the FEHBlog’s view OPM should put more emphasis on coordinating such related services.

Friday Stats and More

From the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID Data Tracker website, the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new COVID cases for 2021 (using Wednesday as the last day of the week) is trending down:

The CDC’s chart of weekly chart of new hospital admissions for COVID is also trending down.

The FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new COVID deaths, a lagging indicator, also is beginning to trend down.

Meanwhile COVID vaccinations are up according to the FEHBlog’s chart (also based on CDC statistics)

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The number of COVID vaccines administered in the United States topped 400 million today. Medscape adds that

The number of Americans receiving booster shots is now outpacing those receiving their first or second initial vaccine doses.

The jump in booster shots during the past week has led to a modest increase in COVID-19 vaccinations in October, NBC News reported.

From Sept. 30 to Oct. 6, about 6.7 million total shots were administered, according to CDC data. Among those, about 2.7 million were booster shots, 2 million were second doses, and 2 million were first doses.

The FEHBlog got his Pfizer booster at a local CVS pharmacy last evening.

Here’s a link to the CDC’s Weekly Interpretative Report of COVID statistics.

In other Delta variant news

  • Medscape explains why the COVID Mu variant fizzled.
  • Nature explains why no one was awarded a Nobel prize for the mRNA COVID vaccines this year.

If the vaccines are awarded a Nobel prize, the committee will need to make some difficult decisions about whom to recognize and for what, say scientists. “I’m not surprised they held their fire,” says David Naylor, a physician-scientist at the University of Toronto, Canada. He expects the committee to look past the academic and corporate teams that developed the vaccines, and instead focus on more foundational work, such as that underlying mRNA vaccines. But even there, it’s not clear-cut who the recipients ought to be. 

“I think the mRNA vaccines are obvious candidates,” agrees Arturo Casadevall, a microbiologist at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, who notes that the vaccines’ development has deep roots in several disciplines. “I can imagine the committee taking its time to sort out which contributions to recognize since many fields contributed to their deployment.”

Working all this out takes time, Hansson says. “We want to give credit to the right people. And for the right discovery,” he says. “So stay tuned.”

  • Govexec offers an update on the VA’s COVID vaccine mandate for its employees.

Friday marked the deadline for the vast majority of Veterans Affairs Department employees to complete their COVID-19 vaccination, though more than 45,000 have yet to demonstrate that they have done so. 

Those employees may eventually face disciplinary action, including being fired, but VA is giving them 10 more days to submit the requisite documentation or request an exemption. The 380,000 VA employees working in or near the health care field faced a deadline of Oct. 8 to receive their vaccines, about six weeks earlier than the rest of the federal workforce, due to the department issuing its own mandate independently of the one put in place by President Biden. 

About 88% of the impacted workforce has so far received a shot, according to data VA has collected. 

From the Federal Benefits Open Season front, OPM today issued its annual Significant FEHB Plan Changes for 2022 benefit administration letter together with a list of those changes and a Fast Facts sheet explaining what to do if your FEHB plan is no longer participating in your locale (or anywhere) for 2022.

The Federal Times interviews retired OPM official Reg Jones about conducting a self-assessment in preparation for the Federal Benefits Open Season.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Roll Call reports that

The Senate passed a temporary debt limit increase along party lines Thursday evening, a move that would give the Treasury Department at least a couple of months before it once again bumps up against its legal borrowing cap.

The 50-48 vote sent the bill to the House, where that chamber will need to clear the measure before it heads to President Joe Biden. That vote, likely next week, could be tricky given GOP opposition to the short-term patch and Democrats in that chamber barely backing a longer suspension of the debt limit late last month.

Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House’s principal deputy press secretary, said Biden “looks forward to signing” the debt limit measure after it clears.

The Senate amended the House bill, which passed 219-212, replacing a longer debt ceiling suspension with a $480 billion increase in Treasury’s borrowing cap designed to last into early December, though it may go a little longer.

The current continuing appropriations resolution is set to expire relatively contemporaneously on December 3, 2021.

From the Federal Benefits Open Season front, federal benefits consultant Tammy Flanagan has posted her first GovExec column on this year’s Open Season while GEHA, the second largest plan in the FEHB, has posted information on its 2022 benefits.

From the Delta variant front, Healthcare Dive informs us that

Pfizer and BioNTech have officially asked U.S. regulators for emergency clearance of their coronavirus vaccine in children between 5 and 11 years old, making the developers the first to seek authorization for younger kids.

