Weekend Update

Weekend Update

Thanks to ACK15 for sharing their work on Unsplash.

This coming week, the U.S. House of Representatives will engage in Committee business and the Senate will engage in both Committee business and the Senate will engage in Committee business and floor voting. Roll Call explains that “President Joe Biden told House Democrats on Friday to hold off on his bipartisan infrastructure bill until they reach agreement on a scaled-back partisan tax and spending package funding the rest of his economic agenda.”

The U.S. Supreme Court opens its October 2021 term tomorrow. Two Affordable Care Act Section 1557 (individual non-discrimination law) cases will be argued this calendar quarter.

On the Delta variant front, the Wall Street Journal reports that

The cost of similar Covid-19 treatments can vary by tens of thousands of dollars a patient, even within the same hospital, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of pricing data that indicates pandemic care hasn’t escaped the complex economics of the U.S. health system.

One kind of patient, with a type of severe respiratory condition that is common among those admitted with Covid-19, is an example of the wide range. The rates for these patients usually spanned from less than $11,000 to more than $43,000, the analysis found, but some prices could be far higher, depending on the severity of the case.

Federal News Network informs us that

The Office of Personnel Management on Friday offered up more details on how agencies might approach disciplinary action against employees who fail to comply with the Biden administration’s recent federal vaccine mandate.

Because employees aren’t considered fully vaccinated until two weeks after receiving a single-shot series or the second dose of a two-shot series, they must get the vaccine by Nov. 8 to comply with the federal mandate.

Therefore, agencies can begin the disciplinary process for employees who are unvaccinated by Nov. 8 on the following day, Nov. 9, OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said Friday in a new memo.

On the No Surprises Act front, Prof. Katie Keith and her colleagues delves into the details of the second interim final rule on the NSA which concerns the independent dispute resolution process.

On the newly opened Federal Benefits Open Season front, the FEHBlog notes that Blue Cross FEP and Kaiser Permanente have posted information about 2022 benefits on their respective websites. Here’s a belated link to OPM’s announcement of 2022 premiums from last Thursday.

On a related note Healthcare Dive informs us that

Average Medicare Advantage premium rates are dropping 10% to $19 a month next year as nearly 30 million people are expected to be enrolled in the program, an increase of about 2.6 million from this year, CMS said in a Thursday press release.

Cigna and UnitedHealthcare are expanding their MA footprints. Cigna is going into three new states and increasing its geographic coverage by 30%. UnitedHealthcare is entering 276 new counties, giving it access to 94% of Medicare members.

Analysts at Cowen said in a note Friday that after reviewing benefits for the three largest plans from top insurers, it saw stability to modest improvements. That indicates conservative bids among the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Open enrollment for Medicare runs from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7.

Midweek Update

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The American Hospital Association informs us that

The Senate early this morning approved on a party line vote a $3.5 trillion budget resolution, which included reconciliation instructions which will provide the majority party with the means to pass a comprehensive reconciliation package with just 51 votes in the Senate, rather than the usual 60-vote hurdle. The House will reconvene on Aug. 23 to consider the budget resolution. Once the resolution has passed both chambers, the House and Senate majorities can proceed with the reconciliation process, a resolution to which is expected in the fall. 

Bloomberg adds

Translating the budget framework into law will require Biden and Democratic congressional leaders keeping their party’s moderate and progressive wings marching together.

Just hours after passage of the budget blueprint, Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, said he couldn’t support a social spending bill with a $3.5 trillion price tag. Senator Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat, has said the same. One Democratic objection is all it would take to scuttle the package in the Senate.

Time will tell but we are talking about $3.5 trillion on top of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill and multi-trillion COVID-19 relief bills that Congress has passed in the last 18 months. It appears that Congress is trying to disprove the adage that money can’t solve all problems.

One of the initiatives in the budget reconciliation package is to add dental, vision, and hearing coverage to Medicare. Kaiser Health News discusses the issue here.

From the Delta variant front

  • The Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practice released a helpful report on COVID-19 adverse side effects which it summarized as follows

What is already known about this topic?

Rare serious adverse events have been reported after COVID-19 vaccination, including Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) and thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS) after Janssen COVID-19 vaccination and myocarditis after mRNA (Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna) COVID-19 vaccination.

What is added by this report?

On July 22, 2021, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices reviewed updated benefit-risk analyses after Janssen and mRNA COVID-19 vaccination and concluded that the benefits outweigh the risks for rare serious adverse events after COVID-19 vaccination.

What are the implications for public health practice?

Continued COVID-19 vaccination will prevent COVID-19 morbidity and mortality far exceeding GBS, TTS, and myocarditis cases expected. Information about rare adverse events should be disseminated to providers, vaccine recipients, and the public.

