Thursday Miscellany

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From Washington, DC

  • Federal News Network offers its periodic update on the bills pending before Congress of interest to federal employees.
  • American Hospital Association News tells us that today
    • “The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights released a proposed rule intended to update and clarify requirements under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act that prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in programs receiving financial assistance from the department, including health care. According to HHS, the proposed rule would ensure that medical treatment decisions are not based on biases or stereotypes about individuals with disabilities; prohibit the use of value assessment methods that place a lower value on life-extension for individuals with disabilities when used to limit access or to deny aids, benefits and services; establish enforceable standards for accessible medical diagnostic equipment; and clarify obligations for accessible web and mobile applications and obligations to provide services in the most integrated setting appropriate to an individual’s needs. The rule will be published in the Sept. 14 Federal Register, with comments accepted for 60 days.”
  • The Federal Times points out
    • “The Office of Personnel Management received a small surge of retirement claims in July and August after applications had been falling steadily for months since January.
    • “The time it took the government to process retirements increased sharply in July to 85 days before falling back down to 74 days in August, according to data kept by OPM.
    • “Overall, the agency is sitting on an inventory of nearly 18,000 cases after it reduced its working caseload to new lows this year. About this time last year, there were 29,000 pending cases.
    • “Still, despite efforts to dispatch focus teams to address backlogs, the agency is failing to hit its target time or inventory goals, leaving retirees to wonder whether their case will be one that ends up sitting in limbo for longer. Ideally, retirement applications are processed in 60 days or fewer.”
  • CMS released its 2022 report on covered entity compliance with the HIPAA electronic transactions.
    • The transaction types experiencing the most violations during the 2020 and 2021 compliance reviews were specific to 835 [the claim transaction], 271 [Health Care Eligibility Response], and 277 [Claim Status Response] transactions. This changed slightly in 2022 as the most common transaction types experiencing violations are now 835, 271, and 834 [EOB] transactions.
    • CMS is sharing updated 2022 violation findings insights to inform and educate the industry, encourage widespread compliance, and assist covered entities with preparing for compliance reviews.
  • The Society for Human Resource Management relates,
    • The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has released an updated deadline for employers to submit their demographic data. The EEO-1 Component 1 data collection for 2022 will start on Oct. 31, and the deadline for employers to file their EEO-1 reports is Dec. 5.
    • All private employers that have at least 100 employees are required to file the EEO-1 form annually, detailing the racial, ethnic and gender composition of their workforce by specific job categories.
    • Likewise, federal government contractors and first-tier subcontractors with 50 or more employees and at least $50,000 in contracts must file EEO-1 reports. State and local governments and public school systems are exempt.
  • KFF reports
    • “Over the past two years, the federal government has provided about $1 billion from the American Rescue Plan and Bipartisan Safer Communities Acts to launch the number, designed as an alternative to 911 for those experiencing a mental health crisis. After that infusion runs out, it’s up to states to foot the bill for their call centers.
    • “We don’t know what Congress will allocate in the future,” said Danielle Bennett, a spokesperson for the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which oversees 988. “But the hope is that there will be continued strong bipartisan support for funding 988 at the level it needs to be funded at and that states will also create funding mechanisms that make sense for their states.”
    • “Only eight states have enacted legislation to sustain 988 through phone fees, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which is tracking state funding for the system. Others have budgeted short-term funding. But many predominantly rural states, where mental health services are in short supply and suicide rates are often higher than in more urban states, have not made long-term plans to provide support.”
  • MedPage reports,
    • When pseudoephedrine moved “behind-the-counter” nearly 20 years ago, it left oral phenylephrine (with brands including Sudafed PE and Suphedrine PE) as the only nasal decongestant available without pharmacy assistance. But there’s one big problem: phenylephrine doesn’t work, the FDA has finally determined.
    • FDA reviewers released the results of their long-running review of the evidence this week as background for a meeting of the Nonprescription Drugs Advisory Committee to be held on September 11 and 12.
    • The article explains the conundrum this finding creates for the FDA.

From the public health front,

  • MedPage reports that “the global incidence of early-onset cancer has increased by 79% over the past three decades, researchers reported.
    • “In a comment posted on Science Media Centre, Dorothy C. Bennett, MA, PhD, of St. George’s, University of London, cautioned that the increase in new cases of early-onset cancer is based on absolute numbers, rather than age-standardized rates.
    • “The world human population increased by 46% between 1990 and 2019, which explains part of the increase in total case numbers,” she said, adding that the increase in numbers of cancer deaths in this age group (28%) was notably lower than the number of new diagnoses, “which is below the increases in total population and case numbers, indicating a fall in the average cancer death rate in this group.”
  • Per the American Heart Association,
    • Obesity-related cardiovascular disease deaths tripled between 1999 and 2020 in the U.S.
    • Such deaths were higher among Black individuals (highest among Black women) compared with any other racial group, followed by American Indian/Alaska Native people.
    • Black adults who lived in urban communities experienced more obesity-related cardiovascular disease deaths than those living in rural areas, whereas the reverse was true for all other racial groups.
  • McKinsey Health offers a podcast about getting to the bottom of the teen health crisis.