Thursday’s announcement, which Pfizer made on Twitter, comes nine days after the companies said they had started submitting data to the Food and Drug Administration in support of their application, which, if authorized, could make more than 28 million children in the U.S. eligible for vaccination.

The FDA has already scheduled an Oct. 26 advisory panel to discuss the vaccine’s potential authorization in children, more and more of whom have been infected and hospitalized as the delta variant spread and the school year began. Clearance is reportedly expected in November, though the evaluation could be complicated by turnover within the agency’s vaccine review office.

From the healthcare business front —

Healthcare Dive tells us that

Total revenue of hospital M&A so far this year dipped only slightly from last year despite the number of deals being nearly cut in half, according to a Wednesday report from Kaufman Hall.

The average seller size of $659 million was well above year-to-date average going back to 2015, the earliest year featured in the report. This year’s third quarter included the Intermountain Health merger with SCL Health to create an $11 billion system and HCA’s buy of five Steward Health hospitals in Utah.

Hospitals are increasing looking outside traditional care delivery methods to diversify business models by pursuing stakes in home health, virtual care and post-acute services. They are also identifying strategic partnership with payers, physicians groups and other adjacent sectors, Kaufman Hall said.

United Healthcare’s subsidiary Optum announced a collaboration with SSM Health, a Catholic health system in the Midwest.

Together, the organizations will work to improve the overall well-being of individuals and communities – while addressing the complex social and economic factors affecting each person’s health.

SSM Health and Optum will partner across certain functions – including inpatient care management, digital transformation and revenue cycle management – to improve health outcomes and patients’ health care experiences. The organizations also will collaborate to redefine the consumer health care journey through the design and development of a seamless digital experience to simplify patient access to the care and services they need.

“Creating a new ecosystem of care requires bringing together the best and the brightest to collaborate for the common good,” said Laura S. Kaiser, FACHE, president and chief executive officer, SSM Health. “The commitment of UnitedHealth Group and Optum to improving health care experiences and outcomes for everyone aligns well with SSM Health’s Mission to ensure all people have access to high-quality, compassionate and affordable care. We are excited to partner with them to achieve our vision of transforming health care in America – and address the health equity gap for the most vulnerable in society.”

To help advance health equity, UnitedHealth Group and SSM Health will jointly invest in vital community health programs to ensure the disadvantaged and vulnerable have equal access to quality health care services. These efforts will focus on closing the health equity gap and critical health priorities in the communities SSM Health serves throughout the Midwest.

Medcity News reports that

Primary and urgent care provider Carbon Health is expanding its service offerings with a new acquisition.

The San Francisco-based company has bought Alertive Healthcare, a remote patient monitoring provider, for an undisclosed sum. Alertive Healthcare provides a suite of RPM tools across a range of specialties, including primary care, cardiology, neurology and nephrology. * * *

Carbon Health launched in 2015 and has raised upwards of $522 million in funding, according to Crunchbase. Its goal is to become the “Starbucks of healthcare.”

As of August, Carbon Health operated 83 clinics across 12 states following its acquisition of Tucson, Arizona-based Southern Arizona Urgent Care and Sacramento, California-based Med7 Urgent Care.

From the telehealth front, Healthcare Dive reports that

Teladoc Health on Wednesday announced it is making its virtual primary care pilot broadly available to commercial health plans, employers and other benefits sponsors nationwide.

The Primary360 service, which the New York-based telemedicine giant has been piloting for the past few years, is currently being used by several large companies, and will be available through CVS Health-owned payer Aetna early next year, Teladoc said in a release.

The vendor hopes Primary360 will serve as an access point to the primary care system while enticing patients to its other services like specialty care and mental health to boost business.

From the miscellany department, Healthcare Dive interviewed the CEO of Morgan Health.

The mission of J.P. Morgan’s new healthcare venture is to innovate employer-sponsored healthcare, not just for the investment bank’s massive employee base but eventually for all 150 million Americans receiving coverage through their job. But it’s a lofty goal for the small business unit, called Morgan Health, launched late May, and there are many skeptics of efforts from major employers looking to disrupt the deep-rooted and complex healthcare industry.

Check it out.

OPM Announces 2022 FEHB and FEDVIP Premiums

OPM Headquarters a/k/a the Theodore Roosevelt Building

OPM, as promised, announced 2022 FEHB and FEDVIP premiums before the end of September. Here are links to the OPM website for 2022 FEHB plan premiums and its website for 2022 FEDVIP plan premiums. In addition, here are links to related articles from the Washington Post, GovExec, Federal News Network, FedWeek, and the Federal Times which offered a separate article on FEDVIP.

