Thursday Miscellany

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

In the wake of the Democrat victories in the Georgia Senate elections, Katie Keith in the Health Affairs blog provides her insightful thoughts on what a Democratic Congress means for the Affordable Care Act.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation offers for our consideration five experts reflecting on the health equity implications of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

When Medicare pricing changes the healthcare industry takes notice.

  • The American Hospital Association reports today that ” The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has recalculated the Medicare [Part B] Physician Fee Schedule payment rates and conversion factor for calendar year 2021 to reflect changes effective Dec. 27 under the Consolidated Appropriations Act. The new conversion factor is $34.89, which is 3.3% less than the CY 2020 conversion factor of $36.09 but more than the $32.26 conversion factor finalized in the PFS final rule, which would have represented a 10.2% net decrease in PFS payments for CY 2021. This change affects what FEHB plans pay for Medicare prime annuitants. Also where an annuitant over 65 does not pick up Medicare Part B, fee for service FEHB plans pay for doctors services using Medicare Part B payment rates.
  • Beckers Payer Issues reports that “A change in how Medicare pays laboratories for COVID-19 diagnostic tests took effect Jan. 1 * * * Medicare lowered the base payment for COVID-19 tests that use high-throughput technology to $75. Labs can get an additional $25 if they provide results in two days or less.” Medicare testing rates are sound benchmark for out-of-network COVID-19 labs which fail to comply with internet price post requirements.

The Centers for Disease Control yesterday issued an initial report concerning allergic reactions to the COVID-19 vaccines. Here’s the report’s summary:

What is already known about this topic?

Anaphylaxis is a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction that occurs rarely after vaccination.

What is added by this report?

During December 14–23, 2020, monitoring by the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System detected 21 cases of anaphylaxis after administration of a reported 1,893,360 first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine (11.1 cases per million doses); 71% of these occurred within 15 minutes of vaccination.

What are the implications for public health practice?

Locations administering COVID-19 vaccines should adhere to CDC guidance for use of COVID-19 vaccines, including screening recipients for contraindications and precautions, having the necessary supplies available to manage anaphylaxis, implementing the recommended postvaccination observation periods, and immediately treating suspected cases of anaphylaxis with intramuscular injection of epinephrine.

The Department of Health and Human Services announced today

a national plan to address the serious, preventable public health threat caused by viral hepatitis in the United States. The Viral Hepatitis National Strategic Plan for the United States: A Roadmap to Elimination 2021–2025 sets national goals, objectives, and strategies to respond to viral hepatitis epidemics. Building on three prior National Viral Hepatitis Action Plans over the last 10 years, the Viral Hepatitis National Strategic Plan is the first to aim for elimination of viral hepatitis as a public health threat in the United States by 2030.  This plan serves as a roadmap for stakeholders at all levels and across many sectors, both public and private, to guide development of policies, initiatives, and actions for viral hepatitis prevention, screening, care, treatment, and cure.  

Federal News Network reports that

Federal payroll providers and agencies are beginning to detail exactly how and when federal employees and servicemembers will repay the Social Security taxes that were deferred from their paychecks during the last four months of 2020. The latest omnibus spending package, which the president signed into law last week, allows those subject to the president’s payroll tax deferral to repay the deferred taxes — worth 6.2% of their income — throughout the entire year of 2021, rather than the first four months of the year.

The article provides examples but generally the services are collecting in equal installments over the course of 2021.

Weekend update

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Congress is in session this week for committee business and floor voting. The big item is the omnibus spending bill which is expected to include the bipartisan COVID-19 relief package. The legislative language for this bill should be released tomorrow if everything remains on track. An omnibus or short term spending measure must be passed by 11:59 pm on December 11. The FEHBlog thought that both Houses of Congress were set to adjourn this week but it turns out that the Senate is scheduled to continue working through December 18.

The Federal Employee Benefits Open Season continues through next Monday December 14, while the Medicare Open Season ends tomorrow December 7. Let’s not forget that December 6 though 12 is the Centers for Disease Control’s (“CDC”) National Flu Vaccination Week.

The press is reporting tonight that President-elect Biden intends to appoint California Attorney General Xaxier Becerra to be his Secretary of Health and Human Services, which is a very powerful position when it comes to healthcare in the U.S. Speaking of healthcare leaders, Fierce Healthcare identifies six health plan executives to watch in 2021.

The CDC released updated COVID-19 protection guidance on Friday.

Summary
What is already known about this topic?

The United States is experiencing high levels of SARS-CoV-2 transmission.

What is added by this report?

COVID-19 pandemic control requires a multipronged application of evidence-based strategies while improving health equity: universal face mask use, physical distancing, avoiding nonessential indoor spaces, increasing testing, prompt quarantine of exposed persons, safeguarding those at increased risk for severe illness or death, protecting essential workers, postponing travel, enhancing ventilation and hand hygiene, and achieving widespread COVID-19 vaccination coverage.

What are the implications for public health practice?

These combined strategies will protect health care, essential businesses, and schools, bridging to a future with high community coverage of effective vaccines and safe return to more activities in a range of settings.

The figure shows icons describing ways to slow COVID-19 spread and speed up economic recovery.