  • Forbes tells us that today “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encouraged anyone pregnant and breastfeeding to get vaccinated against coronavirus Wednesday, pointing to a growing amount of evidence that vaccines are safe and effective as new cases and hospitalizations linked to the virus surge across the country.” The Washington Post adds “Just 23 percent of pregnant women have received at least one shot of vaccine.”
  • Also from Forbes as schools begin to reopen “Vaccine rates among teenagers have remained lower than the U.S. population overall, with only 43% of 12- to 15-year-olds and 52.8% of 16- and 17-year-olds receiving at least a first dose as compared with 58.9% of the total population and 71.2% of adults.”
  • The Boston Globe discusses this teenage hesitancy issue — “The top reservation among parents of unvaccinated teens was the lack of information about the long-term effects of the shot, followed by concerns about side effects and fertility — despite conclusive evidence that the vaccine has no negative impacts on reproduction. Dr. Jill Kasper, a pediatrician at Cambridge Health Alliance, said she typically encounters ‘very little hesitancy’ from parents about routine adolescent vaccinations. That hasn’t been the case with COVID-19.”

The HHS Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research issued two noteworthy studies today. Here are the topline findings

  • #1 Overuse or low-value procedures may result in patient physical, psychological, or emotional harm. This study explored the association between eight low-value care procedures and length of stay (LOS) and cost. All eight procedures were associated with increased LOS and cost, particularly spinal fusion. Patients receiving low-value care may be exposed to increased risk of adverse events and hospital-acquired conditions.
  • #2 Medication administration errors made by parent or caregivers can result in medication errors at home. This systematic review found that 30% to 80% of pediatric patients experience a medication error at home, and that the risk increases based on characteristics of the caregiver and if a prescription contains more than two drugs.

Healthcare Dive informs us that

  • CVS Health said its Aetna unit will offer virtual primary care to self-funded employers nationwide in a move that underscores the growing popularity of telehealth services fueled by the COVID-19 public health emergency.
  • Using Teladoc Health’s physician-led care team model, the Aetna Virtual Primary Care service is intended to help strengthen the patient-doctor relationship and improve access to care, the vertically integrated company announced Tuesday. Members can receive health services remotely and in person.

Such support for primary care should be applauded.

In other healthcare news

  • STAT News reports that The Department of Veterans Affairs has decided not to cover a new Alzheimer’s drug from Biogen [Adulhelm], citing insufficient evidence of “a robust and meaningful clinical benefit” and concerns about safety. In a notice issued by the agency, the VA said it will make exceptions for “highly selected patients” and listed several hurdles that must be cleared before the medicine will be covered, such as requiring it to be prescribed by providers who specialize in treating dementia and ensuring patients had recently received MRI brain scans. * * * ‘Its bad news for Biogen,’ said Ira Loss of Washington Analysis, which tracks legislative and regulatory issues affecting the pharmaceutical industry for investors, who noted several private insurers have either declined or delayed coverage for the drug. ‘The VA is a big buyer of medicines. And you don’t like this kind of publicity, that’s for sure.’”
  • Fierce Healthcare continues to report from the HIMSS conference in Las Vegas. “Health IT giant Epic launched a new customer story-sharing website that lets Epic users share insights, tips and creative ideas around using health IT to improve their organizations and patient care. The site, EpicShare.org, combines insights from industry leaders, quick tips on improving outcomes and performance, in-depth case studies as well as a “Hey Judy” column from Epic founder and CEO Judy Faulkner.”

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

The American Hospital Association (“AHA”) reports that “Lawmakers in the U.S. Senate this weekend unveiled the text of a bipartisan infrastructure package that has been under negotiation for several months. The package does not rescind any Provider Relief Funds as an offset for the package, though it does extend the Medicare sequester for one additional year, through fiscal year 2031.” Fierce Healthcare points out two other healthcare provisions in the bill. Fierce Healthcare adds that

The Senate is expected to vote this week on the package. It will then consider a $3.5 trillion package that could clear the chamber via a procedural move called reconciliation that ensures budget bills can pass via a simple majority and bypass the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster.

Democrats have sought to add more healthcare related provisions in the $3.5 trillion package, including adding dental, vision and hearing benefits to Medicare.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, told Fierce Healthcare last week that he is working to add drug pricing provisions into the package, including giving Medicare the authority to negotiate for lower prices.

From the Delta variant front

  • Federal News Network discusses federal employee reaction to the President’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate.
  • The Society for Human Resource Management offers solid advice to employers on how businesses should respond to the Delta variant.
  • The American Medical Association discusses how providers can address high blood pressure problems worsened by the pandemic.

