Thanksgiving Weekend Update

Thanksgiving Weekend Update

Thanks to ACK15 for sharing their work on Unsplash.

The House of Representatives and the Senate return to Capitol Hill for Committee business and floor voting this week.

The Wall Street Journal adds

Lawmakers return to work this week with a to-do list that includes passing a critical government-funding bill, solidifying access to same-sex marriage and setting priorities for the U.S. military before the start of the new Congress next year.

Other issues emphasized by Democrats, including passing a ban on the sale of assault-style weapons, are a long-shot given their narrow majority in the Senate. Most legislation requires 60 votes to advance in the Senate. In addition, lawmakers are discussing raising the federal debt ceiling, which limits how much the government can borrow.

Congress faces a Dec. 16 deadline to pass legislation that would continue funding the federal government; failure to do so could result in a partial shutdown. Lawmakers must decide whether to approve a short-term bill or reach a deal on more-detailed legislation that would fund the government for the full fiscal year.

The Senate also will be considering the National Defense Authorization Act, which typically includes government procurement law changes.

Tomorrow, the Federal Employee Benefits Open Season will reach its clubhouse turn with two weeks left to go. Although not a part of the Open Season, Federal News Network reports an important development concerning the Federal Employees Long Term Care Insurance Program (FLTCIP.

Those looking to enroll in the FLTCIP will soon have to wait a couple of years before applying.

The Office of Personnel Management said it will suspend all new applications to the program starting on Dec. 19. The suspension will last for the next two years, but those who apply ahead of the start date may still see their applications go through. During that time, current FLTCIP enrollees cannot apply to increase their coverage. The suspension will otherwise not affect the coverage of current enrollees.

* * *

The contract for the insurance program, with John Hancock Life and Health Insurance Company, typically lasts seven years before getting a renewal. The program normally gets a premium hike each time the contract turns over. During the open period for new contract proposals earlier this year, only the current underwriter John Hancock submitted a bid. The current FLTCIP contract will expire on April 30, 2023.

The upcoming suspension on applications will allow OPM “to assess the benefit offerings and establish sustainable premium rates that reasonably and equitably reflect the cost of the benefits provided,” the agency said in a Nov. 18 notice. OPM added that it will only suspend applications when it is in the best interest of the program.

Many are eligible to apply for FLTCIP coverage, including federal employees, U.S. Postal Service employees and annuitants, as well as active and retired members of the uniformed services, and qualified relatives of feds. John Hancock has historically sponsored the program, and Long Term Care Partners, LLC, has administered it.

From the Omnicron and siblings front, the National Institutes of Health announced

Reporting a positive or negative test result just became easier through a new website from the National Institutes of Health., developed through NIH’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx®) Tech program, allows users to anonymously report the results of any brand of at-home COVID-19 test.

COVID-19 testing remains an essential tool as the United States heads into the holiday season and people navigate respiratory viruses. While taking a rapid COVID-19 test has become commonplace, test results are not often reported. COVID-19 test results provide valuable data that public health departments can use to assess the needs and modify the responses in the local community, the state or the nation.

Lab tests have a well-established technology system for sharing test results. RADx Tech has been working on a system to standardize test reporting for at-home tests in a secure manner. The website is built on this system for logging test results.

The Wall Street Journal tells us

U.S. life insurers paid a record $100 billion in 2021 in death benefits, fueled by another year of Covid-19 deaths, an industry trade group said.

Payouts rose 11% in 2021 to $100.19 billion, most likely due to the pandemic, according to the American Council of Life Insurers. The increase was on the heels of a 15% year-over-year rise in 2020, when death-benefit payments totaled $90.43 billion.

The ACLI compiles data from annual filings by insurers to state insurance departments. Given limitations in the filings, the group can’t break down causes of death, but it is reasonable to attribute the bulk of the increases to the pandemic, said Andrew Melnyk, ACLI vice president of research and chief economist.

The year-over-year increases are among the largest since the 1918 flu pandemic, when payments surged 41%. They are far above the 4.9% average from 2011 to 2021, the ACLI said.

From the No Surprises Act front, Healthcare Dive reports

House lawmakers expressed their discontent with a final rule on surprise billing and urged federal regulators to make changes.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Ma., and ranking member Kevin Brady, R-Texas, sent a letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and other department heads again expressing disappointment with a much-contested section of the surprise billing ban.

The lawmakers “are severely disappointed to find that the August 2022 final rule violates the No Surprises Act in the same ways as before,” Neal and Brady said in a letter last week.

For Heaven’s sake, Congress should give the revised rule a chance before joining the medical associations in condemning it.

From the public health front, Health Payer Intelligence tells us

The number of Americans with a usual source of care has dropped 10 percent in the last 18 years, with only about three-quarters of people saying they have a regular primary care provider or at least a facility where they know they can access care, according to the Primary Care Collaborative (PCC) and AAFP Graham Center.

The analysis also revealed some health disparities, with folks who are Hispanic, have less than a high school education, are uninsured, and are younger being less likely to have a usual source of care than their counterparts. * * *

“Employers have a very important role to play to ensure that all their employees and their families have ready, convenient access to a usual source of affordable primary care,” said Asaf Bitton, MD, the executive director of Ariadne Labs – Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“We applaud those employers who are providing highly accessible virtual and in-person primary care options, and working with preferred provider organizations and health systems to support patients in establishing and maintaining these crucial primary care relationships.”

Amen to that sentiment.

STAT New reports

Cardiovascular disease is responsible for about one in five deaths in women in the U.S., more than any other cause — including all forms of cancer combined. Black women like Shields are particularly vulnerable: In the U.S., Black adults are substantially more likely to die from heart disease than their white, Hispanic, or Asian or Pacific Islander counterparts.

To try to reduce deaths from heart disease, health professionals typically use basic risk calculators, which take about a dozen standard data points to predict a person’s likelihood of having a major event, such as a heart attack or stroke, in the next 10 years.

Regardless of their other risk factors, for the most part, patients who are young and female have a very low chance of having a cardiovascular event in the next 10 years, so they are unlikely to get recommendations for serious lifestyle interventions or medication. But they may still be heading down a path to a fatal event later in life.

Some 10 to 15% of pregnancies have at least one complication that is linked to later heart disease. In addition to preeclampsia, these include other forms of gestational hypertensiongestational diabetespreterm deliverylow birth weight; and placental abruption. People who experience miscarriages and stillbirths are also at greater risk of heart disease. Additional reproductive health conditions — including the early arrival of periods, polycystic ovary syndrome, infertility, and early menopause — have also been linked to increased risk.

