Monday Roundup

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

Happy National Hospital Week.

Per a Food and Drug Administration press release,

Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration expanded the emergency use authorization (EUA) for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine for the prevention of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) to include adolescents 12 through 15 years of age. The FDA amended the EUA originally issued on Dec. 11, 2020 for administration in individuals 16 years of age and older.

The FDA has updated the Fact Sheets for Healthcare Providers Administering the Vaccine (Vaccination Providers) and for Recipients and Caregivers with information to reflect the use of the vaccine in the adolescent population, including the benefits and risks of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine.

The CDC will take up the matter on Wednesday and assuming that CDC approval is given, then health plans will become obligated to cover the full cost of administering the vaccine to this new age group fifteen days later.

The Wall Street Journal adds FAQs:

Do we need to vaccinate children?

Yes, according to most infectious-disease experts. Children can and do get sick from Covid-19, though research shows they typically experience milder cases and are much less likely than adults and the elderly to be hospitalized or die from the virus. As of late March, more than 3.4 million children had been infected with Covid-19, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, including nearly 14,000 hospitalizations and 279 deaths. The emergence of more-contagious variants, including the B.1.1.7 variant that was first identified in the U.K. and is now dominant in the U.S., appears to be sending younger patients to the hospital with a higher frequency, making vaccines in young adults and adolescents all the more urgent, some doctors and scientists say. In addition, scientists say children need to be vaccinated to achieve the communitywide, or herd, immunity that renders spread of the virus unlikely. “Vaccines give us the opportunity to really turn the tide on this pandemic, and children and teens really need to be a part of that strategy,” said Lisa Costello, a pediatrician and president of the West Virginia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Monday continues to be a good day for COVID-19 vaccine news.

In other news —

  • Healthcare Dive reports that “Kaiser Permanente generated a profit of $2 billion in the first quarter of 2021, the integrated health system reported Friday, bouncing back from a staggering $1.1 billion loss in the first quarter of last year, largely tied to investment losses amid the stock market slide spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
  • The Internal Revenue Service announced 2022 inflation adjustments for (a) minimum deductibles and maximum out of pocket cost sharing in high deductible health plans (“HDHP”) associated with health savings accounts {“HSA”) and (b) maximum health savings account contributions. The Journal of Accountancy explains

The annual limitation on deductions under Sec. 223(b)(2)(A) for an HSA with self-only coverage is $3,650, an increase of $50 over 2021; the corresponding amount for family coverage is $7,300, up $100 from 2021. Sec. 223(b)(3) allows an additional $1,000 annual contribution for individuals age 55 or older before the end of the tax year.

The high-deductible health plan (HDHP) that must accompany an HSA also has inflation adjustments, for its minimum plan deductible amount and its maximum annual out-of-pocket limitation. The deductible for 2022 must be at least $1,400 for self-only and $2,800 for family coverage, both the same as for 2021. The out-of-pocket maximums are $7,050 for self-only coverage and $14,100 for family coverage, increases of $50 and $100, respectively, from 2021.

  • The Department of Health and Human Services overruled the Trump Administration’s narrow interpretation of sex discrimination for purposes of the Affordable Care Act’s individual non-discrimination provision known as Section 1557. “Consistent with the Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock and Title IX, beginning today, [HHS’s Office for Civil Rights] will interpret and enforce Section 1557’s prohibition on discrimination on the basis of sex to include: (1) discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation; and (2) discrimination on the basis of gender identity. This interpretation will guide OCR in processing complaints and conducting investigations, but does not itself determine the outcome in any particular case or set of facts. In enforcing Section 1557, as stated above, OCR will comply with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb et seq., and all other legal requirements.
  • Federal News Network reports that “Few aspects of federal retirement seem to be trending down more than a year after the pandemic first hit the U.S. According to numbers released by the Office of Personnel Management, new claims, processed claims, processing times and the overall claims backlog were all higher in April 2021 than April 2020.” 
  • Fierce Healthcare informs us that “COVID-19 has only worsened social isolation, but [Blue Cross licensee] Anthem is addressing senior’s loneliness through a “wrap-around” program that encourages them to reach out. Through Member Connect, seniors are assigned a social care partner, who assists with connecting them to community services to address their social needs. They also have a phone pal, a volunteer Anthem associate who reaches out to them weekly. Many members (78%) said they either agreed or strongly agreed that participating in the program led to more meaningful connections with people. In addition, 66% said they are happy or very happy when taking into account all facets of their life in the past seven days.”