From the employee perspective front, Health Payer Intelligence tells us that “Employees are looking for employers to bolster preventive care services, mental healthcare, and access to employees’ providers in their employer-sponsored health benefits, a Marathon Health survey revealed. The researchers surveyed over 1,100 employees—all of whom were working full-time—and 430 human resource leaders in June 2021. “While Americans prize healthcare above every other benefit, our survey also indicates employees and employers see major shortcomings in their healthcare plans. This is especially true when it comes to cost, preventive care, and mental health,” Jeff Wells, co-founder and chief executive officer of Marathon Health, summarized in the press release.”

From the regulatory front today the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services finalized the fiscal year 2022 Medicare Part A payment policies for inpatient hospital care.

Before taking into account Medicare disproportionate share hospital (DSH) payments and Medicare uncompensated care payments, the increase in operating payment rates, increases in capital payments, increases in payments for new medical technologies, increases in payments due to implementation of the imputed floor, and other changes will increase hospital payments in FY 2022 by $3.7 billion, or 3.1 percent. CMS projects Medicare DSH payments and Medicare uncompensated care payments to decrease in FY 2022 compared to FY 2021 by approximately $1.4 billion. Overall, CMS estimates hospitals payments will increase by $2.3 billion.

Here is a link to the AHA’s generally favorable reaction to the final rule.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID-19 Data Tracker website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 14th week of 2020 through 30th week of this year (beginning April 2, 2020, and ending July 28, 2021; using Thursday as the first day of the week in order to facilitate this weekly update):

and here is the CDC’s latest overall weekly hospitalization rate chart for COVID-19:

The FEHBlog has noticed that the new cases and deaths chart shows a flat line for new weekly deaths  because new cases significantly exceed new deaths. Accordingly here is a chart of new COVID-19 deaths over the period (April 2, 2020, through July 28, 2021):

Finally here is a COVID-19 vaccinations chart over the period December 17, 2020, through July 28, 2021, which also uses Thursday as the first day of the week:

Due to the Delta variant, new cases and hospitalizations are trending up while new deaths have remained low for two months.

Happily COVID-19 vaccinations are trending up again. As of today according to the CDC, 60% of the U.S. population over age 18 and 80% of those over age 65 are fully vaccinated. GEHA, the largest employee organization plan in the FEHB, announced that it has extended its COVID-19 vaccine incentive program to Labor Day, September 6.

The CDC defended its new masking policy for the vaccinated population by pointing to a case in which as reported by the Wall Street Journal

127 vaccinated people infected with the Delta variant during the outbreak appeared to carry as much virus as 84 unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people who became infected. The report referred to an outbreak in Barnstable County, Mass. Local officials there have said that at least 430 confirmed Covid-19 cases have been linked to one cluster following festivities over the July 4 weekend in Provincetown, on the tip of Cape Cod.

Among the 469 cases linked to the Barnstable outbreak in the CDC report, nearly 75% were fully vaccinated. For people with breakthrough infections, almost 80% had symptoms of cough, headache, sore throat or fever. Four were hospitalized and no deaths were reported, the CDC said. Infected people reported attending densely packed indoor events and outdoor events at bars, restaurants and houses.

Toward the conclusion of the article the journalist speaks with Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the public-health school at Brown University.

Dr. Jha said he thinks this week’s guidance recommending masking in high-risk areas of the U.S. was reasonable, but also risked suggesting that vaccines aren’t effective against the Delta variant, which could discourage unvaccinated people from getting shots. We have the tools to address this variant, and they’re called vaccines,” Dr. Jha said.

The FEHBlog certainly would wear a mask at an indoor or outdoor super spreader event in a high risk area like the one where the FEHBlog is temporarily living, Travis County Texas. It’s worth noting this US Health Weather map which gauges the risk of catching a respiratory infection like COVID-19 or the flu in a particular US county. Ironically, my county of permanent residence, Montgomery County, Maryland, is low risk.

STAT News adds that the Food and Drug Administration is accelerating the process of reviewing Pfizer-Biotech’s application for full marketing approval of their COVID-19 vaccine. (Moderna also has made this filing.)

A typical review of an application like Pfizer’s takes 10 months. The agency granted Pfizer a “priority review” for its vaccine earlier this month, which signifies that staff will strive to finish the review of the application within six months. At the same time, he FDA has said it does not expect the process to take that long — a view echoed even by President Biden.

“My expectation …  is that sometime, maybe in the beginning of the school year, at the end of August, beginning of September, October, they’ll get a final approval” Biden said last week when asked when the FDA would formally approve the Covid-19 vaccines, including the one developed by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech.

Jesse Goodman, who led the FDA’s biologics center from 2003 to 2009, said that the August-September time frame is “possible … if all goes smoothly.” He said the idea of a sprint is “reasonable,” so long the biologics center follows the normal chain of command for reviewing these applications.

