Monday Roundup

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the COVID vaccination front, the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker indicates that over two-thirds of the U.S. population over five years old in fully vaccinated.

The American Medical Association’s column about “What Doctors Wish Patient Knew” explains

A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that one-third of parents say they planned to get their children vaccinated right away. Yet other parents are taking a wait-and-see approach to COVID-19 vaccination for kids. But with the Delta-Omicron variant tag team, widespread vaccination is an essential tool for preventing COVID-19 deaths, hospitalizations and illnesses.

To help parents move from that “wait-and-see” mentality and calm their fears, two physicians shared what to know about COVID-19 vaccine safety for children.

Check it out.

From the Omicron treatment front, the Food and Drug Administration announced today that the agency has

revised the authorizations for two monoclonal antibody treatments – bamlanivimab and etesevimab (administered together) and REGEN-COV (casirivimab and imdevimab) [which are made by Eli Lilly & Co. and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc.] – to limit their use to only when the patient is likely to have been infected with or exposed to a variant that is susceptible to these treatments.

Because data show these treatments are highly unlikely to be active against the omicron variant, which is circulating at a very high frequency throughout the United States, these treatments are not authorized for use in any U.S. states, territories, and jurisdictions at this time. In the future, if patients in certain geographic regions are likely to be infected or exposed to a variant that is susceptible to these treatments, then use of these treatments may be authorized in these regions. 

Monoclonal antibodies are laboratory-made proteins that mimic the immune system’s ability to fight off harmful pathogens such as viruses, like SARS-CoV-2. And like other infectious organisms, SARS-CoV-2 can mutate over time, resulting in certain treatments not working against certain variants such as omicron. This is the case with these two treatments for which we’re making changes today. * * *

Importantly, there are several other therapies – Paxlovid, sotrovimab, Veklury (remdesivir), and molnupiravir – that are expected to work against the omicron variant, and that are authorized or approved to treat patients with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 who are at high risk for progression to severe disease, including hospitalization or death. Healthcare providers should consult the NIH panel’s COVID-19 treatment guidelines and assess whether these treatments are right for their patients.

From the COVID vaccination mandate front, Federal News Network reports that

Last week’s court injunction that blocked the Biden Administration’s vaccine requirement for federal employees will put a temporary halt to disciplinary actions in federal agencies. But it won’t be of much help to feds who’d already been disciplined or fired for refusing the vaccine prior to last Friday.

That’s according to new guidance the administration’s Safer Federal Workforce Task Force issued Monday. The four-page document answers some basic questions on exactly how agencies should deal with the federal employee mandate now that a Texas judge has temporarily barred its implementation and enforcement.

Among the nuances: workers who’ve been suspended for failing to comply need to have their suspensions lifted, and new proposals to fire or suspend employees need to be “held in abeyance” for as long as the injunction is in place, the task force said. But agencies don’t need to reverse other disciplinary procedures that have already taken full effect.

From the free OTC tests front, Govexec.com asks

What group is especially vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19 even if fully vaccinated and boosted? Seniors. And who will have an especially tough time getting free at-home COVID tests under the Biden administration’s plan? Yes, seniors.

As of Jan. 15, private insurers will cover the cost of eight at-home rapid COVID tests each month for their members — for as long as the public health emergency lasts.

Finding the tests will be hard enough, but Medicare beneficiaries face an even bigger hurdle: The administration’s new rule doesn’t apply to them.

It turns out that the laws governing traditional Medicare don’t provide for coverage of self-administered diagnostic tests, which is precisely what the rapid antigen tests are and why they are an important tool for containing the pandemic. * * *

The Medicare program does cover rapid antigen or PCR testing done by a lab without charging beneficiaries, but there’s a hitch: It’s limited to one test per year unless someone has a doctor’s order.

Because the article describes orignal Medicare as exempt, one must assume that Medicare Advantage plans also are offering reimbursement for OTC COVID tests. The original Medicare exemption is a weak cup of tea because no commercial health plans covered OTC testing before the mandate.

From the No Suprises Act front, The American Hospital Association informs us that

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will host a conference call for health care providers Jan. 26 at 1 p.m. ET on the balance billing provisions of the No Surprises Act. To participate in the Special Open Door Forum, dial 888-455-1397 and reference passcode 5109694. Slides for the call are available here. P

Participants may email questions in advance to Provider_Enforcement@cms.hhs.gov, noting “Questions for 1/26 Open Door Forum” in the subject line. A replay will be available after the call through Jan. 28 by dialing 800-308-7855 and entering the passcode.

The CMS slides are helpful.

From the telehealth front, Fierce Healthcare tells us that

Integrating virtual care can save the healthcare system significant amounts of money, as well as avoid unnecessary visits to the emergency department or urgent care center, according to a new study from Cigna.

The study, conducted alongside its telehealth arm MDLive, found that patients who saw virtual providers also saw 19% fewer visits to the ER or urgent care. In addition, virtual urgent care visits reduced duplication of care by 16% compared to other virtual primary care providers or specialists.

Cigna notes that these reductions in unneeded visits are especially crucial as hospitals face down the current COVID-19 surge, caused by the highly infectious omicron variant. 

Thursday Miscellany

The American Hospital Association released its latest COVID Snapshot today.

Bloomberg adds that

The U.S. hospital-staffing shortage exacerbated by the latest Covid-19 wave is showing signs of easing, but many West Coast and rural states are still seeing the worst of it.

Over the past seven days, about 16.7% of U.S. hospitals have reported critical staffing shortages, down from a recent peak of 18.7% on Jan. 9, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. Fewer facilities are reporting shortages in populous New York, Florida and Illinois. 

The numbers are still concerning to state leaders, but are at least returning to the levels seen in October and November, before the omicron spike.

From the Covid treatment front —

The niftiest COVID news that the FEHBlog ran across today is this GoodRx website that provides “Live Updates on How to Find Paxlovid and Molnupiravir,” respectively the Pfizer and Merck Covid pills. Bookmark it.

From the COVID testing front —

SHRM brings us up to date on the unnecessarily rushed rollout of the federal government mandate that health plans cover over the counter Covid tests. Most plans did not have time to create in-network coverage because health plans do not cover OTC drugstor items except when mandated to do so.