These data, however, are all missing from standard cardiovascular disease risk calculators. Some pregnancy complications are listed as part of the comprehensive American Heart Association screening guidelines. But a large national 2014 survey revealed that only 16% of primary care physicians and 22% of cardiologists were using these full guidelines. The failure of health-care providers to screen for these sorts of early warning signs is in keeping with the long-standing pattern in which women’s risk for heart disease is chronically underestimated by medical professionals — as well as by women themselves.

That’s a big bowl of wrong.

From the plan design front, Beckers Payer Issues relates

Providers using EHRs that aren’t enabled for electronic prior authorization and the cost to upgrade to those EHRs are the main barriers preventing automated PA, according to a Nov. 14 America’s Health Insurance Plans survey

The health insurance trade group conducted an industrywide survey on “prior authorization practices and gold carding experience of commercial plans” between February and April, according to the report. AHIP received responses from 26 plans, covering a total of 122 million commercial enrollees.

Top barriers to automated prior authorization:

  1. Provider does not use EHR enabled for electronic PA: 71 percent
  2. Costly/burdensome for providers to buy/upgrade EHR for electronic PA: 71 percent
  3. Lack of interoperability between EHR vendors: 62 percent
  4. Costly for payers to enable PA rules and information to be delivered electronically: 43 percent
  5. Lack of electronic PA solutions on market: 19 percent

This is a surprising outcome considering how vociferously providers object to prior authorization.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the FEHB Open Season front, OPM issued today its annual open season benefits administration letter identifying FEHB and FEDVIP contract changes for 2023 A/K/A, the Significant Changes letter and appendix. OPM also released its Federal Benefits Fast Facts for the upcoming Open Season.

The Federal Times offers an Open Season overview.

From the No Surprises Act front, Newfront, an insurance brokerage, issued an important reminder on the revised NSA consumer notice that health plans must post by January 1, 2023. Here are the current and future notices.

From the Covid vaccine mandate front, the Miller & Chevalier law firm tells us

On October 14, 2022, the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force released a roadmap for federal contractors of anticipated guidance on how federal agencies would be handling the implementation and enforcement of the federal contractor vaccine mandate and workplace safety requirements of Executive Order 14042, “Ensuring Adequate Safety Protocols for Federal Contractors.”  The Task Force — created by President Biden to provide guidance to federal agencies on handling operational issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic — anticipates a “potential narrowing of the existing nationwide injunction on October 18, 2022.” As a result, the Task Force anticipates the release of three documents: (1) notice from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to federal agencies regarding compliance with injunctions and the inclusion of vaccine mandate clauses in future solicitations and contracts; (2) updates to Task Force guidance on safety protocols for covered contractor and subcontractor workplace locations, including a timeline for implementation; and (3) additional guidance from OMB on “timing and considerations for provision of written notice from agencies to contractors regarding enforcement of contract clauses” implementing vaccine and workplace safety mandates. Notably, until OMB issues the guidance above, agencies are directed not to take any steps to require compliance with the Task Force guidance or enforce any contract clauses implementing the requirements of Executive Order 14042.

This Task Force guidance stems from an August 26, 2022, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit opinion replacing the lower court’s nationwide injunction with an injunction applying to the plaintiffs. However, several other U.S. Courts of Appeals are hearing cases involving this mandate so we may be waiting a while for the OMB guidance.

Also, from the Omicron and siblings front, Beckers Hospital Review discusses the new Omicron variants BQ.1 and BQ1.1.

CDC estimates indicate a new omicron variant, BQ.1, and its descendent BQ.1.1 account for 11.4 percent of cases nationwide. The pair have been dubbed “escape variants” for their ability to escape immunity and are currently most prevalent in New York and New Jersey, where they account for nearly 20 percent of new infections. * * *

Experts are optimistic that the bivalent omicron boosters will offer protection against BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 since they’re descendants of BA.5. (Updated boosters are designed to target the original SARS-CoV-2 strain, BA.4 and BA.5.)

“The bad news is that there’s a new variant that’s emerging and that has qualities or characteristics that could evade some of the interventions we have. But, the somewhat encouraging news is that it’s a BA.5 sublineage, so there are almost certainly going to be some cross protection that you can boost up,” Dr. Fauci said. 

From the monkeypox front, the American Hospital Association reports

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention today reported the first U.S. monkeypox case in a health care worker since the outbreak began in May. The report describes how an emergency department nurse in Florida was exposed to the virus through a needlestick, and recommends approaches to preventing infections in health care workers. CDC also released a report describing five patients who acquired ocular monkeypox, a rare but sight-threatening condition, including four who were hospitalized. The report recommends health care providers advise monkeypox patients to practice hand hygiene and avoid touching their eyes, and consider urgent ophthalmologic evaluation and monkeypox-directed treatment for patients with ocular signs and symptoms.

From the influenza front —

Beckers Hospital Review relates

The U.S. is seeing flu activity rise earlier than usual, with Southern states reporting the highest levels of activity, according to the CDC’s latest FluView report for the week ending Oct. 8. 

Overall, activity remains low, “but increasing in most of the country,” the CDC said. HHS region 4 (Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida) and region 6 (New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana) are reporting the highest levels of flu activity. 

Furthermore, STAT News “talked on Friday with Lynnette Brammer, a flu epidemiologist and team lead for domestic surveillance in the CDC’s influenza division, to get a sense of what the agency is seeing.”

Thinking about this flu season and what you’re seeing so far, what’s your best guess for what’s ahead?

Our syndromic surveillance methods are much trickier to try and interpret now, with Covid in the picture. It just muddies the water, basically.

We’ll have to see if the flu and Covid circulate at the same time. Right now, it looks like Covid is still trending down in a lot of the country, but flu’s going up in a lot of the country.

If individuals start to feel crappy this winter, how will they know if it’s a cold? Flu? Covid?

I think testing is going to be really important given that, for flu and Covid, there are treatments that — particularly for high-risk people — can make a huge difference in how well they are able to get through their illness. So it’s going to be really important to test so physicians can know the appropriate treatment for their patients.

In related news, the Government Accountability Office released a report on routine vaccination rates in our country.

U.S. school children generally have higher rates of vaccination to protect them from preventable illness compared with adults.

We found gaps in adult rates for flu, shingles, tetanus, and pneumococcal (prevents pneumonia and more) vaccines. Among other things:

Adults were about 40% more likely to get the tetanus and pneumococcal vaccines than the shingles vaccine

Vaccination rates for Black or African American and Hispanic or Latino adults were about 13% below that of White adults for each vaccine

Health and Human Services is using social media and its website to raise public awareness on the importance of being vaccinated.

From the ACA reporting front, the Internal Revenue Service issued its Forms 1095-B and 1095-C for 2022. The Service also released an employee fringe benefits guide for federal, state, and local government employers.