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

Mondays have tended to be good news days for COVID-19 vaccines. As of today, over 50% of Americans over age 18 have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Fierce Healthcare reports that

“CVS Pharmacy has begun stocking its virtual and in-store shelves nationwide with rapid tests for COVID-19—which can be purchased without a prescription and used by anyone regardless of whether or not they are showing symptoms—including three FDA-authorized diagnostics and sample collection kits produced by LabCorp, Ellume and Abbott.”

“Even as vaccines become more widely available, COVID-19 testing remains a critical tool to keep our communities safe,” Walgreens President John Standley said in a statement. Walgreens currently offers on-site testing at more than 5,500 of its pharmacies and plans to expand to 6,000 drive-thru sites by May, using Abbott’s ID NOW portable testing machines.

In addition, earlier this month CVS began offering COVID-19 antibody testing for $38 at 1,100 in-house clinics, using fingerstick blood samples to determine previous infections.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management announced today that the agency

will allow [FSAFEDS] flexibilities permitted under the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021 and the American Rescue Plan Act including allowing full carryover for a health care flexible spending account (HCFSA) and Limited Expense FSA (LEX FSA); extending the grace period for a dependent care flexible spending account (DCFSA); and permitting care for dependents through age 14 for 2020 and 2021 under a DCFSA. In addition, OPM is working with our FSAFEDS contractor, Health Equity, to offer a Special Enrollment/Election Period (SEP) in the near future.  This SEP will allow participants to increase or decrease their current elections for their DCFSA and/or their HCFSA.  In addition, the SEP will allow those who did not re-enroll for 2021 during Open Season in the Fall, the opportunity to enroll in a DCFSA and/or HCFSA for 2021.  Finally, OPM will allow DCFSA participants to increase their election during the Special Election Period to the new IRS maximum of $10,500 for 2021. 

All good news.

What’s more, the Wall Street Journal reported in its Saturday essay about the U.S. airline safety revolution.

Over the past 12 years, U.S. airlines have accomplished an astonishing feat: carrying more than eight billion passengers without a fatal crash.

Such numbers were once unimaginable, even among the most optimistic safety experts. But now, pilots for domestic carriers can expect to go through an entire career without experiencing a single engine malfunction or failure. Official statistics show that in recent years, the riskiest part of any airline trip in the U.S. is when aircraft wheels are on the ground, on runways or taxiways.

The achievements stem from a sweeping safety reassessment—a virtual revolution in thinking—sparked by a small band of senior federal regulators, top industry executives and pilots-union leaders after a series of high-profile fatal crashes in the mid-1990s. To combat common industry hazards, they teamed up to launch voluntary incident reporting programs with carriers sharing data and no punishment for airlines or aviators when mistakes were uncovered.

One wonders whether this successful strategy may be transferable to other pressing safety issues, such as patient safety. In this regard, a friend of the FEHBlog suggested check this Washington Post opinion piece written by a group of psychologists titled “We instinctively add on new features and fixes. Why don’t we subtract instead?
‘Less is more’ is a hard insight to act on, it turns out.” How true.

In other healthcare news —

  • The Kaiser Family Foundation informs us that

a relatively small number and share of drugs accounted for a disproportionate share of Medicare Part B and Part D prescription drug spending in 2019 (Figure 1).

