Monday Roundup

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the Federal Employee Benefits Open Season front, the FEHBlog has noticed that OPM expanded the number of FEHB and FEDVIP public use files available on its website. “The purpose of the OPM FEHB and FEDVIP Plan and Benefits Information (PBI) Public Use Files (PUFs) is to provide information to the public on FEHB and FEDVIP plans, including information on rates and benefits.” Check it out.

The FEHBlog also has noticed that many FEHB plans promptly posted Open Season information on their websites. In particular, the three largest FEHB carriers, Blue Cross FEP, GEHA, and Kaiser Permanente have done so. That’s a heavy, yet helpful, lift so kudos to the carriers.

From the public health front

  • The New York Times brings us up to date on the polio vaccination campaign in New York State.

The specter of polio becoming endemic in America again was once unthinkable. But as state public health officials embark on an urgent campaign to get more people vaccinated, the low rates among preschoolers in some pockets are evidence of both the challenges they face and the threat to the state’s youngest children — the very age group among whom polio is most likely to spread.

This gap stems from the fact that the polio vaccine is required for school admission.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers has proposed legislation to help create drugs that can fight drug-resistant pathogens as the treatments for life-threatening problems from respiratory infections to sepsis stop working.

But a classic end-of-year congressional quagmire — a tight calendar, a heated election season, fights over spending, and inertia — threatens to stymie progress before the end of the year.

Fingers crossed for passage in the lame duck session.

  • The National Institutes of Health released its monthly NIH News in Health, which is worth a click.

From the U.S. healthcare business front —

  • Fierce Healthcare relates “Francisco Partners, an investment firm, signed a definitive agreement to acquire bSwift from CVS Health.” The acquistion agreement is expected to close by year end and “bSwift will continue to partner with CVS Health and its subsidiary Aetna, an insurance provider, by sharing benefits solutions with its employees and clients.”

From the telehealth front, we have another positive survey report from mHealth Intelligence. “ccording to new research findings from the JD Power 2022 US Telehealth Satisfaction Study, telehealth has become more than a temporary replacement for in-person care due to high consumer preference and its role in expanding access to mental health treatment.”

From the Monday miscellany front —

  • BioPharma Dive identifies five Food and Drug Administration decisions to watch out for this quarter. “The regulator could soon approve medicines from Apellis, Gilead and GSK, as well as decide on whether to pull a controversial preterm birth drug from the market.”
  • The Office of National Coordinator for Health Information Technology issued eight information blocking regulatory reminders for October 6, the end of the phase in period for that rule.
  • Medscape reports on an HHS Office of Inspector General report criticizing the efficiency of the FDA’s accelerated drug approval program.

In granting accelerated approvals, the FDA sets timelines for drugmakers to carry out confirmatory trials. But these target dates are often missed. OIG staff evaluated 104 cases of accelerated approvals for which confirmatory trials have not been completed and found that as of May 5, 2022, 35 drug studies had missed their original target completion dates. * * *

In its report, the OIG staff offered a deep look at the four drugs in which confirmatory trials were furthest past their original completion deadlines:

* Mafenide acetate (Sulfamylon), a topical antimicrobial treatment for burns that was approved in 1998. The trial is 140 months past its original deadline.

* Midodrine hydrochloride (Proamatine), a treatment for postural hypotension that was approved in 1996. The trial is 85 months past its original deadline.

* Pralatrexate (Folotyn), a treatment for T-cell lymphoma that was approved in 2009. The trial is 72 months past its original deadline.

Hydroxyprogesterone caproate (Makena), a drug to reduce risk of preterm birth that was approved in 2011. The trial is 64 months past its original deadline.

Midweek Update

Happy First Day of Autumn!

From Capitol Hill, Roll Call discusses the Senate Majority Leader’s plans for successfully passing the continuing resolution funding the federal government through December 16, 2022.

[I]n theory the tentative plan to start the process this Thursday could lead to a final Senate vote by next Friday, when the current fiscal year expires. It might even enable the House to take up the Senate-passed bill and clear it in time to beat the midnight deadline.

All that assumes everything goes according to plan and that there’s an acceptable stopgap funding package that can pass in both chambers. None of those details have been released, but top appropriators and other lawmakers said Wednesday there’s no talk yet of a very short-term CR to buy more time.

From the Omicron and siblings’ front —

  • Fierce Healthcare tells us about the possible blossoming of another Omicron variant BF.7
  • The Wall Street Journal reports on the rollout of nasal Covid vaccines in Asia “though just how effective they are remains to be seen.” These are adenovirus, not mRNA-based, vaccines. Nonetheless

Delivering a vaccine through the nose has the potential to build up a type of immune response known as mucosal immunity, or immunity in the upper airway tract, said David Curiel, professor of radiation oncology at Washington University School of Medicine who co-developed the Bharat vaccine. That is important because mucosal immunity could more effectively block infection and transmission of the coronavirus than the type of immunity induced by injected vaccines, he said.

In other virus news, Forbes offers an illuminating article by Gayle Smith, the CEO of the ONE Campaign, which fights to end extreme poverty and preventable disease. Ms. Smith writes on the emergence of polio.

The re-emergence of polio is worrisome, particularly considering the politicization of and uneven response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Panic, however, is unwise. What is needed is vigilance and vaccination coverage. Fortunately, there are millions of people who are living proof that polio vaccines work.

