Midweek update

Midweek update

From our Nation’s capital, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra made a statement honoring Black History Month which began today.

The Wall Street Journal reports

President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy began face-to-face debt-ceiling discussions [today], with the latter expressing cautious optimism that they can come to a deal to avoid the first-ever default of the country’s debt.

The Hill tells us

  • Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has pulled Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who tried to oust him as the Senate’s top Republican in a bruising leadership race, off the powerful Commerce Committee.  
  • McConnell also removed Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who supported Scott’s bid to replace McConnell as leader, from the Commerce panel, which has broad jurisdiction over a swath of federal agencies.  

Speaking of federal agencies, Healthcare Dive informs us

The Federal Trade Commission is penalizing GoodRx for sharing users’ sensitive health information with advertisers, in the agency’s first enforcement action under the Health Breach Notification Rule.

The FTC filed an order with the Department of Justice on Wednesday that would prohibit GoodRx from sharing user health data with third parties for advertising purposes, among other guardrails. GoodRx has also agreed to pay a $1.5 million fine, though the company admitted no wrongdoing. The order needs to be approved by a federal court in order to go into effect.

Also, the President issued a Statement of Administration Policy objecting to Republican legislative efforts to end the national and public health emergencies for the Covid pandemic without further delay. The Statement explains why the White House has opted to end those emergencies on May 11.

In that regard, Health Payer Intelligence notes

CMS announced that there will be a special enrollment period on the Affordable Care Act marketplace for individuals who lose their Medicaid coverage due to the public health emergency unwinding.

“Today, CMS is announcing a Marketplace Special Enrollment Period (SEP) for qualified individuals and their families who lose Medicaid or CHIP coverage due to the end of the continuous enrollment condition, also known as ‘unwinding,’” the FAQ sheet explained.

The special enrollment period will stretch from March 31, 2023 to July 31, 2024. In order to be eligible for the special enrollment period, individuals must be eligible for Affordable Care Act marketplace coverage and must have lost their Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), or Basic Health Program (BHP) coverage.

From the Omicron and siblings front, Beckers Hospital Review points out

The FDA altered its emergency use authorizations on Paxlovid and Lagevrio, two COVID-19 treatments, on Feb. 1 to revoke a requirement for a positive COVID-19 test before a provider can prescribe them. 

“The agency continues to recommend that providers use direct SARS-CoV-2 viral testing to help diagnose COVID-19,” the FDA said in an emailed statement. But, “in rare instances, individuals with a recent known exposure (e.g., a household contact) who develop signs and symptoms consistent with COVID-19 may be diagnosed by their healthcare provider as having COVID-19” even if they test negative.

From the public health front —

  • The Commonwealth Fund issued a report titled “U.S. Health Care from a Global Perspective, 2022: Accelerating Spending, Worsening Outcomes.” The FEHBlog’s perception is quite sunny compared to this gloomy report.
  • The National Institutes of Health is celebrating American Heart Month.
  • The National Cancer Institute offers an interesting newsletter on its work.
  • The Wall Street considers dangerous fungi that are infecting people as a result of climate change.

From the No Surprises Act front, according to Healthcare Dive, the Texas Medical Association has filed a fourth lawsuit concerning the law. This time the TMA objects to the regulators’ entirely appropriate decision to increase the arbitration administration fee from $100 split between the parties to $700 similarly split. The arbitration or IDRE process was being bombarded with arbitration requests from providers. The fee increase will focus more provider attention on the open negotiation period that precedes the arbitration. “The suit also challenges the laws’ restrictions on batching claims, which allows arbitration processes only on claims with the same service code, requiring providers to go through a separate payment dispute process for each claim related to an individual’s care episode, according to the suit.” Quelle domage.

From the U.S. healthcare business front

  • Beckers Payer Issues reports, “Humana posted revenues of nearly $93 billion in 2022 and a net loss of $15 million in the most recent quarter, according to its year-end earnings report published Feb. 1.  The company also appointed Steward Health Care President Sanjay Shetty, MD, to lead its healthcare services business, CenterWell, which includes pharmacy dispensing, provider and home health services. Dr. Shetty will start April 1. In addition, the company promoted its Medicare president, George Renaudin, to president of Medicare and Medicaid, effective immediately.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review examines whether Amazon can disrupt the pharmacy industry.

From the Medicare front, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released

the Calendar Year (CY) 2024 Advance Notice of Methodological Changes for Medicare Advantage (MA) Capitation Rates and Part C and Part D Payment Policies (the Advance Notice). CMS will accept comments on the CY 2024 Advance Notice through Friday, March 3, 2023. CMS will carefully consider timely comments received before publishing the final Rate Announcement by April 3, 2023.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Roll Call reports

The Biden administration will send its budget for the next fiscal year up to Capitol Hill on March 9, according to a memo from top White House aides.

That’s about a month later than the statutory deadline, which is the first Monday in February, though that target is often missed and there’s no penalty for doing so.

National Econonic Council Director Brian Deese and Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young laid out the timing in a memo to “interested parties” that also discussed agenda topics for Wednesday’s scheduled meeting between President Joe Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

The memo, first reported by ABC News, said Biden will ask McCarthy to “commit to the bedrock principle that the United States will never default on its financial obligations,” a reference to the upcoming fight over the statutory debt ceiling. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has warned that the U.S. could be in danger of missed payments by early June if Congress doesn’t act to raise or suspend the $31.4 trillion debt limit.

The memo also says Biden will urge McCarthy and House Republicans to release their own fiscal 2024 budget blueprint that spells out the spending cuts they want to attach to any debt limit deal and how their budget will balance if they plan to extend expiring tax cuts.

Senator Tina Smith (D MN) and a bipartisan group of colleagues sent several large health insurers a letter requesting answers to questions about ghost networks. It turns out the ghost networks are online provider directories with errors. The FEHBlog thinks that the Senators should be pressuring the No Surprises Act regulators to implement the provider directory accuracy provision in that law.

From the Omicron and siblings front, the New York Times explores why Paxlovid, a reliable treatment, is underprescribed by doctors.

Doctors prescribed it in about 45 percent of recorded Covid cases nationwide during the first two weeks of January, according to White House data. In some states, Paxlovid is given in less than 25 or even 20 percent of recorded cases. (Those are likely overestimates because cases are underreported.)

