Monday Roundup

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the Federal Employee Benefits Open Season front, Federal News Network is offering a free e-book on this timely topic.

Fierce Healthcare adds

When many people are looking to enroll in health benefits, they turn to Google as a source of key information on eligibility, the application process and in-network providers.

In this spirit, the Google Search team has quietly rolled out multiple features for its search engine that aim to make it easier for users to access key information about obtaining Medicaid and Medicare benefits, as well as which doctors locally accept those types of coverage.

The article offers more details on these new Google tools.

From the Omicron and siblings front

  • Beckers Hospital Review informs us “The CDC has begun tracking omicron subvariant XBB, which is now estimated to account for 3.1 percent of U.S. cases”[, somewhat higher in New York, New Jersey and New England states]. * * * Health experts anticipate the U.S. will see an increase in COVID-19 cases in the winter months as a collection of omicron subvariants circulates, though they have remained optimistic it will be less severe than last winter’s omicron surge.”
  • The National Institutes of Health discusses its research on the ability of the human body’s immune system to remember a previous Covid infection or vaccination to help ward off, or minimize symptoms during, a future infection.
  • Fierce Healthcare reports “The U.S. came in dead last compared to 20 other countries when it came to preventing deaths from COVID-19 as well as all-cause deaths, and it appears that relatively low vaccination rates might have played a part in those poor showings, a new study finds. * * * The U.S. continued to experience significantly higher COVID-19 and excess all-cause mortality compared with peer countries during 2021 and early 2022, a difference accounting for 150,000 to 470,000 deaths,” authors of the research letter published in JAMA Network wrote. ‘This difference was muted in the 10 states with highest vaccination coverage; remaining gaps may be explained by greater vaccination uptake in peer countries, better vaccination targeting to older age groups, and differences in health and social infrastructure.’”

From the public health front

  • Axios tells us “The RSV season normally runs from December to April, peaking in February and March, but this year has seen an earlier onset. [Dr.] Fauci noted that both the RSV and flu seasons have arrived earlier than usual this year.  Asked by [Meet the Press host Margaret] Brennan whether the U.S. is “in the worst of it” right now, Fauci replied, “I hope so.”
  • The American Hospital Association relates “The World Health Organization today recommended a new name for monkeypox that is intended to mitigate a rise in related racist and stigmatizing language associated with the ailment. The WHO’s newly recommended preferred term is “mpox.” The organization recommends a one-year transition period to mitigate confusion that could be caused by the change and allow for ICD and publication updates. The Biden administration voiced its support for the change, stating, ‘We welcome the change by the World Health Organization. We must do all we can to break down barriers to public health, and reducing stigma associated with disease is one critical step in our work to end mpox.’” The FEHBlog also will begin to refer to chickenpox as cpox.

From the regulatory front, MedPage Today informs us

In an effort to enhance care coordination for patients with substance use disorder (SUD), HHS, acting through its Office for Civil Rights and in collaboration with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, proposed changes to “Part 2” rules to better align privacy measures with those of HIPAA on Monday.

If implemented, the proposed rule would allow Part 2 programs to use and share patients’ records following a single signed consent by the patient “for all future uses and disclosures for treatment, payment, and healthcare operations.”

The proposal also aims to strengthen protections around disclosure of SUD treatment records to guard against discrimination and stigma.

The changes were initially called for in the CARES Act of 2020, provisions of which required the HHS secretary to better align the 42 CFR part 2 rule, better known as “Part 2,” with HIPAA’s Privacy, Security, Breach Notification, and Enforcement Rules.

“This proposed rule would improve coordination of care for patients receiving treatment while strengthening critical privacy protections to help ensure individuals do not forego life-saving care due to concerns about records disclosure,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra in a press release.

HHS adds

From the medical research front, we learn from STAT News that

A drug developed by Axsome Therapeutics significantly reduced a common side effect of Alzheimer’s disease — agitation — the company announced Monday.

The therapy, AXS-05, met its primary goal of delaying time to relapse and preventing patients from relapsing. Patients taking the drug had a 3.6-fold lower risk of relapse overall, compared to placebo.

People with Alzheimer’s disease can get restless, upset, or even aggressive as the disease gets worse. Axsome’s trial also showed an improvement on a scale commonly used to measure overall agitation.

* * *

The Food and Drug Administration has granted Axsome breakthrough therapy status for AXS-05 in Alzheimer’s agitation, which could help the company secure an accelerated, additional approval. Company officials said they plan to wait to see data from another Phase 3 trial called ADVANCE-2 before filing a drug application, according to a third-quarter earnings call transcript from Sentieo.

and

Dr. Thomas Perls has for decades studied so-called super agers, people who live deep into their 90s and beyond, essentially unburdened by the typical diseases of old age. He is convinced that the secret to this remarkable longevity is buried in people’s genes and passed down through generations.

But which genes harbor this power? And if researchers pinpoint the right genes amid thousands in a person’s body, could that knowledge be harnessed to develop drugs that mimic those genes and allow more people to enjoy longer, healthier lives?

That’s the premise behind an ambitious new trial, the SuperAgers Family Study, (superagersstudy.org) that aims to enroll 10,000 people who are 95 years old or older and their children.

From the benefit design front, Beckers Payer Issues offers more insights from a recent AHIP study of prior authorization practices:

Gold-card programs give providers exemptions from certain prior authorization requirements, but providers who have discontinued these programs have found them administratively difficult to implement, according to a Nov. 14 America’s Health Insurance Plans survey.  * * *

Here are the top three reasons insurers said they discontinued gold card programs, according to the report:

1. Administratively difficult to implement: 75 percent

2. Reduced quality/patient safety: 50 percent 

3. Higher costs without improved quality: 25 percent

From the healthcare business front, Healthcare Dive reports

[Telehealth vendor] Amwell is in advanced discussions to acquire online therapy app Talkspace for roughly $200 million, according to a report from Israeli business publication Calcalist.