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Fierce Healthcare notes, “Employers’ health benefits costs are set to rise 5.4% next year, but this spike isn’t as high as may have been feared given inflationary pressures in the broader economy, according to a new analysis from Mercer.”
  • STAT News interviews “Amazon’s chief medical officers on where the company’s health care bets are headed next.”
  • Healthcare Dive informs us,
    • “Telehealth sessions comprised 5.4% of claim lines in June, the same amount as the prior month, according to Fair Health’s Monthly Telehealth Regional Tracker.
    • “Mental health conditions continued to top the list of Fair Health’s five most common telehealth diagnoses for June. The median allowed amount billed for a one-hour psychotherapy visit was $103.
    • “But Fair Health’s tracker showed regional variations. Although telehealth use decreased overall by 2.4% in the Midwest, asynchronous telehealth claim lines for mental health conditions more than doubled in the region from 15.9% in May to 36% in June. In asynchronous telehealth, providers collect data or medical images for review, instead of meeting with a patient in real time.” 
  • Per Health Affairs,
    • “Intensive care units (ICUs) are increasingly used for hospital care, yet out-of-pocket spending for ICU hospitalizations remains poorly understood, particularly among the nearly half of the US population with commercial health insurance. Using 2008–19 MarketScan data, we compared 1,441,810 hospitalizations involving ICU services with 13,011,208 hospitalizations that did not involve ICU services.
    • “Average cost sharing, adjusted for patient and admission factors, increased from $1,137 per hospitalization in 2008 to $1,539 in 2019, or a 34 percent increase. This was driven by increasing deductibles, which rose by 163 percent.
    • “Across twenty clinical conditions whose hospitalizations commonly occurred in both ICU and non-ICU settings, ICU admission was associated with $155 higher cost-sharing (13.0 percent higher) relative to cost sharing in non-ICU hospitalizations.
    • “Patients with high-deductible plans faced the highest cost-sharing relative to those with other plan types.
    • “Patients who received out-of-network hospital care encountered higher cost-sharing relative to those admitted to in-network hospitals with in-network clinicians.”

Midweek Update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

From Washington DC,

  • Govexec informs us,
    • “The House and Senate appeared headed for a short-term spending deal when lawmakers return to Washington following the August recess, with leaders from both chambers suggesting they are pursuing that path to avoid a shutdown in October. 
    • “The continuing resolution would keep agencies funded at their current levels through early December, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told his caucus this week. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on Wednesday he met with McCarthy a few weeks ago, and the two leaders agreed to pass a stopgap that would last “a few months.” 
    • “I thought that was a good sign,” Schumer told MSNBC
    • “Separately on Tuesday, Schumer said the short-term measure would allow lawmakers to come together on full-year appropriations.”
  • Federal News Network says,
    • For the second year in a row, the General Services Administration announced an increase to per diem lodging rates for federal employees.
    • Starting Oct. 1, base daily traveling allowances for feds will increase to $166 from $157 last year. That increase is thanks to an uptick in the standard per diem lodging rate for the Continental United States (CONUS), which will increase from $98 to $107. GSA did not make any changes to the per diem tiers for meals and incidental expenses. Those will remain in the range of $59 to $79, with the standard rate remaining at $59. * * *
    • GSA also offers a calculator tool to let feds search by city, state, zip code or map to figure out the exact amount of their per diem.
  • The Federal Acquisition Regulation cost principles apply these per diems to official travel by FEHB experience-rated carriers.

