Midweek update

Midweek update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • The American Hospital Association (“AHA”) News tells us,
    • “The House Appropriations Committee July 10 voted 31-25 to approve legislation that would provide $185.8 billion in funding for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education in fiscal year 2025, an 11% cut below the prior fiscal year. * * *
    • “The bill would also prohibit any funding from being used to implement or enforce the final rule issued by the Administration relating to minimum staffing levels for long-term care facilities.
    • “The full House may consider the bill in August.”
  • The AHA News also reports on several CMS/HHS rule makings that occurred today.
    • “The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services July 10 released its calendar year 2025 proposed rule for the physician fee schedule. The rule proposes to cut the conversion factor by 2.8%, to $32.36 in calendar year 2025, as compared to $33.29 in CY 2024. This reflects the expiration of the 2.93% statutory payment increase for CY 2024; a 0.00% conversion factor update under the Medicare Access and Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act; and a .05% budget-neutrality adjustment.” * * *
    • “CMS will accept comments on the proposed rule through Sept. 9.” 
      • Here is a link to the CMS fact sheet on the proposed rule plus a link to the CMS fact sheet on proposed rule’s shared savings program.
      • Per Fierce Healthcare,
        • “In statements quickly released after the proposed rule dropped, frustrated physician and industry groups contrasted the “dangerous” baseline reimbursement cut against financial pressures weighing on practices.”
    • “The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services July 10 issuedproposed rule that would increase Medicare hospital outpatient prospective payment system rates by a net 2.6% in calendar year 2025 compared to 2024. This includes a proposed 3.0% market basket update, offset by a 0.4 percentage point cut for productivity.” * * *
    • “CMS will accept comments on the proposed rule through Sept. 9.” 
      • Here is a link to the CMS fact sheet on the proposed rule.
      • STAT News adds,
        • “The federal government will not modify regulations that dictate how hospitals publish their prices for consumers, ignoring pleas from patient advocates who have said hospitals still are not fully complying with the 3-year-old law.
        • “The Biden administration on Wednesday proposed an annual rule that sets payment rates for hospitals. This document is where the government has in the past rolled out changes to the so-called hospital price transparency rule, but the Biden administration did not address the issue in this edition.
      • Per Fierce Healthcare,
        • “In reaction statements, industry groups like the American Hospital Association (AHA) and hospital group purchasing organization Premier said that the “inadequate” pay update proposal and called for an upward adjustment in the final version of the rule.”
    • “The Department of Health and Human Services July 10 releasedproposed rule designed to improve health information sharing and interoperability. The Health Data, Technology, and Interoperability: Patient Engagement, Information Sharing, and Public Health Interoperability (HTI-2) proposed rule includes two sets of certification criteria designed to enable health information technology for public health and payers to be certified under the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology’s Health IT Certification Program. The criteria would improve public health response, advance value-based care delivery and focus on standards-based application programming interfaces to improve end-to-end interoperability between health care providers and public health organizations or payers. 
    • The rule proposes a new set of certification criteria to support the technical requirements included in the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ Jan. 2024 Interoperability and Prior Authorization final rule to facilitate electronic prior authorization. The proposed rule also responds to patient, provider and other communities’ concerns about patient privacy and care access by expanding exceptions and clarifying the definitions of information blocking. HHS plans to publish the notice in the Federal Register with a 60-day comment period.
  • Following up on yesterday post about the FTC interim staff report on its PBM investigation, the Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “The Federal Trade Commission is preparing to sue the largest three pharmacy-benefit managers over their tactics for negotiating prices for drugs including insulin, after a two-year investigation into whether the companies steer patients away from less-expensive medicines. 
    • “The agency plans to file lawsuits taking aim at business practices related to rebates brokered with drug manufacturers, people familiar with the matter said. The FTC is also investigating the role that insulin manufacturers play in the negotiations, one of the people said.”
  • STAT News adds,
    • “The lawsuits are expected to focus on the controversial role of rebates, according to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. These are paid by drugmakers to PBMs to win favorable placement on formularies, which are the lists of medicines covered by health plans. In general, drugmakers argue they must raise prices to compensate for rebates, while PBMs maintain drug companies raise prices to boost profits.”
  • Bloomberg provides context to the situation by noting
    • “States and municipalities have also filed suits against both pharmacy benefit managers and drugmakers alleging that they drove up insulin costs for public-sector health plans. Many of those cases have been consolidated in a New Jersey federal court managing the litigation.”
  • Federal New Network digs into Fed Scope and discovers, among other things, that “Nearly half of all civilian feds are new hires since 2019. Agencies hired more than 1 million federal employees since October 2019, and it’s almost an even split between competitive and excepted service.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The New York Times reports,
    • “A 54-year-old New Jersey woman who was the second person to receive a kidney transplanted from a genetically modified pig, and who lived with the organ for 47 days, died on Sunday, surgeons at NYU Langone Health announced on Tuesday.
    • “The patient, Lisa Pisano, was critically ill, suffering from both kidney failure and heart failure. She received the pig kidney on April 12, just eight days after implantation of a mechanical heart pump.
    • “Surgeons were forced to remove the kidney on May 29 after it was damaged by inadequate blood flow related to the heart pump. After the explantation, Ms. Pisano resumed kidney dialysis but eventually was transitioned to hospice care.
    • “Ms. Pisano made medical history as the first person with a heart pump who is known to have also received an organ transplant. Patients with kidney failure are usually ineligible to receive a heart pump because of the high risk of dying.”
    • RIP, Ms. Pisano.
  • CNN tells us,
    • “An estimated 72 million women in the United States have skipped or delayed a recommended health screening, according to a new survey. This poll, conducted by Gallupfor medical technology company Hologic, found that 90% of women acknowledged the importance of regular health screenings — but more than 40% have skipped or delayed a test.
    • “Women have trouble prioritizing their own health, the survey found, with over 60% of women responding that it was hard to make their own health a priority. The numbers are particularly striking among younger women; 74% of women in Generation Z and 70% of millennials said it was hard to prioritize their health, compared with 52% of baby boomers and 39% of the Silent Generation.
    • The journalist also interviews CNN wellness expert Dr. Leana Wen about these findings.
  • Healio informs us,
    • “[R]esearchers utilized National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) data to assess the number, circumstances and characteristics of violence-related deaths in 2021.
    • “Overall, there were 68,866 fatal incidents involving 70,688 deaths that occurred in 48 states and Washington, D.C. Among the deaths:
      • 58.2% were suicides;
      • 31.5% were homicides;
      • 8.2% were deaths of undetermined intent that could have been due to violence;
      • 1.3% were deaths due to “legal intervention,” like law enforcement using deadly force in the line of duty; and
      • less than 1% were unintentional firearm deaths.
    • “Nguyen and colleagues also found that 59.2% of deaths involved firearms.
    • “Among suicide victims, when the circumstances were known (84.4%), the suicide was often preceded by mental health conditions, as 49% of victims were currently diagnosed with a mental health problem and 29.2% experienced a depressed mood at the time of death.” * * *
    • “Violence is preventable and reducing deaths in communities is possible with evidence-based approaches,” the researchers wrote.
    • “They added that such interventions can include “social-emotional learning programs, enhanced parenting skills and family relationships, treatment for persons at risk for suicide, and treatment to prevent reattempts.”
  • and
    • “Patients with chronic kidney disease or transplant should have ongoing access to telehealth to help manage care, according to results of a qualitative meta-analysis. 
    • “One group in need of telemedicine services is chronic kidney disease (CKD) and transplant patients,” Christopher D. Manko, BS, of the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine in Scranton, Pennsylvania, wrote with colleagues. They added, “[P]atients need frequent appointments to manage all related conditions. Similarly, transplant patients need close monitoring of the grafted organ and immunosuppressant therapy.” But Manko and colleagues noted that “prior systematic reviews focused on telehealth and eHealth interventions in dialysis patients have shown conflicting results with potential benefits [and] more adequately powered prospective studies are needed.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • STAT News reports,
    • “Fourth time’s the charm? Sanford Health is hoping so.
    • “Less than a year after scrapping its proposed merger with a Minnesota health system— its third failed deal since 2019 — South Dakota’s Sanford is attempting a new, multibillion-dollar mashup. The $7 billion, 45-hospital system plans to absorb Marshfield Clinic Health System, a $3 billion system of 11 hospitals across Wisconsin and northern Michigan.
    • “The proposed deal would make Sanford Marshfield’s parent company, creating a 56-hospital system with Sanford’s name, CEO, and headquarters in Sioux Falls, S.D. The combined system would have about 56,000 employees, 4,300 doctors and advanced practice providers, two health plans with more than 425,000 members, specialty pharmacies, and research institutions. The systems said they plan to close the deal by the end of the year.
    • “Sanford CEO Bill Gassen told STAT in an interview that Sanford and Marshfield are a good fit not only from a regulatory perspective — they have no overlapping coverage areas — but more importantly, from a cultural one. He said both nonprofit systems strive to deliver world-class care in rural areas. They both want strong physician leaders. They both have big health plans. They both do research and train doctors.”
  • Bloomberg relates,
    • Purdue Pharma LP secured a two-month window to negotiate a new pact with members of the Sackler family as the OyxContin maker and its owners brace for a potential wave of civil opioid lawsuits after the US Supreme Court scuttled an earlier $6 billion settlement.
    • “Judge Sean Lane said during a Tuesday court hearing in New York that he’d extend for 60 days an injunction that, for years, has paused opioid litigation against the billionaire family while Purdue, government authorities and victims lawyers attempted to effectuate the earlier settlement.
    • “Advisers who negotiated the earlier deal will attempt to cut a new agreement during the two-month window that complies with the Supreme Court’s ruling. Such a settlement, if successful, would likely compensate victims and provide billions of dollars to fund programs to combat the nation’s opioid addiction crisis.” 
  • Healthcare Dive lets us know,
  • and
    • offers more insights into the 2024 Medicare Advantage star rating changes that CMS made recently in response to court decision.
  • The New York Times points out that “In Constant Battle With Insurers, Doctors Reach for a Cudgel: A.I. As health plans increasingly rely on technology to deny treatment, physicians are fighting back with chatbots that synthesize research and make the case.”
  • ICD-10 Monitor asks us whether we are ready for the new ICD-10 diagnosis codes that take effect October 1, 2024.
  • Drug Channel peers into its crystal ball to project prescription drug spending in 2032.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • Roll Call lets us know,
    • “Senate Appropriations Committee leaders have agreed to add $34.5 billion in emergency spending to their fiscal 2025 bills on top of levels agreed to in last year’s debt limit negotiations, sources familiar with the talks said Monday. 
    • “Under the pact between Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., and ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, defense accounts would receive an extra $21 billion in emergency spending while nondefense programs would get $13.5 billion.” 
  • Taking a gander at reginfo.gov led the FEHBlog to discover that on July 1, the final version of the simply infeasible federal mental health parity rule changes was submitted to OIRA for its review.
  • In yesterday’s post, the FEHBlog called attention to the new CMS GUIDE program. The post noted that program details would be released in early July. What do you know? Those details were posted today. The American Hospital News tells us,
    • “The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services July 8 announced over 400 participants in a new model focused on improving dementia care. The Guiding an Improved Dementia Experience (GUIDE) Model began July 1 and seeks to reduce strain on unpaid caregivers as well as offer care coordination and management, caregiver education and support, and respite services. CMS will also test an alternative payment for participants delivering key support services to people with dementia, including comprehensive, person-centered assessments and care plans, care coordination, and 24/7 access to a support line. People with dementia and their caregivers will have access to a care navigator to help them access services and support, including clinical services and non-clinical services such as meals and transportation through community-based organizations.”
  • The HHS Inspector General posted an impact brief on Medicare Advantage program fraud involving its risk adjustment program. The Wall Street Journal published an article the same type of fraud today.
  • STAT News informs us,
    • “The Biden administration has appealed a decision in which a federal court jury last year sided with Gilead Sciences over the rights to a pair of groundbreaking HIV pills — and at least $1 billion in royalties may be at stake.
    • “At issue is a battle over patents for Truvada and a newer, upgraded version called Descovy — two highly effective and lucrative medications — as well as the role played by the federal government in making it possible to prevent transmission of a highly infectious disease that plagued the American public for decades.
    • “The U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which had funded academic research into HIV prevention that later formed the basis for the pills, maintained that Gilead infringed its patent rights. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also contended that the company refused to reach a licensing agreement despite several attempts to strike a deal.” * * *
    • “U.S. District Court Judge Maryellen Noreika narrowed the Gilead victory last March when she set aside the jury finding that CDC patents were not infringed. So the appeal filed by the U.S. Department of Justice — on behalf of HHS — refers to the only portion of the jury finding that remains, which is that the patents were invalid.”
  • Per an FDA press release,
    • “Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is advancing its mission of ensuring the public has access to accurate, up-to-date science-based information to inform decisions about FDA-regulated medical products to maintain and improve their health. The agency is providing updated recommendations to empower industry seeking to voluntarily address misinformation about or related to their approved/cleared medical products.” * * *
    • “Specifically, the revised draft guidance, Addressing Misinformation About Medical Devices and Prescription Drugs Questions and Answers, sets out a policy that supports companies that issue certain kinds of internet-based communications (“tailored responsive communications”) to address internet-based misinformation about or related to their approved/cleared medical products when that misinformation is created or disseminated by an independent third party. For example, a company might choose to use this type of communication when a celebrity, healthcare provider or influencer, not acting on behalf of the company, posts false, inaccurate and/or misleading representations of fact about the company’s approved/cleared medical product on social media. Additionally, this revised draft guidance provides companies with many examples that illustrate the types of misinformation found online that a company might choose to address with a tailored responsive communication, along with some considerations relevant to the current digital information environment.”
  • Govexec tells us,
    • “The Office of Personnel Management lost a small modicum of ground in its fight to reduce the backlog of pending retirement claims from federal employees as the agency’s backlog of cases inched back over 15,000.
    • “In June, OPM received 6,919 new retirement requests from departing federal workers, a slight increase over the 6,751 claims it received the previous month. But the agency’s pace in processing those claims fell precipitously, completing only 5,614 claims last month compared to the 8,793 it processed in May.
    • “That deficit led to OPM’s overall backlog of pending claims to climb from 14,035—an eight-year low—in May to 15,340 at the end of June. Consequently, the monthly average processing time for a retirement application ticked up four days, from 60 in May to 64 last month, though measured since the beginning of fiscal 2024, the average processing time has remained static at 61 days for four months running.”
  • The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is celebrating its 40th anniversary. The FEHBlog is reminded that the FEHB Act will be 65 years old on September 28, 2024.