The telemedicine company is in talks to pay $1.50 per share for Talkspace, Calcalist reported on Sunday. The price tag would represent a 150% premium over Talkspace’s share price at Friday’s close.

The reported transaction reflects a sharp decline in Talkspace’s value since the therapy company went public last summer at a $1.4 billion valuation.

Thanksgiving Weekend Update

Thanks to ACK15 for sharing their work on Unsplash.

The House of Representatives and the Senate return to Capitol Hill for Committee business and floor voting this week.

The Wall Street Journal adds

Lawmakers return to work this week with a to-do list that includes passing a critical government-funding bill, solidifying access to same-sex marriage and setting priorities for the U.S. military before the start of the new Congress next year.

Other issues emphasized by Democrats, including passing a ban on the sale of assault-style weapons, are a long-shot given their narrow majority in the Senate. Most legislation requires 60 votes to advance in the Senate. In addition, lawmakers are discussing raising the federal debt ceiling, which limits how much the government can borrow.

Congress faces a Dec. 16 deadline to pass legislation that would continue funding the federal government; failure to do so could result in a partial shutdown. Lawmakers must decide whether to approve a short-term bill or reach a deal on more-detailed legislation that would fund the government for the full fiscal year.

The Senate also will be considering the National Defense Authorization Act, which typically includes government procurement law changes.

Tomorrow, the Federal Employee Benefits Open Season will reach its clubhouse turn with two weeks left to go. Although not a part of the Open Season, Federal News Network reports an important development concerning the Federal Employees Long Term Care Insurance Program (FLTCIP.

Those looking to enroll in the FLTCIP will soon have to wait a couple of years before applying.

The Office of Personnel Management said it will suspend all new applications to the program starting on Dec. 19. The suspension will last for the next two years, but those who apply ahead of the start date may still see their applications go through. During that time, current FLTCIP enrollees cannot apply to increase their coverage. The suspension will otherwise not affect the coverage of current enrollees.

* * *

The contract for the insurance program, with John Hancock Life and Health Insurance Company, typically lasts seven years before getting a renewal. The program normally gets a premium hike each time the contract turns over. During the open period for new contract proposals earlier this year, only the current underwriter John Hancock submitted a bid. The current FLTCIP contract will expire on April 30, 2023.

The upcoming suspension on applications will allow OPM “to assess the benefit offerings and establish sustainable premium rates that reasonably and equitably reflect the cost of the benefits provided,” the agency said in a Nov. 18 notice. OPM added that it will only suspend applications when it is in the best interest of the program.

Many are eligible to apply for FLTCIP coverage, including federal employees, U.S. Postal Service employees and annuitants, as well as active and retired members of the uniformed services, and qualified relatives of feds. John Hancock has historically sponsored the program, and Long Term Care Partners, LLC, has administered it.

From the Omnicron and siblings front, the National Institutes of Health announced

Reporting a positive or negative test result just became easier through a new website from the National Institutes of Health. MakeMyTestCount.org, developed through NIH’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx®) Tech program, allows users to anonymously report the results of any brand of at-home COVID-19 test.

COVID-19 testing remains an essential tool as the United States heads into the holiday season and people navigate respiratory viruses. While taking a rapid COVID-19 test has become commonplace, test results are not often reported. COVID-19 test results provide valuable data that public health departments can use to assess the needs and modify the responses in the local community, the state or the nation.

Lab tests have a well-established technology system for sharing test results. RADx Tech has been working on a system to standardize test reporting for at-home tests in a secure manner. The MakeMyTestCount.org website is built on this system for logging test results.

The Wall Street Journal tells us

U.S. life insurers paid a record $100 billion in 2021 in death benefits, fueled by another year of Covid-19 deaths, an industry trade group said.

Payouts rose 11% in 2021 to $100.19 billion, most likely due to the pandemic, according to the American Council of Life Insurers. The increase was on the heels of a 15% year-over-year rise in 2020, when death-benefit payments totaled $90.43 billion.

The ACLI compiles data from annual filings by insurers to state insurance departments. Given limitations in the filings, the group can’t break down causes of death, but it is reasonable to attribute the bulk of the increases to the pandemic, said Andrew Melnyk, ACLI vice president of research and chief economist.

The year-over-year increases are among the largest since the 1918 flu pandemic, when payments surged 41%. They are far above the 4.9% average from 2011 to 2021, the ACLI said.

From the No Surprises Act front, Healthcare Dive reports

House lawmakers expressed their discontent with a final rule on surprise billing and urged federal regulators to make changes.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Ma., and ranking member Kevin Brady, R-Texas, sent a letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and other department heads again expressing disappointment with a much-contested section of the surprise billing ban.

The lawmakers “are severely disappointed to find that the August 2022 final rule violates the No Surprises Act in the same ways as before,” Neal and Brady said in a letter last week.

For Heaven’s sake, Congress should give the revised rule a chance before joining the medical associations in condemning it.

From the public health front, Health Payer Intelligence tells us

The number of Americans with a usual source of care has dropped 10 percent in the last 18 years, with only about three-quarters of people saying they have a regular primary care provider or at least a facility where they know they can access care, according to the Primary Care Collaborative (PCC) and AAFP Graham Center.

