Weekend Update / Cybersecurity Saturday

Weekend Update / Cybersecurity Saturday

Blue Bonnets — The Texas State Flower

The FEHBlog’s Friday Insights did not publish as scheduled on Saturday morning. To get the email distribution back on schedule the FEHBlog is combining the Weekend Update and the Cybersecurity Saturday posts below.

Weekend Update

The House of Representatives and the Senate will be in session for Committee business and floor voting on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday this week.

Recently, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services confirmed that the No Surprises Act air ambulance reporting will not occur in 2023.

Under section 106 of the No Surprises Act, air ambulance providers, insurance companies, and employer-based health plans must submit to federal regulators information about air ambulance services provided to consumers. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) in the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) is conducting this Air Ambulance data collection (AADC), which will be used to develop a public report on air ambulance services.
The proposed rules describing the proposed form and manner of the data collection can be found at this link. The final rules will specify the final reporting requirements, including the data elements and the deadlines for the data collection. The data collection will not begin until after the final rules are published. This page will be updated when the rules are finalized and more information on data collection is available.

From the value added care front, Behavioral Health Business discusses how Aetna and Optum are collaborating with a large mental health provider, Universal Health Services, to develop reliable outcome measurements for mental health services.

From the healthcare developments front —

NPR tells us

When the FDA approved bempedoic acid, marketed under the brand name Nexletol, back in 2020, it was clear that the drug helped lower LDL — “bad” cholesterol. The drug was intended for people who can’t tolerate statin medications due to muscle pain, which is a side effect reported by up to 29% of people who take statins.

What was unknown until now, is whether bempedoic acid also reduced the risk of cardiovascular events. Now, the results of a randomized, controlled trial published in The New England Journal of Medicine point to significant benefit. The study included about 14,000 people, all of whom were statin intolerant.

“The big effect was on heart attacks,” says study author Dr. Steven Nissen of Cleveland Clinic. 

People who took daily doses of bempedoic acid for more than three years had about a 23% lower risk of having a heart attack, in that period, compared to those taking a placebo. There was also a 19% reduction in coronary revascularizations, which are procedures that restore blood flow to the heart, such as a bypass operation or stenting to open arteries.

Medscape highlights a “revolutionary” treatment for suicidal depression, the Stanford neuromodulation therapy (SNT) protocol.

From the medical research front, Medscape reports

A common chemical that is used in correction fluid, paint removers, gun cleaners, aerosol cleaning products, and dry cleaning may be the key culprit behind the dramatic increase in Parkinson’s disease (PD), researchers say.

An international team of researchers reviewed previous research and cited data that suggest the chemical trichloroethylene (TCE) is associated with as much as a 500% increased risk for Parkinson’s disease (PD).

Lead investigator Ray Dorsey, MD, professor of neurology, University of Rochester, New York, called PD “the world’s fastest-growing brain disease,” and told Medscape Medical News that it “may be largely preventable.”

“Countless people have died over generations from cancer and other disease linked to TCE [and] Parkinson’s may be the latest,” he said. “Banning these chemicals, containing contaminated sites, and protecting homes, schools, and buildings at risk may all create a world where Parkinson’s is increasingly rare, not common.”

The paper was published online March 14 in the Journal of Parkinson’s Disease.

The FEHBlog has several friends with Parkinson’s Disease.

From the Medicare front, Health Payer Intelligence relates

Beneficiaries with end-stage renal disease (ESRD) are increasingly shifting from Medicare fee-for-service (FFS) to Medicare Advantage, leading more Medicare Advantage plans to form value-based arrangements with kidney care management companies, according to Avalere.

Beneficiaries with ESRD have typically received coverage through Medicare FFS because only those already enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan before initiating dialysis were eligible for the private program through 2020.

A provision under the 21st Century Cures Act that went into effect on January 1, 2021, made all Medicare beneficiaries with ESRD eligible to enroll in Medicare Advantage plans.

Although patient safety awareness week is over, the Wall Street Journal makes us aware that

Black boxes on airplanes record detailed information about flights. Now, a technology that goes by the same name and captures just about everything that goes on in an operating room during a surgery is making its way into hospitals.

The OR Black Box, a system of sensors and software, is being used in operating rooms in 24 hospitals in the U.S., Canada and Western Europe. Video, audio, patient vital signs and data from surgical devices are among the information being captured.

The technology is being used primarily to analyze operating-room practices in hopes of reducing medical errors, improving patient safety and making operating rooms more efficient. It can also help hospitals figure out what happened if an operation goes wrong. * * *

Duke University Hospital, where two operating rooms are equipped with black boxes, is using the technology to study and improve on patient positioning for surgery to reduce the possibility of skin-tissue and nerve injuries. It is also studying and using the technology to improve communication among nursing personnel throughout a surgical procedure to ensure that key tasks—such as confirming that surgical instruments and medical devices are available for a procedure—are being completed promptly, effectively and efficiently.

Cybersecurity Saturday

From the cybersecurity policy front, the American Hospital Association informs us that

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a full Committee hearing examining cybersecurity risks to the healthcare sector on March 16. Witnesses included Scott Dresen, chief information security officer for Corewell Health, a large integrated health system in Michigan. 
“The increasing frequency of attack from nation state actors and organized crime has created a sense of urgency within the healthcare sector and we need help from the United States government to respond to these threats more effectively,” Dresen said.
Specifically, he called for enhancing existing partnerships with and between federal agencies, expanding the sharing of actionable threat intelligence, incentivizing access to affordable technology to defend against advanced threats, ensuring there is an adequate cyber workforce, and reforming legislation to encourage the adoption of best practices while not penalizing the victims of cyberattacks.

STAT News reveals why an HHS rule amending the HIPAA Privacy Rule will wreak financial havoc on health systems. The proposed rule was issued in January 2021, so the final rule has been pending for a long time.

Federal News Network reports

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) is looking to position a new “Cyber Analytics and Data System” at the center of national cyber defenses, as the agency’s post-EINSTEIN plans come into focus in its fiscal 2024 budget request.