This is a moment when the world can do the right thing and eradicate a preventable disease. Since the mid-1950s, a concerted global effort has confined endemic polio to only two countries and proven that this is a virus we can defeat. 

Going all the way is a moonshot and a win for the world. It is not without its challenges, of course. But it is far easier right now than defeating Covid, or malaria, or AIDS. One can only hope that ridding the world of a disease known as “infantile paralysis” might be something we can all agree on — if not for ourselves then for the children whose lives continue to be at risk.

Also, from the public health front, the National Institutes of Health helpfully informs us

In a large clinical trial that directly compared four drugs commonly used to treat type 2 diabetes, researchers found that insulin glargine and liraglutide performed the best of four medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to maintain blood glucose levels in the recommended range. Blood glucose management is a key component of keeping people with type 2 diabetes healthy. All four medications evaluated were added to treatment with metformin, which is the first-line drug to treat type 2 diabetes. The trial was funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the National Institutes of Health.

More than 37 million Americans have diabetes, and approximately 90 to 95% of them have type 2 diabetes. People with diabetes who keep their blood glucose levels in the near-normal range generally have a much lower risk of developing diabetes complications such as nerve, kidney, and eye diseases. Most people with type 2 diabetes require more than one medication to control blood sugar levels over time. 

While there is general agreement among health care professionals that metformin combined with diet and exercise is the best early approach in diabetes care, there is no consensus on what to do next to best keep high blood glucose in check.

From the wellness front, Fierce Health relates that United Healthcare is expanding its relationship with exercise machine marker Peleton. As a result, UHC will be making Pelton’s fitness services available to as many as 10 million of its members.

From the federal compensation and benefits front

  • Govexec reports on locality pay developments, and Social Security changes that Congress may approve this year.
  • Reg Jones writing in FedWeek provides a personal story about federal survivor benefits worth a gander.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the Omnicron and siblings front —

The Wall Street Journal and STAT News consider when the Covid pandemic will be over in the United States in response to the President’s comment to a 60 Minutes interviewer Sunday night.

STAT News also offers an interview with the President’s science advisor Francis Collins, MD. Dr. Collins “revealed his pain at seeing people spurn mRNA Covid vaccines developed with breathtaking speed and lamented that he and other health officials failed to communicate the ever-changing science behind Covid recommendations.”

The Wall Street Journal adds

More than a year-and-a-half after the first Covid-19 vaccines became available, people are trickling in every day to get their first doses. 

As health officials and physicians roll out retooled boosters targeting substrains of the Omicron variant, federal data suggest there are still thousands of people a day getting shots of the original vaccines for the first time. 

All together, the seven-day average for adults getting first shots each day ranged between roughly 15,000 and 18,000 in late August, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The data can overestimate first-shot recipients, because there are times where the agency can’t link follow-up shots, including boosters, to people who received an initial series. The same effect can lead to an undercount of booster shots, according to the CDC.

People who recently got the first jab cited a range of reasons. Some said they were ordered to do so, such as to start a new job or travel for a vacation. Others waited until a vaccine using a more-traditional technology, instead of the newer mRNA versions, became available. Some went ahead after getting sick with Covid-19, or after a family member vouched that the shots worked. 

Perhaps this news will reassure Dr. Collins.

Moreover, Paxlovid helps people who contract Omicron whether or not they are vaccinated. However, STAT News cautions that advances in treating the sickest Covid patients have stalled since February 2021.

From January 2020 to February 2021, researchers proved four different effective therapies for patients hospitalized with Covid-19 — a lightning pace for drug research, where progress is often measured in decades.

That picture has changed starkly. Advances in treating the sickest Covid patients have stalled. Since February 2021, no new therapies for the hospitalized have emerged as decisively effective, even as over 2,000 patients continue to die daily around the globe, including 300 to 500 in the U.S. * * *

[The stall is due to the fact that m]ost trials have been too small to generate decisive results. Breakthroughs in treating hospitalized patients have come exclusively from large coordinated studies run by governments, NGOs, or consortiums, often testing multiple therapies at once. 

As severe Covid grows rarer, those large studies become harder to do. The U.K.’s landmark Recovery trial, which early on demonstrated steroids were effective and hydroxychloroquine was not, is still ongoing and has expanded to new countries. But it hasn’t issued results since May and hasn’t shown a new therapy was effective since 2021

Quite a conundrum.

In monkeypox news, Fierce Healthcare tells us

New cases of monkeypox are down 50% since early August, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced in a press briefing.

The nation’s seven-day average for new cases peaked on Aug. 10, with 461 cases, and on Sept. 14 was 170, according to federal health officials. Credit for the decrease was given to education and vaccination efforts.

“We approach this news with cautious optimism,” said Rochelle Walensky, M.D., director of the CDC, at a Sept. 15 press briefing. “We continue to closely monitor data on this outbreak, those at risk, and how prevention measures are being used.”

Walensky stated that while overall growth was down, geographical pockets of the U.S. still showed an increase in cases. Over 23,000 cases of the virus have been confirmed in the U.S. as of Sept. 16.

From the maternal health front, the American Hospital Association reports

An estimated 84% of pregnancy-related deaths in 36 states between 2017 and 2019 were preventable, according to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report based on data from interdisciplinary committees that review deaths during and up to one year after pregnancy.

