Tuesday Tidbits

Tuesday Tidbits

Thanks to Aaron Burden for sharing their work on Unsplash.

Happy Election Day!

The FEHBlog enjoyed reading this American Medical Association article about the five things that doctors should tell their patients about the COVID-19 vaccines currently under development. This could be good information for health plans to share with their members.

Fierce Healthcare reports that

Nearly half the nation’s hospitals, many of which are still wrestling with the financial fallout of the unexpected coronavirus, will get lower payments for all Medicare patients because of their history of readmitting patients, federal records show.

The penalties are the ninth annual round of the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program created as part of the Affordable Care Act’s broader effort to improve quality and lower costs. The latest penalties are calculated using each hospital case history between July 2016 and June 2019, so the flood of coronavirus patients who have swamped hospitals this year were not included.

The number and severity of penalties were comparable to those of recent years, although the number of hospitals receiving the maximum penalty of 3% dropped from 56 to 39.

Beckers Hospital Review provides a list of those 39 hospitals here.

Healthcare Dive informs us that

Humana bested Wall Street expectations as it gained more members during the third quarter, generated higher revenue and beat earnings estimates, according to its quarterly results released Tuesday morning.

The payer’s medical utilization continued to trend slightly below pre-COVID levels during the third quarter, though still well above the severe dip in March and April. The lower levels of utilization were partially offset by higher COVID-19 testing and treatment costs as cases began to tick back up.

Executives warned during Tuesday’s call with investors that they expect a loss in the fourth quarter due to a number of issues, including COVID-19 testing and treatment and rebounding utilization.

It’s the last bullet that caught the FEHBlog’s attention.

Finally, Kaiser Health News offers a nice story about seniors forming friendship pods to ward off the loneliness of the great hunkering down.

Weekend update

Lincoln Memorial in the Fall

The House of Representatives is on the campaign trail. The Senate will join them tomorrow after a confirmation vote on Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Her nomination narrowly cleared a cloture vote at the Senate today. If you want to understand why the Supreme Court will not strike down the Affordable Care Act this term even with Judge Barrett on its illustrious bench, click here.

There is only one Congressional hearing this week — a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Wednesday morning, October 28, about the federal internet liability shield. The witnesses will be the CEOs from Twitter, Alphabet/Google, and Facebook, large companies that currently benefit from this shield. Congress returns to its legislative business on November 16 following the Presidential and Congressional election on November 3.

Today, the Department of Health and Human Services shared news on how States and the District of Columbia will use the rapid COVID-19 BinaxNOW tests that the federal government purchased on their behalves. “HHS also provided all CLIA-certified nursing homes over 11 million rapid, point-of-care tests. The tests include the following FDA-authorized antigen diagnostic tests: Abbott BinaxNOW and either a Quidel Sofia 2 or Becton, Dickinson and Company (BD) Veritor™ Plus System instrument(s).”

The Washington Post’s Lily website offers an interview with a 14 year young lady, Anika Chebrolu, who was awarded a $25,000 prize “for her discovery: a compound that can bind to the coronavirus [COVID-19-, inhibiting its ability to infect people. She beat out nine other finalists — whose own projects ranged from a robotic glove to a device that detects invisible particles in water — to be named America’s top young scientist.” Ms. Chebrolu modestly explains that “my effort to find a spike protein binder isn’t unique in its methodology, and it may appear to be a drop in the ocean, but it adds to all these efforts and therefore is quite substantial.” Congratulations.

It’s also worth pointing out this Healthcare Dive article informing us that

Medical device funding hit a new high in the third quarter, growing 63% year on year to top $5 billion for the first time in CB Insights’ dataset. Investments in robotic surgery startups was a major driver of the increase. The analysts listed the progress of neuromodulation devices and Medtronic’s deals in diabetes and neurosurgery as other medical device highlights of the quarter.

The Mayo Clinic explains that “Robotic surgery, or robot-assisted surgery, allows doctors to perform many types of complex procedures with more precision, flexibility and control than is possible with conventional techniques. Robotic surgery is usually associated with minimally invasive surgery — procedures performed through tiny incisions.”