From the COVID vaccine mandate front, FedWeek reports that

The impact of the Coronavirus vaccine mandate in terms of turnover in the federal workforce—either voluntary or not—remains largely anecdotal, although the largest agency, DoD has said there have been “no terminations yet.”

“We are still finalizing the guidance to the civilian force in that regard,” a Pentagon spokesman said late last week in a comment that seems to characterize the state of affairs in general.

From the Rx coverage front —

  • Drug Store News reports that

CVS Health is embarking on a collaboration with Uber Health, Uber’s healthcare arm, to provide critical transportation support at no cost to people who need it most when seeking access to medical care, work or educational programs.

The relationship is part of Health Zones, CVS Health’s new initiative that provides concentrated local investments designed to reduce health disparities and advance health equity in high-risk communities across the country. Health Zones is an integrated approach to addressing six key social determinants of health: housing, education, access to food, labor, transportation, and health care access. 

The Health Zones initiative is now active in five markets nationwide: Atlanta, Ga.; Columbus, Ohio; Fresno, Calif.; Hartford, Conn.; and Phoenix, Ariz. with plans to expand into more cities later this year. Working with trusted national and local partners, CVS Health is addressing community health care needs, ensuring at-risk communities have access to resources and opportunities that can help them thrive.

  • Fierce Healthcare tells us that

Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug Company (MCCPDC) has launched its online pharmacy as part of an ongoing effort to provide consumers with low drug prices. 

The pharmacy claims to offer significant savings, with several prescription drugs reportedly at more than half the cost of the next most affordable option. For instance, leukemia treatment imatinib has a retail price of $9,657 a month, according to MCCPDC, compared to $120 with a common voucher. Its price through the new company, however, is just $47 per month.

The pharmacy’s initial inventory launch consists of 100 generic drugs. 

From the No Suprises Act front, Health Payer Intelligence discusses how the new law is likely to spur collaboration between providers and payers to improve the accuracy of provider directories. The FEHBlog has always thought the providers should post the a notice about the networks in which they participate at their offices and on their websites.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the Omicron front, the Wall Street Journal reports that

The seven-day average of daily reported Covid-19 cases in the U.S. reached a pandemic record 403,385 on Sunday, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of Johns Hopkins University data. The fresh peak arrived even as most states paused reporting during the New Year’s holiday weekend. Reporting delays will likely lead to spikes in reports of cases this week as states catch up. While Covid-19 tests remain in short supply in much of the U.S., Covid-19 testing was less robust last year, complicating comparisons between pandemic surges.

Hospitalizations for confirmed or suspected Covid-19 reached a seven-day average of 97,855 on Monday, according to data posted by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. That is up 41% in the past two weeks but below both the pandemic peak of 137,510 on Jan. 10, 2021, and the smaller peak of 102,967 on Sept. 4, 2021, during the Delta surge.

Bloomberg adds that

While omicron may be good at evading the attacks of antibodies, recent studies have also shown that it has far less success avoiding the second-line defenses of vaccines and prior infections: T-cells and B-cells.

T-cells are responsible for attacking a virus once it makes its way into the body’s cells if antibodies fail to prevent infection in the first place. In a recent study by Burgers and colleagues, scientists used white blood cells from Covid patients to show that about 70-80% of the T-cell response is preserved compared with previous strains of the virus. That means that for those who are either vaccinated or had a Covid infection in the past 6 months, it is likely their T-cells can recognize omicron and fight it off relatively quickly. 

This latest research will need to be followed up with further study. If it holds up to additional scrutiny, it just might explain why current infections appear to be more mild than in previous waves of the virus.

Yet, AP reports that

As the COVID-19 omicron variant surges across the United States, top federal health officials are looking to add a negative test along with its five-day isolation restrictions for asymptomatic Americans who catch the coronavirus, the White House’s top medical adviser said Sunday.

Dr. Anthony Fauci said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now considering including the negative test as part of its guidance after getting significant “pushback” on its updated recommendations last week.

Adding to current mandatory testing is not going to push the COVID ball further toward endemic status particularly when people who actually may be infected soon will need a test to gain access to a COVID pill. It is time for the government to rethink its testing strategy. As a physician explained in a thought provoking Atlantic article

I will admit to being as self-interested as any other human. Despite recognizing the need for vaccine and test equity, I received three Pfizer shots as soon as I was eligible, and I’ve kept a stash of rapid-detection kits in my closet. But my own cognitive dissonance, and that of other privileged people, has become untenable in the face of Omicron’s case surge. Given the reality of our testing shortages, it’s time we started cutting back, where and when we can.

From the COVID vaccine front, AHIP tells us that

“Today the Food and Drug Administration amended the emergency use authorization (EUA) for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine to expand the use of a single booster dose of the vaccine to include its use in individuals as young as 12 years of age.

“The FDA reviewed real-world data from Israel, including safety data from more than 6,300 individuals 12 through 15 years of age who received a booster dose of the vaccine at least 5 months following completion of the primary two-dose vaccination series. The data shows there are no new safety concerns following a booster in this population. There were no new cases of myocarditis or pericarditis reported to date in these individuals.

“The amended EUA additionally:

  • Decreases the time between the completion of primary vaccination of the Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccine and a booster dose to at least five months.
  • Allows for a third primary series dose for certain immunocompromised children 5 through 11 years of age.

“Peer-reviewed data from multiple laboratories indicate that a booster dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccine greatly improves an individual’s antibody response to be able to counter the omicron variant. Authorizing booster vaccination to take place at five months rather than six months may therefore provide better protection sooner for individuals against the highly transmissible omicron variant.

“Children 5 through 11 years of age who are fully vaccinated and are not immunocompromised do not need a third dose at this time, but the FDA will continue to review information and communicate with the public if data emerges suggesting booster doses are needed for this pediatric population.”

From the Health and Human Services Department front —

  • Prof. Katie Keith has published in the Health Affairs Forefront the third installment of her review of the proposed 2023 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters. This one focuses on the Affordable Care Act’s risk adjustment provisions.
  • The Department issued today its own upbeat discussion of the recently implemented consumer billing protections provided by the No Surprises Act.
  • While the ACA risk adjustment provisions don’t apply the FEHB, the consumer billing protections do. Indeed the consumer billing protections wisely apply to both insured and uninsured folks. All consumers should become familiar with these protections.

