Thursday Miscellany

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • Per HHS press releases, HHS issued the following proposed rules released today (links are to fact sheets);
    • a proposed rule to update Medicare payment policies and rates for the Inpatient Psychiatric Facilities Prospective Payment System (IPF PPS) for fiscal year (FY) 2025,
  • and
    • a proposed rule (CMS-1810-P) that would update Medicare hospice payments and the aggregate cap amount for fiscal year (FY) 2025,
  • and
    • “a proposed rule that would update Medicare payment policies and rates for skilled nursing facilities under the Skilled Nursing Facility Prospective Payment System (SNF PPS) for fiscal year (FY) 2025.” 
  • Here is the fact sheet for the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS), Labor, and the Treasury (collectively, the Departments) final rules regarding short-term, limited-duration insurance (STLDI) and independent, noncoordinated excepted benefits coverage under the Affordable Care Act released today. 
  • Per the American Medical Association News,
    • The Office of Management and Budget March 28 released its final updated standards for Federal agencies on maintaining, collecting and presenting data on race and ethnicity. Last updated in 1997, the revised Statistical Policy Directive Number 15 is the product of an OMB Interagency Technical Working Group on Race and Ethnicity Standards. While SPD 15 does not mandate race and ethnicity data collection by federal agencies, it requires federal agencies to adhere to standardized data definitions, collection and presentation practices wherever they do collect or use such data. Among other changes, the revised SPD 15 requires that race and ethnicity be collected using a single question with multiple responses, superseding OMB’s previous requirement to collect Hispanic ethnicity as a separate question. In addition, SPD 15 adds a category for Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) as a minimum reporting category and requires federal agencies to collect more detailed information on race and ethnicity beyond the seven minimum reporting categories. However, agencies may request and receive exemptions from OMB in instances where the potential benefit of more detailed data do not justify the additional burden to the agency or the public, or where the collection of more detailed data would threaten privacy or confidentiality. 
    • The updated SPD 15 is effective immediately. However, federal agencies have until March 28, 2029, to bring existing data collection and reporting activities into compliance with the updated SPD 15 and must submit action plans to OMB on how they will comply with the requirements by Sep. 28, 2025.
  • OPM made a passing reference to this guidance today on the second day 0f the OPM carrier conference.
  • The Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contractor Compliance Programs issued “Updated Annual Hiring Benchmark and New Benchmark Resources” for the veteran’s affirmative action in employment law that applies to FEHB carriers.

From the public health and medical research front,

  • Mercer discusses weight management in the era of GLP-1 drugs.
  • The NIH Director, in her blog, points out that an “Immune Checkpoint Discovery Has Implications for Treating Cancer and Autoimmune Diseases.”
  • The Washington Post reports,
    • “Diabetes, air pollution and alcohol consumption could be the biggest risk factors for dementia, study has found.
    • “Researchers compared modifiable risk factors for dementia — which is characterized by the impairment of memory, thinking and reasoning — and studied how these factors appear to affect certain brain regions that are already particularly vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia.
    • “The research, based on brain scans of nearly 40,000 adults, between ages 44 and 82, in Britain was published Wednesday in Nature Communications.”
  • Health Day informs us,
    • “Some folks struggling with obesity appear to be hampered by their own genes when it comes to working off those extra pounds, a new study finds.
    • “People with a higher genetic risk of obesity have to exercise more to avoid becoming unhealthily heavy, researchers discovered.
    • “Genetic background contributes to the amount of physical activity needed to mitigate obesity. The higher the genetic risk, the more steps needed per day,” said senior researcher Douglas Ruderfer, director of the Center for Digital Genomic Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.”
  • MedPage Today lets us know,
    • “For adults who are immunocompromised, the updated 2023-2024 COVID-19 vaccine reduced risk of hospitalization compared with not getting the shot, according to CDC data.
    • “Vaccine effectiveness against hospitalization was 38% in the first 7 to 59 days after receipt of the updated monovalent XBB.1.5 COVID vaccine, and 34% in the 60 to 119 days after receipt, 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.
    • “However, despite the positive effect, only 18% of people in this high-risk population had received the updated COVID vaccine, “representing a missed opportunity to prevent severe COVID-19,” the authors wrote.”
  • Medscape notes,
    • “Starting an exercise regimen with others can be a powerful fitness motivator, and new research spotlights the strategy’s particular importance for older adults.
    • “In a randomized clinical trial in JAMA Network Open, older adults who talked with peers about their exercise program were able to increase and sustain physical activity levels much better than those who focused on self-motivation and setting fitness goals.
    • “Such self-focused — or “intrapersonal” — strategies tend to be more common in health and fitness than interactive, or “interpersonal,” ones, the study authors noted. Yet, research on their effectiveness is limited. Historically, intrapersonal strategies have been studied as part of a bundle of behavioral change strategies — a common limitation in research — making it difficult to discern their individual value.
    • “We’re not saying that intrapersonal strategies should not be used,” said study author Siobhan McMahon, PhD, associate professor and codirector of the Center on Aging Science and Care at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, “but this study shows that interpersonal strategies are really important.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “The first major U.S. health insurers have agreed to start paying for the popular anti-obesity drug Wegovy for certain people on Medicare with heart-related conditions.
    • CVS HealthElevance Health, and Kaiser Permanente said they would cover 
    • Novo Nordisk’s Wegovy for the use of reducing the risk of heart attacks and strokes in people who have cardiovascular disease, meet body-weight criteria and are covered by a Medicare drug-benefit plan.
    • “Elevance, which operates many Blue Cross and Blue Shield health plans, also said it would extend coverage to people insured by a commercial plan.
    • “Some of the plans, including Kaiser Permanente’s, are making the coverage change effective immediately, while others, including those served by Elevance, will do so in the coming weeks.”
  • Axios informs us,
    • “The federal process for resolving billing disputes for out-of-network care has to date yielded payouts well above what Medicare and most in-network private insurers would pay providers, according to a new Brookings Institution analysis provided first to Axios. 
    • Why it matters: That could lead to downstream effects like higher premiums — quite the opposite of what Congress intended when it passed a law banning surprise medical bills in 2020.
    • What they found: Brookings analyzed Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services data on arbitration decisions to settle disputed claims during the first half of 2023. 
    • “Researchers specifically focused on emergency care, imaging and neonatal and pediatric critical care.
    • “Across the three categories, median payouts were at least 3.7 times what Medicare would pay, Brookings found. 
    • “For emergency care and imaging, the median decision was at least 50% higher than the most generous payments commercial plans historically made, on average, for in-network care. 
    • “Similar estimates weren’t available for neonatal and pediatric critical care.
    • “The analysis concludes that there is a “realistic possibility” that the law will wind up raising in-network prices and, in turn, premiums.
    • “That’s the opposite of what the Congressional Budget Office predicted would happen.”
  • Interesting study but its conclusion is undercut by the fact that many providers accept the qualifying payment amount the the plans initially pay under the No Surprises Act.
  • Per Healthcare Dive,
    • Walgreens reported an almost $6 billion net loss in the second quarter, according to financial results released Thursday. Nearly all of that sum was attributable to the declining value of a single play: VillageMD, the primary care chain into which Walgreens has poured billions of dollars, but which has generated disappointing returns to date.
    • Walgreens was forced to write down VillageMD’s value after its financial team flagged a mismatch in the subsidiary’s value as recorded in its balance sheet and its value in the market, CFO Manmohan Mahajan told investors on a Thursday morning call. That discrepancy led Walgrens to record a $5.8 billion goodwill impairment charge.
  • and
    • “UCI Health has completed its $975 million purchase of four Southern California hospitals from Tenet Healthcare, the academic health system said Tuesday. Tenet announced the sale in February as part of an ongoing effort to fund debt repayment.”
  • and
    • “Ascension has signed a definitive agreement to divest three hospitals and an ambulatory surgical center in northern Michigan to MyMichigan Health, the health systems said Tuesday. 
    • “The deal includes Ascension St. Mary’s in Saginaw, Ascension St. Joseph in Tawas City, Ascension St. Mary’s in Standish and ambulatory surgery center and emergency department Ascension St. Mary’s Towne Center in Saginaw. Related care sites and physician practices are also included. 
    • “Ascension has recently sold other hospitals as the nonprofit expands its ambulatory and telehealth footprint.”