The FEHBlog ran across a Bloomberg report which adds

Harvard disease expert Willam Hanage says that the science to date points to the primary risk coming from what he calls the three C’s — close contact, closed spaces and crowds. He says in Japan, where they’ve had few Covid-19 deaths, people are advised to avoid these — not just to wear masks in these situations but to limit them or avoid them altogether.

FINAL. Avoid the 3 Cs Poster

In much better but nevertheless thought provoking news, the Wall Street Journal reports that

Drug development for sickle-cell disease, largely overlooked for decades, is becoming a crowded field: Two papers published Saturday in the New England Journal of Medicine report promising results from studies of experimental therapies, including Crispr gene editing, for the disease.

In addition, Beam Therapeutics Inc. on Saturday presented lab and mouse data at the American Society of Hematology annual meeting to support the safety of another approach to using Crispr gene editing for sickle-cell disease. The company said it hopes to open a trial next year.

More than a dozen companies are competing to develop experimental treatments for sickle-cell disease, an inherited form of anemia that affects 100,000 mainly Black Americans.

The article points that Crispr gene editing is an expensive technology. “What good are new therapies for a disease if many patients suffering with it are unable, or choose not, to access them?” That is an issue for health plans to contemplate now, in the FEHBlog’s opinion.

The FEHBlog took a look at the CDC’s Center for National Health Statistics website today, and he ran across these interesting recent reports

The FEHBlog was surprised by the facts that “Prepregnancy obesity [measured as body mass index of 30 or higher] in the United States rose from 26.1% in 2016 to 29.0% in 2019 and increased steadily for non-Hispanic white, non-Hispanic black, and Hispanic women” and that “In 2019, more than one in four children had one or more visits to an urgent care center or retail health clinic (26.4%) in the past 12 months.” These reports further find that college educated women are less likely to be obese and that insured children are more likely to us retail health clinics.

The prepregnancy obesity report led the FEHBlog to consult OPM’s available statistics on federal employee demographics which date back to 2017. Roughly 52% of federal employees have at least college degree. The FEHBlog also found a May 2020 Pew Research report on Postal Service employee demographics which does discuss Postal employee education levels but does point out that

  • About six-in-ten of the agency’s employees – including mail carriers, postal clerks, and mail sorters and processors – are non-Hispanic white (57%), compared with 78% of the overall U.S. workforce. Around a quarter (23%) of Postal Service workers are black, 11% are Hispanic and 7% are Asian. In contrast, black Americans make up 13% of the national workforce, Hispanics 17% and Asian Americans 6%.
  • In 18 states and the District of Columbia, women make up half or more of Postal Service employees. In D.C., 74% of Postal Service workers are women, and women account for around six-in-ten postal workers in Idaho, Alabama and South Dakota. Nationally, slightly fewer than half of postal workers are women (45%), in line with the U.S. workforce.
  • The Postal Service, as of 2018, employs more than 100,000 military veterans, who make up 16% of its workers nationally. Veterans account for just 5.8% of all employed Americans, according to data for 2019.

The percentage of women Postal employees basically aligns with the percentage of women federal employees. However, the percentage of military veteran Postal Service employees is nearly double the percentage of military veteran federal employees. (The FEHBlog also found this recent, helpful Congressional Research Service report on “Federal Workforce Statistics Sources: OPM and OMB.”)

The FEHBlog points this out because as the COVID-19 public health emergency has ably illustrated race, ethnicity, age and gender, among other demographic factors, impact healthcare and while OPM provides age and gender information to FEHB plans, the agency does not provide race or ethnicity date to those FEHB plans.

Finally the Salt Lake City [UT] Tribune reports that

More than a week after Sanford Health parted ways with its longtime CEO, the health system announced that it has indefinitely suspended merger talks with Utah-based Intermountain Healthcare. Sanford Health and Intermountain Healthcare made the announcement Friday [December 4], saying that with the leadership change, Sanford decided to put merger talks on hold while other organizational needs are addressed.

Intermountain offers an FEHB plan under the SelectHealth name.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

The Wall Street Journal reports that Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have expressed their support for the $980 million bi-partisan COVID-19 relief bill.

[Further] Senators said Thursday that they were trying to work out the details of a rough agreement the bipartisan group of nine senators and members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of 50 centrist House lawmakers, had unveiled earlier this week.  * * * The bipartisan proposal, which would run through March 2021, includes $160 billion in state and local funding and would provide a short-term suspension of liability lawsuits related to Covid-19 at the state or federal level, giving states time to put in place their own protections. Lawmakers said the details of both contentious issues were being worked out before Monday [December 7], when the group hopes to release legislative text. * * * The bipartisan proposal also includes $288 billion for small-business relief, including for the Paycheck Protection Program, $16 billion for the distribution of a coronavirus vaccine, $82 billion for schools, $25 billion for rental assistance and $180 billion for additional unemployment insurance, including $300 a week through March, aides said. In addition, the plan would give $17 billion to airlines.

From the COVID-19 vaccine front

The co-leader of the US government’s Operation Warp Speed coronavirus vaccine initiative on Wednesday outlined the most ambitious timeline yet for vaccinating the most vulnerable Americans against COVID-19.

Moncef Slaoui, Warp Speed’s chief advisor, predicted that 100 million Americans would be immunized by the end of February.

Twenty million Americans should be vaccinated in December, followed by 30 million more in January and 50 million more in February, the former pharmaceutical executive said in a press briefing.