From the public health front,

  • The Washington Post reports,
    • Most cancers in the United States are found in people age 65 and older, but a new study shows a concerning trend: Cancer among younger Americans, particularly women, is on the rise, with gastrointestinal, endocrine and breast cancers climbing at the fastest rates.
    • A study published Wednesday in JAMA Network Open showed that while cancers among older adults have declined, cancers among people younger than 50 have increased slightly overall, with the largest increases among those aged 30 to 39.
    • “This is a population that has had less focus in cancer research, and their numbers are getting bigger, so it’s important to do more research to understand why this is happening,” said Paul Oberstein, director of the Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology Program at NYU Langone’s Perlmutter Cancer Center, who was not involved in the study.
  • STAT News points out
    • “Cancer patients, doctors, and patient advocates alike are struggling with the wide-ranging effects of the ongoing chemotherapy drug shortages. The platinum-based drugs carboplatin and cisplatin have been hard to keep in stock for months now, affecting most U.S. cancer centers: 93% have reported carboplatin shortages, and 70% have reported shortages of cisplatin.
    • “While patients with various types of cancer have been impacted by the shortages, those with ovarian cancer are among the groups most affected — both because the disease is relatively common, with women having a 1 in 78 chance of getting it in their lifetime, and because the drugs that are most effective in treating it are the ones now in short supply.
    • “While there are alternatives to the use of platinum drugs to treat ovarian cancer, none of them work quite as well. Carboplatin, in particular — in combination with the chemotherapy drug paclitaxel — has remained unchallenged as the go-to for ovarian cancer, in particular when the treatment could be curative rather than palliative.
  • Forbes relates
    • “New Covid omicron subvariant EG.5, or “Eris,” is now the dominant strain in the U.S., surpassing XBB.1.16 (or “Arcturus”), according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
    • “EG.5 made up 17.3% of all cases in the two-week period from July 23 to August 5, a large jump from the 0.4% of cases it made up between April 30 and May 13.
    • “The World Health Organization classified EG.5 as a “variant of interest” Wednesday, which is a step below a variant of concern—WHO previously labeled it a “variant under monitoring” on July 19.
    • “While EG.5 may cause an increase in cases, WHO said it poses a low risk to public health in comparison to other omicron offspring because there’s no evidence it causes more severe cases.
    • “It is a recombinant strain—the result of two Covid variants combining during the replication process, which can occur if a person is infected with two variants at the same time—of the omicron family and a descendant of another strain labeled XBB.1.9.2.
    • “EG.5 has an extra mutation on its spike called mutation 465, which is present in about 35% of coronavirus sequences worldwide—a lot of the XBB variants have mutation 465, though experts don’t know what comes with the mutation.”

From the judicial front,

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “A federal appeals panel ruled that the Food and Drug Administration improperly expanded access to the widely used abortion pill mifepristone over the last seven years but left in place the drug’s original approval, teeing up the issue for review by the Supreme Court. 
    • “The ruling by a three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is the latest twist in a case that has at times threatened to pull the pill from the market nationwide.
    • “The appeals panel said pill opponents who sued the FDA had likely waited too long to challenge the drug’s original approval in 2000, and it also left in place the agency’s 2019 approval of the generic version of the pill. But the court said the FDA failed to properly scrutinize changes that eased access to mifepristone in recent years, such as allowing the drug to be administered without an in-person visit with a medical provider. * * *
    • “The appeals court decision doesn’t have immediate practical consequences because the Supreme Court in April issued an order allowing current broad levels of access to mifepristone while litigation proceeds. That is likely to ensure availability for months.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Per Forbes
    • “Demand for nurse practitioners and primary care physicians is escalating along with their compensation as retailers from Amazon and CVS Health to Walmart and Walgreens build primary care clinics across the country.
    • A new report from AMN Healthcare shows nurse practitioners—not doctors—topped the staffing company’s list of “most requested search engagements for the third consecutive year,” according to an annual report released Monday from AMN Healthcare’s Physician Solutions division, formerly known as Merritt Hawkins.
    • “Demand for NPs is being driven by a growing number of ‘convenient care’ providers, including retail clinics, urgent care centers and telemedicine platforms, which employ large numbers of NPs,” the report said.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review notes,
    • “Ozempic might find itself in CMS’ hands soon.
    • “Sales of the Type 2 diabetes drug in the U.S. have reached more than $3 billion so far in 2023, according to an Aug. 10 quarterly report from the drug’s maker, Novo Nordisk. CMS might try to influence the company to lower the medication’s cost, which sits at about $1,000 per month.
    • “In August 2022, President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, which gave Medicare Parts B and D negotiation powers for costly drugs with no generic or biosimilar competition. CMS said it will reveal by Sept. 1 which are the first 10 drugs that will see price negotiations, which are effective in 2026. This allowance will add more drugs each year. 
    • “Researchers from the Washington, D.C.-based West Health Policy Center and the University of California San Diego predicted Ozempic would be chosen for these negotiations in 2027 — when it passes 10 years on the market, one of the rules of the Inflation Reduction Act provision — according to a study published in March.”
  • Business Insurance adds,
    • “The U.S. Department of Justice has contested the Chamber of Commerce’s move to block the Medicare drug price negotiation program, stating the Chamber lacks the standing for the lawsuit and that halting the program would be detrimental to the public, The Hill reports. The Chamber had previously filed for an injunction against the program, citing potential harm to businesses and patients.”
  • Fierce Healthcare identifies “22 health systems that are charging for certain patient-provider electronic messages as of Aug. 16.” These systems are trying to squeeze the last golden egg out of the goose, in the FEHBlog’s opinion.


Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Politico points out that

The Senate Finance Committee will hold a hearing Thursday on the impact PBMs — the pharmaceutical middlemen that negotiate drug discounts with drugmakers and design prescription drug benefits for health plans — have on the health system.

The House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee is also expected to look into how much value PBMs add as part of a broader discussion about fairness in the healthcare market, according to a memo shared with [Politico].

In related news, CMS “released several Prescription Drug Data Collection (RxDC) resources on the Registration for Technical Assistance Portal (REGTAP). To view the documents, click on the link next to each document title. You may already have the links in your bookmarks.”