From the Rx coverage front, BioPharma Dive predicts “five questions facing drugmakers as third-quarter earnings begin. Alzheimer’s study results, drug pricing law, bring new questions for many of the industry’s top companies.”

Weekend Update

As we wrap up the last weekend of summer, we can look forward to the House of Representatives and the Senate holding Committee business and floor voting. Yahoo Finance adds

Once again, the threat of a government shutdown looms at the end of the fiscal year, which arrives on September 30. Lawmakers have two weeks to provide funding to keep large swaths of the federal government open and functioning, and the most likely result at this point is a short-term bill called a continuing resolution that funds the government for about 10 weeks, or until mid-December. Lawmakers would then look to pass an omnibus spending package to cover the rest of the 2023 fiscal year.

From the Omicron and siblings front, the Wall Street Journal offers an engaging interview with Moderna’s CEO Stéphane Bancel who “discusses the company’s latest Covid shot and research on using mRNA in seasonal flu vaccines and personalized treatments for cancer.”

From the social determinants of health front, Health Affairs discusses best practices to improve the collection and distribution of race, ethnicity, and language data for use by health care providers and payers. Healthcare payers, in particular, cannot address SDOH issues strategically without having REL data. The FEHBlog’s idea, which he has floated unsuccessfully to date, is to add REL codes to the AMA’s CPT 4 code system, thereby allowing the ready distribution of that data via reliable coders.

Speaking of the distribution of healthcare data, EHR Intelligence reports that “Large Health IT Networks Unveil Plans to Become Qualified Health Information Network (“QHIN”) Under TEFCA.” TEFCA will act as the Electronic Health Records “backbone” to vastly improve health record interoperability, which has long been a national EHR goal.

From the mental healthcare front, last Friday, “the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released the HHS Roadmap for Behavioral Health Integration (Roadmap), which details policy solutions that would help to better integrate mental health and substance use care into the larger health care system and other systems. The Roadmap is based on feedback Secretary Becerra received from patients and providers during more than two dozen stops on his National Tour to Strengthen Mental Health.”

Finally, a government contract expert discusses in Federal News Network why the 1994 federal acquisition reform law (actually the related 1994 and 1996 laws) aiming to simplify the federal procurement process needs a reboot. The FEHBlog heartily agrees.

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the Omicron and siblings front, Regulatory Focus reports

[Last week,] both Pfizer and Moderna are seeking FDA authorization for their bivalent COVID-19 vaccines containing components of both the prototype virus and Omicron BA.4/5. 

“The FDA is working tirelessly to evaluate the submissions to ensure the data meet FDA’s rigorous standards for safety, effectiveness and manufacturing quality so that these new boosters are available as soon as possible,” Califf tweeted on Thursday, noting that the agency would base its decision on “the totality of available evidence,” including clinical trial data from other bivalent mRNA vaccines, real-world evidence from current vaccines and non-clinical data on the two BA.4/5-containing vaccines.
Califf also said that the agency’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) would not be convened to review the submissions. “FDA will not hold a VRBPAC meeting about these submissions, as the agency feels confident in the extensive discussion that was held in June. VRBPAC voted overwhelmingly to include an omicron component in COVID-19 boosters. FDA has no new questions that warrant committee input,” he wrote.

From the monkeypox front, the Wall Street Journal informs us

A person in Texas who was diagnosed with monkeypox and had a weak immune system has died, Texas state health officials said Tuesday, in what could be the first-known fatality from the virus in the U.S.

The Texas Department of State Health Services said this was the first death of a person diagnosed with monkeypox in Texas. Officials are investigating what role monkeypox played in the death. They said the patient, who was an adult and a resident of Harris County, Texas, was “severely immunocompromised” but didn’t offer additional details. 

In a statement, Texas health commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt said that “monkeypox is a serious disease, particularly for those with weakened immune systems.” He urged those who have been exposed or have symptoms to seek treatment.

Healthcare Dive adds

Concerns over monkeypox vaccine supplies appear to be softening after federal public health agencies initially scrambled to acquire enough doses of the shot.

The Biden administration has been working to boost its supply of vaccines in recent weeks, and so far has made over 1 million vials available to jurisdictions, “which is nearly enough to reach the entire population that’s most at risk,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said during a call with reporters Tuesday.

The HHS also announced on Monday that it will provide about $11 million to support the first U.S.-based productioneffort for manufacturing the Jynneos vaccine at a facility in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The FDA authorized administering the Jynneos shot intradermally — a method that requires only one-fifth of the usual dose but is just as effective, according to the agency.

However, the vaccine’s developer, Bavarian Nordic, has raised concerns about the method, citing a lack of data and evidence related to its efficacy.

About 75% of jurisdictions that have received the vaccine are administering it intradermally now, Bob Fenton, the White House’s monkeypox response coordinator, said on Tuesday’s call.

From the public health front, CNN Health discloses

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky has tapped Mary Wakefield — an Obama administration veteran and former nurse — to helm a major revamp of the sprawling agency and its multibillion-dollar budget. Making the changes will require winning over wary career CDC scientists, combative members of Congress, and a general public that in many cases has stopped looking to the agency for guidance.

“If she can’t fix it, she’ll say, ‘It’s not fixable, here’s why, and here’s what needs to be done next,'” said Eileen Sullivan-Marx, dean of the New York University Rory Meyers College of Nursing, who’s known Wakefield professionally for decades.

Also, Specialty Pharmacy Continuum points out

Less than 20% of providers submitted claims using a type of payment code [ICD 10 Z codes] that could help identify and address health disparities that adversely affect patient outcomes, according to a new ICON Market Access report.

The results come amid a growing call for payors and pharmaceutical manufacturers to work together to better address racial and ethnic health inequalities, speakers said during the AMCP 2022 annual meeting.

Such health disparities exist in nearly all U.S. states, said Jessica Cherian, PharmD, RPh, the vice president of content and strategic services for ICON Market Access, citing a 2021 Commonwealth Report, In 2021, her company surveyed 32 payor executives for their perceptions regarding health disparities in racial and ethnic groups, with a targeted focus on medication access and utilization.

Payors typically review data from claims, case manager screenings and more, and use that information to match members to programs that meet their SDOH needs, such as access to care, housing or transportation help, Ms. Fleming said. Payors also track needs through Z codes: additional codes provided in the International Classification of Diseases, Tenth Revision to report nonmedical factors influencing health status. For example, code Z63 would indicate difficulty with a patient’s family/support, such as alcoholism or drug addiction. Approximately 71% of payors in the ICON report used Z codes to monitor SDOH; however, they said less than 20% of submitted claims included these codes.

In payor personnel news, Healthcare Dive informs us

Name: David Brailer

New title: Executive vice president and chief health officer, Cigna

Brailer will assume his new role in early September, and will be Cigna’s first chief health officer.