From the prescription drug front, STAT News informs us that

As 2022 gets under way, pharmaceutical companies have so far raised wholesale prices by a median of 4.9% on more than 450 prescription medicines, an overall annual increase that is comparable to the price hikes seen over the past three years, according to a new analysis.

The numbers are preliminary, though, because still more price increases are expected to be disclosed by drug makers later this month, since not every company has reported their latest prices to industry databases. Nonetheless, the early indication is that many drug makers are keeping price hikes in check due to ongoing bad publicity that has sparked sustained political pressure.

Analyzing pharmaceutical price hikes has become a ritual each January as drug makers boost prices to meet financial goals. But as poll after poll finds more Americans are complaining about the cost of prescription medicines, these companies have gradually shied away from mid-year increases and also generally limited price hikes below double digits in hopes of avoiding still more negative headlines.

Drug Channels adds

Reality has again failed to cooperate with the politically motivated cries of “skyrocketing drug prices” or anecdotes about companies “jacking up prices” 

Brand-name drug prices continue to decline, while the prices of other healthcare products and services continue to rise. For 2021, brand-name drugs’ net prices dropped for the fourth consecutive year. Meanwhile, brand-name drug list prices grew more slowly than overall inflation. What’s more, we project that the gross-to-net bubble for patent-protected brand-name drugs will exceed $200 billion in 2021. See our updated analysis [that may be found in the linked article]. 

The factors that drive declining brand-name drug prices remain for 2022, suggesting that these trends will continue. 

Thursday Stats and More

Based on the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker and using Thursday as the first day of the week, here is the FEHBlog’s final weekly calendar for 2021 and it’s a stunner:

STAT News features a timely article captioned “Beyond Case Counts: What Omicron is teaching us.”

Brace yourself: Case counts are going to reach astounding heights. Already, reported infections have doubled in just a few weeks. The average daily number of infections is greater than 300,000. (It’s likely that our case counts will become increasingly less reliable as well, given both the shortcomings of our testing infrastructure and the growing use of at-home tests.)  

But, in large part because the immunological landscape today is far different than what it was two years ago, cases are less likely to result in severe disease than was the case at the start of the pandemic. 

Back then, a rise in cases inevitably led to an increase in hospitalizations and deaths. When vaccines went into wide use, those metrics started to become decoupled; cases could rise sharply but hospitalizations and deaths occurred at a lower level than before. In the current phase of the pandemic, the distance between those metrics is growing even greater. * * *

[A] key question relates to how long we’ll be in Omicron’s grasp. South Africa’s bellwether wave soared to extraordinary heights — then quickly began to ebb. Data from several European countries also suggest that Omicron waves may be short, sharp shocks compared to the waves that have preceded it. But too little is yet known to predict with any confidence whether the experience of a country with a relatively young population, such as South Africa, will hold true in a country with an older population, such as the United States. 

Here’s a link to the FEHBlog’s final weekly chart of new COVID deaths:

As cases have skyrocketed, deaths have ranged between 5,000 and 10,000 per week for over four months.

Here’s the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new COVID vaccinations administered and distributed from the 51st week of 2020, when the vaccinations became available to the public, and the 52nd week of 2021:

The number of administered COVID vaccines has dropped during the holidays. Currently, 72.8% of Americans aged 18 and older are fully vaccinated and 36.3% of that cadre are boostered. Nearly 50% of Americans aged 50 and older are boostered.

Also from the COVID vaccine front, the Hill reports that

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to approve booster shots of Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds on Monday, people familiar with the agency’s plan told The New York Times.

In addition to that broadened policy, the FDA also intends to announce that both children and adults could seek their booster shot five months after their second dose, instead of the previously advised six months. Immunocompromised children ages 5 to 11 are also expected to be allowed boosters, according to the Times.

The Times reported that the vaccine advisory committee for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is set to meet next week to vote on approving the FDA’s policy changes, which CDC Director Rochelle Walensky is expected to endorse. 

From the No Surprises Act front, CMS has released a handy, comprehensive overview of the federal independent review process. Check it out.

From the Affordable Care Act front, Prof. Katie Keith writing in Health Affairs Forefront has released two of three articles on the ACA 2023 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters released earlier this week — link to Part 1 and link to Part 2. Part 1 includes a discussion of proposed changes to the medical loss ratio calculation and Part 2 discusses the standardized benefit requirements that the FEHB mentioned earlier this week.

From the health disparity front, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality issued its 2021 report on national healthcare qualities and disparities, the nineteen report in this series. Here’s a link to the report’s executive summary.

From the New Year’s Eve front, the New York Times made available this guidance:

“Many public health experts agree that you can celebrate with your favorite people as long as you’re taking precautions.
“To help you make a decision and gauge the level of risk, The Times has this quiz.”

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From the Omicron front, the Wall Street Journal reports that

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added to research suggesting the Omicron variant can lead to reinfections that are often accompanied by mild Covid-19 symptoms, as new cases soared across the U.S.

States reported 512,553 cases on Monday—the most for a single day since the start of the pandemic—as states caught up after pausing for the Christmas holiday, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University. The tally lifted the seven-day average of reported cases to 237,061, 15,000 less than the pandemic high recorded about a year ago.

The report for Monday didn’t include North Carolina, South Carolina and Rhode Island, which remained on pause. That gap and more blackouts in reporting during the New Year weekend are expected to muddy the tracking of the full extent of the pandemic’s trajectory until January, when reporting catches up. 

Covid-19 testing was also less prevalent earlier in the pandemic, complicating case-rate comparisons from one surge to another. As with earlier variants, tracking Omicron’s spread in the U.S. has been a challenge for public-health officials. The CDC on Tuesday estimated that Omicron was responsible for 59% of new infections for the week through Dec. 25 and 23% for the week through Dec. 18. Last week, the CDC had estimated Omicron drove some 73% of infections in the week through Dec. 18. The CDC said Tuesday that the latest figures fell within the bounds of its statistical model and that the trend of Omicron’s increasing prevalence among U.S. cases is clear. 

Bloomberg adds

The omicron-fueled U.S. surge in Covid-19 cases appears to be triggering a lower rate of hospitalizations than earlier waves, more evidence that the highly transmissible variant leads to milder symptoms than other strains. 