Among deaths with information on timing, 22% occurred during pregnancy, 25% on or within seven days of delivery, and 53% seven days to one year after pregnancy. The leading underlying causes of pregnancy-related death were cardiac and coronary conditions among Black people, mental health conditions among Hispanic and white people, and hemorrhage among Asian people.

The first data released under a CDC-funded program to support these Maternal Mortality Review Committees, the report “paints a much clearer picture of pregnancy-related deaths in this country,” said Wanda Barfield, M.D., director of CDC’s Division of Reproductive Health at the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. “The majority of pregnancy-related deaths were preventable, highlighting the need for quality improvement initiatives in states, hospitals, and communities that ensure all people who are pregnant or postpartum get the right care at the right time.”

From the healthcare costs front, Health Leaders Media discusses a Buck Consultants survey of health insurers and administrators finding rising costs in employer-sponsored plans.

In US healthcare business news –

The Wall Street Journal reports

A federal judge Monday ruled against a Justice Department antitrust challenge to UnitedHealth Group Inc.’s $13 billion acquisition of health-technology firm Change Healthcare Inc., rejecting government claims that the deal would unlawfully suppress competition and limit innovation in health-insurance markets.

U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols ruled for the companies in an opinion that he kept under seal for now because he said it “may contain competitively sensitive information.” The judge said he would release a redacted public version of the ruling in the coming days. In a one-page public order, he denied the Justice Department’s request to block the companies from completing the deal.

The lawsuit, filed in February, is an early blow to stepped-up antitrust enforcement by the Biden administration. The department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The decision is a triumph for UnitedHealth, which owns the largest U.S. health insurer and a healthcare operation that comprises thousands of doctors as well as clinics, surgery centers and other assets, along with a powerful conglomeration of health data.

Healthcare Dive adds

Humana expects to pay between $450 million and $550 million to acquire the first group of senior-focused primary care centers that it developed through a joint venture with Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe, Chief Financial Officer Susan Diamond said Friday during the insurer’s investor day.

The agreement inked with Welsh Carson in 2020 included options for Humana to acquire the private equity firm’s interest in the joint venture in stages over the next five to 10 years. The venture was expected to open 67 clinics by early 2023. “We are planning for the full acquisition of centers built in partnership with Welsh Carson through our put and call options beginning in 2025,” Diamond said.

In mid-May, Humana and Welsh Carson announced a second joint venture that will spend up to $1.2 billion to open about 100 new value-based primary care clinics for Medicare patients between 2023 and 2025 under the CenterWell Senior Primary Care brand.

From the Medicare front, STAT News relates

Chronic kidney disease, already a problem affecting millions of Americans, is only expected to become more prevalent as the country ages. For those with end-stage disease, a transplant is the ideal treatment, but dialysis is their reality. Hundreds of thousands of Americans flock to clinics three times a week to have their blood filtered through — in the absence of a functioning kidney — a machine.

As a medical treatment, dialysis is a stopgap measure that fails to fix a chronic problem (average life expectancy on dialysis is five to 10 years). As an industry, dialysis has significant flaws, including a lag in home dialysis use. Critics argue dialysis clinics have for decades shirked a responsibility to help patients get on the kidney transplant waitlist and receive organs from living donors — the gold standard. 

Now federal health officials are trying to fix those problems with a big policy experiment, using one of their biggest hammers: how dialysis providers are paid. 

That should get the dialysis providers’ attention.

From the National Institutes of Health front, the NIH Center for Alzheimer’s and Related Dementias issued an update on its work and operations.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Federal News Network identifies five federal workforce items on Congress’s to-do list.

From the omicron and siblings front, the Wall Street Journal reports

The Biden administration is planning for an end to its practice of paying for Covid-19 shots and treatments, shifting more control of pricing and coverage to the healthcare industry in ways that could generate sales for companies—and costs for consumers—for years to come. * * *

Shifting payments for Covid-19 drugs and vaccines to the commercial market is expected to take months, an HHS spokesman said.  * * *

Switching vaccine purchasing to the commercial market would mean that each insurer and pharmacy benefit manager would be negotiating with drug manufacturers and prices would likely be higher than what the federal government has paid, said Larry Levitt, executive vice president for health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. Insurers would have to start paying for the vaccines, he said, likely raising premiums.

MedPage Today informs us

More than 2 years after patients started reporting long-lasting symptoms after acute SARS-CoV-2 infection, the U.S. announced its national long COVID plan.

The National Research Action Plan on Long COVID aims to improve prevention, diagnosis, and treatment for long COVID, which currently affects up to 23 million people in the U.S., about 1 million of whom may be out of the workforce at any given time because of the condition, according to Admiral Rachel Levine, MD, HHS assistant secretary for health. * * *

Long COVID advocates expressed mixed opinions. Hannah Davis, co-founder of the Patient-Led Research Collaborative, noted the fact that “there’s going to be an [Office of Long COVID Research and Practice] is pretty amazing.”

But Davis voiced concerns about the scarcity of prevention efforts addressed by the plan. “I think there’s still a feeling like we can get through this without minimizing cases, but we really need to be focused on prevention as well,” she said.

Diana Berrent, founder of Survivor Corps, told MedPage Today that the administration “nailed the institutional challenge of long COVID” but also thought the plan was insufficient.

“Millions of Americans, young and old, are suffering the aftermath of COVID and need immediate relief from their pain,” Berrent said. “An established office in HHS is a welcome step but nothing short of actual treatments and therapeutics will do the trick.”

