Monday Roundup

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Federal News Network discusses the federal employee pay raise angles presented by the House financial service and general appropriations bill which cleared the House Appropriations Committee last Friday. Federal News Network indicates that the bill leaves the door open for the Senate to also accept the President’s proposed 2023 4.6% pay raise for federal employees and the military.

From the Dobbs case front, Govexec.com reports

President Joe Biden announced two actions immediately after the ruling: one directing the Department of Health and Human Services to safeguard access to contraception and medication abortion, and another protecting travel for medical appointments.

To those ends,

  • Govexec tells us that OPM today confirmed that its policy allowing federal employees to apply sick time to travel out of state remains in effect after the high court struck down Roe v. Wade, and
  • The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that a meeting was held today between Affordable Care Act regulators, including the HHS and Labor Department Secretaries, and health plan executives to emphasize the importance of full compliance with the ACA’s contraceptive coverage with no cost-sharing mandate when delivered in-network. The ACA regulators also issued a letter to health plans making the same point.

The FEHBlog ran across this NPR Shots article which explains that the Plan B or morning-after pill is considered a contraceptive and not an abortion drug. The Wall Street Journal informs us

Some of the nation’s biggest retailers are rationing over-the-counter emergency contraceptive pills as demand spikes following the Supreme Court ruling overturning a constitutional right to abortion.CVS Health Corp.,  Walmart Inc., and Rite Aid Corp. were limiting purchases of the pills, which were in short supply or out of stock Monday morning on major retailer websites. CVS and Rite Aid were limiting purchases to three. Walmart had some pills available without limits, but only in cases where they wouldn’t ship until next month. Pills available this week were limited to four or six.

From the Omicron and siblings and monkeypox front

  • Govexec reports on a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit decision order rehearing a federal employee vaccine mandate case which upheld the mandate on lack of plaintiffs’ standing to challenge the mandate. The mandate nevertheless has remained on hold while the case winds it way through the appellate court.
  • USA Today reports on when and how to access the monkeypox vaccine.

From the Medicare front, HHS announced

a new model aimed at improving cancer care for Medicare patients and lowering health care costs. CMS’ Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (Innovation Center) designed the Enhancing Oncology Model (EOM) to test how to improve health care providers’ ability to deliver care centered around patients, consider patients’ unique needs, and deliver cancer care in a way that will generate the best possible patient outcomes. The model will focus on supporting and learning from cancer patients, caregivers, and cancer survivors, while addressing inequities and providing patients with treatments that address their unique needs.

From the reports and studies department —

  • The next issue of Health Affairs offers a bevy of articles on Type 2 diabetes and pre-diabetes which are available at this link.
  • The Congressional Budget Office has made available examples of the work performed by its Health Analysis Division.
  • HealthDay reports “More than 18 million Americans have now survived cancer, a new report shows. The American Cancer Society (ACS) and the U.S. National Cancer Institute collaborated on the report to estimate cancer prevalence and help public health officials better serve survivors.”
  • mHealth Intelligence calls our attention to a telehealth-oriented  Healthcare Experience Report: 2022 released by Zocdoc. The FEHBlog was pleased to read “Mental health continues to hold a place of dominance in telehealth. In May of 2020, 2021, and 2022, the percentage of mental health visits that occurred virtually was 74 percent, 85 percent, and 87 percent, respectively.” Hub and spoke telehealth, e.g, Teladoc, brings mental health care in-network thereby lowering benefit costs while improving access to care.

Thursday Miscellany

From Washington, D.C., and “Following a meeting of the Social Security and Medicare Boards of Trustees, the U.S. Department of the Treasury—joined by Departments of Health and Human Services and Labor, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, and the Social Security Administration—released the annual Social Security and Medicare Trustees Reports.” Here is a link to the government’s fact sheet on those reports.

The American Hospital Association explains

The Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund will have sufficient funds to pay full benefits until 2028, according to the latest annual report released today by the Medicare Board of Trustees.

That’s two years later than last year’s report. The HI Fund, known as Medicare Part A, helps pay for inpatient hospital services, hospice care, and skilled nursing facility and home health services following hospital stays.

HI income is projected to be higher than last year’s estimates because both the number of covered workers and average wages are projected to be higher, according to the report. In addition, HI expenditures are projected to be lower than last year’s estimates in the beginning of the short-range period mainly due to the pandemic but are projected to become larger after 2023 due to higher projected provider payment updates.

“There is substantial uncertainty in the economic, demographic, and health care projection factors for HI trust fund expenditures and revenues,” the report notes. “Accordingly, the date of HI trust fund depletion could differ substantially in either direction from the 2028 intermediate estimate.”

From the Omicron and siblings front

Bloomberg Prognosis reports

More than two-thirds of the world’s population probably have significant levels of Covid-19 antibodies, meaning they have either been infected or were vaccinated, the World Health Organization said. 

So-called seroprevalence rates surged to 67% in October from 16% in February of 2021, the WHO said, in a summary of studies from around the globe. Given the emergence of the fast-spreading omicron variant, the figure is probably even higher now.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced

A large randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial led by the National Institutes of Health shows that treating adults hospitalized with COVID-19 with infliximab or abatacept – drugs widely used to treat certain autoimmune diseases – did not significantly shorten time to recovery but did substantially improve clinical status and reduce deaths.

That’s a good trade-off.

From the federal employee benefits front

  • OPM released a proposed Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program rule today. The rule indicates that OPM is planning a suspension of enrollments in this Program. “For example, it may be appropriate to suspend applications to allow a period of time for revisions to underwriting processes or for premium repricing after a review of actuarial assumptions, in order to ensure that premium rates reasonably and equitably reflect the cost of the benefits provided as required by the statute and to ensure that OPM can provide eligible individuals with the information needed to enable them to fully evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of obtaining LTCI under FLTCIP.” (pp. 4-5). The public comment deadline is expected to be July 2, 2022.
  • Benefits consultant Tammy Flanagan responds in Govexec to reader questions about “about choosing when to retire in order to maximize the impact of both the annual cost-of-living adjustment to retirement benefits and the yearly federal employee pay increase.” Check it out.

From the transparency front

Roll Call discusses the progress of the hospital industry in achieving compliance with the federal government’s pricing transparency rule which became enforceable eighteen months ago.

While most hospitals have been willing to follow parts of the rule — namely, a requirement that they post user-friendly lists or tools to help patients shop for services — they have been less compliant with a requirement that they post “machine readable” files of standard charges — data that experts say would be far more useful in driving down costs.

