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From Washington, DC,

  • Politico reports,
    • “The Senate approved a stopgap funding bill Thursday night for President Joe Biden’s signature, thwarting a partial government shutdown on Saturday and buying more time to finalize half a dozen spending bills that congressional leaders aim to pass next week.
    • “Congress now officially has until March 8 to clear that initial six-bill bundle, which leaders struck a deal on earlier this week. But they’re still working on an agreement to fund the rest of the government, including the military and some of the biggest domestic programs, before a second deadline on March 22. The upper chamber cleared the measure in a 77-13 vote, following votes on four Republican amendments that were defeated on the floor.”
  • The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force posted for public comment a draft research plan concerning Primary Care Interventions for Tobacco and Nicotine Use Prevention and Cessation in Children and Adolescents. The comment period ends on March 27, 2024.
  • The Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs created an updated website for the “The Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRAA) [which] is a law that prohibits federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating in employment against protected veterans and requires employers take affirmative action to recruit, hire, promote, and retain these individuals.”
  • Yesterday, the Politico Pulse posted a story on a December 2022 Government Accountability Office report, released January 9, 2023, criticizing OPM’s internal controls over FEHB family member eligibility. Here is a link to the GAO’s website for the report which offers August 2023 updates on OPM’s efforts to implement GAO’s recommendations. Here’s are FEHBlog recommendations for GAO and OPM:
    • Family member eligibility hinges on the enrollee’s eligibility. OPM needs to have the payroll offices implement the HIPAA 820 enrollment roster electronic transaction which allows carriers to reconcile premiums to actual headcount. Use of the HIPAA 820 will be a huge step toward confirming the accuracy of family member eligibility and the 50% of FEHB enrollees who have self only coverage.
    • The Politico article suggests that the high cost of a family member eligibility audit discourages OPM from implementing one for the FEHBP. Auditors do their work based on samples. Arrange for a family member eligibility audit using statistically appropriate samples which will disclose, at the very least, the scope of the problem.

From the U.S. public health and medical research front,

  • The New York Times reports,
    • “Long Covid may lead to measurable cognitive decline, especially in the ability to remember, reason and plan, a large new studysuggests.
    • “Cognitive testing of nearly 113,000 people in England found that those with persistent post-Covid symptoms scored the equivalent of 6 I.Q. points lower than people who had never been infected with the coronavirus, according to the study, published Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine.
    • “People who had been infected and no longer had symptoms also scored slightly lower than people who had never been infected, by the equivalent of 3 I.Q. points, even if they were ill for only a short time.
    • “The differences in cognitive scores were relatively small, and neurological experts cautioned that the results did not imply that being infected with the coronavirus or developing long Covid caused profound deficits in thinking and function. But the experts said the findings are important because they provide numerical evidence for the brain fog, focus and memory problems that afflict many people with long Covid.”
  • and
    • “Alcohol-related deaths surged in the United States by nearly 30 percent in recent years, with roughly 500 Americans dying each day in 2021, according to a new study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
    • “The study chronicled a sustained spike in drinking during the Covid pandemic that continued to rise after the shock of the lockdowns of 2020. The incidence of alcohol-related deaths was higher in men, but among women the death rate shot up at a quicker pace.
    • “I think the results of this research are really alarming,” said Dr. Michael Siegel, who is a professor of public health at Tufts University School of Medicine and was not involved in the study. “It shows that there’s been a truly substantial increase in alcohol-related deaths over the last six years.”
  • and
    • “The 2022 outbreak of mpox, previously known as monkeypox, was curbed in large part by drastic changes in behavior among gay and bisexual men, and not by vaccination, according to a new analysis published on Thursday in the journal Cell.
    • “Public health response to outbreaks often relies heavily on vaccines and treatments, but that underestimates the importance of other measures, said Miguel Paredes, lead author of the new study and an epidemiologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle.
    • “Although the Food and Drug Administration approved a vaccinefor mpox in 2019, getting enough doses produced and into arms proved challenging for many months after the outbreak began. Vaccines for new pathogens are likely to take even longer.
    • “The new analysis suggests an alternative. Alerting high-risk communities allowed individuals to alter their behavior, such as reducing the number of partners, and led to a sharp decrease in transmission, Mr. Paredes said. In North America, the outbreak began petering out in August 2022, when less than 8 percent of high-risk individuals had been vaccinated.
    • “Public health messaging can “be really powerful to control epidemics, even as we’re waiting for things like vaccines to come,” he said.”
  • Roll Call adds,
    • “Cases of measles are rising across the country and seem to be striking counties at random, but experts say there is one thing the public health system can do to turn the tide, and that’s to stem the post-pandemic vaccine lag and get parents to vaccinate their kids.
    • “General vaccination rates, including measles vaccination, declined during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people had less access to health care and kids were unable to access in-school vaccine clinics.
    • “That, combined with a new wave of vaccine skepticism and anti-vaccine sentiment has contributed to a wave of unvaccinated kids falling sick with the once-eradicated virus.”
  • MedPage Today tells us,
    • “The benefits of vaccination against respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) for adults ages 60 and older probably outweigh the small risk of vaccine-related Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) reaffirmed.
    • “In a presentation on the second day of the ACIP’s 2-day meeting, Amadea Britton, MD, of the CDC’s RSV adult vaccination work group in Atlanta, noted that a small number of cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome had been observed in the clinical trials for both FDA-approved RSV prefusion F protein vaccines, but that it remained unclear whether those cases were actually caused by RSV vaccination or just chance occurrences.”
  • and
    • The CDC has issued new guidance —  its first since 1988 — on identifying and responding to clusters of suicide, as tens of thousands of lives are lost to suicide each year in the U.S.
    • Though suicide clusters are rare, they “can have unique characteristics and challenges,” and “are often highly publicized and can have considerable negative effects on the community, including prolonged grief and elevated fear and anxiety about further deaths,” Michael Ballesteros, PhD, of CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC), and colleagues wrote in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).
  • Beckers Hospital Review informs us,
    • “The CDC is anticipating a shortage of Td vaccines — which protect against tetanus and diphtheria — as the maker of one shot has discontinued production. 
    • “As a result, the CDC has updated guidance for providers and is recommending that they switch to administering Tdap vaccines, which protect against pertussis in addition to tetanus and diphtheria, whenever possible.  
    • “MassBiologics discontinued production of its TdVax shot, and while Sanofi also manufactures a Td vaccine and is working to boost supplies, the CDC anticipates the U.S. could see a shortage of the vaccines later this year. 
    • “Because not everyone can receive the Tdap vaccine, “the limited supply of Td vaccine needs to be preserved for those with a contraindication to receiving pertussis-containing vaccines,” the CDC said in its guidance.” 
  • Medscape notes,
    • “Injectable weight loss drugs like Wegovy, Saxenda, and Zepbound have been getting all the glory lately, but they’re not for everyone. If the inconvenience or cost of weight loss drugs isn’t for you, another approach may be boosting your gut microbiome.
    • “So how does one do that, and how does it work?
    • “In theory, all you have to do is boost your gut microbiome.
    • “There are a lot of different factors naturally in weight gain and weight loss, so the gut microbiome is certainly not the only thing,” said Chris Damman, MD, a gastroenterologist at the University of Washington. He studies how food and the microbiome affect your health. “With that caveat, it probably is playing an important role.”
  • STAT News adds,
    • “New obesity drugs like Wegovy and Zepbound are currently taken once a week, indefinitely. But what if they could be taken once a year instead, like a vaccine?
    • “That’s a question that Novo Nordisk, the pharma company behind Wegovy, is exploring as it faces increased competition from other drugmakers aiming to develop similar GLP-1-based treatments for obesity.
    • “We have a very early think tank on: what would it take us, from a technology point of view and from an ecosystem point of view, to make long-lasting GLP-1 molecules?” Marcus Schindler, Novo’s chief scientific officer, said in an interview with STAT Wednesday. “Could we think about vaccine-like properties, where imagine you had, once a year, an injection with an equivalent of a GLP-1 that really helps you to maintain weight loss and have cardiovascular benefits?”

From the U.S. healthcare business and cybersecurity issues front,

  • Beckers Hospital Review informs us,
    • “Optum’s Change Healthcare confirmed Feb. 29 that it was hacked by a ransomware gang after the group claimed to have stolen massive amounts of data.
    • “Change Healthcare can confirm we are experiencing a cybersecurity issue perpetrated by a cybercrime threat actor who has represented itself to us as ALPHV/Blackcat,” an Optum spokesperson emailed Becker’s on Feb. 29. “We are actively working to understand the impact to members, patients and customers.” * * *
    • “ALPHV/Blackcat, aka BlackCat, claimed responsibility for the hack, posting on its dark web leak site that it stole 6 terabytes worth of Change Healthcare data involving “thousands of healthcare providers, insurance providers, pharmacies, etc,” Bleeping Computer reported Feb. 28. The allegedly stolen data includes medical records, patient Social Security numbers, and information on active military personnel (Change serves some military healthcare facilities).
    • “But as Politico noted Feb. 28: “Ransomware groups, which demand extortion payments in exchange for restoring or not publishing stolen data, often exaggerate their exploits as a negotiating tactic.”
    • “ALPHV/Blackcat, which has been linked to Russia, has been targeting the U.S. healthcare industry since December after the FBI disrupted its operations.”
  • STAT News adds,
    • “The outage caused by the Change Healthcare cyberattack could last weeks, a top UnitedHealth executive suggested in a Tuesday conference call with hospital cybersecurity officers, according to a recording obtained by STAT.
    • “UnitedHealth Group Chief Operating Officer Dirk McMahon said the company is setting up a loan program to help providers who can’t submit insurance claims while Change is offline. He said that program will last “for the next couple of weeks as this continues to go on.”
    • “McMahon’s remarks about the loan program highlight the scope of UnitedHealth’s damage control. UnitedHealth maintained it has “not determined the [cyberattack] incident is reasonably likely to materially impact our financial condition or results of operations,” according to its annual report to investors this week. But doctors and pharmacists are scrambling to find ways to get patients what they need, and to get paid. As of 2022, Change facilitated $1.5 trillion in health care transactions.”
  • HR Brew lets us know,
    • “The cost of healthcare went up last year, according to a new report from Marsh McLennan Agency (MMA), a US-based subsidiary of global brokerage Marsh. The amount that employers spent on health benefits per employee grew by 5.2%, while the estimated cost of employer contributions to premiums increased by more than $1,400, to $11,762.
    • “Healthcare inflation can affect employees, as well, the report noted, with 38% of Americans reporting they put off medical treatment in the last year due to cost concerns. MMA noted that “delayed care is associated with worse health outcomes and higher costs for patients and benefit providers.”
    • “Younger workers appear to be feeling the pinch of high health costs the most, with 74% of millennial and 56% of Gen Z patients canceling doctors’ visits because of high costs, compared to 13% of Baby Boomer patients. Putting off behavioral healthcare, in particular, can be costly for younger age groups, said Monte Masten, chief medical officer with MMA. Given these trends, employer investment in incentives may be warranted, he told HR Brew.”
  • Drug Store News alerts us,
    • “Walgreens’ VillageMD is closing six Chicago clinic locations—five standalone and one co-located with a Walgreens store, per a Telehealth & Telecare Aware report.
    • “The closures in Walgreens’ home state are set to take place April 19. These closures follow on the heels of news last week that VillageMD exited the Florida market.” 
  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “Telemedicine clinic Virta Health believes its members can achieve significant and sustained improvement in weight loss, even if a patient has stopped taking a GLP-1 drug, a newly released paper in Diabetes Therapy shows.
    • “According to the company, it is a first-of-its-kind study offering an opposing viewpoint against clinical trials showing GLP-1 deprescription leading to weight regain. The results have potentially major implications for employers and plans looking to help its members improve health outcomes and fight obesity but that are concerned about rising costs amid increasing demand.
    • “This is unheard of,” said Sami Inkinen, Virta Health CEO and co-founder. “To my knowledge, nobody has published or shown this kind of data to date.”
  • Beckers Health Payer Issues points out five health insurers that “are making commitments to advance a White House initiative to end hunger and reduce diet-related disease by 2030.” 
  • Per BioPharma Dive,
    • “Kenai Therapeutics, a San Diego-based biotechnology company, has raised $82 million to support its work developing cell therapies for nervous system disorders.
    • “Cure Ventures, a new venture capital firm founded by three longtime biotech investors, co-led the Series A round announced Thursday, alongside Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation and The Column Group. The investment is the first announced by Cure since it debuted last year with a $350 million fund. Euclidean Capital and Saisei Ventures also participated in the round.
    • “Previously known as Ryne Bio, Kenai’s research aim is to create so-called off-the-shelf cell therapies that replace neurons. The company’s most advanced medicine is made from genetically reprogrammed stem cells and designed to treat Parkinson’s disease by restoring dopamine production.
    • “The medicine has “displayed robust survival, innervation, and behavioral rescue in preclinical models of Parkinson’s disease,” according to Kenai, which claims it could work in inherited forms of the disease as well as in cases where the exact cause isn’t understood.
    • “The company said the funding proceeds will be enough to push the medicine, named RNDP-001, into human testing and through early-stage clinical trials, which should start within the year.”