The International Modulation Society further explains that

Neuromodulation is technology that acts directly upon nerves. It is the alteration—or modulation—of nerve activity by delivering electrical or pharmaceutical agents directly to a target area.

Neuromodulation devices and treatments are life changing. They affect every area of the body and treat nearly every disease or symptom from headaches to tremors to spinal cord damage to urinary incontinence. With such a broad therapeutic scope, and significant ongoing improvements in biotechnology, it is not surprising that neuromodulation is poised as a major growth industry for the next decade.

Most frequently, people think of neuromodulation in the context of chronic pain relief, the most common indication. However, there are a plethora of neuromodulation applications, such as deep brain stimulation (DBS) treatment for Parkinson’s disease, sacral nerve stimulation for pelvic disorders and incontinence, and spinal cord stimulation for ischemic disorders (angina, peripheral vascular disease).

Cochlear implants to treat deafness, for example, are intermodulation devices.

The FEHBlog noticed on Twitter today that the HHS Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research has made available in the Apple Store and Google Play an app to help patients to develop questions for the doctor visits.

On the healthcare survey and report front

The top 12 reasons for using telehealth, according to the 2020 survey, are listed below, with the 2019 ranking and percentages in parentheses:

  1. Convenience, 51 percent (1, 64 percent)
  2. Safety, 46 percent (12, 13 percent)
  3. Speed – ability to receive care quickly, 44 percent (2, 53 percent)
  4. Quality care, 30 percent (6, 25 percent)
  5. Condition covered by telehealth visit, 28 percent (7, 22 percent)
  6. Ease of access to health information, 27 percent (3, 34 percent)
  7. Convenient communication channels, 26 percent (4, 33 percent)
  8. Lower overall cost, 23 percent (5, 30 percent)
  9. Difficult to travel to medical office, 21 percent (7, 20 percent)
  10. Recommendation, 19 percent (7, 20 percent)
  11. Reputation, 19 percent (11, 14 percent)
  12. Past experience, 17 percent (9, 19 percent).
  • Health Payer Intelligence reports that

Around a third of Millennials [ages 24 – 39] have a behavioral health condition, emphasizing a greater need for behavioral healthcare options and coverage as well as a new approach to millennial member engagement, the latest Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA) report revealed. * * * Not only do Millennials have a high percentage of behavioral health conditions but their rate of developing a behaioral health condition is rising by double digits. Over five years from 2014 through 2018, the prevalence of major depression rose by 43 percent, ADHD rose by 39 percentage percent, and psychotic disorders rose by 26 percent among Millennials.”

Monday Round-up

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

For fun, the FEHBlog went down the OPM.gov rabbit hole to find the dates on which the the following year’s FEHB and FEDVIP premiums were announced. Since 2004 (the FEHBlog could not find the 2009 and 2010 press releases), the announcement was made eleven times in September and four times in October. The latest date was October 7 in 2014. Since that date the release dates range from September 28 (in 2015 and 2018) to October 7. So OPM has not set a new record yet.

In this regard, the Society for Human Resources Management reports today that

Employers expect a moderate health plan cost increase next year of 4.4 percent, on average, compared to this year, according to early results from HR consultancy Mercer’s National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans 2020.

The increase, based on 1,113 employer responses since early July, is marginally lower than a recent forecast by the nonprofit Business Group on Health, which in August expected a 5.3 percent increase in health plan premiums for 2021. But Mercer’s projection is within the broad range of 4 percent to 10 percent forecast by consultancy PwC’s Health Research Institute over the summer.

Mercer projects that 2020 will end with a 3.3 percent health benefit cost increase, which is still largely in line with the average annual cost growth over the past several years. Still, health benefit cost growth is now far outpacing the consumer price index and wage growth, both of which have slowed significantly.

The President, who returned to the White House from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center this evening, signed an executive order on Saturday. The executive order concerns “Saving Lives Through Increased Support For Mental- and Behavioral-Health Needs. It establishes a “Coronavirus Mental Health Working Group (Working Group) is hereby established to facilitate an ‘all-of-government’ response to the mental-health conditions induced or exacerbated by the pandemic, including issues related to suicide prevention. The Working Group will be co-chaired by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, or his designee, and the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, or her designee.”