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The New York Times reports,
    • “The process for diagnosing a child with autism heavily relies on a parent’s description of their child’s behavior and a professional’s observations. It leaves plenty of room for human error.
    • “Parents’ concerns may skew how they answer questionnaires. Providers may hold biases, leading them to underdiagnose certain groups. Children may show widely varying symptoms, depending on factors like culture and gender.
    • “A study published Monday in Nature Microbiology bolsters a growing body of research that suggests an unlikely path to more objective autism diagnoses: the gut microbiome.
    • “After analyzing more than 1,600 stool samples from children ages 1 to 13, researchers found several distinct biological “markers” in the samples of autistic children. Unique traces of gut bacteria, fungi, viruses and more could one day be the basis of a diagnostic tool, said Qi Su, a researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a lead author of the study.”
  • The American Medical Association tells us what doctors wish their patient knew about heat stroke.
  • The Wall Street Journal discusses the right and wrong ways for people to snack.
    • “America is a nation of snackers. A lot of us are doing it wrong. 
    • “Noshing outside of traditional mealtimes isn’t inherently bad. A snack can stave off hunger, boost energy, provide important nutrients and keep us from overeating later. But snacking can also lead us to eat extra calories and overdo it on sodium, added sugars and saturated fats, which can raise our risk of heart disease and obesity. 
    • “How to snack better? Reach for food combinations that keep you fuller longer: Pair carbs like apple slices with protein and fats, like peanut butter. Or try yogurt with berries. Then plan your snack times, and watch out for the minefield that is evening snacking.”
  • The Washington Post and Consumer Reports offer information about “an aggressive tick species spreading across the U.S. Lone star ticks don’t spread Lyme disease, but they can transmit other serious diseases and are linked to a mysterious meat allergy. And the threat is growing.”
    • “Lone star ticks have long been firmly established in the Southeastern United States. In recent decades, however, their numbers have been increasing in Midwestern and Northeastern states. Between 2017 and 2021, according to CDC data, nearly half of reported ehrlichiosis cases were in five states: Arkansas, Missouri, New York, North Carolina and Tennessee.”
  • The CDC has posted FAQs on infertility. “This page has definitions and frequently asked questions related to infertility. It has important information about infertility, including common misconceptions, risk factors, and treatment options.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review points out,
    • “GLP-1 drugs such as Ozempic and Wegovy may lower the risk of developing certain obesity-related cancers, according to a new study from researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. 
    • “Researchers found people with type 2 diabetes who were being treated with the medications were significantly less likely to develop 10 of 13 obesity-associated cancers than those taking insulin, according to the findings published July 5 in JAMA Network Open. The retrospective study is based on an analysis of the medical records of over 1.6 million type 2 diabetes patients from 2005 to 2018.
    • “The risk was reduced by more than half for gallbladder cancer, meningioma, pancreatic cancer and hepatocellular carcinoma. Esophageal, colorectal, endometrial, ovarian, multiple myeloma and kidney were among the other cancers for which there was a significant risk reduction. The study did not find a difference in cancer risk reduction among those treated with GLP-1s compared with those taking metformin, an older diabetes drug. 
    • “In an interview with Bloomberg, Arif Kamal, MD, chief patient officer at the American Cancer Society and who was not involved in the research, called the new evidence on GLP-1s “compelling.”
  • Per Fierce Pharma,
    • “In examining the electronic records of more than 18,000 overweight or obese adults in the United States, health data analytics company Truveta found that Lilly’s tirzepatide helped patients lose more weight than Novo’s semaglutide, with the effects growing over time.
    • “Results of the study, which looked at data from May of 2022 and September of 2023, were published Monday in the JAMA Internal Medicine monthly review.
    • “”After use of tirzepatide for three months, patients lost an average of 5.9% of their body weight compared to 3.6% for semaglutide. Over a year’s time, those on tirzepatide lost an average of 15.3% of their body weight compared to 8.3% for semaglutide users.
    • Additionally, tirzepatide patients were much more likely to lose 15% of their body weight than those using semaglutide. While 42% of those on tirzepatide reached the benchmark after one year of treatment, only 18% of those on semaglutide could say the same. 
    • “Lilly’s tirzepatide is the active ingredient found in its diabetes product Mounjaro and its obesity treatment Zepbound, while Novo’s semaglutide is the compound used to make its diabetes blockbuster Ozempic and its obesity follow-on Wegovy.
    • “Importantly, the Truveta study looked at the drugs that are approved for diabetes. The authors noted that “future studies are needed to compare versions labeled for weight loss.”
  • Per an NIH press release,
    • “A series of experiments with highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza (HPAI H5N1) viruses circulating in infected U.S. dairy cattle found that viruses derived from lactating dairy cattle induced severe disease in mice and ferrets when administered via intranasal inoculation. The virus from the H5N1-infected cows bound to both avian (bird) and human-type cellular receptors, but, importantly, did not transmit efficiently among ferrets exposed via respiratory droplets. The findings, published in Nature, suggest that bovine (cow) HPAI H5N1 viruses may differ from previous HPAI H5N1 viruses and that these viruses may possess features that could facilitate infection and transmission among mammals. However, they currently do not appear capable of efficient respiratory transmission between animals or people.”
  • MedPage Today lets us know,
    • “Extended-release 7-day injectable buprenorphine was safe and tolerable for most patients who had minimal-to-mild opioid withdrawal, a nonrandomized trial found.
    • “Among 100 adult patients with minimal-to-mild opioid withdrawal scores who were given a 24-mg dose of extended-release buprenorphine, only 10 people (10%, 95% CI 4.9%-17.6%) saw a 5-point or greater jump in withdrawal symptoms within 4 hours of injection, reported Gail D’Onofrio, MD, of the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, CT, and colleagues.” * * *
    • “The study examined whether patients with untreated opioid use disorder (OUD) and minimal-to-mild withdrawal could tolerate a 7-day dose of buprenorphine. Patients with OUD typically aren’t treated with medication until they are in significant withdrawal, due to fear of precipitated withdrawal. For that reason, “[n]o one has ever even attempted to give buprenorphine in that [0 to 7] range,” D’Onofrio said.” * * *
    • “[This is a real game-changer for emergency physicians and clinicians, even in the clinic, who would be able to induce people on buprenorphine much earlier than they previously could have,” D’Onofrio said.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “Eli Lilly LLY has agreed to buy biopharmaceutical company Morphic Holding MORF for $3.2 billion in a deal that bolsters the drugmaker’s immunology pipeline.
    • “Eli Lilly on Monday said it would pay $57 a share for Morphic, a 79% premium to Friday’s closing price of $31.84 for the Waltham, Mass., company.
    • “Morphic is developing therapies for the treatment of serious chronic diseases, with a lead program targeting the inflammatory bowel diseases ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
    • “Eli Lilly late last year won U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval of its Omvoh treatment for moderately to severely active ulcerative colitis in adults.
    • “Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly said it expects to complete the acquisition, which isn’t subject to any financing conditions, in the third quarter.”
  • Modern Healthcare relates,
    • “More than half of people surveyed would feel just as safe getting hospital-level care at home as they would in a facility, according to the University of Southern California’s Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics.
    • “Healthcare systems across the country are placing big bets on hospital-at-home programs, pushing access to more rural communities and lobbying state Medicaid programs to reimburse for the service. A Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services waiver reimbursing for acute care at home expires at the end of this year, but bipartisan members of Congress are backing legislation that would provide Medicare reimbursement for another five years. More than 330 hospitals across 37 states offer hospital-level care at-home programs through the CMS Acute Hospital Care at Home waiver.” * * *
    • “The survey did not require participants to have prior experience with hospital-level care at home or knowledge of the service. It did provide participants with a brief explanation of how hospital-at-home programs operate.”
  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “A recent proposal to report prior authorization to insurance plans through CPT codes was withdrawn at the eleventh hour when its physician advocate made an unexpected discovery: For certain codes and in very narrow circumstances, the prior auth requirements were already in place.
    • “Alex Shteynshlyuger, M.D., director of urology with New York Urology Specialists, had previously brought forward a time-based proposal that would ensure physicians are compensated for time spent on prior auth claims. He believed the changes would also reduce the number of claim requirements imposed by plans and limit the amount of appeals and could lead to better patient outcomes.
    • “Following the proposal, however, the American Medical Association (AMA) informed Shteynshlyuger that prior authorization is already explicitly mentioned in official procedure descriptions for half a dozen CPT codes. This required Shteynshlyuger to withdraw the proposal so he could revise and resubmit at a later date.
    • “Each CPT code includes a short description detailing the type of visit or examination. Longer descriptions—where the prior auth mentions were contained—are also stored in databases that can be purchased, but those are rarely encountered.
    • “As a matter of fact, I’ve never seen the long description in my lifetime,” said Shteynshlyuger.”
  • and
    • “Nearly 5 million fewer people delayed care from 2019 to 2022, a study from the Urban Institute with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation revealed.
    • “The study shows 4.75 million non-elderly Americans skipped necessary medical care, dropping from 12.1% to 9.7% in 2022.
    • “For families below 138% of the federal poverty line, there was a 27% reduction in cost barriers. A 19% reduction was evident for families between 138% and 249% of the federal poverty line.
    • “Researchers say these outcomes are a direct result of the Medicaid continuous coverage requirements and enhanced tax credits.
    • “Our findings show significant improvements in health insurance coverage and healthcare access under federal and state policy changes enacted during the public health emergency,” said Michael Karpman, principal research associate at the Urban Institute, in a statement. “The continued unwinding of the Medicaid continuous coverage requirement and the potential expiration of enhanced Marketplace subsidies after 2025 could make these gains in coverage and access difficult to sustain.”