CISA is seeking $424.9 million in the 2024 budget for “CADS.” The program is envisioned as a “system of systems,” budget documents explain, that provides “a robust and scalable analytic environment capable of integrating mission visibility data sets and providing visualization tools and advanced analytic capabilities to CISA cyber operators.”

The new program is part of the “restructuring” of the National Cybersecurity Protection System, according to the documents. More commonly known as “EINSTEIN,” the NCPS has been in place to defend federal agency networks since the Department of Homeland Security’s inception in 2003.

From the cyber breaches front, Tech Target brings us up to date on the DC Health Link breach.

An additional wrinkle to the breach came Monday [March 13] when another user on the same dark web forum using the alias Denfur, who had previously published sample data from the breach, created a thread supposedly aiming to clear up misinformation surrounding the breach.

Claiming to be a friend of IntelBroker, Denfur said the attack vector for the breach was an exposed, insecure database belonging to DC Health Link. Moreover, the poster said the database was likely exposed “for over a year and a half” before the breach occurred. TechTarget Editorial contacted DC Health Link in order to verify Denfur’s claims, but a spokesperson declined to comment.

Nextgov reports

At least two hacking groups were able to gain access to at least one federal agency’s servers through an old vulnerability in a software development and design product, according to a cybersecurity advisory issued Wednesday.

According to an alert issued by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, hackers were able to gain access to and run unauthorized code on a federal agency’s server, though they were not able to gain privileged access or move deeper into the network. The malicious activity was observed between November 2022 and early January, though the initial compromise goes as far back as August 2021.

Hackers used a vulnerability in old versions of Telerik UI, a software developer kit for designing apps, which, when exploited, allows hackers with access to execute code. The vulnerability was discovered in 2019 and builds on previous vulnerabilities discovered in 2017 that allow bad actors to gain privileged access and “successfully execute remote code on the vulnerable web server.”

The National Vulnerability Database—managed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology—rates this a critical vulnerability, with a score of 9.8 out of 10.

From the cyber vulnerabilities front, HHS’s Healthcare Cybersecurity Coordination Center (HC3) released its February 2023 list of vulnerabilities of interest to the health sector.

In February 2023, vulnerabilities to the health sector have been released that require attention. This includes the monthly Patch Tuesday vulnerabilities released by several vendors on the second Tuesday of each month, along with mitigation steps and patches. Vulnerabilities for this month are from Microsoft, Google/Android, Apple, Mozilla, SAP, Citrix, Intel, Cisco, VMWare, Fortinet, and Adobe. A vulnerability is given the classification as a zero-day if it is actively exploited with no fix available or is publicly disclosed. HC3 recommends patching all vulnerabilities with special consideration to the risk management posture of the organization.

Cybersecurity Dive informs us.

  • Researchers are warning that state-linked and financially motivated threat actors may try to exploit a critical zero-day vulnerability in Microsoft Outlook to launch new attacks against unpatched systems. 
  • Microsoft urged customers to patch their systems against CVE-2023-23397 to address the critical escalation of privilege vulnerability in Microsoft Outlook for Windows, the company said Tuesday. Microsoft Threat Intelligence warned that a Russia-based threat actor launched attacks against targeted victims in several European countries.
  • Mandiant researchers warned that other criminal and cyber-espionage actors will race to find new victims vulnerable to the zero day before organizations can apply patches. 

CISA added three and then one more known exploited vulnerability to its catalog this week.

Security Week highlights that “Deepfakes are becoming increasingly popular with cybercriminals, and as these technologies become even easier to use, organizations must become even more vigilant.”

Deepfakes are part of the ongoing trend of weaponized AI. They’re extremely effective in the context of social engineering because they use AI to mimic human communications so well. With tools like these, malicious actors can easily hoodwink people into giving them credentials or other sensitive information, or even transfer money for instant financial gain. Deepfakes represent the next generation of fraud, by enabling bad actors to impersonate people more accurately and thus trick employees, friends, customers, etc., into doing things like turning over sensitive credentials or wiring money.

Here’s one real-world example: Bad actors used deepfake voice technology to defraud a company by using AI to mimic the voice of a CEO to persuade an employee to transfer nearly $250,000 to a Hungarian supplier. Earlier this year, the FBI also warned of an uptick in the use of deepfakes and stolen PII to apply for remote work jobs – especially for positions with access to a lot of sensitive customer data.

The Security Week article also discusses defenses to deepfake tactics.

From the ransomware date infiltration front –

  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), CISA, and the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center (MS-ISAC) has released a joint cybersecurity advisory (CSA), #StopRansomware: LockBit 3.0. This joint advisory details known indicators of compromise (IOCs) and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) that FBI investigations correlated with LockBit 3.0 ransomware as recently as March 2023. LockBit 3.0 functions as an affiliate-based ransomware variant and is a continuation of LockBit 2.0 and LockBit. CISA encourages network defenders to review and apply the recommendations in the Mitigations section of this CSA.
  • HC3 posted a threat profile on Black Basta.
    • “Black Basta was initially spotted in early 2022, known for its double extortion attack, the Russian-speaking group not only executes ransomware but also exfiltrates sensitive data, operating a cybercrime marketplace to publicly release it, should a victim fail to pay a ransom. The threat group’s prolific targeting of at least 20 victims in its first two weeks of operation indicates that it is experienced in ransomware and has a steady source of initial access. The level of sophistication by its proficient ransomware operators, and reluctance to recruit or advertise on Dark Web forums, supports why many suspect the nascent Black Basta may even be a rebrand of the Russian-speaking RaaS threat group Conti, or also linked to other Russian-speaking cyber threat groups. Previous HC3 Analyst Notes on Conti and BlackMatter even reinforce the similar tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) shared with Black Basta. Nevertheless, as ransomware attacks continue to increase, this Threat Profile highlights the emerging group and its seasoned cybercriminals and provides best practices to lower risks of being victimized.”

