Midweek update

Midweek update

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From the Omicron front, Live Science informs us about the so-called stealth Omicron variant.

A stealthy version of the omicron variant has been detected in the U.S., but so far, it makes up a very low proportion of the overall cases in the country.

This version of the variant, called BA.2, bears some genetic mutations not seen in the original omicron lineage, and some of these mutations lie in the spike protein, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Some preliminary data hint that BA.2 may be slightly more transmissible, but not more severe, than the original omicron, but it’s too early to interpret that data with any confidence.

In December, scientists reported that the original version of omicron had split into multiple sublineages, one of these being BA.2, Live Science previously reported. BA.2 bears a genetic quirk that makes it harder to track using PCR tests, so it’s been nicknamed “stealth omicron.” 

The New York Times tells us about a new study identifying four factors that may lead to “Long Covid“.

The researchers said they had found that there was an association between these factors and long Covid (which goes by the medical name post-acute sequelae of Covid-19, or PASC) whether the initial infection was serious or mild. They said that the findings might suggest ways to prevent or treat some cases of long Covid, including the possibility of giving people antiviral medications soon after an infection has been diagnosed. * * *

One of the four factors researchers identified is the level of coronavirus RNA in the blood early in the infection, an indicator of viral load. Another is the presence of certain autoantibodies — antibodies that mistakenly attack tissues in the body as they do in conditions like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. A third factor is the reactivation of Epstein-Barr virus, a virus that infects most people, often when they are young, and then usually becomes dormant.

The final factor is having Type 2 diabetes, although the researchers and other experts said that in studies involving larger numbers of patients, it might turn out that diabetes is only one of several medical conditions that increase the risk of long Covid.

From the Covid booster front

The COVID-19 booster drive in the U.S. is losing steam, worrying health experts who have pleaded with Americans to get an extra shot to shore up their protection against the highly contagious omicron variant.

Just 40% of fully vaccinated Americans have received a booster dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the average number of booster shots dispensed per day in the U.S. has plummeted from a peak of 1 million in early December to about 490,000 as of last week.

Also, a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that Americans are more likely to see the initial vaccinations — rather than a booster — as essential.

“It’s clear that the booster effort is falling short,” said Jason Schwartz, a vaccine policy expert at Yale University. * * *

As for why an estimated 86 million Americans who have been fully vaccinated and are eligible for a booster have not yet gotten one, Schwartz said public confusion is one important reason.

“I think the evidence is now overwhelming that the booster is not simply an optional supplement, but it is a foundational part of protection,” he said. “But clearly that message has been lost.”

The need for all Americans to get boosters initially was debated by scientists, and at first the government recommended only that certain groups of people, such as senior citizens, get additional doses. The arrival of omicron, and additional evidence about falling immunity, showed more clearly a widespread need for boosters.

But the message “has been lost in the sea of changing recommendations and guidance,” Schwartz said.

  • Speaking of confusion over boosters, Kaiser Health News reports that

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reached out to pharmacists Wednesday to reinforce the message that people with moderate to severe immune suppression are eligible for fourth covid shots.

The conference call came a day after KHN reported that immunocompromised people were being turned away by pharmacy employees unfamiliar with the latest CDC guidelines.

  • If you thought that the idea of mixing and matching Covid boosters was confusing, the National Institutes of Health reassureed us that

In adults who had previously received a full regimen of any of three COVID-19 vaccines granted Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, an additional booster dose of any of these vaccines was safe and prompted an immune response, according to preliminary clinical trial results reported in The New England Journal of Medicine. The findings served as the basis for recommendations by the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in late fall 2021 to permit mix-and-match COVID-19 booster vaccinations in the United States. Additional data from the ongoing Phase 1/2 trial, sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, are expected in the coming months.

From the Postal Service front, Govexec reports that

USPS, like the rest of the nation, has experienced a surge in COVID-19 cases from the omicron variant and thousands of workers are sick or quarantining each day. Still, the agency oversaw a largely successful holiday period and continues to ramp up its delivery of COVID-19 rapid tests on behalf of the administration. The Health and Human Services Department is reimbursing USPS for its costs, but the Postal Service has declined to disclose the terms of that arrangement. The mailing agency has kept on thousands of temporary staff to support the effort and is using its own facilities to stage the shipments. Tens of millions of tests have already gone out, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeff Zients said on Wednesday. 

Zients added the administration opted against using USPS to distribute 400 million N95 masks from the National Stockpile because its alternative approach—sending them to pharmacies and other locations to give to customers for free—is quicker. The masks have already reached many facilities and Americans are picking them up. 

From the hearing aid front, Roll Call reports on the state of the Food and Drug Administration’s efforts to craft a rule allowing hearing aids to be sold over the counter, a Biden Administration initiative. Suffice it to say that nothing is simple.

From the healthcare business front, Healthcare Dive tells us that

The fourth quarter results for Indianapolis-based Anthem were mixed, analysts said. The financial results released premarket Wednesday beat Wall Street expectations on earnings, but missed on operating revenue.

Higher-than-expected coronavirus-related costs driven by the omicron variant — most notably in December — were “more than offset” by lower utilization of non-COVID-19 care, CFO John Gallina told investors on a Wednesday morning call.

Anthem’s commercial business had the highest costs relative to baseline, driven by factors like children becoming eligible for COVID-19 vaccines and the omicron surge. Medicare was next in line, followed by Medicaid, which actually ended the quarter slightly below baseline, Gallina said. The CFO noted he expects that theme to continue in 2022.

The payer’s medical loss ratio, the percentage of premiums invested back into patient care, was 89.5% in the quarter, in line with analyst forecasts and up sequentially from the third quarter’s 87.7%, which was much lower than analysts had expected. The fourth quarter of the year typically has a higher MLR, even notwithstanding pandemic pressures.

What’s more Fierce Healthcare informs us that

The number of accountable care organizations participating in the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) modestly increased to 483 this year compared with 477 for 2021, sparking new worries from advocates over the future of the program.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services released new figures Wednesday that show the patient population being served by ACOs has slightly grown. The new data come as the Biden administration released a strategic refresh last year for its payment models with the intent of getting every Medicare beneficiary in an accountable care relationship by 2030. * * *

ACO advocates have been concerned about a decline in overall participation that has been occurring in the MSSP in recent years. There were 517 ACOs participating in 2020, which was up from the 519 that operated in 2019. However, that’s down significantly from the 561 that participated in 2018.

The National Association of ACOs (NAACOS) has previously called for CMS to make it easier for organizations to take on financial risk. The group criticized a Trump-era program called “Pathways to Success” that requires ACOs to take on financial risk much earlier in the process.

NAACOS has also called for greater predictability in ACO benchmarks that set the spending and quality targets ACOs must meet to qualify for shared savings as well as increases in such shared savings rates.

