Weekend Update

Weekend Update

The U.S. House of Representatives is engaged in Committee business this week following Columbus Day and the Senate is on State work break / recess. The House also is expected to vote this week on the temporary debt limit increase.

The Medicare Open Season begins on Friday October 15.

From the Federal Benefits Open Season front, Federal News Network discusses the No Surprises Act (“NSA”) which takes effect on January 1, 2022. The NSA addresses three types of surprising billing — out of network emergency care; out of network care at in-network facilities and out-of-network air ambulance services. It does not address situations where the patient chooses out of network medical or mental health care or ground ambulance services. The article appropriately concludes

Of course, these [NSA] changes shouldn’t mean federal employees toss the basic rules of choosing an appropriate health insurance plan.

[Walt] Francis suggests FEHB participants check with their doctors each year to ensure they’re planning to stay within their preferred network — and then do some research about what new benefits are coming to your current plan and the others.

The plans change every year, and nearly all insurance providers add new benefits or perks to compete with others and respond to OPM’s priorities for the FEHBP.

From the mental healthcare front, the Wall Street Journal reported last week that “Finding a therapist who takes insurance was tough before the pandemic. Now, therapists and patients say, an increase in the need for mental-health care is making the search even harder.”

Especially in big cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., demand for mental-health care is so strong that many experienced therapists don’t accept any insurance plans, they say. They can easily fill their practices with patients who would pay out of pocket, they add. Therapists who do take insurance are often booked up. And in many smaller towns and rural areas, there are few mental-health professionals at all. Finding a provider who takes insurance, or lowering your rates in other ways, is possible but often takes legwork that can be draining when you are already grappling with mental-health issues.

[Among other approaches] Telehealth can provide access to a broader pool of providers, including therapists who are farther away from you. [Health plan sponsored telehealth providers are always in network.]

Insurance companies say they are trying to increase access to therapists. Anthem Inc. says it added about 2,000 additional providers to its telehealth platform during the early days of the pandemic to handle increased demand. UnitedHealth Group Inc. says it has grown its network of mental-health-care providers by 50% in the past five years to more than 260,000 nationwide.

As for therapists’ complaints of low reimbursement rates, Anthem health plans “routinely review reimbursements to ensure that providers receive market rates,” the company said in a statement. Margaret-Mary Wilson, UnitedHealth Group’s associate chief medical officer, says the company uses data on how patients are improving to financially “reward providers for delivering care with better outcomes.”

Fortune offers a fascinating article about Aetna’s preventive approach to mental health care. Among other tools the authors point out

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are also valuable modes of preventing escalated mental health concerns, as they provide 24/7 life assistance across a wide range of issues that can lower risks of feeling overwhelmed, anxious or depressed. In fact, one study found that companies with EAPs see a 24% improvement in life satisfaction and a 10% reduction in workplace distress among their workers. But we need to better inform people that EAPs are more than a workplace productivity tool. Aetna’s Resources for Living, which provides EAP services,is one example of a resource that supports those facing stress and anxiety, family conflict, legal and financial issues, grief and loss and even loneliness among our Medicare members.

Federal agencies and the Postal Service offer robust employee assistance programs to their employees independent of the FEHB Program and the FEHBlog’s view OPM should put more emphasis on coordinating such related services.

Midweek Update

From Capitol Hill, the Wall Street Journal reports that

Senate Democrats were poised to accept a GOP proposal to defer the showdown over the debt ceiling until later this year, lawmakers said, as administration officials and corporate executives issued dire warnings about the dangers of a possible government default.

The proposed agreement would extend the debt ceiling into December, provided that Democrats affix a dollar amount to the debt level. A deal could pave the way for a procedural vote in the Senate soon, to be followed by final passage sometime later this week. The House will still have to pass the legislation, which is expected to be signed into law by President Biden.

OPM Director Kiran Ahuja was interviewed today for a Washington Post Live online event. Ms. Ahuja principally discussed implementing the COVID vaccine mandate for the federal workforce and implementing the President’s June 2021 executive order on enhancing diversity, equity and inclusion in the federal workforce.

From the Delta variant front, David Leonhardt in the New York Times posted another column on the need for more rapid COVID tests in our country.

If you wake up with a runny nose or scratchy throat, you should be able to grab a Covid-19 test from your bathroom shelf and find out the result within minutes. The tests exist. They are known as antigen tests and are widely available not only in Britain but also France, Germany and some other places. Rapid tests can identify roughly 98 percent of infectious Covid cases and have helped reduce the virus’s spread in Europe.