In his role, he will focus on bringing together Cigna products, technologies and services in new ways in an attempt to drive more value and help improve overall health, according to the release.

He will report to Cigna Chairman and CEO David Cordani and will serve on the company’s enterprise leadership team.

From the healthcare costs front, the HHS Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research released “STATISTICAL BRIEF #543: Trends in Health Insurance at Private Employers, 2008-2021.”


  • “Employment-sponsored health insurance at private-sector employers was characterized by increases in premiums and cost-sharing for covered workers in 2021.
    • In 2021, average health insurance premiums were $7,380 for single coverage, $14,634 for employee-plus-one coverage, and $21,381 for family coverage, representing increases of 3.2, 3.1 and 3.0 percent, respectively, from their 2020 levels.
    • In 2021, the average employee contribution was $1,643 for single coverage, a 7.2 percent increase from the 2020 level. Single premium contributions increased at small (12.3 percent), medium (14.1 percent), and large firms (5.6 percent).
    • From 2020 to 2021, average deductible levels for single coverage increased by 3.0 percent to $2,004, and family coverage deductibles increased 3.9 percent to $3,868.
  • “From 2020 to 2021, there were no statistically significant changes in enrollment rates or offer rates for small, medium, or large firms. 
  • “Overall enrollment and offer rates decreased from 2020 to 2021. These decreases are due to an increase in employment among small employers, and a corresponding decrease in the proportion of employees in medium and large firms, which have higher rates for both measures.
  • “In 2021, overall eligibility and take-up rates were not significantly different from 2020 levels.”

From the Rx coverage front, HealthDay tells us

Cholesterol-lowering statins are proven lifesavers, but they’ve also gained a reputation for causing muscle aches and pains in a good number of patients.

That reputation is undeserved, according to a new large-scale analysis of data from nearly two dozen clinical trials of statins.

There’s a less than 10% chance that muscle symptoms reported by patients are caused by the statin they are taking, researchers report.

“Our analysis showed that over 90% of muscle symptoms were not attributable to the statin, and those cases that were due to statins occurred mainly within the first year of treatment,” said joint lead researcher Colin Baigent, director of the Medical Research Council Population Health Research Unit at the University of Oxford, in England.

Statins have simply gotten a bad rap when it comes to muscle side effects, Baigent said.

In government contract reporting news, the Society for Human Resource Management reports

The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) has issued a revised directive on compensation compliance, addressing concerns federal contractors had about a previous directive issued earlier this year. Some contractors were concerned that the prior version of the directive intruded upon communications protected by attorney-client privilege.

On the same day the revised directive was issued, OFCCP Director Jenny Yang wrote in a blog post that a top priority for the OFCCP is combating agency pay discrimination.

“Contractors therefore should review the directive and ensure they are engaging in compensation analyses as required by the regulations and be prepared to respond to questions regarding those analyses that are detailed in the directive,” said Guy Brenner, an attorney with Proskauer in Washington, D.C.

“Federal regulations require contractors periodically—or OFCCP interprets now as annually—[to] review their compensation systems to determine whether there are gender, race or ethnicity-based disparities in compensation,” said Sheila Willis, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Columbia, S.C.

Midweek update

From inside the Beltway, Roll Call tells us

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky is looking to reorganize the agency in the wake of an external review of the CDC’s COVID-19 response. * * *

“For 75 years, CDC and public health have been preparing for COVID-19,” Walensky said, “and in our big moment, our performance did not reliably meet expectations.” 

The plan aims to achieve a “more cohesive and customer centric structure,” by implementing new programs and procedures to work more quickly and ensure more accountability. Walensky plans to establish an executive council to oversee the CDC’s progress on specific goals, consolidate various points of access for external stakeholders and establish a new equity office.

STAT News adds

Outside experts expressed enthusiasm — though some of it tempered — for the changes Walensky is proposing.

Jay Varma, who spent 20 years at CDC before becoming director of the Cornell Center for Pandemic Prevention and Response at Weill Cornell Medicine, applauded many of the points Walensky stressed, particularly her promise to reform the culture of the agency and build up the capacity of its staff to respond to emergencies. Over the past two decades or so, Varma told STAT, public health agencies like the CDC have become increasingly bureaucratic.

“If your culture is not aligned entirely with what your mission is, it doesn’t matter how good the strategy is. It doesn’t matter what your org charts are. It is all about the workforce culture,” he said.

But Varma warned effecting change in the agency’s culture will be challenging.

Speaking of change, Fierce Healthcare informs us

A dramatic pickup in the pace of change for payers in the last year has created new priorities for health plan leaders, a new survey has found. 

The survey, conducted by payment integrity solution HealthEdge, reached more than 300 health plan leaders. Common themes, per a report of the survey results, included the move to newer systems amid a digital transformation, rising demand for real-time data access and the promise of interoperability. 

Some of the biggest threats facing health plans are new regulations, growing consumer expectations, competition and the transition to value-based payment strategies. The top two challenges are managing costs and driving operational efficiencies, which were lower on the list of priorities just last year. Tied in third place are member satisfaction and alignment of IT and business needs. 

There are several drivers of these hurdles. Post-pandemic, there are notably more claims. Long delays in care have also led to rising costs, and outdated systems have required significant investment to keep up with demand. Having a solid digital baseline can help payers eliminate manual, repetitive processes, the report suggested. Payers also believe increasing interoperability and improving claims accuracy helps alleviate administrative costs. 

From the Rx coverage front, BioPharma Dive reports

The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday approved a powerful new treatment for people with an inherited blood condition called beta thalassemia, clearing a personalized gene therapy developed by the biotechnology company Bluebird bio. * * *

Its approval is a milestone in a number of other respects, too. Beta thalassemia, a disease that in severe cases requires regular blood transfusions for life, has for years been marked as a target for gene therapy. Bluebird’s treatment, which will be sold as Zynteglo, is the first of several in development to reach market in the U.S., giving patients an option that could free them from those transfusions and their associated side effects.

STAT News adds

Bluebird has set the price of Zynteglo at $2.8 million per patient, making it one of the most expensive medicines ever sold in the U.S. And that price tag doesn’t include the cost of the lengthy hospitalization for patients getting the therapy.

A person with beta thalassemia incurs total health care costs that average $6.5 million over their lifetime, or 23 times higher than the general population, said Obenshain, making the case for Zynteglo’s cost effectiveness. Earlier this year, the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review, an independent drug-pricing analysis group, said Zynteglo would be cost effective up to a price of $3 million.

Bluebird will be asking insurers to pay for Zynteglo entirely up front, but the company will also return up to 80% of the cost if patients need to restart blood transfusions before two years.