The analysis also revealed some health disparities, with folks who are Hispanic, have less than a high school education, are uninsured, and are younger being less likely to have a usual source of care than their counterparts. * * *

“Employers have a very important role to play to ensure that all their employees and their families have ready, convenient access to a usual source of affordable primary care,” said Asaf Bitton, MD, the executive director of Ariadne Labs – Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“We applaud those employers who are providing highly accessible virtual and in-person primary care options, and working with preferred provider organizations and health systems to support patients in establishing and maintaining these crucial primary care relationships.”

Amen to that sentiment.

STAT New reports

Cardiovascular disease is responsible for about one in five deaths in women in the U.S., more than any other cause — including all forms of cancer combined. Black women like Shields are particularly vulnerable: In the U.S., Black adults are substantially more likely to die from heart disease than their white, Hispanic, or Asian or Pacific Islander counterparts.

To try to reduce deaths from heart disease, health professionals typically use basic risk calculators, which take about a dozen standard data points to predict a person’s likelihood of having a major event, such as a heart attack or stroke, in the next 10 years.

Regardless of their other risk factors, for the most part, patients who are young and female have a very low chance of having a cardiovascular event in the next 10 years, so they are unlikely to get recommendations for serious lifestyle interventions or medication. But they may still be heading down a path to a fatal event later in life.

Some 10 to 15% of pregnancies have at least one complication that is linked to later heart disease. In addition to preeclampsia, these include other forms of gestational hypertensiongestational diabetespreterm deliverylow birth weight; and placental abruption. People who experience miscarriages and stillbirths are also at greater risk of heart disease. Additional reproductive health conditions — including the early arrival of periods, polycystic ovary syndrome, infertility, and early menopause — have also been linked to increased risk.

These data, however, are all missing from standard cardiovascular disease risk calculators. Some pregnancy complications are listed as part of the comprehensive American Heart Association screening guidelines. But a large national 2014 survey revealed that only 16% of primary care physicians and 22% of cardiologists were using these full guidelines. The failure of health-care providers to screen for these sorts of early warning signs is in keeping with the long-standing pattern in which women’s risk for heart disease is chronically underestimated by medical professionals — as well as by women themselves.

That’s a big bowl of wrong.

From the plan design front, Beckers Payer Issues relates

Providers using EHRs that aren’t enabled for electronic prior authorization and the cost to upgrade to those EHRs are the main barriers preventing automated PA, according to a Nov. 14 America’s Health Insurance Plans survey

The health insurance trade group conducted an industrywide survey on “prior authorization practices and gold carding experience of commercial plans” between February and April, according to the report. AHIP received responses from 26 plans, covering a total of 122 million commercial enrollees.

Top barriers to automated prior authorization:

  1. Provider does not use EHR enabled for electronic PA: 71 percent
  2. Costly/burdensome for providers to buy/upgrade EHR for electronic PA: 71 percent
  3. Lack of interoperability between EHR vendors: 62 percent
  4. Costly for payers to enable PA rules and information to be delivered electronically: 43 percent
  5. Lack of electronic PA solutions on market: 19 percent

This is a surprising outcome considering how vociferously providers object to prior authorization.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the Federal Employee Benefits Open Season front, Govexec offers Open Season guidance to annuitants. Annuitants make up half of the FEHB’s enrollment.

From the Omicron and siblings front —

STAT News offers epidemiologist / infectious disease expert views on our situation nearly three years since the beginning of the Covid pandemic.

[W]e wondered if people who work in the infectious diseases sphere are still taking steps to try to avoid catching the virus, and if so, which ones. We also wondered whether — maybe even hoped — they are feeling less stressed about Covid and are starting to lower their guard.

The short answer: Some appear to be, a little. But most are still using multiple measures to try to avoid Covid.

The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans reports

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued the Health+ Long COVID Report highlighting patients’ experience of Long COVID to better understand its complexities and drive creative responses by government leaders, clinicians, patient advocates and others.

The Health+ Long COVID Report builds on the President’s Memorandum on Addressing the Long-Term Effects of COVID-⁠19 and the two previously issued HHS Long COVID reports

The report:

  • Provides recommendations on how to deliver high-quality care, and relevant and intentional resources and supports to individuals and families impacted by Long COVID;
  • Compliments the existing landscape of Long COVID scientific literature with the narratives and expertise of caregivers, frontline workers, and people experiencing Long COVID and its associated conditions; and
  • Offers a variety of short-term and longer-term recommendations that come directly from the patient experience. For example, insurance providers should update plan guidelines that align coverage with medical treatments that improve health outcomes for people with Long COVID. Employers should support accommodations for people living with Long COVID that allow them to continue to work and study. Federal agencies should disseminate Long COVID messaging to let people know Long COVID is real and is a serious public health issue.

Fierce Healthcare tells us

Pharmaceutical companies are aiming to continue evolving COVID-19 vaccines as the virus mutates, but the jury is still out on the effectiveness of an annual booster strategy.

For example, Moderna this week announced that it has developed a new booster to battle subvariants BA.5 and BA.4 of omicron that the company said will prove more effective than the booster the government rolled out in September, partly because the new version includes data from human beings, not just animals, as Fierce Pharma reports.

As payers are going to be on the hook for coverage of these products, they’re going to have to push for critical data on how these vaccines are working for members, experts say.

Paul Offit, M.D., the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said insurance companies should hold pharmaceutical companies’ feet to the fire. “They should say, ‘Show me the data. Show me the data as to why everyone needs another dose of vaccine. A yearly dose of vaccine. Who benefits? You’ve done those three or four initially. But prove that you need another dose of vaccine. Prove it.’ Because right now it should always be about the data,” he said in an interview.