Why is Paxlovid still relatively untapped? Part of the answer lies in a lack of public awareness. Some Covid patients also may decide that they don’t need Paxlovid because they are already vaccinated, have had Covid before or are younger. (My colleagues explained why even mild cases often still warrant a dose of Paxlovid.) * * *

Experts have increasingly pointed to another explanation for Paxlovid’s underuse: Doctors still resist prescribing it. Today’s newsletter will focus on that cause.

Some doctors have concerns that are rooted in real issues with Paxlovid and inform their reluctance to prescribe it. But experts are unconvinced that those fears are enough to avoid prescribing Paxlovid altogether, especially to older and higher-risk patients.

“What I’m doing for a living is weighing the benefits and the risks for everything,” said Dr. Robert Wachter, the chair of the medicine department at the University of California, San Francisco. In deciding whether to prescribe Paxlovid, he said, the benefits significantly outweigh the risks.

This isn’t very encouraging.

From the U.S. healthcare business front —

Beckers Hospital Review reports

Six years after regulators approved Amjevita, a biosimilar to the nation’s most lucrative drug, Humira, Amgen’s drug jumped on the U.S. market Jan. 31 with two list prices.

The biosimilar to AbbVie’s most profitable drug will either cost 5 percent or 55 percent less than Humira’s price, according to Amgen. Humira costs $6,922 for a month’s supply, meaning Amjevita’s price — depending on the buyer — will be $6,576 or $3,115. The higher price is designed to entice pharmacy benefit managers, and the lower one is for payers, according to Bloomberg

As Humira’s 20-year, $114 billion, 247-patent-strong monopoly ends with the first biosimilar, more copycat versions are set to premiere in the next few months.

STAT News dives deeper into the implications of Amgen’s pricing approach.

AHIP responded yesterday to CMS’s final Medicare Advantage plan audit rule.

“Our view remains unchanged: This rule is unlawful and fatally flawed, and it should have been withdrawn instead of finalized. The rule will hurt seniors, reduce health equity, and discriminate against those who need care the most. Further, the rule would raise prices for seniors and taxpayers, reduce benefits for those who choose MA, and yield fewer plan options in the future. 

“We encourage CMS to work with us, continuing our shared public-private partnership for the health and financial stability of the American people. Together, we can identify solutions that are fair, are legally sound, and ensure uninterrupted access to care and benefits for MA enrollees.” 

Is the next step the courthouse?

Money Magazine offers a list of hospitals that provide bariatric surgery with Leapfrog safety grades.

From the mental healthcare front, Fierce Healthcare tells us

Parents can now be added alongside providers, health insurers and employers to the list of stakeholders with growing concerns about mental health, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.

The study found that 40% of parents call the fact that their children might be struggling with anxiety and depression their No. 1 concern—something they’re extremely or very worried about—followed by 35% of parents who put the fear that their children are being bullied into that category.

From the tidbits department —

  • The NY Times lists ten nutrition myths that experts wish would be forgotten.
  • The NIH Directors blog explains why a “New 3D Atlas of Colorectal Cancer Promises Improved Diagnosis, Treatment.”
  • The National Association of Plan Advisors points out that “Despite a rebound in out-of-pocket health care spending in 2021, health savings account (HSA) balances increased on average over the course of the year, the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) recently found. Its analysis of HSA balances, contributions, and distributions also found, “patients sought health care services more frequently in 2021—and spent more out of pocket, as well—than they did in 2020, yet the average end-of-year balance was higher than the average beginning-of-year balance.”

Happy Days are Here Again!

OPM Headquarters a/k/a the Theodore Roosevelt Building

The FEHBlog was delighted to read today that OPM is encouraging FEHB carriers that OPM is encouraging FEHB carriers to incorporate Medicare Part D EGWPs in their plans for 2024. The FEHBlog has been encouraging this step for years, as readers must know.

The Medicare Part D EGWPs will cushion the FEHBP against the expenses of drugs to treat Alzheimer’s Disease and other illnesses that impact annuitants over age 65. While there are many factors at play in determining premiums, this factor standing alone would lower premiums. Thank you, OPM.

From the Omicron and siblings front, the New York Times virus briefing newsletter wished its readers well today.

Now, after three years, we’re pausing this newsletter. The acute phase of the pandemic has faded in much of the world, and many of us have tried to pick up the pieces and move on. We promise to return to your inbox if the pandemic takes a sharp turn. But, for now, this is goodbye.

The American Hospital Association informs us

In a study released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC}, a single bivalent COVID-19 vaccine booster provided additional protection against omicron XBB variants in adults who previously received two to four monovalent vaccine doses. XBB-related variants account for over half of currently circulating COVID-19 variants in the United States.

“All persons should stay up to date with recommended COVID-19 vaccines, including receiving a bivalent booster dose when eligible,” the authors conclude.

and

The CDC yesterday launched a website to help consumers locate no-cost COVID-19 testing through its Increasing Community Access to Testing program, which includes pharmacies, commercial laboratories and other sites that bill the tests to government and private insurers and focus on vulnerable communities. The tests may include laboratory-based nucleic acid amplification tests and rapid antigen point-of-care tests, with results typically provided in 24-48 hours.

From the public health front

  • The Hill tells us about a CDC internal reorganization.
  • The HHS Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research provides us with an infographic and report about the three most commonly treated illnesses among older adults — hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and arthritis / other joint disorders
  • Fierce Healthcare relates, “The Biden administration is planning to release three to four new payment models on advance primary care and another enabling states to assume the total cost of care for Medicare, a top official shared.”
  • HHS’s HEAL Program Director, Dr. Rebecca Baker, discusses “Research That Offers Hope to End Addiction Long-Term.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front

Healthcare Dive reports

Elevance Health, one of the nation’s largest insurers, added more members in 2022, fueled by growth in its government business thanks to continued relaxed eligibility rules on enrollment.  

Elevance ended the year covering 47.5 million people, a nearly 5% increase from the prior-year period, driven largely by growth in Medicaid members.

In turn, total revenue climbed 13% to nearly $157 billion for the year as the insurer collected higher premium revenue from its Medicaid plans.   

Net income dipped about 1% to $6 billion for the full year as expenses climbed about 14%.  

and

The CMS announced Wednesday that a record-breaking 16.3 million people signed up for Affordable Care Act marketplace plans during the 2023 open enrollment season, a result of extended pandemic-era subsidies enacted by the American Rescue Plan.

Over 1.8 million more people enrolled in marketplace coverage compared to last year — a 13% increase, and the most amount of plan selections of any year since the launch of the ACA marketplace a decade ago, according to the CMS. The record-breaking enrollment numbers include 3.6 million first-time marketplace enrollees.