The Washington Post summed it up as follows: “Premiums for federal employees will rise by 3.8 percent on average in 2022, the second straight year of moderate increases despite the coronavirus pandemic, the government announced Wednesday.” That’s a credit to OPM and the carriers as well as this competitive program. Also as OPM usually explains, the average increase is shown before the Open Season results when federal and postal employees and annuitants can elect lower premium plans from Nov. 8 through Dec. 13.

From Capitol Hill, the Wall Street Journal reports this evening that

Party leaders are racing to unify Democrats around changes to a separate $3.5 trillion healthcare, education and climate package, which progressives want to see advance as a condition of supporting the infrastructure bill in the narrowly divided House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) so far has stuck to her plan to bring the infrastructure bill up for a vote Thursday, saying she was taking it “one hour at a time,” though she opened the door to further delay if talks don’t progress. * * *

The Thursday deadline for the infrastructure vote is one of several scheduling crunches Democrats face in the coming days. They are also rushing to pass a stand-alone measure extending government funding, currently set to expire on Friday at 12:01 a.m., through Dec. 3. Republicans and Democrats in the Senate were nearing an agreement to pass the spending patch Thursday before sending it to the House. 

From the Delta variant front, STAT News tells us that “People who’ve received a third dose of a Covid-19 vaccine are reporting rates of side effects similar to those after the second dose, according to data released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

From the No Surprises Act front, OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs has concluded its review of the second interim final rule which concerns the independent dispute resolution process. This means that the regulators can timely release information on the rule this week, if not the entire rule itself.

From the health equity front, Fierce Healthcare reports that “CVS Caremark is expanding its health equity efforts, setting goals that specifically target diseases that disproportionately impact patients of color, such as HIV and sickle cell disease.”

In other healthcare news

  • HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research reminds us that today is ‘World Heart Day — an observance that aims to improve how we understand, prevent, and manage the disease.” AHRQ describe its efforts to improve heart health.
  • Healthcare Dive without grinding an axe informs us that

U.S. health insurance markets have become increasingly concentrated over the past half decade, according to a new report from the American Medical Association, which argues payer M&A results in rising costs and fewer care options for patients, but largely excludes the impact of provider consolidation in driving those trends.

Almost three-fourths of metropolitan statistical areas were highly concentrated in 2020 according to federal guidelines used by the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission, up from 71% in 2014. Of markets that were already highly concentrated in 2014, 54% become more concentrated as of last year, while 26% of markets that were not highly concentrated become so by 2020, the AMA said.

The medical association’s study is the latest salvo in a messaging war between provider and payer lobbies as they work to shift the blame for rapidly rising medical costs in the U.S.

  • The National Institutes of Health reports on the efforts of its “Helping to End Addiction Long-termSM Initiative, or NIH HEAL InitiativeSM, is an aggressive, trans-agency effort to speed scientific solutions to stem the national opioid public health crisis.”

President names an OPM Inspector General nominee

OPM Headquarters a/k/a the Theodore Roosevelt Building

The Washington Post reports that

President Biden on Thursday made a nomination to fill the long-vacant position of inspector general at the Office of Personnel Management, a watchdog office that has at times publicly clashed with top management of the federal agency.

Nominee Krista Boyd is chief counsel for oversight and policy on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which oversees federal workplace matters. Boyd has worked on Capitol Hill for more than two decades with a focus on issues including whistleblower protection, transparency and strengthening the access to agency information for inspectors general and other watchdogs, an announcement said.

Ms. Boyd’s nomination is subject to Senate confirmation.

On the Delta variant front, Govexec.com informs us that

The Biden administration released new guidance on Thursday about implementing the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for federal employees, which says even those on telework or remote work must get vaccinated. 

The guidance implements an executive order President Biden issued on September 9 requiring federal employees to get vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, unless they request an exemption. The Safer Federal Workforce Task Force said on Monday that November 22 is the deadline for employees to get fully vaccinated or possibly be subject to progressive discipline. * * *

Postal Service employees are not covered by the mandate, but they will be subject to the forthcoming emergency temporary standard from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that will require vaccines for companies with 100 or more employees, the senior administration official pointed out. That was another coronavirus measure the president unveiled last week. 