He added that payers should ask the same questions of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The FEHBlog does not expect that this financial burden will shift soon because he expects Congress to provide more Covid funding next month. Nevertheless it’s better to be safe than sorry.

In other vaccine news, MPR relates

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) has published an updated recommendation to include the use of Priorix  (measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, live) as an additional option for active immunization for the prevention of measles, mumps and rubella in individuals 12 months of age and older. * * *

The recommendation was based on safety data from 4 randomized controlled clinical studies, 4 observational studies and 1 systematic review. In the randomized controlled trials, participants received at least 1 dose of either Priorix or a US-licensed MMR virus vaccine, live (M-M-R® II).

Results showed that immune responses after Priorix administration were noninferior to those observed with M-M-R II. Additionally, no significant difference in the frequency of vaccine-related serious adverse events was reported in these studies.

Based on these findings, the CDC considers Priorix and M-M-R II to be fully interchangeable. Either vaccine may be administered when an MMR virus-containing vaccine is indicated.

In healthcare executive news, Bloomberg reports

Walmart Inc. health-care executive Cheryl Pegus [a cardiologist with a master’s in public health]  will join JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Morgan Health venture as a managing director, with aims to improve employer-sponsored health care.

The move creates a vacancy at the nation’s largest retailer, as rivals like Amazon.com Inc. and CVS Health Corp. broaden their reach into the $4 trillion US health-care industry. It’s also a high-profile hire for Morgan Health, which the bank launched last year after shutting its joint venture with Amazon and Berkshire Hathaway Inc, known as Haven.

From the innovations front, the Wall Street Journal informs us

Vending machines stocked with overdose-reversing nasal spray are part of the latest attempt to diminish a record tide of drug deaths.

The Food and Drug Administration and some states have loosened restrictions on drugs including Narcan that are sprayed into the nose to reverse an opioid overdose.

Nonprofits that work with opioid users are distributing more of the drugs as a result. Getting Narcan as close as possible to people at risk for an overdose is essential to saving lives, they said.

“If we hadn’t had that vending machine, I might not have had my brother alive today,” said LuDene LoyaltyGroves, who works at a homeless shelter in Moses Lake, Wash. People staying with her brother in a nearby encampment retrieved Narcan from a vending machine at the shelter and used it to revive him repeatedly, she said.

Weekend update

As we barrel toward Thanksgiving, the House of Representatives and the Senate will be on a District / State work break this week.

Concerning Thanksgiving, Bloomberg Prognosis tackles a burning question.

Does turkey actually make you sleepy? It feels like everyone always says that because turkey contains tryptophan it makes you tired, but is that actually true? Madison, New York, New York

The answer to this question is somewhat counterintuitive: Tryptophan can indeed make you sleepy, but the desire for a post-Thanksgiving dinner nap probably isn’t caused by the bird.

The more likely culprit is the very large meal, says Kat Lederle, a sleep therapist in the UK. * * *

[T]he best way to avoid the post-dinner food coma is to pace yourself at the table. Just be sure to save room for dessert

From the Federal Employee Benefits Open Season front —

From the Omicron and siblings front, the New York Times reports

As winter looms and Americans increasingly gather indoors without masks or social distancing, a medley of new coronavirus variants is seeding a rise in cases and hospitalizations in counties across the nation.

The Biden administration’s plan for preventing a national surge depends heavily on persuading Americans to get updated booster shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. Now some scientists are raising doubts about this strategy.

Older adults, immunocompromised people and pregnant women should get the booster shots, because they offer extra protection against severe disease and death, said John Moore, a virologist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York.

But the picture is less clear for healthy Americans who are middle-aged and younger. They are rarely at risk of severe illness or death from Covid, and at this point most have built immunity through multiple vaccine doses, infections or both.

The newer variants, called BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, are spreading quickly, and boosters seem to do little to prevent infections with these viruses, as they are excellent evaders of immunity.

The Centers for Disease Control reported on Friday

CDC Nowcast projections* for the week ending November 19, 2022, estimate the proportion of ten lineages designated as Omicron with estimates above 1%: BA.5—and five of its sublineages (BQ.1, BQ.1.1, BF.7, BA.5.2.6, and BF.11)—BA.4.6, BA.2, and BA.2.75.

The predominant Omicron lineage is BQ.1, projected to be 25.5% (95% PI 22.1-29.1%). Additionally, other variants represent 3.1% of circulating viruses, largely composed of the Omicron-derived XBB lineage.

The New York Times adds

Diminishing returns from tinkering with the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines call for a new approach to protecting Americans altogether, Dr. Moore and other experts said. A universal vaccine that targets parts of the coronavirus that do not mutate would be ideal, for example. A nasal vaccine might be better at preventing infections than an injected one.

“Chasing variants by tweaking the mRNA vaccines is not a sustainable strategy,” Dr. Moore said. “There’s a need for better vaccine designs, but that needs a change of attitude at the government level.”

NPR Shots discusses the available treatment options for the predominant variants, which include Paxlovid.

Healthcare Dive informs us

A group of 22 states led by Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen filed a petition Thursday calling on the CMS to repeal its COVID-19 vaccination mandate for healthcare workers, according to a release.

The states argued the requirement has led to worsening staff shortages in the sector, particularly in rural areas.

The federal vaccine mandate covering healthcare workers has faced a flurry of legal challenges since it was first announced last year.

Unfortunately, the government continues to fight last year’s pre-Paxlovid battle in court.

From the U.S. healthcare business front, Fierce Healthcare tells us

Centene has agreed to sell Magellan Specialty Health to Evolent Health, the latest move in its broad value creation plan.