This guidance applies to the 2022 RxDC report that health plans must submit by June 1, 2022. Health plans submitted the first RxDc report for the 2021 reporting year last January. The No Surprises Act calls for a standard June 1 submission date for the RxDC report for the previous reporting year.

CMS also announced that the public has sixty days (to May 26) to comment on the revised Reporting Instructions.

The FEHBlog recently discovered this CMS REGTAP portal. As you can see, this portal is not just for Medicare and Medicaid. The portal includes a link to get an email announcement when REGTAP changes. REGTAPs emails are handy and not overwhelming.

From the Rx coverage front —

STAT News adds an interesting perspective on last week’s Senate hearing on Moderna Covid vaccine pricing

What, [Chairman Bernie] Sanders asked [Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel], if instead of purchasing medicines after they had been developed at high prices, the government instead paid for companies’ research, enough to ensure they make a reasonable profit? Then, Sanders said, the medicines could be made available inexpensively to anyone who needed them.

Bancel, clearly baffled by what sounded a lot like the government seizing the means of pharmaceutical production, simply said it was impossible to evaluate such a plan without details.

As much as the plan sounds like socialism, in a world where substantial quantities of new medicines are purchased by government programs, Sanders’ idea is pretty close to the way defense companies work: The government pays them substantial amounts of money to develop jet fighters, satellites, and aircraft carriers. This system is certainly not cheap, but it represents an alternative to the way medicines are developed. * * *

Whether this is a good idea or not, it probably won’t happen. Because not only is Congress unlikely to fund a $200 billion-a-year effort to replace industry research on new medicines, it won’t fund a $20 billion effort to get the government in the game, either.

Beckers Hospital Review informs us

Walgreens and Village Medical have launched a new pilot program that helps patients manage new medications prescribed during their hospital stay. 

The program, launched as a pilot in Florida and Texas, helps Walgreens and Village Medical patients manage their new prescriptions and existing ones after they are discharged from a hospital, according to a March 23 release from Walgreens. 

The aim of the program is to improve patient outcomes and decrease costs associated with hospital readmissions.

From the substance use disorder front, STAT News reports

Public health workers will soon have a new tool at their disposal to thwart a spreading danger to users of illicit drugs: xylazine test strips.

The new testing kits will allow health departments, grassroots harm-reduction groups, and individual drug users to test substances for the presence of xylazine, a sedative often referred to as “tranq.”

The toxin is increasingly common in the U.S. illicit-drug supply — especially in the Philadelphia area, but increasingly in other cities, too. Xylazine, which is typically used as a sedative in veterinary settings, can cause people to stop breathing, and also often causes severe skin wounds when injected.

While helpful for public health workers, will drug users take the time to do both tests when the two potentially fatal drugs usually are combined? FEHBlog expects that a fentanyl and xylazine test strip will be on the market soon.

From the U.S. healthcare business front —

  • Hospitals strongly oppose MEDPAC’s recommendation that Medicare Part A make a low reimbursement increase for the new federal government fiscal year, while some healthcare economists support MEDPAC’s proposal.
  • Healthcare Dive tells us
    • “CVS plans to close its acquisition of home healthcare provider Signify Health on or around Wednesday, subject to certain conditions, the company announced Monday.
    • “CVS agreed to acquire Signify for $30.50 a share in cash in September in a transaction worth roughly $8 billion.
    • “That deal will close this week as long as CVS and Signify can meet or waive the remaining conditions in their merger agreement, according to CVS. A CVS spokesperson declined to share details on the remaining conditions.
  • Beckers Hospital Review notes that another well know CEO has ripped a page out of the Mark Cuban playbook.
    • Love.Life, a health and wellness company co-founded and run by former Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, acquired Plant Based TeleHealth, a telehealth service focusing on the prevention and reversal of chronic conditions.
    • “The company will rebrand as Love.Life Telehealth. The company offers virtual visits to patients with chronic conditions and promotes healthy behaviors, according to a March 21 Love.Life news release.
    • “Patients can sign up for half-hour appointments for $175 or hourlong appointments for $350.”
    • “Love.Life is about making lasting health and vitality achievable, and acquiring Plant Based TeleHealth accelerates our ability to help more people without geographic limitations,” Mr. Mackey said. “Appointments are available now, and we’re excited to offer telehealth services as part of the comprehensive medical offering available in our physical locations, which will begin opening in 2024.”

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From the public health front, the Wall Street Journal reports

The cancer mortality rate in the U.S. has dropped by a third in the past three decades, a report showed, but an increase in advanced prostate cancer diagnoses threatens to reverse some hard-won gains.  

The American Cancer Society said Thursday that changes in preventive measures and screening in the past decade drove important trends in U.S. cancer incidence and outcomes. Cervical cancer rates dropped 65% from 2012 to 2019 among women in their early 20s after a generation of young women were vaccinated against human papillomavirus, or HPV, for the first time.