STAT News tells us

The claims have become almost ubiquitous. Hospital CEO after hospital CEO stands at a podium and promises the merger being announced will improve quality and lower costs.

Once deals close, though, there tends to be little, if any, follow-up to determine whether those things actually happened. A new Journal of the American Medical Association study adds to the growing body of evidence that they don’t. The authors looked across a large swath of the country’s hospitals and physicians found that while quality did improve marginally, the prices paid for services delivered by health system hospitals and doctors was significantly higher than their non-system peers.

“You start to feel really hopeful when you hear about this, ‘Yeah, we can really improve health care,’ and then when you look at it, it’s just not there,” said Nancy Beaulieu, a study author and research associate in Harvard Medical School’s department of health care policy.

Ruh roh.

On related note, Fierce Healthcare informs us

A top insurance lobbying group plans to press Congress this session to adopt legislation that expands the footprint of site-neutral payment reform, setting up a likely clash with hospital groups. 

The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA), which represents 38 Blues plans, released several policy priorities for the current Congress as part of a new report Tuesday. Some of the policies focus on changing Medicare reimbursement rates to pay the same amount to clinics whether they are independent or affiliated with a hospital. Other reforms focus on prescription drugs and spurring more participation in value-based care. 

“We’re very concerned about the increasing acquisition of physician practices by hospitals in the healthcare system,” said Kris Haltmeyer, vice president of policy analysis for BCBSA, during a reporter briefing Tuesday. 

One of the association’s major priorities is to pass a bill that would remove a grandfathering provision in the 2015 Balanced Budget Act. The provision shielded certain hospital outpatient departments from billing limits established in the law, with the exception of emergency departments. 

The association also wants to require off-campus hospital sites to get a different national provider identifier than the main facility campus. They should also use a different claim form for any professional service rendered in an office or clinic owned by a hospital but not on the campus. 

Go get ’em.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Federal News Network discusses two bipartisan bills affecting federal hiring practices and federal retirement annuities that are under active consideration.

From the Postal Service Health Benefits Program front, it appears to the FEHBlog that OPM has been adding to its PSHBP FAQs without giving the public an online heads-up when an addition occurs, e.g., last updated xx/xx/xxxx.

From the public health front

  • The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force released for public comment a draft inconclusive (“I”) recommendation “that the current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of screening for lipid disorders in children and adolescents age 20 years or younger.” This proposed action would confirm the ongoing vitality of a 2016 recommendation. The public comment deadline is February 21.
  • The National Institutes of Health discusses its approach to “shouldering the burden of rare diseases.” NIH notes “While individually each disease is rare, collectively rare diseases are common: More than 10,000 rare diseases affect nearly 400 million people worldwide. In the United States, the prevalence of rare diseases (over 30 million people) rivals or exceeds that of common diseases such as diabetes (37.3 million people), Alzheimer’s disease (6.5 million people), and heart failure (6.2 million people).”
  • STAT News discusses legal developments in the FDA’s practices of approving “orphan drugs” to treat rare diseases. “In an unexpected move, the Food and Drug Administration will continue to apply exclusive marketing rights for so-called orphan drugs under its existing regulations, rather than take a broader approach suggested by a federal court in a highly controversial case involving one such medicine.”
  • Fierce Healthcare reports “The White House, federal agencies and lawmakers today marked the elimination of the DATA-Waiver Program, better known as the X-Waiver requirement, with calls for providers to begin incorporating opioid use disorder treatment buprenorphine in everyday patient care. The X-Waiver requirement only permitted doctors who had received specialized training and federal permissions to prescribe the opioid partial agonist, which is a controlled substance.”

From the Rx coverage front —

  • Segal Consulting offers plan sponsors its analysis of weight loss drugs to treat diabetes and obesity.
  • Fierce Healthcare tells us about Amazon’s new RxPass program and adds that Optum Rx “launched a new tool that aims to make it easier to compare the direct-to-consumer price for generic drugs to the price with insurance.” RxPass is not available to Medicare or Medicaid beneficiaries and “is not currently available to send medications to California, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington.”

Midweek Update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Roll Call reports that Senator Joe Manchin (D W Va) “has talked “briefly” with Speaker Kevin McCarthy about a bill he co-sponsored with Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, in the last Congress to create a “rescue committee” for every endangered government trust fund, like the Social Security, Medicare and highway trust funds.

The Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan research group, named Romney and Manchin as its 2022 Economic Patriot Awards honorees because of their work on the legislation. 

The bill, which they have yet to reintroduce in the 118th Congress, would allow the top four congressional leaders to appoint three members each for every rescue committee and give lawmakers on the panels 180 days to come up with policy solutions for solvency.

Any legislation the rescue committees produce would be subject to expedited procedures for floor consideration; it couldn’t be amended but would require 60 Senate votes to advance to final passage. 

Keep hope alive.

From the Omicron and siblings front —

The Wall Street Journal reports

Moderna Inc. plans to expand its mRNA vaccine production capacity, saying shots targeting different pathogens can be made in the same facility, Chief Executive Stephane Bancel said.

“This is what gives me hope, not only for [coronavirus] variants, but also for other vaccines,” Mr. Bancel said on a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.  * * *

The company was able to roll out booster shots adapted to the Omicron variant in 60 days, according to Mr. Bancel.

That would be helpful assuming the FDA and CDC are on board.

The American Hospital Association lets us know

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention yesterday released a dashboard tracking hospitalization rates for laboratory-confirmed COVID-19, flu and Respiratory Syncytial Virus by age group, sex, race/ethnicity, state and season based on data from select counties in 13 states, which the agency will update weekly. CDC also released another dashboard tracking weekly emergency department visits for COVID-19, flu and RSV by age group and percent of all ED visits based on data from the National Syndromic Surveillance Program.

In other vaccine news, the National Institutes of Health announced today

An investigational HIV vaccine regimen tested among men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender people was safe but did not provide protection against HIV acquisition, an independent data and safety monitoring board (DSMB) has determined. The HPX3002/HVTN 706, or “Mosaico,” Phase 3 clinical trial began in 2019 and involved 3,900 volunteers ages 18 to 60 years in Europe, North America and South America. Based on the DSMB’s recommendation, the study will be discontinued. Participants are being notified of the findings, and further analyses of the study data are planned.

Janssen Vaccines & Prevention B.V., part of the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson, sponsored the Mosaico study with funding support from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health. The trial was conducted by the NIAID-funded HIV Vaccine Clinical Trials Network, based at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. The U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command provided additional study support.