“All the commercial insurers we’ve engaged with have expressed a really strong interest in this,” said [Bluebird CEO Andrew] Obenshain, of Bluebird’s outcome-based payment proposal.

From the research and studies front —

  • “Infectious disease expert Dave Wessner reports for Forbes from the 24th International AIDS Conference, where researchers shared ways that Covid vaccine development might help the development of a vaccine for AIDS.”
  • The National Institutes of Health announced “Scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health have developed a same-day test to identify abnormal fetal chromosomes. The Short-read Transpore Rapid Karyotyping (STORK) test can detect extra or missing chromosomes (i.e., aneuploidy) using samples collected from prenatal tests, such as amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling, as well as tissue obtained from miscarriage and biopsies from pre-implantation embryos produced using in vitro fertilization (IVF). * * * Overall, the study shows that STORK is comparable to standard clinical tests and has many advantages. STORK is faster, providing results within hours versus several days. It is also cheaper, with the study team estimating STORK to cost less than $50 per sample, if 10 samples are run at the same time, or up to $200 if a sample is run on its own. STORK can also be done at the point-of-care for a patient, eliminating the need to ship a sample to a clinical laboratory.  According to the study authors, STORK may be particularly useful in identifying genetic causes of miscarriage. Currently, professional societies only recommend genetic testing if a person has had multiple miscarriages, but an easy, cost-effective test like STORK can potentially be offered after the first miscarriage. STORK can also be used to streamline the IVF process. Currently, embryos must be frozen while genetic tests are run and analyzed before implantation. STORK’s ability to provide results within hours can presumably eliminate this freezing step, which saves time and cost. More work is needed to validate STORK, but if results continue to show promise, STORK could improve the quality of reproductive healthcare.”
  • The National Cancer Institute announced “For people with advanced cancer, severe side effects from treatment often force them to the hospital or the emergency room. Although these time-consuming and, quite often, expensive hospital trips potentially could be prevented by better communication about symptoms between patients and their doctors, the reality is that such discussions don’t typically happen as frequently as they should.   Now, a new study shows that community health workers (CHWs) may help bridge this communication gap in cancer care. In the study, having a CHW directly consult with people newly diagnosed with advanced cancer or cancer recurrence, including assessing their symptoms and helping them with advance care planning, substantially decreased hospitalizations and emergency room visits.”
  • Fierce Healthcare reports “Musculoskeletal conditions are a massive source of health spending—accounting for $420 billion in 2018—and a new report from [Cigna’s] Evernorth aims to pinpoint where health plans could cut down on costs.”
  • Health IT Analytics tells us “New research published in JAMA Internal Medicine shows that an artificial intelligence (AI)-based cognitive behavioral therapy intervention for chronic pain (AI-CBT-CP) had similar outcomes to standard CBT-CP, which could result in increased access and reduced costs.”

From the government contract front, Federal News Network reports that

As the travel industry — and prices — recover from COVID-19, the General Services Administration is giving federal employees a little more leeway on hotel costs for official travel.

The base daily traveling allowances will rise slightly from $155 per day in 2021 to $157 per day in 2022. Per diem lodging rates will account for that rise, increasing from $96 per night to $98. Meals and incidental expenses will not change from their current range of $59-$79 per day.

For feds who already have an idea of their travel plans for fiscal 2023, GSA included a new calculator tool that will allow them to search by city, state, zip code or a map to determine the exact amount of their per diem.

Experience-rated FEHB plan carriers must subject employee lodging and miscellaneous expenses to the GSA’s per diem caps when seeking government contract reimburses for those expenses.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Roll Call reports that

The House and Senate are moving swiftly toward passing legislation introduced Tuesday that would limit Senate debate on debt limit legislation to 10 hours, creating a loophole in that chamber’s 60-vote legislative filibuster his Morning’s column in the New York Times andor a vote Tuesday night, Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote in a letter to lawmakers, along with a revised fiscal 2022 defense policy bill that would be sent to the Senate separately.

The two legislative vehicles are unrelated bills that previously passed both chambers with amendments; using them to carry the budget and defense measures allows Senate leaders to avoid a time-consuming motion to proceed in that chamber. Instead, only one cloture vote per bill would be needed. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who briefed his caucus at lunch on Tuesday, blessed the arrangement in comments to reporters. He said the new debt limit measure could pass as early as Thursday, after the Senate clears the bill to create an expedited process.

“I’m confident that this particular procedure coupled with the avoidance of Medicare cuts will achieve enough Republican support to clear the 60 vote threshold,” McConnell said.

If Congress accomplishes all of these actions, it may just call it quits at the end of this week which was the original schedule. A delay in Medicare cuts is extremely important to the medical facility and provider professional associations.

On the COVID vaccine mandate front, a federal district judge in Georgia today ordered a nationwide preliminary injunction against enforcement of the federal government contractor mandate per Govexec which adds

The Biden administration’s vaccine rule for private businesses and vaccine mandate for Medicare- and Medicaid-certified providers and suppliers are also temporarily blocked by courts. So far, the vaccine mandate for federal employees has not been stopped.

This PI applies to all FEHB plan contractors and subcontractors.

From the Delta variant front, David Leonhardt who is the FEHBlog’s go-to COVID columnists recommends in his Morning column in the New York Times today

For now, vaccinated people can reasonably continue to behave as they were — but many should feel urgency about getting booster shots. Older people and others who are vulnerable, like people receiving cancer treatment, should continue to be careful and ask people around them to test frequently.

Unvaccinated people remain at substantial risk of serious illness. About 1,000 Americans have been dying each day of Covid in recent weeks, the vast majority of them unvaccinated.

Look up case and deaths counts for your county here.

From the Rx coverage front, Drug Channels released its

annual deep dive into employer-sponsored coverage for prescription drugs. 

For 2021, employers backed away slightly from high-deductible health plans. However, their pharmacy benefit designs increased the use of coinsurance for specialty and fourth-tier drugs. These designs have significantly raised patients’ out-of-pocket obligations and are likely to have reduced adherence. 

Manufacturers’ patient support funds help offset patients’ higher expenses. But employer plans are rapidly adopting copay accumulators, which allow payers and PBMs to absorb these funds. 

From the health benefits trends front, the Society for Human Resource Management informs us that

Three-quarters of health insurers say that managing a health plan’s network of care providers is critical to controlling rising medical costs.

The finding is from consultancy Willis Towers Watson’s 2022 Global Medical Trends Survey, conducted from July through September 2021 among 209 leading insurers globally.

The plan features mostly likely to keep costs under control, insuers said, were:

— Contracting with high-quality, cost-competitive doctors and hospitals for in-network coverage (cited by 75 percent of respondents).

— Requiring preapproval for scheduled inpatient services (67 percent).