— The 250 top-selling drugs in Medicare Part D with one manufacturer and no generic or biosimilar competition (7% of all Part D covered drugs) accounted for 60% of net total Part D spending.

— The top 50 drugs covered under Medicare Part B (8.5% of all Part B covered drugs) accounted for 80% of total Part B drug spending.

Some recent proposals to lower prescription drug prices have limited the number of drugs subject to price negotiation and international reference pricing. This analysis shows that Medicare Part D and Part B spending is highly concentrated among a relatively small share of covered drugs, mainly those without generic or biosimilar competitors. Focusing drug price negotiation or reference pricing on a subset of drugs that account for a disproportionate share of spending would be an efficient use of administrative resources . . . .

  • Employee Benefits News tells us

New research from Voya shows employees have a bias against HDHPs and the reason for that is as simple as marketing.

“One of the really interesting findings that we saw from the research about why there is that bias comes down to branding, pure and simple,” says Nate Black, vice president of consumer driven health for Voya Financial. “When we replaced the high deductible health plan name and called it something more generic, the share of people choosing high deductible health plans doubled. So just the name itself can have a really significant impact on how people think about what plan they should choose.”

Sixty-three percent of the people surveyed by Voya said they would choose the plan with the lowest deductible. As part of the study Voya designed an experiment asking participants to choose between a PPO and an HDHP. The experiment was set up in a way that the HDHP was always the optimal financial choice, despite this, 65% of those surveyed still chose the PPO plan.

Communicating the long term value of plans connected with health savings accounts is quite important.

  • Here’s a link to the CDC’s website on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause which explains

If you received the vaccine more than three weeks ago, the risk of developing a blood clot is likely very low at this time.

If you received the vaccine within the last three weeks, your risk of developing a blood clot is also very low and that risk will decrease over time.

Contact your healthcare provider and seek medical treatment urgently if you develop any of the following symptoms: severe headache, backache, new neurologic symptoms, severe abdominal pain, shortness of breath, leg swelling, tiny red spots on the skin (petechiae), or new or easy bruising.

If you experience any adverse events after vaccination, report them to v-safe and the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System

The FEHBlog enrolled in v-safe after his first Pfizer vaccination and the CDC has continued to inobtrusively check in weekly. The FEHBlog is happy to help out.

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 12th week of this year (beginning April 2, 2020, and ending March 24, 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 greatly exceed new deaths. Accordingly here is a chart of new COVID-19 deaths over the period (April 2, 2020, through March 24, 2021):

Finally here is a COVID-19 vaccinations chart for the past three months which also uses Thursday as the first day of the week:

The charts continue to look pretty good. As of today 34.6% of the U.S. population over 18 years old has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 46% of the U.S. population over 65 years old is fully vaccinated.

STAT News reports that

Pfizer and BioNTech said Thursday they are beginning a study aimed at showing their Covid-19 vaccine can be used in children as young as 6 months.

The study follows the launch of a separate and ongoing trial in children ages 12 to 15, which was fully enrolled in January. That study could lead to results by the end of the first half of the year, depending on the data, and then to an emergency use authorization. That will depend on the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The vaccine already has an EUA for people 16 and older.

“The FDA, if it sees fit to do this, could, grant an EUA and get them into children in that age group by the fall, provided the CDC also agrees and that that should be the vaccine they receive,” said William Gruber, Pfizer’s senior vice president of vaccine clinical research and development.

Moderna began a similar study of their vaccine on children from age 6 months to 12 years old on March 16.

STAT News also offers “A user’s guide: How to talk to those hesitant about the Covid-19 vaccine.” Here’s one good idea:

Have a conversation

Don’t lecture your family and friends, and don’t assume you know what their concerns are. Make sure to listen.