From the mental health parity front, Health Payer Intelligence digs into yesterday’s government report on health plan compliance with the federal mental health parity law.

EBSA conducted a review from April 16, 2021 to October 31, 2021 that assessed 156 payers on their non-quantitative treatment limitations, a parity compliance measure that often poses challenges to payers. * * *

Out of all of the comparative analyses that EBSA received, not a single payer provided all of the information that the review requested in the initial submission.

As a result, the administration sent out 80 letters to payers requesting more information. Twelve of the letters went to payers that had already received a letter from EBSA notifying them that they had submitted insufficient information and seeking the requested details.

EBSA still has not announced any final determinations. However, after this back and forth with payers, EBSA accrued enough information to find 30 health plans in non-compliance on a total of 46 NQTLs.

Three major issues stood out to EBSA as the administration assessed NQTL compliance.

First, the administration found that many health plans and issuers were not prepared for compliance. * * *

Second, the initial comparative analyses perpetuated a historic trend of providing insufficient data due to five types of errors. * * * [For example] payers did not perform a comparative analysis before designing their NQTLs, so the NQTLs were unlikely to meet EBSA’s standards.  * * *

Finally, despite lack of preparation and a range of errors that led to a fragmentary picture of the NQTLs and their applications, EBSA found that some plans could receive an initial determination even for an incomplete analysis. Hence, 30 plans have already received initial determinations of non-compliance.

As EBSA continues the determinations, the administration recommended changes to Congress that would enhance enforcement of the mental health parity compliance law, promote access to coverage, and standardize compliance regulations.

The FEHBlog recommends reading the entire article. As the FEHBlog mentioned yesterday, the mental health parity law could be made simpler and more effective but that outcome is just not in the cards at least currently.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the COVID vaccination front, the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker indicates that over two-thirds of the U.S. population over five years old in fully vaccinated.

The American Medical Association’s column about “What Doctors Wish Patient Knew” explains

A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that one-third of parents say they planned to get their children vaccinated right away. Yet other parents are taking a wait-and-see approach to COVID-19 vaccination for kids. But with the Delta-Omicron variant tag team, widespread vaccination is an essential tool for preventing COVID-19 deaths, hospitalizations and illnesses.

To help parents move from that “wait-and-see” mentality and calm their fears, two physicians shared what to know about COVID-19 vaccine safety for children.

Check it out.

From the Omicron treatment front, the Food and Drug Administration announced today that the agency has

revised the authorizations for two monoclonal antibody treatments – bamlanivimab and etesevimab (administered together) and REGEN-COV (casirivimab and imdevimab) [which are made by Eli Lilly & Co. and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc.] – to limit their use to only when the patient is likely to have been infected with or exposed to a variant that is susceptible to these treatments.

Because data show these treatments are highly unlikely to be active against the omicron variant, which is circulating at a very high frequency throughout the United States, these treatments are not authorized for use in any U.S. states, territories, and jurisdictions at this time. In the future, if patients in certain geographic regions are likely to be infected or exposed to a variant that is susceptible to these treatments, then use of these treatments may be authorized in these regions. 

Monoclonal antibodies are laboratory-made proteins that mimic the immune system’s ability to fight off harmful pathogens such as viruses, like SARS-CoV-2. And like other infectious organisms, SARS-CoV-2 can mutate over time, resulting in certain treatments not working against certain variants such as omicron. This is the case with these two treatments for which we’re making changes today. * * *

Importantly, there are several other therapies – Paxlovid, sotrovimab, Veklury (remdesivir), and molnupiravir – that are expected to work against the omicron variant, and that are authorized or approved to treat patients with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 who are at high risk for progression to severe disease, including hospitalization or death. Healthcare providers should consult the NIH panel’s COVID-19 treatment guidelines and assess whether these treatments are right for their patients.

From the COVID vaccination mandate front, Federal News Network reports that

Last week’s court injunction that blocked the Biden Administration’s vaccine requirement for federal employees will put a temporary halt to disciplinary actions in federal agencies. But it won’t be of much help to feds who’d already been disciplined or fired for refusing the vaccine prior to last Friday.

That’s according to new guidance the administration’s Safer Federal Workforce Task Force issued Monday. The four-page document answers some basic questions on exactly how agencies should deal with the federal employee mandate now that a Texas judge has temporarily barred its implementation and enforcement.

Among the nuances: workers who’ve been suspended for failing to comply need to have their suspensions lifted, and new proposals to fire or suspend employees need to be “held in abeyance” for as long as the injunction is in place, the task force said. But agencies don’t need to reverse other disciplinary procedures that have already taken full effect.

From the free OTC tests front, Govexec.com asks

What group is especially vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19 even if fully vaccinated and boosted? Seniors. And who will have an especially tough time getting free at-home COVID tests under the Biden administration’s plan? Yes, seniors.

As of Jan. 15, private insurers will cover the cost of eight at-home rapid COVID tests each month for their members — for as long as the public health emergency lasts.

Finding the tests will be hard enough, but Medicare beneficiaries face an even bigger hurdle: The administration’s new rule doesn’t apply to them.

It turns out that the laws governing traditional Medicare don’t provide for coverage of self-administered diagnostic tests, which is precisely what the rapid antigen tests are and why they are an important tool for containing the pandemic. * * *

The Medicare program does cover rapid antigen or PCR testing done by a lab without charging beneficiaries, but there’s a hitch: It’s limited to one test per year unless someone has a doctor’s order.

Because the article describes orignal Medicare as exempt, one must assume that Medicare Advantage plans also are offering reimbursement for OTC COVID tests. The original Medicare exemption is a weak cup of tea because no commercial health plans covered OTC testing before the mandate.

From the No Suprises Act front, The American Hospital Association informs us that

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will host a conference call for health care providers Jan. 26 at 1 p.m. ET on the balance billing provisions of the No Surprises Act. To participate in the Special Open Door Forum, dial 888-455-1397 and reference passcode 5109694. Slides for the call are available here. P

Participants may email questions in advance to Provider_Enforcement@cms.hhs.gov, noting “Questions for 1/26 Open Door Forum” in the subject line. A replay will be available after the call through Jan. 28 by dialing 800-308-7855 and entering the passcode.

The CMS slides are helpful.

From the telehealth front, Fierce Healthcare tells us that

Integrating virtual care can save the healthcare system significant amounts of money, as well as avoid unnecessary visits to the emergency department or urgent care center, according to a new study from Cigna.

The study, conducted alongside its telehealth arm MDLive, found that patients who saw virtual providers also saw 19% fewer visits to the ER or urgent care. In addition, virtual urgent care visits reduced duplication of care by 16% compared to other virtual primary care providers or specialists.

Cigna notes that these reductions in unneeded visits are especially crucial as hospitals face down the current COVID-19 surge, caused by the highly infectious omicron variant. 