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • Roll Call reports,
    • “Lawmakers released a more than $1.2 trillion, six-bill appropriations package early Thursday morning, less than 48 hours ahead of a Friday night deadline for this second and final wrapup measure for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. 
    • “Both parties were touting “wins” in the package well before unveiling the massive 1,012-page bill, which had already won President Joe Biden’s blessing and pledge to sign it “immediately.” That, plus the lure of a two-week recess, should help get the package over the finish line, though it seems likely to slip past the 11:59 p.m. Friday cutoff for the current stopgap spending law.
    • “But lawmakers weren’t really sweating the prospect of a weekend funding lapse, given its limited impact on government operations — especially with Friday’s expected House passage likely to be a strong signal of congressional intent to keep the lights on.”
  • The bill includes appropriations for OPM (pages 247 – 250) and its Inspector General (page 250) plus the three now standard appropriations measures:
    • A prohibition against imposing full Cost Accounting Standards coverage on FEHB carriers. Division B, Section 611, page 268.
    • The Hyde amendment limiting FEHB coverage of abortions to cases “where the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term, or the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape or incest.” Division B, Section 613 and 614, pages 268 – 269.
    • A contraceptive prescription drug coverage mandate with conscience protections for FEHB plans and healthcare providers. Division B, Section 726, page 298.
  • The American Hospital Association News discusses HHS appropriations, which also are included in this bill.
    • “The House may vote on the measure Friday, with Senate action expected over the weekend. A short government shutdown may occur over the weekend, depending how long it takes both chambers to pass the measure and for President Biden to sign it into law.” 
  • Govexec points out “the nine biggest agency and program reforms in the final FY24 spending package.”
  • The Wall Street Journal scoops,
    • “Some Medicare members could get help paying for the popular new weight-loss drug Wegovy—as long as they have a history of heart disease and are using it to prevent recurring heart attacks and strokes.
    • “Medicare Part D drug-benefit plans—which are administered by private insurers—may cover anti-obesity medications if the drugs receive approval for an additional use that is considered medically accepted under federal law, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services told The Wall Street Journal on Thursday. * * *
    • “Some Medicare members could get help paying for the popular new weight-loss drug Wegovy—as long as they have a history of heart disease and are using it to prevent recurring heart attacks and strokes.
    • “Medicare Part D drug-benefit plans—which are administered by private insurers—may cover anti-obesity medications if the drugs receive approval for an additional use that is considered medically accepted under federal law, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services told The Wall Street Journal on Thursday.”
  • STAT News adds,
    • “Early data regarding the use of GLP-1 medications like Ozempic and Wegovy to treat addiction is “very, very, exciting,” Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said Thursday.
    • “But even as she expressed enthusiasm for the new drugs’ potential, Volkow criticized pharmaceutical companies for neglecting a moral imperative to develop new addiction treatments — but acknowledged that the health system more broadly doesn’t incentivize drug companies to treat the U.S. drug crisis with urgency.”
  • The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force finalized its research plan for re-evaluating its September 2019 recommendations on the topic of medications to reduce the risk of breast cancer.
  • Beckers Health IT interviews Alexandra Mugge, chief health informatics officer at CMS, about the agency’s efforts “to expedite prior authorizations, through digitization and better data exchange, saving the healthcare industry $15 billion over a decade — in the hopes of one day having the decisions made instantaneously, right in the EHR.”

From the Food and Drug Administration front,

  • Per a press release,
    • “Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Duvyzat (givinostat) oral medication for the treatment of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) in patients six years of age and older. Duvyzat is the first nonsteroidal drug approved to treat patients with all genetic variants of DMD. It is a histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitor that works by targeting pathogenic processes to reduce inflammation and loss of muscle.
    • “DMD denies the opportunity for a healthy life to the children it affects. The FDA is committed to advancing the development of new therapies for DMD,” said Emily Freilich, M.D., director of the Division of Neurology 1, Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “This approval provides another treatment option to help reduce the burden of this progressive, devastating disease for individuals impacted by DMD regardless of genetic mutation.”
  • MedTech Dive informs us,
    • Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Abiomed recalled its Impella left sided blood pumps for risk that the devices could perforate the heart during a procedure. The recall began on Dec. 27 with Abiomed updating its instructions for use.
    • The Food and Drug Administration identified the recall as a Class I event, the most serious type of recall, in a Thursday notice. The agency has received 129 reports of serious injuries, including 49 deaths, related to the problem. 
    • Abiomed’s Impella heart pumps, which are used to support the heart during procedures or during cardiogenic shock, were the subject of four Class I recalls last year, including the latest recall. The company also received an FDA warning letter for quality problems with Impella and software used in the device that had not been authorized by the agency.

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The CDC shares with us,
    • Data from the National Vital Statistics System
      • Life expectancy for the U.S. population in 2022 was 77.5 years, an increase of 1.1 years from 2021.
      • The age-adjusted death rate decreased by 9.2% from 879.7 deaths per 100,000 standard population in 2021 to 798.8 in 2022.
      • Age-specific death rates increased from 2021 to 2022 for age groups 1–4 and 5–14 years and decreased for all age groups 15 years and older.
      • The 10 leading causes of death in 2022 remained the same as in 2021, although some causes changed ranks. Heart disease and cancer remained the top 2 leading causes in 2022.
      • The infant mortality rate was 560.4 infant deaths per 100,000 live births in 2022, an increase of 3.1% from the rate in 2021 (543.6).
  • STAT News adds,
    • “The U.S. recorded 107,941 drug overdose deaths in 2022, according to a new federal report — a total that marks an all-time record but also shows signs that the country’s overdose rate may finally be leveling off after years of steady increase.
    • “The 2022 total marks only a slight increase from the drug death toll of 106,699 the year before, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The flattening of drug death rates could provide a rare glimmer of hope amid the bleak U.S. drug crisis, which has seen overdose rates rise inexorably for the past two decades and especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.
    • “A large majority of those deaths were driven by the potent synthetic opioid fentanyl. Since emerging in the drug supply in the mid-2010s, fentanyl has increasingly come to dominate the U.S. illicit drug market. Even as fentanyl deaths have skyrocketed, the share of deaths involving other opioids — like heroin, methadone, and prescription painkillers — has decreased.”
  • The Washington Post reports,
    • “After once losing hope because of end-stage kidney disease, a 62-year-old man is now the first living person to receive a genetically edited kidney from a pig, according to doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital who performed the landmark surgery Saturday.
    • “Richard Slayman, whom doctors praised for his courage, is doing well after the four-hour surgery and is expected to be discharged from the Boston hospital soon, officials said.
    • “The advance, which builds on decades of work, gives hope to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who depend on dialysis machines to do the work of their failing kidneys. Each day, 17 Americans die awaiting a kidney transplant, a problem further complicated by unequal access given to Black and other patients. Doctors expressed hope that using pigs to vastly increase the supply of kidneys might correct the inequity.”
  • The Wall Street Journal lets us know,
    • “A new class of anticoagulant drugs on the horizon is taking fresh aim at one of cardiology’s toughest challenges: how to prevent blood clots that cause heart attacks and strokes, without leaving patients at risk of bleeding.
    • “At least a half-dozen experimental blood thinners are in development that inhibit a protein called factor XI, one of several blood factors that regulate how the body forms clots. * * *
    • “Any factor XI agent that reaches the market would likely represent an important advance over drugs called factor Xa inhibitors, a blockbuster class of medicines dominated by Eliquis and Xarelto. Since they were approved just over a decade ago, these drugs have supplanted warfarin as the standard-of-care anticoagulant to prevent stroke in patients with the heart-rhythm disorder atrial fibrillation as well as other indications.”
  • HealthDay informs us,
    • “About 1 in every 10 U.S. children ages 5 to 17 has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to the latest government statistics.
    • “The data from the National Health Interview Survey covers the years 2020 through 2022 and came from in-person or phone interviews involving a representative sample of American homes.
    • “It found that 11.3% of school-age children have been diagnosed with ADHD, with boys more likely to have this diagnosis (14.5%) than girls (8%), according to report authors Cynthia Reuben and Nazik Elgaddal, of the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).
    • “ADHD is diagnosed more often among white children (13.4%) than Black youngsters (10.8%) or Hispanic (8.9%) kids, the survey also showed. 
    • “Family income seemed to matter, too:  As income levels rose, the rate of child ADHD diagnoses declined.”
  • WTW, an actuarial consulting firm, offers insights on hepatitis C, HPV vaccine and value based insurance design.