In the U.S., by contrast, rapid tests are hard to find, because the Food and Drug Administration has been slow to approve them. F.D.A. officials have defended their reluctance by saying that they need to make sure the tests work — which they certainly do. But many outside scientists have criticized the agency for blocking even those antigen tests with a demonstrated record of success in other countries. * * *

[At long last,] The F.D.A. announced Monday that it would allow the sale of an antigen test known as Flowflex. The test has been available in Europe but not here, even though the company that makes it — Acon Laboratories — is based in San Diego.

The decision suggests that the F.D.A. has become willing to approve other rapid tests too, Alex Tabarrok, an economist at George Mason University and an advocate of expanded testing, told me. Separately, the Biden administration plans to announce an expansion of rapid testing today, a White House official told me last night. It will be a $1 billion government purchase of tests, meant to accelerate their production, on top of other money the administration has already dedicated to rapid tests.

[I]t is not too late for rapid tests to improve day-to-day life. The Biden administration finally seems to be taking significant steps in that direction.

From the health equity front, Becker’s Payer Issues tells us that

United Health Foundation’s “America’s Health Rankings 2021 Health of Women and Children Report” report cites an increase in maternal mortality and a decrease in women and child physical activity.

The annual report from the UnitedHealth Group’s philanthropic arm, shared in an Oct. 6 announcement, called out a range of physical and behavioral health trends among women and children.

Among key findings is a 16 percent spike in average maternal mortality, shifting from 17.4 deaths per 100,000 births to 20.1 deaths. Florida was the state with the highest jump, up 70 percent to 26.8 deaths per 100,000 births.

Physical activity in children and women is also down, with only 20.6 percent of children and 21.5 percent of women meeting federal physical activity standards, according to the report. 

The report’s executive summary also pointed to rising mental health burdens on youths, including a 1.6 percentage point increase in childhood anxiety. Teen suicide is up 26 percent over 2014-2016 numbers to 11.2 deaths per 100,000 adolescents. 

Women also experienced 14 percent increased mental distress over 2016-2017 numbers

Health Affairs digs deeper into the maternal mortality issue and finds using data from fourteen state Maternal Mortality Review Committees (MMRCs) over the period 2008–17 that

Among 421 pregnancy-related deaths with an MMRC-determined underlying cause of death, 11 percent were due to mental health conditions. Pregnancy-related mental health deaths were more likely than deaths from other causes to be determined by an MMRC to be preventable (100 percent versus 64 percent), to occur among non-Hispanic White people (86 percent versus 45 percent), and to occur 43–365 days postpartum (63 percent versus 18 percent). Sixty-three percent of pregnancy-related mental health deaths were by suicide. Nearly three-quarters of people with a pregnancy-related mental health cause of death had a history of depression, and more than two-thirds had past or current substance use. MMRC recommendations can be used to prioritize interventions and can inform strategies to enable screening, care coordination, and continuation of care throughout pregnancy and the year postpartum.

From the Rx front, MedPage Today reports that

A national antibiotic stewardship program at ambulatory care centers was associated with reduced antibiotic prescribing during the pandemic, both overall and for acute respiratory infection (ARI) cases, researchers found.

In an analysis involving nearly 300 practices who took part in the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s (AHRQ) program for improving antibiotic use, there were nine fewer antibiotic prescriptions for every 100 visits by the end of the intervention (95% CI -10 to -8), as well as 15 fewer prescriptions for every 100 ARI-related visits (95% CI -17 to -12), reported Sara Keller, MD, MPH, MSPH, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. * * *

AHRQ’s Safety Program for Improving Antibiotic Use is a national program that involves presentations, webinars, patient handouts, and other educational tools (including the Four Moments of Antibiotic Decision Making tool) and emphasizes three key areas for clinicians: developing and improving antibiotic stewardship; learning strategies for discussing antibiotic prescribing with colleagues, patients, and their families; and best practices for diagnosing and managing common infectious syndromes, as well as allergies to antibiotic.

Fierce Healthcare informs us about a recently established prescription drug manager “Prescryptive Health, a blockchain-powered prescription data platform.”

Here comes Open Season

OPM Headquarters a/k/a the Theodore Roosevelt Building

Today OPM issued its first notice about the Federal Benefits Open Season which will run this year from Monday November 8 through Monday December 13.

[Benefits Administration Letter] BAL 21-401 provides guidance on the upcoming Federal Benefits Open Season for the Federal Flexible Spending Account Program (FSAFEDS), Federal Employees Dental and Vision Insurance Program (FEDVIP) and the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) Program. Attached to this BAL is a sample email and “Circle Round Your Benefits” flyer. This BAL and the attachments will be posted on our website at www.opm.gov/retirement-services/publications-forms/benefits-administration-letters/.

The BAL makes a couple of points worth noting and includes a timeline which also is partially excerpted below:

Employees find Open Season fairs a valuable resource for getting Open Season information. Due to COVID-19, we strongly encourage you to assess how in-person benefit fairs will be impacted. Consider other ways to provide information to employees such as virtual events, webcasts, or webinars. Many health plans host virtual events to provide information about Open Season to their enrollees and others. You may contact health plans for ideas and suggestions on providing information. 