By then, “we will have potentially immunized 100 million people, which is really more or less the size of the significant at-risk population: the elderly, the healthcare workers, the first-line workers, people with comorbidities,” Slaoui said.

As of last year 255 million Americans were over age 18 which is the minimum age to receive the Pfizer – BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. (The total U.S. population is around 330 million currently.) Moderna has started a study of its COVID-19 vaccine on younger people aged 12 to 17.

  • CNN reports on the government’s plan to track COVID-19 immunizations and ensure that people who receive the first dose also get the second.
  • The New York Times offers an online tool to help you figure where is your place in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine once they receive FDA emergency use authorization. Here’s the answer that the FEHBlog received:

Based on your risk profile, we believe you’re in line behind 118.5 million people across the United States. When it comes to Maryland, we think you’re behind 2.2 million others who are at higher risk in your state. And in Montgomery County, you’re behind 304,800 others.

In other COVID-19 news, Beckers Payer Issues reports that large health plans generally are tying their COVID-19 benefit flexibilities to the end date of the COVID-19 public health emergency which conforms to the FFCRA and CARES Act requirement. The current end date is January 21, but it is a safe bet that the Department of Health and Human Services extends that end date for another 90 days early next month.

There has been a lot of action at the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”):

  • Today, HHS “issued a fourth amendment to the Declaration under the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act (PREP Act) to increase access to critical countermeasures against COVID-19.” Principally, the amendment permits telehealth providers of care with prescription authority who are licensed in State A to prescribe COVID-19 testing and other COVID-19 counter measures for patients contacting them from State B. HHS initiated this change because “While many states have decided to permit healthcare personnel in other states to provide telehealth services to patients within their borders, not all states have done so.”
  • Also HHS “released an important HHS Action Plan and announced a partnership to reduce maternal deaths and disparities that put women at risk prior to, during, and following pregnancy. The U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams issued a complementary Call to Action to Improve Maternal Health outlining the critical roles everyone can play to improve maternal health.” Bravo.
  • Health Payer Intelligence explains that

CMS has introduced a new Medicare value-based contracting model that encourages greater care coordination and requires participants to take full risk for Medicare fee-for-service beneficiaries based on region.

The Geographic Direct Contracting Model uses outcomes-based payment models to address care quality, healthcare spending, care coordination, clinical management, and program integrity in targeted regions.

“Within each region, organizations with experience in risk-sharing arrangements and population health will partner with health care providers and community organizations to better coordinate care,” the press release explained.

Beneficiaries will not have to switch providers or payers. They will continue to have their Original Medicare benefits as well as their enhanced benefits and they may receive reduced cost-sharing for Medicare Part A and Part B, including Part B premium subsidies.

Finally Healthcare Dive explains that in HHS’s CY 2021 Medicare Hospital Outpatient Prospective Payment System and Ambulatory Surgical Center Payment System Final Rule 

CMS is eliminating the inpatient-only list that requires roughly 1,700 medical procedures to occur inside a hospital for Medicare members. The inpatient-only list will be completely phased out by 2024, according to the outpatient payment final rule released Wednesday. The hospital lobby balked at the change, contending the list is there to protect patients as the list of procedures can be complex and need hospital resources.

Ultimately, the list expands the options of where certain surgeries can be performed and may ultimately reduce out-of-pocket expenses for Medicare members as surgeries performed in an outpatient setting, such as an ambulatory surgery center, can be less costly, CMS said.

Also, the agency is moving forward with reimbursement cuts for 340B-acquired drugs, a hit to some hospitals. Meanwhile, the rule also loosens restrictions on some physician-owned facilities, also drawing ire from the hospital lobby.

Isn’t wild that in 2020 Medicare still requires 1700 surgeries to be performed on an inpatient basis. The FEHBlog hopes that the Biden Administration’s HHS continues the Trump Administration’s practice of re-evaluating and when appropriate long term practices that have outlived their value.

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the COVID-19 vaccine front —

The first two vaccines against the novel coronavirus could be available to Americans before Christmas, Health Secretary Alex Azar said on Monday, after Moderna Inc became the second vaccine maker likely to receive U.S. emergency authorization. The Food and Drug Administration’s outside advisers will meet on Dec. 10 to consider authorizing Pfizer Inc’s COVID-19 vaccine. That vaccine could be approved and shipped within days, with Moderna’s following one week behind that, Azar said.

  • The Wall Street Journal reports on this afternoon’s CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (“ACIP”) meeting

The [ACIP] panel voted 13-1 in favor of giving the first [COVID-19] vaccines to about 21 million health-care workers and three million residents of long-term care facilities. 

Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar has said federal officials will consider the committee’s recommendations, but that state governors may make final decisions about whom to vaccinate first with the doses that the federal government allocates to them based on their adult populations. He also has said he supports vaccinating vulnerable residents of nursing homes among the first groups.

States wouldn’t have to follow the CDC recommendations, but state and local authorities are expected to rely on them as guideposts for deciding who gets the vaccine first. States have until Friday to indicate to the federal government where they want their initial doses sent.