Keep trying.

Also from the public health front

Gallup informs us “The percentage of Americans reporting they or a family member postponed medical treatment in 2022 due to cost rose 12 points in one year, to 38%, the highest in Gallup’s 22-year trend.” The story concludes

With high inflation creating moderate to severe hardship for a majority of Americans in the second half of 2022, their reports of delaying medical care in general due to cost — as well as delaying care for a serious condition — rose sharply to new highs. Young adults, those in lower-income households and women were especially likely to say they or a family member had put off medical care.

No bueno.

From the U.S. healthcare business front, McKinsey & Co. tells us

When we last looked at the trajectory of the US healthcare industry in our July 2022 article, “The future of US healthcare: What’s next for the industry post-COVID-19?,” we had emerging concerns about what persistent inflation could cause.1 It is now clear that inflation is not transitory and that the economic outlook has meaningfully darkened.2 These economic troubles, combined with a healthcare-worker shortage and endemic COVID-19, are clouding the industry outlook. In an accompanying article, we update how these changes could affect payers, providers, healthcare services and technology (HST), and pharmacy services.

Check it out.

From the Medicare front, Fierce Healthcare relates

Enrollment in Medicare Advantage (MA) has topped 30 million, according to new data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

This represents coverage across 776 contracts, according to the data, as of Jan. 1 payments, which reflect enrollments accepted through Dec. 2. Enrollment in standalone prescription drug plans was also about 22.7 million, bringing total enrollment across all types of private Medicare plans to nearly 50.3 million.

This represents growth of about 2 million from 2022. An analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that enrollment in MA plans was about 28 million last year. 

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From the public health front, the Wall Street Journal reports

The cancer mortality rate in the U.S. has dropped by a third in the past three decades, a report showed, but an increase in advanced prostate cancer diagnoses threatens to reverse some hard-won gains.  

The American Cancer Society said Thursday that changes in preventive measures and screening in the past decade drove important trends in U.S. cancer incidence and outcomes. Cervical cancer rates dropped 65% from 2012 to 2019 among women in their early 20s after a generation of young women were vaccinated against human papillomavirus, or HPV, for the first time.

But a decline in the use of a controversial test for prostate cancer likely led to more men getting diagnosed at later stages, the report found, with the highest incidence and mortality among Black men. The ACS said it would invest in research on prostate cancer and programs to boost access to quality screening and treatment. 

“There’s a significant call to arms,” said Karen Knudsen, ACS’s chief executive officer. We are not catching these cancers early when we have an opportunity to cure men of prostate cancer.” 

The report was published in the journal CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. The authors at ACS analyzed federal and state cancer registries for data on cancer rates through 2019 and federal mortality data through 2020, the report said.

From the Omicron and siblings front, Bloomberg Prognosis tells us

The effects of long Covid tend to resolve within a year of mild infection, with vaccinated people at lower risk of breathing difficulties compared with unvaccinated people, according to a study.

Researchers examined the health records of almost 2 million people in Israel who tested for Covid-19 over a 19-month period. Over 70 long Covid conditions were analyzed within a group of infected and matched uninfected members. They also compared conditions in vaccinated versus unvaccinated people.

Their study published in the BMJ medical journal found most symptoms that developed after a mild infection lingered for several months, but returned to normal within a year.

“The long Covid phenomenon has been feared and discussed since the beginning of the pandemic,” the researchers wrote. “This nationwide dataset of patients with mild Covid-19 suggests that mild disease does not lead to serious or chronic long term morbidity.” 

Previous studies have indicated that vaccination tends to lead to milder cases of Covid infection and long Covid

From the Rx coverage front, STAT News informs us

Medicare officials have taken a step toward making a cutting-edge cancer treatment called CAR-T cell therapy available in doctor offices, in anticipation of the procedure being used for increasingly common cancer types.

CAR-T is a relatively new medical procedure that uses a person’s own cells to fight their cancer, and it offers hope of a cure for those who have run out of options. It’s a complex procedure with a lot of serious side effects that must be closely monitored, so it’s typically provided at hospitals in the inpatient setting, sometimes outpatient, and almost never in doctor offices.

There are multiple barriers to offering CAR-T cell therapies in doctor offices, according to James Essell, medical director of the Blood Cancer Center at OHC and chair of cellular therapy for the US Oncology Network, a large network of independent doctors that includes OHC. Insurers restrict coverage to facilities that specialize in the procedure, and it’s financially risky for practices. Treating a few patients would require a practice to shell out well more than $1 million for the drugs alone, and the process of getting paid is arduous and not guaranteed, Essell said. * * *

Since the first CAR-T drug, Novartis’ Kymriah, was approved in 2017, the procedure has primarily been available at major academic hospitals. That puts the treatments out of reach for patients who don’t live near those facilities. Essell said less than 20% of patients who are eligible for the treatments are able to get them. Physician practices could help make the treatment available to the other 80%.

“You really need to get this out of the university centers to allow more patients to receive this care,” he said.

Mercer Consulting discusses strategies for providing access to and managing the cost of highly expensive gene therapies.

The second half of 2022 was marked by significant activity in the gene therapy market, with several landmark FDA approvals, including Hemgenix, a $3.5M gene therapy indicated for treatment of Hemophilia B. With this hefty price tag, Hemgenix wins the title of most expensive drug in the world, knocking down the previous title holder, the $2.1M gene therapy called Zolgensma, indicated for spinal muscular atrophy. * * *

As Hemgenix and other high-cost gene therapies enter the market, employers should create a long-term comprehensive approach to managing these therapies from a clinical and cost perspective by exploring a broad spectrum of strategies. A key first step in tailoring strategies specific to your plan involves assessing the likelihood of these claims occurring in your plan’s population; ideally, such assessments should be conducted on a regular basis as the member population changes. Once you get a better understanding of your unique population and the potential risk for these claims, inventory and evaluate available vendor strategies for gaps and opportunities. This step may include reviewing your medical carrier’s utilization management programs, network strategy, and care management programs, checking for availability of outcomes-based reimbursement and other payment models, and exploring alternative approaches to funding these claims. Lastly, as the market continues to evolve, regularly engage with your medical and pharmacy vendor on availability of new strategies.

The American Hospital Association adds

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services yesterday released a memo and timeline outlining how it will approach implementing the Inflation Reduction Act’s Medicare Drug Price Negotiation Program, which will negotiate prices with drug makers for certain high-cost, sole-source drugs and apply them beginning in 2026. According to the memo, CMS plans to actively engage hospitals and other stakeholders in the policymaking process.