“Our workplaces are subject to regulations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration,” USPS said in a statement on Thursday. “Therefore, we are working closely with our union leadership so that once OSHA’s COVID-19 Vaccination Emergency Temporary Standard is issued we can move quickly to determine its applicability to our employees and how best to implement [it].” * * *

Other topics covered in the update are: who is considered fully vaccinated and the timeline for getting fully vaccinated (depending on which vaccine individuals receive); vaccination dates for those who are starting government service after November 22; what protocols employees should follow before becoming fully vaccinated; and how agencies should collect and maintain documentation of vaccination for employees. Agencies must collection documentation even if employees previously attested to being vaccinated. 

The Society for Human Resource Management discusses what to expect from OSHA on the vaccination screening program it is developing for private employers with more than 100 employees.

In mergers and acquisitions news, the Deseret News reports that

Intermountain Healthcare announced Thursday that the organization is merging with SCL Health, a faith-based, nonprofit health care organization based in Colorado.

The two organizations are located in adjacent areas with no geographic overlap, so together they will employ more than 58,000 caregivers, operate 33 hospitals and run 385 clinics across Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Colorado, Montana and Kansas.

SCL Health is a $2.8 billion health network that provides comprehensive, coordinated care in hospitals, clinics, home health, hospice and mental health services across Colorado, Montana and Kansas. It brings eight hospitals and more than 160 physician clinics into the merger. Their hospitals will retain their names and their Catholic identity, directives and values.

The merger, which is subject to regulatory approval, is expected to close early next year.

From the studies front —

  • The Centers for Disease Control released updated adult obesity prevalence maps for the U.S. yesterday.
  • The Employee Benefits Research Institute is offering an issues brief on trends in health savings account balances, contributions, distributions and investments and the impact of COVID-19 thereon.

From the reminders front, Fedweek explains the “five year rule” for continuing FEHB and FEGLI coverage into a civil service retirement.

As a rule, you can only continue your FEHB and/or FEGLI coverage into retirement if you are 1) currently enrolled, 2) have been enrolled for at least five years or from your earliest opportunity to enroll, and 3) are retiring on an immediate annuity (including disability).

Further, if you are a FERS employee who is retiring on an immediate annuity but postponing its receipt to a later date to reduce or eliminate the 5 percent per year penalty for retiring under the MRA+10 provision (minimum retirement age—currently 57—with at least 10 but less than 30 years of service), you’ll be able to reenroll in the FEHB program when your annuity begins. Note: If you leave government before being eligible to retire and later apply for a deferred annuity when you have the right combination of age and service, you can’t reenroll in either program.

While there is an automatic waiver of the FEHB five-year rule if you are accepting an offer of early retirement from your agency, no waiver is possible for FEGLI. Nor are waivers of the “currently enrolled” or “retiring on an immediate annuity” requirements available under current law for either program.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

On the Delta variant front and acccording to the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker, the United States reached two data points today — the number of COVID cases now exceeds 40 million and the percentage of Americans aged 18 and over who have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine reached 75%.

At the end of 2020, the number of cases according to the CDC stood at 20 million. In his blog, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins discusses a recent Nature study estimating that “the true number of [COVID] infections by the end of 2020 at more than 100 million [1]. That’s equal to just under a third of the U.S. population of 328 million. This revised number shows just how rapidly this novel coronavirus spread through the country last year. It also brings home just how timely the vaccines have been—and continue to be in 2021—to protect our nation’s health in this time of pandemic.” It also suggests to the FEHBlog that we may to closer to effective herd immunity in some areas of the U.S. than generally thought.

Also David Leonhardt in today’s New York Times tells us about another way to look at the situation.

The C.D.C. reported a terrifying fact in July: Vaccinated people with the Delta variant of the Covid virus carried roughly the same viral load in their noses and throats as unvaccinated people.

The news seemed to suggest that even the vaccinated were highly vulnerable to getting infected and passing the virus to others. Sure enough, stories about vaccinated people getting Covid — so-called breakthrough infections — were all around this summer: at a party in Provincetown, Mass.; among the Chicago Cubs; on Capitol Hill. Delta seemed as if it might be changing everything.

In recent weeks, however, more data has become available, and it suggests that the true picture is less alarming. Yes, Delta has increased the chances of getting Covid for almost everyone. But if you’re vaccinated, a Covid infection is still uncommon, and those high viral loads are not as worrisome as they initially sounded.