  • Becker’s Hospital Review informs us that “Any American who wants a COVID-19 vaccine will be able to get one by the end of June 2021, retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Paul Ostrowski, director of supply, production and distribution for Operation Warp Speed, said in an Nov. 30 interview with MSNBC. We will have over 300 million doses available to the American public, well before [June],”Mr. Ostrowski said.”

In other news, “Today the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released the annual [Medicare Part B] Physician Fee Schedule (PFS) final rule, prioritizing CMS’ investment in primary care and chronic disease management by increasing payments to physicians and other practitioners for the additional time they spend with patients, especially those with chronic conditions. The rule allows non-physician practitioners to provide the care they were trained and licensed to give, cutting red tape so healthcare professionals can practice at the top of their license and spend more time with patients instead of on unnecessary paperwork.” Here’s a link to the CMS fact sheet on the final rule.

The final rule is relevant to the FEHBP for two reasons — (1) a large cadre of Medicare prime annuitants is enrolled in the FEHBP and if any of them have not enrolled for Part B, fee for service plans use the Medicare PFS to pay their doctors and (2) the Medicare PFS is widely used to set payments for out-of-network providers because doctors are so familiar with the PFS. In that case, commercial health plans typically use a higher dollar modifier than Medicare which gives you an idea of how low the Medicare modifier is.

Finally, a friend of the FEHBlog called his attention to this FAIR Health analysis of the number telehealth claims which found that the number of telehealth claims jumped nearly 3000% from September 2019 to September 2020. Wow.

Monday Roundup

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Another Monday, another COVID-19 vaccine — the newest from Oxford University (UK) and Astrazeneca. The Times of London reports that

Oxford University scientists said this morning that they had created “a vaccine for the world” as trial results showed that their Covid-19 jab worked well enough to apply immediately for regulatory approval.

The vaccine involves two injections, administered at least a month apart, and the results suggest that using a lower first dose could boost efficacy to 90 per cent. However, that finding relied on limited data and may be amended.

Overall, a trial involving 24,000 people suggested that the vaccine was about 70 per cent effective.

It prevented severe disease and the need to be admitted to hospital, and there are promising early signs that it might also block transmission of the virus. No dangerous side-effects were reported, and the British medical regulator has begun to review safety and efficacy data.

Britain has ordered 100 million doses, and Astrazeneca, the drug company that is working with Oxford, said this morning that four million of those would be ready to be sent to care homes, GP clinics and other vaccination centres by the end of the year.

The Oxford vaccine can be stored in a normal fridge, making it easier to handle than Pfizer’s competing inoculation, which must be stored at about minus 70C. It is also considerably cheaper, costing a few pounds per dose. It is possible that the first doses could be administered before Christmas.

The FEHBlog heard on Fox Business this morning that a separate phase three trial for the Oxford vaccine is ongoing in our country. Oxford and Astrazeneca will present an emergency use authorization request to our Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) based on that as yet uncompleted trial. The trial referenced in the Times of London article was conducted in the United Kingdom and Brazil. The FDA does not require that the phase three trials be conducted in the U.S. For example, the agency approved the Ebola vaccine based on a phase three trial conducted in Africa, but of course there’s no problem finding COVID-19 patients here.

Reuters reports that the FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee will meet on December 10 to review the Pfizer / BioNTech emergency use application for its COVID-19 vaccine. The FDA is not bound by the Committee’s recommendation. Here is a link to the full FDA press release.

A friend of the FEHBlog recommended the 20 minute long Journal podcast interview with the founder of BioNTech Dr. Ugur Sahin. The FEHBlog found that podcast fascinating listening.

Govexec.com reports that “The departments of Defense and State, as well as the Veterans Affairs Department’s Veterans Health Administration, the Bureau of Prisons and Indian Health Service, will all receive a direct allocation of vaccines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The plan was spelled out in a COVID-19 Vaccination Program Interim Playbook, which was first reported by CNBC.” 

Following up on the major Health and Human Services rule makings on Fridays here are article with industry reaction:

  • As the FEHBlog expected, Fierce Healthcare reports that “A hurried final rule aimed at tying drug prices to those paid by foreign countries could lead to providers paying more for drugs than what they will get reimbursed by Medicare, according to several providers and experts.” It really makes you wonder why the American Medical Association’s House of Delegates conditionally endorsed adding a public option to the ACA marketplace earlier this month.
  • Fierce Healthcare further informs us that “CMS’ Stark, anti-kickback updates draw praise from hospitals, concern from physician groups.”
  • Health Payer Intelligence discusses the Medicare rule restricting the use of prescription drug rebates in Medicare Part D effective January 1, 2022. The FEHBlog cannot understand why if drug manufacturers want to end the rebate practices, it does not assure (with an enforcement mechanism) the health insurance industry and the government that the price reductions will balance out the lost rebates.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the CDC’s COVID-19 Data Tracker website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 20th through 46th weeks of this year (beginning May 14 and ending November 18, roughly six months; using Thursday as the first day of the week in order to facilitate this weekly update):

The upward surge in COVID-19 cases is reflected the CDC’s latest overall weekly hospitalization rate chart for COVID-19 (disregards the dip at the right side of the chart):

The FEHBlog has noted 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 same six month long period (May 14 through November 18) (the dip at the tail of this chart is accurate information).

Meanwhile the CDC’s weekly flu surveillance report continues to inform us that “Seasonal influenza activity in the United States remains lower than usual for this time of year.” Better one epidemic than two.