Here is a link to the always interesting Bleeping Computer Week in Ransomware.

From the cyber defenses front —

CISA announced

the creation of the Ransomware Vulnerability Warning Pilot (RVWP). Through the RVWP, CISA:     

  1. Proactively identifies information systems—belonging to critical infrastructure entities—that contain vulnerabilities commonly associated with ransomware intrusions.
  2. Notifies the owners of the affected information systems, which enables the owners to mitigate the vulnerabilities before damaging intrusions occur. 

Review the RVWP webpage for details, including information on the authorities and services CISA leverages to enable RVWP notifications.

HelpNetSecurity tells us how to use ChatGPT to improve cyber defenses.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

The Wall Street Journal reported this morning that maternal mortality cases in the U.S. spiked in 2021, rising from around 850 to 1200 nationwide. From examining Journal reader comments, the FEHBlog ran across a helpful breakdown of maternal deaths per U.S. state.  The lowest maternal death rate is in California, and the highest maternal death rate is in Louisiana.  The breakdown points out what the States with the lowest rates are doing right and what the States with the highest rates are doing to remedy the problem. Healthcare is local.

The FEHBlog also was directed to this article from the T.H. Chan public health school at Harvard:

October 21, 2022 – Women in the U.S. who are pregnant or who have recently given birth are more likely to be murdered than to die from obstetric causes—and these homicides are linked to a deadly mix of intimate partner violence and firearms, according to researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Homicide deaths among pregnant women are more prevalent than deaths from hypertensive disorders, hemorrhage, or sepsis, wrote Rebecca Lawn, postdoctoral research fellow, and Karestan Koenen, professor of psychiatric epidemiology, in an October 19 editorial in the journal BMJ.

The U.S. has a higher prevalence of intimate partner violence than comparable countries, such violence is often fatal, and it frequently involves guns, Lawn and Koenen noted. They cited one study that found that, from 2009–2019, 68% of pregnancy-related homicides involved firearms. That study also found that Black women face substantially higher risk of being killed than white or Hispanic women.

I also located the CDC’s website on keeping new mothers alive.

This evening the Journal discussed why our country’s maternal mortality rate is so high.

Finally, STAT News reports that this afternoon the Centers for Disease Control announced preliminary 2022 maternal mortality figures.

Deaths of pregnant women in the U.S. fell in 2022, dropping significantly from a six-decade high during the pandemic, new data suggests.

More than 1,200 U.S. women died in 2021 during pregnancy or shortly after childbirth, according to a final tally released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2022, there were 733 maternal deaths, according to preliminary agency data, though the final number is likely to be higher.

Officials say the 2022 maternal death rate is on track to get close to pre-pandemic levels. But that’s not great: The rate before Covid-19 was the highest it had been in decades.

The CDC counts women who die while pregnant, during childbirth, and up to 42 days after birth. Excessive bleeding, blood vessel blockages, and infections are leading causes.

Covid-19 can be particularly dangerous to pregnant women, and experts believe it was the main reason for the 2021 spike. Burned out physicians may have added to the risk by ignoring pregnant women’s worries, some advocates said.

In 2021, there were about 33 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births. The last time the government recorded a rate that high was 1964.

What happened “isn’t that hard to explain,” said Eugene Declercq, a long-time maternal mortality researcher at Boston University. “The surge was Covid-related.”

The FEHBlog’s goal is to provide perspective on this vital issue.

From the Omicron and siblings front, MedPage Today informs us

An FDA panel recommended the agency grant full approval to nirmatrelvir-ritonavir (Paxlovid) for treating high-risk COVID-19.

By a vote of 16-1 on Thursday, the Antimicrobial Drugs Advisory Committee said the totality of evidence supports the traditional approval of the oral antiviral, which has been widely used since late 2021 under an emergency use authorization to reduce the risk of hospitalization or death in outpatients at risk for severe outcomes.

“Besides oxygen, Paxlovid has probably been the single most important treatment tool in this epidemic, and it continues to be,” said Richard Murphy, MD, MPH, of the White River Junction VA Medical Center in Hartford, Vermont.

The Mercer consulting firm considers employer approaches to coverage of Covid tests following the end of the public health emergency.

Employers have some important decisions to make over the next two months before the COVID Public Health Emergency (PHE) comes to an end on May 11. One is how to handle cost-sharing for PCR and other COVID tests and related services provided by a licensed healthcare or otherwise authorized provider. Under the PHE, group health plans had to cover testing received either in- or out-of-network at no cost to participants. 

We recently polled recipients of our New Shape of Work newsletter to ask whether they planned to impose cost-sharing requirements once allowed. Of the more than 1,000 readers who responded, about half indicated that their organization will  not make any change when the PHE ends:  22% will continue to cover PCR testing at 100% both in- and out-of-network, and 29% say that they require COVID testing at their worksites and provide it at no cost.  Only about a fourth (26%) will now require cost-sharing from participants even when they use an in-network facility for testing; about another fourth (23%) will add a cost-sharing requirement only for out-of-network services.   

Personally, the FEHBlog would opt for restoring a cost-sharing requirement only for out-of-network services.

From the Rx coverage front

  • STAT News tells us, “Following the lead of its rivals, Sanofi will cut the price of its most widely prescribed insulin in the U.S. by 78% and also place a $35 cap on out-of-pocket costs for commercially insured patients who take the treatment, which is called Lantus. The moves will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2024.”
  • The Mercer consulting firm offers its perspective on coverage of the new era of weight loss drugs, e.g., Ozempic.

For plans covering weight-loss medications, adding prior authorization criteria can help manage cost growth. These include requirements such as a certain body mass index (BMI), co-morbid conditions, enrollment in a behavior modification program, and/or reduced calorie diet. Upon initiation of therapy, patients and clinicians should partner to create a comprehensive plan to achieve goals and use the medication purposefully alongside a targeted and managed lifestyle program. The plan should include a discussion regarding medication discontinuation when/if goals are met to prevent relapse and weight regain/ weight cycling. Medical nutrition therapy (MNT) with a registered dietitian should be covered; ideally 14 in-person or telenutrition sessions.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, self-monitoring, motivational interviewing, structured meal plans, portion control and goal setting are recommended interventions. Ideally, patients would progress from dietary intervention (covered MNT or weight management solution), to weight loss medications, and then, potentially, to bariatric surgery.  