“Try to address their concerns, not what you assume are their concerns,” said Jorge Moreno, an internist and assistant professor at the Yale University School of Medicine. While you may be thinking people are ensnared in the darkest of conspiracy theories, many may have concerns that are much simpler to address. For Moreno, who even had to convince his mother the vaccine was safe, many questions he’s received have centered around side effects, and whether they might make people too sick to work. A Carnegie Mellon University survey released this week showed 70% of vaccine-hesitant people were concerned about side effects.

“Let people know it’s OK to have questions and that having concerns is legitimate,” added Reed Tuckson, the former public health commissioner for Washington, D.C., and a founding member of the Black Coalition Against Covid, which co-developed a campaign called “The Conversation” to provide Black families credible vaccine information. “Letting people have a safe space to have this conversation is essential,” he said. “Wagging your finger against someone is not very useful.”

From the tax front:

  • The Internal Revenue Service recently announced that “amounts paid for personal protection equipment, such as masks, hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes, for the primary purpose of preventing the spread of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19 PPE) are treated as amounts paid for medical care under § 213(d) of the Internal Revenue Code (Code). * * * Group health plans, including health FSAs and HRAs, under the terms of which expenses for COVID-19 PPE may not be reimbursed, may be amended pursuant to this announcement to provide for reimbursements of expenses for COVID-19 PPE incurred for any period beginning on or after January 1, 2020, and such an amendment will not be treated as causing a failure of any reimbursement to be excludable from income under § 105(b) or as causing a § 125 cafeteria plan to fail to meet the requirements of § 125.”
  • What’s more, Spotlight on Benefits explains how the IRS has clarified Pandemic-Related Relief for Dependent Care FSAs.

In healthcare business news, Healthcare Dive explains why being a hospital chief financial officer is a particularly tough job during the pandemic. Also Fierce Healthcare discusses a CIGNA telehealth study finding that

while virtual visits for other types of services declined after the initial COVID-19 spike, virtual visits for behavioral health remained in high demand. In April 2020, virtual visits made up about 50% of claims for non-behavioral health services and declined over the course of the year to account for nearly 25% today.

“Virtual behavioral health care is not only a way to access mental health services in the wake of social distancing, but it also allows us the option to pursue treatment in the privacy and comfort of our own homes,” Lustig said.

By contrast, in April, 66% of office visits for behavioral health were conducted virtually, and it’s remained largely flat since.

Behavioral telehealth users also reported higher productivity at work, according to the survey. These patients reported a 45% decrease in sick days, compared to a 28% decrease in miss workdays among patients who did not use telehealth.

That’s good news for the spoke and hub telehealth companies and for health plans and consumers because the spoke and hub telehealth network therapists are in-network.

Midweek Update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

Happy St. Patricks Day to all.

Congress in a recent appropriations law sought a report from the National Academy for Public Administration on the Trump Administration’s proposal to break up the Office of Personnel Management. The Federal Times reports that “A better federal workforce policy will require the Office of Personnel Management to become a more independent and authoritative agency, rather than being broken apart into other departments, a long-awaited National Academy for Public Administration study determined March 17. ”

“We strongly recommend that a central personnel agency continue to exist, and that organization is an independent, enterprise-wide human capital agency and a steward of the merit system principles,” said Terry Gerton, president and CEO of NAPA, said at a press briefing on the report. “But that organization, OPM as we know it today, really needs to build its staff capacity, encourage innovation and adopt a more data-driven, accountable and forward-looking capital management approach.”

In other federal agency news, the Federal News Network informs us that

The IRS is moving this year’s April 15 tax filing season deadline back to May 17, citing ongoing challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic. IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said in a statement Wednesday that the new deadline would give the public more time to take stock of their finances, while also giving agency employees more time to implement new responsibilities under the American Rescue Plan.

The Department of Health and Human Services announced today that the agency

will invest $10 billion from the American Rescue Plan to ramp up screening testing to help schools reopen, $2.25 billion to scale up testing in underserved populations, and provide new guidance on asymptomatic screening testing in schools, workplaces, and congregate settings. These measures are part of President Biden’s strategy to increase COVID-19 testing nationwide as vaccinations increase.