2022 rates announced and posted on OPM website Late September 
BAL 21-403 Significant Plan Changes Anticipated Issue Date: Early-to Mid-October 
Open Season information posted on OPM website Early November 

From the Delta variant front

The Washington Post informs us that

The Food and Drug Administration has scheduled a key meeting on coronavirus boosters with its outside advisers for Sept. 17 — just a few days before the Biden administration’s planned starting date for an extra-shot campaign.

The session, which will be public, could add much-needed clarity and transparency to a decision-making process that some people have criticized as confusing. But it also could fuel more controversy over an administration position some experts regard as premature.

Of course, the Biden administration could reduce the time pressure by postponing its “plan starting date.”

On a related note, The Wall Street Journal reports that

The Food and Drug Administration is considering whether to authorize a lower dose of Moderna Inc.’s Covid-19 vaccine for boosters than the dose given in the first two shots, people familiar with the deliberations said. 

Moderna said Wednesday it is asking the FDA to authorize a 50 microgram dose, half the dosage of the first two shots. Some in the government are leaning toward authorizing the 100 microgram dose, the people said, because of concerns a lower-dose booster might not offer a durable enough boost to counter fast-changing variants of Covid-19.

No final decision has been made, the people said, as the FDA is still reviewing data from studies that tested boosters using the different doses. People who have seen the data said both doses produce a strong immune response.

Presumably a smaller dose would reduce side effects.

CNBC brings us up to date on the other COVID-19 variants of concerns besides Delta.

The CDC is monitoring four variants “of concern,” including delta, which was first detected in India and is the most prevalent variant currently circulating in the U.S.; alpha, first detected in the U.K.; beta, first detected in South Africa, and gamma, first detected in Brazil. A variant of concern is generally defined as a mutated strain that’s either more contagious, more deadly or more resistant to current vaccines and treatments.

It’s also keeping a close watch on four other variants of interest — including lambda, first identified in Peru [and presumably mu, first identified in Columbia] — that have caused outbreaks in multiple countries and have genetic changes that could make them more dangerous than other strains.

Also from the FEHB front —

Fedweek offers short but accurate guidance about OPM’s FEHB disputed claims review process.

Health Payer Intelligence informs us that “The Alliance of Community Health Plans (ACHP) is urging the federal government to take action and lower prescription drug prices with a set of recommended actions.” In addition to recommendations for Medicare Part D and the biosimilar market, ACHP makes broader recommendations such as

Targeting drug companies’ unjustifiable raising of drug prices. At the beginning of 2021, 735 drugs prices increased up to 10 percent without reason. Prescription drug prices often increase faster than the inflation rate, therefore ACHP recommended that drug manufacturers should have to provide rebates for drug price increase above the inflation rate. Drug companies should also have to follow a price transparency rule that would require manufacturers to report and justify price increases, ACHP stated.

The federal government [should] encourage the use of transparent fee-based pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs). Traditional PBMs are typically not transparent about rebates, which can encourage high-cost drug use, whereas transparent fee-based PBMs pass rebates and discounts onto payers and earn revenue through a clear administrative fee.

ACHP may be interested to know that OPM imposed a strict regime of transparent pricing on experience rated FEHB plans ten years ago. Transparent pricing, which OPM continues to fine tune, facilitates OPM audits of PBMs but does not generate substantial new savings for carriers. Instead, transparent pricing shifts PBM fees from a share of rebates and such to “a clear administrative fee” at levels which simply were not charged before 2011. It is important to add that in 2010 OPM also mandated that experience rated carriers rebid their PBM contracts triennially and those market competitions have generated substantial new savings for carriers. Also as the FEHBlog has mentioned, if OPM were to allow FEHB carriers to offer Medicare Part D EGWPs, as Congress authorized in 2003, the resulting savings, in the FEHBlog’s estimation, would generate blockbuster new savings that would actually lower FEHB premiums.

From the miscellany department —

  • MedPage Today tells us that “The FDA approved the injectable, long-acting atypical antipsychotic paliperidone palmitate (Invega Hafyera), a twice-yearly treatment for schizophrenia in adults who have been adequately treated with the 1- or 3-month versions of paliperidone palmitate, Janssen announced.
  • OPM released weather leave guidance today according to Govexec.
  • Healthcare Dive reports that “Four out of six infections routinely tracked at U.S. hospitals rose significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data analysis published in the journal of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America on Thursday. From 2019 to 2020, major increases were observed in central-line associated bloodstream infections, catheter-associated urinary tract infections, ventilator-associated events and antibiotic resistant staph infections, according to the report.”