From the monkeypox front, Becker’s Hospital Review provides a state-by-state breakdown of monkeypox cases, and MedPage Today reports

The Biden administration is making an additional 1.8 million doses of the Jynneos monkeypox vaccine available beginning Monday, and will be targeting certain large events — such as gay pride marches that attract many LGBTQIA participants — as sites for monkeypox vaccination and outreach, administration officials said Thursday.

From the healthcare costs front, Healthcare Dive reports

U.S. employers will pay 6.5% more on average for employee healthcare coverage in 2023 compared to this year, according to an Aon report out Thursday.

The latest predicted rise, while a jump from the 3.7% growth in employer costs between 2021 and 2022, is still far below the 9.1% Consumer Price Index, a figure reflecting inflation. 

Inflation typically hits healthcare costs later than other goods and services due to the multi-year nature of contracts between providers and insurers, but impacts will become more prevalent over the year, according to the report.

Speaking of higher costs, Fierce Healthcare discusses Moody’s report on how an economic downturn would impact health plans.

From the post-Dobbs front, the FEHBlog ran across this Congressional Research Service FAQs on Federal Resources for Reproductive Health.

From the No Surprises Act front, the American Hospital Association informs us “The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has launched a new webpage with resources and guidance related to the dispute resolution process under the No Surprises Act, including guidance for disputing parties and a walkthrough of the federal portal. CMS also has added functionality to the portal for initiating disputes, including a button to upload supporting documents at initiation.”

From the miscellany department —

  • Fierce Healthcare discusses J.D. Powers’ annual study of Medicare Advantage plans. “[T]he analysts found members’ general satisfaction is up from 2021 and is higher than satisfaction reported by people in employer-sponsored plans. However, while members said they’re happy with access to preventive and routine care, coverage of mental health and substance abuse treatment is lacking.”
  • STAT News calls our attention to “a new Pew-funded report, by researchers at George Washington University, the federal government can expand methadone access without approval from Congress.” According to the article, “When it comes to fighting opioid addiction, there’s no tool more effective than methadone. Doctors have been prescribing the drug since the 1960s, and patients who use it are far less likely to experience an overdose.”

Midweek update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

From the Capitol Hill front, Health Affairs Forefront offers articles from

  • Prof. Katie Keith on the Affordable Care Act provisions in the budget reconciliation bill (H.R. 5376) that the House of Representatives will take up on Friday, and
  • Prof. Rachel Sachs on the Democrats’ drug pricing proposal in that bill.

The FEHBlog found information in Prof. Sachs’ article about the proposed $35 cap on insulin copayments.

[T]he IRA was drafted to include a $35 out-of-pocket cap on insulin not only for Medicare beneficiaries, but also for privately insured patients. The parliamentarian ruled that the application of this out-of-pocket cap to privately insured patients did not comply with the reconciliation rules. Rather than unilaterally remove this provision (as the Democrats did with the inflationary rebate provision), Democrats chose to advance the bill with the provision included. Republican Senators then chose to challenge its inclusion, and 43 Republicans voted to strip the $35 out-of-pocket cap for privately insured patients from the bill, enough to result in its removal. (Although seven Republicans voted with all 50 Democrats to keep the cap, the provision needed 60 votes to remain in the bill.)

The Hill adds “Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Monday night that he is going to bring a $35 cap on [non-Medicare] patients’ insulin costs back up for a vote this fall after Republicans blocked it over the weekend.”

Roll Call discusses the cost shifting between Medicare and other insurance programs, including the FEHBP, once the law is enacted and takes effect. Medicare does not negotiate prices with providers; it sets them.

Govexec informs us

President Biden announced on Wednesday his intent to appoint a prominent surgeon and professor who has been at the vanguard of advances in cancer treatment to lead the federal government’s main agency for cancer research and training. 

The president will appoint Dr. Monica Bertagnolli to be director of the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, which has about 4,300 employees and had a $6.35 billion budget in fiscal 2021. She is currently the Richard E. Wilson professor of surgery in the field of surgical oncology at Harvard Medical School, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and a member of the Gastrointestinal Cancer and Sarcoma Disease Centers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a top cancer hospital. Bertagnolli will be the first woman to hold this position.

“Throughout her career, Dr. Bertagnolli has been at the forefront of the field of clinical oncology, advancing, in particular, current understanding of the gene that promotes gastrointestinal cancer development,” said an announcement from the White House. “As a physician-scientist, she led gastrointestinal science initiatives from 1994 to 2011 within the [National Cancer Institute]-funded Cancer Cooperative Groups.” She also served as the chief of the division of Surgical Oncology for the Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center from 2007 to 2018. 

Good luck, Dr. Bertagnolli.

From the omicron and siblings front, Forbes reports

Pfizer and BioNTech have completed clinical trials for vaccines that include specific protection against the original omicron variant. Now the two companies have begun testing for vaccines specific to the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants, which are the fastest spreading variants of Covid-19 in the United States. Manufacturing for the new vaccines has already begun, and could be rolled out as early as October pending regulatory approvals. That’s good news as we approach the fall and winter, which have been the times of year where Covid spread is at its highest. Competitor Moderna has also begun testing an omicron-specific booster, but the FDA has not yet authorized any Omicron-specific vaccines.   

and

Researchers have identified monkey antibodies that are effective against numerous Covid variants and other coronaviruses, a discovery that could help scientists develop better vaccines and prepare for future pandemics as pharma firms race to update their shots.