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • STAT News reports,
    • “The last decade has seen billions of dollars flow into digital health companies that promise to improve outcomes for the 38 million Americans living with type 2 diabetes. Their products aren’t cheap, but in the long term, they pitch to health plans and employers that these digital tools will help cut health care costs by preventing serious complications like amputation and kidney failure.
    • A systematic review by the Peterson Health Technology Institute found, though, that digital tools used to manage diabetes with the help of finger-stick blood glucose readings don’t result in clinically meaningful improvements over standard care. As a result, they don’t reduce health care spending — they drive it up.
    • “Most of the solutions in this category do not deliver clinical benefits that justify their cost,” Caroline Pearson, executive director of the institute, told STAT. Despite finding that some populations may benefit, the report concludes that current evidence doesn’t support broader adoption for most products.”
  • Plan Sponsor notes,
    • “In the face of rising health care expenditures and out-of-pocket spending, average health savings account balances have also steadily increased since the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new data from the Employee Benefit Research Institute.
    • “The average HSA balance rose to $4,418 at the end of 2022 from $2,711 at the start of the year, the most recent data available in EBRI’s database, given that participants can still contribute to 2023 HSAs until taxes are due in April.
    • “Jake Spiegel, a research associate at EBRI, says he sees this trend continuing in 2023 and into the start of 2024 as well.
    • “EBRI’s analysis revealed two predominant factors associated with higher average account balances. The first was that age is strongly associated with higher HSA balances: the older the accountholder, the higher the average balance.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review lets us know,
    • “Change Healthcare said it has reinstated Amazon cloud services for two of its platforms a month into a cyberattack against the company.
    • “The UnitedHealth Group and Optum subsidiary said March 20 it restored Amazon Web Services from backups for Assurance, a claims and remittance management program, and claims clearinghouse Relay Exchange. Change said it rebuilt authentication services for the solutions on a new network with the help of cybersecurity firms Palo Alto Networks and Mandiant, a Google subsidiary. The company said it is also testing the security of the external-facing parts of those applications.”
  • Per the Society for Human Resource Management,
    • “Employees are experiencing more mental health struggles and overall negative feelings about their work, underscoring an “urgent need” for employers to take more aggressive measures to help with their benefits offerings.
    • “Employees are now more likely to experience negative feelings at work, including stress (12 percent more likely) and burnout (17 percent more likely) than they were pre-pandemic (2019), according to new data from MetLife. Employees are also 51 percent more likely to feel depressed at work than they were pre-pandemic as they face what the insurer calls a “complex macro environment and permacrisis state”—a state which has included the pandemic, persistent high inflation, international turmoil and war, and more.
    • “Those are among the findings in MetLife’s 22nd annual U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study, released March 18—data indicating that employers may have to revisit benefits offerings to not only support employees, but retain them.”
  • HR Dive explains “How menopausal and other reproductive health benefits can help retain women” and “Data shows that fertility treatments are extremely valuable to workers who need them. Here’s why one people officer is working on integrating them.”
  • STAT News relates,
    • “Just as Pfizer spooked Wall Street after its record pandemic revenue came parabolically back to earth, BioNTech, the company’s Covid-19 vaccine partner, is now dealing with investor malaise of its own.
    • “Shares in the German firm fell about 5% yesterday, hitting a 52-week low, after the company reported disappointing financials. BioNTech’s cut of Covid vaccine revenue fell by about more than three-quarters last year, missing analyst estimates and leading the company to lower its projections for 2024.
    • “Now BioNTech, much like Pfizer, is making the case that its future in oncology will compensate for the rapid erosion in demand for Covid vaccines. The company has more than 20 cancer medicines in its pipeline, including late-stage treatments for tumors of the breast and lung that could hit the market in the next two years.”
  • Per Healthcare Dive,
    • “Walgreens-backed VillageMD sold 11 locations in Rhode Island to Boston-based medical group management firm Arches Medical Partners for an undisclosed sumArches said Wednesday.
    • “The practices, which include about 75,000 patients, joined Arches on March 2, according to VillageMD’s website. 
    • “The deal follows VillageMD clinic closures. The primary care chain recently exited Florida — once one of chain’s largest markets — and plans to withdraw from its home state in Illinois next month.”

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • The FEHBlog listened to the House Oversight and Accountability Committee’s markup of HR 6283, the Delinking Revenue from Unfair Gouging Act. Is there such as thing as fair gouging? In any case, the FEHBlog was relieved by the amount of bipartisan opposition to the bill. However, as explained in this STAT News article, the Committee Chairman James Comer (R Ky) steered an amended version of the original bill through his Committee this morning. Like Committee members with doubts about the bill, the FEHBlog looks forward to the Congress Budget Office report on the measure.
  • The American Hospital Association (AHA) News reports
    • “In a statement submitted to the House Ways and Means Committee for a hearing Feb. 6 on chronic drug shortages, AHA recommended Congress enact legislation to diversify manufacturing sites and sources for critical pharmaceutical ingredients; support an increase in end-user and supply chain inventories for critical medications; develop a rating system for drug maker quality management processes; identify essential drugs needing more domestic manufacturing capacity; and require drug makers to disclose where their products are made and when demand for essential drugs spikes.” 
  • and
    • “The Health Resources and Services Administration Feb. 6 requested vendor proposals to support changes to governance, technology and operation of the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, as authorized by Congress last year. HRSA also directed the current OPTN vendor, the United Network for Organ Sharing, to standardize and update data reporting for greater accountability and equity in organ procurement and transplant practices. HRSA indicates that the scope and scale of the contract awards will be contingent on final 2024 appropriations.”
  • The Department of Health and Human Services announced,
    • releasing the National Public Health Strategy to Prevent and Control Vector-Borne Diseases in People (VBD National Strategy). As directed by the 2019 Kay Hagan Tick Act—named after the U.S. Senator who died due to complications from a tickborne illness—HHS led a four-year process with civilian agencies and defense departments to deliver this strategy. Co-led by the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the strategy identifies and describes federal priorities to detect, prevent, respond to, and control diseases and conditions caused by vectors in the United States.
    • “Vector-borne diseases are a global threat, with national security, economic, and health implications for the United States. As the federal government continues to proactively strengthen its response to this threat, HHS and CDC plan to develop future iterations of the VBD National Strategy with opportunities for public engagement. Read the VBD National Strategy.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review tells us,
    • “Respiratory syncytial virus vaccinations could soon extend to adults aged 50-59. 
    • “Arexvy, which was initially approved by the FDA in May 2023 for administration in adults over 60, has been granted priority review in the U.S. for use in adults ages 50-59.
    • “If approved, it will become the first RSV vaccine available for the age group, according to a Feb. 6 news release. 
    • “The FDA is slated to make a decision on the drug’s approval for the new age group by June 7.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • Medscape informs us,
    • “Lowering the recommended age for baseline prostate-specific antigen (PSA) would reduce prostate cancer deaths by about 30% in Black men without significantly increasing the rate of overdiagnosis, according to new screening guidelines from the Prostate Cancer Foundation.
    • “Specifically, baseline PSA testing in Black men should begin at age 40-45, sooner than current guidelines recommend, and should be followed by regular screening intervals, preferably annually, at least until age 70, a multidisciplinary panel of experts and patient advocates determined based on a comprehensive literature review.”
  • Per the Food and Drug Administration,
    • On Monday, the FDA issued an outbreak advisory warning consumers not to eat, sell, or serve recalled brands of cheeses, sour creams (cremas), or yogurts manufactured by Rizo Lopez Foods, Inc. The FDA and CDC, in collaboration with state and local partners, are investigating illnesses in a multi-year, multistate outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes infections linked to queso fresco and cotija cheeses manufactured by Rizo Lopez Foods, Inc., of Modesto, California. There are 26 illnesses with 23 hospitalizations in 11 states. The firm has recalled several dairy products and has temporarily ceased the production and distribution of these products while their investigation is ongoing. The FDA’s investigation is ongoing, and the FDA will continue to update this advisory as information becomes available.”
  • Per KFF,
    • “About 1 in 5 adolescents report symptoms of anxiety or depression, according to a KFF analysis of a new federal survey of teen health.
    • “While some teens are getting mental health care, a significant share say they are not receiving the therapy they need due to costs, fear of what others will think, and/or not knowing how to get help.”
  • The American Medical Association lets us know what doctors wish their patients knew about iron deficiency.
  • Healio notes,
    • “Infants aged younger than 3 months and children with a history of prematurity experience the highest rates of hospitalization for respiratory syncytial virus, according to study findings published in Pediatrics.
    • “Last year, two new tools became available to combat RSV, the leading cause of infant hospitalization in the United States: a vaccine for pregnant people and a new monoclonal antibody.” * * *
    • “Most RSV-associated hospitalizations occurred in healthy, term infants,” Meredith L. McMorrow, MD, MPH,a researcher in the CDC’s Coronavirus and Other Respiratory Viruses Division said. “This is why allbabies need protection from either maternal RSV vaccination or nirsevimab during their first RSV season.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review offers five Ozempic updates.