In other news

  • Federal News Network tells us that “The House of Representatives on Thursday cleared a $600 billion package of seven spending bills, a small step forward in boosting civilian agency funding next year.The seven-bill “minibus” cleared the House Thursday afternoon by a 219 to 208 vote. The minibus is silent on federal pay for 2022, a silent endorsement of President Joe Biden’s proposed 2.7% raise for civilian employees. * * * The spending package also includes $42 million for the Office of Personnel Management over current levels and allows the agency to stand up an IT working capital fund.” The House is close to completing approval of the twelve appropriations bills. The Senate has not begun to vote on those bills and new federal fiscal year begins in two months, October 1.
  • The Congressional Budget Office released its financial analysis of the President’s budget proposal for the upcoming new federal fiscal year.
  • The ICD10 Monitor explains that yesterday the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services finalized four Medicare Part A payment rules which take effect on October 1 — skilled nursing facilities (SNFs), hospices,
  • inpatient rehabilitation facilities (IRFs), and inpatient psychiatric facilities (IPFs). The Monitor’s article summarizes each final rule.
  • The American Hospital Association offers a useful article on approaches to resolving COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.
  • Fierce Healthcare informs us about insurer comments on the third 2022 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters, which proposed changes to the ACA marketplace.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the Delta Variant front —

Federal News Network reports that

The White House is strongly considering requiring federal employees to show proof they’ve been vaccinated against the coronavirus or otherwise submit to regular testing and wear a mask — a potentially major shift in policy that reflects growing concerns about the spread of the more infectious delta variant.https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/fully-vaccinated.html

The possible vaccine mandate for federal employees — regardless of the rate of transmission in their area — is one option under consideration by the Biden administration, according to a person familiar with the plans who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss deliberations that have yet to be made public. The White House is expected to announce its final decision after completing a policy review this week.

Govexec adds that “Federal law does not prohibit public and private entities from mandating coronavirus vaccines, even though those vaccines do not yet have full authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, according to a legal opinion from the Justice Department posted on Monday.”

Other press reports indicate that the President may announce his decision this Thursday, and in the FEHBlog’s view if he approves this action, many private sector employers in and outside of healthcare will follow suit.

The Centers for Disease Control recommended today that “To maximize protection from the Delta variant and prevent possibly spreading it to others, [vaccinated Americans should] wear a mask indoors in public if you are in an area of substantial or high transmission.” It turns out the Washington DC is an area of substantial transmission. Bloomberg adds that “It’s not just Arkansas and Louisiana, where the delta variant has been raging, that are affected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new recommendation for vaccinated people to mask indoors in some parts of the country. Most major U.S. urban areas also fall under the scope of the advisory.”

In today’s Tidbits —

  • Beckers Hospital Review informs us that U.S. News and World Report has issued its annual U.S. hospital rankings with the Mayo Clinic claiming the top spot “for the sixth consecutive year.” Becker’s also comments on the new health equity section found in those rankings.
  • The Congressional Research Service has released a report on the No Surprises Act which it describes as an “Overview of Federal Consumer Protections and Payment for Out-of-Network Services.”
  • The HHS Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has issued a report providing and “Overview of Clinical Conditions With Frequent and Costly Hospital Readmissions by Payer, 2018.”
  • Becker’s Payer Issues discusses a Forbes interview with Liz Fowler, who is director of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation at HHS. “Here are four conclusions CMMI has drawn over a decade of experimentation, according to Forbes: (1) Voluntary initiatives narrowed participation as only providers who saw financial gain opted in; (2) Separate alternative payment models and multiple bundles for specialty groups leads to fragmentation, taking away from value-based care. (3) Initiatives like per-member per-month payments only temporarily work, but don’t sustain new practices once phased out, and (4) In benchmarking, models need to leverage retrospective benchmarks or prospective ones with guardrails to ensure accuracy and feasibility of approaches.”
  • Medcity News offers an interesting account of how certain hospital got the pricing transparency job done correctly.
  • Fierce Health tells us that Blue Cross licensee “Anthem is investing nearly $90 million in affordable housing across Indiana. The $87.9 million investment will fund 1,139 affordable apartment units, townhomes and single-family homes across 11 communities in the state, Anthem announced on Saturday. The initiative was unveiled at a ribbon-cutting for a recently completed complex in Culver, a six-building, 48-unit complex.” Well done.
  • Healthcare Dive reports that health insurer Centene reported a $353 million dollar loss for the second quarter of 2021 as members returned to the doctors’ offices. “There was a “broad return to the doctor’s office” in March and April, CFO Drew Asher said, but Centene had expected the slight downtick in May utilization to persist. That did not happen. Instead, utilization increased again in June.”
  • 401k Specialist informs us that the President has nominated New York City attorney Lisa M. Gomez to be Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employee Benefits. “The Senate-confirmed position oversees the Labor Department’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA), tasked with regulation and enforcement of private-sector retirement and health plans.” Ms. Gomez is also an FEHB lawyer and an esteemed colleague of the FEHBlog. She deserves a swift Senate confirmation for this important post.