Friday Stats and More

Based on the CDC’s Covid Data Tracker and using Thursday as the first day of the week, here is the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new Covid cases from the 27th week of 2021 through the third week of 2022:

My word, could that be a cresting of the Omicron surge as discussed in this week’s posts?

The FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new Covid deaths has bounced up and down after climbing to just over 10,000 weekly deaths during the Delta surge. .

Last but not least here is the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new Covid vaccinations distributed and administered from the 51st week of 2020 through the third week of 2022.

Here are links to the CDC’s Covid data tracker weekly review and its weekly Fluview.

In other COVID vaccination news —

  • The Wall Street Journal reports that

Vaccines and booster shots offer superior protection from the Delta and Omicron variants, according to three new studies released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The data back up earlier findings supporting booster shots and offer the first comprehensive insight into how vaccines fare against the Omicron variant. In one of the studies published Friday, a CDC analysis found that a third dose of either the vaccine from Pfizer Inc.and BioNTech SE or Moderna Inc. was at least 90% effective against preventing hospitalization from Covid-19 during both the Delta and Omicron periods.

The American Hospital Association adds

According to data from 25 state and local health departments, adults who were unvaccinated against COVID-19 as the omicron variant emerged in December had nearly three times higher risk of infection than adults fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and five times higher risk than adults who had received a booster, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported today. The highest impact of COVID-19 booster doses compared with full vaccination was recorded among persons aged 50 and older. Because of reporting lags, the influence of the omicron variant on COVID-19-associated deaths could not be evaluated by vaccination status in December, the authors note.

The FDA could authorize Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children under age 5 in the next month, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Wednesday.

“My hope is that it’s going to be within the next month or so and not much later than that, but I can’t guarantee that because I can’t out-guess the FDA,” he said during an interview with Blue Star Families, a nonprofit group that supports military families.

The younger age group will likely need three vaccine doses, he said, since two shots didn’t provide enough of an immune response during Pfizer’s clinical trials for kids ages 2-4.

In Covid vaccine mandate news, Govexec tells us

A federal court in Texas has issued an injunction against President Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for the federal workforce, pausing implementation of a requirement for more than 2 million civilian servants. 

The Biden administration has already had sweeping success with the mandate, as most agencies have seen virtually their entire workforces come into compliance. Still, federal offices across the country were just beginning to move forward with suspensions—which could eventually result in firings—for those who did not meet the requirements. Biden issued the mandate by executive order in September.    

Judge Jeffrey Brown, appointed by President Trump to the U.S. Court for the Southern District of Texas, said the case was not about whether individuals should be vaccinated or even about federal power generally. 

“It is instead about whether the president can, with the stroke of a pen and without the input of Congress, require millions of federal employees to undergo a medical procedure as a condition of their employment,” Brown wrote. “That, under the current state of the law as just recently expressed by the Supreme Court, is a bridge too far.” 

The Justice Department has appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The FEHBlog expects that the Fifth Circuit will lift the stay as soon as this weekend. The Society for Human Resource Management offers a helpful article for employers trying to keep track of the vaccine mandate decisions from the courts.

In other COVID vaccine mandate news, the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division announced today that

Employees [who are not exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act] must be paid for time spent going to, waiting for, and receiving medical attention required by the employer or on the employer’s premises during normal working hours. Therefore, if an employer requires an employee to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine dose, undergo a COVID-19 test, or engage in a COVID-19 related health screening or temperature check during the employee’s normal working hours, the time that the employee spends engaged in the activity is compensable. Employees must be paid for such time during normal working hours, regardless of where the activity occurs. This is true regardless of whether the employer is subject to the OSHA Vaccination and Testing ETS.

In Covid treatment news, the Food and Drug Administration announced today that the agency “took two actions to expand the use of the antiviral drug Veklury (remdesivir) to certain non-hospitalized adults and pediatric patients for the treatment of mild-to-moderate COVID-19 disease. This provides another treatment option to reduce the risk of hospitalization in high-risk patients. Previously, the use of Veklury was limited to patients requiring hospitalization.”

From the Covid OTC testing coverage mandate department, the Kaiser Family Foundation has surveyed the coverage approaches of 13 large health insurers. Don’t blame the insurers on this one because health insurers don’t typically cover OTC products and the government only allow four days to implement the mandate.

From the and more department

  • In telehealth news, mHealth Intelligence tells us that

Telehealth utilization peaked in the first half of 2020 and decreased as the year came to a close, with providers predicting that virtual care use would continue to decline in upcoming years, according to the 2021 Medical Group Telehealth Survey.

AMGA Consulting conducted the survey and gathered responses from 56 medical groups representing more than 38,000 healthcare providers.

The majority of the participants (86 percent) were part of multispecialty groups with primary care, while the remaining were either multispecialty without primary care, primary care, or single-specialty groups. * * *

The survey results suggest that although telehealth use skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual care may see the most success with patients who prefer the modality over in-person care or whose health concerns can be easily addressed virtually.

The FEHBlog remains a strong proponent of hub and spoke telehealth for mental health care because every televisit is in network.

  • The American Hospital Association informs us that “The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology seeks comments through March 25 to inform potential future rulemaking on how the ONC Health IT Certification Program could incorporate standards, implementation specifications and certification criteria to reduce the burden of prior authorization.”
  • The Congressional Budget Office released a report titled “The Prices That Commercial Health Insurers and Medicare Pay for Hospitals’ and Physicians’ Services.”

CBO examined potential explanations for why the prices paid by commercial insurers are higher and more variable than those paid by Medicare FFS. CBO’s analysis and literature review suggest the following conclusions:

— Greater market power among providers consistently leads to prices for commercial insurers that are higher than Medicare FFS’s prices and that vary more widely, both among and within areas. Hospitals and physicians’ groups may have market power because they have a dominant share of the market in an area or because an insurer sees them as essential to its network of providers.

— Some of the variation in the prices that commercial insurers pay for hospitals’ and physicians’ services is explained by differences in the prices of inputs needed to deliver those services.

— Higher hospital quality is associated with higher prices paid by commercial insurers, although whether there is a causal link between quality and prices, and the direction of any such link, is not clear.

— The share of providers’ patients who are covered by Medicare and Medicaid is not related to higher prices paid by commercial insurers. That finding suggests that providers do not raise the prices they negotiate with commercial insurers to offset lower prices paid by government programs (a concept known as cost-shifting).

IBM is selling the data and analytics assets of its Watson Health business to a private equity firm as it looks to refocus on its core cloud business.

The sale, which is expected to close in the second quarter this year has been anticipated for quite some time, and comes following the limited success of Watson Health, despite a spate of high-profile acquisitions of health information companies to bolster the enterprise.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

[F]ederal civilian employees in the U.S. will now be paid at least $15 per hour.