How small are the chances of the average vaccinated American contracting Covid? Probably about one in 5,000 per day, and even lower for people who take precautions or live in a highly vaccinated community. * * *

I will confess to one bit of hesitation about walking you through the data on breakthrough infections: It’s not clear how much we should be worrying about them. For the vaccinated, Covid resembles the flu and usually a mild one. Society does not grind to a halt over the flu.

In Britain, many people have become comfortable with the current Covid risks. The vaccines make serious illness rare in adults, and the risks to young children are so low that Britain may never recommend that most receive the vaccine. Letting the virus continue to dominate life, on the other hand, has large costs.

“There’s a feeling that finally we can breathe; we can start trying to get back what we’ve lost,” Devi Sridhar, the head of the global public health program at the University of Edinburgh, told The Times.

Well put, Mr. Leonhardt, as usual.

From the federal employee benefits front, OPM posted on the Federal Register website today a notice of changes to Federal Group Life Insurance premium rates for “Employee Basic Insurance, Option A (most age bands), Option B (most age bands), Option C (most age bands), and Post-Retirement Basic Insurance. These rates will be effective the first pay period beginning on or after October 1, 2021.”

From the tidbits department

  • Federal News Network reports that “The White House is proposing billions of dollars in supplemental funding for disaster relief and other programs, which it’s asking Congress to attach to a short-term continuing resolution that will be critical toward avoiding a government shutdown at the end of the month. ‘With the end of the fiscal year rapidly approaching, it’s clear that Congress will need to pass a short term continuing resolution to provide more time for the fiscal 2022 process to unfold,’ Shalanda Young, the Office of Management and Budget’s acting director, said Tuesday in a blog post.” 
  • Fierce Healthcare informs us that “The American Medical Association [“AMA”] released updates to its medical codes for 2022 with many tied to new technology services and the administration of COVID-19 vaccines. The AMA made 405 changes in the 2022 Current Procedural Terminology code set, including 249 new codes, 63 deletions and 93 revisions. The changes will take effect Jan. 1. ” The CPT is recognized as a HIPAA electronic transaction code set.
  • AP News reports that “Four companies in the drug industry said Saturday that enough states had agreed to a settlement of lawsuits over the opioid crisis for them to move ahead with the $26 billion deal. An announcement from the three largest U.S. drug distribution companies and a confirmation from drugmaker Johnson & Johnson, which had previously announced that it would move ahead, came Saturday. That was the deadline for the companies to decide whether there was enough buy-in to continue the settlement plan. * * * Together, the settlements are likely to represent the biggest piece of a string of settlements between companies in the drug industry and state and local governments over the addiction and overdose epidemic in the U.S.”
  • Healthcare Dive tells us that “The use of telehealth for patient visits seems to have leveled off at 20% or fewer of all appointments, more than a year and a half after COVID-19 first spurred an unprecedented jump in utilization, according to a new survey from KLAS Research and the Center for Connected Medicine.”
  • The AMA discusses “what doctors wish patients knew about a prediabetes diagnosis,” which of course is a fairly common diagnosis in our country.
  • The Wall Street Journal continues its series on the Future of Everything in healthcare with an article about sensor studded smart clothes. “From a prescription bra that signals cardiac arrest to a mosquito-proof textile, startups and scientists are developing garments for healthier living.”

Here comes Open Season

OPM Headquarters a/k/a the Theodore Roosevelt Building

Today OPM issued its first notice about the Federal Benefits Open Season which will run this year from Monday November 8 through Monday December 13.

[Benefits Administration Letter] BAL 21-401 provides guidance on the upcoming Federal Benefits Open Season for the Federal Flexible Spending Account Program (FSAFEDS), Federal Employees Dental and Vision Insurance Program (FEDVIP) and the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) Program. Attached to this BAL is a sample email and “Circle Round Your Benefits” flyer. This BAL and the attachments will be posted on our website at www.opm.gov/retirement-services/publications-forms/benefits-administration-letters/.

The BAL makes a couple of points worth noting and includes a timeline which also is partially excerpted below:

Employees find Open Season fairs a valuable resource for getting Open Season information. Due to COVID-19, we strongly encourage you to assess how in-person benefit fairs will be impacted. Consider other ways to provide information to employees such as virtual events, webcasts, or webinars. Many health plans host virtual events to provide information about Open Season to their enrollees and others. You may contact health plans for ideas and suggestions on providing information. 