From the medical research front, the National Institutes of Health discusses an ongoing study on the use of deep brain stimulation to treat severe opioid addiction.

From the litigation front, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit today upheld a lower court’s preliminary injunction of the federal government’s government contractor mandate but similar to the approach taken by the 5th Circuit limited the scope of the protection of the injunction to the plaintiffs, here the States of Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee. For more information, here’s the Volokh Conspiracy article on the decision. The 5th, 6th, and 11th Circuits have all ruled against the government contractor mandate, which the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force has put on ice.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the FEHB front, Federal News Network provides an update on the GAO report on FEHB that was mentioned in yesterday’s post.

The Office of Personnel Management, the agency that runs the health insurance program for federal employees and retirees, does not have a clear way to identify and remove FEHB enrollees’ family members who are erroneously part of the program, according to the Government Accountability Office.

“The longer OPM delays its efforts to establish a monitoring mechanism to identify and remove ineligible members from FEHB, the more ineligible members and related improper payments in the program may continue to accrue, costing the program millions, or up to approximately one billion dollars per year, according to OPM’s own estimate,” GAO said in a Jan. 9 report.

OPM said it has received the final report and is planning to flesh out a larger response soon.

OPM’s Healthcare and Insurance Office “will be evaluating potential action items, including timelines, and will provide a comprehensive response to GAO within 180 days upon evaluation of the recommendations,” OPM spokesperson Viet Tran told Federal News Network.

From the public health front,

January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, and Patient Engagement HIT tells us

Nearly one in 10 women have never had a common cervical cancer screening, like a Pap test, with issues such as limited health literacy and poor access to care getting in the way, according to a Harris Poll conducted on behalf of BD (Becton, Dickinson and Company).

These trends are more common in racial minorities, with Black and Hispanic women being more likely to say they have never had a Pap test. Compared to the 6% of White women who said they’ve never had a Pap test, 12% of Hispanic women and 13% of Black women said the same. * * *

receipt of Pap tests is extremely low, the survey of 872 women ages 18 to 64. Overall, 71 percent of respondents have delayed getting a Pap test, with 15 percent saying their last OB/GYN check-up was three years ago.

Although not explicitly explored in the survey, it’s key to note that timeline aligns with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic when access to primary and preventive care stalled. * * *

The good news is, around three-quarters of all respondents, regardless of race, said they have resolved to get back on track with their primary and preventive care, including Pap tests and HPV screenings, in the new year.

But doing so will require some leg work from the healthcare industry, which should note some patient health literacy and convenient care access snags getting in the way.

Even though nearly every respondent said they are knowledgeable about women’s health (91 percent), a whopping 81 percent admitted they don’t know how often they should get a Pap test and 51 percent said they were unaware of how often they should get an HPV test.

The survey also found consumer support for an at-home screening test. Kaiser Permanente and MD Anderson Center offer their views on at-home screening, and MD Anderson reminds us

The best protection for both men and women against HPV and related cancers[, i.e. cervical cancer,] is the HPV vaccine. All males and females ages 9-26 should get the HPV vaccine. It is most effective when given at ages 11-12. Unvaccinated men and women ages 27-45 should also talk to their doctor about the benefits of the vaccine.

MedPage Today reports

Adhering to healthy eating patterns was associated with lower risk of total and cause-specific mortality, a prospective cohort study with up to 36 years of follow-up showed.

Among 75,230 women from the Nurses’ Health Study and 44,085 men from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, those who scored in the highest quintile for healthy eating patterns recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) had a 14% to 20% lower risk of total mortality versus those in the lowest quintile, reported Frank Hu, MD, PhD, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, and colleagues in JAMA Internal Medicine opens in a new tab or window.

The pooled multivariable-adjusted hazard ratios of total mortality with four healthy eating patterns were (P<0.001 for trend for all):

  • Healthy Eating Index 2015 (HEI-2015): HR 0.81 (95% CI 0.79-0.84)
  • Alternate Mediterranean Diet (AMED): HR 0.82 (95% CI 0.79-0.84)
  • Healthful Plant-Based Diet Index (HPDI): HR 0.86 (95% CI 0.83-0.89)
  • Alternate Healthy Eating Index (AHEI): HR 0.80 (95% CI 0.77-0.82)

This lower risk was consistent across all racial and ethnic groups.

NIH’s NIAAA Director provides tips for a successful dry January. Good luck to all those who made this resolution because

Taking a break from alcohol for an entire month provides one with an opportunity to assess their patterns of alcohol consumption and how it affects them physically and mentally. It gives a person a chance to cultivate alternatives for relaxing, socializing, and coping with stress. As a result, many people experience benefits such as improved sleep and waking without the fatigue, malaise, and upset stomach of a hangover. Some also find that without the extra calories due to alcohol they lose weight. Participants in Dry January also describe positive effects on their relationships. And an added bonus is saving money.

STAT News brings us up to date on mpox.

From the Omicron and siblings front,

  • Becker’s Hospital Review provides some geographic details on the current winter’s Covid surge.
  • The National Institutes of Health announced “The antiviral treatment Paxlovid reduced the risk of hospitalization or death from SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variants in older adults by 44%. Wider use of Paxlovid may help temper a winter surge of COVID-19, as some other treatments are no longer effective.”
  • Politico reports on progress being made to end the Covid public health emergency later this year.

From the Food and Drug Administration front,

  • STAT News interviews the FDA Administrator Robert Califf on the Congressional investigative report concerning the Aduhelm fiasco.
  • The FDA announced that “In 2022,  the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research approved 37 new drugs never before approved or marketed in the U.S., known as “novel” drugs, as noted in our annual New Drug Therapy Approvals report. We also approved drugs in new settings, such as for new uses and patient populations.” 

From the Rx coverage front, Drug Channels delves into major prescription benefit manager formulary exclusions lists for 2023.