If the monkey antibodies research is successful, then the WHO definitely should change monkeypox’s name.

From the medical research front, STAT News tells us

With the tumultuous rollout of Aduhelm behind them, partners Biogen and Eisai have the rare opportunity for a do-over, with all-important data on their next Alzheimer’s disease therapy expected next month.

By the end of September, the world will learn whether lecanemab, another treatment aimed at toxic brain plaques called amyloid, can significantly slow the cognitive decline that characterizes Alzheimer’s.

The outcome is vitally important for millions of patients awaiting a medicine that can meaningfully impact the disease, and success could spell a massive financial windfall for Biogen and Eisai. Failure would damage — though not destroy — the idea that targeting amyloid might ever make for an efficacious treatment.

Fingers crossed for a successful outcome.

From the U.S. healthcare business front, Fierce Healthcare reports

Amazon Care, which currently offers virtual health visits, in-person primary care visits at patients’ homes or offices and prescription delivery, is adding behavioral health care to its slate of services.

Amazon’s health service business plans to team up with teletherapy startup Ginger as an optional add-on to Amazon Care. Through the partnership, Amazon Care users will be connected to Ginger’s on-demand mental health services including behavioral health coaches, licensed therapists and psychiatrists, according to a live website about the service. * * *

The new service hasn’t launched yet, according to people familiar with the matter, Business Insider reported.

As an aside, Smart Brief discusses telemedicine in pediatrics.

Fierce Health also tells us

A company with a long history of providing medical supplies for chronic conditions is expanding its business into monitoring and coaching services for diabetes patients.

CCS, which now includes CCS Medical and CCS Health, aims to provide a more integrated experience for chronic care management, Tony Vahedian, CEO of CCS, said in an interview. * * *

“We believe we’re in the appropriate position to really take that fragmented experience and make it an integrated, seamless experience because not only can we deliver the products at the time, but we also can coach them and provide that clinical care,” the CEO noted. CCS can combine its home-delivered medical supplies business with accredited clinicians supported by proprietary data and technology to simplify the patient experience, he added. 

The company supports more than 200,000 patients living with chronic conditions in the U.S. and delivers more than 1.2 million shipments of medical supplies to patients in their own homes.

From the nudging front, Health Payer Intelligence shares another survey illustrating that participants in employer-sponsored health plans need more help with health plan literacy.

Midweek Roundup

Photo by Dane Deaner on Unsplash

From the Omicron and siblings front, MedPage Today informs us

As expected, the FDA has granted an emergency use authorization (EUA) for Novavax’s COVID-19 vaccine in adults, the agency announced on Wednesday.

The decision follows a near-unanimous FDA advisory committee recommendation more than a month ago, with the EUA reportedly delayed in order to allow regulators time to review recent changes to the vaccine’s manufacturing process.

Novavax’s product is a protein subunit vaccine that contains the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein plus an adjuvant to enhance the recipient’s immune response. The product is to be administered as a two-dose primary series given 3 weeks apart.

Becker’s Hospital Review discusses the White House’s latest Covid strategy.

From the No Surprises Act front, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management issued a carrier letter today on various NSA topics affecting FEHB carriers.

From the Rx coverage front

The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) today released a Draft Evidence Report assessing the comparative clinical effectiveness and value of subcutaneous semaglutide (Wegovy, Novo Nordisk), liraglutide (Saxenda, Novo Nordisk), phentermine/topiramate (Qsymia, Vivus Pharmaceuticals), and bupropion/naltrexone (Contrave, Currax Pharma) for the treatment of obesity. This preliminary draft marks the midpoint of ICER’s eight-month process of assessing these treatments, and the findings within this document should not be interpreted to be ICER’s final conclusions.

On July 26, 2022, as part of ICER’s Early Insights Webinar Series, ICER’s Senior Medical Advisor Francesca Beaudoin, MD, PhD, MS will present the initial findings of this draft report. This webinar is exclusively available to all users of the ICER Analytics platform; registration for the webinar is now open.

From the Dobbs front, Healthcare Dive has created a state abortion law tracker and the Department of Human Resources announced the steps that its agencies have taken to protect reproductive rights.

From the research studies department, the National Institutes of Health announced today

The percentage of methadone-involved overdose deaths relative to all drug overdose deaths declined from January 2019 to August 2021, according to a new study. Access to methadone, a medication to treat opioid use disorder, was expanded at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to allow more patients to take home doses, rather than visit a clinic daily. These data indicate that broader access to treatment was not associated with harms. While drug overdose deaths both with and without methadone increased in the month of March 2020, overdose deaths that did not involve methadone continued to increase in the months after the policy changes, while overdose deaths involving methadone held steady.

Published today in JAMA Psychiatry, this study was a collaborative effort led by researchers at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health, and the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Friday Stats and More

Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s Covid Data Tracker and using Thursday as the first day of the week, here is the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new Covid cases from the 27th week of 2021 through the 24th week of 2022:

While the CDC did not publish its weekly Covid statistical review this week, the FEHBlog can tell you that the daily new Covid hospitalization average is 4,321 for the week ended June 15, 2022. That average is 4.7% higher than the previous week.

Here’s the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new Covid deaths for the same period as new cases:

New cases and deaths are both stable. MedPage Today adds

About 4.5% of people who became infected with SARS-CoV-2 when Omicron was the dominant strain experienced long COVID symptoms, compared with 10.8% who became infected during the Delta period, reported Claire Steves, PhD, of King’s College London in England, and co-authors.