The government insurer said in an announcement that it expects to bank $750 million in the aggregate from the deal. Centene added Magellan Specialty Health, a leading specialty benefit management company, as part of its acquisition of Magellen Health, which closed in January.

Magellan Specialty Health provides utilization management tools to insurers, including for radiology, musculoskeletal, physical medicine and genetic testing. When the transaction closes, Centene and Evolent will enter a multiyear partnership that enables the insurer to extend and build on its work with Magellan Specialty.

“This transaction is another significant milestone in our ongoing portfolio review and value creation plan,” said Sarah London, CEO of Centene, in the release.

Friday Items

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

The FEHBlog apologizes for the fact that his Grammarly program made a hash out of yesterday’s Miscellany post. The FEHBlog discovered and fixed the problems this afternoon if anyone cares to go back to read that post. Lo siento.

Going forward, the FEHBlog will be posting Covid stats on the first Friday of the month. Here is the CDC’s weekly interpretation of its Covid statistics which focuses on a CDC report on Covid mortality dated November 16, 2022, and summarized below:

The Wall Street Journal adds

Uptake of fall Covid-19 booster shots remains anemic well into November, frustrating public-health experts who blame the lackluster interest on pandemic fatigue and insufficient outreach from officials.

About 31 million people in the U.S. have gotten the updated shots, or roughly 10% of people ages five and older, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The federal government purchased more than 170 million doses of the new bivalent boosters that target two Omicron subvariants and the original virus strain.

“It has been pretty dismal,” said Rupali Limaye, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who studies vaccine demand and acceptance. * * *

[U]ptake of the modified booster is slow due in part to the limited amount of outreach and type of messaging from health officials, some public-health experts say.

Anecdotally, it sounds like a lot of people are still not aware that the bivalent boosters are available,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University. “If they are, many don’t seem to understand the importance of getting boosted at all—with bivalent or original recipe—and there is a decided lack of urgency in communications about it.” 

Some public-health experts say there must be not just more, but also targeted outreach. Celine Gounder, a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said messaging needs to be more targeted at people age 50 and over who are most at risk. Among adults 65 and older, some 27% have gotten an updated booster dose, CDC data show. 

“You should be thinking of who is most vulnerable and target the efforts there,” said Dr. Gounder, an infectious-disease specialist and epidemiologist.

The following are the key points from this week’s CDC Fluview:

  • Seasonal influenza activity is elevated across the country.
  • The majority of influenza viruses detected this season have been influenza A(H3N2) viruses, but the proportion of subtyped influenza A viruses that are A(H1N1) is increasing slightly.
  • Two more influenza-associated pediatric deaths were reported this week, for a total of seven pediatric flu deaths reported so far this season.
  • CDC estimates that, so far this season, there have been at least 4.4 million illnesses, 38,000 hospitalizations, and 2,100 deaths from flu.
  • The cumulative hospitalization rate in the FluSurv-NET system is higher than the rate observed in week 45 during every previous season since 2010-2011.
  • The majority of influenza viruses tested are in the same genetic subclade as and antigenically similar to the influenza viruses included in this season’s influenza vaccine.

Medscape offers expert opinions on the “perfect storm” of rampant flu and RSV.

In OPM news, the agency posted its Fiscal Year 2022 Performance and Accountability report this week. The Director’s response to the Inspector General’s list of top management challenges is worth a gander. That response begins on page 125.

From the No Surprises Act front, Beckers Payer Issues tells us

The No Surprises Act has prevented millions of surprise medical bills since January, according to new data from AHIP and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. 

The payer associations gathered their data, published Nov. 17, by surveying 84 health insurance providers representing around 57 percent of the national market. 

“Thanks to the No Surprises Act, millions of Americans no longer face a complicated, confusing billing bureaucracy, being harassed by collection agencies, or even potential legal action,” AHIP President Matt Eyles said in a press release. 

AHIP and the BCBS Association also surveyed plans for the number of claims submitted to arbitration under the act. They estimated 275,000 claims have been submitted since January 2022, more than the 17,000 claims predicted by government agencies. 

and

AHIP is backing HHS in a lawsuit over surprise billing arbitration from Texas providers, who have support from the largest associations of providers. 

The trade association filed an amicus brief in Texas Medical Association v. HHS on Nov. 16. 

The lawsuit, filed by the Texas Medical Association in September, challenges the arbitration process established under the No Surprises Act. 

The FEHBlog appreciates AHIP’s amicus brief filing. In the FEHBlog’s opinion, the medical association plaintiffs in the Texas case are making a mountain out of a molehill.

A surprising legal development was the Justice Department’s 11th hour notice of appeal filed today in the antitrust challenge to United Healthcare’s acquisition of Change Healthcare which a federal district judge approved last September.

In other Friday items —

Endpoints reports

The emergence of interchangeable biosimilars since the pathway opened up has been slow. But the FDA on Thursday approved the fourth interchangeable biosimilar, which is also the second interchangeable biosimilar insulin product.

Eli Lilly’s Rezvoglar (insulin glargine-aglr), which converted to an interchangeable after an earlier biosimilar approval in December 2021, follows Viatris’ Semglee in seeking out a niche to compete with Sanofi’s blockbuster Lantus (insulin glargine). * * *

These interchangeable designations mean Semglee and Rezvoglar may be substituted at the pharmacy level for Lantus, without a doctor’s prescription, and as long as the state pharmacy law permits the switch.

USA Today reports

Preterm births last year reached their highest peak since 2007 – with more than 383,000 born before 37 weeks of gestational age in the United States, according to a new report.