Midweek update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash
  • Roll Call informs us,
    • “Congressional leaders reached an agreement on final fiscal 2024 appropriations bills Wednesday that will pave the way for lawmakers to wrap up the process in two packages in the coming days and weeks, sources familiar with the deal said.
    • “Funding for agencies covered by the Agriculture, Energy-Water, Military Construction-VA and Transportation-HUD bills would be extended from March 1 through March 8, joining the Interior-Enviroment and Commerce-Justice-Science bills in the first tranche. Lawmakers are expected to release text of the stopgap spending measure as soon as Wednesday.
    • “Appropriators are aiming for text for the first tranche by Sunday in order for the House to be able to turn around and vote Wednesday, before Thursday gets swallowed up by President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address. In theory, that would give the Senate time to get the first package to Biden’s desk before the impacts of a partial shutdown on those agencies subject to the new March 8 deadline are felt.
    • “Stopgap funding for the remaining six bills, which had been set to lapse March 9, would last through March 22, giving lawmakers enough time to finish turning the deal into legislative text and getting them through both chambers. That package will consist of the Defense, Labor-HHS-Education, Homeland Security, Financial Services, State-Foreign Operations and Legislative Branch measures.” (FEHBlog note — FEHB appropriations are included in the Financial Services bill.]
  • and
    • “Mitch McConnell’s announcement [today] that he will voluntarily end his record-setting reign as Senate Republican leader drew praise and some derision Wednesday, as a contest to succeed him that was already underway began to move out from behind the scenes.
    • “Potential candidates to replace McConnell include the “three Johns,” as they’re known, who have all served as deputies under McConnell in recent years. South Dakota Sen. John Thune, currently the No. 2 Senate Republican; Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the current conference chair; and Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a former GOP whip who termed out of leadership, could all make a run for party leader.” 
  • The Bipartisan Policy Center adds,
    • “An additional factor affecting FY2024, which runs from October 1, 2023, through September 30, 2024, and FY2025 is the Fiscal Responsibility Act or FRA—the bipartisan debt limit deal that set discretionary spending levels for two years. The FRA includes a provision that reduces spending caps in the deal and enforces a sequester (an across-the-board cut) if one or more agencies are covered by a CR after April 30, 2024. There is some uncertainty over whether a full-year CR would trigger this April 30 provision. The executive branch’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is ultimately responsible for making that decision.”
  • STAT News reports,
    • “In a bid to combat prescription drug costs, the White House will hold a listening session on Monday in search of ways to reform pharmacy benefit managers, according to people familiar with the plans.
    • “The list of attendees includes representatives from the federal government and industry, who are expected to provide insights into how the largest pharmacy benefit managers determine which medicines are covered by insurers and employers, as well as prices that are paid at pharmacy counters. Critics say these middlemen rely on an opaque process that drives up costs for patients and taxpayers.
    • “Among those invited is Mark Cuban, whose Cost Plus Drug Company is trying to transform the marketplace by avoiding the largest middlemen when reaching benefits agreements with employers. He will “just convey what our experience has been at Cost Plus and, if they ask, [make] suggestions on what we think can make things better,” he told us when asked about his expectations for the meeting.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The American Hospital Association News tells us,
    • “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Mandy Cohen, M.D., Feb. 28 endorsed a recommendation by its Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices that adults ages 65 years and older receive an additional updated 2023-2024 COVID-19 vaccine dose. 
    • “Today’s recommendation allows older adults to receive an additional dose of this season’s COVID-19 vaccine to provide added protection,” Cohen said. “Most COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations last year were among people 65 years and older. An additional vaccine dose can provide added protection that may have decreased over time for those at highest risk.”
    • “CDC continues to recommend that everyone stay up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines, especially people with weakened immune systems.”
  • The Wall Street Journal adds,
    • “The CDC’s final decision ensures most health plans cover the inoculations without an out-of-pocket charge when furnished in-network].
    • “Most Covid-19 deaths and hospitalizations last year were among people 65 years and older. An additional vaccine dose can provide added protection that may have decreased over time for those at highest risk,” CDC Director Dr. Mandy Cohen said.”
  • The National Institutes of Health announced,
    • “Frequent cannabis smoking may significantly increase a person’s risk for heart attack and stroke, according to an observational study supported by the National Institutes of Health. The study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, uses data from nearly 435,000 American adults, and is among the largest ever to explore the relationship between cannabis and cardiovascular events.   
    • “The study, funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of NIH, found that daily use of cannabis — predominately through smoking — was associated with a 25% increased likelihood of heart attack and a 42% increased likelihood of stroke when compared to non-use of the drug. Less frequent use was also associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular events. Weekly users showed a 3% increased likelihood of heart attack and a 5% increased likelihood of stroke.
    • “Around 75% of the study respondents reported that they mainly used cannabis by smoking the drug. Approximately 25% of the respondents reported using cannabis by some method other than smoking, such as vaping, drinking, or eating the drug.
    • “We know that toxins are released when cannabis is burned, similar to those found in tobacco smoke,” said corresponding author Abra Jeffers, Ph.D., a data analyst at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and formerly a researcher at the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco, where she conducted the study as part of her postdoctoral work.
    • “We’ve known for a long time that smoking tobacco is linked to heart disease, and this study is evidence that smoking cannabis appears to also be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States,” Jeffers said. “Cannabis use could be an important, underappreciated source of heart disease.”
  • MedPage Today lets us know,
    • “Mortality from colorectal cancer (CRC) decreased significantly in patients who were offered early screening with fecal occult blood testing (FOBT), a large prospective cohort study showed.
    • “Cancer-specific mortality decreased significantly by 14% in patients who underwent early screening for CRC, as compared with a control group that received late or no invitations to participate in screening. Excess mortality decreased by 16% in the exposure group.
    • “The results probably underestimated the true impact of screening with FOBT, as some participants in the control group underwent testing, reported Johannes Blom, MD, PhD, of the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, and co-authors in JAMA Network Openopens in a new tab or windowClinicians and patients now have greater confidence that CRC screening reduces the risk of dying of CRC.”
  • The Society for Human Resource Management offers ten tips to Support Mental Health in Multigenerational Workplaces.”
  • MedTech Dive informs us,
    • “Johnson & Johnson has started patient enrollment in a pivotal trial to evaluate its Laminar left atrial appendage (LAA) elimination device for reducing stroke risk due to blood clot formation in the heart, the company said Tuesday.
    • “The investigational device exemption study will enroll 1,500 patients with atrial fibrillation (AFib), a common form of irregular heart rhythm, at up to 100 U.S. sites.
    • “J&J, which acquired privately held Laminar for $400 million in November, is among the medtech companies aiming to challenge Boston Scientific, whose Watchman implant leads the fast-growing market for LAA devices.” 

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Beckers Hospital Review lists the 43 U.S. hospitals listed in Newsweeks top 250 hospital worldwide. U.S. hospital form four of the top five.
    • 1. Mayo Clinic-Rochester (Minn.)
    • 2. Cleveland Clinic
    • 4. The Johns Hopkins Hospital (Baltimore)
    • 5. Massachusetts General Hospital (Boston)
  • Per Healthcare Dive,
    • “Universal Health Services is guiding to a stronger 2024 than analysts had expected after beating Wall Street’s revenue expectations in fourth-quarter results released Tuesday.
    • “The massive for-profit hospital operator expects to bring in revenue between $15.4 billion and $15.7 billion this year, which represents almost 9% year-over-year growth at the midpoint. In comparison, UHS grew revenue almost 7% last year, ending 2023 with $14.3 billion. The system’s profit was $717.8 million, up 6%.
    • “UHS was helped in the fourth quarter from better-than-expected behavioral health volumes, despite continued cost pressures from physician subsidy expenses and the ongoing Medicaid redetermination process.”
  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “Danbury, Connecticut-based Nuvance Health is joining Northwell Health, New York’s largest provider and private employer, under a strategic merger agreement unveiled Wednesday.
    • “The deal, which still requires regulatory signoffs, would create a healthcare network of more than 28 hospitals, over 1,000 care sites, nearly 100,000 staff and 14,500 employed providers, the two nonprofits said in their joint announcement.
    • “This partnership opens a new and exciting chapter for Northwell and Nuvance and provides an incredible opportunity to enhance both health systems and take patient care and services to an even higher level,” Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health said in the announcement. “We have similar missions in providing high-quality care for patients in the communities we serve. We look forward to building on the care that Nuvance Health’s 14,000 staff members and providers deliver each and every day.”
  • Health Equity explains why employer matching contributions to employee health savings accounts can be game changer when trying to lower healthcare costs.
    • “When implementing an HSA contribution plan, it’s helpful to structure the program in a way that is not only cost-effective but also encourages adoption. Seed options are a good way to encourage HSA use because they directly help employees with healthcare costs. You can make seed contributions in several ways, such as:
      • A lump sum
      • Smaller amounts throughout the year
      • Or a combination of both tactics
    • “To boost adoption, consider offering an HSA-qualified plan with lower premiums than your regular plan. This way, the choices cost about the same. For instance, you could offer a PPO plan with a $400 monthly premium or an HSA-qualified plan with a $200 monthly premium and an extra $200 monthly employer seed.
    • “It’s not uncommon for organizations to seed the first year of an employee’s HSA to help them transition into the plan, but few make the important switch to a match system to continue encouraging contributions.
    • “According to HealthEquity research, only 12% of employers provide a contribution match compared to 68% who offer a seed.”