That’s an intriguing factoid because the federal government’s health plan transparency rule’s similar requirement to post three “machine readable” files of claim payments data becomes enforceable on July 1, 2022.

From the Rx coverage front, Healthcare Dive informs us

* Rite Aid is the latest pharmacy giant to step into clinical care delivery through a new partnership with rural home care startup Homeward.

* Under the deal announced Tuesday, Rite Aid pharmacists will direct eligible customers to Homeward’s clinical services, including annual wellness visits, health screenings, diagnostic testing, virtual visits and in-home care. Homeward will also be able to park its mobile clinician units at Rite Aid’s rural locations, with the goal of allowing senior customers to see a provider and pick up their prescriptions in one visit.

* Homeward will provide in-network services, including specialty care beginning with cardiology, in the third quarter this year for patients covered by Medicare and Medicare Advantage plans. The companies are starting the partnership in Michigan, with the opportunity to expand to Rite Aid’s 700 rural locations across the U.S. over time.

From the telehealth front, Healio tells us

Telemedicine could be as effective as in-person medicine in evaluating pediatric genetic disorders, according to a study published in Pediatrics.

The study is the latest in a string of investigations examining clinicians’ and patients’ experiences in telemedicine following its widespread implementation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Evidence has suggested that telemedicine could significantly reduce costs for certain patients, but also that patients and practitioners may prefer in-person visits.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the CDC’s Covid Data Tracker, and using Thursday as the first day of the week, here is the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new Covid cases from the 27th week of 2021 through the 21st week of 2022:

The Wall Street Journal’s Numbers column observes

Reliable estimates of case counts are particularly relevant with the U.S. in the midst of yet another Covid-19 wave. By official case counts, it is a modest wave, at roughly 110,000 infections a day, according to the CDC. That is smaller than the 165,000 daily cases reported during the Delta wave, or the 250,000 a day during the 2020-21 winter. 

But estimates of the true number of infections, correcting for undercounting, suggest the U.S. might be experiencing the second-largest wave of Covid-19 infections since the pandemic began.

Here’s the CDC’s weekly chart of new Covid hospitalizations.

The Journal’s Numbers column notes

Hospitalization numbers also aren’t a perfect gauge. Someone can break a leg and test positive in the emergency room for a mild case of Covid-19. That case becomes a confirmed coronavirus hospitalization—and a strain on the hospital’s bed counts and personal-protective-equipment supplies—but not necessarily a severe case.

In Massachusetts, hospitals have begun reporting whether Covid-19 is the primary reason someone is in the hospital—and in January about 50% of cases were. It is hard to pinpoint how similar Massachusetts would be to other states, but it offers a further example of how better counting could improve assessment of the pandemic.

Here’s the FEHBlog weekly chart of new Covid deaths again from the 27th week of 2021 through the 21st week of 2022:

The Wall Street Journal reports

Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. are hovering near the lowest levels since the pandemic hit, showing how a population with built-up immune protection is less at risk of severe outcomes even as another wave of infections flows through the country.

The nearly 300 deaths reported daily are again more concentrated among older people, underscoring hazards for the more vulnerable while the overall population appears less at risk.

Particularly vulnerable people, such as those who are older and immunocompromised, will likely always have some risk of death from a Covid-19 infection, doctors and public-health experts said. Increasing booster rates and access to treatments, in addition to taking certain precautions, can help lower the threat presented by the virus, they said.

The New York Times adds

 White House officials said on Thursday that they were introducing new models for distributing Paxlovid, the Covid-19 oral medication made by Pfizer, in an effort to get the treatment to more people and keep coronavirus death rates relatively low even as cases increase.

The federal government will start reimbursing a clinic in Providence, R.I., for evaluating patients who test positive and immediately prescribing Paxlovid to those eligible for it — the first of what the White House said would be a series of federally supported sites, with others set to open in New York and Illinois. Federal workers are also being sent to state-run testing sites in Minnesota, transforming them into “test-to-treat” locations, the White House said.

“Fundamentally, what we’re trying to do is get to a point where Covid deaths are largely preventable, and I think we’re pretty close to there,” Dr. Ashish K. Jha, the White House Covid-19 response coordinator, said in an interview Wednesday evening. “Deaths from this disease really should become increasingly rare.”

STAT News offers an interesting look into how scientists assess the level of Covid resistance to Paxlovid.

Resistance is the hobgoblin of antiviral medicine, even with antivirals as effective as Paxlovid. After doctors deployed nearly every new virus-killing infusion or pill in history, strains popped up — either immediately or eventually — with machinery warped in just the right way to evade the threat.

Exactly how much of a problem resistance will be for Paxlovid is complicated. In some patients, the coronavirus will inevitably find ways to evade the pill, as it did prior Covid-19 drugs.

“If there is anything we know about viruses and antiviral drugs is that eventually we will see some sort of resistance,” Andrew Pavia, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at University of Utah Health, said in an email.

What’s less clear, Pavia and other experts say, is whether any resistant variants will spread widely. The coronavirus may have particular difficulty getting around Paxlovid compared to other drugs because patients take it for only five days and because it targets a protein the virus can’t easily change. Any mutation or modification the virus makes may impair its ability to replicate or survive.

Here’s the FEHBlog weekly chart of Covid vaccinations distributed and administered

The CDC’s weekly review of its Covid statistic tells us

People who are up to date on vaccines have much lower risk of serious illness and death from COVID-19 compared with people who are unvaccinated. CDC’s COVID Data Tracker shows that in March 2022, adults ages 18 years and older who were unvaccinated were about 5 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than those who were up to date. In the same month, people ages 12 years and older and unvaccinated were 17 timesmore likely to die of COVID-19 than those who were up to date.

COVID-19 vaccines available in the United States are effective at protecting people from getting seriously ill, being hospitalized, and even dying—especially people who are boosted. As with other diseases, you are protected best from COVID-19 when you stay up to date with recommended vaccines. Find a vaccine provider near you.

The CDC’s weekly review further explains

As of May 19, 2022, there are 301 (9.35%) counties, districts, or territories with a high COVID-19 Community Level, 477 (14.81%) counties with a medium Community Level, and 2,442 (75.84%) counties with a low Community Level. This represents a moderate (+5.10 percentage points) increase in the number of high-level counties, a slight (−0.74 percentage points) decrease in the number of medium-level counties, and a corresponding (−5.84 percentage points) decrease in the number of low-level counties. Five (9.62%) of 52 jurisdictions had no high- or medium-level counties this week.

To check your COVID-19 Community Level, visit COVID Data Tracker.

