Tuesday’s Tidbits

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 rules.in 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.”

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 32nd week of this year (beginning April 2, 2020, and ending August 11, 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 same period (April 2, 2020, through August 11, 2021):

Finally here is a COVID-19 vaccinations chart over the period December 17, 2020, through August 11, 2021, which also uses Thursday as the first day of the week:

Here is a link to the Centers for Disease Control’s (“CDC”) latest weekly review for the COVID data tracker upon which the FEHBlog relies. The review is aptly titled: “Put on Your Masks and Thinking Caps.”

The American Hospital Association has released on You Tube a two minute long presentation on the value of COVID-19 vaccines. It’s called Eight Things to Know About the COVID-19 Vaccine. Its message should be widely distributed.

The Federal Times reports that Kaiser Permanente which is the third largest carrier in the FEHB Program announced a COVID-19 vaccine incentive for its FEHB plan membership today.

The CDC also issued 2021-22 Flu Season FAQs today. Among thing the FEHBlog learned that “All flu vaccines will be quadrivalent (four component), meaning designed to protect against four different flu viruses. For more information: Quadrivalent Influenza Vaccine | CDC.”

In an ironic twist, check out this quote from Fierce Healthcare

“The recent emergence of the delta variant has introduced some uncertainty to our second half visits outlook,” said Ido Schoenberg, M.D., chairman and CEO of Amwell, during the call.

“With mask mandates quickly returning and also acknowledging other trends we are observing within visit mix and volumes, we need to account for these other dynamics and a likely weaker cold and flu season due to these variant-related protective measures,” he said, also noting the company does not expect extra COVID-related demand.

“Consequently, we are adjusting down our visit forecast for the remainder of the year to account for these factors,” he said.

As the French say, “quelle domage”.

But seriously folks, Revcycle Intelligence informs us that

The percentage of telehealth claim lines has stabilized at about 5 percent of medical claim lines, indicating a new balance of virtual and in-person care.

The analysis conducted by FAIR Health as part of its Monthly Telehealth Regional Tracker included data representing the privately insured population, including Medicare Advantage, and excluded Medicare fee-for-service and Medicaid claims data.

The data revealed that the percentage telehealth claim lines increased slightly to 5 percent in May 2021, from 4.9 percent the previous month. The slight increase suggests a stabilization of telehealth utilization since telehealth claim lines had declined each month from February to April of this year.

And what’s more —

  • Healthcare Dive has a helpful wrap up article on the HIMSS conference. Take a look.
  • Federal News Network reports that the General Services Administration released federal employee travel per diems for the fiscal year beginning October 1, 2021. The combined per diems provide a cap of the federal contractor travel expenses that can be charged against an experience rated FEHB contract.
  • From Capitol Hill, Roll Call reports that nine centrist House Democrats have told Speaker Pelosi in writing that “We will not consider voting for a budget resolution until the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passes the House and is signed into law.” Roll Call adds that “Together, they’ve got more than enough support to stall the budget in the narrowly divided House where Democrats can lose no more than three members on party-line votes. No Republicans are expected to vote for the budget resolution, which is needed to begin the process on a $3.5 trillion reconciliation package chock full of Democratic priorities.”

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the COVID-19 vaccine front

  • The New York Times reports that “The Food and Drug Administration warned on Monday that Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine can lead to an increased risk of a rare neurological condition known as Guillain–Barré syndromeanother setback for a [one dose] vaccine that has largely been sidelined in the United States. Although regulators have found that the chances of developing the condition are low, they appear to be three to five times higher among recipients of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine than among the general population in the United States, according to people familiar with the decision. The warning was attached to fact sheets about the vaccine for providers and patients.”
  • USA Today offers a success story on AHIP’s Vaccine Community Connectors program. “Most important, this effort helped the industry home in on one specific strategy to accelerate health equity: better access to health care data that incorporates the social determinants of health.” Speaking SDOH data, Health IT Analytics informs us about the use of SDOH data in researching and managing Alzheimer’s Disease.
  • The American Hospital Association reminded folks today to keep its Vaccine Communications Resources website in mind.