From the medical research front, the National Institutes of Health announced, “Researchers developed a blood test that could detect Alzheimer’s disease-promoting compounds in the blood long before symptoms emerged. The findings may lead to early diagnostic tests for Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front

  • Fierce Healthcare’s lead article on the ongoing JP Morgan healthcare conference concerns CVS’s Heath’s foray into primary care.
  • Healthcare Dive adds, “CVS Health is exploring an acquisition of value-based primary care chain Oak Street Health, according to a Monday Bloomberg report. The two are in ongoing talks and could reach a deal within weeks that values Oak Street at more than $10 billion including debt, according to Bloomberg, which cited sources familiar with the matter a deal.”
  • Healthcare Dive informs us that “Teladoc Health shared an early look at its financial results at JPMorgan’s healthcare conference on Monday, indicating between $633 million and $640 million in revenue for the fourth quarter, a little higher than consensus estimates from analysts. The virtual care giant projected total 2022 revenue between $2.4 billion and $2.41 billion, according to its regulatory filing. Teladoc’s direct-to-consumer mental health unit, BetterHelp, is expected to contribute roughly $1 billion of that topline.”
  • STAT News reports, “Rising labor costs have been the main financial concern for hospitals over the past year, but those costs have peaked and are now a lot lower, according to hospital system executives who presented during the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference.”

From the post-Dobbs front, STAT News tells us about telehealth provider reactions to the Justice Department’s announcement last week permitting abortion drugs to be sold by mail and the FDA’s opportunity for pharmacies to sell those drugs.

From the Supreme Court front, STAT News relates

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a bid by Pfizer to use a copay-assistance program to help Medicare beneficiaries pay for an expensive heart drug. The company argued the program would not violate kickback laws, a controversial issue that forced numerous drugmakers to pay large fines. Last July, an appeals court panel upheld a lower court ruling that such programs would violate federal law, but Pfizer filed a petition to the Supreme Court that contended such interpretations are “staggeringly overbroad.” Pfizer maintained there was no “corrupt intent” in offering assistance and that Medicare beneficiaries would be denied needed medicines they would otherwise not be able to afford.

It’s up to Congress to fix this problem.

Midweek update

Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

Mercer Marsh Benefits presents the top five trends from its 2023 employer-sponsored health plan survey of 225 insurers located in 56 countries:

  1. Per-person medical cost increases are back to pre-pandemic levels. 68% of insurers expect plan sponsors to prioritize improvements. This is even though double-digit medical cost increases are forecast for some markets.
  2. COVID-19 continues to impact the claims experience. 55% of insurers report an increase in the later-stage illness diagnosis due to deferred care.
  3. Plan modernization has begun. To make coverage more inclusive for those who identify as LGBTQ+, one in two insurers have changed or expect to change eligibility requirements and eligible expenses.
  4. The mental health gaps persist. 16% of insurers report not providing plans that cover mental health services (versus 26% in 2022).
  5. Plan management requires greater rigor. More than one in five insurers in Asia are adjusting their medical plan premiums based on an individual’s COVID-19 vaccination status.

All five main points ring true, but the prime examples for the fourth and fifth points don’t fit the FEHB market.

The American Medical Association points out six often overlooked steps to better health while Rebecca G. Baker, Ph.D., the director of the NIH HEAL Initiative® looks back at a virtual stakeholder briefing to visit the initiative’s progress in resolving chronic pain and opioid misuse issues and to describe future plans. 

From the public health front, the New York Times reports about

a large study published on Tuesday found a surprising trend among adolescents who repeatedly visited the hospital. The patients most likely to reappear in emergency rooms were not patients who harmed themselves, but rather those whose agitation and aggressive behavior proved too much for their caregivers to manage.

In many cases, repeat visitors had previously received sedatives or other drugs to restrain them when their behavior became disruptive. * * *

The results suggest that researchers should focus more attention on families whose children have cognitive and behavioral problems, and who may turn to emergency rooms for respite, Dr. [Anna] Cushing [an author of the study] said.

“I’m not sure we’ve been spending as much time talking about these agitated and behaviorally disregulated patients, at least on a national scale,” she said.

The JAMA study found that overall visits to pediatric emergency rooms for mental health crises increased 43 percent from 2015 to 2020, rising by 8 percent per year on average, with an increase in emergency visits for every category of mental illness. By comparison, emergency room visits for all medical causes rose by 1.5 percent annually.

Nearly one-third of visits were related to suicidal ideation or self-harm, and around one-quarter of patients presented with mood disorders, followed by anxiety disorders and impulse control disorders. Around 13 percent of patients made a repeat visit within six months.

From the telehealth front, Axio informs us

There are few things more stressful than getting a serious medical diagnosis, but pandemic-era changes in virtual care are prompting more patients to obtain a second opinion without leaving home.

Why it matters: The telehealth explosion made it easier to get advice from top doctors across the country — and for health systems to grow business beyond their physical footprints and even treat some of the people seeking consultations.

Case in point: The Clinic, a joint venture between Cleveland Clinic and telehealth giant Amwell, launched in 2020 just before the pandemic began.

The idea was to pair the Cleveland Clinic brand with Amwell’s virtual tools and its existing connections with private insurers to make it easier for patients to get their records reviewed, said Frank McGillin, CEO of The Clinic.

In litigation news, Health Payer Intelligence relates

A United States district court has ruled against Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois (BCBSIL), stating that the payer cannot exclude coverage for medically necessary gender-affirming care in its employer-sponsored ERISA health plans.

Lambda Legal and Sirianni Youtz Spoonemore Hamburger PLLC filed a class action lawsuit against BCBSIL on behalf of a 17-year-old transgender man, CP, and his parents. According to the lawsuit, the payer administered discriminatory exclusions of gender-affirming care, violating the anti-discrimination of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), known as Section 1557. * * *

The court determined that BCBSIL is a “health program or activity” that receives federal funds and thus cannot discriminate based on race, national origin, sex, age, or disability in its role in administering ERISA health plans.

From inside the Beltway, Govexec reports

The White House released a plan on Wednesday for how the Biden administration seeks to foster a more open and accountable government.

Transparency is something for which many presidential administrations strive, but success can be elusive, as shown during the Obama and Trump presidencies. Nevertheless, the almost-two year old Biden administration unveiled its first and the fifth overall U.S. Open Government National Action Plan, shared exclusively with Government Executive ahead of its release. This builds on many of the Biden administration’s efforts, including the president’s management agenda. 

Thursday Miscellany

From Capitol Hill, the American Hospital Association tells us

The Senate today passed (68-29) an amended version of the $1.7 trillion omnibus appropriations bill that funds the federal government through the end of the current fiscal year. The legislation also includes many provisions affecting hospitals and health systems.

The Senate also passed another short-term continuing resolution through Dec. 30 to allow time for the more than 4,000-page legislation to be enrolled and for President Biden to sign it. This ensures there will be no interruption of services or federal shutdown.