In big Medicare news

the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released a report that recommends cost savings from lower-than-expected Medicare Part B spending be passed along to people with Medicare Part B coverage in the calculation of the 2023 Part B premium. Earlier this year, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra instructed CMS to reassess the 2022 Part B premium amount in response to a price reduction for Aduhelm™, a monoclonal antibody directed against amyloid for use in treating Alzheimer’s disease. Given the information available today, it is expected that the 2023 premium will be lower than 2022. The final determination will be made later this fall.

This CMS decision is quite sensible, in the FEHBlog’s view.

On a related FEHB note, FedSmith discusses the pros and cons of enrolling in Medicare Part B when you are a federal or Postal annuitant with FEHB coverage in retirement as well.

From the telehealth front, mHealth Intelligence reports

CVS Health has launched a new virtual care solution to create a more coordinated healthcare experience for consumers.

Called CVS Health Virtual Primary Care, the digital care platform will provide healthcare consumers with an array of care services, including primary care, on-demand care, chronic condition management, and mental health services. Consumers will also be able to choose their healthcare setting from various retail, community-based, virtual, and at-home care options.

“We’re meeting people where they are on their healthcare journey and providing care that is more convenient and easier to access,” said Creagh Milford, DO, vice president, enterprise virtual care at CVS Health, in the news release.

The new benefit will launch on January 1, 2023.

From the Rx coverage front, Formulary Watch reveals that

The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) has released the protocol for its second annual review of insurance company policies to assess fair access to prescription drugs. ICER will evaluate whether 15 large U.S. commercial payers, the two largest state health exchange plans, and the Department of Veterans Affairs have formularies and procedures that provide appropriate access to the prescription drugs reviewed by ICER in 2020. These drugs include those that treat patients with cystic fibrosishemophilia Amigrainesickle cell disease, and ulcerative colitis.

The analysis is expected to be completed in November 2022.

From the studies front, the Centers for Disease Control issued its 2021 Diabetes Report Card this week. Here are the highlights

* After almost 2 decades of continual increases, the incidence of newly diagnosed cases of diabetes in the United States decreased from 9.3 per 1,000 adults in 2009 to 5.9 per 1,000 adults in 2019.

* Prevalence of prediabetes among US adults remained steady from 2005–2008 to 2017–2020. However, notification of prediabetes status nearly tripled (from 6.5% to 17.4%).

* American Indian or Alaska Native, non-Hispanic Black, Hispanic, and non-Hispanic Asian people are more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than non-Hispanic White people (14.5%, 12.1%, 11.8%, 9.5%, and 7.4%, respectively).

* During the COVID-19 pandemic, diabetes emerged as an underlying condition that increases the chance of severe illness. Nearly 4 in 10 adults who died from COVID-19 in the United States also had diabetes.

Thursday Miscellany

From Capitol Hill, The Hill informs us

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

A growing number of Senate Democrats say they’re ready to take a tough vote on an amendment to keep the Title 42 health order in place at the U.S.-Mexico border if that’s what’s needed to move a stalled COVID-19 relief package. 

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has held the bill from the floor because Republicans are insisting on voting on a bipartisan amendment to overrule the Biden administration’s decision to lift Title 42, a pandemic order that has stopped thousands of immigrants from entering the country on asylum claims.   * * *

Without giving in to the Republicans’ demand for a vote on the hot-button issue of securing the border, COVID-19 relief could be stalled until after the November election.  

The amendment is expected to fail but it’s a tough vote for vulnerable Senate Democrats. 

More likely, in the FEHBlog’s view, the Majority Leader is waiting until the Title 42 health order is lifted later this month to see what happens.

From the Omicron and siblings front —

The Wall Street Journal informs us

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that children ages 5 to 11 receive the newly authorized Covid-19 booster shot from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE.

Following the recommendation Thursday, many of the nation’s doctors, pharmacies and other vaccination sites are expected to begin offering the extra doses to the 28 million U.S. children in the age group.

The shots are to be given five months after the second dose. The extra dose is one-third the amount that those 12 years old and above receive.

Also Thursday, the CDC said it was strengthening its recommendation that people 12 years and older who are immunocompromised, or who are 50 and older, should receive a second booster dose at least four months after their first.

This means that health plans must start covering the booster with no member cost-sharing pursuant to ACA FAQ 50.

The Journal adds

Moderna Inc.’s leader said it is possible the company would be able to start shipping its Covid-19 vaccine for use in young children as soon as early June, pending a decision by U.S. regulators.

“We are ready from a manufacturing standpoint,” Moderna Chief Executive Stéphane Bancel said during a virtual appearance Thursday at The Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Festival.

The FDA/CDC decision is expected next month.

In other virus news, STAT News interviewed a top CDC expert on monkeypox. From the FEHBlog’s standpoint, the key takeaway is that monkeypox is not Covid.

I think we can take away a lot from what we know about monkeypox in Congo Basin and in West Africa. Even if human-to-human transmission is documented, it is generally documented among very close contacts. So family members, people taking care of ill patients. Or health care providers.

In funding news, the Department of Health and Human Services announced today a $1.5 billion funding opportunity under the State Opioid Response

SOR grant program provides formula funding to states and territories for increasing access to FDA-approved medications for the treatment of Opioid Use Disorder (OUD), and for supporting prevention, harm reduction, treatment, and recovery support services for OUD and other concurrent substance use disorders (SUD). The SOR program also supports care for stimulant misuse and use disorders, including for cocaine and methamphetamine. The SOR program helps reduce overdose deaths and close the gap in treatment needs across America by giving states and territories flexibility in funding evidence-based practices and supports across different settings to meet local community needs.

From the miscellany department

  • Today “the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) released guidance regarding the implementation of EO 13932; Modernizing and Reforming the Assessment and Hiring of Federal Job Candidates.  OPM’s guidance represents a major step towards the federal government’s adoption of skills-based hiring practices and is an important innovation in federal hiring, which has historically relied on education and candidate self-assessments as a proxy for a candidate’s ability to perform in a job. This new approach helps hiring managers recognize and value skills regardless of where they were acquired, whether in a formal degree program, on the job, or on one’s own.”
  • Employee Benefit News identifies the ten most popular mental health and wellness apps.
  • Benefits consultant Tammy Flanagan discusses federal employee life insurance benefits in Govexec.
  • Health Payer Intelligence reports that CMS has updated the Medicare.gov website “to include new features such as highlighting pages that answer popular questions and spotlighting key steps that consumers should take related to Medicare coverage.”