But a decline in the use of a controversial test for prostate cancer likely led to more men getting diagnosed at later stages, the report found, with the highest incidence and mortality among Black men. The ACS said it would invest in research on prostate cancer and programs to boost access to quality screening and treatment. 

“There’s a significant call to arms,” said Karen Knudsen, ACS’s chief executive officer. We are not catching these cancers early when we have an opportunity to cure men of prostate cancer.” 

The report was published in the journal CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. The authors at ACS analyzed federal and state cancer registries for data on cancer rates through 2019 and federal mortality data through 2020, the report said.

From the Omicron and siblings front, Bloomberg Prognosis tells us

The effects of long Covid tend to resolve within a year of mild infection, with vaccinated people at lower risk of breathing difficulties compared with unvaccinated people, according to a study.

Researchers examined the health records of almost 2 million people in Israel who tested for Covid-19 over a 19-month period. Over 70 long Covid conditions were analyzed within a group of infected and matched uninfected members. They also compared conditions in vaccinated versus unvaccinated people.

Their study published in the BMJ medical journal found most symptoms that developed after a mild infection lingered for several months, but returned to normal within a year.

“The long Covid phenomenon has been feared and discussed since the beginning of the pandemic,” the researchers wrote. “This nationwide dataset of patients with mild Covid-19 suggests that mild disease does not lead to serious or chronic long term morbidity.” 

Previous studies have indicated that vaccination tends to lead to milder cases of Covid infection and long Covid

From the Rx coverage front, STAT News informs us

Medicare officials have taken a step toward making a cutting-edge cancer treatment called CAR-T cell therapy available in doctor offices, in anticipation of the procedure being used for increasingly common cancer types.

CAR-T is a relatively new medical procedure that uses a person’s own cells to fight their cancer, and it offers hope of a cure for those who have run out of options. It’s a complex procedure with a lot of serious side effects that must be closely monitored, so it’s typically provided at hospitals in the inpatient setting, sometimes outpatient, and almost never in doctor offices.

There are multiple barriers to offering CAR-T cell therapies in doctor offices, according to James Essell, medical director of the Blood Cancer Center at OHC and chair of cellular therapy for the US Oncology Network, a large network of independent doctors that includes OHC. Insurers restrict coverage to facilities that specialize in the procedure, and it’s financially risky for practices. Treating a few patients would require a practice to shell out well more than $1 million for the drugs alone, and the process of getting paid is arduous and not guaranteed, Essell said. * * *

Since the first CAR-T drug, Novartis’ Kymriah, was approved in 2017, the procedure has primarily been available at major academic hospitals. That puts the treatments out of reach for patients who don’t live near those facilities. Essell said less than 20% of patients who are eligible for the treatments are able to get them. Physician practices could help make the treatment available to the other 80%.

“You really need to get this out of the university centers to allow more patients to receive this care,” he said.

Mercer Consulting discusses strategies for providing access to and managing the cost of highly expensive gene therapies.

The second half of 2022 was marked by significant activity in the gene therapy market, with several landmark FDA approvals, including Hemgenix, a $3.5M gene therapy indicated for treatment of Hemophilia B. With this hefty price tag, Hemgenix wins the title of most expensive drug in the world, knocking down the previous title holder, the $2.1M gene therapy called Zolgensma, indicated for spinal muscular atrophy. * * *

As Hemgenix and other high-cost gene therapies enter the market, employers should create a long-term comprehensive approach to managing these therapies from a clinical and cost perspective by exploring a broad spectrum of strategies. A key first step in tailoring strategies specific to your plan involves assessing the likelihood of these claims occurring in your plan’s population; ideally, such assessments should be conducted on a regular basis as the member population changes. Once you get a better understanding of your unique population and the potential risk for these claims, inventory and evaluate available vendor strategies for gaps and opportunities. This step may include reviewing your medical carrier’s utilization management programs, network strategy, and care management programs, checking for availability of outcomes-based reimbursement and other payment models, and exploring alternative approaches to funding these claims. Lastly, as the market continues to evolve, regularly engage with your medical and pharmacy vendor on availability of new strategies.

The American Hospital Association adds

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services yesterday released a memo and timeline outlining how it will approach implementing the Inflation Reduction Act’s Medicare Drug Price Negotiation Program, which will negotiate prices with drug makers for certain high-cost, sole-source drugs and apply them beginning in 2026. According to the memo, CMS plans to actively engage hospitals and other stakeholders in the policymaking process.

From the medical research front, the National Institutes of Health discusses an ongoing study on the use of deep brain stimulation to treat severe opioid addiction.

From the litigation front, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit today upheld a lower court’s preliminary injunction of the federal government’s government contractor mandate but similar to the approach taken by the 5th Circuit limited the scope of the protection of the injunction to the plaintiffs, here the States of Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee. For more information, here’s the Volokh Conspiracy article on the decision. The 5th, 6th, and 11th Circuits have all ruled against the government contractor mandate, which the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force has put on ice.