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • KFF Health News reports,
    • “U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared firearm violence a public health crisis, as gun deaths and injuries punctuate daily life in America.
    • “On nearly every day of 2024 so far, a burst of gunfire has hit at least four people somewhere in the country. Some days, communities have endured four or five such shootings.
    • “The nation’s top doctor called on policymakers to consider gun safety measures such as bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and universal background checks for all firearm purchases. His advisory also urges a “significant increase” in funding for research on gun injuries and deaths, as well as greater access to mental health care and trauma-informed resources for people who have experienced firearm violence.”
  • NPR discusses what the declaration will do.
  • The U.S. Public Health Service Task Force issued a draft recommendation today which “concludes that the current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of screening for food insecurity on health outcomes in the primary care setting.” The public comment period ends on July 22, 2024.
  • Reg Jones, writing in FedWeek, explains “Earning, Accumulating and Using Sick Leave in the Federal Government.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The Washington Post reports,
    • “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned clinicians, health authorities and the public Tuesday about an increased risk for dengue virus infections in the United States because of the record-breaking global incidence of the mosquito-borne viral disease.
    • “In the first six months of 2024, countries in the Americas have reported more than 9.7 million dengue cases, twice as many as in all of 2023, exceeding the highest number ever recorded in a single year, the CDC said in a health advisory. Puerto Rico declared a public health emergency because of the unusually high number of cases reported in the winter and spring, the dry season, when dengue cases are typically low.
    • “Since January, 745 dengue cases have been identified among U.S. travelers who became infected abroad, the agency said. Dengue cases typically increase during the warmest months that are yet to come. Last year, there were 1,829 travel-associated cases in the U.S. * * *
    • “With increased global and domestic incidence of dengue, the CDC is urging health-care providers to be on the lookout for dengue among people with fever who have been in areas with dengue transmission within 14 days of the start of illness. Infants, pregnant people, adults over 65 years old and people with certain medical conditions are at increased risk for severe dengue.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review lets us know,
    • “Teva Pharmaceuticals is launching the first authorized generic of Victoza, the first generic GLP-1 product available in the United States.
    • “By launching an authorized generic for Victoza (liraglutide injection 1.8mg), we are providing patients with type 2 diabetes another option for this important treatment,” Ernie Richardsen, SVP, Head of U.S. Commercial Generics at Teva, said in a June 24 news release.”
  • Highlighting the importance of a generic GLP-1 product is this Wall Street Journal article reporting that
    • Blockbuster obesity drug Wegovy has been approved in China, opening the door for maker Novo Nordisk to begin selling it in the world’s second-largest economy, where the appetite for similar treatments is surging. * * *
    • “Novo Nordisk’s Ozempic drug—which contains the same semaglutide active ingredient as Wegovy—was approved to treat diabetes in China in 2021. Sales of the drug in the country more than doubled on year in 2023, reaching 4.82 billion Danish kroner ($693.6 million).
    • “Demand for weight-loss drugs is surging in China, where the proportion of overweight and obese adults reached almost 51% in 2022, creating a frenzy among local manufacturers to develop their own versions of the popular treatments, especially as Novo Nordisk’s semaglutide patent expires there in 2026, which will pave the way for generic versions.”
  • MedPage Today notes,
    • “Disrupted circadian rhythms in cognitively normal adults were tied to higher subsequent amyloid-beta levels, prospective data showed.
    • “Higher daily variability at baseline — an indicator of fragmented 24-hour activity rhythms — was associated with higher PET amyloid burden 8 years later (β=0.15, P=0.02) after adjusting for age, sex, APOE4 status, and other factors, according to Julia Neitzel, PhD, of Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and co-authors. * * *
    • “Considerable interest surrounds the role of sleep dysfunction in the development of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia,” observed Matthew Pase, PhD, of Monash University in Victoria, Australia, who wasn’t involved with the study.
    • “If poor sleep contributes to dementia, improving sleep symptomatology could be one strategy to lower dementia risk,” he told MedPage Today.
  • NPR discusses why “Your gut microbes may influence how you handle stress.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Beckers Hospital Review reports,
    • “The University of Alabama System’s board of trustees unanimously approved an agreement to acquire Ascension St. Vincent’s Health System.
    • “Birmingham-based UAB will assume ownership of all Ascension St. Vincent’s care sites under the agreement, announced June 25. The transaction still needs approval from federal regulators and the Catholic Church. UAB and Ascension expect the $450 million deal to close in the fall of 2024, according to the Shelby County Reporter.
  • and
    • identifies the twenty most socially responsible hospitals in the U.S., per Lown Institute. Duke Regional Hospital, in Durham, NC, leads the pack.
  • Per Fierce Pharma,
    • “Physicians don’t mind patients choosing at-home testing options over coming in for an in-person clinic visit—in fact, they overwhelmingly support it, according to the results of a new survey.
    • “Ixlayer’s report this week is based on a poll of more than 140 U.S. physicians representing a variety of specialties. All together, nearly 90% agreed that at-home tests are more convenient to many patients and can improve access to diagnostic care, and almost as many said they believe offering at-home testing options can help speed up diagnoses and, ultimately, improve patient outcomes.
    • “There is a large subset of my patients where making routine office visits is difficult, either complicated by age, travel time, costs, or time constraints. So I see having a convenient, at-home solution as a plus for improving medical care,” one of the survey’s respondents said.
    • “The overwhelming majority of the doctors surveyed, 91% of the group, said they were open to providing at-home testing kits to their patients, and 80% agreed that the remote tests could support or even enhance the healthcare system’s existing workflows.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From Washington, DC

  • The U.S. Office of Personnel Management recently posted new Postal Service Health Benefits Program FAQs concerning its May 2024 proposed rule supplementing existing guidance on that program. The public comment period on that proposed rule is next Monday June 24.
    • Here’s an FAQ on a point that the FEHBlog mentioned but he has not seen in any other publication:
      • While the proposed rule reflects that Medicare Part D-eligible annuitants and their Part D-eligible family members would be automatically group enrolled into the Part D EGWP, it reflects that they may choose to opt out of receiving prescription drug coverage through the PSHB Part D EGWP. This proposed rule provides, consistent with the statute, that the Part D EGWP offered by their PSHB plan is the only PSHB prescription drug benefit available for Part D-eligible PSHB annuitants and their Part D-eligible covered family members. As proposed, Medicare Part D-eligible annuitants and their family members who choose to opt out of or disenroll from the PSHB plan’s Part D EGWP would not have access to prescription drug benefits through their PSHB plan and would not pay a lower premium than those enrolled in the Part D EGWP. An individual who opts out of or disenrolls from the Part D EGWP would be allowed to enroll again during the next open season or an applicable Qualifying Life Event (QLE) if they wish.
  • Federal News Network tells us,
    • “While years in the making, the Office of Personnel Management’s upcoming plans to try to cut down on unneeded health insurance costs will also arrive to open arms from the Government Accountability Office.
    • “Beginning in 2025, OPM is adding stricter eligibility requirements to try to root out ineligible enrollees in the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) program — something that’s been high on GAO’s radar for at least the last few years. A 2022 GAO report showed that OPM spends up to $1 billion each year on ineligible participants erroneously enrolled in FEHB.
    • “One of the biggest benefit systems in the country, and for decades, nobody checked these things,” Comptroller General Gene Dodaro told lawmakers on the House Oversight and Accountability Committee during a June 13 hearing. * * *
    • “Current FEHB eligibility determination and enrollment is highly decentralized and requires cooperation between nearly 100 employing offices responsible for determining eligibility and enrolling more than 8 million members,” OPM said in April. “If funded, OPM could extend this same central enrollment system to all FEHB enrollments, which would allow OPM to manage and make consistent all FEHB enrollments and remove individuals who cease to be eligible for the program.”
    • “OPM, as part of its fiscal 2025 budget request, is proposing legislation to build a centralized enrollment system for FEHB. With a central database, OPM would be able to more quickly address the problem and avoid the spending errors. That system, if it’s implemented, would be modeled after the centralized system OPM just recently built for the upcoming Postal Service Health Benefits program.”
      • FEHBlog note — While all of this is welcome progress, the most glaring, and as yet unresolved, internal control issue is that OPM reports enrollment and premiums to carriers separately rather than using the HIPAA standard electronic enrollment roster transaction 820 which would allow carriers to reconcile each enrollee with his or her premium payments. Carriers are entitled to this reconcilable information because they hold the insurance risk on these plans. Moreover, shouldn’t we make sure that the enrollee is paying the correct premium before checking family member eligibility?
  • The New York Times reports,
    • “The U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, announced on Monday that he would push for a warning label on social media platforms advising parents that using the platforms might damage adolescents’ mental health.
    • “Warning labels — like those that appear on tobacco and alcohol products — are one of the most powerful tools available to the nation’s top health official, but Dr. Murthy cannot unilaterally require them; the action requires approval by Congress.”
  • STAT News adds,
    • “His call to action on Monday was more strident, garnering praise from advocates of stricter social media controls, especially for young people. “Yes, this is a consumer product that is unsafe for children and teens,” wrote NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, a strong proponent of limiting phone time, on X.
    • “But for several experts operating in this field, the type and extent of social media harm exacted on children isn’t quite as clear as Murthy seems to suggest. Indeed, said Michaeline Jensen, a psychologist at the University of South Carolina, Greensboro, there isn’t sufficient evidence to conclude social media is safe — but there isn’t enough to conclude the opposite, either.
  • STAT News also lets us know,
    • “The Food and Drug Administration on Monday approved Merck’s new pneumococcal vaccine for adults 18 and older.
    • “The vaccine, which will be sold under the name Capvaxive, is designed to protect against pneumococcal pneumonia, which hospitalizes about 150,000 adults in the United States every year and kills about 1 in 20 who develop it, according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. * * *
    • “Before Capvaxive can be put into use, it must receive a recommendation from the CDC. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which advises the CDC on vaccination policy, meets next week for one of its three regularly scheduled meetings. A draft agenda for the meeting shows that a vote on Capvaxive is scheduled for Thursday, June 27.”
  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced on Monday that is gearing up to end a program that offered financial assistance to providers impacted by the cyberattack on Change Healthcare.
    • “The agency said that the accelerated and advance payment program launched in response to the hack will end on July 12. The initiative sought to ease cash-flow disruptions that were caused by the cyberattack.