On the bright side, according to the Wall Street Journal, Pfizer and BioNTech did file an emergency use authorization request for their COVID-19 vaccine today.

Now it will be up to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to decide whether the two-shot vaccine works safely enough to roll out to millions of people.

It is unclear how long the agency will take to review the vaccine, which Pfizer and BioNTech just days earlier said was 95% effective and well-tolerated in a 44,000-subject trial.

Given the urgency, the FDA is expected to move quickly. The timing of the filing is in line with industry and government officials’ projections for authorization and distribution to begin next month. Pfizer said the filing could allow for distribution to begin the middle to end of December.

The Health and Human Services Department (“HHS”) released a string of final rules today affecting Medicare prescription drug plans and both hurting and helping the finances of doctors participating in Medicare and certain other federal health programs (but thankfully not the FEHBP). As the saying goes, he who lives by the sword can die the sword.

  • HHS issued a final rule generally barring the use of prescription drug rebates in the Medicare Part D program effective January 1, 2022.
  • HHS issued another final rule that implements, effective January 1, 2021, a pilot program”, known as the Most Favored Nation (MFN) Model, [that] will test [for seven years] an innovative way for Medicare to pay no more for high cost, physician-administered Medicare Part B drugs than the lowest price charged in other similar countries.”
  • Finally. HHS issued a final rule which loosens up on self-referral a/k/a Stark Act rules that inhibit the entrepreneurial spirit of doctors participating in Medicare. The purposes of the change is to facilitate value based pricing and coordinated care. Doctors should like this one but the FEHBlog wonders whether the AMA will think that it goes far enough.

Of course, we also will have to wait to see the incoming Biden Administration’s reaction to these rules.

Healthcare Dive discusses conflicting viewpoints on AHIP’s position which the FEHBlog shares that the COVID-19 relief law Wild West approach to health plan coverage of out-of-network COVID-19 leads to price gouging. Only Congress can fix this problem.

Speaking of Congress, Govexex.com reports that

Congressional leaders have voiced early speculation in recent days that lawmakers will be able to set line-by-line funding levels for agencies throughout government before the end of the year without the need for another stopgap measure. 

Top negotiators in the House and Senate met on Thursday to discuss a potential compromise for the rest of fiscal 2021 appropriations. On Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was the most recent leader to cautiously express optimism that Congress can pass a full-year, omnibus spending bill before the current continuing resolution expires Dec. 11. 

“The anticipation was that it was really about the omnibus,” Pelosi said of the meeting. “You have to remember, we have to have an omnibus bill. We must keep government open.” She added it was a “very important responsibility” during the lame duck session of the 116th Congress. “We don’t want another continuing resolution. I don’t think they do either.”

Finally, the FEHBlog was impressed by Humana CEO Bruce Broussard’s call for health system interoperability without further delay. Mr. Broussard is Board Chair of America’s Health Insurance Plans for 2021. Here’s a snippet.

Change requires reforming the incentive structure to encourage and require vendors to create and sell systems that can talk to each other. Health care systems, hospitals, and physician practices — guided or encouraged by the market and the federal government — should choose interoperable systems. Public and private payers should implement value-based payment models that reward the purchase and use of interoperable systems. It’s also up to the federal government to implement and enforce standards for EHR vendors that promote interoperability while simultaneously strengthening the protection of personal health information.

If industry and government don’t lead the charge to make America’s health care system interoperable, consumers will bear the challenge of piecing together their own health data across the system — a dangerous prospect that could hinder patient care in the midst of a global pandemic. The free flow of protected data across the health care system ensures that treatment decisions are informed safely and effectively by the most current information available and tailored to the individual. A clinician with complete information at her fingertips can easily see the full picture and manage her patient’s care from the hospital to the pharmacy to long-term follow-up care.

This pandemic will eventually end. But the need for interoperability will remain urgent as we seek long-term solutions to bring down costs, improve care delivery, and increase efficiency in our health care system.

There’s no time like the present.

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 44th weeks of this year (beginning May 14 and ending November 4; 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 noted 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 same period (May 14 through November 4).

On the flip side, also according to the CDC, “seasonal influenza activity in the United States remains low.”

Fierce Biotech discusses the progress of a Humanigen investigation new drug called lenzilumab which is undergoing a phase 3 trial.

If the trial succeeds, lenzilumab could emerge as part of the arsenal for treating some of the sickest COVID-19 patients. Lenzilumab may stop cytokine storms, the severe hyperimmune responses that drive organ damage in some COVID-19 patients. Currently, physicians treat such severe patients with steroids and Gilead’s remdesivir, but there remains a need for more efficacious therapies. 

The chances of anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies meeting that need have diminished in recent weeks as prospects in development at Eli Lilly and Regeneron have failed in severe COVID-19 patients. Efforts to use existing drugs, notably anti-IL-6 antibodies such as Sanofi’s Kevzara, to stop cytokine storms in COVID-19 patients have also failed. 

In other investigational drug news, the Boston Globe reports that

Biogen Inc.’s experimental Alzheimer’s disease therapy [mentioned in the FEHBlog earlier this week] failed to gain support from a panel of US Food and Drug Administration advisers on Friday, putting the drug at a crossroads as the agency weighs approval.