The omnibus spending bill, which includes relief from Medicare cuts and extensions of rural and telehealth programs, as well as the Dec. 30 continuing resolution, now go to the House, which is expected to consider them today . The president is expected to sign the short-term continuing resolution before current funding for the government expires at 11:59 p.m. ET on Dec. 23, and to sign the omnibus later next week.

The Wall Street Journal adds, “House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) said the House would vote on the bill Friday.”

In other 2023 Consolidated Appropriations Act or omnibus news

  • The Hill reports on “last minute” changes to the omnibus, including provisions assisting nursing and pregnant workers.
  • Mercer Consulting alerts us to a two-year-long extension of telehealth flexibilities available to high deductible plans with health savings accounts.
  • Think Advisor and the Wall Street Journal provide an overview of the Secure 2.0 Act provisions in the omnibus. The Secure 2.0 Act affects 401(k) plans offered to employees and IRAs. The key provision that takes effect for 2023 is an increase in the required minimum distribution age from 72 to 73.
  • The Wall Street Journal reviews the other omnibus provisions affecting businesses.

From the public health front —

Beckers Hospital Review informs us

While the respiratory “tripledemic” continues to slam emergency rooms and children’s hospitals, there are two glimmers of hope on the horizon, according to a Dec. 22 report in The New York Times. 

COVID-19, the flu and respiratory syncytial virus attack the body in different ways, and there are varying levels of disease severity across the U.S. Today, some scientists say RSV has peaked in most parts of the country.

“I think it’s likely that the RSV season has peaked in most parts of the country,” said Virginia Pitzer, ScD, an infectious disease epidemiologist at New Haven, Conn.-based Yale School of Public Health. “I think that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Additionally, there’s reason to believe next winter won’t be as burdensome for the American population and healthcare organizations.

Ironically, the safety precautions used to help stem the pandemic in the past couple of years have also kept adults and children from being exposed to the viruses that typically circulate this time of year, said Dr. Pitzer.

“There was a bit of a buildup of susceptibility at the population level,” she added. “It’s a worse than normal winter, but one that hopefully will not be repeated next year.”STS

The American Hospital Association tells us

The Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America today recommended hospitals and health systems no longer routinely screen symptom-free patients for COVID-19 upon admission or before procedures and rely instead on enhanced layers of infection prevention interventions.

“The small benefits that could come from asymptomatic testing at this stage in the pandemic are overridden by potential harms from delays in procedures, delays in patient transfers, and strains on laboratory capacity and personnel,” said Thomas R. Talbot, M.D., MPH, the chief hospital epidemiologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and a member of the SHEA Board of Directors. “Since some tests can detect residual virus for a long period, patients who test positive may not be contagious.”

STAT News reports

[According to a CDC report, a] baby born in the U.S. in 2021 has a life expectancy of 76.4 years, down from 77 years in 2020 and the lowest level the CDC has recorded since 1996. The age-adjusted death rate for Covid rose by 22.5% between 2020 and 2021, while death rates from unintentional injuries — one-third of which come from overdoses — rose by 12.3%.

HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Quality and Researched refreshed its Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project Fast Stats website. The site provides “summary statistics on inpatient stays, emergency department visits, and priority topics, by select characteristics.”

From the OPM front, OPM’s medical director, Dr. Ron Kline announced today on Linked In that he is leaving OPM to take a new position beginning January 17, 2023 as

the Chief Medical Officer of the Quality Measurement and Value-Based Incentives Group (QMVIG) at the Center for Clinical Standards and Quality (CCSQ) at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).

QMVIG is responsible for developing, evaluating and supporting the implementation of quality measurement programs across the entire federally-supported health care continuum. This includes Medicare’s Quality Payment Program and the Inpatient (i.e. Hospital) Quality Reporting Program. These measures and policies guide these innovative programs to improve healthcare quality for all Americans.

Best wishes, Dr. Kline, and thanks for your work with the FEHB over the past 3 1/2 years.

From the Rx coverage and medical research fronts –

MPR reports

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Actemra (tocilizumab) for intravenous (IV) use to treat COVID-19 in hospitalized adults who are receiving systemic corticosteroids and require supplemental oxygen, noninvasive or invasive mechanical ventilation or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO).

ICER released evidence reports on Alzheimer’s Disease treatments (draft) and hemophilia A and B (final) STAT News explains

The latest Alzheimer’s disease treatment from Eisai and Biogen needs to be cheaper than $20,000 a year to be cost-effective, according to a draft analysis from an influential nonprofit organization published Thursday.

The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review, or ICER, dug into the evidence for lecanemab and concluded that the drug’s demonstrated benefits, a modest but statistically significant delay in the advance of Alzheimer’s, are worth between $8,500 and $20,600 per year. ICER’s calculations, which could change in response to public comment over the next month, are based on metrics meant to quantify the value of improvements to quality of life.

Eisai, which is leading the effort to commercialize lecanemab, has not disclosed how much it will charge for the medicine, saying only that it will prize affordability and access. That will soon change, as the drug, a twice-monthly infusion, is expected to win a preliminary Food and Drug Administration approval by Jan. 6. * * *

Lecanemab’s safety has come into sharp focus over the past two months after three patients died of major brain bleeds.

Regarding hemophilia therapies, ICER observes

The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) today released a Final Evidence Report assessing the comparative clinical effectiveness and value of etranacogene dezaparvovec (Hemgenix, CSL Behring,) for hemophilia B. ICER also updated the previous Hemophilia A assessment on valoctocogene roxaparvovec (Roctavian™, BioMarin).  

Key recommendations stemming from the roundtable discussion include:

  • The value of high-impact single and short-term therapies should not be determined exclusively by estimates of long-term cost offsets, particularly when the existing standard of care is acknowledged to be priced significantly higher than reasonable cost-effective levels.
  • Payers should work with manufacturers to develop and implement outcomes-based agreements to address the uncertainty and the high cost of gene therapies for hemophilia.
  • At least one national payer has suggested to patient representatives that step therapy with emicizumab is being considered prior to provision of coverage for Roctavian. Clinical experts and patient experts view this approach as lacking any clinical justification and appears to be only a method for trying to avoid the high one-time fee for gene therapy while assuming that patients may switch insurers before the cost-saving potential of gene therapy is fully realized. In short, step therapy does not appear to be a reasonable consideration for this treatment.

ICER’s detailed set of policy recommendations, including comprehensive considerations for establishing evidence-based prior authorization criteria, is available in the Final Evidence Report and in the standalone Policy Recommendations document.