In recognition of Patient Safety Awareness Week, the Partnership to Fight Infectious Disease announced, making March 18 a day of action to raise awareness of the need to #squashsuperbugs so that we can all do our part to prepare and perhaps even prevent a future pandemic due to antibiotic resistance.

From the No Surprises Act front, Fierce Healthcare reports

An “astronomical” number of surprise billing arbitration dispute cases is impacting the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), a top agency official said.

Education and communication are integral to an “orderly transition” in the handling of independent dispute resolutions for out-of-pocket charges, the official said. The agency has grappled with legal issues and implementation hiccups surrounding a controversial process for settling feuds between payers and providers on out-of-network charges.

“We are seeing more than expected number of disputes getting to that last stopgap part, which is the independent dispute resolution part,” said Ellen Montz, director of CMS’ Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight. Montz spoke during a session Wednesday at the AHIP Medicare, Medicaid, Duals & Commercial Markets Forum in Washington, D.C. 

The agency is also seeing a lot of ineligible cases that don’t qualify for the dispute resolution process, which requires a third party to choose between out-of-network charges submitted by the payer and provider. 

These ineligible cases require “a lot of casework, phone calls and back and forth to determine eligibility,” Montz said. 

From the Medicare front, Healthcare Dive tells us

The group that advises Congress on Medicare policy is recommending updating base physician payment rates by 1.45% for 2024, according to its annual March report out Wednesday.

The Medicare Advisory Payment Commission, or MedPAC, did not make recommendations for ambulatory surgery center payment updates or for Medicare Advantage plans.

The commission did note concern with MA plan coding intensity, and said Medicare now spends more on MA enrollees than it would have spent had those enrollees remained in fee-for-service plans.

The FEHBlog doubts that this MedPAC report made anyone happy.

From the federal employee benefits front, FedWeek reminds folks that while the dependent care flexible spending accounts available to federal employees typically are used for child care, they also can be used for senior care in certain circumstances.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From our Nation’s capital, OPM released its Fiscal Year 2024 Congressional Budget Justification document, which is part of the federal budget process. Of interest to the FEHBlog is this OPM goal:

Improve customer experience by making it easier for Federal employees, annuitants, and other eligible persons to make a more informed health insurance plan selection. 

By September 30, 2023, complete user-centered design and develop a minimum viable product for a new, state-of-the-art Decision Support Tool that will give eligible individuals the necessary information to compare plan benefits, provider networks, prescription costs, and other health information important to them and their families.

Federal News Network tells us about a related Office of Management and Budget analytical perspective on federal workforce issues.

The Office of Management and Budget, in one of its analytical perspectives supplementing the Biden administration’s 2024 budget request, said federal workers’ pay is “increasingly hamstrung” by statutory requirements “that curb the ability of agencies to reward talent, including for specialized occupations, in a national competitive job environment.”

From the Rx coverage front —

The Wall Street Street Journal reports

Eisai Co.’s new Alzheimer’s disease drug Leqembi will be covered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the first major insurer to agree to pay for the drug since its approval by U.S. regulators earlier this year. 

Eisai said Monday veterans with the early stages of Alzheimer’s would get the drug covered under criteria set by the VA.

An estimated 167,954 veterans receiving care through the VA have Alzheimer’s dementia, according to government estimates. To qualify for Leqembi, patients must be over 65, have early-stage symptoms and elevated brain amyloid, sticky protein fragments, which the drug is designed to remove.

STAT News describes the VA’s step as “unexpected,” which is an understatement because CMS does not plan to issue a Medicare national coverage decision until mid-year. STAT News adds

The [VA] published a guide on its formulary saying coverage will extend to any veteran who meets specified criteria, including an MRI scan within the previous year, amyloid PET imaging consistent with Alzheimer’s and a staging test indicating mild Alzheimer’s dementia. There is also a long list of criteria that would exclude veterans.

The agency can negotiate prices for drugs, but the price it will pay for Leqembi was not listed and the Eisai spokesperson did not offer a cost. Leqembi has an annual wholesale price of $26,500, although the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review recently said the treatment should cost between $8,900 and $21,500 per year to be considered cost effective.

Under federal law, the VA can bill other health plans (including FEHB but not Medicare) for non-service related care such as this drug. For this reason, this VA action opens the back door to FEHB coverage of Leqembi.

From the end of the public health emergency front —

The Society for Human Resource Management offers its take on how employers should prepare for the end of the PHE, now less than two months away.

The American Hospital Association points out

The Food and Drug Administration will end 22 COVID-19-related policies when the public health emergency ends May 11 and allow 22 to continue for 180 days, including temporary policies for outsourcing facilities compounding certain drugs for hospitalized patients and non-standard personal protective equipment practices for sterile compounders not registered as outsourcing facilities, the agency announced. FDA plans to retain 24 COVID-19-related policies with “appropriate changes” and four whose duration is not tied to the PHE, including its recently revised policy for COVID-19 tests

From the Rx business front —

BioPharma Dive informs us

Pfizer has agreed to buy Seattle-based Seagen for $43 billion in a blockbuster deal that would unite the pharmaceutical giant with a biotechnology company that pioneered a new type of tumor-killing medicine.

The acquisition is the largest Pfizer has attempted since its 2009 purchase of Wyeth, and is the most sizable in the drug industry by value since AbbVie’s $63 billion buyout of Allergan in 2019.

Acquiring Seagen gives Pfizer control of the top-selling lymphoma medicine Adcetris as well as a pipeline of cancer treatments that’s yielded three new drug approvals in the past three years. Seagen specializes in a type of cancer therapy known as an antibody-drug conjugate, and has steadily improved on the technology since its founding in 1997.