Weekend update

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Both Houses of Congress will be in session this week for Committee business and floor voting. It should be noted that for the next several weeks that FEHBlog will be writing from Austin, TX, way outside the Capital Beltway.

On the COVID-19 front

  • The American Medical Association offers an article on what doctors would like their patients to know about COVID-19 variants.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports on the efforts of Pfizer, Merck and the Japanese drugmaker Shionogi to develop a pill to treat COVID-19. “Drugmakers are looking for a pill that those who get a positive Covid-19 test could take at home while their symptoms are mild. Such medicines already exist for influenza, including Roche Holding AG’s Tamiflu and Shionogi’s Xofluza, although they don’t work for all patients and might be prescribed too late to do much good. Xofluza is marketed in the U.S. by Roche. ‘Our target is a very safe oral compound, like Tamiflu, like Xofluza,’ said Isao Teshirogi, Shionogi’s chief executive officer. He said Shionogi’s Covid-19 pill aims to neutralize the virus five days after a patient takes it.” In contrast to the convenience of pills, existing COVID-19 treatments must be administered by a doctor in a hospital or other healthcare facility.

On the regulatory front

  • The American Hospital Association provides more background on the last week’s proposed Calendar Year 2022 Medicare Part B payment rule. The public comment deadline is September 17.
  • Kaiser Health News reports on Biogen’s rather aggressive response to criticism of its FDA approval Alzheimer’s Disease drug Aduhelm which was rolled out last week.

In other news —

  • AHIP discusses health insurer efforts to address provider burnout stemming from the pandemic.
  • Fierce Healthcare reports that UnitedHealthcare, the largest insurer in the country, will make Peloton’s fitness classes to nearly 4 million fully insured members at no cost through its app, beginning on Sept. 1, the company announced. Eligible members will have access to either a 12-month Peloton digital subscription or a four-month waiver for a Peloton All-Access Membership, the insurer said. All-Access members can take fitness classes through connected devices, such as Peloton’s bikes, and track their metrics, in addition to app access.”
  • Fierce Healthcare also informs us that “Anthem and Humana have signed on for a minority stake in a new joint venture that aims to reshape the claims management experience. DomaniRx, pending regulatory approval, will feature a cloud-native, API-driven claims adjudication platform, according to an announcement. SS&C Technologies, which provides services and software to the financial and healthcare industries, will have a majority stake in the venture. * * * The goal of the venture, according to the announcement, is to arm healthcare organizations with “end-to-end transparency and data analytics” to help them keep up with an ever-changing regulatory environment.”

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

Fierce Healthcare tells us that “Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine presents greater benefits than it does safety risks, especially amid the quickly spreading Delta variant, a key CDC expert panel [,the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices] decided [today]. However, the panel said that a ruling over the need for a booster added to all COVID shots will have to start with the FDA.”

Fedweek reports that “Federal employees, their unions and members of Congress continue to watch for details of federal agency ‘reentry’ and ‘post-reentry’ operational plans, with the deadline having passed on Monday (July 19) for agencies to submit those plans to OMB but with changes to telework and other workplace policies likely still weeks or months away.”

According to a press release,

Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) on Tuesday [July 20] requested updates from both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) on their recent efforts to combat anticompetitive conduct in the health insurance industry.  The two senators recently served as chief cosponsors of the bipartisan Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act (CHIRA), which protects consumers by repealing a long-outdated antitrust exemption for the health insurance industry.  Decades of consolidation by health insurance brokers has primed the industry for abuse, allowing insurers to exert market power in order to raise premiums, restrict competition, and deny consumers choice. 

Since the CHIRA’s passage in January of this year, neither the FTC nor the DOJ has announced major steps to exercise their expanded antitrust enforcement authority under the new law.  In their letter, the senators called on the agencies to provide information on any enforcement actions, guidelines, rulemaking, or other actions taken to extend antitrust enforcement to the health insurance industry since then.

Following up on Mondays’ ACA FAQ 47, HHS today announced “the launch of The HIV Challenge, a national competition to engage communities to reduce HIV-related stigma and increase prevention and treatment among racial and ethnic minority people. Through this challenge, HHS is seeking innovative and effective approaches to increase the use of pre-exposure prophylaxis medication (PrEP) and antiretroviral therapy (ART) among people who are at increased risk for HIV or are people with HIV. The HIV Challenge is open to the public, and HHS will award a total of $760,000 to 15 winners over three phases. Phase 1 submissions are open from July 26, 2021, through September 23, 2021.”