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “President Biden is calling congressional leaders to the White House as the clock ticks toward a partial government shutdown Friday night and a Ukraine aid package remains stuck.
    • “The president has called the meeting for Tuesday, seeking to break a logjam. House and Senate leaders have been working to negotiate the details of 12 funding bills totaling $1.6 trillion for federal agencies, which have been operating on temporary extensions since Sept. 30. Funding for the Transportation Department and several other agencies expires after March 1, which would affect some housing, food and veterans’ programs; the rest expires after March 8.” 
  • STAT News reports,
    • “Congress has abandoned its attempt to reform how pharmacy middlemen operate in an upcoming package to fund the federal government, 11 lobbyists and sources following the talks told STAT.”
  • and
    • “Congress will not move forward with a controversial policy to equalize certain Medicare payments to hospitals and physicians’ offices in an upcoming government funding package, five lobbyists and sources following the talks told STAT.”
  • From an HHS press release,
    • “Today, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), announced $36.9 million in notices of funding opportunities for grant programs supporting behavioral health services across the country. Additionally, HHS, through the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), issued guidance that allows states to expand the pool of behavioral health care providers eligible for enhanced federal Medicaid funding, which will better support this critical workforce as well as improve access to care. The guidance also allows states to claim federal dollars for nurse advice lines.”
  • BioPharma Dive tells us,
    • “The Food and Drug Administration on Saturday approved Alvotech and Teva Pharmaceuticals’ Simlandi, a biosimilar of the most popular version of AbbVie’s rheumatoid arthritis drug Humira. The drug, which can be directly substituted by a pharmacist, was rejected by the FDA twice before due to manufacturing issues at a plant in Iceland.
    • “The partners didn’t announce a launch date or a price for Simlandi, which will be the 10th Humira biosimilar reach market since Amgen’s Amjevita arrived on Jan. 31, 2023. Some biosimilars have launched at a steep upfront discount while others have a list price only slightly below Humira’s to allow for negotiation over rebates.
    • “Alvotech also announced a stock sale Monday, raising around $166 million at $16.41 a share. The company had $68 million in cash and equivalents on Sept. 30, after recording losses of $275 million on $30 million in revenue through the first nine months of 2023.”
  • HR Dive informs us,
    • “A federal district court has delayed a National Labor Relations joint employer rule effective date to March 11. Friday marks the second time the start date has been delayed; NLRB previously extended a Dec. 26, 2023, start date to Feb. 26.
    • “This new rule establishes a standard for determining if two organizations are joint employers of particular employees; two entities are joint employers when they co-determine the essential terms of an individual’s employment.”
  • The Census Bureau issued a tip sheet on grandparents and co-resident grandchildren 2021.
    • “According to the 2017-2021 ACS, 5-year estimates, 8.0% of children under age 18 lived in their grandparents’ home.
    • “The proportion of children living with only their grandparents or with their grandparents and one or both parents varied across race and ethnicity. For grandchildren who lived with grandparents, it was more common to also live with both parents or their mother in the household than to live with their father or no parent in the household.
    • “Overall, about 38.6% of children under age 18 who lived with grandparents also lived with two parents. Of all race and Hispanic origin groups, Asian grandchildren had the highest percentage (70.9%) in this living arrangement.
    • “About 16.2% of grandchildren under age 18 living with grandparents were in poverty. The percentage was higher for those in grandparent-maintained households (18.6%) compared to parent-maintained households (12.1%).
    • “About 76.1% of all grandchildren under age 18 living with grandparents lived in households that received public assistance, most commonly through the school lunch program.”
  • The tip sheet drew the FEHBlog’s attention due to FEHB coverage of foster children.
  • Health Reform Beyond the Basics offers an an explanation of the ACA Summary of Benefits and Coverage

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The New York Times offers a 2024 guide to COVID symptoms and treatments.
  • CNN points out,
    • “Cases of norovirus are on the rise in the US, on par with seasonal trends, according to the most recent data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
    • “In the week ending February 17, more than 12% of tests for norovirus – a common and very contagious virus that causes gastrointestinal symptoms – came back positive, CDC data showed. That’s up from 11.5% the week before. Cases are particularly high in the Northeast, where more than 13% of tests came back positive. Positivity rates in the region have been over 13% since late January.
    • “However, these levels are below what they were at this point last season, when about 15% of tests were positive, both nationally and in the Northeast.
    • “Outbreaks of norovirus are most common in the late fall, winter and early spring, according to the CDC.”
  • HR Daily Advisor identifies eight tips to help employees improve mental health in the face of the winter blues.
  • Medscape lets us know that “Eating more than three meals daily, eating earlier, and eating lunch as the largest meal are linked to lower body mass index (BMI) and reduced obesity risk.”
  • The National Institutes of Health announced,
    • “Results from a large clinical trial funded by the National Institutes of Health show that an intervention for anxiety provided to pregnant women living in Pakistan significantly reduced the likelihood of the women developing moderate-to-severe anxiety, depression, or both six weeks after birth. The unique intervention was administered by non-specialized providers who had the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in psychology—but no clinical experience. The results suggest this intervention could be an effective way to prevent the development of postpartum mental health challenges in women living in low-resource settings.
    • “In low resource settings, it can be challenging for women to access mental health care due to a global shortage of trained mental health specialists,” said Joshua A. Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, part of NIH. “This study shows that non-specialists could help to fill this gap, providing care to more women during this critical period.”
    • “Led by Pamela J. Surkan, Ph.D., Sc.D.(link is external), of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, the study was conducted in the Punjab Province of Pakistan between April 2019 and January 2022. Pregnant women with symptoms of at least mild anxiety were randomly assigned to receive either routine pregnancy care or a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)-based intervention called Happy Mother-Healthy BabyThe researchers assessed the participants (380 women in the CBT group and 375 women in the routine care group) for anxiety and depression six weeks after the birth of their child.
    • “The researchers found that 9% of women in the intervention group developed moderate-to-severe anxiety compared with 27% of women in the routine care group. Additionally, 12% percent of women in the intervention group developed depression compared with 41% of women in the routine care group.”
  • According to BioPharma Dive,
    • “An experimental obesity drug from Boehringer Ingelheim and Zealand Pharma succeeded in a mid-stage liver disease study, the latest evidence new weight loss medicines could also help people with metabolic dysfunction-associated steatohepatitis, or MASH.
    • “Summary results disclosed Monday show that up to 83% of trial participants treated with the companies’ drug, survodutide, experienced a significant improvement in their disease without worsening liver scarring, compared to about 18% of those given placebo. The drug met its secondary study goals, notably demonstrating a benefit on liver scarring, the companies said.
    • “Boehringer and Zealand didn’t provide many other details, leaving unanswered questions about the magnitude of survodutide’s effect. The companies also didn’t describe safety findings in depth, although they noted treatment “did not show unexpected safety or tolerability issues” at any of the three doses tested. Data will be presented at an upcoming medical meeting.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Fierce Healthcare reports,
    • “Elevance Health’s CarelonRx will begin offering a weight management program, providing its members access to digital-first coaching and wellness tools.
    • “Behavioral health and social drivers of health screenings will be included in the offerings, according to a news release. The program will help members that take, as well as those that don’t take, GLP-1 medications. It will be available to ASO-integrated clients.
    • “At CarelonRx, we want to ease the complexities of weight loss and weight management, and support healthier lifestyles for our members,” said Paul Marchetti, president of CarelonRx, in a statement. “Our weight management program is unique because it considers a member’s whole health needs, including pharmacy, medical and social drivers of health data, and creates opportunities for care coordination between nutrition and exercise experts, pharmacists, physicians and health plans.”
  • and
    • “Humana tapped data automation company Veda to improve the accuracy of its provider information and ensure seniors have real-time details about in-network providers. The partnership was announced at the ViVE 2024 conference Monday morning. * * *
    • “Founded in 2015, Veda developed an AI platform that enables payers to transform and ingest provider rosters rapidly, reducing turnaround times from weeks to hours, according to the company.
    • “Veda will use its patented automation technology to analyze, verify and standardize Humana’s data to ensure the information is accurate and comprehensive, along with real-time scoring of data quality.
    • “Accurate provider data is a key component of efficient health plan operations, care delivery, interoperability, and ultimately patient satisfaction,” Meghan Gaffney, Veda co-founder and CEO, said. “By addressing the challenges that members may face with finding in-network care providers, Humana is ensuring their members have access to the timely, high-quality care they deserve.”  
    • “Veda says its platform achieves high data accuracy, ensuring quality across networks as measured by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).”
  • and
    • “The cybersecurity incident at Change Healthcare will stretch on for at least another day, according to the latest update from Optum.
    • “The company posted early Monday morning that it is taking multiple angles to get Change’s systems back online, and stressed that it has a “high level of confidence” that other systems within Optum, UnitedHealthcare and UnitedHealth Group are unaffected. * * *
    • “In a statement to CNBC, CVS Health said that while it is continuing to fill prescriptions for customers, it’s not able to process all of its insurance claims. The pharmacy giant added that there is “no indication” that its own systems have been breached.”
  • Reuters notes,
    • “Pharmaceutical companies last year launched new U.S. drugs at prices 35% higher than in 2022, reflecting in part the industry’s embrace of expensive therapies for rare diseases like muscular dystrophy, a Reuters analysis found.
    • “The median annual list price for a new drug was $300,000 in 2023, according to the Reuters analysis of 47 medicines, up from $222,000 a year earlier. In 2021, the median annual price was $180,000 for the 30 drugs first marketed through mid-July, according to a study published in JAMA.”
  • The Society for Human Resource Management relates,
    • “Millions more employees than expected are leaving the workplace in favor of retirement—a phenomenon that stands to have an outsized impact on employers.
    • “The U.S. currently has roughly 2.7 million more retirees than predicted, Bloomberg reports, according to a model designed by an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. That’s up 80 percent from six months ago, when there were roughly 1.5 million more retirees than anticipated. By contrast, prior to the pandemic, there often were fewer retirees than expected.”