STAT News relates

Sanofi said Monday that it is acquiring Provention Bio, makers of a diabetes treatment, for $2.9 billion.

The Provention drug at the centerpiece of the deal, called TZield, was approved in the U.S. last November as the first and only treatment to prevent the onset of symptomatic Type 1 diabetes. Sanofi was already co-marketing the drug under a prior licensing deal signed between the two companies.

The French pharma giant will now own TZield outright, paying $25 per share to acquire Provention — a 273% premium over Friday’s closing stock price.

In recognition of Patient Safety Awareness Week

  • The HHS Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research’s Director Robert O. Valdez, Ph.D., M.H.S.A. explains how AHRQ is sharpening its focus on diagnostic safety.
  • Beckers Hospital Review reports
    • The pediatric mental health crisis is the most pressing patient safety concern in 2023, the Emergency Care Research Institute said on March 13. 
    • The ECRI, which conducts independent medical device evaluations, annually compiles scientific literature and patient safety events, concerns reported to or investigated by the organization, and other data sources to create its top 10 list.
    • Here are the 10 patient safety concerns for 2023, according to the report: 
      • 1. The pediatric mental health crisis
      • 2. Physical and verbal violence against healthcare staff
      • 3. Clinician needs in times of uncertainty surrounding maternal-fetal medicine
      • 4. Impact on clinicians expected to work outside their scope of practice and competencies
      • 5. Delayed identification and treatment of sepsis
      • 6. Consequences of poor care coordination for patients with complex medical conditions
      • 7. Risks of not looking beyond the “five rights” to achieve medication safety
      • 8. Medication errors resulting from inaccurate patient medication lists
      • 9. Accidental administration of neuromuscular blocking agents
      • 10. Preventable harm due to omitted care or treatment
  • The U.S. Department of Labor announced on March 10
    • the launch of a series of online dialogues to gather ideas and other public input on how health policies can support workers’ mental health most effectively.
    • The crowdsourcing will focus on four areas of concern for people with mental health conditions, including benefits policies that meet their needs, access to workplace care and supports, the reduction of related social stigmas, disparities faced by people in underserved communities, shortages of behavioral health professionals, and the establishment of state resource systems.
    • Part of the department’s ePolicyWorks initiative, the dialogues will remain open until April 3. Input received will inform the next meeting of the Mental Health Matters: National Task Force on Workforce Mental Health Policy
  • Healthexec calls attention to FDA recalls of certain eyedrops.

From the value-based care front, Health Payer Intelligence notes

CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield (CareFirst) has formed a strategic alliance with Aledade, Inc. (Aledade), offering independent primary care physicians tools and resources to improve healthcare affordability and effectiveness, supporting CareFirst member physicians in achieving value-based care goals.

Through this value-based relationship, CareFirst member physicians can leverage specialists, including onsite business support for physician practices, a technology platform that works with more than 100 different EHRs, and healthcare regulatory and policy expertise.

From the medical debt front, Healthcare Dive reports

  • Hospitals are a prime source of medical debt in America that hits underserved populations hardest, despite charity care programs and financial assistance policies, according to a new analysis from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
  • Of the 15% of U.S. adults with past-due medical debt, almost two-thirds owe some or all of that debt to hospitals, according to research from the Urban Institute. That medical debt disproportionately affects underserved populations, such as low-income individuals and people with disabilities, researchers found.
  • While medical debt remains a persistent financial burden in the U.S., a new analysis from the Urban Institute highlights how targeting hospital billing could ameliorate the problem.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Roll Call reports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This isn’t very encouraging.

From the U.S. healthcare business front —

Beckers Hospital Review reports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the next step the courthouse?

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

From the mental healthcare front, Fierce Healthcare tells us

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

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

From the tidbits department —

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

Monday Roundup

    Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

    Today was another busy day.

    The biggest surprise is that OPM begun refreshing its website and has revealed its logo.

    U.S. Office of Personnel Management logo
    New OPM Logo

      From the public health front —

      • The Hill reports that the President plans to end the national and public health emergencies for the Covid pandemic on May 11, 2023. Congress took steps to arrange for a soft landing in the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2023, which likely is a factor in reaching this executive decision.
      • Health IT Analytics tells us, “Researchers from New York University (NYU) Grossman School of Medicine and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) unveiled the Congressional District Health Dashboard (CDHD), an online data tool that provides health data for all 435 US congressional districts and the District of Columbia.” Interesting.
      • The New York Times informs us, “A new report [on maternal health in the U.S.] highlighted the dangers faced by Native American women, who face the greatest risks during and after pregnancy. Native American women were 3.5 times as likely to die during this critical period, compared with white women, the study found.” This rang a bell with the FEHBlog because the FEHB Program included Native American employers who have contracted with OPM for FEHB coverage for their employees. “During and after pregnancy, Black women also faced heightened odds of death that were almost double those of white women, along with a risk of dying specifically from pregnancy complications that was 2.8 times that of white women.” No child should be deprived of a mother due to inadequate healthcare.
      • Yale New Haven Hospital offers insights on heart disease for lay people/patients.
      • Medpage Today discusses recently extended and updated Body Mass Indices (BMIs0 for children and adolescents.
      • LifeSciences Intelligence reports that “In a recent news release, the Emergency Care Research Institute (ECRI) highlighted gaps in communication regarding medical device recalls, noting that these gaps could be a significant threat to patient safety. This commentary was a part of the organization’s Top 10 Health Technology Hazards report.”