2022 rates announced and posted on OPM website Late September 
BAL 21-403 Significant Plan Changes Anticipated Issue Date: Early-to Mid-October 
Open Season information posted on OPM website Early November 

From the Delta variant front

The Washington Post informs us that

The Food and Drug Administration has scheduled a key meeting on coronavirus boosters with its outside advisers for Sept. 17 — just a few days before the Biden administration’s planned starting date for an extra-shot campaign.

The session, which will be public, could add much-needed clarity and transparency to a decision-making process that some people have criticized as confusing. But it also could fuel more controversy over an administration position some experts regard as premature.

Of course, the Biden administration could reduce the time pressure by postponing its “plan starting date.”

On a related note, The Wall Street Journal reports that

The Food and Drug Administration is considering whether to authorize a lower dose of Moderna Inc.’s Covid-19 vaccine for boosters than the dose given in the first two shots, people familiar with the deliberations said. 

Moderna said Wednesday it is asking the FDA to authorize a 50 microgram dose, half the dosage of the first two shots. Some in the government are leaning toward authorizing the 100 microgram dose, the people said, because of concerns a lower-dose booster might not offer a durable enough boost to counter fast-changing variants of Covid-19.

No final decision has been made, the people said, as the FDA is still reviewing data from studies that tested boosters using the different doses. People who have seen the data said both doses produce a strong immune response.

Presumably a smaller dose would reduce side effects.

CNBC brings us up to date on the other COVID-19 variants of concerns besides Delta.

The CDC is monitoring four variants “of concern,” including delta, which was first detected in India and is the most prevalent variant currently circulating in the U.S.; alpha, first detected in the U.K.; beta, first detected in South Africa, and gamma, first detected in Brazil. A variant of concern is generally defined as a mutated strain that’s either more contagious, more deadly or more resistant to current vaccines and treatments.

It’s also keeping a close watch on four other variants of interest — including lambda, first identified in Peru [and presumably mu, first identified in Columbia] — that have caused outbreaks in multiple countries and have genetic changes that could make them more dangerous than other strains.

Also from the FEHB front —

Fedweek offers short but accurate guidance about OPM’s FEHB disputed claims review process.

Health Payer Intelligence informs us that “The Alliance of Community Health Plans (ACHP) is urging the federal government to take action and lower prescription drug prices with a set of recommended actions.” In addition to recommendations for Medicare Part D and the biosimilar market, ACHP makes broader recommendations such as

Targeting drug companies’ unjustifiable raising of drug prices. At the beginning of 2021, 735 drugs prices increased up to 10 percent without reason. Prescription drug prices often increase faster than the inflation rate, therefore ACHP recommended that drug manufacturers should have to provide rebates for drug price increase above the inflation rate. Drug companies should also have to follow a price transparency rule that would require manufacturers to report and justify price increases, ACHP stated.

The federal government [should] encourage the use of transparent fee-based pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs). Traditional PBMs are typically not transparent about rebates, which can encourage high-cost drug use, whereas transparent fee-based PBMs pass rebates and discounts onto payers and earn revenue through a clear administrative fee.

ACHP may be interested to know that OPM imposed a strict regime of transparent pricing on experience rated FEHB plans ten years ago. Transparent pricing, which OPM continues to fine tune, facilitates OPM audits of PBMs but does not generate substantial new savings for carriers. Instead, transparent pricing shifts PBM fees from a share of rebates and such to “a clear administrative fee” at levels which simply were not charged before 2011. It is important to add that in 2010 OPM also mandated that experience rated carriers rebid their PBM contracts triennially and those market competitions have generated substantial new savings for carriers. Also as the FEHBlog has mentioned, if OPM were to allow FEHB carriers to offer Medicare Part D EGWPs, as Congress authorized in 2003, the resulting savings, in the FEHBlog’s estimation, would generate blockbuster new savings that would actually lower FEHB premiums.

From the miscellany department —

  • MedPage Today tells us that “The FDA approved the injectable, long-acting atypical antipsychotic paliperidone palmitate (Invega Hafyera), a twice-yearly treatment for schizophrenia in adults who have been adequately treated with the 1- or 3-month versions of paliperidone palmitate, Janssen announced.
  • OPM released weather leave guidance today according to Govexec.
  • Healthcare Dive reports that “Four out of six infections routinely tracked at U.S. hospitals rose significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data analysis published in the journal of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America on Thursday. From 2019 to 2020, major increases were observed in central-line associated bloodstream infections, catheter-associated urinary tract infections, ventilator-associated events and antibiotic resistant staph infections, according to the report.”