Friday Factoids

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

From Washington DC

  • Roll Call reports on the state of FY 2024 appropriations negotiations on Capitol Hill. Your guess on the impending outcome is as good as mine.
  • The U.S. Office of Personnel Management released
    • “a new Workforce of the Future Playbook today supporting a federal workforce that is inclusive, agile and engaged, and equipped with the right skills to deliver for the American people. The Playbook provides concrete actions that agencies can take to build and equip the workforce of the future, incorporating new strategies and sharing best practices across government. 
    • “OPM is 100% invested in strengthening the federal workforce,” said OPM Director Kiran Ahuja. “This Playbook is just another example of OPM’s ongoing efforts to equip federal agencies with the tools and resources to hire the right talent and strategically plan for their future workforce. The federal government works best when we leverage the full talent of our nation and workforce – this playbook is full of useful strategies to do just that. * * *
    • “Coming soon, OPM will provide guidance through webinars, training, and technical assistance from subject matter experts to support agencies in their implementation of these strategies. The Playbook will serve as the building block for a future workforce that promotes increased effectiveness and efficiency in service to the American people. Periodic updates will be posted to the Workforce of the Future webpage.” 
  • The Department of Justice announced,
    • “Settlements and judgments under the False Claims Act exceeded $2.68 billion in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2023, Acting Associate Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer and Civil Division Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton announced today. The government and whistleblowers were party to 543 settlements and judgments, the highest number of settlements and judgments in a single year. Recoveries since 1986, when Congress substantially strengthened the civil False Claims Act, now total more than $75 billion. * * *
    • “Of the more than $2.68 billion in False Claims Act settlements and judgments reported by the Department of Justice this past fiscal year, over $1.8 billion related to matters that involved the health care industry, including managed care providers, hospitals, pharmacies, laboratories, long-term acute care facilities, and physicians. The amounts included in the $1.8 billion reflect recoveries arising only from federal losses, but in many of these cases, the department was instrumental in recovering additional amounts for state Medicaid programs. The recoveries in fiscal year 2023 also reflect the department’s focus on key enforcement priorities, including fraud in pandemic relief programs and alleged violations of cybersecurity requirements in government contracts and grants.”
  • Medscape informs us,
    • “The Food and Drug Administration has granted De Novo classification to a sleep apnea feature developed by Samsung for use via the Health Monitor app, according to a company press release.
    • “The sleep apnea feature will be available on watches in Samsung’s Galaxy series in the third quarter of 2024, according to the press release.
    • “The new feature on the app is designed to help users with no previous diagnosis of sleep apnea to detect moderate to severe symptoms over a two-night period.
    • “The sleep apnea feature allows individuals older than 22 years to track their sleep twice for more than 4 hours within a 10-day period. The feature identifies breathing disruptions.”
  • MedTech Dive adds,
    • “The Food and Drug Administration warned patients against using smartwatches or smart rings that claim to measure blood sugar without piercing the skin. 
    • “Officials published the safety notice Wednesday after learning that people are selling wearables that claim to noninvasively monitor blood glucose. The devices are “manufactured by dozens of companies and sold under multiple brand names,” according to the agency. 
    • “The FDA has never authorized a noninvasive wearable that measures or estimates blood glucose values on its own and is concerned inaccurate readings could lead to errors in the management of diabetes.”
  • Govexec reports,
    • “The U.S. Postal Service has continued to see slower mail delivery across the country, with delays picking up as the agency is in the throes of transforming its entire network. 
    • “Postal management has repeatedly pointed to isolated incidents causing temporary disruptions—rather than any systemic issues—to explain the declining performance, though the trend has now persisted for nearly six months and is causing stakeholders and advocates to question the true root of the problem.
    • “USPS is now delivering just 83% of First-Class mail on time during the current fiscal quarter, its worst rate in three years. That is down from 86% in the first quarter and 91% in both the fourth quarter of fiscal 2023 and the same period last year.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The Centers for Disease Control tells us about the changing threat of Covid-19
    • What CDC knows
    • The impact of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has changed dramatically since 2020. Although COVID-19 remains common, when compared to 2020, individual infections are less likely to result in severe illness for most people in the United States. COVID-19 poses the highest risk for older adults, infants, and people with pre-existing medical conditions, and there are multiple ways people and communities can help reduce their risk of infection.
    • What CDC is doing
    • CDC continues to partner with state and local health authorities to collect and share data on COVID-19 community spread, hospitalizations, deaths, and Long COVID.  Additionally, CDC continues to evaluate the effectiveness of prevention and treatment strategies for the virus in order to provide the public the best evidence-based recommendations for reducing their risk from COVID-19.
    • Keep reading: The Changing Threat of COVID-19
  • Medscape notes,
    • Exercising for upwards of 30 minutes most days may help relieve pain in patients who’ve been diagnosed with cancer, according to a study of exercise and pain outcomes from more than 60,000 people, including 10,000 with a history of cancer. 
    • Study participants who’d been diagnosed with cancer and surpassed 150 minutes of moderate activity a week were 16% less likely to report pain than those who did not exercise or who exercised less. Exercise was particularly helpful for those with moderate to severe pain. In general, the more people exercised, the less pain they felt — and that was true for those with and without a history of cancer.
    • “This adds to a large evidence base regarding other benefits of exercise after cancer,” said lead study author Christopher Swain, PhD, a researcher at the University of Melbourne, Australia, who studies how physical activity can protect against cancer. “It would be great for physicians to encourage physical activity” for anyone who’s ever been diagnosed with cancer. 
  • Axios reports,
    • “Americans see poor mental health as one of the biggest threats to public health, ranking just behind obesity and the long-running opioid epidemic, according to the latest Axios-Ipsos American Health Index.
    • The big picture: Almost 9 out of 10 people say their own emotional wellbeing is very or somewhat good, but they view mental health issues as a serious societal threat that now outranks access to firearms, cancer or COVID-19. 
    • “And unlike many other perceived threats, there’s a pronounced generational split about mental health, registering as a much bigger concern for younger adults.
    • “The poll also found all but a small pocket of Americans largely tuned out a winter COVID-19 wave that saw the second-largest number of cases since the start of the pandemic, and the public is skeptical about handing over their care to artificial intelligence.
    • By the numbers: Overall, 17% said mental health was the top threat to public health, while 19% said obesity, 24% said opioids and fentanyl, and 15% said it was access to guns.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • The Employee Benefit Research Institute announced,
    • “New findings released today from the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI)/Greenwald Research Consumer Engagement in Health Care Survey(CEHCS) reported that consumers were overall satisfied with their health plan selection and services, while high deductible plans showed a slight decline in enrollment.
    • “The CEHCS is a survey of privately insured adults that has been conducted annually since 2005. The survey provides reliable national data on the growth of high deductible health plans (HDHP), consumer driven health plans (CDHP) and health savings accounts (HSA) – and the impact on the behavior and attitudes of health care consumers.  The 2023 survey of 2,020 individuals was conducted using an online research panel between Oct. 16 – Dec. 11, 2023. All respondents were between the ages of 21 and 64. * * *
    • “This year’s survey really shows strong evidence that people overall are satisfied with their health insurance.  Satisfaction levels are steady.  We see no majority is complaining and that is key to understanding market needs,” said Paul Fronstin, Ph.D., director, Health Benefits Research, EBRI.
    • “To view the 2023 CEHCS summary report, visit https://www.ebri.org/cehcs-2023.”
  • Chief Healthcare Executive reports,
    • “Nonprofit hospitals are making some progress financially, although the gains remain modest, according to Fitch Ratings.
    • “Of course, it’s saying something that Fitch’s early projections for the 2023 calendar year continue to show operational declines, although they aren’t as steep as 2022.
    • “Overall, Fitch expects the 2023 operating margins to rise into positive territory, albeit barely. The 2023 margins are expected to rise to 0.5% to 0.7%, which remains below pre-pandemic levels.
    • “In 2024, Fitch projects margins should move up to 1.6%.”
  • MedPage Today discusses whether “Artificial intelligence can improve prior authorization.”
    • “Prior authorization has ripple effects on patients and clinicians, but artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to simplify the process, health policy experts said during an online panel discussion hosted by the Kaiser Family Foundation on Thursday.
    • “Troyen Brennan, MD, a former executive at CVS Care and an adjunct professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, defended the process, arguing that it cuts down on unnecessary care. About 15% to 30% of all care in the U.S. healthcare system is ineffective, Brennan said.
    • “Plus, there are “really not any good studies … showing actual harm,” he argued. “There are a lot of surveys from physicians, in particular, that say that there are tremendous delays, but there’s obviously a response bias associated with this.”

Midweek Update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • Politico reports,
    • “Congress is out of town this week and facing another government shutdown deadline with major health care implications.
    • “Lawmakers are confronted with two deadlines — March 1 for funding for the FDA and the VA and March 8 for HHS funding.
    • “It’s a key week for Congressional appropriators. How much progress they make now will determine whether lawmakers have to turn to another temporary spending package.
    • E”ven though Congress is away, negotiations continue, and key lawmakers are “encouraged” about the prospect of reaching a deal.
    • “But as POLITICO’s Caitlin Emma and Jennifer Scholtes report, there’s skepticism about whether the progress is being made quickly enough, according to sources familiar with the talks. Legislative text for some fiscal 2024 measures should ideally be finalized by this weekend to allow time for the Congressional Budget Office to pore over the bills and top lawmakers to calculate their next steps.”
  • Govexec offers a Kevin Moss article about OPM’s recent call letter for 2024 benefit and rate proposals for FEHB and PSHBP coverage. Bear in mind that the article does not appreciate the fact the Part D EGWP plans integrate Medicare and FEHB / PSHB coverage so that if Medicare does not cover a particular drug, like an obesity treatment, the FEHB / PSHB coverage will kick in.
  • FEDWeek discusses an OPM Inspector General report criticizing OPM’s FEHB disputed claims resolution process. The FEHBlog thinks that OPM does a good job with this process. Of course, any process can be improved but at what cost?
  • Healthcare Dive tells us,
    • “The CMS finalized a rule on Tuesday recalculating disproportionate share hospital payments, or reimbursements for hospitals serving a high proportion of low-income patients. Under the new definition, hospitals can only receive reimbursements for services rendered to beneficiaries for whom Medicaid is their primary insurer. 
    • “Congress tasked the CMS with clarifying DSH calculations in its Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. The final rule aims to reduce DSH overpayments by limiting hospitals’ ability to receive government and private payer funds for the same service, according to the rule.
    • I”n total, the CMS’ new calculations will result in an $8 billion reduction in DSH payments annually from fiscal year 2024 to 2027, according to the rule.” 
  • Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employee Benefit Security, Lisa Gomez, posted a blog entry about how to use your employer sponsored health benefits to improve heart health.
  • The Government Accountability Office issued a report on maternal health.
    • “Hundreds of women in the U.S. die each year from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth—a crisis exacerbated by COVID-19. The Department of Health and Human Services is working to address the crisis and meet long-term goals such as increasing women’s access to high-quality maternal care.
    • “As of September 2023, HHS hasn’t determined how it’ll measure progress toward achieving its maternal health goals. Following key performance measurement practices—such as setting near-term goals and establishing timeframes for results—would allow the agency to better understand if its efforts are effective. We recommended that HHS do so.”
  • The National Institutes of Health announced,
    • “launch[ing] a clinical trials network to evaluate emerging technologies for cancer screening. The Cancer Screening Research Network (CSRN) will support the Biden-Harris administration’s Cancer Moonshot℠ by investigating how to identify cancers earlier, when they may be easier to treat. Eight groups have received funding from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of NIH, to carry out the initial activities of the network.
    • “There are many cancers we still cannot reliably detect until it is so late that they become extremely difficult to treat,” said W. Kimryn Rathmell, M.D., Ph.D., director of NCI. “Emerging technologies such as multi-cancer detection tests could transform cancer screening and help to extend the lives of many more people. We need to be sure that these technologies work and understand how to use them so they benefit everyone.”
    • “Studies are needed, for example, to evaluate the benefits and harms of promising new technologies for cancer screening and to determine how best to incorporate these technologies into the standard of care.”
    • “In 2024, the network will launch a pilot study, known as the Vanguard Study on Multi-Cancer Detection, to address the feasibility of using multi-cancer detection (MCD) tests in future randomized controlled trials. MCDs are blood tests that can screen for several types of cancers. The study will enroll up to 24,000 people to inform the design of a much larger randomized controlled trial. This larger trial will evaluate whether the benefits of using MCD tests to screen for cancer outweigh the harms, and whether they can detect cancer early in a way that reduces deaths.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • KFF informs us,
    • The United States is knee-deep in what some experts call the opioid epidemic’s “fourth wave,” which is not only placing drug users at greater risk but is also complicating efforts to address the nation’s drug problem.
    • These waves, according to a report out today from Millennium Health, began with the crisis in prescription opioid use, followed by a significant jump in heroin use, then an increase in the use of synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
    • The latest wave involves using multiple substances at the same time, combining fentanyl mainly with either methamphetamine or cocaine, the report found. “And I’ve yet to see a peak,” said one of the co-authors, Eric Dawson, vice president of clinical affairs at Millennium Health, a specialty laboratory that provides drug testing services to monitor use of prescription medications and illicit drugs. * * *
    • Methamphetamine, a highly addictive drug often in powder form that poses several serious cardiovascular and psychiatric risks, was found in 60% of fentanyl-positive tests last year. That is an 875% increase since 2015. * * *
    • Among the report’s other key findings:
      • The nationwide spike in methamphetamine use alongside fentanyl marks a change in drug use patterns.
      • Polydrug use trends complicate overdose treatments. For instance, though naloxone, an opioid-overdose reversal medication, is widely available, there isn’t an FDA-approved medication for stimulant overdose.
      • Both heroin and prescribed opioid use alongside fentanyl have dipped. Heroin detected in fentanyl-positive tests dropped by 75% since peaking in 2016. Prescription opioids were found at historic low rates in fentanyl-positive tests in 2023, down 89% since 2013.
  • MedPage Today points out,
    • “Annual breast cancer screening at ages 40 to 79 resulted in the greatest reduction in mortality, according to a study comparing various screening scenarios.
    • “Using Cancer Intervention and Surveillance Modeling Network (CISNET) estimates of breast cancer screening outcomes published in 2009, 2016, and 2023, mortality was reduced by 41.7% with annual screening starting at age 40 and continuing up to age 79, reported Debra L. Monticciolo, MD, of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, and colleagues.”
  • AP reports,
    • “Emily Hollenbeck lived with a deep, recurring depression she likened to a black hole, where gravity felt so strong and her limbs so heavy she could barely move. She knew the illness could kill her. Both of her parents had taken their lives. 
    • “She was willing to try something extreme: Having electrodes implanted in her brain as part of an experimental therapy.
    • “Researchers say the treatment —- called deep brain stimulation, or DBS — could eventually help many of the nearly 3 million Americans like her with depression that resists other treatments. It’s approved for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy, and many doctors and patients hope it will become more widely available for depression soon.”
  • Fierce Healthcare lets us know,
    • “Given the impact that social factors have on overall health, employers can better manage costs and outcomes by embracing deeper, population-level data analysis, according to a new white paper.
    • “UnitedHealthcare and the Health Action Council (HAC), a nonprofit that represents large and midsize employers, dug into community health data from HAC’s plan sponsors representing 217,779 workers. The analysis found that 52% of adults have at least one social determinant of health risk.
    • “Of that group, 10% faced three or more risks, and 16% had two risk factors. Twenty-six percent have one SDOH risk factor, according to the report.
    • “Craig Kurtzweil, chief data and analytics officer for UnitedHealthcare Employer and Individual, told Fierce Healthcare that the study “gives us a first of its kind sort of view of all the different variables that are impacting the health of various communities and employers.”
    • “As you dive a little bit further, it just becomes a bit remarkable how much of an impact those factors are making,” he said.”
  • Becker’s Hospital Review brings us up to date on prescription drug shortages.