Kaiser Health News explains how the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is reevaluating its wellness program for pre-diabetic Medicare beneficiaries.

Over the past decade, tens of thousands of American adults of all ages have taken these diabetes prevention classes with personalized coaching at YMCAs, hospitals, community health centers and other sites. But out of an estimated 16 million Medicare beneficiaries whose excess weight and risky A1c level make them eligible, only 3,600 have participated since Medicare began covering the two-year Medicare Diabetes Prevention Program (MDPP) in 2018, according to the federal government’s Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).

Researchers and people who run diabetes prevention efforts said participation is low because of the way Medicare has set up the program. It pays program providers too little: a maximum of $704 per participant, and usually much less, for dozens of classes over two years. It also imposes cumbersome billing rules, doesn’t adequately publicize the programs and requires in-person classes with no online options, except during the pandemic emergency period. Most of the private Medicare Advantage plans haven’t promoted the program to their members.

Now, CMS has proposed to address some but not all of those problems in a rule change. It predicted the changes would reduce the incidence of diabetes in the Medicare population and potentially cut federal spending to treat diabetes-related conditions.

STAT News reports that

Leveraging Food and Drug Administration regulations loosened during the pandemic, Happify Health, which is best known for its consumer wellness app, will launch new prescription-only software to treat depression.

Happify, founded in 2012, recently announced it had raised $73 million to bolster its efforts in digital therapeutics, a space that is rapidly growing as well-funded companies make the case to regulators, insurers, and clinicians that software can be used to treat disease.

The new product, called Ensemble, is designed to treat both major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. The software, accessible on both computers and smartphones, guides patients through 10 weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, and other related techniques aimed at changing behavior patterns and teaching coping skills.

The FEHBlog likes the company’s name.

The American Medical Association wants the Food and Drug Administration to loosen up on its opioid prescribing rules which conflict with patient care. Perhaps the FEHBlog is oversimplifying this issue, but haven’t we been down this road to perdition before?

In closing, Fierce Healthcare notes that

Large tech giants are jumping into a growing interoperability solutions market as new federal regulations spur the healthcare industry to open up and share medical records data.

Google Cloud rolled out a new tool called the healthcare data engine, currently in private preview, that helps healthcare and life sciences organizations harmonize data from multiple sources, including medical records, claims, clinical trials and research data.

It gives organizations a holistic view of patient longitudinal records, and enables advanced analytics and AI in a secure and compliant cloud environment, according to Google Cloud executives.

Monday Roundup

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David Leonhardt in the New York Times offered an encouraging article this morning:

When the Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a poll at the start of the year and asked American adults whether they planned to get vaccinated, 23 percent said no.

But a significant portion of that group — about one quarter of it — has since decided to receive a shot. The Kaiser pollsters recently followed up and asked these converts what led them to change their minds. The answers are important, because they offer insight into how the millions of still unvaccinated Americans might be persuaded to get shots, too.

What helps move people from vaccine skeptical to vaccinated? The Kaiser polls point to three main themes.

(The themes apply to both the 23 percent of people who said they would not get a shot, as well as to the 28 percent who described their attitude in January as “wait and see.” About half of the “wait and see” group has since gotten a shot.)

1. Seeing that millions of other Americans have been safely vaccinated. * * *

2. Hearing pro-vaccine messages from doctors, friends and relatives. * * * and

3. Learning that not being vaccinated will prevent people from doing some things.

That’s helpful information for the many vaccine advocates, among us.

Today was a busy day for regulatory action:

  • The Secretary of Health and Human Services renewed for another 90 day period the COVID-19 public health emergency. Earlier this month, the HHS Secretary issued a similar renewal for the Opioid public health emergency which of course predates the COVID-19 emergency. Here’s a link discussing the actions that the federal government can take in response to a public health emergency declaration.
  • The Affordable Care Act regulators issued implementation guidance FAQs part 47 today. As background, “on June 11, 2019, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force released a recommendation with an “A” rating that clinicians offer [pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)] with “effective antiretroviral therapy to persons who are at high risk of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) acquisition.” Accordingly, [as required by the ACA, non-grandfathered] plans and issuers must cover PrEP consistent with the USPSTF recommendation without cost sharing [when provided in-network] for plan years (in the individual market, policy years) beginning on or after one year from the issue date of the recommendation (in this case, plan or policy years beginning on or after June 30, 2020).” The FAQs concern the scope of the requisite no cost sharing coverage for this particular service. Affected plans and issuers are allowed sixty days to implement the guidance.
  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services “proposed Medicare payment rates for hospital outpatient and Ambulatory Surgical Center (ASC) services. The Calendar Year (CY) 2022 Hospital Outpatient Prospective Payment System (OPPS) and ASC Payment System Proposed Rule is published annually and will have a 60-day comment period, which will end on September 17, 2021.” Here is a link to the fact sheet on the proposal. Consistent with the President’s recent executive order on competition, the CMS rule making “proposes to set a minimum CMP of $300/day that would apply to smaller hospitals with a bed count of 30 or fewer and apply a penalty of $10/bed/day for hospitals with a bed count greater than 30, not to exceed a maximum daily dollar amount of $5,500.  Under this proposed approach, for a full calendar year of noncompliance, the minimum total penalty amount would be $109,500 per hospital, and the maximum total penalty amount would be $2,007,500 per hospital.” That should be attention getting if finalized. Also the rule making proposes to backtrack on Trump Administration CMS rules that would phase out inpatient only Medicare requirements for certain medical procedures. The former administration’s goal was to lower costs, but the current administration finds that the former administration did not follow all of the necessary patient safety procedural requirements when making this change.
  • Govexec reports that today “marks the deadline for agencies to submit their finalized return to office plans to the Office of Management and Budget. These plans, which are not intended to be public, will vary by agency.”

The American Hospital Association informs us that “The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will host a national stakeholders call July 22 at 3:30 p.m. ET on the interim final rule, Surprise Billing Part 1, that implements aspects of the No Surprises Act that bans balance billing in certain out-of-network scenarios. The call-in number is 888-455-1397; the participant passcode is 8758359.” Thanks AHA and CMS.

Thursday Miscellany

The FEHBlog realized today that he had neglected to provide this link to Prof. Katie Keith’s comprehensive Health Affairs Blog article on the first No Surprises Act interim final rule. AIS offers the following expert takes on that rule:

Industry experts’ perspectives:

Loren Adler, an associate director at the USC-Brookings Schaeffer Initiative for Health Policy, says that the QPA formula could lock in high rates for providers in some regions, particularly areas where there is a paucity of certain types of providers. He interprets the QPA calculation in the IFR as “a pretty provider-friendly definition.
Ge Bai, Ph.D., an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School and Bloomberg School of Public Health, says that it’s important to remember the larger picture — the No Surprises Act could reduce physicians’ revenue in some cases. She says that it could exacerbate physician shortages in areas that pay lower rates than others as physicians move to more lucrative locations.
Going forward, it’s hard to say whether the law and IFR will have inflationary effects on health care prices overall, Adler says. “The biggest piece of that, the determinant, will be the arbitration process,” he adds. He’s waiting to see what happens when the law actually comes into effect and arbitrations begin to take place.

The FEHBlog hopes that this law will not encourage providers to leave health plan networks.

On the COVID-19 front

  • David Leonhardt in the New York Times informs us about “Hopeful News on Delta. The Delta variant is more contagious. It does not appear to be more severe.” “If a new variant is not actually more severe, it doesn’t present a greater threat to a typical person who contracts Covid. Vaccinated people would remain protected. For children too young to be vaccinated, serious Covid symptoms would still be exceedingly rare — rarer than many other everyday risks, like riding in a car — and still concentrated among children with other health problems.”
  • U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued “the first Surgeon General’s Advisory of this Administration to warn the American public about the urgent threat of health misinformation. Health misinformation, including disinformation, have threatened the U.S. response to COVID-19 and continue to prevent Americans from getting vaccinated, prolonging the pandemic and putting lives at risk, and the advisory encourages technology and social media companies to take more responsibility to stop online spread of health misinformation.

On the Aduhelm front:

  • The Wall Street Journal reports that “A pair of large hospitals are declining to administer Biogen Inc.’s new Alzheimer’s treatment, Aduhelm, the latest rupture to emerge from the Food and Drug Administration’s controversial approval of the drug last month. The Cleveland Clinic and Mount Sinai Health System in New York said they wouldn’t administer Aduhelm, which is also called aducanumab, to patients amid a debate about the drug’s effectiveness and whether the FDA lowered its standards in approving the medicine.”
  • Healthcare Dive informs us that “On a morning call with investors [today], UnitedHealth leadership said they were waiting on more information before making a coverage decision regarding Aduhelm, Biogen’s expensive new drug for Alzheimer’s disease priced at an average cost of $56,000 per year.”
  • STAT News tells us that

Normally, if a drug gets FDA approval, that means it has some benefit to patients. But the FDA decided to greenlight Biogen’s controversial drug Aduhelm without that guarantee.