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • BioPharma Dive reports,
    • “Sales of Eli Lilly’s diabetes drug Mounjaro exceeded $5 billion in 2023, its first full year on the market, the company said Tuesday, in the latest sign of surging demand for the therapy and other medicines of its kind.
    • “Mounjaro’s fast launch helped drive Lilly’s revenue last year to $34 billion, a 20% increase over 2023. Fourth quarter revenue of $9.4 billion eclipsed analysts’ consensus expectations by 5%, Leerink Partners’ David Risinger wrote in a note to clients.
    • “Lilly said Mounjaro now accounts for 27% of total prescriptions in the U.S. for injectable “incretins,” the fast-selling group of drugs that work by modulating hormones that control insulin production. Sales of an older drug in this class, Lilly’s Trulicity, fell 4% in 2023 to $7 billion, but still led Lilly’s business.
    • “The obesity drug Zepbound, which contains the same active ingredient as Mounjaro, launched in the fourth quarter and brought in sales of $176 million through Dec. 31.”
  • STAT News adds,
    • “Eli Lilly reported during its fourth-quarter earnings call that tirzepatide, which is sold commercially as Mounjaro or Zepbound, succeeded in a Phase 2 test as a treatment for the liver disease MASH. Around 74% of adults in the trial taking the drug were free of MASH after 52 weeks, compared to approximately 13% of the placebo group.”
  • Wait, there’s more from Bloomberg,
    • Eli Lilly & Co.’s blockbuster diabetes drug Mounjaro, which is commonly used off-label for weight loss, is again in short supply due to increased demand.
    • “There will be limited availability of higher doses of the treatment through early March, according to a US Food and Drug Administration database that tracks shortages. So far, the FDA doesn’t list Mounjaro’s sister drug Zepbound, which is approved for weight loss, on its shortage list, though the two contain the same active ingredient.
    • “The company is continuing to ship all doses to wholesalers, but anticipates intermittent backorders of higher doses over the next month, a Lilly spokesperson said in an emailed statement. 
    • “We recognize this situation may cause a disruption in people’s treatment regimens and we are moving with urgency to address it,” the spokesperson said.”
  • BioPharma Dive points out
    • “The Japan-based pharmaceutical firm Eisai had hoped that, by the end of March, 10,000 patients in the U.S. would be taking its closely watched drug for Alzheimer’s disease. But that goal now seems lofty, following updates in the company’s latest earnings report.
    • “Eisai developed the drug, called Leqembi, in partnership with Biogen, and is leading its commercialization. As with an earlier Alzheimer’s therapy from the two companies, Leqembi’s launch started off slow. Yet Eisai and Biogen have argued that recent decisions from drug regulators and insurers should significantly increase both prescriptions and sales.
    • “Still, growth doesn’t appear to be coming as quickly as the companies want. Eisai recorded 1.1 billion yen, or roughly $7.4 million, in revenue from Leqembi between October and December — around half of what Wall Street analysts had generally expected, according to Michael Yee of the investment bank Jefferies.
    • The company also said Leqembi had been administered to a total of 2,000 U.S. patients as of Jan. 26, with another 8,000 or so on a waiting list. Eisai maintains the 10,000 patient milestone could be hit in a few months, though the team at Jefferies believes it might take longer “given launch dynamics have been slow to begin with.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review reports,
    • “San Francisco-based UCSF Health has signed a $100 million definitive agreement with San Francisco-based Dignity Health to take on two of its hospitals: Saint Francis Memorial Hospital and St. Mary’s Medical Center, both of which are in the city.”San Francisco-based UCSF Health has signed a $100 million definitive agreement with San Francisco-based Dignity Health to take on two of its hospitals: Saint Francis Memorial Hospital and St. Mary’s Medical Center, both of which are in the city.
    • UCSF Health began acquisition talks with Dignity Health, part of Chicago-based CommonSpirit Health, for the two hospitals in July. 
    • “Under the acquisition, which UCSF Health hopes to close by this spring, the hospitals will be renamed UCSF Health Saint Francis Hospital and UCSF Health St. Mary’s Hospital, respectively, according to a Feb. 5 UCSF news release.”
  • Per Healthcare Dive,
    • “Providence will refund payments and forgive outstanding medical debt for nearly 100,000 low-income Washington residents to settle a 2022 lawsuit alleging the health system skirted its charity care obligations, according to a Thursday announcement from Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
    • “The Renton, Washington-based operator will refund approximately $20 million to over 30,000 patients who were billed improperly and forgive $137 million for more than 65,000 additional patients, in what the AG called the “largest resolution of its kind in the country.”
    • “The settlement is the latest win for the AG, who has successfully brought other health systems into compliance with the state’s charity care law, which offers reduced or free medical care for approximately half of Washingtonians based on financial status.”
  • and
    • “Centene has become the second major health insurer to warn investors of an impending funding decrease in Medicare Advantage — if regulators finalize 2025 rates as proposed.
    • “New payment parameters released by the CMS last week would cause Centene’s MA rate to fall 1.3%, CFO Drew Asher said during a Tuesday morning call discussing the payer’s fourth-quarter earnings results.
    • “However, this dip is before Centene risk scores its enrollees, a process which should result in an overall increase in MA reimbursement next year, Asher said. Humana disclosed similar concerns in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Monday.”

Weekend update

From Washington DC —

  • OPM and its Inspector General remind us that today is National Whistleblower Day.
    • “Whistleblowers play a critical role in promoting accountability and efficiency across the federal government. Federal employees and employees of contractors and grantees can serve as an important resource for identifying fraud, waste, and abuse.”
  • August 15 is OPM’s soft deadline for concluding 2024 benefit and rate negotiations with carriers. OPM has been announcing next year’s FEHB premiums at the end of September.
  • The FEHBlog expects a low government contribution increase for 2024 because OPM authorized Medicare Part D EGWPs in the FEHB for next year. Of course, in future years, the big Part D savings will be baked into FEHB premiums, except for the Inflation Reduction Act changes that are being phased in over the next three to four years.
  • On a related note, the Motley Fool predicts
    • Slowing inflation seems likely to cause Social Security COLAs to be much lower in 2024.
    • Higher Medicare Part B premiums could offset part of the retirees’ Social Security increase.
  • In the FEHBlog’s opinion, the Motley Fool is not going out on a limb because inflation has dropped this year, and CMS gave the green light to Medicare coverage of an expensive Alzheimer’s Disease drug, Leqembi. There’s a chance that Congress may approve Medicare coverage for expensive but effective weight loss drugs, i.e., Wegovy.