Overall odds of long COVID were about 20% to 50% less during the Omicron era — defined as December 2021 to February 2022 in this study — depending on age and time since vaccination, the researchers wrote in a letter to The Lancet.

For more information, Science discusses clues to long Covid.

Here’s the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new Covid vaccinations distributed and administered from the 51st week of 2020, when the Covid vaccination era began and the current 24th week of 2022.

Over 100,000 people aged 12 and older have received at least one booster.

The Wall Street Journal adds.

Vaccine advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discussed Friday the merits of Covid-19 shots now authorized for children as young as 6 months. * * *

The committee is scheduled to discuss further the case for recommending giving the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna shots to young children, and then vote on the matter Saturday.

The Biden administration has said the shots could be made available as soon as Monday, should regulators give their assent.

The federal government has begun shipping millions of doses to doctor’s offices, children’s hospitals and pharmacies, President Biden said after the FDA’s authorizations.

From the Rx coverage front, STAT News and Medical Economics update us on the federal government’s investigation of prescription benefit managers. Notably, STAT News reports

Amid intensifying scrutiny of pharmacy benefit managers, a group of House Republicans is urging the U.S. Government Accountability Office [via a June 17 letter] to investigate the role these controversial middlemen play in the opaque pharmaceutical pricing system.

From the Federal Trade Commission front, Healthcare Dive tells us that the FTC has obtained several victories over the past week in its legal challenges to hospital system mergers in New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Utah.

From the No Surprises Act front, reginfo.gov informs us that on June 15, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs received for review the NSA regulators’ final rule on the independent dispute resolution process. OIRA review is the last step before the rule is published in the Federal Register. The healthcare provider associations mounted a successful legal challenge to the interim final rule’s treatment of the qualifying payment amount as a rebuttable presumption at the arbitration stage.

From the HIPAA standard transactions front, a Health and Human Services workgroup has issued guidance on how payers can help providers associate electronic explanations of benefits with electronic payments.

From the U.S. healthcare front, Kaiser Health News and a WTW study delve into the widespread related problems of medical debt and deferred care. On the bright side, the National Institutes of Health reports that flexible work schedules and paid sick leave improves employee access to healthcare.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Roll Call reports

The Senate on Thursday took a major step toward broadening America’s commitment to take care of sick veterans, passing a bill to offer new health care and tax-free disability benefits to as many as 3.5 million veterans on an 84-14 vote.

Under the legislation written by Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., and ranking member Jerry Moran, R-Kan., the Department of Veterans Affairs would consider a veteran with any of 23 conditions, ranging from brain cancer to hypertension, who was deployed to a combat zone during the wars in Iraq or in Afghanistan automatically eligible for care at government cost, based on the presumption that exposure to toxic chemicals in the war zone caused the ailments.

The House must now pass the revised bill before President Joe Biden can sign it, which seems likely. The legislation largely mirrors, and slightly expands on, a House bill by Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., that passed 256-174 in March. Biden issued a statement at the time saying he supported the measure.

Under current law, veterans who believe toxic exposure during their service caused them to develop a disease can have trouble proving it, even when the linkage is known. So it’s likely that many veterans are denied care and disability benefits they deserve, advocates say. The new law, at a projected cost of $278.5 billion over 10 years, shifts the calculus, meaning the government will now pay for the care of veterans whose sickness is tied to their service, as well as others whose ailments might not be.

Because the federal government employs many veterans, this bill will reduce benefits costs for the FEHB Program once it becomes law.

From the Omicron and siblings front, the Wall Street Journal informs us

Many people are embarking on a summer of vacations, concerts and weddings put off during the height of the pandemic. Covid-19 is still finding ways to disrupt some of those plans.

Covid-19 isn’t causing acute illness and death on the scale it once did, thanks in part to protection built up by vaccines and prior infections.  * * *

The U.S. is logging some 100,000 known cases a day, and many more are being detected via at-home tests health departments don’t track. This is a stark difference from a year ago, when U.S. cases sank below 12,000 a day, the lowest level since the first surge, as vaccinations rose and many hoped the virus was in retreat.

The era of 12,000 cases a day was over when Delta and then Omicron arrived and will remain around until Omicron departs.

From the Rx coverage front —

STAT News tells us

In a notable move, the Federal Trade Commission put drugmakers and pharmacy benefit managers on notice that the agency will “ramp up enforcement” of any “illegal bribes and rebate schemes” that make it harder for patients to access lower-cost medicines.

The new policy statement noted the FTC plans to scrutinize rebates and assorted fees for signs that these payments are violating antitrust and consumer protection laws. As part of that effort, the agency expects to monitor lawsuits and file its own legal briefs in cases where it can provide assistance in analyzing illegal practices that may raise prescription drug prices.

“Today’s action should put the entire prescription drug industry on notice: when we see illegal rebate practices that foreclose competition and raise prescription drug costs for families, we won’t hesitate to bring our full authorities to bear,” said FTC Chair Lina Khan in a statement. “Protecting Americans from unlawful business practices that are raising drug prices is a top priority for the Commission.”

While the end of Omicron is not in the offing, the end of prescription drug rebates appears to be getting closer. However, the federal government should not put the kibosh on rebates unless the drug manufacturers agree to maintain the economic equities by offering price reductions equivalent to the rebates.