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Healthcare Dive reports,
    • “St. Louis-based Ascension Healthcare brought in $231 million in operating income during its second quarter 2024 ended Dec. 31, compared to an operating loss of $291 million during the prior-year period.
    • “Ascension attributed its operational improvement in part to volume growth. Inpatient admissions increased 0.5% in thesix months ended Dec. 31, with same-facility admissions increasing 1.2% for the same period year over year.
    • “The health system said it slowed the pace of expense growth during the quarter. Total salaries, wages and benefits decreased $152 million in the six months ended Dec. 31, totaling $54.9 million for the quarter, as Ascension outsourced lab services and continued retention programs to reduce dependence on pricey staffing agencies.”
  • STAT News notes,
    • DarioHealth, which makes apps for managing chronic diseases, today announced it will acquire digital mental health company Twill for $10 million in cash plus stock valued at over $20 million at the end of Tuesday trading. The move is a bet that a consolidated offering can attract a critical mass of large customers in a market where profits have been elusive.
    • “Founded in 2011, Dario started with a diabetes app targeted at consumers before expanding it to hypertension and weight management. It still maintains that direct-to-consumer business but has since shifted its focus to selling its suite of offerings, including a musculoskeletal care program it acquired in 2021, to health plans and employers in the hopes of reaching much larger patient populations. Recent updates aimed at making itself attractive to clients include a new offering built around popular, and expensive, GLP-1 weight loss drugs, and published real world data suggesting its tools can save clients money on downstream health care costs. With Twill, Dario adds a mental health app and related services, addressing a top demand of employers.”
  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “Teladoc offered a weaker-than-expected forecast for 2024, projecting slower revenue growth as the telehealth market has become crowded with digital health players.
    • “The virtual care giant pulled in $661 million in revenue in the fourth quarter of 2024, up 4% from $638 million in the same period a year ago. Access fees revenue grew 4% to $574 million, and other revenue grew 3% to $87 million. U.S. revenue grew 2% to $565 million, and international revenue grew 15% to $96 million.
    • “The company’s BetterHelp virtual mental health business saw flat growth in the fourth quarter, bringing in $277 million. The weakness in BetterHelp sales was the result of lower direct-to-consumer marketing yield.
  • Beckers Payer Issues offers an interview with an Aetna Executive about the company’s Medicare Advantage business.
  • MedCity News calls our attention to a continuing interoperability problem.
    • “The healthcare industry has notoriously struggled with disconnected data systems and a lack of interoperability. When health information cannot be easily exchanged between different systems and providers, it leads to fragmented care, medical errors and delays in treatment — not to mention an incredible amount of frustration and inconvenience for both providers and patients.
    • “Software developers have been working hard in recent years to create tools and data sharing standards that foster a more cohesive and integrated approach. However, these tools have a serious adoption problem, experts said last week during a virtual panel held by Reuters Events.
    • “Alistair Erskine, Emory Healthcare’s chief information and digital officer, pointed out that most provider referrals are still done by fax, even though there are tools available to send them digitally. Most providers use EHRs that are able to pull a patient’s health information and transport it to the EHR of the new provider to whom they’ve been referred, he said.
    • “Despite data sharing standards like FHIR and DICOM — and despite “the fact that the data has already been digitized” — completing a provider referral is still not a smooth process, Erskine remarked. He stated that 98% of referrals are done by fax even though they could “of course” be done electronically.
    • “Even though the standards are there, we have to make sure that people safely log into their systems, and we have to make sure that people are able to find their patient in their systems. And if you navigate from one system to the next, that presents a barrier to entry. It’s easier to just take a piece of paper, write what you need and send it in a fax,” Erskine explained.”

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • Beckers Health IT informs us,
    • “U.S. lawmakers introduced bipartisan legislation Feb. 16 to better match patients with their EHRs.
    • “U.S. Reps. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., and Bill Foster, PhD, D-Ill., sponsored the Patient Matching and Transparency in Certified Health IT, or MATCH IT, Act of 2024.
    • “Patient matching errors have led to unnecessary expenses, medical mistakes, and even patient deaths,” Mr. Kelly said in a Feb. 16 news release. “This bipartisan legislation works to improve interoperability between healthcare systems and decrease these fixable matching errors, all while protecting patient privacy.”
  • STAT News tells us,
    • “Nearly four decades after its first conception, the first TIL therapy, an immunotherapy that harvests cancer-fighting immune cells from the patient’s own body, received accelerated approval from the Food and Drug Administration for advanced melanoma. The therapy, called Amtagvi or lifileucel from Iovance, is the first cell therapy approved for a solid tumor.
    • “It’s so exciting and gratifying,” said Allison Betof Warner, a cell therapy researcher and physician at Stanford University who has worked on Amtagvi. “This is a game-changing moment for our field. We’ve seen huge success of cellular therapy for hematologic malignancies, and we’ve yet to capitalize on that for solid tumors. This is hopefully the first of many to come.”
    • “In a Phase 2 clinical trial, titled C-144-01, 153 patients who had already been on a median of three prior lines of therapy received lifileucel, and 31% of them responded to therapy. “These are in very late line patients. They’ve exhausted every standard care option,” Betof Warner said. “The most promising part of this therapy for me is that 42% of patients who responded were still responding for 18 months or longer. It’s truly incredible.”
    • “The therapy is not expected to work for every patient, partially because the regimen has high toxicity. It will also be expensive. The therapy is expected to be priced at $515,000.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review adds, “Buzz for gene therapies is loud, but drugmakers struggle to get treatments off the ground.”
    • “A major barrier for many companies in the space is sheer cost to develop these advanced medical therapies. Though the Biden administration and CMS announced Jan. 30 plans to bring down prices for gene edited therapies, progress will take time. 
    • “The number of patients being treated with the existing gene therapies that are approved and available on the market is expected to decline year over year by nearly 33%, according to Bloomberg.”
  • Per the Food and Drug Administration,
    • “On Friday, the FDA published an Outbreak Advisory for an investigation of E. coli O157:H7 linked to raw cheddar cheese. The FDA recommends that consumers, restaurants, and retailers do not eat, sell, or serve Raw Farm-brand Raw Cheddar Cheese (block or shredded) and to throw it away. This is an ongoing investigation and the FDA will update the Advisory should additional consumer safety information become available.”
  • BioPharma Dive reports,
    • “AstraZeneca’s targeted cancer therapy Tagrisso can now be used alongside chemotherapy to treat a common type of locally advanced or metastatic lung tumor, following a Food and Drug Administration approval Friday.
    • “The FDA cleared Tagrisso together with chemotherapy based on results showing the combination reduced the risk of disease progression or death versus Tagrisso alone, which is currently the first-line standard for non-small cell lung cancer that harbors mutations in a gene known as EGFR.
    • “Over the weekend, meanwhile, AstraZeneca reported new clinical trial data showing Tagrisso outperformed placebo following chemoradiotherapy for Stage 3 EGFR-mutated non-small cell lung cancer that couldn’t be surgically removed. The results, which AstraZeneca will share with regulators, could further support early use of Tagrisso.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • Axios points out,
    • “More than half of U.S. newborns now appear to be protected by new RSV vaccines, according to updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
    • Why it matters: The virus is considered the second leading cause of death worldwide during the first year of a child’s life. The data suggests demand was strong despite broader vaccine skepticism and the potential for confusion over more childhood immunization options.”
  • The Wall Street Journal discusses a related RSV vaccine (Beyfortus) shortage — “A new antibody that protects babies from a deadly virus proved far more popular than drugmaker Sanofi expected.”
    • Beyfortus seller Sanofi in March last year set aggressive targets for how many doses to make, yet still underestimated demand. Some pediatricians delayed ordering immunizations because they didn’t know whether insurers would cover the $495 doses. And the U.S. government decided in August—months after Sanofi had locked in the number of doses it would make—to add the shot to the Vaccines for Children program, a federal initiative that covers children who are uninsured or on Medicaid, buying more than half of the doses.
    • Sanofi said it sought to distribute its shots equitably in the face of “unprecedented” demand and is working to increase supply for the next RSV season. 
  • HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research issued a Medical Expenditure Panel Survey about “Characteristics of Young Adults Aged 18-24 Who Had Ever Used an Electronic Nicotine Product, 2021.”
    • “Nearly one-third (30.6 percent) of U.S. adults ages 18-24 reported ever having used an electronic nicotine product.
    • “More than one-third (38.3 percent) of non-Hispanic White young adults reported ever having used an electronic nicotine product, nearly double the rate for Hispanic young adults and 12 percentage points higher than for non-Hispanic Black young adults.”
  • Medpage Today notes,
    • “Nearly all medication abortions obtained via telehealth, whether via video or secure text messaging, were completed without further intervention and without adverse events, the prospective CHAT study found.
    • “Among over 6,000 abortions, 97.7% (95% CI 97.2-98.1) were completed without further intervention, and the completion rate was similar for patients who had video calls (98.3%) or used text messaging (97.4%), reported Ushma Upadhyay, PhD, MPH, of the University of California San Francisco, and colleagues.
    • “Less than 1% of patients had a serious abortion-related adverse event (0.25%) or were treated for an ectopic pregnancy (0.16%), and 1.3% of abortions were followed by emergency department visits, the authors wrote in Nature Medicine.”
  • The FEHBlog has subscribed to a Substack series called “Your Local Epidemiologist.”
    • “Your Local Epidemiologist (YLE)” is written by Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, M.P.H. Ph.D.—an epidemiologist, wife, and mom of two little girls. During the day, she is a senior scientific consultant to several organizations, including CDC. At night, she writes this newsletter. Her main goal is to “translate” the ever-evolving public health world so that people will be well-equipped to make evidence-based decisions. This newsletter is free, thanks to the generous support of fellow YLE community members.”
    • Check it out.
  • Medpage Today offers an expert medical opinion concerning
    • “News surfaced last week suggesting a potential shift in COVID-19 isolation guidanceopens in a new tab or windowfrom the CDC. The planned guidance, which is expected to be released this spring for public comment, indicates a significant switch in how COVID-19 is conceptualized. The guidance would bring COVID-19 into line with how other common respiratory viruses are managed: with isolation recommended until the individual has mild and improving symptoms, and is fever-free (without pharmaceutical aid) for 24 hours.”
    • “With the news of the proposed guidance, many voices rose up to immediately attack the proposed guidance as a capitulation and not evidence-based. This was similar to the refrain from opponents when the federal or state governments dropped or loosened mask requirements or guidance.
    • I was not one of themopens in a new tab or window.
    • “Indeed, I welcome the proposed guidance change because it reflects the progress that has been made in the management of COVID-19. When evaluating this guidance, it is critical to understand that SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19, is situated among the myriad respiratory viruses that infect humans.”
  • Medscape lets us know,
    • “Availability of telehealth services for mental healthcare varies widely from state to state, a new study shows. One fifth of all facilities contacted reported no mental telehealth options and wait times for those that did ranged from 4 days to > 2 months, depending on the state.”
  • The National Institutes of Health announced,
    • “To prevent an emerging genomic technology from contributing to health disparities, a scientific team funded by the National Institutes of Health has devised new ways to improve a genetic testing method called a polygenic risk score. Since polygenic risk scores have not been effective for all populations, the researchers recalibrated these genetic tests using ancestrally diverse genomic data. As reported in Nature Medicine, the optimized tests provide a more accurate assessment of disease risk across diverse populations.
    • “Genetic tests look at the small differences between individuals’ genomes, known as genomic variants, and polygenic risk scores are tools for assessing many genomic variants across the genome to determine a person’s risk for disease. As the use of polygenic risk scores grows, one major concern is that the genomic datasets used to calculate the scores often heavily overrepresent people of European ancestry.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Healthcare Dive reports,
    • “After federal legislation protecting consumers from surprise medical bills was implemented, a growing number of medical claims were in network, according to a new analysis.
    • “The No Surprises Act went into effect on Jan. 1, 2022. From the fourth quarter of 2021 to the first quarter of 2022, in-network care as a percentage of all claim lines nationally increased 2.3%, according to the study by nonprofit Fair Health.
    • “It’s the latest research suggesting No Surprises has been successful in lowering the amount of unexpected out-of-network bills, though the rollout of the law has been tied up in lawsuits, and regulators currently face a backlog of billing disputes between payers and providers.”
  • and
    • “Insurers brace for continued Medicare Advantage medical costs. The big question coming out of the health insurance earnings season is how much elevated utilization among seniors is carrying over into 2024.”
  • EndPoint News points out,
    • “Cigna’s venture unit just made a bet on a startup focused on cardiometabolic conditions that wants to play a role in prescribing GLP-1 medications.
    • 9amHealth said on Tuesday it raised $9.5 million in a Series A extension led by The Cigna Group Ventures. It adds to $16 million from the Series A raised in April 2022 by the startup, which provides virtual visits, prescriptions and lab tests related to conditions like hypertension, type 2 diabetes and weight management.”
    • “Cigna’s investment comes as health plans and pharmacy benefit managers (the PBM Express Scripts is a subsidiary of Cigna) are grappling with how to cover the high cost of GLP-1 medications for conditions like type 2 diabetes and weight loss. It’s among the first investments from an insurance company’s venture arm into a startup prescribing the drugs, which have turned into huge blockbusters and prompted broad conversations about their cost — and benefit — to the healthcare system.”
  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “Pharmaceutical companies are spending billions of dollars to develop drugs that can target cancer like guided missiles.
    • “Therapies known as antibody-drug conjugates, which help deliver chemotherapy directly to tumors, have gotten most of the attention and are farthest along: 
    • Pfizer’s $43 billion acquisition of biotech Seagen Inc. last year underscored how hot the field has become. 
    • “More quietly, a concept known as radiopharmaceuticals is also gaining ground. In recent months, interest in this space has led to a rise in dealmaking. The idea is similar to ADCs in that a patient receives an old treatment—in this case, a radioactive particle instead of chemotherapy drugs—but it is bound with a molecule that can chase down tumor cells. The technology is at a more nascent stage, but a steady growth of venture capital money and acquisitions by large pharmaceutical companies means this could well become a key part of the fight against cancer in the next decade or so.”
  • HR Dive discusses an EEOC lawsuit against a Georgia retirement community “for firing a 78-year-old receptionist after repeatedly asking her to retire. “The right to decide a retirement age lies with an employee, not their employer,” an EEOC official said.