“COVID-19 testing is critical to saving lives and restoring economic activity,” said HHS Acting Secretary Norris Cochran. “As part of the Biden Administration’s National Strategy, HHS will continue to expand our capacity to get testing to the individuals and the places that need it most, so we can prevent transmission of the virus and defeat the pandemic.”

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force announced yesterday a proposed B grade recommendation “on screening for prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. The Task Force recommends screening adults between ages 35 to 70 years old who are overweight or obese for prediabetes and diabetes.” The current minimum age for this screening recommendation is 40 years old. NBC News reports that

We know the rates of prediabetes and diabetes are increasing in people who are younger,” said Dr. Chien-Wen Tseng, a task force member and a professor of family medicine at the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine. “Our main reason for dropping the age is to match the screening with where the problem is: If diabetes and prediabetes are occurring at a younger age, then we should be screening at a younger age.”

The Affordable Care Act requires health plans to cover USPSTF A and B recommended preventive services without member cost sharing when an eligible member receives the service in-network. If the USPSTF finalizes this recommendation later in 2021, then the ACA health plan coverage mandate for this screening would expand to people in the age 35 to 40 age group in 2023. Here is a link to background on the USPSTF’s sixteen members.

In other health industry news —

Healthcare Dive reports that

Amazon is expanding its virtual care pilot program, Amazon Care, to employees and outside companies nationwide beginning this summer in a major evolution of its telehealth initiative, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to drive unprecedented demand for virtual care.

Amazon will also offer its on-demand primary care service to other Washington state-based companies and plans to expand its in-person service to Washington, D.C., Baltimore and other cities in the following months, the e-commerce behemoth announced Wednesday.

Employee Benefit News offers a Chief Financial Offer’s advice on health savings account funding.

Weekend update

Both Houses of Congress will be engaged in committee work and floor voting this coming week, the last full workweek before Thanksgiving week. CNET provides an update on the likelihood of Congress passing another COVID relief bill during this lame duck session. The most pressing lame duck session legislative action is addressing federal government funding which expires after December 11 absent Congressional action. Currently the last day for House voting in 2020 is December 10.

Following up on Friday’s COVID-19 stats discussion, Govexec.com provides estimates of COVID-19 cases afflicting federal employees and military members.

More than 100,000 federal personnel have now tested positive for COVID-19, nearly triple the total in mid-July. Almost 3% of government workers across the military and civilian agencies have now contracted the virus. About 50,000 civilian workers have tested positive, in addition to more than 62,000 members of the Armed Forces.

Earlier today the Centers for Disease Control reported that just under 10.85 million Americans have contracted COVID-19 this year. The current U.S. population is roughly 331 million people. Consequently, the federal employee COVID-19 contraction rate aligns with the total U.S. rate (3.27%). That’s good news in the FEHBlog’s opinion, considering the fact that a sizable percentage of federal employees and military members have contact with the public as part of their responsibilities.

As we enter the second week of the Federal Benefits Open Season, the FEHBlog deems it appropriate to call attention to this helpful Wall Street Journal article titled “It’s Open-Enrollment Season. Is an HSA Still Right for You?” Helpful tidbit from the article:

Roy Ramthun, a consultant who specializes in high-deductible plans and HSAs, recommends conducting a “worst-case-scenario” analysis. This shows which plan would be most cost-effective in the event an employee spends so much he or she hits the plan’s out-of-pocket spending limit. (After that, the plan becomes responsible for 100% of expenses for the rest of the year.)

Assume Ms. [Employee’s]’s family continues to stick largely with doctors and hospitals that take their insurance on an “in-network” basis. The high-deductible plan could make them responsible for $8,000 in out-of-pocket spending—a number that includes the plan’s $4,000 deductible. Some of the blow would be offset by the $5,500 Ms. [Employee] stands to save in premiums and employer contributions.