From the public health and medical research front,

  • STAT News reports,
    • “The hope for many cancer patients who go through surgery is that they’ll be cured after the surgeon removes the tumor. The question that lingers is whether they got it all out — if the surgery happened in time before cancer cells scattered off of the primary tumor to seed unseen metastases or if some microscopic malignancy was left behind near the original cancer site.
    • “To answer this question, clinicians are increasingly turning to blood tests that detect circulating tumor DNA, known as ctDNA. The idea is that finding tumor DNA in the blood probably means that cancer cells are still growing somewhere in the body, even at a low level. These tests are starting to be used in a variety of cancers — and for the most part, clinicians agree that if the test is positive, the cancer will likely recur. The trouble is that scientists aren’t sure what should happen next.
    • “We are all recognizing that if a patient has detectable circulating tumor DNA, it’s not a question of if the cancer’s coming back, but when,” said Van Morris, a gastrointestinal medical oncologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center. “The field recognizes the power of this tool, but I think there remain many questions of how best do we utilize that in the day-to-day management of patients.”
    • “Some of those questions include whether clinicians should step up the intensity of treatment if patients are positive for ctDNA, whether they should step down treatment if patients are negative for ctDNA, or how long they should treat patients. And if you do any of these things, it’s still not clear if that would have any meaningful impact on patients’ overall survival or quality of life in most settings. The only way to answer these questions will be by confirming hypotheses in prospective randomized trials, which are ongoing.”
  • Per BioPharma Dive,
    • “New data showcase promise, growing pains of CAR-T in autoimmune disease.
    • “While one expert described clinical trial results to date as “unprecedented,” reports of relapses in some patients drew questions about the therapies’ ultimate potential.”
  • The Washington Post and Consumer Reports points out,
    • “Five diet changes that can help lower blood pressure.
    • “Adding potassium and cutting back on alcohol can help reduce the need for meds if you have hypertension, or even prevent it in the first place.”
  • The Washington Post reports,
    • “Born last November, Fern had blood drawn from her heel for North Carolina’s mandatory newborn screening, which tested for more than 60 medical conditions. Nothing was found. That could have been the end of the story. Instead, Tiffany and her husband, Matthew Vogt, a physician and scientist in Durham, decided to take the nonprofit research institute RTI International up on a groundbreaking offer.
    • “Free of charge, parents in North Carolina can have experts conduct a more extensive scan and review their baby’s entire genetic blueprint for 200 different conditions. One is Pendred syndrome, a condition not covered by the standard, more limited newborn screening.
    • “Researchers in North Carolina and New York are studying whether this far more comprehensive approach can save lives and improve children’s health. Two decades after scientists sequenced the first human genome, the two studies reflect the rapid emergence of a new kind of health care called genomic medicine, spawned by that landmark achievement.
    • “Early results show that genome sequencing is identifying conditions not disclosed through the traditional newborn screening required by all 50 states. Since the study in North Carolina began in September 2023, researchers have examined the genomes of more than 1,800 babies; 40 were deemed likely to have medical conditions that were not previously diagnosed. One newborn was flagged as likely to have two previously undiagnosed conditions.
    • “Some of those were for potentially life-threatening conditions,” said Holly Peay, lead investigator for the Early Check program led by RTI International.
    • “Since launching the GUARDIAN program with its collaborators in September 2022, New York State has sequenced the genomes of more than 10,000 babies; 299 tested positive for one of the 450 conditions the state has focused on.
    • “For one child, it was even lifesaving,” said Wendy Chung, head of pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital, who is leading New York’s study.”
  • The National Institutes of Health announced,
    • “The prevalence of chronic hypertension in pregnancy in the United States doubled from 2007-2021, but only about 60% of those with the potentially life-threatening condition were treated with antihypertensive medications, according to a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-supported study of nearly 2 million pregnancies. The study, which was funded by NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), did not explore the reasons for the increase, but rising maternal age, growing obesity rates, and other factors likely played a role, according to researchers. The findings were published today in the journal Hypertension.
    • “These findings are deeply concerning because of the high rate of U.S. maternal mortality, which is linked to chronic hypertension in pregnancy,” said study lead Stephanie Leonard, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at Stanford University School of Medicine in California. “Despite the availability of safe and effective treatments for chronic hypertension, the study speaks to an urgent need for improvement in care for this serious condition.” * * *
    • “To manage hypertension during pregnancy, experts recommend that women check their blood pressure at home and keep it under control, visit with a doctor often, and take antihypertensive medications as prescribed.”
  • Per a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration press release,
    • “Researchers from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that among a cohort of 137,000 Medicare beneficiaries who experienced a nonfatal overdose in 2020, almost 24,000 (17.4%) experienced a subsequent nonfatal overdose, and about 1,300 (1%) died from overdose in the following year. Results were published today in JAMA Internal Medicine, identifying both effective interventions and significant gaps in care.
    • “People who have experienced one overdose are more likely to experience another,” said Miriam E. Delphin-Rittmon, Ph.D., HHS Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use and the leader of SAMHSA. “But we found that when survivors received gold-standard care such as medications for opioid use disorder and naloxone, the chances of dying from an overdose in the following year drop dramatically. In short, medications for opioid use disorder, opioid overdose reversal medications, and behavioral health supports save lives.”
    • “The study identifies effective, lifesaving interventions following initial nonfatal overdoses. The odds of dying from a subsequent lethal overdose decreased among cohort members who received methadone (58% lower odds), buprenorphine (52% lower odds), or behavioral health assessment or crisis services (75% lower odds). The risk of overdose mortality among those who filled a prescription for naloxone was also reduced by 30%.
    • “However, significant gaps in care were also noted. Only 4.1% of the cohort received medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD), and only 6.2% filled a prescription for naloxone, commonly known as Narcan, despite these being gold-standard interventions. Beneficiaries receiving MOUD waited a mean of 72 days between their nonfatal overdose and receiving medication.”
  • STAT News reports,
    • “E-cigarettes were about as effective at helping people quit smoking as the gold-standard pharmaceutical drug, varenicline, according to a clinical trial published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine.
    • “The trial randomized 458 people who smoked daily and wanted to quit to receive either a nicotine-containing e-cigarette and placebo tablets, varenicline and an e-cigarette without nicotine, or a placebo tablet and a nicotine-free e-cigarette for 12 weeks. All three groups were also given intensive tobacco cessation counseling.
    • “After 26 weeks, roughly equal percentages of participants using varenicline and e-cigarettes — 43.8 percent and 40.4 percent, respectively — had stopped smoking. The difference in quit rates between the two groups was not statistically significant.
    • “The JAMA study is the first published randomized controlled trial to compare varenicline, also known as Chantix, directly to e-cigarettes. Several studies have demonstrated that e-cigarettes can help adults quit smoking. However, most studies have compared e-cigarettes to placebo alone, or to nicotine replacement therapy, such as patches and lozenges, which help smokers manage their withdrawal symptoms.
    • “The trial is likely to cause a stir within the tobacco-control community, which has been bitterly divided over the question of whether e-cigarettes are a help or hindrance for adults who smoke cigarettes, and whether they should be recommended by doctors as a way to kick a smoking habit. While countries like the United Kingdom actively encourage smokers to use these products to help them quit cigarettes, nations including the United States and Japan have been far more conservative. Backers of e-cigarettes say this study shows the U.K. has the right idea.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • In Medicare Advantage STAR ratings news, Modern Healthcare tells us,
    • “Nonprofit health insurance companies historically have outperformed for-profit competitors on star ratings and could be disadvantaged when their rivals are boosted, but the Alliance of Community Health Plans doesn’t see a concern.
    • “It is equitable that plans that are going to have their scores recalculated for ’24 and have a change in their revenue have a chance to modify their ’25 bids because they were at a different place when they submitted it,” said Michael Bagel, associate vice president of public policy at the trade group for nonprofit insurers.
    • “Allowing only insurers that get increased scores to resubmit bids could provoke lawsuits, Meekins said. “There’s still the potential for legal challenges to that because there’s a bit of game theory that goes into the bid process and what you think other people are going to do,” he said.
    • “CMS has not said how it will handle star ratings for 2025, whether it will reinstitute the methods the courts overturned on technical grounds or whether it will appeal the Elevance Health and SCAN Health Plan decisions.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review identifies “37 health systems with strong operational metrics and solid financial positions, according to reports from credit rating agencies Fitch Ratings and Moody’s Investors Service released in 2024.”
  • Fierce Healthcare offers a special report naming “the top 10 nonprofit health systems by 2023 operating revenue.”
  • MedCity News relates
    • “Retailers are facing several headwinds in healthcare in 2024. Walmart and Dollar General both recently ended healthcare endeavors, and CVS Health is reportedly looking for a private equity partner for Oak Street Health (which it acquired in 2023). VillageMD, which is backed by Walgreens, is shuttering numerous clinics.
    • “Still, Mary Langowski, executive vice president and president of U.S. healthcare at Walgreens Boots Alliance, sees a strong future for retailers in healthcare.
    • “I happen to be very bullish on the role of retail in healthcare and frankly, having a very central role in healthcare,” she said. “And part of that is because over 80% of people want health and wellness offerings in a pharmacy and in a retail setting. Consumers want the ease, they want the convenience of it. And those are important things to keep in mind, that demand is there.”
    • “Langowski, who joined Walgreens in March, made these comments during a Tuesday fireside chat at the AHIP 2024 conference held in Las Vegas. She added that what the industry is seeing is not an “evolution” of whether retailers will exist in healthcare, but a shift around what the “right model is going to be.” 
  • The Washington Post notes,
    • “If your doctor can’t see you now, maybe the nurse practitioner can.
    • “Nurse practitioners have long been a reliable backstop for the primary-care-physician shortfall, which is estimated at nearly 21,000 doctors this year and projected to get worse.
    • “But easy access to NPs could be tested in coming years. Even though nearly 90 percent of nurse practitioners are certified to work in primary care, only about a third choose the field, according to a recent study.
    • “Health-care workforce experts worry that NPs are being lured toward work in specialty practices for the same reason that some doctors steer clear of primary care: money.”


Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Washington, DC

  • Chief Healthcare Executive lets us know,
    • Telehealth advocates have said this year represents the Super Bowl for virtual healthcare, and the game is about at halftime.
    • On the upside, telehealth leaders remain confident that Congress will approve legislation that would allow health systems and providers to continue offering virtual care and hospital-at-home programs.
    • But lawmakers may not act until late in the fourth quarter [in other words, the expected lame duck session following the November’s national election].
  • Roll Call informs us,
    • “The Supreme Court will decide a dispute about hospital reimbursement rates under Medicare, with hundreds of hospitals arguing the government had shorted them for treating low-income patients.
    • More than 200 hospitals in more than 30 states, led by Advocate Christ Medical Center in Illinois, have asked the justices to overturn a lower court ruling that allows the Department of Health and Human Services to reimburse a lower rate for treating a high proportion of low-income patients. The dispute, which the hospitals said could affect more than $4 billion in federal funds, hinges on how to determine which patients count toward that reimbursement rate and follows a 2022 Supreme Court decision over the same program.
    • The justices announced Monday that they would decide the case, which means oral arguments and a decision would come in the next term that starts in October.
  • Federal News Network tells us,
    • “The Chief Human Capital Officers (CHCO) Council has a new face taking the lead to collaborate on human capital initiatives and strategies across government.”
    • “Colleen Heller-Stein, formerly deputy CHCO at the Treasury Department, has stepped in as executive director of the CHCO Council, Federal News Network has learned. The senior-level position within the Office of Personnel Management leads agency CHCOs and other human capital leaders to innovate on best practices for managing the recruitment and retention of the federal workforce.
    • “Heller-Stein is the first career federal executive to serve in the CHCO Council leadership role. She took over the position a few weeks ago from Latonia Page, who had been working as acting executive director of the CHCO Council since September 2023. Prior to Page’s time on the job, Margot Conrad — currently deputy chief of staff at OPM — served as the council’s executive director for about two and a half years.”‘