Fierce Healthcare reports that

“The Biden administration has started to investigate whether Medicare should cover the extremely pricey Alzheimer’s drug aducanumab. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced Monday it is opening a National Coverage Determination (NCD) analysis on the drug that will cost patients $56,000 a year. Advocates and experts have called for the agency to move quickly to decide whether to cover the drug. “We want to consider Medicare coverage of new treatments very carefully in light of the evidence available,” said CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, in a statement Monday. “That’s why our process will include opportunities to hear from many stakeholders.”

Earlier press reports on Aduhelm, as well as common sense, indicate that commercial health plans likely will follow CMS’s lead on coverage of that drug.

Healthcare Dive tells us that “Telehealth use overall has stabilized at levels 38 times higher than before the COVID-19 pandemic, ranging from 13% to 17% of visits across all specialties, according to new data from McKinsey released roughly a year since the first major spike in COVID-19 cases.” * * * On the provider side, 58% of physicians continue to view virtual care more favorably than before the pandemic, though that’s down slightly from September, when 64% of physicians were in support. As of April this year, 84% of doctors were offering telehealth, and 57% said they’d prefer to continue offering it. However, that’s largely dependent on reimbursement: 54% of doctors said they wouldn’t provide virtual care if it was paid at a 15% discount to physical services.”

HR Dive discusses the President’s July 9 executive order provision “taking aim at” non-compete agreements.

Biden’s order leaves some questions unanswered. It does not ban or impact any existing employment agreement, Chris Marquardt, partner at Alston & Bird, told HR Dive in an email. “Employers will need to wait and see what the Federal Trade Commission does in response to the Executive Order before thinking about its potential impact,” he said.

Among other reasons, intellectual property and trade secrets have been cited as cause for use of non-competes. But the agreements have been the subject of criticism for potentially driving down wages in certain industries and geographic areas.

Govexec.com offers an interesting take on how the July 9 executive order seeks to use Federal procurement and regulations to promote competition 

Midweek Update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

In news from our Nation’s capital

  • Yesterday the House Appropriations Committee approved for House floor consideration the Fiscal Year 2022 Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill which includes OPM and FEHB Program funding. The vote was 33-24. Govexec adds that the Committee action “endorses President Biden’s proposal to give civilian federal employees an average 2.7% pay raise in 2022, despite efforts by some Democrats to provide a bigger increase.”
  • Amy Howe informs us that tomorrow will be the last day of the U.S. Supreme Court’s October 2020 term and the two remaining decisions are politically significant.
  • The Society for Human Resource Management reports that ​”The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has extended the deadline for filing the EEO-1 form from July 19 to Aug. 23. Businesses with 100 or more employees and some federal contractors with at least 50 employees must submit an annual EEO-1 form, which asks for information from the previous year about the number of employees who worked for the business, sorted by job category, race, ethnicity and gender. The EEOC did not collect such data in 2020 due to the coronavirus crisis. Covered employers now have until the new deadline to submit both their 2019 and 2020 data.”
  • The Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs has completed its work on HHS’s first interim final rule on implementing the No Surprises Act. Next step will be the Federal Register’s public inspection list.

From the COVID-19 front

  • The Centers for Disease Control has improved its COVID-19 data tracker website. Check out this fascinating new chart on the value of the COVID-19 vaccines.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that “People who became infected with Covid-19 after getting a messenger RNA vaccine [Pfizer or Moderna] carried less virus and had shorter cases than unvaccinated people who became infected, a study by government health researchers found. * * * “Even when people get vaccinated and did get infected, they were less likely to have an illness that causes a fever,” said Mark Thompson, an epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who helped lead the study.”
  • The American Hospital Association informs us that “The Moderna COVID-19 vaccine produces neutralizing antibody titers against the Delta variant, although fewer than against the ancestral strain of the virus, the company announced yesterday. * * * “These new data are encouraging and reinforce our belief that the Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine should remain protective against newly detected variants,” said CEO Stéphane Bancel.

From the Aduhelm front, STAT News tells us that
A majority of U.S. physicians disagree with the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the Alzheimer’s drug from Biogen (BIIB) and believe the medicine should not be routinely used, according to a new survey from STAT and Medscape. Nearly two-thirds of the 200 primary care physicians and neurologists polled find the trial data unclear when it comes to benefits and risks of the drug. Consequently, only a small minority of these doctors think the medicine should be given to patients with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

The controversial new Alzheimer’s drug would only be cost effective if priced between $3,000 and $8,400, an 85% to 95% discount off the $56,000 list price, due to “insufficient” evidence the drug benefits patients, STAT says, citing a revised analysis. The assessment by the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review is very similar to an evaluation issued a month ago, before the FDA approved the medicine and issued a broad label. But Biogen has pledged to promote the drug only to a more specific patient population and the FDA is requiring fewer costly MRI scans to monitor patient safety.