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the Omicron and siblings front —

The Secretary of Health and Human Services has extended the Covid public health emergency for another 90 days. Bloomberg explains, “The declaration allows the US to grant emergency authorizations of drugs, vaccines and other medical countermeasures, as well as administer those products to millions of people at no out-of-pocket cost. It’s also enabled millions of Americans to get health coverage through Medicaid, among other benefits.” Bloomberg’s sources expect the declaration to be renewed again in July 2022.

The American Hospital Association informs us

The Food and Drug Administration today authorized a single Pfizer COVID-19 booster dose for children aged 5-11 who completed the Pfizer vaccine primary series at least five months before. FDA authorized the vaccine for this age group last October.

“The FDA has determined that the known and potential benefits of a single booster dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine for children 5 through 11 years of age at least five months after completing a primary series outweigh its known and potential risks and that a booster dose can help provide continued protection against COVID-19 in this and older age groups,” said Peter Marks, M.D., director of FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.

In public health news —

  • The federal government’s Million Hearts campaign has launched a website discussing hypertensive disorders of pregnancy. The site explains “Hypertensive disorders of pregnancy are a leading cause of maternal mortality and can put both mother and baby at risk for problems during pregnancy.1 High blood pressure can also cause problems during and after delivery. Importantly, hypertensive disorders of pregnancy are often preventable and treatable.”
  • The Centers for Disease Control has updated its website discussing diabetes and heart disease. The FEHBlog knows from his PCP about the dangerous relationship between those two diseases.

In survey news —

  • Beckers Hospital Review relates that “The Lown Institute, a nonpartisan healthcare think tank, released its ranking May 17 of the best hospitals in the U.S. for avoiding overuse of low-value tests and procedures.”
  • Fierce Healthcare tells us, “Utah is the healthiest state for seniors this year, earning high marks for low prevalence of smoking and excessive drinking, according to a new report from the United Health Foundation. The philanthropic arm of UnitedHealth Group issued its annual America’s Health Rankings senior report Tuesday morning, which highlights state-specific performance across a slew of measures as well as progress, or lack thereof, on several key health issues facing seniors.”

From the healthcare business front

Fierce Healthcare reports

Private insurance plans paid hospitals on average 224% more compared with Medicare rates for both inpatient and outpatient services in 2020, a new study found. 

Researchers at RAND Corporation looked at data from 4,000 hospitals in 49 states from 2018 to 2020. While the 224% increase in rates is high, it is a slight reduction from the 247% reported in 2018 in the last study RAND performed. 

“This reduction is a result of a substantial increase in the volume of claims in the analysis from states with prices below the previous average price,” the study said. 

The report showed that plans in certain states wound up paying hospitals more than others. It found that Florida, West Virginia and South Carolina had prices that were at or even higher than 310% of Medicare. 

But other states like Hawaii, Arkansas and Washington paid less than 175% of Medicare rates. 

The American Hospital Association replies

The RAND Corporation’s latest hospital pricing report again “overreaches and jumps to unfounded conclusions based on incomplete data,” AHA President and CEO Rick Pollacksaid today. “The report looks at claims for just 2.2% of overall hospital spending, which, no matter how you slice it, represents a small share of what actually happens in hospitals and health systems in the real world. RAND also continues to ignore that hospitals are not all the same. Researchers should expect variation in the cost of delivering services across the wide range of U.S. hospitals — from rural critical access hospitals to large academic medical centers. Tellingly, when RAND added more claims as compared to previous versions of this report, the average price for hospital services declined. This suggests what we have long suspected: you simply cannot draw credible conclusions from such a limited and biased set of claims. 

“Further, the results highlight what even the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) acknowledges: Medicare does not fully cover the cost of providing care to Medicare beneficiaries. Pinning commercial prices to inadequate Medicare rates would cause even more financial strain to hospitals already facing tremendous challenges as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and rising inflation. The result could be reduced patient access to care.” 

I agree with the American Hospital Association that the problem is Medicare. Why Sen. Sanders continues to push Medicare for All is a mystery to the FEHBlog.

Also, Healthcare Dive informs us

Humana plans to open about 100 new value-based primary care clinics for Medicare patients between 2023 and 2025 through its second joint venture with private-equity firm Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe, according to a Monday release from the payer.

The clinics will be managed and operated under Humana’s CenterWell Senior Primary Care brand, and WCAS will have majority ownership while Humana will have a minority stake.

The $1.2 billion expansion builds upon an existing venture with the same firm to open 67 clinics by early 2023.

From the Rx coverage front, Drug Channel reports on “The State of Specialty Pharmacy 2022: Reflections, Trends, and Photos from #Asembia22.”

I had the honor of presenting during the event’s general session: The Specialty Pharmacy Industry Update & Outlook. As in past years, I was joined by Doug Long from IQVIA. 

You can download our full slide deck here: https://drugch.nl/asembia22

From the mental healthcare front, Health Payer Intelligence discusses another angle considered in the UHG report on seniors mentioned above.

Over the last decade, seniors have experienced rising rates of mental healthcare needs, drug-related deaths, and early mortality, the UnitedHealth Foundation’s 2022 Senior Report shows.

“The 2022 Senior Report shows that the wellbeing of older adults was declining before the pandemic, which we know exacerbated many of these challenges,” Rhonda Randall, DO, executive vice president and chief medical officer of UnitedHealthcare Employer and Individual, said in the press release

“We urge people to help the seniors in your lives reconnect with the communities and activities they have enjoyed in the past but may not yet have returned to. We are focused on reducing disparities in the health care system for everyone, including older Americans.”

In webinar news — The Labor Department is holding a virtual event on May 25 concerning building mental health-friendly workplaces.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s Covid Data Tracker and using Thursday as the first day of the week, here are the FEHBlog’s weekly charts of new Covid cases and deaths from the 27th week of 2021 through the 17th week of 2022:

In addition, here’s the CDC’s Chart of Daily Trends in the Number of New COVID-19 Hospital Admissions in the United States:

Can you say endemic?

Below you will find the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of Covid vaccinations distributed and administered from the beginning of the Covid vaccination era in December 2020 to the current week 17.

The CDC’s Covid Data Tracker Weekly Review points out, “This week, the U.S. COVID-19 Vaccination Program marks two milestones: 500 days since the first COVID-19 vaccine was approved for use in the United States, and 100 million first booster doses administered.”

In the New York Times, David Leonhardt reports that the FDA is waiting to receive additional data from Pfizer and Modera [likely next month] to support their emergency use authorizations for Covid vaccines for children between six months and five years. Although the FDA’s preference is to give EUAs to both vaccines simultaneously to provide parents a choice, the agency will not delay a EUA decision on one or the other unnecessarily.