Midweek update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

From the federal employment front —

  • Govexec explains how federal employees can calculate their 2023 pay raises.
  • The Federal Times discusses how the Secure 2.0 Act, part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2023, affects federal employee retirement programs.

Healthcare Dive identifies key trends for payers and providers in 2023.

This year’s outlook for a large chunk of the healthcare sector remains negative as inflation and pricier labor create difficult operating conditions for nonprofit providers, Moody’s Investor Service said. 

As a result, health systems and hospitals are likely to clash with insurers over desired rate increases to offset higher expenses and providers will look to increase their revenue as much as possible by bargaining for higher rates.

Becker’s Hospital CFO Report fills us in on the highlights of a Fitch Ratings webinar on healthcare

Five things to know:

  1. There will continue to be “extremely contentious” negotiations between healthcare providers and payers, Mr. Holloran said. An “above average” exiting of contracts and networks is expected.
  2. There will be far more labor strikes in 2023 with “very contentious” labor negotiations, Mr. Holloran said. Unions will be quick to move as healthcare systems seek to recruit and retain “on steroids.”
  3. Regional differences will continue to emerge. The fast-growing Southern states of Florida, Texas and Georgia will see significant capital expenditure, for example, while regions with declining populations and others will seek to tighten such expenses.
  4. There will be increased merger and acquisition activity even as the Biden administration takes a harder look at potential anti-competitive behavior. “We know everyone is talking to everyone else” about ways in which they can partner, Mr. Pascaris said. “It’s a very interesting time for M&A as increased levels of stress will likely include greater levels of M&A.”
  5. Healthcare systems cannot spend their way out of financial difficulties because the cost of labor will remain very high. The 75/75 conundrum where most systems’ revenues are fixed at 75 percent and most have a similar 75 percent fixed expense in terms of salaries and supplies is an “unstainable” model, Mr. Holloran said.

From the public health front,

  • The Secretary of Health and Human Services extended the Omicron public health emergency for another 90 days today.
  • STAT News explores “What’s standing in the way of wastewater data becoming a more mainstream public health tool.”

Moderate-to-severe hearing loss was linked with a higher prevalence of dementia, a cross-sectional study of Medicare beneficiaries showed.

Among 2,413 older adults in the National Health and Aging Trends Study (NHATS), dementia prevalence among people with moderate-to-severe hearing loss was higher than it was among people with normal hearing (prevalence ratio 1.61, 95% CI 1.09-2.38), reported Nicholas Reed, AuD, of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, and colleagues.

But among people with moderate-to-severe hearing loss in the study, hearing aid use was associated with a lower prevalence of dementia compared with no hearing aid use (prevalence ratio 0.68, 95% CI 0.47-1.00), they wrote in a JAMA research letter.

The findings support a recent systematic review and meta-analysis that showed treating hearing loss led to cognitive benefits. They also support the availability of over-the-counter hearing aid, which people with mild-to-moderate hearing loss now can purchase directly due to new regulations.

Given the FEHB’s demographics, FEHB plans should take a look at improving health aid coverage for 2024.

From the U.S. healthcare business front

  • Fierce Healthcare reports on today’s events at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare conference.
  • The following Fierce Healthcare report from the conference caught the FEHBlog’s eye today

Fertility benefits are becoming a major lever in the ongoing talent wars, and that’s good news for Progyny.

The eight-year-old company, which provides family building and fertility benefits for employees at large firms, launched with five clients and 110,000 covered lives. Today, Progyny has more than 370 clients with 5.4 million covered lives.

“In the past year given the current macroeconomic environment, inflationary economy an a potential looming recession, despite all that, for Progyny and its members, it’s proven to be a resilient space. People aren’t foregoing and or deferring family building, in light of all those things, and companies aren’t deferring their decisions,” Pete Anevski, Progyny’s CEO, told Fierce Healthcare on the conference sidelines.

From the telehealth front, McKinsey and Company explain how healthcare organizations can tackle the following problem:

Using national claims data,3 we estimate that more than 50 million in-person visits per year could be converted to virtual or telemedicine visits if adoption were extended equally across patient segments. In general, patient segments with limited access to in-person care (for example, those in rural counties and those with lower incomes) have relatively fewer virtual visits. While many believe virtual care can improve access for the underserved, the current imbalance in usage suggests that US healthcare stakeholders could consider designing virtual-care models that address structural barriers so that virtual care is more widely accessible.

Check it out.

Federal procurement contracts, including FEHB contracts, include a clause requiring contractors to support government efforts to combat human trafficking. During the human trafficking awareness month, the Government Accountability Office reports

Tens of millions of people are victims of human trafficking each year, according to one international organization’s estimate. Human trafficking victims are often held in slave-like conditions and forced to work in the commercial sex trade or other types of servitude. The U.S. government has also found forced labor overseas in various industries producing goods imported into the U.S., such as agricultural and seafood industries.