The seven-day average of new cases hit 206,577 on Sunday, roughly 18% lower than the all-time high recorded on Jan. 11, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile, hospitalizations rose to a seven-day average of 8,964, only half their earlier peak recorded in January. * * *

Even when patients do end up in the hospital with omicron, they appear to spend less time there. However, the increasing numbers of breakthrough infections among vaccinated people may skew hospitalization data, said Jeffrey Morris, professor and director of the biostatistics division at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

“It appears there is less risk of hospitalized disease across the board, but we have to be a little bit careful about interpreting that,” he said in a phone interview. The rate of hospitalizations and deaths may appear artificially lower because breakthrough cases tend often turn out to be mild, Morris said.

From the Affordable Care Act front, the Department of Health and Human Services issued the first round of 2023 Benefit and Payment Parameter rules today. Here’s a link to the CMS fact sheet which describes big, disruptive proposed changes to the federal and state marketplaces. For example

CMS proposes to require issuers in the FFMs and State-based Marketplaces on the Federal Platform (SBM-FPs) to offer standardized plan options at every product network type, metal level, and throughout every service area that they offer non-standardized options in plan year (PY) 2023. For example, if an issuer offers a non-standardized gold plan in a particular service area, that issuer must also offer a standardized gold plan in that same service area. CMS is not proposing to require issuers to offer standardized plan options at product network types, metal levels, and throughout services areas in which they do not offer non-standardized options. CMS has designed two sets of standardized plan options at each of the bronze, expanded bronze, silver, silver cost-sharing reduction (CSR) variations, gold, and platinum metal levels of coverage, with each set being tailored to the unique cost-sharing laws in different sets of states. CMS also proposes to display these standardized options differentially on HealthCare.gov and to resume enforcement of the existing standardized plan option differential display requirements for web brokers and QHP issuers utilizing a Classic Direct Enrollment or Enhanced Direct Enrollment pathway.

The key aspect of these rules applicable to the FEHB Program is the disclosure of the 2023 limits on in-network cost sharing. The fact sheet explains that

CMS will issue the 2023 benefit year premium adjustment percentage, the maximum annual limitation on cost sharing, reduced maximum annual limitation on cost sharing, and the required contribution percentage (payment parameters) in guidance by January 2022, consistent with policy finalized in the 2022 Payment Notice (86 FR 24140). 

These rules also routine tweak the medical loss ratio rules under which FEHB community rated plans generally operate.

From the No Surprises Act front, the Internal Revenue Service released Rev. Proc. 2022-11. This Rev. Proc. explains that

For an item or service furnished during 2022, the group health plan or group or individual health insurance issuer must calculate the qualifying payment amount by increasing the median contracted rate (as determined in accordance with § 54.9816-6T(b), 29 CFR 2590.716-6(b), and 45 CFR 149.140(b))8 for the same or similar item or service under such plan or coverage, on January 31, 2019, by the combined percentage increase as published by the Department of the Treasury (Treasury Department) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to reflect the percentage increase in the consumer price index for all urban consumers (U.S. city average) (CPI-U) over 2019, such percentage increase over 2020, and such percentage increase over 2021. * * *

This Rev. Proc. provides that combined (2019-2021) CPI-U adjustment for next year which of course begins on Saturday:

For items and services provided on or after January 1, 2022, and before January 1, 2023, the combined percentage increase to adjust the median contracted rate is 1.0648523983.10 Pursuant to this revenue procedure, group health plans and group and individual health insurance issuers may round any resulting qualifying payment amount to the nearest dollar.

Example. A group health plan sponsor calculates a median contracted rate for a service with service code X; the service is not an anesthesia service or air ambulance service. The median contracted rate for service code X is $12,480 as of January 31, 2019. For a service with service code X furnished during 2022, increasing the median contracted rate by the combined percentage increase of 1.0648523983 results in $13,289.36; rounding to the nearest dollar results in a qualifying payment amount of $13,289.

From the upcoming new year department —

  • Fedweek offers advice to federal employees on paycheck changes to expect / confirm in the first paycheck of 2022 which, “[d]epending on the payroll provider, employees typically receive a pay distribution late in the week following the end of a pay period [here January 15] or early in the week subsequent to that.”
  • STAT News again peers into its crystal ball and predicts / discusses three challenges facing hospitals next year: Staffing, federal assistance, and patient capacity. On that last challenge

The bright spot is that the health care system could have another tool in its arsenal to fight Covid-19 in 2022 — antivirals that could reduce hospitalizations even if people become infected. There are some logistical challenges around deploying the pills, as they have to be taken early in the course of the Covid-19 infection. If the United States can capitalize on their potential, the treatments have the potential to relieve the worst of the pressure that 2022 could bring to bear on weary hospitals.

Holiday Weekend Update

The FEHBlog trusts that his readers had a Merry Christmas.

Congress is on a break until next week when the second session of the 117th Congress kicks off.

On Saturday, January 1, 2022, the surprise billing protections of the federal No Surprises Act take effect.

From the Omicron front, Bloomberg’s Prognosis informs us that

The coronavirus that causes Covid-19 can spread within days from the airways to the heart, brain and almost every organ system in the body, where it may persist for months, a study found.

In what they describe as the most comprehensive analysis to date of the SARS-CoV-2 virus’s distribution and persistence in the body and brain, scientists at the U.S. National Institutes of Health said they found the pathogen is capable of replicating in human cells well beyond the respiratory tract.

The results, released online Saturday in a manuscript under review for publication in the journal Nature, point to delayed viral clearance as a potential contributor to the persistent symptoms wracking so-called long Covid sufferers. Understanding the mechanisms by which the virus persists, along with the body’s response to any viral reservoir, promises to help improve care for those afflicted, the authors said.

An opinion piece in STAT News discusses a trend in COVID weekly new death statistics in the U.S. that the FEHBlog noticed in last Thursday’s post:

Several colleagues and I [Duane Schulthess] at Vital Transformation began closely following the data on Covid-19 early in the pandemic.