The CDC’s weekly review adds,

Currently, there are 54 (1.68%) counties, districts, or territories with a high COVID-19 Community Level, 256 (7.95%) counties with a medium Community Level, and 2,910 (90.37%) counties with a low Community Level. This represents a slight (0.59%) increase in the number of high-level counties, a small (+1.43%) increase in the number of medium-level counties, and a corresponding (−2.02%) decrease in the number of low-level counties. Seventeen (30.36%) of 56 jurisdictions had no high- or medium-level counties this week.

To check your COVID-19 community level, visit COVID Data Tracker.

From the health savings account front, the Society for Human Resource Management reports

Health savings account (HSA) contribution limits for 2023 are going up significantly in response to the recent inflation surge, the IRS announced April 29, giving employers that sponsor high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) plenty of time to prepare for open enrollment season later this year.

The annual inflation-adjusted limit on HSA contributions for self-only coverage will be $3,850, up from $3,650 in 2022. The HSA contribution limit for family coverage will be $7,750, up from $7,300. The adjustments represent approximately a 5.5 percent increase over 2022 contribution limits, whereas these limits rose by about 1.4 percent between 2021 and 2022.

In Revenue Procedure 2022-24, the IRS confirmed HSA contribution limits effective for calendar year 2023, along with minimum deductible and maximum out-of-pocket expenses for the HDHPs with which HSAs are paired.

Here is that 2023 deductible and OOP max information:

For calendar year 2023, a “high deductible health plan” is defined under § 223(c)(2)(A) as a health plan with an annual deductible that is not less than $1,500 for self-only coverage or $3,000 for family coverage [Self-only: +$100 Family: +200 from 2022], and for which the annual out-of-pocket expenses (deductibles, co-payments, and other amounts, but not premiums) do not exceed $7,500 for self-only coverage or $15,000 for family coverage [Self-only: +$450 Family: +$900 from 2022].

From the Medicare Part D front, Fierce Healthcare reports

CMS is giving Part D plans a little extra time to prepare to funnel price concessions to the member at the point of sale.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services on Friday finalized a rule with the price concession changes as well as a slew of updates for Medicare Advantage plans.

The agency said in a fact sheet on the regulation that beginning Jan. 1, 2024, it will define the negotiated price for a drug in Part D as the baseline, or lowest possible, payment to a pharmacy to ensure that price concessions are felt at the point of sale by beneficiaries.

“This policy reduces beneficiary out-of-pocket costs and improves price transparency and market competition in the Part D program,” CMS said.

The bell for prescription drug rebates is beginning to toll.

From the healthcare business front, Healthcare Dive tells us

Molina Healthcare in the first quarter recorded its highest COVID-19 costs since the start of the pandemic, CEO Joe Zubretsky said Thursday.

However, those costs were almost entirely offset by members cutting back on healthcare visits, a common trend throughout the pandemic, he said on a call with investors.

After costs peaked in January, they quickly declined in the subsequent months. “When I say [COVID-19 costs] subsided during the quarter, it did so dramatically,” Zubretsky added.   

HR Morning discusses a recent Willis Towers Watson survey on how employers are dealing with rising health care costs. To make healthcare more affordable for employees.

Fifty-five percent said their plan is to improve quality and outcomes to lower overall cost. Adding or enhancing low- or no-cost coverage for specific benefits is the plan for 41%. And 32% will be making changes to employees’ out-of-pocket costs, while 21% said they’ll alter their health plan payroll contributions.

From the preventive services front, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force made a final grade D recommendation against initiating low-dose aspirin use for the primary prevention of CVD in adults 60 years or older. “For adults aged 40 to 59 years with an estimated 10% or greater 10-year cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk:  The decision to initiate low-dose aspirin use for the primary prevention of CVD in this group should be an individual one.” This is a Grade C recommendation.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the Omicron and siblings front —

The American Hospital Association informs us

The share of the U.S. population with antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2 virus in their bloodstream increased from 34% in December 2021 to 58% in February 2022, including 75% of children, according to a study released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study tested blood samples during the COVID-19 omicron period for antibodies produced in response to infection but not in response to COVID-19 vaccines. Children had the highest rates of infection-induced antibodies and adults 65 and older the lowest, with the greatest increases over the period in age groups with the lowest COVID-19 vaccination coverage. 

“Vaccination remains the safest strategy for preventing complications from SARS-CoV-2 infection, including hospitalization among children and adults,” the authors said. 

and

Starting this week, the Administration will allow all pharmacies in the federal pharmacy program to order free oral antiviral treatments directly from the federal government, the White House announced today. The Administration hopes to double the number of participating pharmacies to 40,000 in the coming weeks, and to launch new Test-to-Treat locations that offer the Pfizer and Merck pills, which the Food and Drug Administration authorized in December to treat COVID-19 in patients at risk of progressing to severe disease. Pharmacies also can continue to receive the pills through their state or territorial health department. The Administration said it is working to improve the Test-to-Treat patient experience, including through telehealth options; and to provide more guidance on COVID-19 treatments to prescribers and clinicians.

The New York Times adds more details to this AHA blurb. In short, “experts say that efforts to reach at-risk Americans remain complex and inefficient.”

Medscape adds “Contrary to popular belief, no association appeared between the number of intensive care unit beds and COVID-19 deaths, based on a review of data from all 50 states between March 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021.”

The Wall Street Journal further reports

Pfizer Inc. and partner BioNTech SE asked U.S. health regulators to authorize a booster dose of its Covid-19 vaccine for children 5 to 11 years old.

The request Tuesday to the Food and Drug Administration comes after the companies said earlier this month that a third shot safely generated a strong immune response in the youngsters, including significantly increased antibody levels against the Omicron variant. 

A thumbs-up from the FDA would expand eligibility of boosters to the roughly 28 million children in the U.S. Booster doses are now available for people as young as 12 years old in the U.S., and regulators recently greenlighted second boosters for people who are 50 years old and up or who have weakened immune systems

In FEHB news, OPM issued a paper describing the 2021 highlights of OPM’s FEHB Plan Performance Assessment system. In the FEHBlog’s view, OPM’s PPA system could be improved by (1) seeking plan input on all PPA changes, including, for example, the benchmark change to ALOB and (2) implementing changes for the first measurement year following the change, not the year in which the change is made. Both of these changes are consistent with federal administrative law, in the FEHBlog’s opinion. Also, OPM should use the carrot incentive more than the stick.

In healthcare business news,

Healthcare Dive tells us

Hospitals are experiencing a “massive surge” in expenses for items such as labor, drugs and supplies amid rising inflation, the American Hospital Association said in a report on Monday.