More from the Medicare front

  • Fierce Healthcare reports
    • “Most Medicare Advantage (MA) enrollees use one or more supplemental benefits, with most health plan members using multiple benefits, according to a newly released report from the Elevance Health Public Policy Institute.
    • “The report finds that 83% of dual-eligible and 75% of non-dual-eligible individuals used at least one supplemental benefit a year. Those figures only drop to 64% and 48%, respectively, for using at least two different supplemental benefits. It also concluded that dual-eligible enrollees were more likely to live in a food desert, so they are more likely to self-select plans with strong supplemental benefit offerings.”
  • and
    • “Researchers found that once joining Medicare, patients are 50% more likely to get health screenings for breast cancer and colorectal cancer.
    • “Patients with other undiagnosed diseases, such as depression, COPD, type 2 diabetes, lung or prostate cancer, hypertension and hyperlipidemia, are also more likely to discover their condition in their first year of being on Medicare coverage.
    • “The report, by Epic Research, reviewed more than 20 million patients between the ages of 60 and 70 to see whether diagnoses occurred more frequently.
    • “Breast cancer screening rates jump from 15.3% to 30.4%, while colorectal cancer screening rates increase from 4.8% to 11%.”

On a related note, NCQA released its measurement year 2022 Quality Compass for commercial plans, which category includes FEHB plans, on July 28.

Midweek Update

Photo by Michele Orallo on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill —

Roll Call reports

  • “The White House and congressional leaders are discussing the duration of appropriations caps and a debt limit raise as staff talks get underway in advance of the next principals meeting on Friday.
  • “A two-year appropriations deal is under consideration, according to sources familiar with the talks, along the lines of three separate laws since 2015 that were paired with suspensions of the debt limit. 
  • “The White House and top Democrats are pushing for two years of debt limit breathing room, as in the 2019 deal cut with former President Donald Trump. That law contained two years of spending caps, which Speaker Kevin McCarthy pointed out as far back as January.
  • “Such an arrangement would, in theory, remove the threat of fiscal cliffs facing lawmakers and the economy until after the 2024 elections.”

Fierce Healthcare tells us,

  • “The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee convened the heads of three big pharmas—Eli Lilly CEO David Ricks, Novo Nordisk CEO Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen and Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson—as well as the top brass at the three largest PBMs—CVS Health Executive Vice President and President of Pharmacy Services David Joyner, Express Scripts President Adam Kautzner and OptumRx CEO Heather Cianfrocco.
  • “The legislation on the docket for the HELP Committee aims to inject transparency into the pharmaceutical supply chain as well as increase access to generics. PBM reforms on the table include eliminating spread pricing models as well as clawbacks from pharmacies. * * *
  • “The HELP Committee will convene Thursday to mark up four bills that target drug pricing. Sanders said that while these measures are a priority, there’s more work to be done in addressing this issue. He added that issues with affording drugs are a broader part of the ongoing challenges around affordability in healthcare.”

Tomorrow is the last day of the Covid public health emergency, and today the Department of Health and Human Services posted a fact sheet on how the end of the PHE affects telehealth.

From the Rx coverage front, the Wall Street Journal points out

  • “Advisers to the Food and Drug Administration recommended making an oral contraceptive available without a prescription for the first time, potentially widening access to birth control for women across the country. 
  • “The panel of FDA advisers voted 17 to 0 on Wednesday that there was enough evidence for the agency to approve the medication’s sale over-the-counter. The FDA, which is expected to make a final decision this summer, doesn’t have to follow the expert panel’s advice, though it often does.
  • “The FDA approved the pill, called Opill, for prescription use in 1973. HRA Pharma, owned by Perrigo, a Dublin-based generic drugmaker, submitted its application to make Opill available over-the-counter last July. 
  • “The advisory panel said the benefits of making oral contraceptives available over-the-counter outweighed the risks.”

The cost curve is pointing down.

From the medical research front, the National Institutes of Health updates us on multiple mRNA vaccines that show promise for treating HPV-Related cancers.

From the healthcare quality front, NCQA informs us

  • “We launched our Race and Ethnicity Stratification Learning Network.
  • “The network is a free, interactive, online tool that offers data and best practices to help health plans improve how they collect race and ethnicity data on enrollees.
  • Improving data collection of race and ethnicity data is vital to improving health equity.
  • “The data available in this new resource summarize the care of 20 million people enrolled in 14 health plans that reported results on 5 HEDIS measuresstratified by race and ethnicity.
  • “Best practices we identify come from NCQA’s qualitative interviews of key staff at plans in the learning network.
  • “A report groups our findings in three areas.”

Check it out.

From the federal employment front, the Office of Personnel Management announced

  • released proposed regulations that would prohibit the use of previous salary history in setting pay for federal employment offers. Under the new proposed regulations, federal agencies would not be able to consider an applicant’s salary history when setting pay for new federal employees in the General Schedule pay system, Prevailing Rate pay system, Administrative Appeals Judge pay system, and Administrative Law Judge pay system.  
  • “These proposed regulations are a major step forward that will help make the federal government a national leader in pay equity,” said OPM Director Kiran Ahuja. “Relying on a candidate’s previous salary history can exacerbate preexisting inequality and disproportionally impact women and workers of color. With these proposed regulations, the Biden-Harris Administration is setting the standard and demonstrating to the nation that we mean business when it comes to equality, fairness, and attracting the best talent.” 

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, the Wall Street Journal reports that “Sen. Joe Manchin, who has been a crucial vote in shaping major pieces of President Biden’s agenda, urged Democratic colleagues to hold talks with Republicans on cutting federal spending, ahead of a summer deadline to reach a deal on raising the country’s debt ceiling.”

From the public health front —

The Wall Street Journal informs us

A larger share of people are being diagnosed with colorectal cancer at a younger age and at a more dangerous stage of the disease, a report showed. Doctors aren’t sure why.

The American Cancer Society said Wednesday that about 20% of new colorectal cancer diagnoses were in patients under 55 in 2019, compared with 11% in 1995. Some 60% of new colorectal cancers in 2019 were diagnosed at advanced stages, the research and advocacy group said, compared with 52% in the mid-2000s and 57% in 1995, before screening was widespread.   

Cases and death rates for colorectal cancer have continued a decadeslong decline overall thanks to screening, better treatments and reductions in risk factors such as smoking, the ACS report’s authors said. But the shift of the burden toward younger people and diagnoses at more advanced stages has oncologists on alert. 

“The improvements have slowed, and they’ve slowed because of this opposite trend we’re seeing in young people,” said Kimmie Ng, director of the Young-Onset Colorectal Cancer Center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. “More and more are getting diagnosed with cancer that might not be curable.” 

The U.S. Preventive Serves Task Force is routinely reevaluating its 2018 grade A recommendation to screen pregnant women/persons for syphilis.

From the medical device front —

MedTech Dive tells us

  • The number of remote patient monitoring (RPM) reimbursement claims hit a new high in 2022, according to a report by Definitive Healthcare.
  • By November, the volume of claims across the 10 Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ codes for RPM was already 27% above the total for all of 2021, adding to the growth seen since the start of 2019.
  • Cardiologists are the main users of RPM devices, with blood pressure diagnoses accounting for more than half of all claims made in 2021. Diabetes, which accounts for 16% of claims, is the next most active area.


Medicare will cover continuous glucose monitors for a broader group of patients, starting in April, according to an updated policy published by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. 

The policy change included broader language and also came earlier than expected, making it a “welcome surprise,” and could double the market for the devices, J.P. Morgan analyst Robbie Marcus wrote in a research note. * * *

In an earlier draft of coverage guidelines, CMS had suggested covering the devices for people with diabetes who take daily insulin, or who have a history of problematic hypoglycemia. Now, the policy includes people withnon-insulin treated diabetes and a history of recurrent level 2 or at least one level 3 hypoglycemic event.

From the Rx coverage front, the Congressional Research Service issued an “In Focus” report about “Selected Issues in Pharmaceutical Drug Pricing.”