That decision leaves patients, clinicians, and insurance companies in the dark. Under by far the most pressure is Medicare [and FEHB is a close second because FEHB carriers are on the hook for Medicare eligible annuitants drug coverage (see Wednesday’s post)}, since most patients eligible for the pricey drug have insurance through the taxpayer-funded program. Officials with the program just this week started the process for figuring out how Medicare will cover the drug, which will take months.

Some experts and stakeholders, including the influential Alzheimer’s Association, have called on Medicare to activate a rarely used regulatory tool to get more data about how well the drug works. (The FDA has also said Biogen must study whether Aduhelm slows down patients’ cognitive decline, but the drug maker has said it doesn’t have to report its results for another nine years.)

The tool, called a Coverage with Evidence Development, would mean Medicare would only cover Aduhelm for patients who enroll in clinical studies. The process has the potential to create real-world data that could help patients, physicians, and payers navigate unprecedented and difficult decisions.

In miscellaneous news

  • Healthcare Dive reports that “UnitedHealth Group handily beat Wall Street expectations for earnings and revenue in the second quarter, reporting revenue up 15% year over year to $71.3 billion, leading the Minnesota-based healthcare behemoth to increase its full-year guidance following the results.”
  • The Department of Health and Human Services announced that “more than two million people have signed up for health coverage during the Biden-Harris Administration’s 2021 Special Enrollment Period (SEP), which opened on February 15, 2021 as the country grappled with the pandemic, and will conclude on the extended deadline August 15, 2021.” * * * “The report also shows that of the new and returning consumers who have selected a plan since April 1, 1.2 million consumers (34%) have selected a plan that costs $10 or less per month after the American Rescue Plan’s (ARP) premium reductions.” The President wants Congress to make permanent this two year long premium reduction program.
  • Fierce Healthcare adds that “Senate Democrats announced late Tuesday the framework for a $3.5 trillion infrastructure package that will expand Medicare to offer dental, hearing and vision benefits.”

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Today, the FEHBlog virtually attended the NCQA Digital Quality Summit. A highlight was a VA healthcare speaker who pointed out the VA’s access to care website which is nifty. The site, for example, includes comprehensive comparisons of VA care versus outside care. The site should be useful to FEHB carriers because the FEHB Program covers a large cadre of veterans.

The Centers for Medicare Services released its proposed calendar year 2022 Medicare Part B physician payment rule. According to the fee schedule fact sheet

With the proposed budget neutrality adjustment to account for changes in RVUs (required by law), and expiration of the 3.75 percent payment increase provided for CY 2021 by the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (CAA), the proposed CY 2022 PFS conversion factor is $33.58, a decrease of $1.31 from the CY 2021 PFS conversion factor of $34.89. The PFS conversion factor reflects the statutory update of 0.00 percent and the adjustment necessary to account for changes in relative value units and expenditures that would result from our proposed policies.

That would cause a cost shift to commercial carriers.

From the tidbit front —

  • The first interim final rule implementing the No Surprises Act was published in the Federal Register today. It turns out that the public comment deadline is Tuesday, September 7, 2021.
  • The NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins relates that

Many people, including me, have experienced a sense of gratitude and relief after receiving the new COVID-19 mRNA vaccines. But all of us are also wondering how long the vaccines will remain protective against SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19.

Earlier this year, clinical trials of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines indicated that both immunizations appeared to protect for at least six months. Now, a study in the journal Nature provides some hopeful news that these mRNA vaccines may be protective even longer [1].

In the new study, researchers monitored key immune cells in the lymph nodes of a group of people who received both doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA vaccine. The work consistently found hallmarks of a strong, persistent immune response against SARS-CoV-2 that could be protective for years to come.

Though more research is needed, the findings add evidence that people who received mRNA COVID-19 vaccines may not need an additional “booster” shot for quite some time, unless SARS-CoV-2 evolves into new forms, or variants, that can evade this vaccine-induced immunity. That’s why it remains so critical that more Americans get vaccinated not only to protect themselves and their loved ones, but to help stop the virus’s spread in their communities and thereby reduce its ability to mutate.

  • In other NIH news, NIH researchers report a conundrum:

Medications to treat alcohol use disorder, although effective, are only being used to treat 1.6% of people with the disorder, according to a new study.

The findings show that medications for alcohol use disorder are rarely prescribed, even though approved drugs are available.

  • In an article that may be helpful for FEHB plans to share with members, the Centers for Disease Control discusses the causes for type 2 diabetes.
  • Health Payer Intelligence reports that employers are shifting the focus of their wellness programs from physical health to mental health. “Over nine in ten employers said that they were increasing their mental health and wellness programming in 2021, including pediatric mental health programs, according to a survey from Fidelity and Business Group on Health. Almost 75 percent reported that they were extending work-life balance support.and nearly 70 percent were expanding their paid leave policies.”