In contrast, the annual out-of-pocket maximum with the conventional plan is even higher, at $9,000, providing less protection against high medical bills. As a result, the high-deductible plan is the mathematical winner in this scenario, as well. (Mr. Ramthun recommends repeating this exercise using the two plans’ out-of-network spending limits.)

These numbers by the way are not derived from FEHB plans.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the CDC’s Cases in the U.S. website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 20th through 32nd weeks of this year (beginning May 14 and ending August 12; 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:

Beckers Hospital Review reports that

The U.S. government is working with commercial health insurers to make future COVID-19 vaccines free of charge with no copay, an HHS official told The Wall Street Journal.

Paul Mango, deputy chief of staff for policy at HHS, said government health insurance programs such as Medicare and Medicaid will cover the cost of administering COVID-19 vaccines, and a federal fund created by the CARES Act will provide the shots free for uninsured people.

A collaboration between the federal government and the healthcare industry will handle the distribution of the vaccines, and the government will announce distributor contracts soon, Mr. Mango told the Journal.

Indeed, the Wall Street Journal reports this afternoon that

McKesson Corp., MCK 4.26% one of the world’s largest drug wholesalers and the biggest vaccine middleman in the U.S., will be a main distributor of Covid-19 vaccines nationwide should the shots prove to work safely, federal health officials said. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is exercising an option in an existing 2016 contract with McKesson for the distribution of a vaccine in the event of a pandemic, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department said Friday.

A friend of the FEHBlog shared this link to an interesting Harvard Business Review article from July 24 discussing the following three scenarios in which the COVID-19 emergency may play out.

1.A dream case in which everything goes as well as could reasonably be expected.
2.A catastrophic case in which everything goes badly.
3.A middle case in which some things go well, but others don’t.

It strikes that FEHBlog that we have been in the midst of scenario three since March. The FEHBlog does not think it can get worse, while he thinks that it may get better.

The FEHBlog was pleased to run across these DOL Office of Federal Contractor Compliance Program’s FAQs on its recent final rule exempting TRICARE but not FEHBP providers from its affirmative action rules.

If my company participates in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP), are we covered under the amended regulations?

OFCCP did not adopt any regulatory changes related to FEHBP providers. OFCCP plans to issue sub-regulatory guidance to address concerns regarding FEHBP providers.

That’s a clearer update than what the FEHBlog noticed in the preamble to the final rule. The TRICARE exemption likely will not be useful to providers unless the FEHBP also is exempted, in the FEHBlog’s opinion.

The Congressional Research Service has updated its helpful report on Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). CRS reports that for tax year 2017 the IRS processed 11 million tax returns showing employer or employee contributions to HSAs.

Thursday Miscellany

In accordance with law, the Internal Revenue Service released today 2021 inflation adjustments to health savings account contribution limits and minimum deductibles for related high deductible health plans as described in Section 223 of the Internal Revenue Code. Only high deductible benefit plan participants may contribute to health savings accounts.

According to Fierce Healthcare, CVS Health today announced a major expansion of their drive up COVID0-19 testing sites.

Starting Friday, the retail and pharmacy giant will open nearly 300 additional test sites across 14 states for a total of nearly 350 available test sites in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas.The company said it plans to establish up to 1,000 locations across the country by the end of May with the goal of processing up to 1.5 million tests per month.

Finally, there will be a drive up testing site located in Montgomery County, MD, where the FEHBlog lives.

Healthcare Dive wrote a follow up report on the Commonwealth Fund study mentioned in yesterday’s post.

Telehealth visits that exploded in recent months are starting to plateau and in some cases decline in popularity as doctor’s offices reschedule backlogged patients for more in-person appointments, according new data from The Commonwealth Fund. Telemedicine visits accounted for about 14% of all total visits the week of April 19, according to the report, but that number dropped to 13% the next week and 12% the week after that. Telehealth visits held at 12% for the first two weeks of May.