Since that time, we’ve kept a keen eye on the relationship between cases and deaths, particularly during the recent waves, which have been influenced by improved treatments and vaccines, as well as by new variants. There are legitimate concerns about the trajectory of the newest variant, Omicron, and public health experts are paying close attention to the exponentially mounting cases, particularly in the United Kingdom, which in the past has functioned as a canary in the Covid-19 coal mine for the U.S.

While early reports from South Africa suggested that Omicron might cause less-severe Covid-19, the rapidly mounting case numbers and overall transmissibility have been alarming, particularly in the U.K. According to a Dec. 10 government technical briefing(see page 17), Omicron cases were expanding by 35% per day.

But there’s something else different this time around, at least in the U.K.: the statistical relationship between Covid-19 cases and deaths appears to have broken down with Omicron.

Looking at daily death rates in the U.K. from May 15 — essentially from the point at which the Delta wave began — to Sept. 15, there is a highly statistically significant relationship between daily new cases and deaths. In short, case rates accurately predict death rates. But beginning the analysis on Sept. 15, coinciding with flattening of the Delta curve and the onset of Omicron, shows no statistical relationship between Covid-19 case rates and deaths. * * *

It’s still, of course, early days. While it is possible that death rates due to Omicron may rise later, at the moment in the U.K., Covid-19 daily cases no longer meaningfully link to deaths. So, according to the math, Omicron cases rising no longer automatically means impending doom and gloom

In healthcare M&A news, Healthcare Dive tells us that

— Tenet and its subsidiary USPI completed a $1.1 billion acquisition of SurgCenter Development, giving the ambulatory surgery unit an ownership stake in 86 more surgery centers and related support services.

— Tenet said it’s willing to buy additional interests of up to $250 million from physician owners. This process is expected to continue over the coming months, Tenet said Wednesday.

— As part of the deal, USPI will have exclusivity on developing new centers — at minimum 50 — with SCD during a five-year period.

Fierce Healthcare peers into its crystal ball to let us know about

From the FDA new drug approval front, MedCity News reports that

The FDA has approved a new cholesterol-lowering drug from Novartis that addresses the same target as two commercialized medicines from Amgen and Regeneron, but with a different approach and a key dosing advantage—just two injections per year.

The drug, inclisiran, is part of a relatively new class of genetic medicines that work by stopping production of a problem protein. In the case of the Novartis drug, which will be marketed under the name Leqvio, the target is PCSK9, a liver protein that in high amounts, impedes the body’s ability to clear low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, the “bad” form of cholesterol. Leqvio is comprised of small-interfering RNA that harnesses a cellular mechanism called RNA interference to stop a gene from producing PCSK9.

The way that Leqvio and other RNAi drugs work is sometimes referred to as gene silencing. It’s a different approach than PCSK9 inhibitors, antibody drugs that bind to this protein to block it. The FDA approved two of these drugs, Amgen’s  Repatha and Regeneron’s Praluent, in 2015. They’re both given as subcutaneous injections every two weeks or monthly. However, their high price tags made them a tough sell to payers, and revenue fell short of initial expectations. In 2018, Amgen slashed Repatha’s price by nearly 60%, making the drug available at list price of $5,850 per year. Months later, Regeneron matched the pricing move for its PCSK9-blocking drug.

The benefits of competition do apply to prescription drug development.

Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released its “Vintage 2021 national and state population estimates and components of change.” In sum,

Since April 1, 2020 (Census Day), the nation’s population increased from 331,449,281 to 331,893,745, a gain of 444,464, or 0.13%.

Between July 1, 2020, and July 1, 2021, the nation’s growth was due to natural increase (148,043), which is the number of excess births over deaths, and net international migration (244,622). This is the first time that net international migration (the difference between the number of people moving into the country and out of the country) has exceeded natural increase for a given year.

The voting-age resident population, adults age 18 and over, grew to 258.3 million, comprising 77.8% of the population in 2021.

The South, with a population of 127,225,329, was the most populous of the four regions (encompassing 38.3% of the total national population) and was the only region that had positive net domestic migration of 657,682 (the movement of people from one area to another within the United States) between 2020 and 2021. The Northeast region, the least populous of the four regions with a population of 57,159,838 in 2021, experienced a population decrease of -365,795 residents due to natural decrease (-31,052) and negative net domestic migration (-389,638).

The West saw a gain in population (35,868) despite losing residents via negative net domestic migration (-144,941). Growth in the West was due to natural increase (143,082) and positive net international migration (38,347).

Thursday Stats and More

Happy Festivus, dear readers. Because the FEHBlog won’t be posting on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, he has moved up the COVID Stats report to today’s post. Therefore, the FEHBlog also wishes you a Merry Christmas

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 latest weekly chart of new COVID cases for 2021:

Bloomberg notes that

The omicron variant’s case rate has now exceeded the worst days of the first delta-fueled wave, and more cities and countries are imposing precautions. But there’s more research showing it to be less severe than previous mutations. That said, two doses and a booster of the vaccine most widely used around the world isn’t enough to fight off omicron. China’s Sinovac shot didn’t produce sufficient levels of neutralizing antibodies, research found. Another study however showed a third dose of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, like that of Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, significantly boosts protection against the variant. 

Here’s the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new COVID deaths which has operated within the same range for the past three months:

Finally, here’s the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new COVID vaccinations distributed and administered from the 51st week of 2020 through the 51st week of 2021:

The number of COVID vaccines, including boosters, topped 500,000,000 today according to the CDC. 71% of Americans aged 12 and older are fully vaccinated and over one third of Americans aged 18 and older are boostered.

David Leonhardt in his New York Times’ Morning column offers an array of convincing statistics showing the importance of being fully vaccinated and boostered against COVID.

STAT News reports that

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday granted emergency authorization to Merck’s molnupiravir, an antiviral pill shown to reduce hospitalization and death in cases of Covid-19, but only in cases where other FDA-authorized Covid treatments are not accessible or clinically appropriate.

The approval comes a day after the FDA authorized an antiviral pill from Pfizer for much broader use in patients as young as 12. 

“Today’s authorization provides an additional treatment option against the COVID-19 virus in the form of a pill that can be taken orally. Molnupiravir is limited to situations where other FDA-authorized treatments for COVID-19 are inaccessible or are not clinically appropriate and will be a useful treatment option for some patients with COVID-19 at high risk of hospitalization or death,” Patrizia Cavazzoni, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said in a statement.