      From the Affordable Care Act front, the ACA regulators today promulgated a proposed rule that would create

      a new independent pathway through which individuals enrolled in plans or coverage sponsored or arranged by objecting entities that have not opted for the existing accommodation (including those enrolled in individual health insurance coverage issued by such an objecting entity) could access contraceptive services at no cost. Specifically, these proposed rules would create a mechanism, independent from the employer, group health plan, plan sponsor, institution of higher education, or issuer, through which individuals could obtain contraceptive services at no cost from a willing provider of contraceptive services. This individual contraceptive arrangement would be available to the participant, beneficiary, or enrollee without the objecting entity having to take any action facilitating the coverage to which it objects. Simply put, the action is undertaken by the individual, on behalf of the individual. * * *

      These proposed rules, if finalized, would rescind the moral exemption to covering contraceptive services without cost sharing, while keeping intact the religious exemption and without narrowing its scope or the types of entities or individuals that may claim the religious exemption. These proposed rules would also maintain the optional accommodation for sponsors of group health plans and institutions of higher education arranging student health insurance coverage that qualify for the religious exemption. 

      Here’s a link to the regulator’s fact sheet. This strikes the FEHBlog has a wise solution to this knotty problem.

      From the healthcare business front —

      The American Hospital Association relates

      Last year was the worst financial year for U.S. hospitals and health systems since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as growth in expenses outpaced growth in revenues and volumes, according to the latest report on hospital finances from Kaufman Hall. 

      “The increases were driven in part by a competitive labor market, as well as hospitals needing to rely on more expensive contract labor to meet staffing demands,” the report notes. “Increased lengths of stay due to a decline in discharges also negatively affected hospital margins.” 

      Hospitals experienced negative operating margins for most of the year, with approximately half of the nation’s hospitals ending the year in the red. According to the report, hospitals’ expense pressures “are unlikely to recede in 2023.”

      STAT News discusses business focused on improving human longevity.

      Health Payer Intelligence reports

      The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has released a final rule that aims to introduce more oversight into the Medicare Advantage risk adjustment data validation and payment process. * * * Under the finalized rule, CMS will not extrapolate audit findings for payment years 2011 through 2017, the CMS fact sheet stated. CMS will collect non-extrapolated overpayments for plan years 2011 through 2017. Extrapolation will begin with the plan year 2018 risk adjustment data validation audit using any extrapolation technique that is statistically valid. The audits will center on high-risk plans.

      The Wall Street Journal adds “A Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services official, Deputy Administrator and Center for Program Integrity Director Dara Corrigan, said the estimated recoveries for 2018 would be around $479 million, and the agency projected a total of about $4.7 billion over a decade. The large recoveries wouldn’t actually occur until 2025 and after, however.”

      Will this regulation drive companies out of Medicare Advantage? Time will tell. In the meantime here is a link to HHS’s fact sheet.

      Busy Thursday

      Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

      From Capitol Hill Roll Call reports

      House Republicans are mulling an attempt to buy time for further negotiations on federal spending and deficits by passing one or more short-term suspensions of the statutory debt ceiling this summer, including potentially lining up the deadline with the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30.

      No decisions on a cutoff date have been made, and it’s not yet clear when the Treasury Department will run out of cash to meet all U.S. financial obligations. But most analysts agree Congress will need to act at some point between early June and September, and lawmakers likely won’t want to leave the matter unaddressed before the August recess.


      The Senate is taking its time getting to work for 2023.

      Back in Washington after a two-and-a-half week recess, the chamber adjourned Thursday afternoon without adopting an organizing resolution, meaning committees will remain in their holdover state until at least next week.

      Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer announced the Democratic committee assignments for the new Congress, with Michigan Democratic Sen. Gary Peters, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chair, earning a coveted seat on the Appropriations Committee.

      From the Omicron and sibligns front, The American Hospital Association tells us

      A Food and Drug Administration Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee [VRBAC] unanimously voted today to recommend harmonizing the composition of all primary series and booster doses administered in the U.S. For example, the composition of all vaccines administered going forward might be bivalent.

      STAT News offers a complete report on today’s meeting. For example, STAT News explains

      The FDA is also asking the members of VRBPAC their thoughts on its proposal that Americans get an annual Covid shot, in the way they get a flu shot, one that is reconstituted regularly to try to target the strains in circulation at the time. In documents the FDA made public before the meeting, it proposed choosing new vaccine strains in June for a vaccine campaign that would begin in September.

      Covid is clearly here to stay, so this may sound sensible. But there are concerns some of this is still based on a leap of faith rather than a data-led process. For example, the idea that everyone might need an annual Covid booster will not earn a unanimous “yea” vote out of this expert panel.

      The VRBAC recommendation is subject to FDA and CDC approval.

      STAT News adds

      The FDA on Thursday withdrew the authorization of Evusheld, the latest antibody therapy to be rendered ineffective by the mutations the virus has picked up. Notably, Evusheld — unlike other antibody therapies — was not for infected patients, but rather was given as a pre-exposure treatment to people at high risk for severe Covid-19, such as those with compromised immune systems.

      In other FDA news

      • The FDA announced, “Given the growing cannabidiol (CBD) products market, the FDA convened a high-level internal working group to explore potential regulatory pathways for CBD products. Today we are announcing that after careful review, the FDA has concluded that a new regulatory pathway for CBD is needed that balances individuals’ desire for access to CBD products with the regulatory oversight needed to manage risks. The agency is prepared to work with Congress on this matter. Today, we are also denying three citizen petitions that had asked the agency to conduct rulemaking to allow the marketing of CBD products as dietary supplements.”
      • Fierce BioTech informs us “More than two years after submitting it for FDA review, Tidepool has scored the agency’s clearance for a smartphone app that allows people with Type 1 diabetes to build their own closed-loop “artificial pancreas” system.”

      From the obesity treatment front —

      HealthDay discusses findings made by “Utah researchers who followed patients for up to 40 years after they had one of four types of weight-loss (bariatric) surgery.” 

      Weight-loss surgery can literally be a lifesaver, cutting death rates significantly during the course of a decades-long study

      Death from all causes was 16% lower, while it was 29% lower for heart disease, 43% lower for cancer and 72% lower for diabetes

      But there were some troubling findings: These patients were 83% more likely to die of liver disease and 2.4 times more likely to die by suicide, mostly seen in younger patients

      STAT News provides a two minute long video explaining how the new obesity drugs work.