Midweek update

Photo by Piron Guillaume on Unsplash

In addition to being Wednesday, today is September 1 which marks the beginning of at least three healthcare related observances”

  • Each September, the American Medical Association’s (AMA) Women Physicians Section (WPS) honors physicians who have offered their time, wisdom and support to advance women with careers in medicine.
  • September is Sepsis Awareness Month. Here is a link to the Center for Disease Control’s Sepsis awareness page.
  • September is also National Recovery Month. The AMA identifies four ways that the Biden Administration can reduce the number of drug overdose deaths.

From the Delta variant front

The FEHBlog’s favorite newspaper columnist is David Leonhardt who writes a morning column for the New York Times. Mr. Leonhardt raises questions often on the FEHBlog’s mind after exploring the question with experts.This morning he pondered whether

the Delta-fueled Covid-19 surge in the U.S. finally peaked?

The number of new daily U.S. cases has risen less over the past week than at any point since June. * * *

Since the pandemic began, Covid has often followed a regular — if mysterious — cycle. In one country after another, the number of new cases has often surged for roughly two months before starting to fall. The Delta variant, despite its intense contagiousness, has followed this pattern. * * *

In the U.S., the start of the school year could similarly spark outbreaks this month. The country will need to wait a few more weeks to know. In the meantime, one strategy continues to be more effective than any other in beating back the pandemic: “Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine,” as [University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael] Osterholm says. Or as [Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Jennifer] Nuzzo puts it, “Our top goal has to be first shots in arms.”

Hope springs eternal.

Regading increasing the number of vaccinations, Bloomberg reports today that

Vaccine mandates are set to get more common in the workplace. 

A majority of U.S. employers — 52% — are planning or considering requirements for a Covid-19 shot by the end of the year, according to a survey released Wednesday by consultant Willis Towers Watson. That’s more than double the 21% of companies polled that currently have some form of mandate. 

The options vary, ranging from a strict order for all employees to limiting access to certain areas to inoculated workers. About 14% of respondents also said they are weighing a health-care surcharge for people who choose not to get the vaccine, while 1% are planning to impose one, according to the survey of 961 employers, conducted Aug. 18-25.

Also Fierce Biotech explores what’s next in the mRNA pipeline. Principally for the two COVID mRNA vaccine companies with large war chests

Moderna executives tout the company’s pipeline often—so we’ll be brief here. A cytomegalovirus candidate is the furthest along in the company’s prophylactic vaccine program, while other mid-stage assets include a personalized cancer vaccine and a localized regenerative therapeutic for the heart condition myocardial ischemia.

BioNTech, meanwhile, has dozens of assets in development for a host of common conditions: malaria, tuberculosis and even certain allergies. But where the German biotech is really making a mark is in oncology, where dozens of vaccines and therapeutics are in development. Just one is in phase 2: the Roche-partnered melanoma therapy BNT122. That drug is combined with Merck & Co.’s blockbuster Keytruda to treat metastatic melanoma in a study conducted with Roche’s Genentech.

The article also discusses where other large drug manufacturers stand in the developing market.

From the bankruptcy front, the Wall Street Journal reports that

OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma LP won court approval of a $4.5 billion bankruptcy settlement that shields its owners, members of the Sackler family, from lawsuits accusing them of contributing to the nation’s opioid epidemic in exchange for providing funding to combat the crisis.

Judge Robert Drain of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in White Plains, N.Y., said Wednesday he will confirm a restructuring plan that will transform Purdue into a public benefit company and settle civil lawsuits filed by governments and opioid victims against the drugmaker and its owners. 

The ruling can be appealed by the handful of federal and state authorities that opposed Purdue’s bankruptcy-exit plan and argued at trial that the settlement structure is unconstitutional and the Sacklers aren’t contributing enough of their wealth. Purdue’s family owners collected more than $10 billion from the company between 2008 and 2017, about half of which went to taxes or was reinvested in the business.

From the miscellany front

  • Homeland Security Today informs us that “The Biden Administration, in a collaboration between the General Services Administration, the White House Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Personnel Management, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, announced the U.S. Digital Corps, a new two-year fellowship that will recruit early-career technologists to contribute to high-impact efforts across the federal government. This program will work to advance the Administration priorities of coronavirus response, economic recovery, cybersecurity, and streamlining government services.” Best of luck with this initiative.
  • The Washington Post reports that “Childhood obesity rose significantly during the pandemic,according to a new study. The greatest change was among children ages 5 to 11, who gained an average of more than five pounds, adjusted for height, according to the study published in Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Network. For the average 5-year-old (about 40 pounds), that’s a 12.5 percent weight gain. For the average 11-year-old (about 82 pounds), it’s a 6 percent weight gain, according to the study. Before the pandemic, about 36 percent of 5- to 11-year-olds were considered overweight or obese, and that increased to 45.7 percent. ‘Significant weight gain occurred during the covid-19 pandemic among youths in Kaiser Permanente Southern California, especially among the youngest children,’ the study concluded. ‘These findings, if generalizable to the U.S., suggest an increase in pediatric obesity due to the pandemic.’” No bueno.
  • Employee Benefits News offers an engaging article titled “Affordable ways to help your employees tend to their mental health.