— Offering telehealth services (63 percent).

Telehealth or virtual care rose to the third spot from the fifth position last year, “a sign that more insurers see potential savings from remote options for diagnosing and treating patients,” according to the report.

Yesterday was the deadline for submitting public comments on the the second No Surprises Act interim final rule, which concerns the independent dispute resolution process. For a ying and yang take on the comments, here are links to American Hospital Association’s comments and to AHIP’s comments.

Let’s wrap it up with a bunch of HHS tidbits

  • HHS today announced its plan to “propose a national “Birthing-Friendly” hospital designation on the Hospital Compare section of the CMS Care Compare website, and also encourages states to provide 12 months postpartum coverage to people with Medicaid and CHIP.”
  • The National Institutes of Health reported that “Researchers identified brain cells that help suppress hunger and regulate food intake” and that “The findings may help lead to better treatments for excessive eating and obesity.”
  • NIH also announced “The winners of the National Institutes of Health’s Decoding Maternal Morbidity Data Challenge were announced today in conjunction with the White House “day of action” on maternal health. Twelve prizes were awarded to seven winners who proposed innovative solutions to identify risk factors in first-time pregnancies. Without a prior pregnancy for comparison, it is difficult to identify risks for adverse pregnancy outcomes. Early detection of these risks can help reduce pregnancy complications and prevent maternal deaths.”
  • The Agency for Healthcare Quality and Researched released

A final report on strategies to improve patient safety and reduce medical errors has been delivered to Congress by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in consultation with AHRQ. Required by the Patient Safety Act of 2005, the report was made available for public review and comment and review by the National Academy of Medicine. It outlined several strategies to accelerate progress in improving patient safety, including using analytic approaches in patient safety research, measurement, and practice improvement to monitor risk; implementing evidence-based practices into real-world settings through clinically useful tools and infrastructure; encouraging the development of learning health systems that integrate continuous learning and improvement in day-to-day operations; and encouraging the use of patient safety strategies outlined in the National Action Plan by the National Steering Committee for Patient Safety

Access the final report, “Strategies to Improve Patient Safety: Final Report to Congress Required by the Patient Safety and Quality Improvement Act of 2005” (PDF, 1.16 MB).

  • The Centers for Disease Control “announced today that it has awarded $22 million to nearly 30 organizations around the world to combat antimicrobial resistance (AR) and other healthcare threats through the establishment of two new networks—the Global Action in Healthcare Network (GAIHN) and the Global AR Laboratory and Response Network (Global AR Lab & Response Network).”

Citing mounting evidence of ongoing harm, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy on Tuesday issued a public health advisory on the mental health challenges confronting youth, a rare warning and call to action to address what he called an emerging crisis exacerbated by pandemic hardships.

Symptoms of depression and anxiety have doubled during the pandemic, with 25% of youth experiencing depressive symptoms and 20% experiencing anxiety symptoms, according to Murthy’s 53-page advisory. There also appear to be increases in negative emotions or behaviors such as impulsivity and irritability — associated with conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD.

And, in early 2021, emergency department visits in the United States for suspected suicide attempts were 51% higher for adolescent girls and 4% higher for adolescent boys compared to the same time period in early 2019, according to research cited in the advisory.

Thursday Miscellany

From the Delta variant vaccine front, The American Hospital Association informs us that

  • The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services today issued an interim final rule requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for workers in most health care settings, including hospitals and health systems, that participate in the Medicare and Medicaid programs. The rule is effective Nov. 5. Under the regulation, all eligible workers must be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4, 2022.
  • Also this morning, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) issued an emergency temporary standard requiring all employees at private businesses with 100 or more workers to be vaccinated by Jan. 4 or get tested for COVID-19 weekly.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) provides us with SHRM’s Top Takeaways from the OSHA ETS:

  • Employees must be fully vaccinated by January 4, 2022, and employers must require unvaccinated employees to mask and produce a negative test on at least a weekly basis.
  • Employers are required to have a written vaccination policy.
  • The OSHA ETS does not apply to employees who do not report to a workplace where there are other individuals such as coworkers or customers are present; employees working from home; or employees who work exclusively outdoors.
  • The OSHA ETS does not require employers to provide or pay for tests.
  • Employers must pay employees for the time it takes to get vaccinated.
  • Employers must ensure all unvaccinated employees are masked.
  • Employers must report COVID-19 fatalities and hospitalizations to OSHA.
  • The OSHA ETS reaffirms that employers must provide reasonable accommodations.
  • According to the Department of Laborvaccine, testing and face-covering requirements preempt inconsistent state and local requirements.

Closer to home, the OSHA ETC does not apply to workplaces subject to EO 14042 on Requiring Coronavirus Disease 2019 Vaccination for Federal Contractors. However, Govexec points out that

“Under the [Occupational Safety and Health Act], the U.S. Postal Service is treated as a private employer,” said OSHA’s emergency temporary standard, set to officially publish in the Federal Register on Friday. “It is therefore required to comply with this [emergency temporary standard] in the same manner as any other employer covered by the act.” 

The [Labor Department] spokesperson added that there are about 500,000 postal workers and confirmed that the rule applies to all of them.

Federal New Networks adds that

The Biden administration on Thursday pushed back the deadline for federal contractors to comply with its vaccine mandate.

Contractors now have until Jan. 4, 2022, the same deadline the White House set for private sector companies with 100 employees or more to comply with vaccine and testing requirements from the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. * * *

The White House said it will not apply the OHSA emergency temporary standard or the CMS rule to workplaces subject to the federal vaccine mandate for contractors, so employers won’t have to track multiple requirements.

While federal contractors now have the same Jan. 4 deadline as other private sector companies, there’s a key difference between the two policies.

Under the new OSHA standard, companies with 100 employees or more have to ensure their workers have received either one or both shots by Jan. 4 — or tests for COVID-19 at least weekly.

Under the federal vaccine mandate for contractors, employees don’t have the option to be tested weekly, at least not at this point.

Govexec reports that “The Office of Personnel Management on Wednesday reminded agencies that they must grant federal employees administrative leave to accompany their children to get the COVID-19 vaccine, following the news that more children are now able to get vaccinated.” It would be helpful if OPM gave direct guidance to FEHB carriers on the contractor vaccine mandate.

From the Delta variant front, STAT News reports that

Britain granted conditional authorization on Thursday to the first pill shown to successfully treat Covid-19 so far. It also is the first country to OK the treatment from drug maker Merck, although it wasn’t immediately clear how quickly the pill would be available.

The pill was licensed for adults 18 and older who have tested positive for Covid-19 and have at least one risk factor for developing severe disease, such as obesity or heart disease. Patients with mild-to-moderate Covid-19 would take four pills of the drug, known molnupiravir, twice a day for five days.