From the public health and medical research front,

  • KFF expresses concern about the general unavailability of bird flu tests.
    • “A recent rule that gives the FDA more oversight of lab-developed tests may bog down authorization. In a statement to KFF Health News, the FDA said that, for now, it may allow tests to proceed without a full approval process. The CDC did not respond to requests for comment.”
    • “But the American Clinical Laboratory Association has asked the FDA and the CDC for clarity on the new rule. “It’s slowing things down because it’s adding to the confusion about what is allowable,” said Susan Van Meter, president of the diagnostic laboratory trade group.
    • “Labcorp, Quest Diagnostics, and other major testing companies are in the best position to manage a surge in testing demand because they can process hundreds per day, rather than dozens. But that would require adapting testing processes for their specialized equipment, a process that consumes time and money, said Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at the Mayo Clinic.
    • “There’s only been a handful of H5N1 cases in humans the last few years,” he said, “so it’s hard for them to invest millions when we don’t know the future.”
  • The Wall Street Journal offers guidance on how people can improve the deathbed experiences of loved ones.
  • Beckers Hospital Review points out,
    • “Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins School of Nursing is addressing community needs by taking primary care door to door, NPR reported June 11.
    • “The Neighborhood Nursing pilot program consists of a team of nurses and community health workers that make weekly visits to three apartment buildings in Johnston Square, a predominantly Black disadvantaged neighborhood. The visits are free to patients and are not dependent on health status, income or what type of insurance, if any, they have. Visits are done in people’s homes, senior centers, lobbies, libraries and anywhere else people can be found. 
    • “In the time it has run, Neighborhood Nursing has successfully helped patients receive care and has expedited physicians’ appointments as needed. However, the greatest challenge is funding.”
  • Per Healio,
    • “From 2010 to 2021, most high and moderate risk factors for preeclampsia increased in the U.S.
    • “Multifetal gestation and nulliparity were the only preeclampsia risk factors to decrease during this period.”
  • Per BioPharma Dive,
    • “Pharmaceutical companies employ many different strategies when building their cancer drug pipelines, but one recent commonality among them is a belief in the future of targeted therapies known as antibody-drug conjugates.
    • “Many of the leading cancer drugmakers have at least one or two antibody-drug conjugates, or ADCs, in development. Others, such as PfizerJohnson & Johnson and Merck & Co., have used buyouts or partnerships to build an ADC portfolio.
    • “One of the best-selling ADCs on the market is AstraZeneca and Daiichi Sankyo’s Enhertu, which brought in combined sales of $2.5 billion in 2023, almost double the year before. The two companies formed a $7 billion alliance around Enhertu in 2019 and since then, the drug has secured multiple approvals and changed the way some breast cancers are treated.
    • “Over that time, AstraZeneca has made ADCs a more substantial part of its overall pipeline alongside radiopharmaceuticals and immunotherapies, giving the company many potential combinations to work with, said Carlos Doti, vice president and head of medical affairs for its U.S. oncology division.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Beckers Payer Issues notes,
    • “CMS must recalculate the Medicare Advantage star ratings for Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia, a federal judge ruled June 10. 
    • “The judge ruled partially in favor of Elevance Health, which sued to challenge CMS’ star ratings methodology in December. The insurer sought new ratings for several of its subsidiaries, but the judge ruled CMS needs to recalculate ratings only for BCBS of Georgia. 
    • “Elevance’s challenge focused on CMS’ use of the Tukey method, a change announced by CMS in a 2020 final rule and implemented in 2024 star ratings. The method removes extreme outliers from measure scores to prevent outliers from affecting all MA contracts, making it more difficult for plans to earn a high star rating. In 2022, a final star ratings rule from CMS did not mention the new change, which the agency added back in the 2023 rule, citing an inadvertent removal. 
    • “CMS also limits scoring changes to 5% annually. In the lawsuit, Elevance said CMS should have factored in those limits before adding the Tukey change back in 2023 versus the other way around.
    • “Randolph Moss, a judge for the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C, ruled CMS violated the Administrative Procedure Act in applying the Tukey methodology. However, Mr. Moss ruled Elevance proved the Tukey method affected the star rating only for BCBS of Georgia and not the other plans for which it sought revised ratings.” 
  • This opinion and last week’s Scan Health opinion may wind up before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
  • Per Healthcare Dive,
    • “Just three days before bankrupt Steward Health Care was set to run out of funds, the health system said it’s struck a deal to capture $225 million of additional debtor-in-possession financing to keep its operations afloat during Chapter 11 proceedings.
    • “The funds come from Steward’s FILO lenders, which include private credit lenders Sound Point Capital and Brigade Agency Services, as well as Chamberlain Commercial Funding, according to a press release shared with Healthcare Dive. 
    • “Steward will present the deal — which the system says is sufficient to finance operations prior to its July asset sales — for approval in bankruptcy court later this week.”
  • According to BioPharma Dive,
    • “Approval of Eli Lilly’s experimental Alzheimer’s disease drug donanemab would help drive sales of Eisai and Biogen’s rival medicine Leqembi, analysts wrote after a Food and Drug Administration panel on Monday supported clearance of donanemab.
    • “A rising tide lifts all boats, in our view,” wrote Myles Minter, an analyst at William Blair, in a client note. Donanemab works similarly to Leqembi by eliminating from the brain a toxic protein called amyloid that scientists see as linked to Alzheimer’s progression.”
  • McKinsey & Co. discusses the ongoing digital transformation in healthcare.
  • The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans shares useful insights on the final rules amending the Fair Labor Standards Act that take effect on July 1.

Weekend Update

Photo by Dane Deaner on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • The FEHBlog’s attention is drawn to this Committee hearing:
    • House Committee on Appropriations
    • June 12, 9:00 AM (EDT) | 2359 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C.
    • Markup: Fiscal Year 2025 State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs and Homeland Security Bills
    • Meeting Details
  • MedPage Today reminds us about “the Top Supreme Court Health Cases to Watch [this month]. — A slew of cases this term could reshape health policy.” The Supreme Court now hands down its opinions on Thursdays.
  • Last week, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) Office of Inspector General posted its Semi-annual report to Congress for the period ended March 31, 2024, and OPM posted its response to that report. These reports are always worth a gander.

From the public health and medical research front.

  • The American Medical Association offers “the top health tips your cardiologist wants you to know.”
  • Fortune Wells points out “five lifestyle changes improved brain function for those with early Alzheimer’s.”
  • NPR notes “eight mistakes to avoid if you’re going out in the heat.”
  • The Washington Post advises folks that “‘The first step before you take inventory of your body is to decide that you care about living a long, healthy life,’ one expert says.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • The Washington Post reports,
    • “Doctors couldn’t help. [Parents and patients] turned to a shadow system of DIY medical tests.”Doctors couldn’t help. [Parents and patients] turned to a shadow system of DIY medical tests.
    • “Buoyed by regulatory vacuums, Silicon Valley is building a booming online wellness market that aims to leave the doctor’s office behind.
      • “Many investors and entrepreneurs endorse self-testing with similar urgency. Tiny Health founder Cheryl Sew Hoy said she raced to develop her baby microbiome testing start-up because of her experience giving birth to a C-section baby with gastrointestinal issues that doctors could not address. Though she and her business partners were aware that the benefits of gut bacteria testing have often been overhyped, they found cutting-edge research showing that the simplicity of a baby’s gut makes it highly responsive to interventions.
      • “To them, it did not seem fair to wait for years — possibly decades — until that research could become standard pediatric advice.
      • “It will eventually get to the point where you get screened with a stool test every time you go to the hospital, but that’s not going to happen next year or the next couple of years,” said Ruben Mars, a microbiologist at the Gut Microbiome Laboratory at the Mayo Clinic, and a scientific adviser to Tiny Health. “But these kids are getting chronic disease now. … They shouldn’t have to wait until it becomes standard of care.”
      • “As long as the medical system remains slow there is going to be a market for people who take matters into their own hands, said Anarghya Vardhana, a Silicon Valley investor. “If you don’t give patients the tools, they will go figure it out themselves,” she added.”