OPM issued a memorandum for heads of Executive departments and agencies that provides implementing guidance for how agencies should adjust pay rates for General Schedule (GS) and Federal Wage System (FWS) employees stationed in the U.S., and how to use administrative authority for other pay systems to lift the pay of federal employees who currently make less than $15 per hour. In total, these changes will impact 67,000 out of 2.2 million federal employees. The largest share of these workers, over 56,000 of them, currently work at the Department of Defense. OPM’s guidance directs agencies to implement these changes by January 30, 2022

  • To tide you over the weekend, here is a link to Healthcare Dive’s Deep Dive on four 2022 key trends for providers and payers.

Holiday weekend update

Happy King Day! Here is a link to the NPR website that includes a video and a transcript of his “I Have a Dream” speech given August 28, 1963. Dr. King proves that you don’t have to be President to lead the country. He accomplished so much in his tragically shortened life for which we all should be grateful.

From the Congress front, the House of Representatives remains in session this week for Committee business and floor voting while the Senate is on State work period. Govexec lets us know that last Thursday

Lawmakers sounded a rare note of optimism about reaching a spending agreement for the remainder of fiscal 2022 as they look to avoid yet another stopgap measure.  Leaders in both parties called a bicameral, bipartisan meeting “constructive,” saying they shared the goal of setting full-year appropriations by their Feb. 18 deadline. 

From the Omicron front, STAT News informs us that

As the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc, an expert panel at the World Economic Forum delivered a mix of good news and bad news on Monday: More variants will emerge, but vaccine production is accelerating and research is progressing toward a combined shot that may be able to attack these different variants.

On one hand, the world needs to prepare for newer strains that could be more vexing, or the “worst case scenario,” said Annelies Wilder-Smith, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “Omicron will not be the last variant. There’s a high probability we will have another variant coming up. The question is when and will it be less dangerous?”

Wall Street Journal columnist Alyssia Finley offers a column on the benefits of natural immunity created by Omicron breakthrough infections.

study last month by the Oregon Health and Science University found that vaccinated people who experienced breakthrough infections produced higher levels of antibodies that were up to 1,000% more effective than those generated two weeks after a second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. The researchers described this as superimmunity. 

“I think this speaks to an eventual end game,” said co-author Marcel Curlin. “It doesn’t mean we’re at the end of the pandemic, but it points to where we’re likely to land: Once you’re vaccinated and then exposed to the virus, you’re probably going to be reasonably well-protected from future variants.” Dr. Curlin added: “Our study implies that the long-term outcome is going to be a tapering off of the severity of the worldwide epidemic.” * * *

All of this suggests that infection with Omicron is likely to stimulate potent and durable protection against Covid-19—and potentially other coronaviruses—even if it mutates to become more virulent. As Omicron rapidly spreads, people who have been vaccinated or previously infected will develop superimmunity. Covid-19 will become a virus that causes cold- and sometimes flulike symptoms—annoying but rarely deadly or disruptive.

One caveat is that older people generate weaker T-cell responses and memories to infections and vaccines. They’re likely to need annual booster shots. Omicron will end the pandemic by making Covid-19 endemic.

The Journal also offers masking advice which help the FEHBlog finally understand the difference between N-95 and KN-95 masks. “If you can’t get an N95 [which is certified in the US], doctors suggest KN95, KF94 and FFP2 masks, which are certified in China, South Korea and Europe, respectively.”

The Journal also reports that

One year into her tenure as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky acknowledges that she should have communicated certain things better to the American public.

She says the pandemic threw curveballs that she should have anticipated. She thinks she should have made it clearer to the public that new rules and guidelines were subject to change if the nature of the fight against Covid-19 shifted again.

“I think what I have not conveyed is the uncertainty in a lot of these situations,” Dr. Walensky said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

Dr. Walensky deserves credit for making these remarks.

From the FEHB and TRICARE fronts, benefits consultant Tammy Flanagan discusses the merits of enrolling in Medicare Part B when you retire from federal employment at or over age 65.

From the healthcare business front, Revcycle Intelligence calls to our attention the fact that “2021 did not set any records for the number of hospital mergers and acquisitions, but data shows a shift to larger deals between well-established organizations”

The report identified eight “mega-mergers” in which the seller or smaller partner by revenue had over $1 billion in annual revenue. Out of all the announced transactions, that is the largest percentage of announced mega-mergers in the last six years at 16.3 percent. It was also nearly double the percentage of mega-mergers announced in 2020.

The average size of the smaller party in hospital merger and acquisition deals was also up significantly compared to previous years, according to the report. The average size by annual receive increased to $619 million from $388 million in 2020.

The data may point to a new trend in healthcare consolidation.

From the benefit design front, Health Payer Intelligence reports that

Although acupuncture utilization has grown in recent years, only half of acupuncture visits had any form of coverage in 2019, according to a research letter published in JAMA Network Open.

The researchers analyzed acupuncturist visits in Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS) data from 2010 to 2019. Their aim was to uncover the total cost of the visit, the annual out-of-pocket healthcare spending for these visits, the portion of these visits that were covered under the patients’ insurance plans, and the percent of out-of-pocket costs.

The majority of the participants were female and nearly six in ten were White individuals.

Finally MedPage Today gives us a community-oriented story written by “a physician [Avik Chatterjee, MD, MPH] in a shelter-based clinic in Boston, near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, where a large encampment of people experiencing homelessness has emerged. Injection drug use in this area has picked up recently, and overdoses are not uncommon. When people need help, outreach workers and shelter staff run in and call for us.” And clinic doctors and nurses respond to the calls.” His story concludes as follows:

The skills, knowledge, and compassion necessary to address the overdose crisis exist in the community of people who use drugs. Historically, this group of people has been particularly marginalized by healthcare institutions. But people who use drugs are finally starting to demand a seat at the table where decisions are made around research and treatment of substance use disorders. Researchers, clinicians, and policymakers need to come up with creative ways to partner with this community to meaningfully incorporate lived and living experience in designing research and clinical programs.

In the face of one of the biggest health crises of our generation, it’s time to realize that “we’re all family here.”

And the post comes full circle.

Midweek update

From the Omicron front, Roll Call reports that

The White House COVID-19 Response Team stopped short of announcing major changes to anticipated guidance surrounding masks and instead focused on changes to testing strategy on Wednesday.

Experts have been calling for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to update its mask guidance to recommend high-filtration masks such as N95s and KN95s in light of the surge of the omicron variant. * * *

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky also echoed that an update to the CDC’s mask guidance was coming to “best reflect the options that are available to people, as you note, and the different levels of protection different masks provide.”

But she also doubled down on refusing to endorse a certain type of mask, instead repeating that the “best” masks are those that individuals will wear continuously in indoor settings.