An antiviral pill that reduces symptoms and speeds recovery could prove groundbreaking, easing caseloads on hospitals and helping to curb outbreaks in poorer countries with fragile health systems. It would also bolster the two-pronged approach to the pandemic: treatment, by way of medication, and prevention, primarily through vaccinations.

Molnupiravir is also pending review with regulators in the U.S., the European Union, and elsewhere. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced last month it would convene a panel of independent experts to scrutinize the pill’s safety and effectiveness in late November.

From the preventive care front —

The Associated Press informs us that

A government advisory committee on Wednesday recommended that all U.S. adults younger than 60 be vaccinated against hepatitis B, because progress against the liver-damaging disease has stalled. 

The decision means that tens of millions of U.S. adults — mostly between the ages of 30 and 59 — would be advised to get shots. Hepatitis B vaccinations became standard for children in 1991, meaning most adults younger that 30 already are protected.

“We’re losing ground. We cannot eliminate hepatitis B in the U.S. without a new approach,” said Dr. Mark Weng of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted unanimously to approve the recommendation Wednesday. The CDC’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, must sign off on it before it becomes public policy, but it’s not clear when she will decide.

The American Cancer Society tells us about the proper use of lung screenings to detect cancer in this Lung Cancer Awareness Month.

The Robert Woods Johnson Foundation has updated its report on the state of childhood obesity in our country.

From the healthcare business front —

Fierce Healthcare reports that

Cigna wrapped up third-quarter earnings for major national payers Thursday morning, where it reported $1.6 billion in profit for the quarter.

The results surpassed Wall Street expectations, according to Zacks Investment Research. Cigna also brought in $44.3 billion in revenue in the third quarter, according to the earnings report, which also beat analysts’ projections.

Both figures were up significantly year over year, Cigna said. In the third quarter of 2020, the insurer earned $1.4 billion in profit and brought in $41 billion in revenue. * * *

Due to the results, Cigna raised its guidance and now expects $20.35 in earnings per share for 2021. The insurer expects full-year revenues of $172 billion.

Fierce Healthcare also catalogs “new [healthcare M&A] deals that were revealed, closed or called off during the month of October.

In that regard Beckers Payer Issues reports that

UnitedHealth Group and Change Healthcare entered into an amended agreement with the Justice Department not to finalize the healthcare companies’ proposed $13 billion deal until late February.

Four things to know:

1. Under the new timing arrangement, the companies agreed not to consummate their deal before Feb. 22, 2022, according to Change Healthcare’s Nov. 3 earnings report

2. The new date amends a previous timing agreement announced in August, under which, UnitedHealth and Change agreed to wait at least 120 days after certifying compliance with the Justice Department’s request for more information. Both organizations had agreed to not certify compliance with the request before Sept. 15, meaning the 120 days would have expired in January 2022.

3. The organizations announced the proposed acquisition in January. Change shareholders approved the deal despite backlash from hospital groups arguing that the proposed combination is anticompetitive. 

4. On March 24, the Justice Department issued a second information request to the organizations. In the Nov. 3 earnings report, Change Healthcare shared that it and UnitedHealth “certified substantial compliance” with the second request.

Also STAT News provides a “progress report on Big Retail’s ambitions in health care.” This point impressed the FEHBlog

[T]he physical assets of retail players stand to give them a substantial leg up in parts of the country not already saturated by startups and other rivals, including the Midwest and broad swaths of the South.

“Most people in America live close to some of these retail giants and not to a health care provider,” said Gadelrab, who visited a Walmart for the first time to get tested for Covid-19.

Even for retailers’ significantly buzzier rivals, such as hybrid care startups Carbon Healthand women’s care-focused Tia, physical locations have remained a core part of their business models amid the pandemic, pitting their offerings somewhat against the services offered by Walmart, in particular.

“For us, the physical experience has been around making preventive health something women want to engage in before something is wrong,” said Carolyn Witte, Tia’s co-founder and chief executive officer.

That physical proximity could prove especially useful, Gadelrab said, as parts of the U.S. health care system begin to shift away from a fee-for-service treatment model to one based on value-based or preventive care, since it could theoretically allow retail giants to keep more consistent tabs on patients, much in the same way popular telehealth tools check in regularly with their users. At the same time, retailers also maintain reams of data on consumer health and wellness spending, and more recently, vaccination status — information that could be used to better inform their health care offerings or reach more potential clients.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the Delta variant front, Medscape informs us that

Unvaccinated people who had a recent infection were five times more likely to be reinfected with the coronavirus compared to those who were fully vaccinated and didn’t have a prior infection, according to a new study published Friday in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.”


People who already have had COVID-19 may have more reason to get vaccinated, with new findings suggesting that vaccination after infection can boost protection. Under viral threat, the body first uses B cells to make antibodies against the invader, a process that can take up to 2 weeks. The immune system simultaneously creates memory B cells that can recognize the virus if it reappears and rapidly mounts a powerful secondary response.

In a series of  shots, the first dose triggers the primary response. The follow-up doses activate the memory B cells, strengthening defenses against the pathogen.

These new results, published in Cell Reports , show that a SARS-CoV-2 infection, like a first vaccine dose, will elicit the primary response, as expected.

Fierce Biotech tells us that

COVID-19 testing newcomer Detect aims to reset expectations for regular screening against the pandemic coronavirus—and it’s now received an FDA green light to move forward with its rapid, lab-quality test for repeated use in the home.

The company’s molecular diagnostic received an emergency authorization allowing it to be sold at retail stores over-the-counter. Equipped with a reusable analyzer and $50 cartridge-based tests, the system aims to produce results with PCR-level accuracy within one hour.

From the Delta variant mandate front, the Society for Human Resource Management reports that

​The White House issued guidance on Nov. 1 that its Dec. 8 deadline for federal contractors to be vaccinated against COVID-19 isn’t set in stone, providing companies with the opportunity to educate workers past that date rather than fire workers who haven’t been vaccinated by then.

“A covered contractor should determine the appropriate means of enforcement with respect to its employee at a covered contractor workplace who refuses to be vaccinated and has not been provided, or does not have a pending request for, an accommodation,” according to the guidelines.

As federal contractors prepare to implement the vaccine mandate, many questions have arisen on timing, costs and related issues, which prompted the White House to release the new guidance.  

Also today, OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs concluded its review of the OSHA vaccination screening rule for private sector employers with 100 or more employees. This means that the rule should be released this week. Heavens only knows when the FAR Council will release its vaccine mandate rule for federal contractors.

Federal News Network offers an update on the federal employee vaccine mandate.

From the recognition department, Fierce Healthcare names ten women of influence in healthcare while Healthcare Dive points out that “Healthcare employees bore the brunt of the pandemic in the workforce. Women bore the brunt of the pandemic at home. Most nurses are both.”