Friday Factoids

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplas

From Washington, DC,

  • The Washington Post reports
    • Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) this week wrote to eight pharmaceutical company CEOs, urging them to remove 130 patents from a key federal registry, according to letters shared with The Washington Post. The Democrats are targeting Novo Nordisk, including some of its patents related to expensive drug Ozempic; GlaxoSmithKline; and other companies that produce asthma and diabetes medications.
    • The 130 patents are among more than 300 patents that the Federal Trade Commission in April identified as “junk patent listings” that should be removed from the registry and are blocking competitors from producing cheaper alternatives. Monday is the deadline for the companies to remove the patents or reaffirm that they believe the patents are legal, according to a person who spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail the private enforcement process.
  • STAT News tells us,
    • “The Food and Drug Administration on Friday expanded the approval for GSK’s vaccine to protect against respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, authorizing its use for at-risk adults as young as 50.”The Food and Drug Administration on Friday expanded the approval for GSK’s vaccine to protect against respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, authorizing its use for at-risk adults as young as 50.
    • “Arexvy, which was the first RSV vaccine approved, now becomes the first to be available to adults under the age of 60 who are not pregnant. Prior to this FDA decision, Arexvy was licensed for use in people 60 and older.”
  • Tammy Flanagan writing in Govexec discusses the state of federal civil service retirement: CSRS and FERS.
  • Govexec adds,
    • “The government’s backlog of pending retirement claims from federal workers hit an eight-year low last month. “The government’s backlog of pending retirement claims from federal workers hit an eight-year low last month.
    • “The Office of Personnel Management’s retirement process and subsequent backlog has long dogged the federal government’s HR agency, frustrating agencies and departing federal employees alike, in large part due to paper-based legacy personnel systems.
    • “But last year, OPM instituted a number of measures to try to make immediate improvements to the process, including dedicating more resources and manpower during the early-year busy season for retirement claims and setting up a new dashboard for claimants to better understand the process and avoid common pitfalls.
    • “In May, OPM received 6,751 new retirement applications, a slight decrease from the 6,901 it received the previous month. But after a modest decrease in the number of claims actually processed in April, the agency increased its pace again last month, processing 8,793 claims.
    • “By the end of the month, the backlog had fallen to 14,035, compared to 16,077 pending claims at the end of April. That marks the smallest retirement backlog OPM has experienced since May 2016, when it also finished the month with a backlog of 14,035 applications.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The Centers for Disease Control informs us,
    • Summary
      • Seasonal influenza, COVID-19, and RSV activity is low nationally.
    • COVID-19
      • Most key indicators are showing low levels of activity nationally. However, COVID-19 test positivity has increased to 4.5%. Wastewater viral activity is showing increases in some states. We also estimate that COVID-19 infections are growing or likely growing in 30 states and territories, declining or likely declining in 1 state or territory, and are stable or uncertain in 18 states and territories, based on Rt estimates of epidemic growth. An increasing proportion of the variants that cause COVID-19 are projected to be KP.3 and LB.1 (CDC COVID Data Tracker: Variant Proportions).
    • Influenza
    • RSV
      • Nationally, RSV test positivity remains low. Hospitalization rates are low in all age groups.
    • Vaccination
  • The Washington Post offers background on bird flu — How it spreads, milk and egg safety and more.
  • The New York Times reports,
    • “The American Cancer Society has begun an ambitious, far-reaching study focusing on a population that has long been overlooked, despite high rates of cancer and cancer-related deaths: Black women.”The American Cancer Society has begun an ambitious, far-reaching study focusing on a population that has long been overlooked, despite high rates of cancer and cancer-related deaths: Black women.
    • “The initiative, called VOICES of Black Women, is believed to be the first long-term population study of its size to zero in specifically on the factors driving cancer prevalence and deaths among Black women.
    • “Researchers plan to enroll 100,000 Black women without cancer, ages 25 to 55, in Washington, D.C., and 20 states where most Black American women reside. The subjects will be surveyed twice a year about their behaviors, environmental exposures and life experiences, and followed for 30 years; any cancers they may develop will be tracked.
    • “Similar studies by the American Cancer Society in the past yielded critical lessons about what causes cancer — for example, identifying cigarette smoking as a cause of lung cancer and linking red- and processed-meat consumption to increased risk of colon cancer.”
  • STAT News points out,
    • “The moment when a person stops taking their antidepressant is fraught. Not only can patients see their psychiatric symptoms return, but they can experience a wide variety of new symptoms in the days and weeks immediately following the medication change.
    • “Symptoms like nausea and headache can be manageable, and typically begin and end within days of ending the medication. But more disruptive effects like insomnia, irritability, and sensory disturbance, or even severe ones like suicidal ideation or lethargy, can lead patients to reconsider their decision to stop treatment, even when they resolve relatively rapidly.
    • “A new systematic review of studies on antidepressant discontinuation published on Tuesday in The Lancet Psychiatry provides insight into the frequency and gravity of those symptoms. The review, which included 79 studies capturing 21,000 patients, found that about 15% experienced withdrawal symptoms after weaning from antidepressants. In 2 to 3% of the cases, the symptoms were severe.
    • “The analysis “is an important and long overdue contribution to the research literature,” said Awais Aftab, a professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, who did not participate in the study. It confirms that withdrawal symptoms do happen with clinically relevant frequency, and should be managed with care. But it demonstrated a lower incidence than recent estimates based on online surveys, which generated public alarm when they suggested symptoms may occur in half or more of the patients.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Per Healthcare Dive,
    • “Humana and CVS, two of the largest Medicare Advantage insurers in the country, are poised to seriously downgrade their plan benefits and geographic presence next year as they chase profits in the privately run Medicare program.”Humana and CVS, two of the largest Medicare Advantage insurers in the country, are poised to seriously downgrade their plan benefits and geographic presence next year as they chase profits in the privately run Medicare program.
    • “As a result, hundreds of thousands of Medicare Advantage seniors — and the billions in revenue they represent — could come up for grabs, representing a significant opportunity for insurers looking to take on more members despite ongoing challenges in MA.
    • “The size of the turnover depends on a number of factors. Deciding which benefits to cut versus keep is a tough calculus, and there are guardrails from the federal government limiting cutbacks, experts say.
    • “Those decisions have been made — bids were due to the CMS on Monday. However, it will be months before the industry knows how much turbulence Humana and CVS might cause in their drive to bolster profits next year, and which insurers might benefit.
    • “Of the national payers, market leader UnitedHealth may be best situated to pick up switching seniors, solidifying its dominance in MA, experts say.
    • “I think there will be a huge shakeup,” Alexis Levy, the managing director of health consultancy Chartis’ payer advisory practice, said.”
  • Beckers Payer Issues notes,
    • “Artificial intelligence has the potential to lower internal and member costs, for insurers while also increasing profits, but the industry has largely not embraced these opportunities, according to a June 5 analysis from McKinsey.”Artificial intelligence has the potential to lower internal and member costs, for insurers while also increasing profits, but the industry has largely not embraced these opportunities, according to a June 5 analysis from McKinsey.
    • “Incremental approaches will continue to yield only minor savings, as we have seen to date across most of the industry,” the analysts wrote. “To capture full value, payers must reimagine the end-to-end processes of each domain.”
    • Three key takeaways: 
      • 1. “If payers fully implemented already available generative AI and automation technologies, on average they could save 13-25% on administrative costs, 5-11% on medical costs and increase revenues by 3-12%.
      • 2. “Marketing and sales, utilization management, and IT are the divisions with the largest potential opportunities when using AI.
      • 3. “Payers that want to better use AI technology should have these six key things: a strategic plan, the right talent, a conducive operating model, technological capabilities, consumable data and the ability to ensure adoption and scale.
      • “In general, most payers are ill-equipped to pursue this opportunity,” the analysts wrote. “To do so, they have to close the gap that exists between their current capabilities and those needed to fully address the six areas outlined above.”
  • STAT News relates,
    • “Amid rising concern over prescription drug shortages, a new report finds that the number of shortages has increased over the past decade, most are lasting longer than ever before, and the problem is affecting medicines used to treat a wide range of maladies.
    • “Specifically, the average shortage lasted for more than three years in 2023 compared to about two years in 2020, and 27 of the 125 drugs in short supply were not available for more than five years. And 53% of new shortages occurred among generic sterile injectable medicines, according to the report from U.S. Pharmacopeia, an independent organization that develops standards for medicines.
    • “Meanwhile, most medicines for which shortages existed cost less than $5; nearly one-third of injectables cost less than $2; and two-thirds of solid oral medicines cost $3 or less. These low prices also translated into more product discontinuations, which rose by 40% from 2022 to 2023, and from 100 drugs to 140 during that time. This was also the highest rate of product discontinuations since 2019.
    • “A key culprit, according to U.S. Pharmacopeia, often are thin profit margins. “Economic pressures, especially the very low prices that generics manufacturers recover for many medicines, along with contracts that are frequently broken, have left our generic medicine supply chain fragile,” said Anthony Lakavage, senior vice president for global external affairs, in a statement.”

Midweek Update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • The House Appropriations Committee tells us, “Today, the House Appropriations Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee met to consider its Fiscal Year 2025 bill. The measure was approved by the Subcommittee.”
  • This bill provides appropriations for OPM and the FEHBP. The Committee summary of the bill describes its OPM appropriations as follows —
    • “Provides $477 million for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which is $31.4 million below the FY25 Budget Request and $29.1 million above the FY24 enacted level.”
  • Govexec informs us,
    • “Senate Democrats have vowed to move quickly on legislation protecting Americans’ access to in vitro fertilization and other forms of assistive reproductive technology, including a provision expanding federal workers’ access to those treatments as part of the government’s employer-sponsored health insurance program.
    • “On Monday, Sens. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., introduced the Right to IVF Act, a repackaging of three separate previously introduced bills on reproductive health services.
    • “Included is the Family Building FEHB Fairness Act, first introduced last year by Duckworth, which would require the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program to cover additional costs associated with IVF, and would expand coverage to all types of assisted reproductive technology, such as gamete and zygote intrafallopian transfer.”
  • Govexec also pointed out this OPM Inspector General brief that summarizes OPM OIG recommendations that have been open for more than six months as of March 31, 2024. The FEHBlog understands why the FEHB open recommendations remain outstanding
  • Healthcare Dive lets us know,
    • “Congress appears to be inching toward injecting more transparency into a controversial program that forces drugmakers to give safety-net hospitals steep discounts on drugs.
    • “It would be a win for pharmaceutical manufacturers, which have long lobbied that hospitals be required to account for their savings in the 340B program — or that it be overhauled entirely.
    • “The latter appears unlikely, after lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed blanket support for 340B during a House Oversight and Investigations subcommittee hearing on Tuesday. However, members said they approved of more oversight to try and stop financial gaming in the program.
    • “Though “we’re all in support of 340B … I think nearly all of us agree that the status quo is not acceptable,” said Rep. Larry Bucshon, R-Ind.”
  • Yesterday, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force released a final recommendation concerning “Falls Prevention in Community-Dwelling Older Adults: Interventions.” Its recommendations align with the recommendations currently in force.
  • Thompson Reuters Practical Law relates,
    • “In litigation under the No Surprises Act (NSA), a district court concluded that there is no cause of action for health providers to enforce awards involving surprise billing disputes under the NSA’s independent dispute resolution (IDR) process (Guardian Flight LLC & Med-Trans Corp. v. Health Care Serv. Corp.(N.D. Tex. May 30, 2024)).”
  • The American Hospital Association News shares the organization’s “comments [submitted’ June 5 on the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ inpatient prospective payment system proposed rule for fiscal year 2025, expressing support for several provisions, including certain policies supporting low-volume and Medicare-dependent hospitals, and several aspects of CMS’ quality-related proposals. However, AHA raised concerns about the rule’s proposed payment updates.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • CNN reports,
    • “About 61% of US adults will have cardiovascular disease by 2050, new research from the American Heart Association predicts. The biggest driver of this trend will be the large number of people who have or will develop high blood pressure, which makes them much more likely to develop dangerous problems like a heart attack or stroke.
    • “Other cardiovascular problems include heart attacks, arrhythmias like atrial fibrillation or a-fib, heart failure and congenital heart disease. * * *
    • In the research published Tuesday, the association predicts that 45 million adults will have some form of cardiovascular disease – excluding high blood pressure – or will have a stroke in 2050, up from 28 million in 2020.
  • The New York Times reports,
    • One of the nation’s premier medical advisory organizations has weighed in on long Covid with a 265-page report that recognizes the seriousness and persistence of the condition for millions of Americans.
    • More than four years since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, long Covid continues to damage many people’s ability to function, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, a nongovernmental institution that advises federal agencies on science and medicine.
  • and
    • “A committee of advisers to the Food and Drug Administration voted on Wednesday to update the formula for the Covid vaccine ahead of an anticipated fall immunization campaign, now an annual step to try to offer better protection against versions of the virus in circulation.
    • “The unanimous vote by the 16 advisers recommends a formula aimed at combating the variant JN.1, which dominated infections in the United States in February, or a version of it. In recent weeks, JN.1 has been overtaken by descendants known as KP.2 and KP.3.
    • “In the coming weeks, the F.D.A. is expected to formally recommend a variant target for vaccine makers for the next round of shots in the late summer or early fall. Any decision involves some educated guesswork, given that any new vaccine formula won’t be available until months after a variant becomes dominant.
    • “It’s becoming clear that the ideal timing for a vaccine composition decision remains elusive,” said Jerry Weir, an official with the F.D.A.’s vaccine division.”
  • Per Biopharma Dive,
    • “A saliva test may improve screening for prostate cancer by identifying people at higher risk based on genotype, researchers said Friday.”A saliva test may improve screening for prostate cancer by identifying people at higher risk based on genotype, researchers said Friday.
    • Data presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting suggest the test can support prostate cancer diagnosis in people who are missed by other screening methods.
    • “The researchers are now comparing the saliva test to several screening methods such as fast MRI scans and prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood tests to determine the best approach.”
  • and
    • “Eli Lilly’s drug tirzepatide — sold as Zepbound for obesity — continues to show promise in the liver disease MASH. Clinical trial data disclosed in an abstract ahead of a European medical conference indicates that, after one year, the shot helped improve liver fibrosis without worsening MASH in just over half of treated participants, compared with 30% of those given placebo. Lilly had hinted at the study’s success earlier this year, but the full data will provide a more complete view of tirzepatide’s potential. The abstract’s release comes one day after Viking Therapeutics released trial data for its MASH pill VK2809 and less than two months after Madrigal Pharmaceuticals won U.S. approval of the first MASH drug.”
  • The Institute for Clinical and Economic Research “today posted Protocol outlining how it will conduct the fourth annual assessment of how well major insurers’ prescription drug coverage policies align with a set of fair access standards. These standards were developed by ICER with expert input from patient advocates, clinician specialty societies, payers, pharmacy benefit managers, and life science companies.”
  • Per MedPage Today,
    • “The CDC finalized new guidelines that recommend doxycycline post-exposure prophylaxis (doxy PEP) for at-risk gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender women (TGW) to prevent bacterial sexually transmitted infections (STIs).”The CDC finalized new guidelines that recommend doxycycline post-exposure prophylaxis (doxy PEP) for at-risk gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender women (TGW) to prevent bacterial sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
    • “Healthcare providers should discuss and offer doxy PEP to people in these populations with a history of at least one bacterial STI — specifically syphilis, chlamydia, gonorrhea — in the last 12 months, Lindley Barbee, MD, of the CDC’s National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, and colleagues wrote in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.”
    • “Doxy PEP represents the first new STI prevention tool in decades, at a time when innovation in the nation’s fight against STIs is desperately needed,” said Barbee in a CDC statement.
  • The National Institutes of Health announced,
    • “The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, has released its plan for advancing H5N1 influenza basic research and translating those findings into strategies and interventions that can benefit people. The research agenda focuses on four key objectives: increasing understanding of the biology of H5N1 viruses and the factors that influence their ability to transmit and cause disease; developing and evaluating prevention strategies, such as vaccines; advancing existing and novel treatments, including antivirals and monoclonal antibodies; and supporting strategies for detecting H5N1 virus. The NIAID Research Agenda for 2024 H5N1 Influenza – May 2024 aligns with the NIAID role in the federal public health response to the U.S. outbreak of H5N1 influenza in people, dairy cows and other animals.”The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, has released its plan for advancing H5N1 influenza basic research and translating those findings into strategies and interventions that can benefit people. The research agenda focuses on four key objectives: increasing understanding of the biology of H5N1 viruses and the factors that influence their ability to transmit and cause disease; developing and evaluating prevention strategies, such as vaccines; advancing existing and novel treatments, including antivirals and monoclonal antibodies; and supporting strategies for detecting H5N1 virus. The NIAID Research Agenda for 2024 H5N1 Influenza – May 2024 aligns with the NIAID role in the federal public health response to the U.S. outbreak of H5N1 influenza in people, dairy cows and other animals.”
  • The Washington Post reports, “Male birth control gel shows promise in early-stage clinical trials. “A National Institutes of Health official said the findings marked a milestone, even if the product is probably years away.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • KFF informs us,
    • The Medical Loss Ratio (MLR) provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) limits the amount of premium income that insurers can keep for administration, marketing, and profits. Insurers that fail to meet the applicable MLR threshold are required to pay back excess profits or margins in the form of rebates to individuals and employers that purchased coverage.
    • In the individual and small group markets, insurers must spend at least 80% of their premium income on health care claims and quality improvement efforts, leaving the remaining 20% for administration, marketing expenses, and profit. The MLR threshold is higher for large group insurers, which must spend at least 85% of their premium income on health care claims and quality improvement efforts. MLR rebates are based on a 3-year average, meaning that rebates issued in 2024 will be calculated using insurers’ financial data in 2021, 2022 and 2023 and will go to people and businesses who bought health coverage in 2023.
    • This analysis, using preliminary data reported by insurers to state regulators and compiled by Mark Farrah Associates, finds that insurers estimate they will issue a total of about $1.1 billion in MLR rebates across all commercial markets in 2024. Since the ACA began requiring insurers to issue these rebates in 2012, a total of $11.8 billion in rebates have already been issued to individuals and employers, and this analysis suggests the 2012-2024 total will rise to about $13 billion when rebates are issued later this year.
  • TechTarget calls our attention to the fact that “As providers seek to advance patient-centered care, many behavioral health organizations are turning to their EHR vendors to support integrated care models, according to a KLAS report.” Yippee.
  • Beckers Hospital Review lets us know,
    • “U.S. bankruptcy Judge Chris Lopez authorized the sale dates for Dallas-based Steward Health Care’s 31 hospitals during a June 3 hearing. “U.S. bankruptcy Judge Chris Lopez authorized the sale dates for Dallas-based Steward Health Care’s 31 hospitals during a June 3 hearing. 
    • “The sales will be conducted in two rounds. The first round, which includes the health system’s physician group, Stewardship Health, and all Steward hospitals excluding its Florida facilities and some of the Texas hospitals, will have a bid deadline of June 24 and a first sale hearing July 11.
    • “The second round includes Steward’s Florida hospitals and four of its Texas facilities, with a bid deadline of Aug. 12 and a sale hearing of Aug. 22.”
  • Beckers Payer Issues tells us about the payers that landed on the 2024 Fortune 500.