Labor is a particular stressor, making up more than half of hospitals’ total expenses. Overall, hospital labor expenses per patient increased almost 20% from 2019 to 2021, the AHA said. 

The powerful hospital lobby urged Congress to help address these headwinds by adding money to the provider relief fund and creating flexibility on advanced Medicare repayments, among other items.

Medpage Today informs us

Nearly three-fourths of U.S. physicians opted for employment with hospitals, health systems, or other corporate entities, such as private equity firms and health insurers in the pandemic era, according to a new report.

In 2021, 73.9% of physicians were hospital- or corporate-employed, up from 69.3% at the start of 2021, 64.5% at the start of 2020, and 62.2% at the start of 2019, according to the nonprofit Physicians Advocacy Institute (PAI) and consulting firm Avalere. That equates to 484,100 employed physicians, up from 423,800, 391,000, and 375,400 at the start of 2021, 2020, and 2019, respectively.

Perhaps these two trends are related? On the one hand, more physician employees create more hospital expenses. On the other, a hospital receives additional health plan payments for services provided by physician employees. In all likelihood, the revenue exceeds the expense in this case.

From tidbits department,

  • AHRQ reports on “Geographic Variation in Inpatient Stays for Five Leading Mental Disorders, 2016–2018.”

CAQH CORE, the author of national operating rules for the HIPAA-covered administrative transactions, recently released new operating rules to enhance information exchange and healthcare operations related to benefits coverage and supplemental documentation. * * *

The new CAQH CORE Attachments Operating Rule aims to improve the exchange of attachments, a long-standing industry issue. The guidelines will establish key infrastructure and data content requirements, helping providers send electronic health plans documentation to support a claim or prior authorization in a uniform format, the press release stated.

Reassociation or linking the attachment with the original prior authorization request or claim submission is one of the most significant pain points in the attachment workflow, CAQH CORE added.

The new guidelines also offer updates to enhance the exchange of critical eligibility and benefit information related to telemedicine, prior authorization, remaining coverage benefits, procedure-level information, and tiered benefits between health plans and providers.

The second newly released rule, the CAQH CORE Eligibility & Benefits Data Content Rule, intends to enhance provider knowledge regarding their patients’ coverage, leading to more timely care and accurate billing.

Finally, CAQH CORE revised its rules for infrastructure, which now calls for greater health plan system availability and less frequent periods of downtime.

  • Health Payer Intelligence notes “Applying an out-of-pocket spending cap to Medicare Part D could be a tool for promoting health equity, according to an insight from Avalere.”

Friday Stats and More

Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s Covid Data Tracker and using Thursday as the first day of the week, here are the FEHBlog’s latest weekly charts of new Covid cases and deaths.

Because David Leonhardt in the New York Times recommends keeping an eye on Covid hospital admissions here is the CDC’s latest chart

The weekly new cases and death chart start in the middle of 2021 when we hit all time lows in new cases. Although our new cases total for the past week was 3 times week 27 in 2021, the new hospitalizations level is lower. That’s good news.

The CDC’s weekly review of its Covid stats adds

Currently, there are 39 (1.21%) counties, districts, or territories with a high COVID-19 Community Level, 231 (7.17%) counties with a medium Community Level, and 2,954 (91.63%) counties with a low Community Level. This represents a slight (0.78%) increase in the number of high-level counties, a small (+1.67%) increase in the number of medium-level counties, and a corresponding (−2.45%) decrease in the number of low-level counties. Twenty-five (44.64%) of 56 jurisdictions had no high- or medium-level counties this week.

To check your COVID-19 community level, visit COVID Data Tracker.

Here’s the FEHBlog’s latest weekly chart of Covid vaccinations distributed and administer from the beginning of the COVID vaccination era to the 16th week of 2022.

New vaccinations remain above 2 million per week.

From the Medicare front, the Centers for Medicare Services announced today a proposed rule that would create five new special Medicare enrollment periods.

  • An SEP for Individuals Impacted by an Emergency or Disaster that would allow CMS to provide relief to those beneficiaries who missed an enrollment opportunity because they were impacted by a disaster or other emergency as declared by a Federal, state, or local government entity.
  • An SEP for Health Plan or Employer Error that would provide relief in instances where an individual can demonstrate that their employer or health plan materially misrepresented information related to enrolling in Medicare timely. 
  • An SEP for Formerly Incarcerated Individuals that would allow individuals to enroll following their release from correctional facilities. 
  • An SEP to Coordinate with Termination of Medicaid Coverage that would allow individuals to enroll after termination of Medicaid eligibility.
  • An SEP for Other Exceptional Conditions that would, on a case-by-case basis, grant an enrollment period to an individual when circumstances beyond the individual’s control prevented them from enrolling during the IEP, GEP or other SEPs. 

These “SEPs that would provide individuals who meet certain exceptional conditions and who missed a Medicare enrollment period an opportunity to enroll without having to wait for the GEP and without being subject to a [Part B] late enrollment penalty.”

From the healthcare business front —

Beckers Payer Issues tells us

UnitedHealth Group subsidiary Optum has quietly acquired at least two independent primary care groups in Oregon, according to The Lund Report.

Optum has purchased Eugene-based Oregon Medical Group and Portland-based GreenField Health. Combined, the two systems have about 120 doctors and clinicians at 11 facilities. 

GreenField Health was purchased last year and Oregon Medical Group in late 2020, according to the Lund Report.

Nationwide, UnitedHealth Group has purchased about 1,500 primary care and specialty facilities, totaling 60,000 physicians.

Fierce Healthcare informs us

Humana will divest its majority stake in Kindred at Home’s hospice business to investment firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice.

As part of the deal, which was announced Thursday, Humana will sell off a 60% stake in KAH Hospice for $2.8 billion in cash, which reflects an enterprise valuation of $3.4 billion and twelve times the division’s forecasted earnings before interest, income taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) for this year.

Humana said a year ago when it bought out the majority stake in Kindred at Home that it planned to divest the hospice arm. The insurer believes that it can deliver strong patient outcomes in hospice care without owning KAH Hospice outright, Chief Financial Officer Susan Diamond said in a statement.

From the medical research front, STAT News interviews Helmy Eltoukhy and AmirAli Talasaz, Guardant Health’s founders and co-CEOs.

Bay Area biotech Guardant Health is closer than ever to its ultimate goal — developing and deploying a simple, blood-based test that you could get during an annual doctor’s visit to spot cancer early enough that it might be treated more successfully. And 2022 is shaping up to be a big year for the company’s ambitions.