In this regard, a Health Affairs Blog article discusses how primary care can be rejuvenated in the wake of the COVID-19 emergency. The number one suggestion is

Ending the hegemony of the face-to-face visit and rebalancing the appointment template toward 50 percent distance visits are likely to improve patient access while reducing work and burnout.

Studies are mixed but suggest that e-visits and phone visits reduce the number of face-to-face visits and take less time for clinicians and staff. When the Kaiser Permanente system in Hawaii massively changed its primary care model in 2004—with e-visits and phone visits increasing sixfold and eightfold, respectively—office visits decreased 26.2 percent.

Multiple studies demonstrate that these visits can provide high-quality care for a large number of medical conditions. 

It should be easier for the physician community to redirect patient care in this manner.

Midweek Update

Yesterday, the Internal Revenue Service created in view of the COVID-19 emergency new flexibilities for flexible spending account (FSA) holders, health savings account (“HSA”holders and cafeteria plan members by

  • extending claims periods for taxpayers to apply unused amounts remaining in a health FSA or dependent care assistance program for expenses incurred for those same qualified benefits through December 31, 2020.
  • expanding the ability of taxpayers to make mid-year elections for health coverage, health FSAs, and dependent care assistance programs, allowing them to respond to changes in needs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • applying earlier relief for high deductible health plans to cover expenses related to COVID-19, and a temporary exemption for telehealth services retroactively to The notice increases the limit for unused health FSA carryover amounts from $500, to a maximum of $550, as adjusted annually for inflation.January 1, 2020.

The IRS also increased “the limit for unused health FSA carryover amounts from $500, to a maximum of $550, as adjusted annually for inflation.”

The Board of Directors of America’s Health Insurance Plans issued a statement on “Safely Re-Opening America’s Health Care System and Resuming Needed Procedures and Treatments, Routine Care, and Preventive Services” in the wake of the COVID-19 emergency. The statement encourages continued use of telehealth and sensible applic ation / waivers of health plan prior authorization requirements.

HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has created its own COVID-19 resources webpage. Among other things the site “provides links to research funding opportunities, AHRQ Views blog posts about the Agency’s COVID-19 activities, and examples of new AHRQ-funded research findings.”

Benefits Pro reports that “A Social Security policy analyst for the advocacy group The Senior Citizens League is estimating the cost-of-living adjustment for 2021 will be zero based on consumer price index data through April and the continued impact of COVID-19 on the economy.” A zero COLA, which occurred in 2009, 2010, and 2015, will trigger the protection of Medicare Part B premium hold harmless clause for certain but not all federal annuitants.

Midweek update

Healthcare Dive reports that health plans, health care providers, and the Chamber of Commerce have sent Congress a joint health care wish list for the fourth COVID-19 relief bill.

Becker’s Hospital Review provides an updated list of state by state peak dates for COVID-19 hospital resources from IMHE. According to the chart virtually all of the State have hit their peak by today.

Health Payer Intelligence discusses Oscar Health’s population health oriented approach to connecting with its plan members during the COVID-19 emergency. On a related note, Fierce Healthcare summarizes the steps that the country’s tech giants, Apple, Amazon, and Alphabet/Google, have taken in response to the COVID-19 emergency.

Employee Benefit News provides useful COVID-19 emergency tips for sponsors and holders of health savings accounts.

MedCity News reports good news on the cancer detection front:

A test designed for early detection of cancers from a blood sample was able to more than double the number of cancers picked up through screening, including seven cancers that currently do not have any standard-of-care screening methods, according to a new study.

The study, sponsored by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Thrive Earlier Detection and carried out by Johns Hopkins University and Geisinger Health, was presented Tuesday at the American Association for Cancer Research’s [virtual] annual meeting.

Bravo.