In other FTC news, BioPharma Dive reports

Drugmaker acquisitions of all sizes could receive closer scrutiny in the future if the Federal Trade Commission follows the advice of experts who spoke at a two-day agency meeting on market concentration and anticompetitive conduct.

The experts, mostly economists and other antitrust regulators, warned that some drugmakers have gained unfair market power due to the breadth of their product portfolios, allowing them to negotiate for preferred or even exclusive status on insurers’ coverage lists and thereby squeeze out competitors.

Taken together with the FTC’s plans to investigate the practices of pharmacy benefit managers, the meeting signals the Biden administration may take a tougher line on monopolistic practices in an effort to spark competition and target drug pricing.

From the Food and Drug Administration front, BioPharma Dive notes that

An experimental and closely followed drug for Alzheimer’s disease has failed a key clinical study, dealing yet another blow to the prevailing theory on how to treat a neurodegenerative illness that affects millions of people.

The drug’s developer, Roche, along with Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, the Phoenix-based organization helping lead the study, announced the negative results Thursday. After years following a family believed to be genetically predisposed to the disease, researchers found no significant difference in cognition or the ability to store and retrieve new memories between participants who received the drug and those who got placebo.

The failure is an upset not only to Roche, which hopes to follow its rival Biogen in getting an Alzheimer’s therapy approved for market, but also to the wider Alzheimer’s research field. For years, a protein called beta amyloid has been at the center of efforts to treat the disease. But every drug designed to block this protein, including Biogen’s, has faced setbacks. Roche’s announcement may therefore add to concerns that this protein isn’t the best research target.

In other drug research news, Walgreens announced “the launch of its clinical trial business to redefine the patient experience and increase access and retention in sponsor-led drug development research. Walgreen’s flexible clinical trial model combines the company’s vast foundation of patient insights, partner-enabled health and technology capabilities and in-person and virtual care options to break through barriers to engaging broader and more diverse communities.”

In U.S healthcare news, the American Medical Association completed its annual meeting. The AMA offers highlights from the session here.

Also, the Commonwealth Fund released its 2022 Scorecard on State Health System Performance.

Hawaii and Massachusetts top the 2022 State Scorecard rankings, based on overall performance across 56 measures of health care access and quality, service use and cost, health disparities, and health outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The lowest-performing states were Mississippi, Oklahoma, and West Virginia.

The National Institutes of Health disclosed

From 2000-2019 overall life expectancy in the United States increased by 2.3 years, but the increase was not consistent among racial and ethnic groups and by geographic area. In addition, most of these gains were prior to 2010. This is according to a new study funded by the National Institutes of Health that examined trends in life expectancy at the county level. The study was led by researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, Seattle, in collaboration with researchers from NIH and published on June 16th in The Lancet.

MedCity News reports “Online healthcare marketplace Sesame closed a $27 million Series B funding round on Tuesday, bringing its total funding to $75 million. David Goldhill, CEO of the New York City-based startup, said the company is ‘an Expedia for medical care’ because patients can buy the care they want directly online, without the middleman of an insurance company.”

From the federal employee benefits front, Govexec delves into the impact of cost of living adjustments on federal employee retirement benefits.

Midweek Update

From the Omicron and siblings front —

Health Day informs us

COVID-19 might be easing into a new status as a widely circulating and somewhat harsher version of the common cold, experts say — a virus that folks could contract repeatedly, even if they were recently infected.

“[SARS-CoV-2] is destined to join four of its family members and become an endemic coronavirus that will repeatedly infect individuals throughout their lifetimes,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, of Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, referring to the four circulating coronaviruses that cause the common cold.

“It will become one of several respiratory viruses that people contend with, and will become increasingly less disruptive and more manageable with medical countermeasures and the population’s risk acclimatization,” he added.

The FEHBlog recently has pointed out unusual disease cases involving childhood hepatitis , monkeypox, a flu spike, etc. STAT News seeks to put these unusual cases in perspective.

These viruses are not different than they were before, but we are. For one thing, because of Covid restrictions, we have far less recently acquired immunity; as a group, more of us are vulnerable right now. And that increase in susceptibility, experts suggest, means we may experience some … wonkiness as we work toward a new post-pandemic equilibrium with the bugs that infect us. * * *

Marion Koopmans, head of the department of viroscience at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, said she believes we may be facing a period when it will difficult to know what to expect from the diseases that we thought we understood.

“I do think that’s possible,” Koopmans said.

This phenomenon, the disruption of normal patterns of infections, may be particularly pronounced for diseases where children play an important role in the dissemination of the bugs, she suggested.

Ruh roh.

From the Rx coverage front, Fierce Healthcare reports

Prime Therapeutics cut per member per month drug costs by 26% in one year through its MedDrive program, which leverages biosimilars to help drive down expenses.

The program uses advanced analytics to flag ways that health plans can cut down drug spend, with a particular focus on the potential of biosimilars. Pharmacy benefit managers are betting on biosimilar products to introduce new competition to popular branded products and drive down costs.

Prime, which serves 33 million members across 23 Blue Cross Blue Shield plans, first launched MedDrive in May 2021 and in its first year the program drove savings by focusing on just three biosimilar categories, the PBM said. Cancer drugs led the way for savings.

The International Foundation of Employee Benefits Plans adds

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the availability of a final guidance for industry entitled “Importation of Prescription Drugs Final Rule Questions and Answers.” The guidance is intended to help small entities comply with the final rule entitled “Importation of Prescription Drugs.” The final rule was issued to implement a provision of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) to allow importation of certain prescription drugs from Canada.