The outside experts voted 8 to 1, with 2 undecided, that data from a single clinical trial with positive results was insufficient to show Biogen’s drug works. The vote contradicts a report FDA reviewers prepared ahead of the meeting that supported the efficacy of the drug, called aducanumab, though there was dissent in the agency. * * *

The advisory committee’s recommendations aren’t binding. The FDA often calls on panels of experts, including researchers, medical professionals and patient representatives, when it is considering whether to approve a new drug. Wall Street analysts said the FDA seemed set on viewing the drug positively.

“This will be a test for the FDA on what happens when the FDA is on one extreme and the panel is seemingly on the other, with science and evidence or the lack thereof being at the core of discussion,” Mizuho analyst Salim Syed said in an email to Bloomberg News.

At long last (given the fact that the Medicare Open Season stated on October 15), the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services this afternoon announced Medicare Part B premiums and Parts A and B cost sharing changes for 2021:

  • The standard monthly premium for Medicare Part B enrollees will be $148.50 in 2021, an increase of $3.90 from $144.60 in 2020.  The fact sheet that would show income adjusted premiums for high earners was unavailable online this evening. Check again here on Sunday.
  • The Medicare Part A inpatient deductible that beneficiaries will pay when admitted to the hospital is $1,484 in 2021, an increase of $76 from $1,408 in 2020. 
  • The annual deductible for Medicare Part B beneficiaries is $203 in 2021, an increase of $5 from $198 in 2020.

CVS Health not only announced third quarter earnings today; it also disclosed that its current CEO Larry Merlo is retiring and Karen Lynch, who currently heads the Aetna business unit, will replace him. Congratulations to both of them. Healthcare Dive adds

CVS’ medical loss ratio was 84%. That’s compared to just 70.3% in the second quarter as consumers deferred non-essential care amid COVID-19.

CVS has now administered more than 6 million COVID-19 diagnostic tests across 4,000 testing sites, representing 70% of all testing done in retail settings, Merlo said.

Health Payer Intelligence discusses how “Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois (BCBSIL) has partnered with hospitals across the state in a new program that seeks to pursue health equity by focusing on mitigating health disparities for racial and ethnic minorities.” Well done.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

Today’s big news is that the ACA regulators (the Departments of Health and Human Services (“HHS”), Labor, and Treasury) finalized a lengthy pricing transparency rule for payers, including ERISA and FEHBP group health plans (see footnote 233). The related fact sheet explains

This final rule includes two approaches to make health care price information accessible to consumers and other stakeholders, allowing for easy comparison-shopping.

First, most non-grandfathered group health plans and health insurance issuers offering non-grandfathered health insurance coverage in the individual and group markets will be required to make available to participants, beneficiaries and enrollees (or their authorized representative) personalized out-of-pocket cost information, and the underlying negotiated rates, for all covered health care items and services, including prescription drugs, through an internet-based self-service tool and in paper form upon request. For the first time, most consumers will be able to get real-time and accurate estimates of their cost-sharing liability for health care items and services from different providers in real time, allowing them to both understand how costs for covered health care items and services are determined by their plan, and also shop and compare health care costs before receiving care. An initial list of 500 shoppable services as determined by the Departments will be required to be available via the internet based self-service tool for plan years that begin on or after January 1, 2023. The remainder of all items and services will be required for these self-service tools for plan years that begin on or after January 1, 2024.

Second, most non-grandfathered group health plans or health insurance issuers offering non-grandfathered health insurance coverage in the individual and group markets will be required to make available to the public, including stakeholders such as consumers, researchers, employers, and third-party developers, three separate machine-readable files that include detailed pricing information.
The first file will show negotiated rates for all covered items and services between the plan or issuer and in-network providers.
The second file will show both the historical payments to, and billed charges from, out-of-network providers. Historical payments must have a minimum of twenty entries in order to protect consumer privacy.
And finally, the third file will detail the in-network negotiated rates and historical net prices for all covered prescription drugs by plan or issuer at the pharmacy location level.
Plans and issuers will display these data files in a standardized format and will provide monthly updates. This data will provide opportunities for detailed research studies, data analysis, and offer third party developers and innovators the ability to create private sector solutions to help drive additional price comparison and consumerism in the health care market. These files are required to be made public for plan years that begin on or after January 1, 2022.

The final rule also provides some medical loss ratio relief to compliant health insurance issuers as explained in the fact sheet. Here is AHIP’s reaction to the final rule.

Also today HHS issued an interim final rule with a comment period that “extends the compliance dates and timeframes necessary to meet certain requirements related to information blocking and Conditions and Maintenance of Certification (CoC/MoC) requirements. Released to the public on March 9, 2020, ONC’s Cures Act Final Rule established exceptions to the 21st Century Cures Act’s information blocking provision and adopted new health information technology (health IT) certification requirements to enhance patients’ smartphone access to their health information at no cost through the use of application programming interfaces (APIs).” The rule had been scheduled to take effect beginning next week.

Fierce Healthcare reports that “Regeneron’s anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibody cocktail has significantly reduced medical visits in ambulatory COVID-19 patients. The phase 2/3 clinical trial linked REGN-COV2 to a 57% decline in medical visits associated with COVID-19 in the 29 days after treatment.”