Midweek Update

From Washington, DC

  • The New York Times reports,
    • “The chairmen of two Senate committees overseeing health policy, concerned about companies “padding their own profits” at the expense of patients, are looking into the practices of a data analytics firm that works with big insurers to cut payments to medical providers.
    • “The firm, MultiPlan, recommends what it says are fair payments for medical care, but the firm and the insurers can collect higher fees when payouts are lower. This business model could “result in an improper conflict of interest,” the chairmen of the two committees, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, wrote in a letter to the firm’s chief executive that was released on Tuesday.
    • “The senators called on MultiPlan to meet with the committees’ staffs to discuss an investigation last month by The New York Times that found the firm’s pricing tools could leave patients with unexpectedly large bills when they see doctors outside their health plans’ networks.”
  • Govexec tells us,
    • “The Office of Personnel Management last week gave agencies a reminder that as campaign season approaches, officials should be vigilant against efforts to “burrow” political appointees into career positions in the federal government’s competitive and Senior Executive services.
    • “In a memo to agency heads, OPM’s associate director for merit system accountability and compliance Mark Lambert and associate director for workforce policy and innovation Veronica Hinton addressed the controversial practice, which is legal, albeit with a strict set of regulations to ensure political appointees are qualified for career roles they’re lined up for.”
  • KFF introduced,
    • “A new KFF resource—Health Policy 101—explains the basics on a wide range of topics about health programs and policy in the United States, such as Medicare and Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, health care costs and affordability, women’s health issues, and the politics of health care. Health Policy 101 chapters are available online and can be downloaded in PDF format. The “101” was created to serve as a mini “textbook” for faculty and students interested in health policy. Dr. Drew Altman, KFF’s president and CEO, is the editor of the 101 series.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • MedPage Today informs us,
    • “The updated monovalent XBB.1.5 COVID-19 vaccines were effective against Omicron subvariants circulating during the most recent respiratory virus season, but their effectiveness waned over time, according to a brief report.
    • “The three vaccines updated to target the SARS-CoV-2 XBB.1.5 subvariant — Moderna’s and Pfizer-BioNTech’s mRNA vaccines and the Novavax vaccine — were 66.8% effective against hospitalization at 4 weeks, decreasing to 57.1% after 10 weeks, wrote Dan-Yu Lin, PhD, of the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and colleagues.
    • “Vaccine effectiveness against infection was about 52% after 4 weeks, decreasing to 33% after 10 weeks, and to 20% after 20 weeks, the New England Journal of Medicineopens in a new tab or window correspondence showed.
    • “We expected these vaccines to be effective, especially against hospitalization and death. We also expected the effectiveness to decline over time,” Lin told MedPage Today. “However, we didn’t know beforehand the levels of effectiveness or the duration of protection.”
  • The Wall Street Journal shares the view of readers who have used GLP-1 drugs.
    • “Hundreds of readers responded in the comments space and by email to Bradley Olson’s essay about his experience using a GLP-1 drug for weight loss. Readers shared stories about their own attempts to lose weight, journeys that often took place over the course of decades and included nonmedicinal strategies before the advent of GLP-1 drugs. Our readers made overwhelmingly positive comments about the medications, and in general found that the transformational impact of the GLP-1 drugs made such difficulties as getting prescriptions filled and side effects bearable. Some readers who have struggled to lose weight wrote that they found inspiration in Olson’s essay to consider trying a medical solution.” 
  • Per BioPharma Dive,
    • “A new kind of antidepressant eased symptoms and improved sleep among adults enrolled in a large Phase 3 trial, Johnson & Johnson, the drug’s developer, said Wednesday.
    • “J&J is studying the drug, called seltorexant, as an “adjunctive” therapy to background treatment with other antidepressants like SSRIs. The company’s trial enrolled adults with major depressive disorder as well as insomnia, which often accompanies depression and isn’t well treated by SSRIs.
    • “J&J didn’t disclose detailed data in its Wednesday statement. But the company did share the trial met all of its primary and secondary goals, noting the improvement in depressive symptoms among seltorexant-treated participants at study day 43 was both statistically significant and clinically meaningful.”
  • The New York Times dives into recent research on the sense of taste.
    • “The perception of taste is a remarkably complex process, starting from that first encounter with the tongue. Taste cells have a variety of sensors that signal the brain when they encounter nutrients or toxins. For some tastes, tiny pores in cell membranes let taste chemicals in.
    • “Such taste receptors aren’t limited to the tongue; they are also found in the gastrointestinal tract, liver, pancreas, fat cells, brain, muscle cells, thyroid and lungs. We don’t generally think of these organs as tasting anything, but they use the receptors to pick up the presence of various molecules and metabolize them, said Diego Bohórquez, a self-described gut-brain neuroscientist at Duke University. For example, when the gut notices sugar in food, it tells the brain to alert other organs to get ready for digestion.”
  • Healio lets us know,
    • “Women who get an epidural during delivery appear to have a marked reduction in serious complications the first few weeks after giving birth, a new study shows.
    • “A painkilling epidural can reduce risk by 35% in women for complications like heart attack, heart failure, blood infection and hysterectomy that can occur as a result of delivery, researchers reported May 22 in the BMJ.
    • “And the risk declines even more for women with known risk factors for these complications such as obesity, other health problems or prior delivery, researchers said.
    • “For those women, an epidural can reduce their risk of complications by 50%, compared to a 33% risk reduction in those without such factors.
    • “And women delivering preterm had a risk reduction of 47%, results show.”
  • and
    • “Researchers found that a questionnaire successfully identified patients with STIs who can be safely evaluated for penicillin allergy by skin test or by a two-step graded oral challenge, according to a study.
    • “Providers caring for clients with STIs are often faced with clients reporting a history of penicillin allergy (up to 15% of clients). Penicillin remains the drug of choice for the treatment of all stages of syphilis,” Rebecca A. Lillis, MD, associate professor at the Louisiana State University School of Medicine, told Healio.
    • “Ceftriaxone is the drug of choice for treatment of gonorrhea and often avoided in clients who report a penicillin allergy, resulting in suboptimal care,” she said.”
  • The National Institutes of Health announced,
    • “A team of researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health have generated the first complete chromosome sequences from non-human primates. Published in Nature(link is external), these sequences uncover remarkable variation between the Y chromosomes of different species, showing rapid evolution, in addition to revealing previously unstudied regions of great ape genomes. Since these primate species are the closest living relatives to humans, the new sequences can provide insights into human evolution.”

From the U.S. Healthcare business front,

  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “A significant gap exists between health plans that have the highest consumer experience scores and those with the lowest, according to a new survey from J.D. Power.
    • “The consumer insights firm released its annual look at commercial health plans and found that overall satisfaction lands at a score of 595 out of 1,000 points, an increase of three points from 2023’s survey. However, the analysts found a 79-point gap between plans with the highest and lowest scores.
    • “Further, plans with the best consumer satisfaction ratings are getting better, while the lowest-performing plans are sliding. Scores at the highest performers increased by 20 points, while lower scores declined by eight points.
    • “In many cases, employer-sponsored health insurance is consumers’ primary window into the healthcare system,” said Christopher Lis, Ph.D., managing director of global healthcare intelligence at J.D. Power, in a press release. “Access to care, cost of care, chronic condition management—the central pillars of the consumer healthcare experience—are all heavily influenced by commercial health plans.”
  • and
    • “The proportion of hospitals meeting the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT’s (ONC’s) bar for interoperability rose substantially from 2018 to 2023, though a focus on day-to-date data exchange will be necessary to fill some remaining gaps.
    • “According to a recent data brief from ONC, 7 in 10 nonfederal acute care hospitals reported either “routinely” or “sometimes” engaging in all four measured domains of electronic health information interoperability: sending data (92%), receiving data (87%), querying data from outside their organization (84%) and integrating outside data into their records without manual entry (78%).
    • “The 70% top line is an improvement from the 23% of 2014 and the 46% of 2018. Interoperability remained flat at 70% from 2022 to 2023, though the ONC noted that its surveys for the two years were fielded nearly back-to-back to catch up following pandemic polling delays.”
  • Beckers Payer Issues points out,
    • “UnitedHealth Group is running around 500 use-case applications for AI across the organization, CEO Andrew Witty told investors. 
    • “Speaking at a conference on May 29, Mr. Witty said some of the company’s AI efforts are “low-hanging” opportunities aimed at speeding up administrative processes. 
    • “It’s not Einstein opportunities,” he said. “These are relatively straightforward. Some of them are already underway. They play out in areas like speed, allowing call handlers to deal with issues faster than they used to.” 
    • “Heather Cianfrocco, CEO of Optum, told investors Optum’s AI efforts are focused in two areas. 
    • “One is administrative support, particularly for clinicians, giving clinicians time back at home or in the office,” Ms. Cianfrocco said. “The second area I would highlight is identifying disease progression, or emerging disease, faster.” 