With regard to the physician survey and with all due respect to that fine profession, the FEHBlog expects that the “If you build it they will come” principle could apply to Aduhelm.

In other healthcare news

  • Barron’s reports that “The nation’s largest retailer is now selling the first private-label insulin at prices more than 50% lower than brand names of the diabetes drug, which can cost thousands of dollars a year. Walmart pharmacies began filling prescriptions this week for the discount chain’s ReliOn NovoLog brand of insulin in vials and injector pens. The drug, made by major supplier Novo Nordisk (NVO), will be available by mid-July at the company’s Sam’s Club wholesale stores. “We know many people with diabetes struggle to manage the financial burden of this condition, and we are focused on helping by providing affordable solutions,” Cheryl Pegus, executive vice president of Walmart Health & Wellness, announced Tuesday.” 
  • Medscape informs us that “Families with private health insurance pay around $3,000 for newborn delivery and hospitalization, while adding neonatal intensive care can push the bill closer to $5,000, based on a retrospective look at almost 400,000 episodes. The findings suggest that privately insured families need prenatal financial counseling, as well as screening for financial hardship after delivery, reported lead author Kao-Ping Chua, MD, PhD, assistant professor and health policy researcher in the department of pediatrics and the Susan B. Meister Child Health Evaluation and Research Center at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and colleagues. “Concern is growing regarding the high and rising financial burden of childbirth for privately insured families,” the investigators wrote in Pediatrics.”  Health plans may want to take a gander at their own members out of pocket spending on maternity care.
  • Employee Benefit News inquires whether a “subscription model can fix primary care.” The subscription model is offered by direct primary care companies like One Medical. According to the EBN article,

The appeal of these companies has grown as employers increasingly seek to address a shortage of high-quality primary care and reduce spending on the health of their workforce, said Ellen Kelsay, CEO and president of the Business Group on Health, which represents large employers.

Studies show a strong correlation between access to primary care and lower spending on expensive medical services such as ER visits, surgeries and hospital admissions. Yet in the United States, primary care accounts for only around 5% to 7% of total health spending, compared with 14% in the 36 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The big bet of One Medical and companies like it is that greater spending on primary care will fatten their bottom lines while reducing overall health costs for their clients. [One Medical works with health plans as well as self-funded employers and patients.]

Midweek Update

Photo by Dane Deaner on Unsplash

The Senate took no action on Kiran Ahuja’s nomination to be OPM Director today as Senators Booker and Peters remain out of pocket due to family illnesses.

On the hospital front —

  • The Advisory Board informs us about U.S. News and World Reports most recent rankings of children’s hospitals.
  • Axios reports that “Some of the hospitals with the highest revenue in the country also have some of the highest prices, charging an average of 10 times more than the actual cost of the care they deliver, according to new research by Johns Hopkins University provided exclusively to Axios.”

On the mental healthcare front, we have two articles on start- up companies from Katie Jennings in Forbes. One concerns Burlingame, Calif.-based Lyra Health and the other concerns “Lifestance Health Group, one of the nation’s largest outpatient mental health providers.” Check them out.

On the prescription drug front —

  • Healthcare Dive reports that “Anthem, one of the biggest U.S. payers, has joined an initiative to create low-cost generic drugs for hospital and retail pharmacies. The initiative CivicaScript, a subsidiary of hospital-owned nonprofit drugmaker Civica Rx, plans to initially develop and manufacture six to 10 common but pricey generic medicines that don’t have enough market competition to drive down cost, officials said Wednesday. The first generics could be available as early as 2022.”
  • Fierce Pharma informs us that “Antibody treatments have shown little success in helping COVID-19 patients with  severe disease. But a large [UK] study of hospitalized patients reveals that Regeneron’s antibody cocktail can reduce the chance of death in patients who haven’t produced their own antibody responses to the disease.”
  • STAT News interviews the Alzheimer Association’s CEO about the newly approved drug Aduhelm.