Thursday Miscellany

Happy National Women’s Equality Day! Health and Human Services Department leaders offered their views on this occasion.

From the Delta variant front

  • Becker’s Hospital Review tells us that “The FDA has extended the shelf life of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine from six months to nine months, the agency said Aug. 24.  The shot can now be stored at temperatures up to minus-76 degrees Fahrenheit, up from minus-130 degrees Fahrenheit, for up to nine months, up from six months.  The agency said the updated shelf life applies to batches that expired before the extension, as long as they were stored at proper temperatures.” The
  • The Wall Street Journal offers an FAQ article on COVID 19 vaccination boosters.
  • The Society for Human Resource Management discusses employer policies, similar to the federal government’s, which require routine COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated employees.
  • Bloomberg reports that COVID-19 testing has regained popularity to such an extent that “CVS Health Corp. is limiting customers’ purchases of rapid, over-the-counter Covid-19 tests, with a maximum of six packages available online and four in its pharmacies, as the spread of the delta variant spurs demand.  Put in place this week, the limits apply to Abbott Laboratories’s BinaxNOW along with a test from the startup Ellume, according to an email from a CVS spokesperson. Both tests are available without a prescription.” According to the article, Abbott is ramping up its production of these tests.

In employment news, Govexec reports that “the U.S. Postal Service is planning to hire 100,000 employees in 2021, looking to fill vacancies that have contributed to logjams in the mailing agency’s network and widespread delivery delays. * * * The Postal Service is currently seeking drivers, letter carrier assistants, mail handlers, processing clerks and others.”

Health Payer Intelligence informs that

Employers are anticipating that the coronavirus pandemic will continue to have a long-term impact in 2022, particularly in the areas of mental health and chronic disease needs, according to Business Group on Health’s recent 2022 Large Employers’ Health Care Strategy and Plan Design survey. The researchers surveyed 136 large employers in June 2021. These employers provided healthcare coverage for a total of more than 8 million employees and dependents.

That roughly matches the FEHB’s enrollment.

Speaking of mental healthcare

  • Fierce Healthcare tells us about “a recent study by CertaPet, a telehealth company, which analyzed the 50 most populous U.S. cities to find the best and worst places to live for mental health treatment.” According to this survey Denver sits at the top and Dallas rests on the bottom.
  • Healthcare Dive reports that “Meditation and mindfulness startup Headspace and on-demand mental healthcare app Ginger have announced plans to merge into a single company, called Headspace Health, valued at $3 billion, the two companies said Wednesday. The two startups focused on mental health and wellness have each raised more than $200 million in venture funding from investors. As Headspace Health, the two companies will offer support for mental health symptoms from anxiety to depression to more complex diagnoses, selling direct to consumer and to employers and health plans.”

Finally the FEHBlog was surprised to read in the Wall Street Journal that

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a Texas affiliate withdrew a suitfiled to block parts of a federal rule requiring insurers and employers to disclose prices they pay for healthcare services and drugs. The withdrawal, in a filing late Wednesday, came after the Biden administration delayed enforcement of provisions of the rule that were the focus of the suit. * * *Daryl Joseffer, senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber Litigation Center, said in a statement that the Biden administration decision “was a positive and constructive response to our lawsuit.” There are still “significant issues” with the rule, he said, and “we’ll continue to monitor the developments, and that includes evaluating whether in the future the Chamber will bring a new lawsuit.” An email sent Friday by the Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce to the U.S. Chamber, viewed by The Wall Street Journal, said it wanted to withdraw from the suit “based on feedback from community leadership.”

PCMA, the prescription benefit manager trade association, continue to pursue its similar lawsuit pending in the D.C. federal court (No. 1:21-cv-02161).

Midweek update

From the Delta variant front, the Safer Federal Workforce group issued updated guidance for federal employees receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. In short, federal agencies should

  • Allow employees to take up to 4 hours of administrative leave to get any COVID-19 dose.
  • Allow employees to take up to 2 days of administrative leave for adverse reactions to any COVID-19 vaccination dose.

Federal News Network informs us that

Nearly one month after the Biden administration first announced plans to adopt a vaccine and testing policy for federal employees and contractors, managers — presumably the ones charged with implementing and enforcing the new program on the ground level — say they’re still looking for answers about how it’ll work. * * *

Guidance has been “minimal” and the planning to date has been “stressful” for managers and supervisors, said Craig Carter, national president of the Federal Managers Association.