That’s good news for all of us.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the Omicron and siblings front —

STAT News tells us

Scientists around the world are discovering and tracking newer forms of the Omicron coronavirus variant, showing how even when a strain becomes globally dominant, it continues to evolve and can splinter into different lineages.

Case in point: Updated data released Tuesday showed that a burgeoning form of Omicron, called BA.2.12.1 —  itself a sublineage of the BA.2 branch of Omicron — now accounts for nearly one in five infections in the United States. It’s eating into the prevalence of the ancestral BA.2, highlighting the emergent virus’s transmission advantage over its parent. BA.2 now accounts for about 74% of cases, while the remaining 6% or so are from the BA.1 branch of Omicron, the first form of the variant that took over globally and whose prevalence has been falling as BA.2 became dominant.

The menagerie can be dizzying to track, especially because all these cases technically fall under the Omicron umbrella. But even as scientists closely monitor the divergence of Omicron, early signs suggest the different lineages don’t substantially differ in terms of how virulent they are or in their ability to evade the protection generated by immunizations. While some of the newer forms of the virus might be better spreaders than others, their emergence doesn’t necessarily result in huge increases in cases.

David Leonhardt adds in his New York Times morning column today

In several places where the number of cases has risen in recent weeks, hospitalizations have stayed flat. (In past Covid waves, by contrast, hospitalizations began rising about a week after cases did.) * * *

Even if hospitalizations do rise in coming weeks, a declining share of coronavirus cases that result in serious illness would be very good news, Dr. Craig Spencer, director of global health in emergency medicine at Columbia University, has pointed out.

I haven’t seen a Covid patient in the E.R. in weeks and go to work now expecting not to,” Spencer told me, “despite a swirl of Covid in the community.”

Among other things, a decoupling of cases and severe illness would mean that hospitals were less likely to become overwhelmed during future Covid surges. When hospitals avoid getting swamped, they can provide care to every patient who needs it — which becomes another factor that reduces bad health outcomes.

For these reasons, Mr. Leonhardt plans to shift his focus from new cases to new hospitalizations.

From the Covid vaccine front

Govexec explains

Because mRNA-based vaccines are a relatively new class of vaccines, they do not include the traditional adjuvants. The current mRNA vaccines used in the U.S. rely on small balls of fat called lipid nanoparticles to deliver the mRNA. These lipid molecules can act as adjuvants, but how precisely these molecules affect the long-term immune response remains to be seen. And whether the current COVID-19 vaccines’ failure to trigger strong long-lived antibody response is related to the adjuvants in the existing formulations remains to be explored.

While the current vaccines are highly effective in preventing severe disease, the next phase of vaccine development will need to focus on how to trigger a long-lived antibody response that would last for at least a year, making it likely that COVID-19 vaccines will become an annual shot.

STAT News adds

New data from Moderna offer hope that booster shots against Covid-19 could become at least somewhat more effective than they already are. But the data also point to how difficult it could be to determine exactly which Covid shots to give as annual boosters.

At a hearing of a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel earlier this month, experts fretted about exactly how governments should make decisions about the composition of annual boosters. And they were adamant that governments, not pharmaceutical companies, should be deciding the strain composition of the shots, as the World Health Organization does for influenza shots. But these data are a reminder that those decisions can be tough. What would experts do when faced with booster shots with several different compositions? Will adding new strains work similarly for different types of vaccines? There are a huge number of open questions.

There’s also the biggest problem with annual flu shots: People don’t get them. Even with the current Covid boosters, this has been true. Data presented to the FDA panel said that 217 million Americans are vaccinated about Covid. But only 90 million people have received a booster dose. How many will turn out for a new booster next year?

Look at this comparison of winter 2019-2020 flu vs. 2020-2021 Covid

2019 – 2020 Winter CDC Fluview 3/28/202020-2021 Winter COVID-1910/1/2020 to 3/21/2021
Flu Deaths                       24,000 COVID-19 Deaths               332,636 
Flu Cases             39,000,000 COVID-19 cases        22,399,598 
Deaths over total cases0.06%1.49%
https://www.cdc.gov/flu/weekly/index.htm

Who would look back on pre-Covid flu as the good old days? But comparatively, it is. We see millions more flu cases, but hundreds of thousands fewer flu deaths.

Kaiser Health News discusses the need for better ventilation in office buildings which could help tamp down Covid and flu cases. “The science is airtight,” said Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “The evidence is overwhelming.”

From the No Surprises Act front, Healthcare Dive reports

The online portal for resolving payment disputes between payers and providers for certain out-of-network charges is now open, the CMS said Monday. The portal initiates what’s known as the federal independent dispute resolution process, a key part of the No Surprises Act that outlaws balance bills in most cases. As a last resort, it allows payers and providers to resolve payment disputes using an arbitration style similar to the model adopted by Major League Baseball in salary negotiations.

From the transparency in coverage rule front, the Labor Department issued ACA FAQ 53 today. FAQ 53 provides guidance to health plans, including FEHB plans, on how to post three machine-readable pricing files on their website. The Labor Department will begin to enforce this requirement on July 1, 2022.

From the healthcare pricing front

Health Affairs reports

Commercial health plans pay higher prices than public payers for hospital care, which accounts for more than 5 percent of US gross domestic product. Crafting effective policy responses requires monitoring trends and identifying sources of variation. Relying on data from the Healthcare Provider Cost Reporting Information System, we describe how commercial hospital payment rates changed relative to Medicare rates during 2012–19 and how trends differed by hospital referral region (HRR). We found that average commercial-to-Medicare price ratios were relatively stable, but trends varied substantially across HRRs. Among HRRs with high price ratios in 2012, ratios increased by 38 percentage points in regions in the top quartile of growth and decreased by 38 percentage points in regions in the bottom quartile. Our findings suggest that restraining the growth rate of HRR commercial hospital price ratios to the national average during our sample period would have reduced aggregate spending by $39 billion in 2019.

Fierce Healthcare relates

Seniors save nearly $2,000 on average a year in total healthcare spending in Medicare Advantage (MA) compared to fee-for-service Medicare, a new study finds.

The study, published Tuesday, by the advocacy group Better Medicare Alliance finds that seniors spent $1,965 less including premiums and out-of-pocket costs on MA when compared to fee-for-service.

“We see particularly strong results for historically disadvantaged populations, including Black and Hispanic beneficiaries and those who are low-income,” said Allison Rizer, principal at the consulting firm ATI Advisory, which performed the study that examined 2019 Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey data.