Friday Factoids

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

From Washington, DC

  • The Federal Times reports,
    • “It took 13 years — with some stops, starts and stumbles in between — but as of today, the federal government now has a single website designed to deliver detailed, searchable information about all federal programs.
    • “The Office of Management and Budget flipped the switch Thursday on the new Federal Program Inventory, a platform it’s been building via various pilot efforts since December 2020. Officials acknowledge it doesn’t yet capture every single program: For now, only “domestic assistance” programs are included. But that broad category encompasses most federal spending, ranging from Social Security and Medicare to the smallest community block grant programs.
    • “As of now, the database includes spending and performance data on 2,388 programs, said Diedre Harrison, OMB’s deputy controller.”
  • The FEHBlog cannot locate the FEHBP in this database, FYI. What’s more,
    • “The Treasury Department and the IRS are calling on teleworking employees to return to the office for half of their workdays, starting in a few months.
    • “IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel told employees in an email Thursday that teleworking employees will need to return to the office 50% of the time, on any given month, starting on May 5.
    • “Our top priority, regardless of where employees are located at any point in time, will continue to be meeting our goals of serving taxpayers, ensuring tax compliance and maintaining our vital technology and operations,” Werfel wrote.
    • “The return-to-office plans will only impact IRS executives, managers and non-bargaining unit employees with telework agreements in the National Capital Region. The decision affects IRS headquarters, the agency’s New Carrollton Federal Building and other offices in the Washington, D.C. area.”
  • Healthcare Dive points out,
    • “The federal government received 13 times more surprise billing disputes in the first half of 2023 than it expected to receive in a full year, according to new CMS data.
    • “And the amount is growing each quarter, contributing to a growing backlog and straining the capacity of the system regulators set up to arbitrate disputes over medical bills between providers and health insurers.
    • “Of the 288,810 disputes filed in the first six months of 2023, fewer than half were closed, and arbiters rendered payment decisions in under a third of cases. Of those, providers won 77% of payment determinations, while health plans prevailed in 23% — noteworthy statistics given providers have argued the arbitration process is unfairly weighted toward insurers.”
  • The Commonwealth Fund discusses the status of creating a separate version of the No Surprises Act for ground ambulances.
  • Newfront fills us in on federal claim substantiation rules for flexible spending accounts, health reimbursement accounts, and health savings accounts.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “Novartis and Roche Holding said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved their Xolair treatment to reduce allergic reactions following the exposure to one or more foods.
    • “The pharmaceutical companies on Friday said Xolair has been approved for patients aged one year and older with the IgE-mediated food allergy.
    • “Patients taking Xolair for food allergies should continue to avoid all foods they are allergic to, the companies added.
    • “Xolair, a prescription biologic medicine that is given as an injection, shouldn’t be taken as an emergency treatment for allergic reactions.”
  • BioPharma Dive adds,
    • “The Food and Drug Administration will decide by June 21 whether to loosen the restrictions surrounding use of Sarepta Therapeutics’ gene therapy for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, the company said Friday
    • “Sarepta’s gene therapy, Elevidys, was granted a conditional OK last June for children between 4 and 5 years of age who have Duchenne and can still walk. Sarepta aims to convert that nod to a full approval for all people with Duchenne and a confirmed mutation to a specific gene, even though Elevidys failed to hit its main goal in a study meant to confirm its benefits. 
    • “Sarepta, for its part, has argued that the collective evidence it’s accrued proves Elevidys is impacting the disease. Analysts appear optimistic of its chances, given the agency won’t convene a group of outside experts to review its request.”  

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The Centers for Disease Control tells us
    • In September 2023, CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended updated 2023–2024 (monovalent XBB.1.5) COVID-19 vaccination for all persons aged ≥6 months to prevent COVID-19, including severe disease. Many variants co-circulated during fall 2023; the JN.1 lineage became predominant in January 2024. Few estimates of updated 2023–2024 vaccine effectiveness (VE) are available.
    • What is added by this report?
    • Receipt of updated COVID-19 vaccine provided approximately 54% increased protection against symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection compared with no receipt of updated vaccine. Vaccination provides protection against JN.1 and other circulating lineages.
    • What are the implications for public health practice?
    • All persons aged ≥6 months should receive updated 2023–2024 COVID-19 vaccine. CDC will continue monitoring COVID-19 VE, including against severe disease and for expected waning.
  • The CDC called attention to its website on RSV prevention.
  • MedCity News offers
    • “Three Tips To Improve Health Plans’ Chronic Conditions Management 
    • “During a virtual panel, leaders from across the industry shared their advice on how health plans can do a better job of achieving their goals for chronic management. For example, one executive said health plans should utilize remote monitoring tools for centralized observation and be wary of using the wrong metrics.” 
  • Benefits Pro lets us know,
    • “Older Americans may forego elective surgeries because they are worried about out-of-pocket expenses and time away from work, along with potential exposure to COVID-19.
    • “This is according to a study by the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation, which discovered that these factors tend to dissuade older Americans from going through with surgeries more than concerns about pain or the recovery process.
    • “Nearly half of those who said they were very concerned about cost and more than half of those who were very concerned about taking time off of work ended up not having a surgery they were considering, the study found. However, those who were concerned about surgery-related pain were just as likely as those with no concerns about pain to go ahead with surgery.”
  • Medscape calls attention to “How the New MRSA Antibiotic Cracked AI’s ‘Black Box.'”
    • “The MIT study is part of the Antibiotics-AI project, a 7-year effort to leverage AI to find new antibiotics. Phare Bio, a nonprofit started by MIT professor James Collins, PhD, and others, will do clinical testing on the antibiotic candidates.
    • “Even with the AI’s assistance, there’s still a long way to go before clinical approval.
    • “But knowing which elements contribute to a candidate’s effectiveness against MRSA could help the researchers formulate scientific hypotheses and design better validation, Lee noted. In other words, because they used explainable AI, they could be better positioned for clinical trial success.”
  • The New York Times reports,
    • “Growing numbers of children and adolescents are being prescribed multiple psychiatric drugs to take simultaneously, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Maryland. The phenomenon is increasing despite warnings that psychotropic drug combinations in young people have not been tested for safety or studied for their impact on the developing brain.
    • “The study, published Friday in JAMA Open Network, looked at the prescribing patterns among patients 17 or younger enrolled in Medicaid from 2015 to 2020 in a single U.S. state that the researchers declined to name. In this group, there was a 9.5 percent increase in the prevalence of “polypharmacy,” which the study defined as taking three or more different classes of psychiatric medications, including antidepressants, mood-stabilizing anticonvulsants, sedatives and drugs for A.D.H.D. and anxiety drugs.”
  • AP reports,
    • “Smoking has surpassed injecting as the most common way of taking drugs in U.S. overdose deaths, a new government study suggests.
    • “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called its study published Thursday the largest to look at how Americans took the drugs that killed them.
    • “CDC officials decided to study the topic after seeing reports from California suggesting that smoking fentanyl was becoming more common than injecting it. Potent, illicit versions of the painkiller are involved in more U.S. overdose deaths than any other drug.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Healthcare Dive informs us,
    • “CommonSpirit Health cut its operating losses in the three months ended Dec. 31by working with payers to speed the rate of reimbursement for services and implementing cost containment measures, according to earnings released on Thursday.
    • “The Chicago-based health system reported an operating income of $356 million for the quarter. Normalized for the California provider fee program, CommonSpirit logged an operating loss of $87 million. In the same period last year, CommonSpirit reported an operating loss of $440 million.
    • “CommonSpirit said supply and salary inflation continues to vex the system. Salaries and benefit expenses increased $413 million, or 9.3%, year over year, primarily due to higher salary costs.”
  • RevCycle Intelligence adds,
    • “Rural healthcare’s outlook just worsened, according to a new analysis from Chartis, a healthcare advisory firm.
    • “The updated analysis of key indicators such as rural hospital operating margin, facility closures, and loss of access to care and services paints a grim picture for rural hospitals in the US, particularly independent providers.
    • “Half of rural hospitals are operating in the red, the analysis found, and that percentage increased from 43 percent a year ago. More independent rural hospitals are operating at a loss at 55 percent, while 42 percent of health system-affiliated rural hospitals have a deficit. The analysis noted that almost 60 percent of rural hospitals in the US are now affiliated with a health system.
    • “With more rural hospitals facing revenue losses, 418 facilities are “vulnerable to closure,” the analysis showed.
    • “America’s rural hospitals have been battling against drivers of instability for more than a decade, but this newest research suggests this crisis has accelerated quickly to previously unseen levels,” Michael Topchik, national leader of The Chartis Center for Rural Health, said in a statement. “To learn the percentage of rural hospitals in the red has shifted 7 [percent] and now includes half of all rural hospitals is startling and should serve as an urgent call to action for everyone invested in rural healthcare.”
  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “Nearly all healthcare executives believe new digital health technologies are worth the cost, even though they have yet to see a financial return from it, a new survey reveals.
    • “The inaugural Health Pulse Survey was conducted by Ernst & Young and reached more than 100 payer and provider administrative executives across the U.S. It found that the appetite for digital health solutions has risen, particularly since COVID-19. The pandemic was a catalyst for the industry.
    • “COVID prompted a lot of digital health tech investments by payers and providers—it was out of necessity,” Kaushik Bhaumik, EY’s U.S. health technology leader, told Fierce Healthcare. “People had to connect with their patients through digital channels.” 
  • Reuters reports,
    • “A small but rapidly growing number of U.S. adolescents began treatment with Novo Nordisk’s weight-loss drug Wegovy last year, a powerful new tool to address record rates of pediatric obesity, according to data shared exclusively with Reuters.
    • “In the first 10 months of 2023, 1,268 children ages 12 to 17 with an obesity diagnosis started taking Wegovy, according to U.S. insurance claims data compiled by health technology company Komodo Health.”