“We are updating information on our mask website to provide information to the public,” she said. “We will provide information on improved filtration that occurs with other masks, such as N95s, and information that the public needs about how to make a choice of which mask is the right one for them. But most importantly, we want to highlight the best mask for you is the one that you can wear comfortably.”

For context, Bloomberg tells us that

The omicron variant represents about 98% of cases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday. That number is based on data for the week ending Jan. 8 and is a significant increase from just two weeks prior, when omicron accounted for 71.3% of cases. 

Omicron’s heightened transmissibility coupled with the immunity some have built to combat the delta through vaccination and exposure, have made conditions favor the “more mild” variant, said David Wohl, a professor at the Institute of Global Health and Infectious Diseases at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. But experts warn that for those who remain unvaccinated or who suffer from other health concerns, infection from any Covid-19 variant is a major concern. 

For even additional context, Bloomberg informs us that

Switzerland joined Spain and the U.K. in suggesting that the coronavirus pandemic may be shifting to an endemic phase. 

From the COVID vaccine front, Bloomberg reports that

Almost all teenagers who needed intensive care for Covid-19 were unvaccinated, according to a study published by the New England Journal of Medicine, bolstering the case for using the Pfizer-BioNTech shot in youths.

The vaccine prevented 98% of ICU visits and 94% of Covid-related hospitalizations in the real-world study of more than 1,000 adolescents ages 12 to 18 in 23 states. The research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a network of 31 hospitals is one is one of the most detailed yet showing that vaccines can prevent severe Covid complications in teenagers.

Following up on yesterday’s proposed national Medicare coverage determination on Aduhelm, Healthcare Finance News provides stakeholder perspectives on that decision. STAT News points out that because the CMS decision, if finalized would apply to all drugs under development to treat Alzheimers Disease that fall into the same drug class as Aduhelm — monoclonal antibody, the proposed decision is bad news for several of Biogen’s competitors too.

Both Eli Lilly and Roche have such treatments in the works, and Biogen has still two more, developed in partnership with Eisai, as well. All of those drug makers now have a big incentive to pressure Medicare to loosen the restrictions in the final version of its policy, which is due out this April.

“While so much of the focus has been on what this means for [the Biogen drug], this recommendation impacts an entire class of drug and is likely to result in a more aligned effort by stakeholders as they try to influence the final version,” said a consultant for different drug makers, including Biogen.

“All of the other companies have to start over,” said George Vradenburg, the founder of the advocacy group UsAgainstAlzheimer’s. “This now applies to three drugs that, in fact, might be better.”

In other healthcare news —

  • Fierce Healthcare reports on the third day of the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference.
  • Health Affairs discusses how to create a stronger Medicare.
  • The director of NIH’s Heal Inititiative which focuses on substance use disorders / overdose deaths offers her ideas on the new year.
  • Forbes reports that “Walgreens Boots Alliance will have more than 160 of its doctor-staffed Village Medical clinics open next to drugstores by the end of this year.”

In Postal Service news, Govexec reports that

The U.S. Postal Service on Wednesday elected a new Republican chairman of its governing board, elevating one of President Trump’s appointees over President Biden’s picks.  

Roman Martinez, who joined the USPS board of governors in 2019, will serve as the panel’s 25th chairman. Anton Hajjar, a former American Postal Workers Union official nominated to his post by Biden, will serve as vice chairman. The board members voted unanimously for the leadership positions at a meeting on Wednesday. * * *

The new chairman has been an ally of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, defending his controversial decisions, endorsing his 10-year plan to improve postal finances through, among other things, service cuts and price hikes, and calling him the right leader for the Postal Service. Hajjar, meanwhile, has voiced a lukewarm response to DeJoy’s tenure. The new vice chairman has said, however, that there was “a lot to like” in DeJoy’s plan, despite having reservations over some provisions.  * * *

DeJoy said on Wednesday he has “benefited from Martinez’s broad experience and wise counsel throughout my tenure as postmaster general and especially during the development of the Delivering for America plan.”

Keeping DeJoy in charge and one of his allies in charge of the board raises the prospect for sweeping postal reform legislation to make its way through Congress, with a House bill so far earning only tepid Republican support. 

It’s worth noting too that at 10 am ET tomorrow the U.S. Supreme Court will release decisions in pending cases which could include a stay of the OSHA ETS as OSHA began the enforcement clock on that measure last Monday.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the Omicron front, the Labor Department’s Employee Benefit Security Administration has released guidance for health plans and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has released guidance for consumers on the President’s mandate that health plans cover over the counter COVID tests for their members.

Basically, under this mandate guidance, if a health plan offers its members an online program to obtain the OTC Covid tests at no cost (for the test or shipping), then the plan can limit out of network reimbursement of OTC Covid tests to the lesser of the actual price or $12 per test. (Binax and Quickvue include two tests in a package. Consequently the maximum reimbursement for one package would be $24.)  

If a health plan plan does not offer such an online program, then it must reimburse member claims in full. (There is an section in the EBSA guidance on FWA issues.)

The guidance also allows the health plan to limit coverage of OTC Covid tests to eight tests per member / belly button per month.

The mandate takes effect this coming Saturday January 15. That’s not a lot of time for implementation. Also, in this regard, ECRI has issued a report on the usability of COVID at home antigen test kits.

On the COVID vaccine front, Medscape informs us that

The FDA on Friday shortened the time that people who received Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine need to wait for a booster — from 6 months to 5 months.

That means Americans 18 years old and older who received their second shot of the two-dose Moderna vaccine at least 5 months ago can now get a third dose.

“The country is in the middle of a wave of the highly contagious Omicron variant, which spreads more rapidly than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus and other variants that have emerged,” Peter Marks, MD, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said in a statement. * * *

On Friday afternoon, Rochelle Walensky, MD, the director of the CDC, said she also approved of shortening the timeline for the Moderna booster dose, according to CNN. The CDC’s vaccine advisory committee recommended the FDA’s decision, and she signed off on it.

Last Wednesday, the government authorities approved the same six to five month reduction for the Pfizer vaccine.

Medscape adds that

Some Americans with a weakened immune system who face high risks for severe COVID-19 become eligible this week to receive a fourth dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

The CDC endorsed a third dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines for moderately and severely immunocompromised people on Aug. 13, which is considered part of their first immunization series rather than a booster shot.

In October, the CDC said moderately and severely immunocompromised people could receive a booster shot, or a fourth dose of the vaccine, 6 months after their third dose.

But the CDC last week shortened the timeline to 5 months for a booster shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. That means immunocompromised people could begin signing up for a fourth shot later this week,  The New York Times reported.   

Bloomberg reports that

Pfizer Inc. is developing a hybrid vaccine that combines its original shot with a formulation that shields against the highly transmissible omicron variant, the drug giant’s top executive said. 