      STAT News also describes an unusual alliance that has banded together to lobby Congress to repeal a provision in the Medicare Modernization Act of 2023 that prohibits Part D from covering obesity drugs. “Recent scientific advances, media coverage, and advocacy have helped raise the profile of the issue on Capitol Hill, said Jeanne Blankenship, the vice president for policy initiatives and advocacy at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. ‘It’s becoming front and center. I think we can’t turn our backs on it any longer,’ Blankenship said.”

      From the Rx coverage front, Beckers Hospital Review introduces us to the three PBMs that have partnered with the Mark Cuban Pharmacy.

      From the HIPAA / electronic health records front —

      • MedPage Today reports, “Unique Patient Identifier Funding Once Again Barred by Congress— Biden administration working on better patient matching instead.” The FEHBlog will never understand Congress’s intransigence here.
      • Healthcare Dive tell us “Interoperability continues to improve among U.S. hospitals, but there’s still a ways to go, according to new government data. More than six in 10 hospitals electronically shared health information and integrated it into their electronic health records in 2021, up 51% since 2017, the Office of the National Coordinator released in a Thursday data brief. The availability and usage of electronic data received from outside sources at the point of care has also increased over the last four years, reaching 62% and 71% respectively in 2021.”

      From the NIH research front, NIH calls attention to its research studies on the role of the placebo effect in healthcare treatments and the link between hydration and better aging.

      From the miscellany department —

      • Mercer Consulting “projects the 2024 inflation-adjusted amounts for health savings accounts (HSAs), high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) and excepted-benefit health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs) will rise significantly from 2023 levels.”
      • Benefits Consultant Tammy Flanagan, writing in Govexec, discusses the categories of family members who are eligible and ineligible for FEHB coverage.
      • HR Dive identifies five trends that will share HR this year.


      Friday Factoids

      Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

      Becker’s Hospital Review reports

      The weekly rate of emergency department visits and hospitalizations for flu, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus peaked in early December, new CDC data shows. 

      The CDC unveiled two data dashboards Jan. 17 that track emergency department visits and hospitalizations for COVID-19, flu and RSV. 

      ED visits for flu, RSV and COVID-19 peaked the week ending Dec. 3, hitting a weekly total of 235,850 before falling through December and the first half of January. The nation’s current weekly total was 72,119 as of Jan. 14, according to the ED dashboard. The dashboard uses information from the CDC’s National Syndromic Surveillance Program, which receives data from 73 percent of the nation’s EDs. 

      The combined hospitalization rate for flu, RSV and COVID-19 peaked at 22.5 admissions per 100,000 in the week ending Dec. 3. This figure now sits at 9.4 per 100,000 for the week ending Jan. 7, though the CDC said reporting delays may affect the most recent week’s data.

      RSV hospitalizations peaked in mid-November, while flu hospitalizations peaked in early December, CDC data shows. COVID-19 admissions also appear to be leveling off nationwide, even as the highly transmissible omicron subvariant XBB.1.5 gains prevalence. This trend suggests the U.S. will see more of a COVID-19 “bump” this winter versus a full-fledged surge, experts told The New York Times.

      The CDC’s weekly interpretative review of its Covid stats focuses on these new dashboards this week. The agency’s weekly Fluview report informs us “Seasonal influenza activity continues to decline across the country.”

      The Wall Street Journal adds

      Three years after health authorities announced the first known Covid-19 case in the U.S., the virus behind the disease remains persistent but thus far hasn’t triggered the severity of the waves seen in prior winters.

      A recent climb in hospitalizations and Covid-19 wastewater readings—two key metrics for spotting trends—appears to have stalled following the quick rise of the Omicron XBB.1.5 subvariant. The U.S. was gripped in significantly more deadly waves at this point in the last two winters, though currently there are still hundreds of deaths reported each day. * * *

      At least for now, it appears unlikely new variants are going to cause as substantial illnesses and deaths as the virus did early on and in the prior winter waves, said Jay Varma, a physician and epidemiologist who directs Weill Cornell Medicine’s Center for Pandemic Prevention and Response in New York City. He cautioned that more severe mutations could still emerge. “We seem to have settled into somewhat of a detente with the virus,” he said.

      Although the FEHBlog will continue to track Omicron and siblings developments, he has decided to replace Friday Stats and More with Friday Factoids.

      Medscape tells us

      Public health officials have said for some time that use of Paxlovid, approved under an FDA emergency use authorization (EUA) in December 2021, remains far below the proportion of Americans who could potentially benefit from the therapy.

      What’s driving the lackluster uptake remains unknown, so Medscape Medical News took a deeper dive into the challenges surrounding Paxlovid prescribing.

      Older Americans remain one of the groups at highest risk for COVID-19 adverse outcomes, including hospitalization and severe illness. However, the survey found that providers also remain reluctant to prescribe Paxlovid in this population for multiple reasons. * * *

      The survey found that almost half of patients were on a medication that is contraindicated with Paxlovid and that could not be discontinued (44%). Another finding was that almost the same proportion were on a medication that is contraindicated with Paxlovid, but the risk of discontinuing that medication was too high (41%). Also, the researchers found some patients were on a medication that could interact with Paxlovid, but it was unclear how to manage the interaction (29%).

      [Medscape medical editor in chief Dr. Eric Topol said that doctors, in some cases, may be overly concerned about the drug interactions. “There’s a straightforward workaround strategy for nearly all the drug interactions — most commonly statins — which can easily be stopped for 5 days,” he said.

      Another concern preventing Paxlovid prescription is renal impairment, the survey reveals. More than one third of respondents, 37%, said they did not prescribe the protease inhibitor combination because of concerns over this condition, which can lower how efficiently medications are cleared by the body.

      That’s a helpful study.

      In other survey news, MedPage Today informs us

      Fewer emergency department (ED) visits end with a prescription for opioids, CDC survey data showed.