In 2021, roughly 10.5% of U.S. babies were born premature, according to the annual March of Dimes “Report Card,” which rated the United States at D+. The score dropped from its C- rating in 2020, when the preterm birth rate saw its first decline in six years, a slight decrease to 10.1%.

The report released this week found disparities widened between white mothers and Native and Black mothers, who are already 62% more likely to have a preterm birth and nearly three times as likely as white moms to die of childbirth-related causes. In 2021, Black mothers saw a 3% increase and Native mothers a 6% increase in preterm births, according to the analysis.

Of all groups, Asian and Pacific Islander mothers saw the largest preterm birth increase – an 8% surge  – even though births to Asian mothers decreased that year, and they have the lowest preterm birth rate overall.

HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research capped off antibiotic awareness week by releasing antibiotic stewardship kits for the acute hospital, long-term care, and ambulatory care settings.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

Today, November 17, is National Rural Health Day.

Let’s follow up on two posts from this week:

  • On Tuesday, the FEHBlog mentioned that the Internal Revenue Service issued Notice 2022-59 which adjusts the PCORI fee for years “that end on or after October 1, 2022, and before October 1, 2023.” The FEHBlog referenced an adjusted PCORI fee of $2.79 per covered life. Whoops. The FEHBlog referenced the current PCORI fee. The adjusted PCORI fee is $3.00 per covered life. Lo siento.
  • Yesterday, the FEHBlog called to readers’ attention a Congressional Research Service report on federal healthcare laws enacted in the current Congress that expire at the end of 2022. The FEHBlog thought “I should go back and read that report.” Today an email from the Wagner Law firm identified one of these expiring laws, to wit

During the pandemic, Congress allowed telehealth services to be provided to HSA-eligible individuals without cost-sharing and without regard to whether they had met their deductibles under their High Deductible Health Plans. That authorization expired December 31, 2021. Congress then again allowed deductible-free telehealth services to resume from April 1, 2022, through December 31, 2022. Unless this authorization is extended again, plans covering HSA-eligible individuals will have to require that telehealth services be provided to those individuals on the same terms as in-person care, i.e., the deductible must be met before telehealth can be provided without further charge to the patient. [The American Benefits Council has asked Congress to extend this consumer protection.]

From Capitol Hill, Politico brings us up to date on medical association efforts to block or at least reduce a 4.5% cut in Medicare Part B payments to physicians.

From the federal employee benefits front, Tammy Flanagan writing in Govexec discusses the health benefit options available to federal employees who are veterans.

“From the public health front —

  • The Labor Department’s Department’scupational Safety and Health Administration offers guidance to employers on controlling seasonal flu outbreaks in the office or plant.
  • The New York Times examines anti-depressant drugs. “The most commonly prescribed medications for depression are somewhat effective — but not because they correct a “chemical imbalance.”

Hospitals have made progress in reducing preventable errors, accidents and injuries over the past decade, according to the Leapfrog Group’s fall 2022 hospital safety grades released Wednesday.

Incidents of falls and trauma and of objects unintentionally left in a body after surgery decreased by about 25% since 2012, according to Leapfrog.

In this year’s fall rankings, 30% of hospitals earned an A grade, 28% earned a B, 36% earned a C, 6% earned a D and 1% earned an F.

From the Rx coverage front,

Today the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved [Provention Bio’s] Tzield (teplizumab-mzwv) injection to delay the onset of stage 3 type 1 diabetes in adults and pediatric patients 8 years and older who currently have stage 2 type 1 diabetes. 

“Today’s approval of a first-in-class therapy adds an important new treatment option for certain at-risk patients,” said John Sharretts, M.D., director of the Division of Diabetes, Lipid Disorders, and Obesity in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “The drug’s potential to delay clinical diagnosis of type 1 diabetes may provide patients with months to years without the burdens of disease.” 

“From the plan design front, MedCity News tells us “Historically having worked with Medicaid and Medicare Advantage populations, Uber Health is now expanding its services to self-insured employers. The company made the announcement at the HLTH conference in Las Vegas.”

Midweek update

From Capitol Hill, the Wall Street Journal reports

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

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

Healthcare Dive adds

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

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

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

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

In other HLTH 2022 conference news,

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

From the federal employee benefits front,

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

From the Affordable Care Act front —

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

From the public health front —

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

From the miscellany department —

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

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the Federal Employees Benefit Open Season front —

  • My Federal Retirement discusses the availability of high deductible plans coupled with health savings accounts in the FEHB.
  • A Federal Times expert, Reg Jones, explains the differences between Open Season and special enrollment periods.

In related news, Federal News Network tells us

Over 200 members of the Senior Executive Service this year will receive Presidential Rank Awards, considered the highest honor for career civil servants.

President Joe Biden picked 233 winners across a total of 33 different agencies for the 2022 awards program, the Office of Personnel Management announced on Nov. 15.

“Each and every day, our federal employees are working to address the nation’s most pressing issues, developing technologies to improve millions of lives, and ultimately, achieving the seemingly unachievable on behalf of the American public,” OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said in a press statement. “This year’s Presidential Rank Awards reflect the Biden-Harris administration’s support for hardworking civil servants who exemplify strength, integrity, industry and a relentless commitment to public service through their exceptional leadership, contributions and accomplishments.”

Kudos to the winners.

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

Moderna Inc.’s new updated Covid-19 booster shot for the U.S. generated strong immune responses in people against Omicron subvariants, according to the first data from a company-sponsored study testing the new doses in volunteers.

Moderna said Monday that people receiving the updated booster shot had more than five times the neutralizing antibodies against Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 than people who received Moderna’s original booster shot, which targeted an earlier strain of the coronavirus.