While research continues, Pfizer will evaluate the new hybrid formulation against an omicron-specific shot, and determine which is best suited to move forward by March, Chief Executive Officer Albert Bourla said at the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference on Monday. Pfizer will be ready in March to approach U.S. regulators for clearance of the modified vaccine and bring it to market, and it has already begun production, Bourla said.

Speaking of the JPMorgan Healthcare conference, being held this week, Fierce Healthcare offers a full report on other news from that event from earlier today.

Also, the FEHBlog suggests that his readers check out this week’s episode of Econtalk in which host Russ Roberts chats with Wall Street Journal reporter Greg Zuckerman about his recent book on the development of the COVID vaccines.

From the COVID treatment front, Bloomberg reports that

U.S. regulators may decide within a week or two whether to approve a shorter course of Gilead Sciences Inc.’s Covid-19 drug remdesivir that could be used for patients outside the hospital, Chief Executive Officer Daniel O’Day said in an interview.

A five-day course of the infused drug is already a mainstay for hospitalized Covid patients. Gilead has applied for U.S. clearance of a three-day course that could be used in the outpatient setting, after a big trial last year showed it could sharply reduce hospitalizations in at-risk patients. * * * Officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration “are working really collaboratively with us, quickly with us,” O’Day said in the interview. “Everything is moving really fast.” * * *

An an infused drug, remdesivir is more complicated to administer than the Pfizer Inc. Covid pill Paxlovid. But Gilead has an abundance of supply on hand, O’Day said in the interview. By contrast, supplies of Pfizer’s drug are limited in the short term as the company ramps up supply. * * *

Meanwhile, O’Day said that Gilead is working hard to develop a chemical cousin of remdesivir that could be given as a pill. That oral drug is about to begin human trials. If it works, it could be combined with other drugs to treat Covid, he said.

In interesting Medicare news, Healthcare Dive explains that

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra has instructed CMS to reassess its recommendation for Medicare premiums this year after Biogen cut the price for its controversial Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm in half.

CMS in November published a historic 14.5% hike in monthly premiums for outpatient care in 2022 — the program’s largest premium increase ever. One of the factors regulators cited for the increase was uncertainty over the cost of Aduhelm, a new and pricey drug that has raised eyebrows for unclear effectiveness.

It’s an unusual step for HHS, given the plan year has already begun, and comes just days before a CMS deadline to issue a draft decision that will shape Aduhelm coverage nationwide.

Given Medicare’s shaky financial position, one wonders why the HHS Secretary is interested in turning away additional revenue.

STAT News adds

Biogen cut the price of Aduhelm nearly in half from $56,000 a year to $28,200 in December following disappointing sales, a price some still maintain is higher than necessary. Despite the pharma giant’s high hopes for the drug, other healthcare operators have proved less certain of its efficacy.

A number of health systems have said they wouldn’t prescribe the drug to patients. Meanwhile, most major payers are waiting on CMS to issue a national coverage determination before deciding whether to cover the expensive drug.

CMS is currently hammering out a single, nationwide policy for all amyloid-targeting treatments for Alzheimer’s, which purport to slow dementia by reducing clumps of plaque in the brain. * * *

Another major variable is which patients will be eligible to receive Aduhelm, which is still unknown. Medicare is scheduled to release a draft coverage decision that could make or break the drug’s future by Wednesday. Officials are not supposed to consider a drug’s cost in deciding whether to cover it for Medicare beneficiaries.

The final coverage decision, which is scheduled to be released by April 12, could cause significant changes in how much Aduhelm could cost the Medicare program, depending on how much patient access is restricted by diagnostic test results, which physicians could prescribe the drug or other limitations.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the Capitol Hill front, Roll Call reports that an extension of the continuing resolution currently funding the federal government appears to be on tap.

Senate Democrats and Republicans are eyeing a two- to three-month continuing resolution that would punt final decisions on fiscal 2022 appropriations into February or March, according to sources familiar with the talks.

That decision, if blessed by House Democrats and the Biden administration, would decouple a complicated omnibus spending bill covering every federal agency from thorny negotiations over budget reconciliation and the debt limit.

But it wasn’t yet clear Democrats across the Capitol were unified behind that strategy, with some pushing a much shorter stopgap measure running for two weeks, to Dec. 17. That would keep the pressure on for a spending deal before the winter holiday season and allow lawmakers to clear the decks for next year’s agenda.

Another possibility is lawmakers try out a stopgap bill to Dec. 17, see how much progress is possible, and then pass another CR, this time through the end of February or March.

From the Delta variant vaccine mandate front —

  • It’s worth noting that the Federal Acquisition Regulation Council is expected to consider a draft proposed rule implementing the mandate for federal government contractors this coming Wednesday November 17.
  • With regard to OSHA’s large business mandate, the Society for Human Resource Management tells us that “

OSHA stated that it “has suspended activities related to the implementation and enforcement of the ETS pending future developments in the litigation,” although it “remains confident in its authority to protect workers in emergencies.” OSHA noted that the court ordered it to take no steps to implement or enforce the ETS until further court order.

“OSHA’s course of action should give some comfort to employers taking a wait-and-see approach,” said Kyle Johnson, an attorney with Frost Brown Todd in Louisville, Ky., Jeff Shoskin, an attorney with Frost Brown Todd in Cincinnati, and Catherine Burgett and Anne Duprey, attorneys with Frost Brown Todd in Columbus, Ohio, in a firm legal update. “Because the future of the order is uncertain, employers should keep apprised of the status of the legal challenges ahead and have a plan to comply with the ETS should the order be modified or dissolved.” 

The Centers for Disease Control reminds us that Antibiotic Awareness Week begins this Thursday November 18. “USAAW is an annual observance that raises awareness of the threat of antibiotic resistance and the importance of appropriate antibiotic use.”

Following up on the large increase in Medicare Part B premiums for 2022, Healthcare Dive informs us that “CMS said the hike is mostly due to potential use of Biogen’s Aduhelm, a drug for Alzheimer’s disease that’s drawn criticism for carrying a high price tag despite unclear effectiveness, along with ongoing uncertainty from the coronavirus pandemic.” That’s puzzling as the Biogen drug has been a colossal sales flop. What’s more, STAT News broke the news tonight that

Al Sandrock, Biogen’s top scientist and the face of its years-long campaign to develop a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, is leaving the company after more than two decades, STAT has learned.

The surprise departure of Sandrock, who oversees all of Biogen’s research and development, leaves a void in the company’s upper ranks. And it comes as Biogen is facing a worsening business outlook, saddled with a string of setbacks to its research pipeline and forced to defend its scientific integrity after the approval of the polarizing Alzheimer’s treatment Aduhelm.