NIH announced

Scientists used patient stem cells and 3D bioprinting to produce eye tissue that will advance understanding of the mechanisms of blinding diseases. The research team from the National Eye Institute (NEI), part of the National Institutes of Health, printed a combination of cells that form the outer blood-retina barrier—eye tissue that supports the retina’s light-sensing photoreceptors. The technique provides a theoretically unlimited supply of patient-derived tissue to study degenerative retinal diseases such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD). 

Amazing.

From the miscellany department, the Wall Street Journal and MedPage Today explore the new AI text tool known as ChatGPT. From the Journal article

If you haven’t yet tried ChatGPT, OpenAI’s new artificial-intelligence chatbot, it will blow your mind. Tell the bot to write you anything—an email apologizing to your boss, an article about the world’s richest hamster, a “Seinfeld” script set in 2022—and it spits out text you’d think was written by a human. Knowledge of the topic, proper punctuation, varied sentence structure, clear organization. It’s all there.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, the Wall Street Journal reports

The Senate passed an $858 billion defense-policy bill [National Defense Authorization Act] on Thursday that authorizes U.S. military leaders to purchase new weapons and would increase pay for service members, checking a major item off Congress’s year-end to-do list.

The House passed the legislation last week with 350 votes in favor and 80 votes against. It now goes to President Biden’s desk for his signature.

The Journal also provides information on the NDAA’s key provisions.

The Washington Post adds,

The Senate late Thursday approved a measure to fund the government through Dec. 23, securing a one-week deadline extension that gives Democrats and Republicans one final opportunity to work out a longer-term spending deal.

The 71-19 vote — coming a day after the House adopted it — sends the stopgap to President Biden and staves off a federal government shutdown that otherwise would have occurred after midnight this Friday.

From the Omicron and siblings front, the American Hospital Association informs us,

The Department of Health and Human Services today recommended governors take certain actions to prepare for a potential further increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations this winter, and has pre-positioned N-95 masks, gloves, gowns and ventilators at strategic locations should states need them, the Biden Administration announced.

The Administration also announced that all U.S. households can now order four more free at-home COVID-19 tests, which will begin shipping the week of Dec. 19.

From the public health front, AP reports

The number of U.S. deaths dropped this year, but there are still more than there were before the coronavirus hit.

Preliminary data — through the first 11 months of the year — indicates 2022 will see fewer deaths than the previous two COVID-19 pandemic years. Current reports suggest deaths may be down about 3% from 2020 and about 7% vs. 2021.

The National Institutes of Health announced

The percentage of adolescents reporting substance use in 2022 largely held steady after significantly declining in 2021, according to the latest results(link is external) from the Monitoring the Future survey(link is external) of substance use behaviors and related attitudes among eighth, 10th, and 12th graders in the United States. Reported use for almost all substances decreased dramatically from 2020 to 2021 after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and related changes like school closures and social distancing. In 2022, reported use of any illicit drug within the past year remained at or significantly below pre-pandemic levels for all grades, with 11% of eighth graders, 21.5% of 10th graders, and 32.6% of 12th graders reporting any illicit drug use in the past year.

The Monitoring the Future survey is conducted each year by researchers at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health.

From the Rx coverage front –

BioPharma Dive takes a “deep dive” reporting on a recently approved drug called to treat ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. “Amylyx Pharmaceuticals’ Relyvrio is in high demand in clinics across the U.S. Though some patients are already getting it, insurance and out-of-pocket costs remain a source of anxiety. * * * In the clinical trial that led to its approval, Relyvrio appeared to slow the functional decline associated with ALS. The trial also found patients treated with the drug lived a median of five months longer than those given a placebo. While Relyvrio’s benefits have been called modest, the drug has become a vital source of hope for many ALS patients.”

BioPharma Dive also lets us know that

  • Yet another competitor for the top-selling inflammatory disease drug Humira will be waiting in the wings after Fresenius Kabi won U.S. approval of its copycat version called Idacio.
  • The Food and Drug Administration cleared the medicine for all the eligible indications of Humira, Fresenius Kabi said Wednesday. Due to a previous patent settlement with AbbVie, the company won’t launch Idacio in the U.S. until July.
  • Idacio, developed by Fresenius Kabi SwissBioSim, is currently available in 37 countries after initially launching in 2019. Fresenius Kabi said it has made selling biosimilars worldwide a priority.

Health Affairs Forefront offers Parts 1 and 2 of its insights on drug pricing reform enacted this past summer’s federal budget reconciliation act.

From the regulatory front

  • The FEHBlog noticed that the HHS press release concerning the 2024 Medicare Part D proposed rule (posted yesterday) lacked links to the proposed rule and the fact sheets. So here are the missing links:

The proposed rule can be accessed at the Federal Register at https://www.federalregister.gov/public-inspection/2022-26956/medicare-program-contract-year-2024-policy-and-technical-changes-to-the-medicare-advantage-program. Comments on the proposed rule are due by February 13, 2023.

View the fact sheet on the proposed rule here.

  • Health Affair’s Forefront’s second article on Monday’s proposed 2024 ACA benefit and payments parameter rule is here. This article concerns risk adjustment.

From the telehealth front, Health Payer Intelligence relates that

  • Most patients who had a telehealth visit didn’t need an in-person follow-up appointment in the next three months, according to new research from Epic. The trend was reflected in almost every specialty included in the study.
  • For specialties that required follow-ups, the additional visits were likely due to patients needing additional, not duplicative, care, Epic researchers said. That’s because high follow-up rates were only present in specialties that require regular hands-on care, such as obstetrics and surgery.
  • The study is the latest addressing whether telehealth results in duplicative care, instead of replacing an in-person encounter. The question is being debated by lawmakers as they consider how much telehealth flexibility should be allowed once the COVID-19 public health emergency expires.

In innovation news, Fierce Healthcare discusses

ElliQ, [which is] a voice-operated care companion for the elderly, is getting an update with 2.0 hardware and software including a companion app for family members and caregivers.

The robot, called the first proactive AI care companion and a Time Best Invention of 2022, was developed to address the loneliness epidemic in older adults and has shown the ability to decrease loneliness by 80%, according to the company. * * *

Interventions like the ones ElliQ performs are shown to improve the quality of life for seniors living alone by 80% through increasing fitness and facilitating social connections, according to a recent McKinsey report.

The first ElliQ impact studies have shown that 80% of users report a reduction in loneliness, 82% experienced better mental health and 90% feel overall better since using the robot.