In miscellaneous news

  • The Wall Street Journal reportsApple Inc. Chief Executive Tim Cook has said the company’s greatest contribution to mankind will be in health. So far, some Apple initiatives aimed at broadly disrupting the healthcare sector have struggled to gain traction, according to people familiar with them and documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.”
  • Healthcare Dive tells us that “A University of Pennsylvania study that tracked Medicare claims for about 1.35 million beneficiaries who had joint replacement surgery found that hospitals participating in bundled payment programs spent less on the hip and knee joint procedures than hospitals receiving traditional fee-for-service payments. Spending, however, did not differ between hospitals that voluntarily joined bundling programs and those whose involvement was mandatory, according to the findings, which were published in a JAMA research letter. The results failed to validate assumptions that voluntary participants tend to achieve greater savings because they choose programs for the opportunity to reduce spending. The findings come as the head of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, Elizabeth Fowler, suggested the agency would look to shift away from voluntary arrangements in favor of more mandatory models.”
  • Fierce Healthcare informs us that “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new interim guidance late Monday for healthcare providers treating patients with post-COVID conditions—an umbrella term the agency is using to capture a wide range of physical and mental health issues that sometimes persist four or more weeks after an individual’s COVID-19 infection. Sometimes referred to as “long COVID,” the conditions can present among COVID-19 patients regardless of whether they were symptomatic during their acute infection, the agency wrote in the guidance.”

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Govexec reports that “the Senate voted 81-13 on Tuesday to confirm Jason Miller to be deputy director for management for the Office of Management and Budget. Miller is a former Obama administration economic adviser and most recently a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and CEO of the Greater Washington Partnership, a nonprofit civic alliance.”

Julie Appleby of Kaiser Health News writes on the gradual rollback of COVID-19 treatment coverage with no member cost sharing in 2021.

Anthem, for example, stopped them at the end of January. UnitedHealth, another of the nation’s largest insurers, began rolling back waivers in the fall, finishing up by the end of March. Deductible-free inpatient treatment for covid through Aetna expired Feb. 28.

A few insurers continue to forgo patient cost-sharing in some types of policies. Humana, for example, has left the cost-sharing waiver in place for Medicare Advantage members, but dropped it on Jan. 1 for those in job-based group plans.

Not all are making the changes.

For example, Premera Blue Cross in Washington and Sharp Health Plan in California have extended treatment cost waivers through June. Kaiser Permanente said it is keeping its program in place for members diagnosed with covid and has not set an end date. Meanwhile, UPMC in Pittsburgh planned to continue to waive all copayments and deductibles for in-network treatment through April 20.

 Healthcare Dive reports

U.S. hospitals continue to struggle under the ongoing weight of the pandemic and its financial pressure, reporting a mixed performance in March, according to a new report from Kaufman Hall.

Volumes continued to decline, while revenues and expenses generally rose compared to the same time last year. Margins increased on both a year-to-date and year-over-year basis, but that’s largely due to measuring performance this year with last March, when hospitals were hit hard by the effects of state lockdowns and a pause in non-essential procedures, the consultancy said.

Researchers expect continued margin and revenue gains in the next few months, especially in comparison to record-poor performance in the first few months last year. Some gains are due to returning patient volumes, but the report warns the impacts of COVID-19 on providers are far from over.

Here is a link to today’s Centers for Disease Control’s “Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People.” The AP reports that “Some experts portrayed the relaxed guidance as a reward and a motivator for more people to get vaccinated — a message President Joe Biden sounded, too.” The FEHBlog honestly see the new guidance as too complicated and he will maintain his current mask wearing practices for a couple more months.

From the government contracting front

  • Here is a link to the President’s executive order raising the minimum wage on federal contracts for services and construction to $15 per hour. FEHB contracts do not fall into these classifications in the FEHBlog’s opinion.
  • The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is revving up the EEO-1 reporting process. “The EEO-1 Component 1 report is a mandatory annual data collection that requires all private sector employers with 100 or more employees, and federal contractors with 50 or more employees meeting certain criteria, to submit demographic workforce data, including data by race/ethnicity, sex and job categories. * * * After delaying the opening of the 2019 EEO-1 Component 1 data collection because of the COVID-19 public health emergency, the EEOC has announced that the 2019 and 2020 EEO-1 Component 1 data collection is NOW OPEN.  Eligible employers have until Monday, July 19, 2021 to submit two years of data.”