STAT News also offers an interesting story about the two anti-viral drugs that could become Flonase for COVID. For example,

At the headline level, Pfizer’s pill reduced the risk of hospitalization and death by 89%,while Merck showed a reduction of 50%. But neither firm has disclosed detailed data from its pivotal studies, and the trials were not identically designed.

The studies enrolled similar populations — unvaccinated people with mild to moderate Covid-19 and at least one risk factor for severe disease — but they had slightly different measures of efficacy. Pfizer’s 89% figure comes from patients who started getting its pill, Paxlovid, within three days of their first Covid-19 symptoms. Merck’s 50% applies to patients who began treatment within five days. In the Paxlovid study, patients who started treatment within five days saw an 85% improvement in hospitalization or death versus placebo. Merck has not shared data on patients who got its drug within three days of symptom onset.

We will have to keep our fingers crossed while the Food and Drug Administration considers granting these drugs emergency use authorization.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker and using Thursday as the first day of the week, here is the FEHBlog’s current weekly chart of new COVID cases for 2021:

Here is a link to the CDC’s weekly chart of new COVID related hospital admissions, and here is the FEHBlog’s current weekly chart of new COVID deaths:

Finally here is the FEHBlog’s current weekly chart of COVID vaccinations distributed and administered:

As of today, 86% of the U.S. population over age 65 has been fully vaccinated and 1/3 of that cadre has received a COVID booster.

Here’s a link to the CDC’s weekly interpretation of its COVID statistics. The CDC points out that “Starting the week of November 8th, vaccines [for children aged five through 11] will be available at pediatricians’ offices, pharmacies, Federally Qualified Health Centers, and more. To find vaccine near you, visit vaccines.gov; text your ZIP code to 438829 (GETVAX); or call 1-800-232-0233.”

The CDC’s Fluview informs us that “Seasonal influenza activity in the United States remains low, but the number of influenza virus detections reported by public health laboratories has increased in recent weeks.”

The best summary of where we stand with COVID is found in today’s New York Times column by David Leonhardt on whether it’s time to start back to returning to normalcy on COVID. His theme struck a chord with the FEHBlog:

“Among the Covid experts I regularly talk with, Dr. Robert Wachter is one of the more cautious. He worries about “long Covid,” and he believes that many people should receive booster shots. He says that he may wear a mask in supermarkets and on airplanes for the rest of his life.””

“Yet Wachter — the chair of the medicine department at the University of California, San Francisco — also worries about the downsides of organizing our lives around Covid. In recent weeks, he has begun to think about when most of life’s rhythms should start returning to normal. Increasingly, he believes the answer is: Now.

“This belief stems from the fact that the virus is unlikely to go away, ever. Like most viruses, it will probably keep circulating, with cases rising sometimes and falling other times. But we have the tools — vaccines, along with an emerging group of treatments — to turn it into a manageable virus, similar to the seasonal flu.”

In other news —

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services finally announced 2022 Medicare Medicare Parts A and B premiums and cost sharing.

  • The Part A inpatient hospital deductible will increase from $1484 to $1556.
  • The Part B calendar year deductible will increase from $203 to $221.
  • The monthly standard Part B premium will increase from $148.50 to $170.10.

All of the changes and the income based Part B premium adjustments for high income beneficiaries is available here.

STAT News informs us that

Robert Califf, President Biden’s new pick to lead the Food and Drug Administration, doesn’t have much to show for his first tenure at the agency.

His grand plans for modernizing the way drug makers and the FDA collect patient data were shelved in 2017 after he left the agency’s top spot. His efforts to ban flavored tobacco products were foiled by the Obama White House. Even his push to finally fix the FDA’s hiring woes still hasn’t been fully implemented.

Now Califf, who Biden formally tapped on Friday to retake the FDA’s top job, will have another shot at delivering on those promises.

Health Payer Intelligence tells us that

More than eight out of ten survey participants in UnitedHealthcare’s sixth annual Consumer Sentiment Survey indicated that they are ready to choose a health plan during 2022 open enrollment season.

“Most Americans said they are prepared to select a health plan during this year’s open enrollment season, while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spur interest in virtual care for medical services and digital fitness apps to help people pursue at-home fitness routines,” the press release shared.

UnitedHealthcare fielded the survey from September 10 through September 12, 2021 and received 1,013 responses from individuals 18 years old and older.

Health Payer Intelligence also discusses a Humana program for employer sponsored plans in which “Humana is partnering with a type 2 diabetes reversal vendor [Virta] that uses remote patient monitoring and nutrition to help members manage and improve their type 2 diabetes.”

The article included this interesting tidbit on diabetes treatment

Diabetes is one of the top chronic conditions in the US that drive healthcare spending, alongside conditions such as cancer, heart disease, and obesity. As such, payers have heavily targeted this condition with various chronic disease management strategies.

It was not until August 2021, however, that the American Diabetes Association (ADA) officially determined that the phrase “diabetes reversal” was often more clearly identified as “remission,” Humana pointed out in its press release.

“Remission strikes an appropriate balance, noting that diabetes may not always be active and progressive yet implying that a notable improvement may not be permanent. It is consistent with the view that a person may require ongoing support to forestall relapse, and regular monitoring to allow intervention should hyperglycemia recur,” ADA decided. 

“The term reversal is used to describe the process of returning to glucose levels below those diagnostic of diabetes, but it should not be equated with the state of remission.”

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the FEHB Open Season front, consultant Tammy Flanagan reports on the new trend of FEHB plans to offer Medicare Part B premium reimbursement contingent upon joining a related Medicare Advantage plan.

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

The Food and Drug Administration Friday authorized another over-the-counter COVID-19 diagnostic test for emergency use. The iHealth COVID-19 Antigen Rapid Test delivers results in 15 minutes. The company anticipates producing 100 million tests per month, with capacity increasing to 200 million per month in early 2022, FDA said.

STAT News offers an interesting snapshot of the now diminishing Delta variant surge.

Chart comparing hospitalizations by vaccine status

The chart truly speaks for itself.

In the maternal health field, the Health and Human Services Department announced that “200+ hospitals that are participating in the HHS Perinatal Improvement Collaborative, a contract with Premier, Inc. This new network is focused on improving maternal and infant health outcomes by reducing disparities. Comprised of hospitals from all 50 states, the collaborative is the first to evaluate how pregnancy affects overall population health by linking inpatient data of newborns to their mothers.” A list of the participating hospitals may be found at the bottom of the HHS press release.

From the Rx coverage front, STAT News tells us

Nearly a dozen of the highest-rated hospitals in the U.S. charged commercial health insurers and cash-paying patients significantly more than what Medicare has recently paid for 10 infused medicines on which the government spends the most money, according to a new analysis.