HealthPartners, a Minneapolis health insurer that participates in the FEHBP, offers a helpful, complete explanation of the benefits of wearing masks to prevent COVID-19. “At its core, wearing a mask is an act of kindness and neighborliness. It’s one of the simplest good deeds you can do these days, and a great way to be a force of positivity for the people in your life.”

Fierce Healthcare reports

The financial crisis for hospitals and physician practices caused by the COVID pandemic is a “clarion call” for the healthcare industry to move from a fee-for-service payment model to value, said Kevin Mahoney, chief executive officer of the University of Pennsylvania Health System (Penn Medicine).

“The hospital sector has taken a giant hit. We keep hearing about ‘the new normal.’ The lesson that we learned is that there is nothing new or normal about a pandemic, there’s just been an acceleration of trends,” Mahoney said during a recent virtual event hosted by the University of Pennsylvania. “It has laid bare how dependent hospitals are on commercially-insured, elective procedures, and without them, we don’t make money.”

The FEHBlog’s youngest son is a research coordinator for Penn Medicine. The FEHBlog seconds his boss’s sentiments.

The Surgeon General issued a timely

Call to Action to Control Hypertension (Call to Action) seeks to avert the negative health effects of hypertension by identifying evidence-based interventions that can be implemented, adapted, and expanded in diverse settings across the United States.

The Call to Action outlines three goals to improve hypertension control across the United States, and each goal is supported by strategies to achieve success:

Goal 1. Make hypertension control a national priority.
Goal 2. Ensure that the places where people live, learn, work, and play support hypertension control.
Goal 3. Optimize patient care for hypertension.

Following up on yesterday’s post about mandatory of coverage of COVID-19 vaccines with no member cost sharing once available, the FEHBlog wants to add that the same rule applies to Medicare. CMS “estimates the overall cost of providing the vaccine to every senior on Medicare would be around $2.6 billion, which would be covered by the federal government. CMS will also cover the vaccine for any uninsured individuals by using money from a $175 billion provider relief fund passed as part of the CARES Act.” It appears however that the vaccine would be administered through the Part D program. That would not be much help to FEHB plans as most FEHB members with primary Medicare coverage does not carry Medicare Part D.

Nextgov reports that

The Health and Human Services Department, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the FBI warn hospitals face an imminent threat from cybercriminals that encrypt and hold their data hostage—and some health care facilities are already dealing with the fallout.

The agencies collectively issued an advisory Wednesday detailing the tactics, techniques and procedures reportedly used against at least five hospitals already this week. The advisory includes recommendations for mitigating what observers are referring to as the most serious cyber threat the U.S. has seen to date, being perpetrated by an especially ruthless group of criminals.  

“CISA, FBI, and HHS have credible information of an increased and imminent cybercrime threat to U.S. hospitals and healthcare providers,” reads the advisory.

Weekend update

Thanks to ACK15 for sharing their work on Unsplash.

Congress does not plan to hold votes this week. The Senate Judiciary Committee begins Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination confirmation hearing tomorrow.

Fox Business brings us up to date on the COVID-19 relief bill negotiations, and Federal News Network outlines new federal employment bills to watch.

This week the HLTH conference will virtually occur. Healthcare Dive describes five conference highlights.

On the afternoon of Tuesday October 13, the HCP-LAN will hold its virtual summit meeting. The FEHBlog has enjoyed these summits and, in contrast to HLTH, there’s no charge to attend. “The 2020 LAN Virtual Summit will center around how value-based payment models and the larger health care system have adapted to become more responsive and resilient in the wake of the public health emergency.”

On Thursday October 15, the Medicare Open Season begins. This is time when Medicare beneficiaries can enroll in or switch Medicare Advantage and Part D plans. The Open Season end on December 7.

Hopefully this week also will spotlight OPM’s 2020 Open Season announcement.

In recent news —

  • Health Payer Intelligence discusses a PriceWaterhouseCoopers report on strategies that health plans are implementing to control prescription benefit costs.
  • The Wall Street Journal considers “Lessons for the Next Pandemic—Act Very, Very Quickly / Scientists and public-health leaders are working on new ways to find infections before they spread; smarter lung scans and screening blood samples.” It’s never too early to start evaluating and planning.
  • The Federal Times reports on the virtual ceremony held to honor the federal employees who received the 2020 SAMMIE awards. SAMMIE is short for Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals. Congratulations SAMMIE winners.
  • NPR reports that

When developing a vaccine, scientists have a few strategies to try. They can take a piece or component of the bacteria and use that to trigger an immune response in a person. They can kill the pathogen and use its corpse as the vaccine. Or they can take a live pathogen and weaken it in the lab.

The latter are called “live, attenuated vaccines,” and over the past century, scientists have noticed something peculiar about these vaccines: They seem to offer some protection, not just from the targeted disease, but also against many different diseases, including respiratory infections.

COVID-19, of course, is a respiratory infection.

The nasal flu vaccine, in contrast to the injection, is a “live, attenuate vaccine.” However, it is only available to certain age groups. The Centers For Disease Control explains “The nasal spray flu vaccine is approved for use in healthy non-pregnant individuals, 2 years through 49 years old. People with certain medical conditions should not receive the nasal spray flu vaccine.” Of course, this is a conversation to hold with your doctor if you are eligible for the nasal flu vaccine.