From the healthcare quality front, NCQA posted slides and a recording from its latest Future of HEDIS webinar on February 28.

From the U.S. healthcare business front —

Healthcare Dive relates

  • The Cleveland Clinic reported a $1.2 billion net loss for 2022 as expenses climbed from the prior year. Expenses ticked up in every key category in 2022, including salaries and wages, supplies and pharmaceuticals, Cleveland Clinic’s latest financial report shows.    
  • Cleveland Clinic grew 2022 revenue roughly 5% to $13 billion from the prior year, but didn’t outpace expenses as costs increased nearly 14% to $12.4 billion before interest, depreciation and amortization.    
  • Investment income helped pull the Midwest provider into the red as non-operating losses totaled $1 billion.  


Oak Street Health’s losses grew in 2022 to almost $510 million as the value-based primary care company, which is pending an acquisition by CVS Health, continued to aggressively pursue growth.

In comparison, Oak Street, which operates a network of clinics for seniors on Medicare, reported a loss of $415 million in 2021.

The company opened 40 new centers over 2022 and ended the year with 169 facilities in 21 states, serving some 224,000 patients.

STAT News reports

In what may well be the latest fad in hospital consolidation, two not-for-profit health systems located across the country from one another are seeking to link up — this time, to create a system with roughly $11 billion in revenue.

UnityPoint Health and Presbyterian Healthcare Services announced Thursday they’ve inked a letter of intent to explore a merger. Hospital mergers often involve partners in the same region so they can gain leverage with insurers, but in this case, UnityPoint is in the Midwest, whereas all nine of Presbyterian’s hospitals are several states away in New Mexico.  

The deal illustrates not only health systems’ insatiable desire to get bigger in a tough operating environment, but their evolving strategy for doing so. Antitrust regulators have sunk deals involving partners they said would command too much market share in a given region, so hospitals are doing the next-best thing: seeking partners in far-flung states. 

Healthcare Dive adds

  • Walmart plans to expand its network of medical centers in 2024, including a launch into two new states, as retail health giants race to build out their primary care footprints.
  • The company announced Thursday it plans to open 28 new Walmart Health centers in 2024, bringing its number of total locations to more than 75.
  • Walmart Health will open clinics in Missouri and Arizona for the first time, while deepening its presence in Texas by expanding in the Dallas area and growing into Houston, according to the announcement.

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Laura Ockel on Unsplash

From the Omicron and siblings front, HealthDay tells us

Paxlovid remains a powerful weapon against the Omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5, new research shows

The antiviral continued to protect against hospitalization and death in patients [including the immunocompromised] who took it

Research is ongoing to see if Paxlovid also guards against newer Omicron variants such as XBB.1.5 and BQ.1

From the public health front —

  • Medscape reports that the five-year survival rate in pancreatic cancer is increasing.
  • MedPage Today explains that while there’s no ‘Recipe’ to reduce dementia risk, here’s how to discuss it with patients until more evidence emerges.
  • The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force reaffirmed a Grade D recommendation against routine serologic screening for genital herpes simplex virus infection in asymptomatic adolescents and adults, including pregnant persons.

From the healthcare quality front

  • Beckers Hospital Review shares Healthgrades’ 2023 list of top hospitals for joint replacement by state.
  • The National Committee for Quality Assurance opened its 2023 HEDIS public comment period yesterday. The comment period closes on March 13.

From the Medicare front —

  • The Department of Health and Human Services unveiled three models for reducing prescription drug costs charged to Medicare beneficiaries, including two-dollar generic drug prescriptions for Medicare Part D.
    • “Under this model (the Medicare High-Value Drug List Model), Part D plans would be encouraged to offer a low, fixed co-payment across all cost-sharing phases of the Part D drug benefit for a standardized Medicare list of generic drugs that treat chronic conditions. Patients picking plans participating in the Model will have more certainty that their out-of-pocket costs for these generic drugs will be capped at a maximum of $2 per month per drug”.
  • Beckers Payer Issues reports, “Medicare beneficiaries who enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan may need less retirement savings to cover their healthcare costs, an analysis published Feb. 9 by the Employee Benefits Research Institute found.”
  • Fierce Healthcare informs us
    • “Health insurers and the Biden administration are at loggerheads over whether Medicare Advantage (MA) plans will see a pay cut next year, the ramifications of which come amid increased regulatory scrutiny for the popular program.
    • “Insurer groups and some politicians charge that the latest 2024 payment rule will wind up being a 2.27% cut to MA plans after considering risk adjustment changes and other factors. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has pushed back, arguing that isn’t true.”
  • STAT News relates, “Medicare advisers on Tuesday recommended that the program alter its requirements for drugs, diagnostics, and medical devices that face coverage restrictions [such as the Biogen Eisai Alzheimers Disease drugs] to make the process more transparent and better incorporate diversity data.”
    • Speaking of which, USA Today reports
      • One in 10 new drugs was cleared by federal drug regulators in recent years based on studies that didn’t achieve their main goals, a new study shows.
      • The study by Harvard and Yale researchers found that of 210 new therapies approved by the Food and Drug Administration from 2018 through 2021, 21 drugs were based on studies that had one or more goals, or endpoints, that wasn’t achieved. Those 21 drugs were approved to treat cancer, Alzheimer’s and other diseases.
      • Researchers said the findings raise questions about whether the federal agency’s drug approvals lack transparency about some products’ safety and effectiveness. 

In hospital pricing transparency news —

  • Healthcare Dive discusses a JAMA-published study of available hospital pricing data, which produced head-scratching results.
  • Beckers Hospital Review explains four ways CMS is trying to improve hospital price transparency in 2023. Good luck with that.

From the HR department

  • The Society for Human Resource Management tells us
    • Employers need to understand that the timeline for submitting their demographic data to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is somewhat different this year. The agency recently confirmed that EEO-1 reporting for 2022 data is scheduled to begin in mid-July. In recent years, the starting points and deadlines for data collection have varied.”
    • “All private employers with 100 or more employees and federal contractors with 50 or more employees must file EEO-1 reports each year that summarize employee headcount by sex, race/ethnicity, and job category. This component of data collection, called Component 1, does not include pay data.
  • HR Dive explores how the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act protects pregnant workers beginning this June and how do those accommodations stack up to the federal Family and Medical Leave Act? 
  • HR Dive also notes, “Short breaks of fewer than 20 minutes taken by hourly, non-exempt employees who telework or must be counted as compensable time under the Fair Labor Standards Act — as is the case for employers working from an employer’s own location — Jessica Looman, principal deputy administrator of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Administration, wrote in a Field Assistance Bulletin published Thursday.”

From the tidbits department

  • Healio advises “Adolescents and young adults with type 1 diabetes who primarily attend diabetes clinic visits via telehealth have better overall attendance and less diabetes distress compared with those who attend in person, according to study data.”
  • MedCity News states, “Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a 23% increase in alcohol abuse and a 16% increase in drug abuse, and people in self-isolation reported a 26% higher consumption than usual, according to the National Library of Medicine. Some apps are trying to meet this need, including Sober Sidekick and SoberBuddy.”

Midweek update

From Capitol Hill, the Wall Street Journal reports

Republicans won a majority of seats in the House of Representatives with a victory in California, the Associated Press said late Wednesday, bolstering their ability to steer the agenda on Capitol Hill after two years of Democratic control of both chambers of Congress and the White House.

The Congressional Research Service released a report on health care provisions expiring at the end of this 117th Congress.

Healthcare Dive adds

With midterm elections resulting in a narrowly divided Congress, the HHS will be free to focus on longstanding priorities for the health department, such as implementing drug negotiation policy within Medicare, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said at the HLTH conference in Las Vegas on Tuesday.

“In a way, we’re now going to be able to concentrate on the work we have to still execute on,” Becerra said,

Under the Inflation Reduction Act passed earlier this year, Congress granted Medicare the power to negotiate how much it pays for certain prescription drugs starting in 2026, and to receive rebates from pharmaceutical manufacturers that hike drug costs above the rate of inflation starting in 2023.