“That really bodes well for the vaccine and public health,” Moderna President Stephen Hoge said in an interview.

From the conferences’ front —

  • The American Medical Association explains what happened on the closing day of the AMA’s interim meeting.
  • Healthcare Dive offers Dive Briefs from the HLTH conference about Included Health and Elevance Health. Fierce Healthcare adds “Mental health provider SonderMind acquired neuroscience company Total Brain with the goal of revolutionizing personalized therapeutic care and providing individual insights into mental wellbeing.”

In other U.S. Healthcare business news

Healthcare Dive informs us

  • “Amazon has launched a message-based virtual health service called Amazon Clinic a little more than two months after the retail giant shuttered its primary care delivery business Amazon Care.
  • “Amazon Clinic, which is currently live and available 24/7 through Amazon’s website and mobile app, is a marketplace for telemedicine providers, connecting consumers with virtual doctors who can diagnose, treat and prescribe medication for a range of common health conditions like acne, birth control and migraines, the retail giant said.
  • “Amazon Clinic will be available in 32 states at launch, with plans to expand to additional states in the coming months, according to a Tuesday blog post announcing the news. * * *
  • “Consultation cost will vary by provider, including follow-up messages with a clinician for up to two weeks after the consultation. Consultations start at $30.
  • “Amazon Clinic does not accept insurance. The company didn’t disclose whether that would change in the future.”

Minnesota Public Radio tells us

Nearly a decade after unsuccessfully attempting a merger, South Dakota-based Sanford Health and Minnesota’s Fairview Health Services said Tuesday they’re again in talks to combine.

The two regional health care giants say they intend to complete a merger next year. The new entity would be called Sanford Health and be run by Sanford’s current CEO. The deal would include the University of Minnesota hospitals, which Fairview purchased in 1997.

Financial details and any cost-cutting plans tied to the proposed merger were not immediately disclosed.

From the Food and Drug Administration front —

On Thursday [November 10], the FDA, in conjunction with the CDC, released results on youth tobacco use from the 2022 National Youth Tobacco Survey. Findings show that in 2022, more than one in 10 middle and high school students (3.08 million) had used a tobacco product during the past 30 days – including 16.5% of high school and 4.5% of middle school students. The full results are available here

Today, the FDA announced an unprecedented advancement in foodborne illness prevention through the finalization of a rule to more effectively trace contaminated food through the food supply, whether sourced in the U.S. or abroad. 

Also [t]oday, the FDA issued a Federal Register notice, Safety and Effectiveness of Certain Naloxone Hydrochloride Drug Products for Nonprescription Use, that may help facilitate the development and approval of certain nonprescription naloxone drug products, including through the switch of certain naloxone drug products from prescription status to nonprescription status. Naloxone is a medicine that can help reduce opioid overdose deaths and when administered timely, usually within minutes of the first signs of an opioid overdose, can counter the overdose effects.

From the No Surprises Act front, today was the deadline for the public to submit comments to the NSA regulators concerning two unnecessarily complicated consumer protections found in the law — the good faith estimate and the advance explanation of benefits. In the FEHBlog’s view, the NSA regulators would be well served if they limited those protections to surprise billing situations not elsewhere covered by the law, for example, (1) complicated procedures and (2) reoccurring services that take place over a prolonged period, e.g. chiropractor care, mental health care. The WEDI group, which is an advisor to the HHS Secretary, also offers useful comments on the matter.

From the Affordable Care Act front, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force gave an inconclusive (I) grade today to screening for obstructive sleep apnea in adults. “The USPSTF concludes that the current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of screening for obstructive sleep apnea in the general adult population.” The USPSTF previously graded the apnea screening service an I grade in January 2017.

In closing, here’s a tidbit from the Wall Street Journal

The Earth is now home to eight billion people, the United Nations said, because people are living longer and fertility rates have surged in some countries. * * *

There were about 300 million people on Earth two millennia ago, according to the U.N. The population fluctuated in the centuries after that, largely because of plagues and natural disasters. Then the population accelerated, reaching one billion in 1804, four billion in 1974 and seven billion in 2011. * * *

Demographers project the world will reach its next population milestone—nine billion—around 2037.

The U.N. predicts that the global population will peak at around 10.4 billion during the 2080s and remain near that level until the start of the next century. Another forecast, from the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital at the University of Vienna, has it peaking at 9.67 billion in 2070, before a slow decline as fertility rates drop.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the Capitol Hill front —

  • Roll Call and Govexec bring us up to date on the lame-duck session’s agenda.
  • The Washington Post tells us about the Administration’s plans to include $10 billion in Covid funding in the omnibus appropriations bill that Congress must pass or extend by December 16.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports “Republicans have won 217 House seats to the Democrats’ 205, according to the Associated Press tally. A party needs 218 for a majority in the chamber, and Republicans were on track for a very narrow margin after they won seats Monday in Arizona, California and New York. ” This development increases the likelihood that Congress will pass an omnibus appropriations bill before year-end.
  • The Congressional Budget Office posted a presentation on its recommended policy approaches to reduce commercial health Insurer payments for hospitals’ and physicians’ services. The presentation is worth a gander because the American Hospital Association, among others, is not pleased with the CBO’s recommendations.

The Federal Employee Benefits Open Season started today, and Govexec offers a checklist to help decision-makers.

From the conferences’ front —

  • The American Medical Association shares developments from its interim meeting which concludes tomorrow.
  • Fierce Healthcare offers a news feed from the HLTH 2022 conference.