Professional associations don’t have exact data and they’re relying on anecdotal conversations with their members about the vaccine. But considering a little more than half of all Americans are fully inoculated against COVID-19 — and the federal workforce is in many ways a representative subset of the American public — they assume roughly 50% of the nation’s 2.1 million federal employees are unvaccinated.

That means agencies may potentially need to test about 1 million federal workers once or twice a week, the associations said.

Few things drive the FEHBlog crazier than the use of the full U.S. population as a COVID-19 vaccination benchmark because people under age 12 cannot be vaccinated at this point. 62.7% of Americans over 18 and 81.3% of Americans over 65 are fully vaccinated according to the CDC website. The FEHBlog therefore expects that at least two thirds of federal employees are fully vaccinated. The percentage should skew higher because as the FEHBlog has noted about 20% of the federl workforce is under a COVID vaccination mandate as opposed to attestation. Nevertheless, testing about 600,000 federal employees once or twice a week is no picnic for federal managers.

The Wall Street Journal reports that

  • U.S. Covid-19 hospitalizations have surpassed 100,000 for the first time since January, nearly doubling since the start of August. While the figure remains below the country’s winter peak, hospitals in some parts of the U.S. are straining under the load, and officials in states including Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Idaho have requested extra personnel and resources.
  • “Federal regulators are likely to approve a Covid-19 booster shot for vaccinated adults starting at least six months after the previous dose rather than the eight-month gap they previously announced, a person familiar with the plans said, as the Biden administration steps up preparations for delivering boosters to the public.”

The Journal also offers its perspective on the lay of the land for COVID-19 tests.

Employee Benefits News tells us that

According to the most recent Mental Health Index by Total Brain and the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, feelings of anxiety increased 94% from June to July, and incidences of PTSD have spiked 83% over the past six months.

While employees of all ages are struggling to maintain good mental health, workers aged 40-59 saw the highest increases in stress, anxiety and feelings of negativity, compared to July’s data. These workers cited return to work and back to school plans as the main drivers of their fears.

The average age of a federal employee is close to 50 years old.

From the federal employee benefits front, Reg Jones discusses the pluses and minuses of deferred annuities.

It’s a fact of life that many people work for a number of years in a job and, for one reason or another, leave before they are eligible to retire. What’s different for those who work for the federal government is that during their working time there, deductions have been taken from their pay toward a civil service annuity.

While many who resign from the government ask for a refund of those contributions, some do not (often because they were not even aware that they could). Those who leave their contributions in the fund – especially those who weren’t even aware that they could get a refund – are the people I want to talk to today, as well as any of you who are thinking about resigning from the government before retirement eligibility.

Here’s why: If you leave your contributions in the retirement fund, you will be entitled to a deferred annuity if you meet some fairly minimal requirements [as explained in the article].

In healthcare business news

  • Fierce Healthcare reports that “Hospitals and health systems’ economic recovery hit the brakes in July with mounting COVID-19 admissions, escalating expenses and early evidence that consumers are again postponing elective and outpatient care. Per the latest monthly report from Kaufman Hall, countrywide margins and volumes remained below pre-pandemic numbers but dipped most severely in the South and Midwest, where COVID-19 has had the greatest impact. The firm said it expects these trends to continue in the coming months.”
  • Healthcare Dive tells us that “GuideWell, the parent company of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida, is set to acquire Triple S Management, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Plan and largest insurance carrier in Puerto Rico. The $900 million cash deal will add another company to GuideWell’s portfolio of health-focused subsidiaries. After the deal is complete, Triple S will become a wholly owned subsidiary of GuideWell and will continue to operate under the same brand name and management team, the two companies said Tuesday. The deal is expected to close in the first half of next year and is subject to regulatory approvals.”
  • Fierce Healthcare also reports that “Carbon Health, a primary care provider combining brick-and-mortar clinics with virtual services, bought two separate clinic chains to expand its national primary care footprint. The company bought Southern Arizona Urgent Care’s nine clinics in Tucson, Arizona, and Med7 Urgent Care’s four clinics in Sacramento, California, bringing its total to 83 clinics across 12 states. This acquisition underscores the company’s goal of becoming the largest national healthcare provider, fueled by its recent $350 million funding news.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the Delta variant front —