Median prices exceeded the Medicare Part B payment limit by a low of 169% at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, while the Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix exceeded the payment limit by 344%. Among cash-paying customers, the prices ranged from 149% of the Medicare payment limit at Rush to 306% at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital, both based in Boston.

The Part B infused medicines for which Medicare Part B spent the most money were Rituxan, Orencia, Enbrel, Prolia, Eylea, Opdivdo, Keytruda, Avastin, Lucentis, Neulasta, and Remicade, but the list did not include biosimilar versions. These medications are variously used to treat conditions including cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and macular degeneration.

Medicare Part B already sets Part B drug prices which tend to be injectables administered at facilities. Democrat legislators in Congress also want Medicare Part D to fix prices for certain drugs distributed by pharmacies. Government price fixing has never worked successfully in the American economy in the FEHBlog’s understanding.

Also from the healthcare pricing front, Health Payer Intelligence informs

Outcomes-based contracts continue to be popular for certain therapies as healthcare costs mount, an Avalere study found.

Avalere’s findings draw on survey responses from 51 insurers and pharmacy benefit managers. Altogether, the survey participants cover approximately 59 million members. The survey was fielded from September 27 to October 8, 2021 and it is Avalere’s fifth annual survey on the subject.

“OBCs typically include an agreement between health plans and drug or device manufacturers that ties product reimbursement to specific clinical, quality, or utilization outcomes,” Avalere researchers explained.

Let’s go.

Tuesday Tidbits

From the Delta variant vaccination front, AHIP informs us that

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) met to discuss the safety, efficacy and clinical considerations for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in children aged 5-11 years. The committee unanimously voted (14-0) to recommend the vaccine with the following statement:

“The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is recommended for children 5-11 years of age in the U.S. population under the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization (EUA).”

During the meeting, representatives from Pfizer and the CDC presented data that showed the vaccine to be immunogenic and safe, with majority of adverse events documented as injection site pain. Data from Pfizer showed no correlation of the vaccine with incidence of multisystem inflammatory syndrome MIS-C, and the CDC will continue to monitor the long-term effects of myocarditis in this population. The CDC also noted the disparities in COVID-19 disease epidemiology, that Black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Native Alaskan children are at greater risk for hospitalization and disease severity.  * * *

Additionally, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Family Physicians, National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners, and the Pediatrics Infection Disease Society endorsed the COVID-19 vaccine’s administration in all eligible children as authorized by the FDA.

The Wall Street Journal adds that the CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky has ratified the ACIP’s recommendation.

The endorsement * * * on Tuesday, was the last step before doctors, nurses and pharmacists could start giving the shots. Some sites could start administering the vaccine as early as Wednesday, though federal officials don’t expect vaccinations in the age group to be in full swing across the U.S. until next week.

Over 2/3rds of the vaccine eligible U.S. population (12 years and older) are fully vaccinated and a quarter of Americans over age 65 have received a booster according to today’s CDC update.

From the also busy Medicare front, the American Hospital Association tells us about three final Calendar Year 2022 rules released today:

Hospital Outpatient Services (Part A): The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services late today issued a final rule that increases Medicare hospital outpatient prospective payment system rates by a net 2.0% in calendar year 2022 compared to 2021.  In addition, as urged by AHA, CMS finalized its proposals to reverse two policies finalized in CY 2021. The first policy halts the elimination of the inpatient only list and adds back to the IPO list almost all of the services removed in 2021. The second reinstates several patient safety criteria for adding a procedure to the ambulatory surgical center covered procedures list that were in place in CY 2020 and prior. The rule also removes 255 of the 258 surgical procedures that had been added to the ASC CPL in 2021.

Hospital Price Transparency: CMS also finalizes as proposed a number of modifications to the hospital price transparency rule, including significant increases to the civil monetary penalty for noncompliance. * * * Currently, the CMP is set at a maximum amount of $300/day. CMS will scale up the CMP based on a hospital’s bed count, with a minimum of $300/day for small hospitals (30 or fewer beds) and an additional $10/bed/day for larger hospitals with a daily cap of $5,500. CMS also will prohibit specific barriers to accessing the machine-readable files, including through automated searches and direct downloads. CMS provides updated clarifications on the price estimator tools for those hospitals that choose to use them to fulfill the shoppable service requirement, including allowing patients to manually input their insurance information and permitting broad disclaimers, as appropriate.

Home Healthcare Services (Part A): The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services today released its calendar year 2022 final rule for the home health prospective payment system. The rule finalized a net update of 3.2% relative to CY 2021. This includes a 2.6% market basket increase ($465 million), a 0.7% increase for high-cost outlier cases ($125 million), and 0.1% decrease to rural payments as required by law (-$20 million).

Physician Services (Part B): The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services late today released its calendar year 2022 final rule for the physician fee schedule. The rule cuts the conversion factor to $33.59 in CY 2022, as compared to $34.89 in CY 2021, which reflects the expiration of the CY 2021 3.75% payment increase, a 0.00% conversion factor update, and a budget neutrality adjustment. The rule also finalizes several policies to expand access to telehealth for mental health services, including, in certain instances, covering audio-only services. In addition, as urged by the AHA, CMS finalized a delayed implementation of the payment penalty phase of the Appropriate Use Criteria program to the later of Jan. 1, 2023, or the Jan. 1 that follows the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency. Currently, the penalty phase is set to begin Jan. 1, 2022.   “The AHA applauds today’s ruling by CMS to delay the proposed enforcement of the Appropriate Use Criteria (AUC) program as well as to expand access to telehealth for behavioral health services,” said AHA Executive Vice President Stacey Hughes. 

Speaking of telehealth, Healthcare Dive calls attention to its finding that ‘While women are more likely than men to visit doctors and consume healthcare services in general, telehealth seems to be uniquely attractive to women.” Moreover, [t]he data also suggests female physicians offer virtual care services at higher rates than their male counterparts.”

In the tidbits department, we find

  • Healthcare Dive reports that “The median change in operating margins for hospitals fell 18.2% in September compared to August, according to the latest monthly report from Kaufman Hall, a hospital consultant group. Patient volumes declined in almost every key category, including emergency room visits and operating room minutes, potentially signaling that the rise in the delta variant caused some to once again defer care out of concern over contracting the coronavirus. Outpatient revenues declined, too, further underscoring this potential trend. Although fewer patients were admitted, patients were sicker and stayed longer. The average length of stay is also trending above pre-pandemic levels.”
  • MedPage Today offers an interesting story on Chicago’s Rush Medical Center “journey to health equity” using social determinants of health data, among other tools.
  • Federal Times reports that “The Partnership for Public Service held its annual Samuel J. Heyman Service to America awards Nov. 1, honoring nine federal employees and their associated teams out of 29 nominees for making a significant impact through their public service.” Congratulations to all of the nominees and thanks for your service to our country.