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the Delta variant front, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices met today. It turns out that the principal topic at the meeting was reviewing the Food and Drug Administration’s final marketing approval for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. ACIP ratified that decision, which was a foregone conclusion.

The Wall Street Journal adds

Health experts advising the U.S. government on vaccines expressed initial support for giving booster shots to people vaccinated against Covid-19, starting with healthcare workers, nursing-home residents and others immunized earliest.

Members of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, or ACIP, on Monday indicated their agreement with the Biden administration’s plans to offer the extra doses. Yet they said the priority should remain increasing vaccinations of unvaccinated people, and that boosters shouldn’t distract or impede from doing that.

When giving boosters, some panel members added, the priority should be preventing severe disease in people at highest risk of becoming sick with Covid-19, as opposed to preventing infections.

For more information, here’s a link to the presentation slides for today’s ACIP meeting.

OPM helpfully sent FEHB plan carriers the following standard guidance to FEHB carriers today about Hurricane Ida:

Due to Hurricane Ida impacting the Gulf Coast and connecting states, we remind you that under Section 2.2 BENEFITS PROVIDED, you are authorized, “To pay for or provide a health service or supply in an individual case which does not come within the specific benefits provisions of the contract, if the Carrier determines the benefit is within the intent of the contract, and the Carrier determines that the provision of such benefit is in the best interest of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.”

If you decide to apply Section 2.2, we ask that you demonstrate maximum flexibility, including the following:

·         Relax certain provisions such as pre-certification requirements that the plan must be notified within 2 business days of an emergency admission.

·         Relax requirements about notification and levels of benefit payment if victims are taken to non-plan and/or non-PPO hospitals or other treatment centers.

·         Allow certain FEHB members to get additional supplies of medications as backup, if necessary.

·         Though charges for work-related injuries sustained by Federal workers are payable by the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP), we are encouraging FEHB plans to provide immediate payment and seek subsequent reimbursement from OWCP.

Today, the Department of Health and Human Services announced the establishment an Office of Climate Change and Health Equity. The Wall Street Journal notes that “The new office is likely to spur initiatives touching on many aspects of healthcare, HHS officials announced Monday. It is expected to offer protections for populations most at risk—including the elderly, minorities, rural communities and children, and the office could eventually compel hospitals and other care facilities to reduce carbon emissions.”

STAT News identifies three trends divined from research on telehealth utilization by Medicare beneficiaries during the COVID-19 pandemic. The FEHBlog’s attention was drawn to this trend:

Telemedicine use has not varied substantially by race and ethnicity. Many commenters * * * have expressed concern that telemedicine will widen disparities of care. Surprisingly, this has not by borne out by the data. Through the end of 2020, we observed no substantive differences in the proportion of beneficiaries using telemedicine by race and ethnicity: 51% of non-Latino white beneficiaries, 55% of Black beneficiaries, and 56% for both Latino and Asian beneficiaries.

This pattern may in part reflect the fact that people of color are more likely to live in urban areas, where the use of telemedicine is higher. Beneficiaries living in large metropolitan counties were substantially more likely to use telemedicine than those living in rural areas.

STAT News also offers a fascinating peak inside Pfizer’s Pearl River (NY) Research Center where a “team of “variant hunters,” as they call themselves, race to track changes in the fast-mutating SARS-CoV-2. A “virus farmer” grows the latest variants so researchers can test how they fare against the vaccine. And a colleague known as the “graphing unicorn” converts the data into intelligible results overnight.” Extraordinary.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID-19 Data Tracker website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 14th week of 2020 through 34th week of this year (beginning April 2, 2020, and ending August 25, 2021; 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 FEHBlog has noticed that the new cases and deaths chart shows a flat line for new weekly deaths  because new cases significantly exceed new deaths. Accordingly here is a chart of new COVID-19 deaths over the period (April 2, 2020, through August 25, 2021):

Finally here is a COVID-19 vaccinations chart over the period December 17, 2020, through August 25, 2021, which also uses Thursday as the first day of the week:

The cases, hospitalizations, and death charts move continue to move in the wrong direction. New vaccinations remain steady as people recognize that the Delta variant is more aggressive than the 2020 wave. If there is any bright side it is that the elderly (age 65 and older) who are at the greatest risk of death from COVID-19 are the most vaccinated group in the U.S. with 81.5% fully vaccinated and another 10% at the first dose stage.