It’s a bit of surprise to the FEHBlog that as Federal News Network reports the federal government has not yet given affected employees the option to decline the Administration’s temporary payroll tax deferral.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the CDC’s Cases in the U.S. website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 20th through 32nd weeks of this year (beginning May 14 and ending August 19; using Thursday as the first day of the week in order to facilitate this weekly update):

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

It looks like we are on another downswing of COVID-19 cases and hopefully we all understand now the importance of social distancing, mask wearing, avoiding super spreader events so that the number of cases continues to trend down (in contrast to June and July).

The Salt Lake City Tribune reports that “Doctors from University of Utah Health and ARUP Laboratories announced Thursday that they will offer saliva testing for COVID-19 by September — after completing a study that found the spit test detected the virus as well as the traditional, and famously uncomfortable, nasal swab.”

Bill Phillips, founder of Spectrum Solutions, a company in Draper that manufactures saliva test kits, said the U.-ARUP study is in line with other research that shows the effectiveness of the spit test for detecting COVID-19. Such research, Phillips said, should promote broader acceptance of the saliva test over the nasopharyngal swab, both in and out of the medical community. Spectrum Solutions manufactures 100,000 saliva test kits a day in its Draper plant, Phillips said. The company is ramping up to produce 500,000 kits a day, using contractors in Wisconsin, North Carolina and California. Phillips’ company boasts a client list that includes the U.S. Senate, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard team, the Olympics, and several sports leagues. Last week, Spectrum Solutions became the test-kit supplier to Major League Baseball, with plans to produce 275,000 kits for the pandemic-shortened season.


On the flip side, the Centers for Disease Control released a survey disclosing that during late June 2020 40% of Americans were struggling with mental illness or substance abuse due in large part to the great hunkering down.

No bueno.

The Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker has issued a report on how insured health plans are covering COVID-19 treatment during this public health emergency.

Yesterday, the FEHBlog wrote about Uber Health. Today, he points out a Fierce Healthcare story about its mega-competitor Lyft Health.

In a new study released Wednesday, Lyft offers a look at the performance of its partnership with AmeriHealth Caritas DC, which was facilitated by Access2Care. Lyft rides were made available to 11,400 for routine visits and urgent care, and between April 2018 and April 2019 emergency department visits dropped by 40% and ambulance utilization decreased by 12%. Amerigroup Tennessee, an Anthem company, similarly signed on with Lyft, launching a pilot in 2019 in Memphis. To date, it has seen a 44% increase in primary care visits and a 50% decrease in primary care gaps.

Finally Federal News Network reports on the Postmaster General’s testimony today before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The House is scheduled to consider a Postal Service bill (HR 8015) tomorrow. Here’s the version of the bill which the House Rules Committee approved today. The bill seeks to maintain the status quo in Postal Service operations retroactive to January 1, 2020 and provide the Postal Service with $25 billion. $15 million of this sum will go to the Postal Service Inspector General. House passage of this bill may lead to a compromise COVID-19 relief measure.

Friday Stats and More

Happy Juneteenth!

According to the CDC’s COVID-19 cases in the U.S. website, which the FEHBlog tracks, over the past five weeks the numbers of new cases had taken a downward path for the first three weeks and then turned up for the past two weeks. New deaths have seen consistent weekly reductions over the same time span.

Week endingNew CasesNew Deaths
May 22159,4968,160
May 29148,2107,561
June 5142,8296,553
June 12155,3715,850
June 19161,2894,865

The FEHBlog had been wondering when the current COVID-19 emergency period expires. The American Hospital Association informs us that the expiration date is July 25. The AHA is seeking an extension.