Thursday Miscellany

As you may be able to tell, it’s a late FEHBlog post because the FEHBlog was returning home to Dripping Springs, TX, last night from our Nation’s capital.

In case, here are some highlights from Washington DC.

  • The GAO released a troubling report on our country’s fiscal health this week. Here’s a link to a Wall Street Journal Opinion Watch podcast about the report. The podcast is about 20 minutes long, and it may make your hair stand on edge.
  • Mercer Consulting discusses changes to the RxDC reports due annually on June 1.
    • “CMS released instructions for the third prescription drug data collection (RxDC) reports due June 1, 2024 – and they may cause plan sponsors to reconsider whether they need to make “plan level” submissions, instead of relying on their vendors to make “aggregate” submissions on their behalf. The good news is that the instructions largely mirror prior versions, so plan sponsors should be able to build off prior RxDC reporting efforts. However, for the first time, CMS plans to enforce the “aggregation restriction”—a provision in the 2021 regulations that CMS suspended for the first two reporting cycles. As explained [in the article], the reinstated aggregation restriction may cause headaches for some plan sponsors, who find that they can no longer rely on their PBM’s aggregate submission of pharmacy data but must instead submit plan level data. Other plan sponsors may welcome the opportunity to do a plan level submission so they can obtain otherwise unavailable prescription drug data.”
  • Per Govexec,
    • “With federal budget talks still unresolved less than a month away from Congress’ latest deadline, the Office of Personnel Management said Friday that the decade-long pay freeze for senior political appointees like Vice President Kamala Harris and others will remain in effect.
    • “In a Feb. 9 post, OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said that under January’s continuing resolution that extended federal funding to agencies until March 1 and 8, certain senior political appointees will continue to see their payable pay rates remain at current levels at least through the latter budget deadline, when Congress will have to decide whether it will continue to fund the federal government. 
    • “Future Congressional action will determine whether the pay freeze continues beyond March 8, 2024,” Ahuja said. “Until such time, the OPM guidance issued on Dec. 21, 2023, regarding the pay freeze for certain senior political officials continues to be generally applicable in applying the pay freeze in 2024.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “There isn’t a silver bullet to maintaining mental acuity or warding off dementia [as we age], scientists of aging say. But a combination of genetics, healthy lifestyle habits and factors such as cleaner air and good education have been linked to prolonged mental agility.  * * *
    • “Genetics is thought to play a role in brain maintenance, as does diet, exercise and a person’s risk of vascular disease. More education, mental stimulation and social connectivity have been associated with improved cognitive reserve.
    • “Better brain maintenance and cognitive reserve might help keep symptoms of dementia at bay. Almost 50% of people 40 and older think they will likely develop dementia, according to a 2021 AARP survey. The actual number of U.S. adults 65 and older with dementia is closer to 10%, a 2022 study found. * * *
    • “Sleeping too little—or too much—can also lead to cognitive problems. Activities including yoga and tai chi, the Chinese martial art, could help improve cognitive function, research suggests. 
    • “Hearing loss is a risk factor for dementia, too. Lost hearing might cause the brain to atrophy more quickly and can make people more isolated, said Dr. Dung Trinh, chief medical officer of the Healthy Brain Clinic. Hearing aids can help preserve mental fitness.”
  • AHA News adds,
    • “About half of U.S. health care workers have witnessed racial discrimination against patients and say discrimination against patients is a crisis or major problem, according to a survey released Feb. 15 by the Commonwealth Fund and African American Research Collaborative. Younger workers and workers of color were more likely than their older or white counterparts to say they witnessed discrimination, as were workers at facilities with more patients of color. About six in 10 Black health care workers and four in 10 Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander workers say they have been discriminated against because of their race or ethnicity. 
    • “While most health care workers see positive efforts from employers to address discrimination, a majority of Black, Latino, and AAPI workers worry about retaliation if they raise discrimination concerns. When asked about potential solutions, more than two-thirds of health care workers thought the following could help: providing an easy way to anonymously report situations involving racism or discrimination; creating opportunities to listen to patients and health care professionals of color; examining treatment of non-English-speaking patients; and training health care staff to spot discrimination.” 
  • Employee Benefit News offers three suggestions on how employers can help employees hold cancer at bay with preventive screenings.
    • “A new report from healthcare platform Color Health shows that although 80% of employers are concerned by rising cancer costs and 96% of benefits leaders agree early detection is the best solution, the majority of focus is devoted to post-diagnosis treatment, rather than evidence-based screenings. 
    • “According to the report, three out of four employers say they are placing more emphasis on screening, early detection and risk prevention efforts, but they are going to have to go beyond their current benefits setup: Only a quarter believe their current health plans meet the screening needs of their workforce, and three-quarters say employees are not being adequately screened by their primary care provider. Leaders report that 40% of employees are not compliant with screenings in general, and for the most deadly forms of cancer — lung and bronchus — the American Lung Association reports that only 6% of people eligible get screened. 
    • “The assumption [has been that] if we cover mammograms and colonoscopies and lung CTs, then people will actually get them, and that’s turned out to be false,” says Othman Laraki, Color Health’s CEO. “The big driver for that is that for non-acute care services, availability is not the same thing as access.” 

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Washington, DC

  • STAT News reports
    • “Lawmakers are considering increasing doctors’ Medicare pay in an upcoming government funding package, but their policy would only partially offset cuts providers saw earlier this year, three lobbyists and two sources familiar with the talks told STAT.
    • “Physicians’ groups have agitated for Congress to undo a roughly 3.4% Medicare pay cut this year, resulting from the expiration of pandemic-era bonuses lawmakers chose to give the industry.
    • “The cut went into effect on Jan. 1, but a fix hasn’t entirely fallen off of the agenda. A pay increase was discussed in negotiations over a stopgap funding bill earlier this year.
    • “There are more questions than answers at this point in negotiations. It’s unclear what the exact pay increase could be, when it could be passed, and how it could be paid for. The fate of legislation to fund the government is uncertain, too. But the five sources made it clear that an effort to completely offset the 3.4% cut is now off the table.”
  • The New York Times reports,
    • “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considering loosening its recommendations regarding how long people should isolate after testing positive for the coronavirus, another reflection of changing attitudes and norms as the pandemic recedes.
    • “Under the proposed guidelines, Americans would no longer be advised to isolate for five days before returning to work or school. Instead, they might return to their routines if they have been fever free for at least 24 hours without medication, the same standard applied to the influenza and respiratory syncytial viruses.
    • “The proposal would align the C.D.C.’s advice with revised isolation recommendations in Oregon and California. The shift was reported earlier by The Washington Post, but it is still under consideration, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions.
    • “The C.D.C. last changed its policy on isolation in late 2021, when it scaled down the recommended period to five days from 10. If adopted, the new approach would signal that Covid has taken a place alongside other routine respiratory infections.”
  • The Federal Times tells us,
    • “The federal employee retirement backlog shot back up in January, snapping a four-month streak of steadily shrinking caseloads and indicating the government still has trouble getting a handle on its system for processing annuities.
    • “Nearly 13,000 people applied for retirement in January, matching the usual record-high number the Office of Personnel Management receives at the beginning of each calendar year. Traditionally, the retirement claims surge culminates in winter and case workers work through it well into spring.
    • “Last month, the Office of Personnel Management processed roughly 6,400 cases while intaking almost twice that. The overall inventory was 46% higher in January than December. And while processing times again improved last month after steadily quickening, it remains to be seen how the influx will impact speeds in the coming months.
    • “Despite the increases, fewer employees overall retired in 2023 than 2022, 2021 and 2020.”
  • The Society for Human Resource Management lets us know,
    • “Inflation fell in January to 3.1 percent year-over-year, missing some economists’ estimates that it would fall below 3 percent for the first time in nearly three years. 
    • “The Consumer Price Index (CPI) for all items rose 3.1 percent for the 12 months ending in January, before seasonal adjustment, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported today. That’s down from the unadjusted 3.4 percent annual gain seen in December—and a significant improvement from the 9.1 percent high notched in June 2022. 
    • “Core inflation—which accounts for all items minus food and energy—rose 3.9 percent over the past 12 months, the same for the 12 months ending in December.” 

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The New York Times reports,
    • “Women who develop high blood pressure or diabetes in the course of pregnancy are more likely to give birth to children who develop conditions that may compromise their own heart health at a young age, scientists reported on Monday.
    • “By the time they are 12 years old, these children are more likely to be overweight or to be diagnosed with high blood pressure, high cholesterol or high blood sugar, compared with children whose mothers had complication-free pregnancies.
    • “The research underscores the strong association between healthy pregnancies and child health, though the study stops short of proving a cause-and-effect relationship. The conclusions also offer support for the “fetal origins of adult disease” hypothesis, which suggests that many chronic conditions may have roots in fetal adaptations to the uterine environment.”
  • The American Hospital News points out,
    • “Syphilis infections during pregnancy more than tripled between 2016 and 2022 to 280 cases per 100,000 births, ranging from 46 per 100,000 in Maine to 763 per 100,000 in South Dakota, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Feb. 13. Rates doubled in seven states and grew fivefold in six states: New Mexico, Colorado, Mississippi, South Dakota, Montana and Alaska. Rates increased across all racial/ethnic and age groups, with the highest rates in mothers who were American Indian and Alaska Native, under age 25 and had no prenatal care.
    • “According to a CDC report last November, over 3,700 mothers passed the infection onto their babies in 2022, 10 times more than in 2012, although timely testing and treatment could prevent most mothers from transmitting the infection to their babies. Congenital syphilis can cause adverse pregnancy outcomes such as fetal and neonatal death, low birthweight, preterm birth, and brain and nerve disorders.”
  • The Wall Street Journal notes,
    • “At a biomedical center here, there’s a man scarfing down Frosted Flakes and tater tots while hooked up to an IV. His job? To help the government figure out what you should eat.
    • “That man, Kevin Elizabeth, a 28-year-old tech worker, is one of 500 Americans who will be living at scientific facilities around the country for six weeks, eating precisely selected meals and undergoing hundreds of medical tests. He is part of a new study, costing $189 million, that is one of the most ambitious nutrition research projects the National Institutes of Health has ever undertaken. * * *
    • “If all goes according to plan, in a few years you’ll be able to walk into your doctor’s office, get a few simple medical tests, answer questions about your health and lifestyle, and receive personalized diet advice, says Holly Nicastro, coordinator for the NIH’s Nutrition for Precision Health study.”
  • On the flip side, MedPage Today explains,
    • “Gastric bypass surgery in people with severe obesity was associated with sustained improvements in cognitive function, inflammation, and comorbidities, according to results of a cohort study in the Netherlands.
    • “At 2 years post-surgery, neuropsychological tests showed improvements of 20% or higher in global cognition (43% of patients), ability to shift attention (40%), episodic memory (32%), verbal fluency (24%), and working memory (11%), reported Amanda J. Kiliaan, PhD, of Radboud University Medical Center in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and colleagues.
    • “Lower inflammation and adipokine secretion, remission of comorbidities, higher physical activity, and better mood” may have played a role in the sustained improvement in global cognition for that subset of patients, the researchers suggested in JAMA Network Open.”
  • The Washington Post illuminates “How D.C.’s first sobering center could ease drug and alcohol addiction. The facility, part of the District’s response to a worsening opioid epidemic, exceeded 1,000 admissions in just over three months since it opened late last year.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Per a Cigna press release,
    • “Cigna Healthcare, the health benefits division of The Cigna Group (NYSE: CI), and HelloFresh*, the world’s leading meal kit company, announce an exclusive collaboration to offer discounted access to HelloFresh’s wholesome, affordable meals to as many as 12 million Cigna Healthcare customers through their employers. The two companies will also team up to support HelloFresh’s Meals with Meaning program, a social impact initiative that provides free meal kits for individuals experiencing food insecurity in local communities.
    • “Business leaders recognize that healthy employees mean a healthy business, and by expanding access to affordable, healthy meals, employers can better cultivate a stronger workforce,” said Heather Dlugolenski, U.S. commercial strategy officer, Cigna Healthcare. “We’re proud to team up with HelloFresh to support the health and vitality of America’s workforce and to make a difference for communities in need.”
  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • Chronic care provider Omada Health is expanding its GLP-1 program to better care for patients interested in maintaining weight loss progress while discontinuing usage of the drugs.
    • For patients prescribed to GLP-1 drugs for weight loss, up to 40% of the weight loss can be due to loss of muscle mass. Omada is building upon its weight management solution to help users regain muscle throughout a member’s journey and when the drug is no longer utilized, a solution that would improve health outcomes and allow patients to not stray far from weight-related goals. Members of Omada’s cardiometabolic programs can benefit from the expanded care track, the company said.
  • and
    • “Zocdoc has launched a new guided search to help patients choose and book the right provider with greater confidence. 
    • “The guided search function on the healthcare marketplace and appointment booking platform offers a more tailored set of results based on patients’ unique care needs. When a patient searches for a provider, they are presented with an optional questionnaire to help better understand their symptoms and the type of treatment being sought. The goal is to take the guesswork out of which provider is the best fit.
    • “This search function can also help patients discover more about a provider’s scope of practice and helps providers ensure the patient is a good fit, Zocdoc said. A broad spectrum of specialties have the function available.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review notes,
    • CVS’ Aetna will begin offering in-home care services to its Medicare Advantage members with chronic kidney disease. 
    • Aetna has partnered with Monogram Health, a provider of in-home care management services, according to a Feb. 13 LinkedIn post from Monogram. Under the partnership, Monogram nurse practitioners will provide in-home and virtual specialty provider appointments to eligible Aetna members. 