Of course, HHS and its partners have a lot of work on implementing the No Surprises Act. Health Payer Intelligence discusses the good faith estimate and advance explanation of benefits comments that an ERISA plan trade association, ERIC, submitted to the NSA regulators yesterday.

In other HLTH 2022 conference news,

  • Healthcare Dive tells us about Google’s plans for offering personal health records and Maven Clinic‘s efforts to build a maternal health business by, e.g., recently landing a $90 million Series E amid increasing investor focus on women’s health.
  • MedCity News informs us, “Cell and gene therapies are offering patients potentially curative treatments for a growing scope of diseases. Insurance companies are trying to figure out how to pay for them. Industry consultants speaking at the HLTH conference offered some strategies they see payers taking to these new therapies.”

From the federal employee benefits front,

  • Govexec collected all of its current Open Season articles for convenient access.
  • Reg Jones, writing in Fedweek, recommends that federal employees contemplating retirement should retire on December 31, 2022.
  • Govexec reports that the Postal Service is headed into its busy season with far fewer employees than past years.

From the Affordable Care Act front —

  • The FEHBlog ran across this updated reference chart on minimum essential coverage under the ACA.
  • The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force issued its 12th Annual Report to Congress which is titled “High-Priority Evidence Gaps for Clinical Preventive Services.”

From the public health front —

  • Forbes reports “Researchers at the University of Houston have developed a vaccine that could block the effects of fentanyl and prevent addiction, according to a new study that could unlock solutions to the opioid epidemic as more than 150 people die every day from overdoses connected to synthetic opioids.”
  • CNN reports “The five-year lung cancer survival rate has increased 21%, from 21% in 2014 to 25% in 2018, making what experts call “remarkable progress” – but it is still the leading cause of cancer death in the United States. However, in communities of color, a person’s odds of surviving five years after diagnosis are much lower, at only 20%, according to the 2022 State of Lung Cancer report, which was published by the American Lung Association on Tuesday.”
  • The National Institutes of Health tells us “COVID-19 Vaccines Are Safe for People Receiving Cancer Immunotherapy, Study Confirms.”

From the miscellany department —

  • Forbes informs us “UnitedHealth Group’s pharmacy benefit manager Optum Rx Tuesday said it will put three less expensive “biosimilar” versions of Abbvie’s pricey rheumatoid arthritis drug Humira ‘in the same position as the brand’ on the PBM’s preferred list of drugs known as a formulary.”
  • MedTech Dive discusses how Labcorp, Abbott, BD, and Siemens plan to expand the home testing market
  • NCQA looks back at its recent Health Innovation Summit.

Midweek update

Photo by Tomasz Filipek on Unsplash

From the Omicron and siblings front —

Novovax announced that

the Novavax COVID-19 Vaccine, Adjuvanted (NVX-CoV2373) has received emergency use authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to provide a first booster dose at least six months after completion of primary vaccination with an authorized or approved COVID-19 vaccine to individuals 18 years of age and older for whom an FDA-authorized mRNA bivalent COVID-19 booster vaccine is not accessible or clinically appropriate, and to individuals 18 years of age and older who elect to receive the Novavax COVID-19 Vaccine, Adjuvanted because they would otherwise not receive a booster dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

“The U.S. now has access to the Novavax COVID-19 Vaccine, Adjuvanted, the first protein-based option, as a booster,” said Stanley C. Erck, President and Chief Executive Officer, Novavax. “According to CDC data, almost 50 percent of adults who received their primary series have yet to receive their first booster dose. Offering another vaccine choice may help increase COVID-19 booster vaccination rates for these adults.”

Reuters adds

Moderna Inc said on Wednesday its COVID-19 vaccine booster targeting the BA.1 subvariant of Omicron generated a strong immune response against that variant, with antibody levels staying high for at least three months.

Omicron-tailored shots by Pfizer Inc  and Moderna are already authorized by regulators in several countries. The United States has given the go-ahead for booster vaccines that target the currently circulating BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of Omicron.

The New York Times provides an update on the new Omicron variants, including this critical point

Fortunately, Paxlovid works against these new variants. The mutations that make them spread so quickly are changes to the surface of the virus where it locks onto cells and where antibodies attach to it. Paxlovid attacks the virus in a different way. It detects the virus after it’s inside the cell and is replicating, and these new subvariants seem to be just as vulnerable to Paxlovid as the earlier variants.

Health Payer Intelligence reports

Federal funding was crucial in enhancing access to coronavirus resources during the initial phases of the pandemic, but questions remain about what will occur when the public health emergency ends and how it will impact consumer healthcare spending, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation brief.

The end of the public health emergency is still undetermined. However, experts have projected that it will end in 2023. The scheduled termination has been pushed back multiple times. Its final termination will signal the end of various flexibilities and protections that have been tied to the declaration.

Additional Covid funding is likely to occur in the Congressional lame-duck session following the November 8 election, in the FEHBlog’s opinion.

From the U.S. healthcare business front —

Fierce Healthcare tells us

Patient volumes continue to remain below pre-pandemic levels for hospitals and health systems this year as COVID-19 likely accelerated a shift to outpatient settings, a new report finds. 

Consulting firm Kaufman Hall released its “2022 Healthcare Performance Improvement” report (PDF), which outlines the barriers hospitals and health systems face in a rough year financially. Another key obstacle continues to be workforce shortages, as more and more facilities shift resources to retain staff. 

“Healthcare leaders must navigate short-term challenges that continue to pressure revenue and expenses, while also adapting organizational strategy to match larger transformations in the way care is delivered,” said Kaufman Hall Managing Director Lance Robinson in a statement on the report. 

and offers a discussion of an expert-touted hybrid approach to compensating primary care providers. In the FEHBlog’s view, adequately paying PCPs is critically important to resolving SDOH and mental health issues adversely impacting our country.

In the regard

  • A National Institutes of Health study uncovered racial disparities in advanced cardiac care.
  • STAT News reports on another SDOH study

When Sarka Lisonkova and her colleagues set out to study disparities in the birth outcomes of people who’ve used methods like IVF, they figured that any inequities that existed would be narrower in this group. After all, it can be expensive to get pregnant with medical assistance, and wealth is tied to better outcomes.

Instead, the researchers reported Wednesday, the racial and ethnic disparities for some metrics were even wider for babies of parents who had used IVF or other fertility treatments than among children who were conceived “spontaneously.”

One key finding: while neonatal mortality rates were twice as high among spontaneously conceived children of Black women versus white women, they were four times as high among infants of Black women conceived through technologies like IVF, according to the researchers’ study, which was published in the journal Pediatrics.

  • The National Committee for Quality Assurance gives us an update on their efforts to stratify HEDIS measures results by racial and ethnic categories.

In other U.S. healthcare business news, Healthcare Dive reports

As the U.S. heads toward a possible recession, Elevance Health CEO Gail Boudreaux said the insurer is preparing for a possible economic decline.

“Certainly we’re mindful of an economic downturn. We’re planning for it in our businesses,” Boudreaux said on a Wednesday call with investors to discuss third-quarter earnings.

Job losses spurred by a recession could cut into commercial enrollment for insurers who generate revenue from selling health coverage to employers of all sizes. About half of the U.S. population relies on employer-based insurance for coverage.

Elevance’s profit climbed to $1.6 billion for the third quarter, a 7% increase compared with the prior-year period on a bigger membership base of 47.3 million members.

Becker’s Payer Issues tells us

Despite little growth in the cost of medical services over the last year, inflation has finally caught up with healthcare.

As of September, medical services costs have risen 6.5 percent year over year, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report released Oct. 13. 

Analysts like Fitch have said the rise in costs will lead to payers raising insurance premiums across the board because of the growing cost pressures on providers, including workforce disruptions.

Studies have already confirmed employers are preparing for higher healthcare expenditures next year because of inflation. Aon analysts said Aug. 18 that U.S. employers’ healthcare costs are expected to rise by an average of 6.5 percent, or $13,800 per employee, in 2023.