Several U.S. government entities work with international entities to combat human trafficking. Today, for National Human Trafficking Awareness Day (January 11), our blog post looks at our work reviewing these efforts and our snapshot highlighting areas where continued attention is needed.

Midweek update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, the Wall Street Journal reports

Senate Democrats celebrated their win in Georgia giving them 51 seats next year, a result that enhances their power by allowing them to more easily advance President Biden’s nominees while also providing slightly more flexibility on legislation.

Sen. Raphael Warnock’s win in a runoff election over GOP challenger Herschel Walker comes after two years in which Vice President Kamala Harris provided a tiebreaking vote in the 50-50 Senate. * * *

Since early 2021, the two parties have been operating under a power-sharing agreement with evenly divided committees, which has prevented Democrats from issuing subpoenas to witnesses without GOP support. When nominees have tied in a committee vote, Democrats have been forced to hold an extra procedural vote to finalize their nomination. The Warnock victory will give Democrats a narrow majority on each panel.

“It’ll be easier for Democrats to move forward with some of their nominees, particularly in the judiciary, and that makes it more difficult for us,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R., Utah). 

Roll Call informs us

The newly minted defense authorization bill for fiscal 2023 [NDAA], made public Tuesday night, provides a shot in the arm to the U.S. defense budget but bars the military from discharging any more troops who refuse COVID-19 vaccine shots in their arms. * * *

[This bill has been approved by a House-Senate conference committee.] The House is expected to vote on the NDAA as soon as Thursday and the Senate to soon follow suit, perhaps next week.  

The bill would authorize a 4.6 percent across the board pay increase for military personnel and civilians. However, House and Senate negotiators removed a House-passed “inflation bonus” of an additional 2.4 percent for troops and Defense Department civilians making less than $45,000 a year. * * *

Also of note, the bill would ban contractors across the government from using Chinese-made semiconductors, after a lengthy phase-in period, an aide with knowledge of the provision said Tuesday. Many federal contractors and other businesses say they are unclear how they will comply.

 Govexec offers two more insights on the NDAA

Congressional negotiators on Tuesday night finally revealed a compromise version of the annual defense policy bill with the aim of passing it through both the House and Senate this week. But to some lawmakers, federal employee groups and good government experts’ chagrin, the measure did not include [Insight link] a provision aimed at blocking Republican-led efforts to strip potentially tens of thousands of federal employees of their civil service protections.


The authorization bill compromise text contains provisions [Insight link] that seek to increase transparency and accountability of investigations into Inspectors Generals [IG] and operations of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity Efficiency (and its integrity committee, specifically); ensure IGs are only removed for justiciable and compelling reasons (and Congress is notified); and limit who can serve as acting IGs. There are also stipulations for notifying Congress when an agency doesn’t provide requested information or assistance to an IG and providing more training opportunities for IGs. 

In an effort to address persistent watchdog job vacancies, the bill’s text states: “If the president fails to make a formal nomination for a vacant inspector general position that requires a formal nomination by the president to be filled within the period beginning on the later of the date on which the vacancy occurred or on which a nomination is rejected, withdrawn, or returned, and ending on the day that is 210 days after that date, the president shall communicate, within 30 days after the end of such period and not later than June 1 of each year thereafter, to the appropriate congressional committees.” 

From the federal employee benefits front —

FedWeek gives us last minute guidance on the Federal Employee Benefits Open Season that ends next Monday December 12.

The Wall Street Journal offers ideas for use of flexible spending account dollars. The article make a point that was not on the FEHBlog’s radar screen:

This year’s December FSA spending crunch could be worse than usual. While you’re meant to empty your FSA every year, during the pandemic the government relented on this rule, allowing FSA savers to roll over what they saved in 2020 and 2021, with some accounts swelling to more than $7,000

That special treatment is set to end in 2022, meaning if you have been accumulating money in your FSA, you may need to empty our account by Dec. 31 or you risk losing it all. “Some people might be in for a rude surprise,” says Spiegel.

Employers are permitted to give workers a little wiggle room—but not much. Some plans include a rollover provision that allows account holders to carry forward a small portion of their savings, although this amount is limited to $570 for 2022. Other plans may allow a spending grace period of up to 10 weeks.  

From the infectious disease front —

  • The Wall Street Journal brings us up to date on Omicron treatments.
  • The Hill reports on the state of the flu and RSV surges. “Dr. Andrew Pekosz, a virologist and professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, believes the U.S. is still in the “early stages” of a surge in influenza cases, he told Nexstar. * * * “With RSV we seem to be hitting a plateau,” said Pekosz. “Case numbers have not increased significantly for a couple of weeks, but they’re still at a very high level. So the burden of RSV is still great, but we may be closer to the peak there than we are with flu.”
  • Forbes relates, “A newly discovered immune response inside the nose could explain why respiratory illnesses like RSV, Covid, the common cold and flu thrive in winter, according to research published Tuesday in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, a finding that challenges the conventional wisdom that infections spread because people are stuck indoors and signposts ways to develop new treatments.”