 

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Washington, DC

  • FedWeek informs us that
    • “Congress has started to craft the appropriations bills and the annual DoD authorization bill, the key measures for decisions on the upcoming year’s federal employee raise and on workplace policy changes.
    • “While it’s generally expected that none of those measures will be enacted into law before the elections — when Congress returns next week from its current recess, it will have only nine scheduled working weeks before November — the measures for the meantime will serve to stake out positions. * * *
    • “The primary bill affecting federal workplace policies, the financial services-general government measure, is set for voting next week at the subcommittee level and the following week for at the committee level.”
  • Federal News Network tells us,
    • “The Office of Personnel Management is working to address a spike in fraudulent activity on hundreds of accounts in a flexible spending account (FSA) program for federal employees.
    • “Several hundred federal employees currently enrolled in FSAFEDS have experienced recent fraudulent activity on their accounts. Scammers have used the employees’ personal information to either create new, fraudulent FSAs, or otherwise make fraudulent reimbursement claims on existing FSAs. * * *
    • “The fraudulent activity in FSAFEDS is relatively limited in scope, since it’s affecting just a few hundred federal employees’ accounts. In total, the scammers have managed to shore up a couple hundred thousand dollars, Politico first reported last week.
    • “Since becoming aware of the fraud, HealthEquity has already taken additional security measures by implementing Login.gov requirements and setting up dual-factor authentication for federal employees to be able to log in to their FSAFEDS accounts. * * *
    • “Agency benefits officers and payroll providers are advising federal employees who use FSAFEDS to review and verify their leave, earnings, and FSA account statements. If employees notice any suspicious charges or activity, they can call FSAFEDS at 877-372-3337.”
  • The Congressional Research Service posted a Legal Sidebar titled “HHS Finalizes Rule Addressing Section 1557 of the ACA’s Incorporation of Title IX” of the Education Amendments of 1972.
  • Newfront reminds us,
    • “IRS Notice 2023-70 adjusts the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) fee to $3.22 per covered individual for health plan years ending on or after October 1, 2023 and before October 1, 2024, which includes 2023 calendar plan years. This represents a $0.22 per covered individual increase from last year’s PCORI fee (from $3.00).
    • “The annual PCORI fee must be reported and paid to the IRS by July 31, 2024, via the second quarter Form 720.”
  • The American Hospital Association News reports,
    • “A coalition of 230 national associations, including the AHA, submitted a letter the week of May 20 to the Federal Trade Commission requesting a stay on the Sept. 4 effective date of the Non-Compete Clause Final Rule to allow for judicial review.
    • “Under Section 705 of the Administrative Procedure Act, agencies ‘may postpone the effective date of action taken by it, pending judicial review’ when ‘justice so requires,'” the letter notes. “We strongly encourage you to exercise this power on the Noncompete Rule as FTC and other agencies recently have on other rulemakings.”
    • “The organizations said a lack of FTC guidance on key pieces of the rule, such as what it means to be in a policymaking position or how the FTC will apply its functional test, has created substantial uncertainty for businesses and employees nationwide. The final rule is currently being challenged in court by several parties, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. A decision is expected this summer.”
  • Mercer Consulting discusses how Part D enhancements for 2025 may impact Part D creditable coverage reporting, an OPM requirement for FEHB carriers.
    • “One of the outstanding questions that was addressed by CMS guidance is what the standard Part D coverage actuarial value will be for testing creditable coverage. Helpfully, CMS guidance provided that “discounts paid by manufactures are not included in the [Part D] plan paid amount when making a determination about creditable coverage.”
    • “This helpful clarification confirmed Mercer’s original interpretation that while it may be somewhat harder for some group health plans to pass creditable coverage testing, the passing threshold is not as drastic of an increase as many initial outside reports originally suggested.
    • “In addition, CMS clarified that it will continue to permit use of its 2009 creditable coverage simplified determination methodology, without modification to the existing parameters, for 2025 for group health plan sponsors not applying for the retiree drug subsidy. CMS will re-evaluate the continued use of the existing simplified determination methodology, or establish a revised one, for 2026 in future guidance.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The National Institutes of Health lets us know,
    • “Feeding children peanut products regularly from infancy to age 5 years reduced the rate of peanut allergy in adolescence by 71%, even when the children ate or avoided peanut products as desired for many years. These new findings, from a study sponsored and co-funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), provide conclusive evidence that achieving long-term prevention of peanut allergy is possible through early allergen consumption. The results were published today in the journal NEJM Evidence.
    • “Today’s findings should reinforce parents’ and caregivers’ confidence that feeding their young children peanut products beginning in infancy according to established guidelines can provide lasting protection from peanut allergy,” said NIAID Director Jeanne Marrazzo, M.D., M.P.H. “If widely implemented, this safe, simple strategy could prevent tens of thousands of cases of peanut allergy among the 3.6 million children born in the United States each year.”
    • “The new research findings come from the LEAP-Trio study, which builds on the seminal results of the Learning Early About Peanut Allergy (LEAP) clinical trial and the subsequent LEAP-On study, both sponsored and co-funded by NIAID.”
  • The HHS OIG issued a report on the inclusiveness of NIH-funded studies.
    • “What OIG Found
      • Two-thirds of the clinical trials in our sample had inclusive enrollment plans, but one-third did not plan to include all racial and ethnic groups.
      • Slightly more than half of clinical trials in our sample were missing required information that would explain the planned target population.
      • Most completed clinical trials in our sample missed planned enrollment targets for underrepresented groups.
      • NIH monitors clinical trial enrollment but has had limited success spurring improvement.
    • W”hat OIG Recommends
      • Hold researchers accountable for clearly describing the rationale for planned study population, as required by NIH policy.
      • Develop additional ways of supporting researchers in meeting inclusion enrollment targets.
      • Promptly take steps to align NIH’s demographic data collection and reporting with the revised OMB requirements and obtain more precise clinical trial inclusion enrollment data.
    • “NIH concurred with the three recommendations.”
  • STAT News reports “Heat waves associated with increased risk of preterm birth in the U.S.”
    • “A new investigation, published on Friday in JAMA Network Open, confirmed the link to early deliveries at a massive scale, in a large cohort study capturing over half of the births that occurred in the United States between 1993 and 2017. Its results shed light on the way existing health inequities may be exacerbated by a worsening climate.
    • “The study looked at more than 53 million singleton births that occurred in the 50 most populous cities in the U.S. during the hottest months of the year. Looking back at heat waves between May and September, researchers counted preterm births (between 28 to 37 weeks of gestation) and early births (between 37 and 39 weeks) within four to seven days of the spike. During that period, there were 2.15 million preterm births, and 5.8 million early births.
    • “After a heat wave, which the study defined as four consecutive days in which the mean temperature was higher than the local 97.5th percentile, preterm births increased by 2%, and early births by 1%. But the distribution of these adverse outcomes was uneven: Mothers who were 29 or younger, had a lower level of education, and belonged to a minority ethnic or racial group saw a 4% increase in preterm births, and a 3% increase in early deliveries.”
  • Medscape seeks to untangle the complex relationship between obesity and cancer.

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • Merck & Co. is close to a $1.3 billion deal to buy Eyebiotech, a move that would push the big drugmaker into the large and growing market for eye-care. “Merck & Co. is close to a $1.3 billion deal to buy Eyebiotech, a move that would push the big drugmaker into the large and growing market for eye-care. 
    • “Under the terms, Merck would pay the $1.3 billion in cash upfront to acquire the closely held biotech, according to people familiar with the matter. Merck could make an additional $1.7 billion in milestone payments for the company, which goes by the name EyeBio.
    • “The deal could be announced as early as Wednesday, the people said. Merck’s venture arm was an investor in EyeBio. 
    • “EyeBio’s lead drug, Restoret, is in development to treat eye conditions including a form of age-related macular degeneration that leads to blurred vision and potentially blindness. In older people with the disease, known as Wet AMD, a part of the retina wears down, and fluid leaks from blood vessels.” 
  • and
    • “Cancer Is Capsizing Americans’ Finances. ‘I Was Losing Everything.’
    • “Higher drug prices, rising out-of-pocket costs and reduced incomes create economic strain for many patients.”
  • Per BioPharma Dive,
    • “Johnson & Johnson is adding to its portfolio of dual-targeting antibody drugs, announcing on Tuesday a deal to acquire an experimental skin disease medicine for $1.25 billion.
    • “Per deal terms, J&J will buy Yellow Jersey Therapeutics, a spinout newly created by the drug’s developer, Swiss biotechnology startup Numab Therapeutics. The acquisition hands J&J a drug known as NM26 that’s ready for Phase 2 testing in atopic dermatitis, a form of eczema.
    • “In a statement, J&J said NM26 has the potential to offer “distinctive benefits” versus existing treatments for atopic dermatitis, which include Sanofi and Regeneron’s Dupixent and AbbVie’s Rinvoq. The drug targets two proteins, IL-4Ra and IL-31, that are linked to inflammatory diseases.”
  • STAT News relates,
    • “An experimental drug from Insmed Incorporated successfully reduced lung problems among patients with an airway disease in a closely watched Phase 3 trial, sending the company’s share price soaring early Tuesday. 
    • “The drug, brensocatib, reduced so-called pulmonary exacerbations by roughly 20% versus placebo in patients with bronchiectasis, hitting the trial’s primary endpoint. The trial, called the ASPEN study, tested two dosages of the drug, and the company said both significantly cut rates of pulmonary exacerbations.” 
  • Beckers Hospital Review notes,
    • “Novo Nordisk is contesting Sen. Bernie Sanders’ calls to reduce the list prices of Ozempic and Wegovy in the U.S., Bloomberg reports.  
    • “In late April, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, chaired by Mr. Sanders, launched an investigation into Novo Nordisk’s list pricing for GLP-1 drugs. This followed research showing that Ozempic could be manufactured for less than $5 per month, significantly lower than the U.S. list price of nearly $1,000 for a monthly supply.
    • “Mr. Sanders requested information from Denmark-based Novo Nordisk by May 8, but the drugmaker requested an extension to submit its responses. 
    • “In a letter issued to Mr. Sanders May 24, Novo Nordisk said it is prepared to work with lawmakers to address “systemic issues so that everyone who can benefit from its medicines is able to get them,” but argued that focus on its list prices for the drugs is misplaced since it retains about 60% of the list price of Ozempic and Wegovy in the U.S. after rebates and fees are paid to middlemen, Bloomberg reports. 
    • “Novo Nordisk also said that focusing on the cost disparity is unfair because the development of the GLP-1 drugs required billions in upfront investment. The drugmaker said it spent over $10 billion to develop the GLP-1 medicines and that, “under current market conditions, the company expects that net prices will continue to decline for both Ozempic and Wegovy,” Bloomberg reports.”
  • and
    • “Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg Center recently awarded a team of researchers $300,000 to aid them in a “first-of-its-kind” drug supply chain dashboard. 
    • “On May 21, the Washington, D.C.-based college announced $15 million in funding for 40 projects. One of the winning projects is “The Johns Hopkins Drug Supply Chain Data Dashboard: Improving Data Transparency and Increasing Resiliency in the U.S. Pharmaceutical Supply Chain.”
    • “The dashboard “will provide timely insights to tackle drug shortages and supply chain disruptions,” according to Tinglong Dai, PhD, a Johns Hopkins professor of operations management and business analytics who is part of the research team.”
  • HR Dive points out that the recent Fair Labor Standards Act overtime rule changes effective on July 1, 2024. HR Dive shares some its articles about this rule.