From the Affordable Care Act front, the Internal Revenue Service announced the PCORI support fee that health plans must pay for policy years and plan years that end on or after October 1, 2022, and before October 1, 2023. In short, the dollar amount that calendar year plans such as the FEHB plan must pay next July 31 is $3.00 times the average number of covered lives.

From the Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia front, Medscape reports

  • “Dementia prevalence is dropping in the United States, new research shows.”
  • “Of the more than 6 million Alzheimer’s patients in the U.S. age 65 or older, nearly two-thirds are women. A new study may help explain the gender gap — and offer clues to new treatments for helping patients of both sexes fight back.” The FEHBlog has been taking a continuing legal education course on eldercare, and the practicing lawyers teaching the court remarked that 95% of the clients for whom Medicaid nursing home coverage is sought are husbands.
  • “Among older adults who use the US Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), rates of memory decline appear to be slower than among those who don’t use the program, new research shows.”

The Wall Street Journal informs us

An experimental Alzheimer’s drug from Roche Holding AG failed to significantly slow cognitive decline in long-awaited trials, the latest in a long line of setbacks for a field that has seen little progress in decades.

The drug, called gantenerumab, slightly reduced cognitive decline in people with early Alzheimer’s compared with a placebo across two large and lengthy trials, but the difference wasn’t statistically significant, Roche said Monday. The trials, which lasted more than two years and involved nearly 2,000 participants, compared scores of cognition and function in areas such as memory, orientation and problem-solving. * * *

The news comes just weeks after clinical trial results from a drug developed jointly by Biogen Inc. and Eisai Co. infused fresh hope into a field that has been marked by failure. The Biogen and Eisai drug, called lecanemab, reduced cognitive and functional decline by 27% compared with a placebo. The companies say they plan to provide more detailed study results at an upcoming research conference.

Like lecanemab, Roche’s gantenerumab targets accumulations of beta-amyloid, a protein that is found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s and is thought to be linked to the disease. Several earlier beta-amyloid-targeting drugs had failed in clinical trials, although each drug acts slightly differently.

Roche Chief Executive Severin Schwan said last month that the Biogen and Eisai results were encouraging, but cautioned that they didn’t shed any light on the likely success of gantenerumab. Roche said Monday that the level of beta-amyloid removal by gantenerumab was lower than expected in the trials.

In other news —

  • Per Fierce Healthcare, Aetna announced a new advanced price care program in cooperation with Crossover Health. The program will launch next January 1 in the Seattle Washington region. “The new hybrid care model is integrated into a health plan and aims to tackle the rising access issues and costs of healthcare with a fixed fee, value-based payment model, executives said.”
  • Milliman offers its thoughts on mental health challenges facing employers.

Weekend Update

Photo by Tomasz Filipek on Unsplash

The Wall Street Journal reports that in last week’s Congressional election

Democrats retained control of the Senate after Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto won a tight race in Nevada over Republican Adam Laxalt, giving the party the 50 seats it needs for a majority, and disappointing Republicans who believed they had a strong chance to flip the chamber.

The GOP appeared on track toward winning the barest of House majorities, nonpartisan analysts said, but the final outcome hinged on races, mostly on the West Coast, that remain too close to call.

HR Dive recounts the outcome of state ballot initiatives that relate to employer-employee relations.

The lame-duck session of the current Congress kicks off tomorrow with floor voting in the Senate and House and Committee business.

The Federal Employees Benefits Open Season starts tomorrow and ends on December 12, 2022.

The American Medical Association’s Interim Meeting started yesterday and ends on Tuesday, November 15, in Honolulu, Hawaii.

The Centers for Disease Control marks Antibiotic Awareness Week this week with a focus on prevention.

Every year, CDC honors U.S. Antibiotic Awareness Week to raise awareness and share information on the importance of improving antibiotic and antifungal use.

Antibiotics and antifungals save lives, but any time they are used, they can cause side effects and can contribute to the development of resistance.

Prevention puts a “pause” on antimicrobial resistance (AR), and we all have a role in combating AR.

McKinsey and Company offers guidance on preparing for the next pandemic.

COVID-19 won’t be the last pandemic, but is the world prepared for the next one? COVID-19 exposed underlying vulnerabilities in public health systems that made them less resilient to acute threats than expected. The learning: there’s much work to be done. McKinsey partner Matt Craven, and senior partners Matt Wilson and Lieven Van der Veken, identified four areas where governments can focus their efforts to build greater confidence in readiness. Learn more about this strategic approach to managing future threats, and dive deeper with these insights on vaccine innovation and resilience, boosting COVID-19 vaccine uptake in Africa, improving social determinants of health, strengthening the public health workforce, and more.

Fierce Healthcare informs us

The Biden administration is pushing to resolve big gaps in the quality and accuracy of data on health equity as it installs new requirements for payers and providers.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released a blog post late Thursday outlining steps to address data issues such as aligning standards for collection and gradually implementing equity scores.

“Data can tell a story, but if the data is incomplete or unaligned, the story is also incomplete,” wrote LaShawn McIver, M.D., director of CMS’ Office of Minority Health. “To work to advance health equity, we must improve our data, especially our health equity data.”

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has made closing equity gaps a key pillar of the Biden administration, including pursuing new equity requirements in health plans and value-based care payment models.

A recent framework released by CMS detailed the need for increasing the collection of data on social determinants of health (SDOH) to better identify equity gaps.

“CMS recognizes that progress has been made but is committed to resolving the major gaps in data quality, accuracy and completeness,” McIver wrote. 

The FEHBlog would be happy if OPM started sharing SDOH data with FEHB carriers.

Health Payer Intelligence discusses steps that health plans are taking to make explaining benefits more understandable to members.