A Merck spokesperson said Merck is ready to ship hundreds of thousands of courses of treatment within days of authorization and 1 million courses over the next few weeks in the U.S. Ten million courses are ready to be packaged and distributed worldwide.

Bloomberg adds its perspective on the FDA’s EUAs of COVID pills yesterday and today.

The U.S. has cleared its first two Covid-19 treatment pills. Now comes the hard part: deciding who should get one. Merck’s molnupiravir was authorized Thursday by the Food and Drug Administration for use in some infected adults at high risk of severe illness. The U.S. will soon have 3 million courses of it available. Meanwhile, Pfizer’s Paxlovid, authorized earlier this week, showed stronger clinical trial data. But it will only be available in limited quantities at first, as Pfizer takes months to ramp up manufacturing. Regulators are signaling they prefer Pfizer’s pill, but concede Merck’s drug is better than nothing. Regardless, availability may depend on which state you live inDavid E. Rovella

In the linked article Bloomberg explains that

Just like Covid-19 testing sites and vaccines, Covid-19 treatment pills will be in short supply for months until production can increase.

The federal distribution to states will be based on population, and it will likely be up to doctors to prescribe Pfizer Inc.’s Paxlovid. The National Institutes of Health said it will release recommendations on how to allocate treatments.* * *

“Product will be limited at first and ramp up significantly in the coming months,” the department [of Health and Human Services] said. “An initial 65,000 courses of Paxlovid will be made available for shipment to states and territories and will begin arriving at dispensing sites by the end of December.”

The U.S. will have 265,000 Pfizer courses by the end of January and 10 million courses by July. It will also have 3 million of Merck & Co.’s Covid pill, developed with partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP, by the end of January.

Doctors will be looking for the Merck and Pfizer pills to fill a gap for high-risk patients, who until now have been treated with monoclonal antibody therapies to keep them from needing hospital care.

Some of the most widely used antibody treatments from Eli Lilly & Co. and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. appear far less effective against omicron than earlier variants because they target regions on the virus’s spike protein that have changed during its evolution.

In No Surprises Act (“NSA”) news —

  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released FAQS for out-of-network providers who may be impacted by the NSA which takes effect on January 1, 2022.
  • The FEHBlog has been looking more deeply into the federal independent dispute resolution (“IDR”) process under this law. The IDR process allows an out-of-network provider with claims subject to the NSA to negotiate its payment with the health plan and if unsatisfied bring the payment issue to baseball arbitration using a CMS approved arbitrator. CMS has posted a list of the five currently approved organizations certified to conduct IDR arbitrations. The FEHBlog checked out a couple of these organizations and found out that at least two of them also are CMS approved independent review organizations (“IRO”) which decide health plan claim disputes under the Affordable Care Act. (In the FEHBP OPM acts as the IRO.)
  • The FEHBlog also learned that out-of-network providers who obtain patient consent to waive their NSA rights cannot access the IDR process on that consenting patient’s claims. Health plans will need to be on the lookout for the provider’s notice that the NSA rights waiver has been accepted by the patient / plan member. Here is a link to the consent form. In these cases which the FEHBlog expects to be relative few in number, the plan would pay the out-of-network provider using the ACA emergency care rules or the plan allowance for non-emergency services.
  • Generally only providers, e.g., primary surgeon, lead oncologist, who manage the patient’s care can seek patient consent to waive NSA rights. Ancillary providers, e.g., anesthesiologists, radiologist, pathologists, hospitalists, are locked into using the IDR process. This was a sound decision by the ACA regulators. Kaiser Family Foundation offers a useful compendium of these rules.
  • What’s more, Thompson Reuters reports that

HHS has released instructions for reporting data under a transparency provision included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (CAA , Division BB, Section 204), which requires group health plans and insurers to annually report prescription drug and health care spending, premiums, and enrollment information to the government

OPM has required FEHB carriers to comply with this reporting requirement via OPM’s reporting authority under the FEHB Act, 5 U.S.C. Sec. 8910. This strikes the FEHBlog as a bit of a stretch as Congress did not apply NSA Section 204 to the FEHBP in the NSA law and Section 8910 contemplates carriers providing reports to OPM. When FEHB carriers find themselves obligated to submit reports to HHS, a separate law outside the FEHB Act vests that authority in the other agency, e.g., Section 111 Medicare eligibility reporting to CMS. In any event, the enforcement deadline for the 2020 and 2021 reference year reporting under Section 204 is December 27, 2022.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the political front, Politico reports that

[Senator] Joe Manchin (D WV) remains at the negotiating table [with his party’s leadership], despite deep concerns about President Joe Biden’s climate and social spending bill [a/k/a the Build Back Better Act]. 

After speaking with Biden on Monday afternoon, Manchin said he was still “engaged” in discussions. And as he left the Capitol, the key Democratic senator made clear he wasn’t ready to commit to voting for or against a bill that is still coming together behind closed doors.

From the White House, the President issued an executive order on improving customer service performed by government agencies. Federal News Network explains that

Jason Miller, the Office of Management and Budget’s deputy director for management, said the EO also directs agencies to coordinate work on services that reflect common life experiences, including turning 65 and planning retirement, having a child or applying for a small business loan. * * *

The executive order gives senior administration officials 90 days to select a limited number of these customer life experiences to prioritize across government. It requires Miller and other members of the President’s Management Council to update [Presidential senior advisor Neera] Tanden and White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain on progress made improving these customer life experiences every six months.

The EO also gives the General Services Administration six months to develop a roadmap of shared services that agencies can use to improve customer experience.

The administration specifically names Login.gov and the U.S. Web Design System, a set of templates meant to create a common look and feel for agency websites, as tools that all agencies should use to improve federal customer experience.

Here is a link to the White House’s press release on the Executive Order as found on performance.gov.

From the Affordable Care Act front, the Internal Revenue Services has released the final Affordable Care Act coverage reporting forms, 1095-B and 1095-C, along with the final instructions for those forms.

From the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs’ website, we find that the federal government’s Fall 2021 regulatory agenda has been published. Here is a link to OPM’s Fall 2021 agency rule list. A chill went up the FEHBlog’s spine when he noticed that the ACA provider non-discrimination proposed rule mandated by the No Surprises Act will be published this month due to a statutory requirement. Cost curve up?