In other news —

  • The Labor Department’s Employee Benefits Security Administration released “a proposed Self-Compliance Tool intended to help improve compliance with the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) and additional related requirements under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). The tool [which was last updated in 2018[ will enable group health plans, plan sponsors, plan administrators, health insurance issuers and other parties determine whether a group health plan or a health insurance issuer complies with the provisions in both laws. EBSA is requesting public comments on the MHPAEA’s Self-Compliance Tool proposed revisions by July 24, 2020
  • The Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration released non-essential business re-opening guidance.

Thursday Miscellany

Regrettably, the Wall Street Journal reported today a spike in COVID-19 cases in States, like Texas, Utah, Arizona, and Arkansas, that were not hard hit early on in the COVID-19 emergency.

Experts analyzing states with worrisome trends in serious cases are largely pointing to the onset of summer, when people began to congregate in resort spots. [FEHBlog note: Super-speader events are risky.]

Some also suspect that officials who allowed businesses to reopen after a relatively calm few weeks might have sent an inadvertent message that the problem had largely passed.

As if responding to the suspicious “some,” the Centers for Disease Control has released a social media toolkit to spread COVID-19 related advice on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc.

It’s worth noting that the Wall Street Journal editorial page’s observation that “More infections are inevitable as states reopen, and there will be much trial and error. States need to be vigilant for outbreaks and protect high-risk areas and the vulnerable. But the costs of shutting down the economy are so great, in damage to lives and livelihoods, that there is no alternative to opening for the broader public good.”

In other news —

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that one-fifth of patients who read ambulatory care notes reported finding a mistake in those notes, and 40% of those regarded the error as serious.

“Among patient-reported very serious errors, the most common characterizations were mistakes in diagnoses, medical history, medications, physical examination, test results, notes on the wrong patient, and sidedness,” the study authors explained.

That’s worrisome for patient healthcare as well as for other doctors and health plans who rely on these reports.

  • Health Payer Intelligence offers a thought provoking article on four data points that illustrate mental health parity. The rub is that “Mental and behavioral healthcare parity is about more than just equal reimbursement with similar medical and surgical services. It includes ensuring access to care by having enough providers in-network and making sure that the right types of specialists are available for members.”

Tuesday Tidbits

While the FEHBlog has been discussing the progress of convalescent plasma to treat COVID-19, its time to turn to the Gilead drug remdesivir Fierce Pharma discusses today a recently released peer reviewed study that shows that the drug works well with patients suffering from moderate severity COVID-19.

The 1,063-patient study showed remdesivir’s benefits appear greatest for hospitalized patients in the middle of the disease-severity spectrum. For those who required oxygen supplementation but were not mechanically ventilated, remdesivir cut the time to recovery by 47% compared with placebo. But remdesivir didn’t much help patients with mild or moderate disease, and outcomes for patients on invasive ventilation or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation were nearly the same in both arms of the study.

According to the article, studies are continuing on the efficacy of the drug for patients with mild severity COVID-19.

The Wall Street Journal reports today that physicians are concerned over fact that anti-anxiety and anti-depression prescriptions have spiked during the great hunkering down. “Many physicians have a low threshold for prescribing them. It’s very problematic,” says Bruce J. Schwartz, deputy chair and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. “Many people do develop a dependency on these medications.” The article offers alternate approaches, and FEHB plans now usually offer coaching services to help with the problems.

Speaking of healthcare coaching programs, CNBC reports that the great hunkering down has been good for companies that provide coaching or telehealth / digital health programs.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that their 2021 pilot program to lower insulin costs for Medicare beneficiaries is bearing fruit.

Based on CMS’s estimates, beneficiaries who use insulin and join a plan participating in the model could see average out-of-pocket savings of $446, or 66 percent, for their insulins, funded in part by manufacturers paying an estimated additional $250 million of discounts over the five years of the model. With a robust voluntary response from Part D sponsors, CMS anticipates beneficiaries will have Part D plan options in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, through either a standalone prescription drug plan (PDP) or a Medicare Advantage plan with prescription drug coverage. Beneficiaries will be able to enroll during Medicare open enrollment, which is from October 15, 2020 through December 7, 2020, for Part D coverage that begins on January 1, 2021.

Well done. Hopefully the Medicare approach will be translatable to employer sponsored coverage like the FEHBP.