  • Govexec tells us that last Friday August 13, the Department of Justice issued its internal guidance on employee, on-site contractor, and visitor COVID-19 vaccine attestation program required by the White House. ‘Federal employees, regardless if they are working in person or teleworking, must complete a Certification of Vaccination Form and update it if there is a change in their vaccination status. ‘Employees who are not fully vaccinated will be required to obtain and provide to their supervisor (or component designee) a negative COVID-19 test result, from a test taken within the past three days, each time they enter a department facility or participate in an official meeting or function in another location other than the telework location,’ said the memo. ‘The department is developing a program to facilitate testing for employees.’”
  • The American Medical Association informs us about the reasons why moderately and severely immuno-compromised Americans who compose 2.7% of the population should get an mRNA vaccine booster. “[Food and Drug Administration] Approval of a third dose comes amid growing evidence that people with weakened immune systems do not get adequate protection from the normal two-dose regimen of Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. This makes immunocompromised people especially susceptible to breakthrough COVID-19 infections.”
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that Pfizer and BioNTech are starting to share clinical evidence of the value of a third booster vaccination for a broader swath of the U.S. population administered six months to a year following the first two doses. “Pfizer and BioNTech are also conducting a larger late-stage study evaluating whether a third dose safely provides more protection. The companies said they expect those results shortly and will then submit the data to the FDA. The FDA is considering a broader booster strategy, which the agency could issue in the next few weeks.”

With regard to the other public health emergency, the American Hospital Association points us to it web resources for the addressing opioid epidemic.

In healthcare business news

  • Labcorp has announced the acquisition of “Ovia Health, a digital health platform used by millions of women seeking information and support with family planning, pregnancy and parenting.”
  • CareMax, a “technology-enabled provider of value-based care to seniors, announced [on August 13] it has signed a collaboration agreement with Anthem, a national health benefits company. Through this collaboration, CareMax plans to build medical centers in areas where Anthem will offer a value-based care model to improve patient outcomes. * * * Through this collaboration agreement, CareMax plans to open approximately 50 medical centers with a focus on Indiana, Texas, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Georgia, Connecticut, and Virginia, among others.”

From the studies front

  • The University of Michigan’s Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation has released an eye opening study on telehealth. The FEHBlog commends it to his readership.
  • Benefits Pro tells us that “Interest in health savings accounts is on the rise, but there is still a gap in understanding about how HSAs work and how they can be used as a retirement savings tool. According to the Plan Sponsor Council of America’s (PSCA) 2021 HSA Survey, education about HSAs remains a key goal for plan sponsors. * * * The study pointed to a potential missed opportunity for employers to solicit HSA rollovers for newly hired employees, with less than 20 percent indicating they do so.”
  • The National Institutes of Health informs us that “A single two-hour session of a pain management skills class could offer as much benefit as eight sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for patients experiencing chronic low-back pain (CLBP), suggests a study published in JAMA Network Open(link is external). Supported by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, both part of the National Institutes of Health, the study explored whether a compressed intervention could lead to the same benefits as a longer-course of CBT.”
  • STAT News reports that the National Institute for Mental Health’s “Director Joshua Gordon told STAT the agency recognizes that new treatments for depression are needed and that it is funding research to explore the underlying biology beyond the monoamine hypothesis. When it comes to understanding depression, “there are fewer and fewer questions of importance with regard to the monoamine systems,” he said. He noted that in addition to federal funding, many startups and small companies are pursuing new treatments for depression. Currently, almost all patients with depression are first treated with medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a class of drugs that includes both Zoloft and Prozac. They increase the amount of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, which controls mood, emotions, and cognition. Serotonin and two other neurotransmitters targeted by some antidepressants, norepinephrine and dopamine, are called monoamines because they contain one chemical group called an amine.” The article also discusses those new treatments, including .

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.

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.”

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

From the COVID-19 front

  • Fierce Healthcare reports that “The quick rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. saved an estimated 279,000 lives and prevented 1.25 million hospitalizations, a new study finds. The study, released Wednesday, warns, however, that surges of new cases due to the highly transmissible delta variant could reverse these gains. “Until a greater majority of Americans are vaccinated, many more people could still die from this virus,” said Alison Galvani, Ph.D., director of the Yale Center for Infectious Disease Modeling and Analysis, which conducted the study alongside the Commonwealth Fund.”
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that “Children are at extremely slim risk of dying from Covid-19, according to some of the most comprehensive studies to date, which indicate the threat might be even lower than previously thought. Some 99.995% of the 469,982 children in England who were infected during the year examined by researchers survived, one study found. In fact, there were fewer deaths among children due to the virus than initially suspected. Among the 61 child deaths linked to a positive Covid-19 test in England, 25 were actually caused by the illness, the study found.”
  • The Journal also informs us that “Pfizer Inc. will seek clearance from U.S. regulators in coming weeks to distribute a booster shot of its Covid-19 vaccine to heighten protection against infections as new virus strains rise.  The company said also it plans to start clinical trials in August of an updated version of its vaccine that would better protect against the Delta variant.” While the FEHBlog looks forward to lining up for the booster, Axios reports that “People who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus do not need a booster shot at this time, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a joint statement released Thursday evening.” Axios adds

One dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine “barely” protects against the Delta variant of the virus, because of mutations the variant has developed, a new study published in the journal Nature Thursday found. 