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From Washington, DC

  • STAT News reports
    • “The Biden administration is making its opening offers to pharmaceutical companies in its brand-new Medicare drug price negotiation program on Thursday, administration officials said. And that’s about all they said.
    • “The offers will not be made public unless a manufacturer chooses to publicly disclose information about the talks, a senior administration official said. Companies have until March 2 to either accept the government’s offer or propose a counteroffer. The Biden administration will publish the final prices by Sept. 1 of this year after the negotiation process ends. 
    • “The negotiated prices won’t take effect until 2026. 
    • “The first 10 drugs up for negotiation are Bristol Myers Squibb’s blood thinner Eliquis, Boehringer Ingelheim and Eli Lilly’s diabetes drug Jardiance, Johnson & Johnson’s blood thinner Xarelto, Merck’s diabetes drug Januvia, AstraZeneca’s diabetes drug Farxiga, Novartis’ heart failure treatment Entresto, Amgen’s rheumatoid arthritis drug Enbrel, Johnson & Johnson and AbbVie’s blood cancer treatment Imbruvica, J&J’s anti-inflammatory medicine Stelara, and Novo Nordisk insulins that go by names including Fiasp and NovoLog.”
  • Here is a link to PhRMA’s views on the development.
    • “The bottom line: This process is a black box that allows a few government bureaucrats to make politicized decisions about the value of medicines and with no accountability to patients or the public.”
  • BioSpace adds,
    • “A federal court in Delaware heard arguments Wednesday in a key lawsuit challenging Medicare drug-negotiation provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Reportsfrom inside the courtroom suggested that the judge was skeptical of the arguments raised by plaintiff AstraZeneca, though experts told BioSpace this is just an early step in what could be a protracted series of legal battles.
    • “While no ruling on AstraZeneca’s motion for summary judgment is expected for about a month, court activity will heat up over the next few weeks, as a total of 10 cases from pharma companies and groups have challenged various aspects of the IRA’s Medicare drug-pricing provisions. Other plaintiffs include MerckNovartisJohnson & JohnsonBristol Myers SquibbBoehringer Ingelheim, Novo Nordisk and the lobbying group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).

From the public health and medical research front,

  • MedPage reports,
    • “The updated 2023-2024 COVID-19 vaccine was approximately 54% effective against symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection in adults, and was also effective against the JN.1 variant, which became predominant in January, CDC researchers said.
    • “Overall, vaccine effectiveness against symptomatic COVID was 57% for people ages 18 to 49 years and 46% for people ages 50 and older, reported Ruth Link-Gelles, PhD, of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, and colleagues in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.”
  • and
    • “Military personnel stationed at Camp Lejeune from 1975 to 1985 had at least a 20% higher risk for a number of cancers than those stationed elsewhere, federal health officials said Wednesdayin a long-awaited study about the North Carolina base’s contaminated drinking water.
    • “Federal health officials called the research one the largest ever done in the U.S. to assess cancer risk by comparing a group who live and worked in a polluted environment to a similar group that did not.”
  • American Hospital Association News tells us,
    • “The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Jan. 31 updated it Overdose Prevention and Response Toolkit, which includes basic information on overdose prevention and treatment as well as specific guidance and resources for health care providers and prescribers.”
  • The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review released
    • “its revised Evidence Report assessing the comparative clinical effectiveness and value of iptacopan (Novartis) and danicopan (Alexion Pharmaceuticals) for the treatment of paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH). While important health benefits for patients were shown in clinical trials for both agents, there is uncertainty about long-term efficacy and safety. ICER’s model for iptacopan, which is already FDA-approved, using a shared-savings approach (described in more detail below), suggests that the drug would need to be priced 70% lower than the current list price to meet commonly accepted thresholds. For danicopan, which is not yet FDA-approved, ICER’s model suggests the price would need to be between $12,300 and $13,100 per year to achieve common thresholds for cost-effectiveness.
    • “This Evidence Report will be reviewed at a virtual public meeting of the California Technology Assessment Forum (CTAF) on February 16, 2024.”
  • NPR discusses aging.
    • I used to flinch at the topic of aging. Is there anything we can do about the inevitable?
    • But recently I’ve been digging into a new wave of longevity research that is making it an exciting time to be an aging human — which is all of us.
    • It turns out, we all age at varying rates. Super-agers may have great genes, but research shows our habits and routines — everything from what we eat and how we move our bodies to who we spend our time with — matter a lot, when it comes to aging well.
    • Now, the next frontier is to target the basic biology of aging and come up with new interventions to slow it down.
    • Many scientists are optimistic that we’re on the cusp of breakthroughs. Not only to help us live longer, but — more importantly — to extend the number of years we live with good health.
    • This is the goal of researchers at the Human Longevity Lab at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. They’re recruiting study participants so they can test what kinds of interventions may slow the rate of aging.
  • The reporter describes participating in this study.
  • HealthDay informs us,
    • “Adolescent substance use is associated with psychiatric symptoms, including suicidal thoughts, according to a research letter published online Jan. 29 in JAMA Pediatrics.
    • “Brenden Tervo-Clemmens, Ph.D., from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and colleagues examined associations between commonly used substances and psychiatric symptoms among adolescents in two samples: students from 36 Massachusetts high schools who completed the 2022 to 2023 Substance Use and Risk Factor (SURF) Survey and analogous self-reported items from the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). Data were included for 15,626 SURF participants and 17,232 YRBS participants.
    • “The researchers found significant, moderate dose-dependent associations for alcohol, cannabis, and nicotine use with worse psychiatric symptoms, including suicidal thoughts in SURF and YRBS, depressive or anxiety symptoms and inattention or hyperactivity in SURF, and general mental health in YRBS.” 
  • Memory Care Business notes,
    • “A new global effort is underway to accelerate the prevention, diagnosis and management of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. 
    • “The effort, dubbed the Alzheimer’s Moonshot, was announced by StartUp Health in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation’s Diagnostics accelerator and Gates Ventures, the private office of entrepreneur Bill Gates. 
    • “The Alzheimer’s effort is among a new series of “moonshots” from StartUp Health. The efforts also have taken aim at other health challenges, such as Type 1 diabetes, with the goal of bringing together like-minded company founders and researchers in those spaces.”
  • The Washington Post reports,
    • “An international team led by scientists at Stanford University has discovered a probable explanation for a decades-old biological mystery: why vastly more women than men suffer from autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
    • “Women account for about 80 percent of the people afflicted with autoimmune diseases, a collection of more than 100 ailments that burden a combined 50 million Americans, according to the nonprofit Autoimmune Association. In simple terms, these illnesses manipulate the body’s immune system to attack healthy tissue.
    • “In a paper published Thursday in the journal Cell, researchers present new evidence that a molecule called Xist — pronounced like the word “exist” and found only in women — is a major culprit in these diseases.
    • “Better understanding of this molecule could lead to new tests that catch autoimmune diseases sooner and, in the longer term, to new and more effective treatments, researchers said.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “Tenet Healthcare has disclosed a pair of new and completed hospital transactions alongside projections that next week’s 2023 financial report “will be above the high end” of its guidance.”
  • and
    • “New Jersey providers Saint Peter’s Healthcare System and Atlantic Health System have taken the first step toward a merger they said would include “significant investments” in the Catholic system’s service area.”
  • and
    • “Hospitals and health systems closed out the year on a high note with margins up more than 15% from 2022, according to Kaufman Hall.”
    • “The firm’s latest sector-wide monthly report pointed to an increase in year-to-date operating margin index, from 1.9% through November to 2.3% at the end of the year. On a single-month basis, the operating margin index rose from 3.2% to 4.6% at the same cutoffs.
    • “These improved margins indicate that hospitals and health systems are taking the necessary steps to adapt to this new environment,” Erik Swanson, senior vice president of data and analytics with Kaufman Hall, said in a release. “While finances are approaching historic levels, today’s care and business models look very different. Organizations have had to adjust how and where they’re delivering services to better meet patient preferences.”
  • Healthcare Dive lets us know,
    • “Healthcare executives prioritize data considerations when it comes to using generative artificial intelligence, which could prevent them from successfully integrating the hot button technology, according to a report by consultancy Deloitte. 
    • “While 82% of 60 respondents rated data availability, quality and reliability as a top consideration for implementing generative AI, only 45% cited mitigating biases or patient education on the technology and its risks as their greatest considerations when implementing the technology.
    • “Data is important, but the industry needs a “robust overarching framework” that focuses equally on governance, consumer needs and worker concerns, the report’s authors wrote.”
  • STAT News reports,
    • Merck reported earnings for the fourth-quarter and 2023. On 2024 guidance, Merck said it expects sales in the range of $62.7-$64.2 billion, or a 6% increase at the midpoint. Current Street consensus is $63.5 billion. Adjusted earnings are forecast to be between $8.44 and $8.59 per share.
    • More pharma earnings from Roche and Sanofi.
  • and
    • “Novavax, the company whose corporate missteps repeatedly sidelined an effective Covid-19 vaccine, is relying on demand for booster doses to remain solvent. And the latest update isn’t exactly encouraging.
    • “The company said yesterday that it would lay off another 12% of its staff, expanding on a cost-cutting plan disclosed last year. In the end, Novavax will have reduced its workforce by about 30% compared to 2023, part of an effort to reduce its expenses in the months to come.”
  • NewFront offers guidance on correcting mistaken health savings account distributions.