Midweek Update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

Late this afternoon, the Senate approved the compromise FY 2021 continuing resolution (H.R. 8337) by a vote of 84-10. The President is expect to sign the bill into law tonight. The bill provides continued funding for the federal government through December 11. Congress will hold a lame duck session following the national election on November 3 to consider next steps on FY 2021 appropriations.

This bill includes two provisions relevant to the FEHBP:

  • Section 2401 caps any increase to the Medicare Part B premium at 25% of what it otherwise would be for 2021. Presumably this cap only applies to the basic Part B premium and not to the increased premiums paid by high earners. In any event it should help encourage annuitants to join or stay enrolled in Part B. CMS should be announcing Medicare Part B and other traditional Medicare cost sharing amounts later in October.
  • Section 138 allows OPM, “which is still grappling with its own funding shortfall after the governmentwide security clearance business transferred to the Defense Department last year, to tap into the trust funds it oversees to keep its own operations going.” How would this impact the FEHBP? Section 8909 of the FEHB Act imposes a 4% surcharge on net to carrier premiums. 75% of that surcharge is deposited in a contingency reserve for the carrier which acts like a premium stabilization fund. The remaining 25% of that surcharge is available to cover OPM costs of FEHB administration to the extent appropriated by Congress. Congress typically appropriates only 1/4 of the administration fund to OPM and the balance per Section 8909 is deposited into the FEHB plan contingency reserves based on enrollment. It appears to the FEHBlog that this new law has given OPM the authority to tap into that surplus that otherwise would have been available to the FEHBP carriers. This is not the only such trust fund available to OPM.

The Wall Street Journal and the Hill report that the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin will continue to discuss a compromise fourth COVID-19 relief bill tomorrow. The two leaders met today for 90 minutes and they hope for more progress tomorrow.

On the COVID-19 front —

  • The U.S. National Science Foundation discusses how it has been funding small businesses in the fight to control COVID-19. “Startups nationwide responded with creativity and a diversity of experiences to create innovative technology solutions in the COVID-19 crisis,” said Andrea Belz, director for the Division of Industrial Innovation and Partnerships. “NSF-funded solutions have the potential to make a significant impact in the fight against COVID and future pandemic threats.” That’s encouraging.
  • Forbes reports on a deal between startup tech company doc.ai and major health and Blue Cross licensee Anthem. “One of the products that Anthem is offering its members through doc.ai is called Passport, which helps employees safely return to in-person work during the Covid-19 pandemic. An employer decides on the parameters and each morning the employee answers a self-assessment that determines whether or not the app generates a unique barcode to enter the office building. But the key here is that the protected health information is never sent to the employer—it stays on the employee’s phone—and all the employer sees is whether the QR code was issued. De Brouwer likens it to “soft contact tracing,” where privacy comes first. The data is never uploaded to a server, but stays on the mobile device.” Also encouraging
  • In not so encouraging but understandable news, MedPage Today reports that “Overall frequency of alcohol consumption among adults ages 30-80 increased 14% versus 2019, with increases of 17% for women, reported Michael Pollard, PhD, of RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California, which administers the survey, and colleagues. * * * ‘Health systems may need to educate consumers through print or online media about increased alcohol use during the pandemic and identify factors associated with susceptibility and resilience to the impacts of COVID-19,’ Pollard and co-authors wrote.”

On the healthcare fraud front, the HHS Inspector General announced today

The Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) Office of Inspector General, along with our state and federal law enforcement partners, participated in a health care fraud takedown in September 2020. More than 345 defendants in 51 judicial districts were charged with participating in health care fraud schemes involving more than $6 billion in alleged losses to federal health care programs. Since 2016, HHS-OIG has seen a significant increase in “telefraud”: scams that leverage aggressive marketing and so-called telehealth services. The conspirators include telemedicine company executives, medical practitioners, marketers, and business owners who scammed hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting patients in their homes.

Wow.

In miscellaneous news —

  • HHS created a Hospital Price Transparency website today three months before the final rule takes effect on January 1, 2021.
  • HHS also announced today “five cooperative agreements to health information exchange organizations (HIEs) to help support state and local public health agencies in their efforts to respond to public health emergencies, including disasters and pandemics such as COVID-19.” These HIEs provide a vital framework for sharing health information.
  • “The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the Multi-State Information Sharing & Analysis Center (MS-ISAC) have released a joint Ransomware Guide that details practices that organizations should continuously engage in to help manage the risk posed by ransomware and other cyber threats. The in-depth guide provides actionable best practices for ransomware prevention as well as a ransomware response checklist that can serve as a ransomware-specific addendum to organization cyber incident response plans.” Check it out.
  • Health Payer Intelligence helpfully reports on a surprise billing study published in the American Journal of Managed Care which finds that

More than 10% of health plan spending is attributable to ancillary and emergency services that commonly surprise-bill. Reducing payment for these services by 15% would reduce premiums by 1.6% ($67 per member per year), and reducing average payment to 150% of traditional Medicare rates—the high end of payments to other specialists—would reduce premiums by 5.1% ($212 per member per year). These savings would reduce aggregate premiums for the nation’s commercially insured population by approximately $12 billion and $38 billion, respectively.

The study is based on claims data from major health insurers housed in the Healthcare Cost Institute.