In OPM news, OPM announced a group of new staff appointees at the agency today including a new General Counsel and a new Deputy General Counsel.

From the miscellany department —

  • Rebecca G. Baker, Ph.D., the director of the NIH HEAL Initiative, shares insights gained from the Third Annual HEAL Investigators Meeting. HEAL is an NIH branch that focus on creating solutions to the opioid epidemic.
  • EHR Intelligence discusses how a National Patient Identifier could boost population health. It is mystifying that Congress has not released funds for this important initiative.
  • The Medical Group Management Association identifies four ways medical groups can remove barriers to mammography compliance.
  • Health Payer Intelligence outlines 2022 actions today by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

Despite rising availability in online transparency tools, consumers remain unsure about costs and avoid care as a result, a new survey has found.

The annual consumer sentiment survey was conducted in January 2022 by Healthsparq, a health tech company, and reached more than 1,000 insured Americans. Transparency tools were defined as those provided by payers such as in-network provider search, cost estimates and information on treatment. 

The majority (70%) of respondents knew that their health plan offered these, up from 49% last year, and most had used them in the past year. They also said this access helps them better understand their coverage and manage costs. Yet nearly half reported avoiding care due to unclear costs, up from a quarter last year. Care avoidance was even more pronounced among those under the age of 34, at 63%. 

Mark Menton, Healthsparq’s general manager, told Fierce Healthcare he suspects that is because the tools exist, but consumers do not know how to access the information.

“I think that’s a hurdle we as an industry need to overcome,” Menton said. “They don’t know where to find this information.” 

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Fierce Healthcare reports

New bipartisan legislation introduced in the Senate aims to empower the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to crack down on pharmacy benefit manager practices such as spread pricing.

The legislation, introduced Tuesday, comes as the PBM industry faces other areas of reform, including a proposed rule to get rid of clawback fees PBMs can charge pharmacies after the drug is dispensed.

Lawmakers said federal agencies need more power, though, to rein in PBM practices. 

From the No Surprises Act (“NSA”) front, AHIP and the Blue Cross Association inform us

A recent survey and analysis conducted by AHIP and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA) found that in the first two months of 2022, the NSA prevented more than 2,000,000 potential surprise medical bills across all commercially insured patients. If only a fraction of these claims are ultimately disputed through IDR, it would still far exceed the government’s estimate. Should the trend hold, more than 12,000,000 surprise bills will be avoided in 2022 due to the NSA.

The law is working to protect millions of consumers from costly surprise bills and yet several hospital and provider organizations have filed lawsuits challenging the NSA regulations and legislation in order to increase their own profits at patients’ expense. Recent polling conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of the Coalition Against Surprise Medical Billing found that 8 in 10 voters, after learning about the NSA, are concerned that lawsuits from physician and hospital organizations could delay or overturn the patient protections in the Act.

The findings of the AHIP-BCBSA survey are important to demonstrate how many consumers have already benefitted from the NSA and to underscore the extent of total claims that could be impacted if the IDR process is not a predictable process with payment amounts that trend towards market rates.

That’s great news.

In public health news, the American Hospital Association tells us ‘

U.S. births rose 1% in 2021 to about 3.7 million, the first increase since 2014, according to preliminary data released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Birth rates declined for women aged 15-24 and rose for women aged 25-49. The cesarean delivery rate rose 0.3 percentage point to 32.1%, while the preterm birth rate rose 4% to 10.48%, the highest rate since 2007, CDC said.

From the Omicron and siblings front

  • Reuters reports “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration set June 14-15 as the new meeting date to review Moderna Inc’s emergency authorization request for its COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 6 months to 5 years and Pfizer Inc’s vaccine for those aged 6 months through 4 years.”
  • Precision Vaccines tells us “The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued today Health Alert Network Health Advisory CDCHAN-00467 to update healthcare providers, public health departments, and the public on the potential for recurrence of COVID-19 or “COVID-19 Rebound.”  COVID-19 Rebound cases have been reported to occur between two and 8 days after initial recovery. They are characterized by a recurrence of COVID-19 symptoms or a new positive viral test after testing negative.  A brief return of symptoms may be part of the natural history of SARS-CoV-2 (the beta coronavirus that causes COVID-19) infection in some persons, independent of treatment with Paxlovid and regardless of vaccination status.” STAT News offers a more detailed article on this topic for those interested.

In other virus news, the Hill informs us

Officials for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Monday said the agency is releasing doses of a smallpox vaccine in response to the few recent cases of monkeypox that have been detected in the U.S. Jennifer McQuiston, the deputy director for the CDC’s Division of High Consequence Pathogens and Pathology, said during a press briefing that more than a thousand doses of the Jynneos smallpox vaccine are currently available in the U.S., with more doses expected to become available as production ramps up. * * * The vaccines will be designated for people who are most likely to benefit from them, McQuiston said, including those who are known to have had close contact with monkeypox patients, health care workers and people who would be at high risk of developing a severe case of the disease.

From the healthcare business front, Beckers Hospital News identifies Walmart’s 18 Centers of Excellence in the U.S.

In National Institutes of Health news, NIH Reseach Matters discusses antioxidant effects on dementia risk and how the health benefits of dietary fibers depend on the fiber type, the amount, and the individual.”