But two doses of those vaccines generated a neutralizing response to the variant in 95% of people, highlighting the importance of full vaccination against COVID-19, Axios’ Jacob Knutson writes

  • Bloomberg discusses the idea of offering COVID-19 vaccines at Dollar General stores. “The researchers found that in the most vulnerable decile, the number of retail pharmacies that are eligible to provide vaccines through the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program is the lowest. But these vulnerable regions are also where Dollar General and other discount stores like it tend to cluster.” It’s worth a shot?

The National Institutes of Health released its annual joint report on cancer mortality. “The report shows a decrease in death rates for 11 of the 19 most common cancers among men, and for 14 of the 20 most common cancers among women, over the most recent period (2014-2018). Although declining trends in death rates accelerated for lung cancer and melanoma over this period, previous declining trends for colorectal and female breast cancer death rates slowed and those for prostate cancer leveled off. Death rates increased for a few cancers like brain and other nervous system and pancreas in both sexes, oral cavity and pharynx in males, and liver and uterus in females.” STAT News points out

Accelerating declines in lung cancer deaths may account for much of the overall progress seen in recent years, the authors of the report said. Over the past two decades, the death rate for lung cancer has declined even faster than the rate at which patients are diagnosed with the disease. And while part of the early success in preventing lung cancer can be attributed to the massive drop in smoking rates, the authors note the most recent downward trends seem to correspond with the approval of new treatments for non-small cell lung cancer that improved the likelihood of survival.

Death rates from melanoma also saw an accelerated decline in the past decade, despite a growing number of diagnoses. Like in lung cancer, authors point to the introduction of novel treatments around the same time as the turnaround on the death rate. New targeted and immune checkpoint inhibitors were approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2011, one year before major declines in death rates were seen in women and two years before they were seen in men.

On the prescription drug front

  • The New York Times reports that “Under fire for approving a questionable drug for all Alzheimer’s patients, the Food and Drug Administration on Thursday greatly narrowed its previous recommendation and is now suggesting that only those with mild memory or thinking problems should receive it. The reversal, highly unusual for a drug that has been available for only a few weeks, is likely to reduce the approximate number of Americans who are eligible for the treatment to 1.5 million from six million.”
  • GoodRX points out and discusses the fifteen most addictive prescription drugs and resource available to help the addicted. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has an outreach website for teenagers, for example.

In other healthcare news

Health Affairs blog bangs the drum for Congress to fund a universal patient identifier. For the reasons explained in the article, this step called for in the HIPAA statute of 1996 is long overdue.

Healthcare Dive reports that “Telehealth claim lines as a percentage of all medical claims dropped 13% in April, marking the third straight month of declines, according to new data from nonprofit Fair Health. The dip was greater than the drop of 5.1% in March, but not as large as the decrease of almost 16% in February. However, overall utilization remains significantly higher than pre-COVID-19 levels. The decline appears to be driven by a rebound in in-person services, researchers said. Mental health conditions bucked the trend, however, as the percentage of telehealth claim lines associated with mental conditions — the No. 1 telehealth diagnosis — continued to rise nationally and in every U.S. region.” The FEHBlog considers that to be good news because telehealth at least currently is best suited for mental health care and out of schedule healthcare situations.

In closing, the FEHBlog wants to emphasize an important aspect of last Thursday’s No Surprise Billing rule. As explained in the government’s model consumer notice for use by health plans,

When you get services from an in-network hospital or ambulatory surgical center, certain providers there may be out-of-network. In these cases, the most those providers may bill you is your plan’s in-network cost-sharing amount. This applies to emergency medicine, anesthesia, pathology, radiology, laboratory, neonatology, assistant surgeon, hospitalist, or intensivist services. These providers can’t balance bill you and may not ask you to give up your protections not to be balance billed.

If you get other services at these in-network facilities, out-of-network providers can’t balance bill you, unless you give written consent and give up your protections.”

The vast majority of surprise bills stem from out-of-network service provided by emergency rooms, air ambulance, and the types of providers listed above, all of whom are locked into using negotiation and baseball arbitration with the health plan. The only doctors who can approach the patient for a balancing billing waiver are the surgeon or oncologist in a non-emergency setting who meets with the patient well before the surgery. That makes sense.

This approach, however, will promote use of the independent dispute resolution system which the tri-agencies will unveil October 1. Three months is more than ample time for the FEHBlog’s fellow lawyer to prepare for this new business opportunity. Health plans should make sure that their out of network pricing negotiators are adequately staffed.