From the healthcare business front, Fierce Healthcare tells us

UnitedHealth Group executives said Thursday that its Optum Health subsidiary, which is one of the country’s largest physician groups, is building out value-based care partnerships at a faster rate than was expected.

In its earnings report, the healthcare giant said it initially projected that 500,000 new patients would be treated in value-based arrangements. It’s upping that projection to 600,000. Wyatt Decker, M.D., CEO of Optum Health, said on the company’s earnings call that reflects Optum’s efforts to invest in technology, analytics and building networks are paying off.

“What you’re really seeing is a result of almost 10 years of building a flywheel that now has significant momentum,” Decker said. “All of that continues to yield benefits and, frankly, growth.”

From the research front —

MedPage Today announced

The severity of multiple sclerosis (MS) was linked with geographic latitude, an observational study showed.

Among 46,000 MS patients living in temperate zones, more severe disease was seen in those who lived above 40° latitude, reported Tomas Kalincik, MD, PhD, of the University of Melbourne, Australia, and co-authors.

The association was driven mainly, but not exclusively, by ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation exposure contributing to both MS susceptibility and severity, the researchers wrote in Neurology.

AHRQ discusses a study on “Geographic Variation in Inpatient Stays for Five Leading Substance Use Disorders, 2016-2018.” There are interesting State variations.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the Omnicron and siblings front

The Centers for Disease Control today posted updated websites for the following topics that include updated or new tools:

AHIP informs us

The White House and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are hosting an upcoming meeting entitled, Conversations on Encouraging COVID-19 Vaccinations, a virtual program that is part of the “We Can Do This” COVID-19 public education campaign.

The virtual Summit will feature conversations among leading doctors, medical professionals, parents, and community leaders about COVID-19 vaccines and how the broader medical community can encourage vaccination among pregnant people, children, teens, and young adults.

The event will be held on Friday, April 22 at 12:00 PM – 2:30 PM ET.  You can join the meeting here.

Speaking of AHIP, the FEHBlog noticed today that the OPM AHIP FEHB carrier conference website is fully built out. The virtual conference will be held on April 27 and 28.

Speaking of OPM, OPM announced today “the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC) will conduct a special solicitation that will allow the federal community to support charities serving and affected by the war in Ukraine and the resulting humanitarian and refugee crisis. This special solicitation will run through June 30, 2022.”  Thoughtful step on OPM’s part.

Roll Call reports

The Biden administration Monday said it would not enforce the mask mandate for airplanes and transit after a federal judge in Florida struck it down.

In a 59-page order, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention overstepped its authority by requiring passengers to wear masks on public transportation, saying the mandate ”exceeds the CDC’s statutory authority and violates the procedures required for agency rulemaking.”

The Biden administration responded late Monday with a statement saying that the agencies are reviewing the decision and assessing possible next steps. * * *

The CDC recommended that people continue to wear masks in indoor public transportation settings.

USA Today adds

United, American, Southwest, Delta and Alaska and other airlines late Monday said they were dropping their face mask requirement effective immediately given a federal judge’s ruling in Florida and the White House response to it.

From the Medicare front, the Centers for Medicare Services announced

a proposed rule for inpatient and long-term hospitals that builds on the Biden-Harris Administration’s key priorities to advance health equity and improve maternal health outcomes. In addition to annual policies that promote Medicare payment accuracy and hospital stability, the FY 2023 Inpatient Prospective Payment System (IPPS) and Long-Term Care Hospital (LTCH) Prospective Payment System (PPS) rule includes measures that will encourage hospitals to build health equity into their core functions, thereby improving care for people and communities who are disadvantaged and/or underserved by the healthcare system. The rule includes three health equity-focused measures in hospital quality programs, seeks stakeholder input related to documenting social determinants of health in inpatient claims data, and proposes a “Birthing-Friendly” hospital designation.

For acute care hospitals paid under the IPPS that successfully participate in the Hospital Inpatient Quality Reporting Program and are meaningful electronic health record users, the proposed increase in operating payment rates is projected to be 3.2%. This reflects a FY 2023 projected hospital market basket update of 3.1% reduced by a projected 0.4 percentage point productivity adjustment and increased by a 0.5 percentage point adjustment required by statute. Under the LTCH PPS, CMS expects payments to increase by approximately 0.8% or $25 million. * * *

For a fact sheet on the proposed payment rule visit: https://www.cms.gov/newsroom/fact-sheets/fy-2023-hospital-inpatient-prospective-payment-system-ipps-and-long-term-care-hospitals-ltch-pps

For a fact sheet specific to the maternal health and health equity measures included in the proposed payment rule visit: https://www.cms.gov/newsroom/fact-sheets/fy-2023-hospital-inpatient-prospective-payment-system-ipps-and-long-term-care-hospitals-ltch-pps-0

The American Hospital Association’s statement on the proposed rule may be found here. The regulatory battle has been joined.

From the medical research front

  • Medpage Today offers access to “a video [in which], Scott Weiner, MD, MPH, director of the Brigham Comprehensive Opioid Response and Education (B-CORE) Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, discusses his recent study on the risks of chronic use and overdose with hydrocodone versus oxycodone and how providers can keep their patients safe when prescribing these medications.” A transcript of the video also is provided.

Higher levels of “good” cholesterol in the fluid surrounding your brain and spinal cord may help protect you from Alzheimer’s disease, a new study suggests.

“This study represents the first time that small HDL particles in the brain have been counted,” said study co-author Dr. Hussein Yassine. He is an associate professor of medicine and neurology at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles.

For the study, Yassine and his colleagues analyzed concentrations of high-density lipoproteins (HDL) — often referred to as “good cholesterol” — in the cerebrospinal fluid of 180 healthy volunteers with an average age of nearly 77.

The study linked a higher number of small HDL particles in cerebrospinal fluid with two key indicators that they might protect against Alzheimer’s. * * *

The results suggest that small HDL particles may point the way to treatments for early Alzheimer’s, long before mental decline occurs.

From the Rx coverage front, STAT News reports

The nation’s preeminent cancer hospitals are charging commercial health insurers anywhere from double to seven times their costs of acquiring cancer drugs, a new study shows.

Most top cancer institutions also are keeping their drug prices secret in direct violation of federal law, potentially exposing themselves to fines.

The findings reinforce how cancer care, especially the drugs, generates significant revenue for hospitals, and how markups on drugs potentially put insured cancer patients in financially perilous situations. * * *

Ultimately, researchers found the amount of money that a hospital gets from an insurance company, just for the cancer therapy, often is more than what the drug company receives.

So it’s not just insulin. No bueno.