“The only 100 percent sure way to keep within budget as the medical industry (especially hospitals) demand more and more is to raise premiums, increase deductibles, higher copays and coinsurance,” James Gelfand, president of the ERISA Industry Committee, told The Washington Post Oct. 14. “Employers hate to do this, but the medical-industrial complex demands an ever-increasing share of workers’ wages.”

The rise in insurance costs could begin to appear when employees sign up for employer-sponsored coverage during their next enrollment period, a trend that could continue through at least 2024, according to the Post.

STAT News reports

A large commercial insurer’s decision to cover a controversial class of software-based treatments for psychiatric and other conditions could prove to be a landmark moment in the development of these so-called prescription digital therapeutics, which until now had been unable to secure coverage from insurers skeptical that the new technologies are as effective as their makers claim.

Pittsburgh-based Highmark quietly put in place a policy in August describing when these treatments may be “medically necessary,” which paves the way for the health insurer to be the first to cover the category for a population of millions of members.

The policy indicates Highmark’s intention to pay for claims only for prescription digital therapeutics cleared by the Food and Drug Administration when prescribed by a clinician within the appropriate specialty and used as indicated on product labels. Highmark is currently negotiating with product developers about how much it will pay for individual treatments and over details such as what constitutes an “episode of care,” said Matt Fickie, a senior director at Highmark, which has 6 million members in Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia, and New York. “That’s the part that is sticky and that requires additional work,” he told STAT.

From the Rx coverage front —

STAT News informs us

After an extraordinary three-day hearing, an expert panel of advisers to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration voted on Wednesday to uphold an effort by the regulator to withdraw a controversial drug for preventing premature births.

The 14-to-1 vote came after the agency and Covis Pharma, the manufacturer of the drug, offered highly contrasting views of reams of clinical evidence — which they parsed in excruciating detail — in order to settle the fate of the treatment, known as Makena.

The FDA successfully persuaded the panel that the medication should be withdrawn because the results of a clinical trial, which was required when the agency approved Makena [on an accelerated basis] in 2011, failed to show the expected benefit. For its part, Clovis maintained that a follow-up trial showed its drug did benefit a select subset of patients — including Black women — but struggled to convince the panel that the drug should remain available while a lengthy follow-up study is run to confirm its argument.

The sentiment among most panelists was reflected in remarks by Susan Ellenberg, a professor emeritus of biostatistics, medical ethics, and health policy at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who said “unmet need is not a basis for keeping a drug available when you don’t know if it works.”

The FDA Commissioner, Robert Califf, MD, is the final decision maker.

The NCQA has created

A new website adds two key resources in the fight against antibiotic resistance:

* A How-To Toolkit: Webinars and written summaries outline best practices, emerging trends and lessons from the field about savvy stewardship of antibiotics.

* An “Honor Roll”: Learn which health plans’ management of antibiotics leads the industry.

From the No Surprises Act front, CMS today issued updated guidance on how to initiate an NSA arbitration. The new guidance reflects the revised final independent dispute resolution rule published this past summer.

Mid-week Update

Following up on this week’s posts

Forbes unpacks the colonoscopy study that the FEHBlog discussed in Monday’s post. The critical consideration is that “while colonoscopy may not be the gold standard it’s been made out to be, one or more colorectal cancer screening tools are essential to detect cancer and lower mortality rates.” Check it out.

Prof. Katie Keith writing in Health Affairs Forefront explores the final family glitch rule that the FEHBP mentioned in yesterday’s post. Two points suggest to the FEHBlog that the final rule will not materially impact the FEHB Program.

This situation—where employee-only coverage is affordable, but family coverage is not—is not uncommon. Most employers offer family coverage, but many do not subsidize it for family members which keeps the cost high for workers and their families.

That’s not the case in the FEHB Program. Moreover,

The final rule will not affect liability under the employer mandate, a fact confirmed by the IRS. Why not? The employer mandate requires certain large employers to offer coverage to employees and dependents. But penalties for violating the mandate are triggered only when an employee receives premium tax credits through the marketplace. The final rule extends premium tax credits to only the family members of workers who are not offered affordable job-based family coverage. It does not affect the eligibility of employees and thus does not implicate the employer mandate.

That’s an important consideration. Implementing the final rule is OPM’s responsibility as the FEHB Program’s regulator.

From the Omicron and siblings’ front —

The Associated Press reports

The White House on Tuesday said eligible Americans should get the updated COVID-19 boosters by Halloween to have maximum protection against the coronavirus by Thanksgiving and the holidays, as it warned of a “challenging” virus season ahead.

Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 coordinator, said the U.S. has the tools, both from vaccines and treatments, to largely eliminate serious illness and death from the virus, but stressed that’s only the case if people do their part. * * *

So far the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says only about 11.5 million Americans have received the updated shots, which are meant to provide a boost of protection against both the original strain of COVID-19 and the BA.5 variant that is dominant around the world. Jha said studies suggest that if more Americans get the updated vaccines, “we could save hundreds of lives each day this winter.”

The American Hospital Association informs us

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention today recommended Moderna’s bivalent COVID-19 vaccine booster for children aged 6-17 and Pfizer’s bivalent COVID-19 vaccine booster for children aged 5-11 after the Food and Drug Administration authorized them for these ages. CDC previously recommended the Pfizer bivalent booster for Americans 12 and older and the Moderna bivalent booster for adults. The boosters protect against the most recently circulating omicron variants as well as the original virus strain.

MedPage Today offers more information on this FDA decision and a modeling study of 1.2 million global Covid patients showing (1) “Long COVID — defined as one or more clusters of symptoms lasting three months or longer — occurred in about 6% of people with symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection” and (2) “at one year, 15% of long COVID patients had ongoing cognitive or respiratory problems or fatigue.”

In other public health news, NPR offers a transcript of a monkeypox discussion among NPR healthcare reports. The upshot is

Just a few months ago, it looked like the U.S. had lost its chance to get monkeypox under control. Cases were soaring, and vaccines were in short supply. But now the story has taken a turn and this time in a good direction. In fact, some disease experts are even raising the idea that the U.S. could nearly eliminate the virus. 

From the medical research front —

Healthcare Dive reports

Walmart is getting into clinical trials with the launch of the Walmart Healthcare Research Institute, as the retail giant focuses on high-margin businesses in healthcare.

Walmart said the venture is meant to improve diversity in clinical trials, focusing on interventions and medications that can make an impact in underrepresented communities. That includes older adults, rural residents, women and minority populations, the company said in a release.

It could also become a valuable stream of revenue for Walmart from drug companies looking for participants for potential trials and studies.

The NIH Directors’ Blog tells us about two NIH-supported chemists, Carolyn R. Bertozzi and K. Barry Sharpless, who won the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work in click chemistry.

This form of chemistry has made it possible for researchers to snap together, like LEGO pieces, molecular building blocks to form hybrid biomolecules, often with easy-to-track imaging agents attached. Not only has click chemistry expanded our ability to explore the molecular underpinnings of a wide range of biological processes, but it has provided us with new tools for developing drugs, diagnostics, and a wide array of “smart” materials.

Kudos to the winners.

STAT News reports

Merck on Wednesday agreed to extend an ongoing collaboration with Moderna to develop a personalized vaccine for the treatment of patients with skin cancer.

Moderna is getting $250 million from Merck to secure opt-in rights to the cancer vaccine candidate, called mRNA-4157. The two companies are jointly conducting a mid-stage clinical trial that combines the customized, mRNA-based vaccine with Merck’s checkpoint inhibitor Keytruda.

Results from this randomized study will be announced before the end of the year, but the timing of Wednesday’s deal suggests Merck and Moderna have seen enough encouraging data to advance mRNA-4157 into larger studies.

From the Rx coverage front, the HHS Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality updated its consumer tool “How To Create a My Medicines List,” previously known as “My Pills List.”

From the healthcare quality front, NCQA released a slide deck and recording of last week’s Future of HEDIS webinar focused on health equity.

From the maternity care front, Health Day reports on a March of Dimes report on maternity care deserts and related matters. Here’s the federal government’s maternity care map:

Maternity care deserts [red]: low access [orange]; moderate access [yellow]; full access [light purple] Source: U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), Area Health Resources Files, 2021