In Affordable Care Act new, the IFEBP reports that “The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued the final 1094-B, 1095-B, 1094-C, and 1095-C forms that employers, plan sponsors and group health insurers will use to report health coverage to plan members and the IRS as required by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). IRS hasn’t released final instructions.” Links to the final forms are available at this link.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID Data Tracker, here’s the FEHBlog weekly chart of new COVID cases in 2021, which uses Thursday as the first day of the week:

Encouraging, n’est-ce pas?

The CDC’s chart of new COVID hospitalizations points in the same hopeful direction.

Here’s the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new COVID deaths which while a lagging indicator is now heading in the right direction too.

Here is the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of newly distributed and administered COVID vaccines, which includes boosters.

For the each of the past three days over 1 million COVID vaccines have been administered in our country. 67.7% of Americans over age 12 (the current minimum age to receive the vaccination) are fully vaccinated. 85% of the 65 and older U.S. population is fully vaccinated and 22% of that cadre has received the booster.

Here is a link to the CDC’s weekly interpretation of these COVID statistics which was released today. The CDC’s most recent Fluview report is that “Seasonal influenza activity in the United States remains low.”

In related Delta variant news, the Washington Post reports that the acting Food and Drug Commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock today ratified the FDA vaccinations panel’s recommendation to award emergency use authorization to administering the Pfizer vaccine to children ages 5 to 11. The Post explains that

the process of getting vaccines cleared for younger school-age children has been fraught, with members of the FDA’s outside advisory committee expressing some angst and disagreements during a vociferous public debate this week. In the end, the panel voted 17 to 0, with one abstention, to recommend the vaccine, agreeing with the FDA that the shot’s known and potential benefits outweighed the known and potential risks — the criteria for an emergency authorization.

The discussion about the shot is expected to resume Tuesday when the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is scheduled to meet to recommend how to use the vaccine. After CDC Director Rochelle Walensky signs off, probably on the same day, providers, including pediatricians and pharmacists, will be able to begin administering the vaccine.

The Wall Street Journal adds that

Covid-19 was over five times more common among hospitalized people who were unvaccinated and had a previous infection, compared with those who were fully vaccinated and hadn’t had Covid-19 before, a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found.

The report, released Friday and written by scientists from the federal agency as well as hospitals across the U.S., adds to the body of research suggesting that vaccines provide stronger protection against the coronavirus than prior-infection immunity.

In No Surprises Act news, the Texas Medical Association has filed a lawsuit against the federal agencies implementing this law, including OPM, alleging that the recently issued interim final rule on the independent dispute resolution process conflicts with Congressional intent by giving health plans an unfair advantage in NSA arbitrations. The FEHBlog views this as an exercise in futility, but we shall see if the Court share the FEHBlog’s viewpoint.

Also from the litigation front, Govexec reports that

Eleven states with Republican governors are challenging the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for federal contractors between two lawsuits filed on Thursday and Friday. 

The state of Florida filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida in the Tampa Division seeking an injunction on the mandate that has a December 8 deadline for millions of employees of federal contractors to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Then on Friday, Missouri, Nebraska, Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming filed a similar lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri also seeking an injunction. 

The FEHBlog will be keeping an eye on these cases too.

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 33rd week of this year (beginning April 2, 2020, and ending August 18, 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 18, 2021):

Finally here is a COVID-19 vaccinations chart over the period December 17, 2020, through August 18, 2021, which also uses Thursday as the first day of the week:

Here’s a link to the CDC’s weekly interpretation of its COVID-19 statistics.

Politico reports that “More than one million Americans received a dose of Covid-19 vaccine on Thursday[August 19] , a benchmark the nation has not met in nearly seven weeks amid a resurgence of the coronavirus pandemic.”

HealthDay informs us that

Antibodies generated by COVID-19 vaccines are effective against the Delta variant and other coronavirus variants of concern, new research shows.

The findings may help explain why most vaccinated people have avoided the surge of Delta variant cases sweeping across the United States.

“In face of vaccination, Delta is relatively a wimpy virus,” said study co-author Ali Ellebedy, an associate professor of pathology and immunology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Good to hear.

The Wall Street Journal tells us that

The Food and Drug Administration is expected next week to grant full approval of the Covid-19 vaccine from Pfizer Inc. and partner BioNTech SE, according to people familiar with the planning, an action that could spur more vaccination requirements by employers and encourage more people who are hesitant to get vaccinated. * * *

Once fully approved, the vaccine would be eligible for off-label prescriptions, such as booster doses, according to the FDA. However, analysts said, the critical element for broad boosting is a recommendation from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices to the FDA, as physicians often follow ACIP recommendations.

With full approval, Pfizer would likely be permitted to market the vaccine to doctors, providers and the general public as it does with other approved products. The FDA is permitted to restrict such communications with emergency authorization.

The Journal adds that

Of the three authorized vaccines in the U.S., only Pfizer has submitted all the required information to the FDA, according to the companies, and analysts expect it to be the first receive clearance. 

Moderna Inc., whose authorized two-dose shot uses similar mRNA technology as the Pfizer-BioNTech, has said it is still completing rolling data submissions.Johnson & Johnson, whose shot was authorized in February, has said it plans to file for full approval later this year.

Fierce Healthcare reports that Janet Woodcock will not be nominated for a promotion from acting to permanent Food and Drug Commissioner due in large part to Aduhelm fallout.

From the regulatory front

  • After issuing a minimalist Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) FAQ 48 earlier this week, the ACA regulatory departments issued a blockbuster ACA FAQ 49 about payer transparency rule implementation and enforcement delays and answering many No Surprises Act (“NSA”) implementation issues left hanging by the first NSA interim final rule (“IFC”) released July 1.
  • OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (“OIRA”) has scheduled more meetings on the second No Surprises Act IFC which concerns the independent dispute resolution process. Those listening sessions now run late into next week. That means that the IFC won’t be released before the week of August 30 but that still would be about a month before the statutory deadline.
  • The American College of Emergency Physicians and Blue Cross each met with OIRA this past week. Here are links to their supporting letters. BCBSA OIRA IDR 8.17.21.pdf and ACEP EDPMA Pre-IDR Rulemaking Letter (8.10.21).pdf Common sense as expressed in the Blue Cross letter must prevail if the parties want to avoid having the second IFC also create major system changes.
  • The Society for Human Resource Management informs us that “covered employers [such as FEHB plan carriers] now have until Oct. 25 to file their 2019 and 2020 EEO-1 reports, according to a recent announcement from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Although the reporting deadline has been delayed several times during the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency said it will not authorize any more extensions.”