From the employer sponsored care front, Healthcare Dive reports that

— The average per-employee cost of employer-sponsored health insurance jumped 6.3% in 2021, as employees and their families resumed care delayed last year due to the pandemic, according to a new survey of employers from Mercer.

— That’s the highest annual increase since 2010. Health benefit costs outpaced growth in inflation and worker compensation through September, the employee healthcare and investment consultancy said.

— The findings raise questions of whether employers are experiencing a temporary correction to the cost trend following a minimal year-over-year increase of just 3.4% in 2020, or if they’re staring down the barrel of a new period of higher cost growth.

No doubt those questions can keep actuaries awake at night.

From the good COVID news department (yes it exists), STAT News informs us that

Paxlovid, Pfizer’s oral treatment for Covid-19, led to an 89% reduction in hospitalization and death in final data from a pivotal trial, the company said today, confirming the results of an earlier analysis.

The news should allay concerns that the efficacy of Pfizer’s pill would wane over time. Molnupiravir, a Covid-19 antiviral from Merck, appeared 50% effective in an interim trial analysis but fell to about 30% in the final tally. Both studies enrolled unvaccinated patients who were recently diagnosed with Covid-19 and had at least one risk factor for severe disease.

The next step for Pfizer is submitting the results to the FDA, which the company expects to do this month, and applying for an emergency-use authorization. The agency is yet to disclose whether it will convene a panel of expert advisers before deciding on Paxlovid.

Based on the President’s winter is coming plan, the FEHBlog’s bet is on the FDA approving the Pfizer drug without delay.

Weekend Update

Congress will remain in session for Committee business and floor voting.

The focus of attention will be the President’s Build Back Better Act. The Senate Finance Committee released the text of its portion of the Senate version of the BBB Act yesterday. The Wall Street Journal explains that

President Biden this week will lobby Sen. Joe Manchin, the centrist West Virginia Democrat, in an attempt to lock in a deal on a roughly $2 trillion social-policy and climate bill that Democrats hope to finish by Christmas.

Passage hinges largely on the support of Mr. Manchin, who hasn’t endorsed the legislation. He has repeatedly raised concerns about the cost of the bill and the potential effect of new government spending on inflation. Messrs. Biden and Manchin plan to talk early this week, a Senate aide said.

Senator Manchin’s vote is critical because the Democrat’s can’t lose one vote in the evenly divided Senate as the Republicans in the Senate all intend to vote against the bill. The Journal adds

With Democrats holding the narrowest congressional majority in decades, passing the sweeping bill is akin to threading yarn through a tiny needle. Democrats already navigated past opposition from Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema on several of the tax increases they originally had proposed, making revenue-generation intended to pay for the legislation difficult.

Ms. Sinema hasn’t endorsed the House-passed bill. Democrats have also needed to write a bill that lawmakers from the party’s most progressive wing would support, along with centrists.

Because the Senate bill will not mirror the already passed House bill, the two Houses of Congress might convene a conference committee. Time will tell.

Tomorrow is the last day of the current Federal Benefits Open Season. OPM explains that

The Federal Benefits Open Season ends at 11:59 pm Eastern Time on Monday December 13, 2021 for the Federal Employees Dental and Vision Insurance Program (FEDVIP) and the Federal Flexible Spending Account Program (FSAFEDS). Open Season for the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHB) ends at 11:59 pm, in the location of your electronic enrollment system, on Monday December 13, 2021.

From the No Surprises Act front, the Kaiser Family Foundation offers a consumer friendly overview of the law’s provisions that take effect on January 1, 2021. Basically, FEHB plans will pay certain out-of-network (“OON”) providers (emergency care, air ambulance, and OON providers when the patient is treated at an in-network facility) a qualifying payment amount (“QPA”), net of the in-network cost sharing amount which is the member’s financial responsibility. If the provider is dissatisfied with the QPA, he or she must work out the matter with the health plan. The member therefore is held harmless against the outcome of that controversy.

These QPA provisions, however, are inapplicable to claims submitted for FEHB plan members who have primary Medicare coverage or in the case of fee for service plans have primary Medicare Part A only. Also if another payer is primary to the FEHB plan, e.g., a spouse’s plan, then the primary plan is responsible for compliance with the No Surprises Act. The FEHB plan is responsible only for making the secondary payment, which usually equals the primary plan’s deductibles and co-insurance.

From the health care business front, Medcity News informs us that

After a challenging quarter, insurance company Bright Health is raising $750 million in financing. In an unusual move, another insurance company is joining as an investor. Cigna Ventures and Bright’s largest shareholder, New Enterprise Associates, both participated in the financing.

Head of Cigna Ventures Tom Richards talked about potential opportunities to collaborate with NeueHealth, Bright’s provider enablement platform to help practices move to value-based contracts.

“We seek to be partners of choice and we look forward to exploring new ways that NeueHealth and Evernorth can potentially provide services to each other’s customers and clients,” he said in a news release.

From the Omicron front, Bloomberg reports (recall last week’s post about U.S. experts tracking the U.K.’s experience with Omicron because the United Kingdom started to experience Omicron cases before the U.S.):

Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned the U.K. is facing a “tidal wave” of omicron infections and set an end-of-year deadline for the country’s booster vaccination program. Infections in the U.K. from the new variant doubled in the last day and now make up a third of new cases in London. 

Anthony Fauci, U.S. President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, said omicron appears able to evade vaccines and some Covid-19 treatments but that a booster shot can increase protection. At least 30 U.S. states are reporting cases of the variant.  

CNBC adds that “Covid booster shots are “optimal care” as the deadly virus continues to mutate and spread, but the U.S. government is staying firm for the time being on the definition of fully vaccinated, top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said Sunday.”

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 for 2021:

STAT News reports today that Omicron may give Delta a run for its money.

As the Omicron variant snowballs in South Africa and widens its inroads in Europe, evidence is mounting that it can outcompete the highly transmissible Delta variant — a potential warning signal for the United States.

The Wall Street Journal adds that

The U.K. is emerging as a testing ground in the battle for dominance between the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus and Delta, the earlier strain that is currently driving most infections in the U.S. and Europe.