For more stats, here’s a link to the CDC’s weekly interpretative review. “As of August 26, 2021, 203 million people in the United States have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. 172 million people are fully vaccinated. That’s 60.8% of the eligible population (12 years and older). * * * COVID-19 vaccines remain the most powerful tool we have against COVID-19, making it critical that all people get vaccinated as soon as they are eligible. To find a vaccine provider near you, visit vaccines.gov or your state or local public health department.”

The CDC also issued its 2021-22 flu season vaccination recommendations today.

Routine annual influenza vaccination is recommended for all persons aged ≥6 months who do not have contraindications. * * * Balancing considerations regarding the unpredictability of timing of onset of the influenza season and concerns that vaccine-induced immunity might wane over the course of a season, particularly for older adults, vaccination is recommended to be offered by the end of October. * * * Children aged 6 months through 8 years who require 2 doses (i.e., children in this age group who have never received influenza vaccine or who have not previously received a lifetime total of ≥2 doses; see Children Aged 6 Months Through 8 Years) should receive their first dose as soon as possible after the vaccine becomes available to allow the second dose (which must be administered ≥4 weeks later) to be received, ideally, by the end of October. Children of any age who require only 1 dose for the season should also ideally be vaccinated by the end of October; vaccination of these children may occur as soon as vaccine is available because there is less evidence to suggest that early vaccination is associated with waning immunity among children compared with adults.

Also from the Delta variant front

  • The Numbers columnist in the Wall Street Journal reports that “Medical studies often use thousands of volunteers. But sometimes good things come in small packages—like a handful of people willing to contract a deadly virus. Researchers in the U.K. have deliberately infected 30 volunteers with the virus that causes Covid-19, in the first human challenge study of the disease. Infecting the volunteers—who are healthy, unvaccinated and range in age from 18 to 30—will allow the scientists to observe in real time how the virus attacks the body and, from the moment of exposure, how the immune system responds. * * * [In contrast to a large clinical study involving the use of placebo] a human challenge study of a relatively small number of participants offers precise answers to specific questions, often related to immune response. Today, human challenges conducted under the supervision of institutional review boards are routinely used to research diseases such as influenza, malaria, cholera, salmonella, shigellosis and norovirus.”
  • The Journal also reports that British scientists are making progress in carefully growing the Delta variant for use in these human challenges. The U.S. is not conducting human challenges involving COVID-19 at this time.
  • The Journal also informs us that “U.S. intelligence agencies are unable to determine conclusively how the Covid-19 pandemic emerged, a summary of a classified report released Friday said.” The article concludes “In a July 27 letter to Mr. Biden, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senator Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees urged the president to carry on with the investigation until the intelligence community had reached conclusions on the origin of the pandemic with a high degree of confidence. The letter urged that the inquiry examine what U.S. government funding was provided to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for advanced virus research.”

In other news —

  • The Federal Times reports that “Federal employees will get a total 2.7 percent pay raise in 2022, as President Joe Biden informed Congress Aug. 27 that he intends to exercise his authority to determine federal pay rates during a state of emergency.” The increase will breaks down into a 2.2% general increase and a 0.5% locality pay increase.
  • Fierce Healthcare tells us that “OptumRx has released its quarterly look at the drug pipeline, and two of the therapies highlighted in the report target fairly common conditions. Finerenone, or the brand name Kerendia, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration on July 9. The drug treats chronic kidney disease and type 2 diabetes. Some 26.8 million Americans have been diagnosed with diabetes, and one in three eventually develop some kind of kidney disease. Bill Dreitlein, senior director of pipeline and drug surveillance at OptumRx, told Fierce Healthcare that the drug will be entering a market where many patients are already treated by low-cost therapies. “With the entrance of this drug, some patients are going to shift from a low-cost treatment to a higher-cost treatment,” he said. The other drugs highlighted in the report are: (1) Atogepant, which is pending a brand name, a drug that treats episodic and chronic migraines; (2) Odevixibat, or the brand name Bylvay, which treats progressive familial intrahepatic cholestasis, a liver disease, and (3) Maralixibat, which also has yet to set a brand name, treats Alagille Syndrome, a rare genetic disease of the liver.
  • Healthcare Dive informs us that “COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to rise as coronavirus cases surge across the U.S. This once again puts pressure on hospital operations and will likely put downward pressure on nonprofit hospital margins, according to a new report from Fitch Ratings. In some areas, hospitalizations are higher than they were during previous surges.”