From the Rx development and coverage front

  • MPR informs us “The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted Fast Track designation to PH10 for the treatment of major depressive disorder (MDD). * * * Results showed that treatment with PH10 significantly reduced depressive symptoms as early as 1 week based on the 17-item Hamilton Depression Scale (HAM-D-17) scores compared with placebo (P =.022). The intranasal spray was found to be well tolerated, with no serious adverse events reported.”

Touted by celebrities, raved about by TikTok users, and advertised by med spas, a new class of drugs for treating diabetes and obesity has exploded in popularity for its weight-loss effects, leading to rippling shortages across several of the medications.

Amid the surge in demand, Eli Lilly and pharmacies have started to tighten access to the latest of this type of drug, tirzepatide, focusing on giving it to people with type 2 diabetes, the only population it’s authorized for so far. But that’s left another set of patients scrambling — people with clinical obesity who turned to the medication as one of their few options for treatment. * *

There’s much overlap between the two conditions, said Beverly Tchang, an endocrinologist and assistant professor of clinical medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. “Obesity can lead to diabetes, diabetes can lead to obesity,” she said. “They’re very much intertwined, and to treat one but not the other seems inequitable.” Tchang treats both types of patients and feels the drug shouldn’t be conserved for one group at the expense of the other.

From the telehealth front, mHealth Intelligence explains

FAIR Health’s Monthly Telehealth Regional tracker reported no change in telehealth usage in September compared with August and noted that COVID-19 fell in its rankings on top telehealth diagnoses lists in all regions and at the national level.

The FAIR Health Monthly Telehealth Regional tracker is a complimentary service that analyzes how telehealth activity and use change monthly by tracking various factors such as claim lines, procedure codes, and diagnostic categories. It represents the privately insured population, including Medicare Advantage but excluding Medicare Fee-for-Service and Medicaid beneficiaries.

From the public health front —

  • MedPage Today informs us “Drug overdose deaths in pregnancy or the postpartum period increased sharply in the U.S. in recent years, with the rise most pronounced at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, researchers reported. * * * Jacob S. Ballon, MD, MPH, of Stanford University in California, noted that the study authors did not provide explanations for why the overdose-related death rate rose sharper among the pregnant and postpartum group during the study period, but said it will likely be the basis for further research. “[It’s] an interesting signal,” said Ballon, who was not involved with the study. “But now what do we do with that to explain it or make some sense of it?”
  • Healthcare Dive tells us
  • Increased delays in discharging patients who require additional care after a hospital stay could slow their recovery, potentially harming health outcomes and quality of life, the American Hospital Association cautioned in a report released Tuesday.
  • The inability to discharge patients is putting additional strain on hospitals operating with thin workforces, and health systems are bearing the cost of care for patients who stay excess days without appropriate reimbursement, the AHA said.
  • The association has urged Congress to help offset the costs of care for patients’ additional days in the hospital by creating a temporary per diem Medicare payment targeted to acute, long-term care, rehabilitation and psychiatric facilities.

From the U.S. healthcare business front —

Imagine going into your doctor’s office and facing not a staff of overworked doctors and nurses, but an inviting conversation. A talk with a healthcare professional who has plenty of time, isn’t in a hurry and is ready to listen to a recital of the different aches and pains of your life. Someone with expertise in medications dedicated to making your life easier and healthier. A professional who makes and then hands you a cup of coffee before you even start talking.

With that conversation–easy, low stress–you can begin a level of trust with your doctor’s office that you might not have had before. And the person listening may, in conjunction with the doctors and nurses, find some better paths to helping you get healthier, even if you suffer from a chronic disease.

That’s the vision that Fergus Hoban has for the American healthcare system. His company, UpStream, provides integrated services for primary care physicians, both independently and as part of networks or bigger healthcare systems. Centered around a prescribing pharmacist, a team of nurses and other professionals work with doctors to provide better care for Medicare patients while at the same time lowering costs.

LHC Group and UnitedHealth Group have extended their merger agreement as the feds take a deeper look at the deal.

The agreement was extended until March 28, 2023, and the two companies now expect the merger to close in the first quarter of 2023, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

That the insurance giant intended to acquire LHC, a home health provider, was announced in March, and the deal is valued at about $5.4 billion. UnitedHealth said it plans to fold LHC into its Optum subsidiary as part of its provider arm, Optum Health, which is one of the country’s largest employers of physicians.

LHC Group would add 30,000 employees who provide more than 12 million home health services annually.

  • Health Payer Intelligence also tells us about positive provider and payer reactions to the CMS proposed rule to promote widespread use of electronic prior authorizations. As noted here yesterday, “[t]he proposed rule would require the implementation of Health Level 7 (HL7) Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) standard Application Programming Interface (API) and mandates that payers have to explain the specific reason behind a prior authorization denial. Expedited prior authorizations will have to occur within 72 hours and non-urgent prior authorizations will have to be turned around in seven calendar days.”

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.