How Britain fares against Omicron will offer clues to the U.S. and the rest of the industrialized world about how the variant behaves in a highly vaccinated population, how sick those who are infected get and if its dozens of mutations have given Omicron enough of an advantage on the evolutionary ladder to starve Delta of the hosts it needs to stay on top.

The CDC’s weekly new COVID hospitalizations chart up week to week from 6.500 to 7,500 which is 54% below the number of new hospitalizations in January 2020. The Wall Street Journal adds that

As the pandemic heads into its third year, doctors are screening more effectively for these clots and improving treatment regimens, marking a significant medical advance alongside the vaccines and antiviral pills under review for Covid-19 that get the most attention.

Even before test results come in, doctors may sometimes treat patients with a high dose of anticoagulants if they suspect blood clots, often termed thrombosis, said Michael Streiff, a clot specialist at Johns Hopkins University.

“The incidence of thrombosis was very high in the beginning but has declined over time. I think this is due to better supportive care,” Dr. Streiff said.

Still, some doctors say there’s much to be done to improve outcomes further. Recent studies are helping to define more precise treatment protocols for clots.

Here’s the FEHBlog weekly chart of new COVID deaths for 2021:

The Wall Street Journal notes that

The Omicron variant of Covid-19 has so far caused mostly mild cases of Covid-19 in a small group of largely vaccinated people in the U.S., federal data show.

Among at least 43 people infected with the variant in 25 states in recent days, there has been one hospitalization and no deaths so far, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday.

Out of 43 cases identified between Dec. 1 and Dec. 8, nearly 80% of the people infected with Omicron were fully vaccinated, according to CDC data, and one-third had received a booster shot. Fourteen percent of the people had a previous Covid-19 infection. Patients most commonly reported mild symptoms like cough, fatigue, congestion or runny nose, the CDC said. Nearly 60% of cases were in people 18 to 39 years old.

The report is an early piece of the picture scientists are working to assemble on Omicron’s infectiousness and virulencerelative to other variants.

Here’s the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new COVID vaccinations administered and distributed from the 51st week of 2020 through the 49th week of 2021:

This past week was the first week since June 2021 that administered vaccinations topped 10 million. Slightly over 50% of the U.S. population over 65 is boostered according to the CDC.

Here is a link to the CDC’s weekly interpretation of its COVID statistics which urges all Americans aged 16 and older to get boostered.

From the flu front, the CDC reports that seasonal flu activity remains low but continues to increase. The CDC encourages Americans to fight the flu by getting vaccinated, engage in preventative measures, and take flu antiviral drugs if your doctor prescribes them. We are about a month away from the CDC giving the same advice about COVID.

From the Capitol Hill front, FedWeek informs us that

Congress is moving toward passing a compromise version of the annual DoD authorization bill (S-1605) containing a number of provisions affecting personnel policies government-wide, including two new weeks of paid leave for federal employees on the death of a son or daughter.

The new “parental bereavement leave” replaces a House provision that would have expanded the authority for federal employees to take paid time rather than unpaid time for parental purposes covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act. The Senate version had not included any provision on parental leave.

The compromise provision uses the same definitions for children as under the FMLA; rules likely will be needed to define the policy, including the effective date.

The bill also: extends long-running authorities for all agencies to pay certain special allowances to employees working in areas of active military operations; requires OPM to perform a study of allowances for employees working in remote areas; and orders OPM to establish or update occupational series in the fields of software development, software engineering, data science, and data management.

However, the final version drops House language to require OPM to redefine locality pay areas for wage grade employees so that they align with the areas used for the GS system. Currently, in some cases wage grade employees receive smaller raises than GS employees at the same location. The bill however encourages OPM to address that issue. 

From the judicial front

  • The Society for Human Resource Management brings us up to date on oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court this week on human resources and employee benefit issues.
  • The Coalition against Surprise Billing blasted the American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association for bringing a lawsuit against the independent dispute resolution regulations under the No Surprises Act.

From the healthcare business front —

New York-based Hydrogen Health, a joint venture between Anthem, investment firm Blackstone and digital primary care company K Health, is launching its virtual primary care offerings nationwide, the provider announced Dec. 9. 

Anthem and its partners formed Hydrogen Health in April 2021 to leverage artificial intelligence to drive down healthcare costs in both employer and consumer markets. The joint venture offers employers and insurers text and video-based digital primary care, and taps K Health’s artificial intelligence to personalize that care. 

Hydrogen Health shared that since its initial launch with Anthem, its customers now include multiple Fortune 500 companies and other large employers. 

Moving into 2022, the plan anticipates it will expand the conditions it can diagnose and manage and grow its membership by 10 million — all digitally, according to the announcement. 

  • Healthcare Dive reports that on CVS Health’s investors day held yesterday.

— CVS Health plans to ramp up its acquisitions of physician practices and clinics as it continues to pursue its primary care strategy and races with other retail pharmacies to build out medical networks.

— The Woonsocket, Rhode Island-based healthcare behemoth already operates a network of MinuteClinics, urgent care locations staffed by nurse practitioners. But CVS wants to broaden its care delivery strategy into a primary care model, including “physician-led primary care centers with integrated virtual and home assets,” CVS EVP and president of pharmacy services Alan Lotvin said Thursday at CVS’ investor day.

— CVS plans to add a few hundred primary care centers to its network of MinuteClinics, drugstores and health-focused HealthHUB locations launched a few years ago, as it moves from an episodic to more longitudinal approach to care, Lotvin said. CVS also wants to eventually add more specialty services to compete as the retail healthcare market becomes increasingly saturated.

From the benefit design front, Health Payer Intelligence informs us that “Employing personalized, in-home chronic disease management services can have a significant impact on spending for seniors with chronic conditions, a study from Avalere found.”

Patients with quadriplegia saw the highest healthcare spending difference in total cost of care after receiving home healthcare. The group that received the home healthcare solution spent $12,807. In contrast, the group that did not receive in-home chronic disease management support spent nearly $30,000 more, with average spending of $42,709.

The condition that ranked lowest in the top ten chronic conditions was intestinal obstruction or perforation. But even for this condition, patients with the intervention spent on average $17,738 less than their counterparts.

Despite the major differences in total cost of care between the two groups, the group that received the targeted home healthcare intervention did not display drastic differences between healthcare spending levels before and after implementing the intervention.