      The percentage of ED visits with an opioid prescribed at discharge fell from 12.2% in 2017-2018 to 8.1% in 2019-2020, reported Loredana Santo, MD, MPH, and Susan Schappert, MA, of the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville, Maryland, in NCHS Data Briefopens in a new tab or window.

      The rate of prescribing at discharge also dropped: in 2019-2020, opioids were prescribed at 36.4 ED visits per 1,000 adults, lower than 50.5 per 1,000 in 2017-2018. The decline was similar for both men and women.

      In U.S. healthcare business news —

      • Cigna points out the value of integrated health plans a/k/a health plans without carveouts.

      A study released today by Cigna (NYSE: CI), a global health service company, finds that triple integration of medical, pharmacy and behavioral benefits resulted in lower health care costs for employers. Conducted by Aon plcThis link will open in a new tab., a leading global professional services firm, the Value of Integration StudyThis link will open in a new tab. [PDF] shows that Cigna’s integrated employer clients saved $148 per member per year in 2021. 

      Using a similar study method, Cigna then evaluated the financial impact of engaging employees to participate in health improvement programs, such as wellness coaching. The results show even greater client savings for Cigna integrated employer clients, exceeding $1,400 per member per year.

      In addition, Cigna found that when individuals with specific high-cost conditions and therapies were enrolled in a triple-integrated health plan and needed specialty medicines, the savings for the health plan were:

      • Nearly $9,000 per member per year, increasing to more than $11,000 per member when the specialty drug is for an inflammatory condition like rheumatoid arthritis; and
      • Almost $17,500 per year for members who took specialty drugs and have a confirmed depression diagnosis.
      • Medpage Today reports, “Switching to [employer-sponsored] high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) spelled trouble when it came to diabetes complications, a retrospective cohort study found.” The report studies health savings account (HSA) – eligible HDHPs versus traditional low-deductible plans. The FEHBlog doesn’t understand why the HSAs don’t balance out the two types of coverage. The article doesn’t compute.
      • STAT News relates, “More than a dozen of the country’s large not-for-profit hospital systems descended on this year’s J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference with a subtle but clear message for bankers and municipal investors: Higher costs in 2022 slowed them down, but they are adamant about increasing revenue by expanding their footprints and hiking prices.” Charming.
      • Fierce Healthcare calls our attention to

      A new behavioral health solution launched this week aims to make it easier for insurers to connect members with tools that may benefit their mental health care.

      Lucet represents the combination of New Directions Behavioral Health and Tridiuum and is a spinout from the Blues network, where its core product cut its teeth. Lucet’s Navigate & Connect platform harnesses a large team of care navigators with an advanced technology stack that allows insurers to better optimize care and access for members.

      Shana Hoffman, president and CEO of Lucet, told Fierce Healthcare that the platform enables faster connections to appointments and helps cut through the noise on which solutions a plan may want to bring into the fold.

      “What we’re bringing to the market is really an operating system platform for health plans that allows them to reliably connect members to care,” Hoffman said.

      • Health Affairs Forefront analyzes “The Fair Price For One-Time Treatments; How Can We Overcome Existing Market Price Distortions?” Check it out.

      We have a bipartisan Omnibus bill

      From Capitol Hill, the Washington Post reports

      The Senate on Tuesday took the first formal step toward advancing a bipartisan, roughly $1.7 trillion deal to fund the U.S. government, as Democrats and Republicans raced to avert a shutdown in the final days of the year.

      Lawmakers voted 70-25 to begin debate on the 4,155-page measure, known in congressional parlance as an omnibus, which would fund key elements of President Biden’s economic agenda, boost defense programs, and provision an additional $44.9 billion in emergency military and economic assistance for Ukraine.

      The lumbering Senate sought to move with uncharacteristic haste after congressional leaders released the full text of the bill in the early hours of the morning, capping off months of intense legislating.

      Becker’s Hospital CFO Review, the American Hospital Association, and Politico Pulse offer healthcare takeaways from the omnibus. Of note, Congress laid the groundwork for a soft landing following the public health emergency by addressing Medicaid, the AMA’s concern about the impending Medicare Part B cut (“narrowing the cut to 2 percentage points in the year ahead with a scheduled cut of 3.25 percentage points in 2024″) and extending Medicare telehealth flexibilities and most other Pandemic tied flexibilities through 2024.

      Govexec and Federal News Network provide omnibus insights on federal agency and employment issues. Of note, Congress implicitly gave the green light to a 4.6% raise for federal employees in 2023, broken out into a 4.1% across-the-board increase and the remainder allocated to locality pay.

      Meanwhile, the FEHBlog wishes to point out that the omnibus includes the three now standard FEHB appropriations measures — the Hyde Amendment restrictions on abortion coverage (Division E summary at 63), the prohibition on applying full Cost Accounting Standards coverage to FEHB contracts (Division E summary, p. 93) and the contraceptive coverage mandate (Division E summary at 68).

      What’s more, the OPM appropriations measures include the following

      Exploring Tools for Prescription Drug Price Transparency in the Federal Employee Health Benefits (FEHB) Program.- OPM is directed to explore and evaluate the benefits and potential overall cost savings resulting from FEHB Carriers’ implementation of Internet-based self-service tools that deliver transparency and clinical decision support on prescription drug costs to its members. OPM is directed to report to the Committees one year after enactment of this Act, contingent on the availability of funding for this study.

      In No Surprises Act news, the Internal Revenue Service issued guidance on calculating the qualifying payment amounts in 2023.

      For qualifying payment amounts calculated by increasing the median contracted rate for 201913, the qualifying payment amounts for items and services furnished in 2023 are determined by taking the qualifying payment amounts calculated for items and services furnished in 2022 and multiplying the 2022 adjusted qualifying payment amounts by the percentage increase from 2022 to 2023, that is, 1.0768582128.

      For example: An item is furnished in 2023. The median contracted rate for the item on January 31, 2019 was $1,500. The 2022 adjusted qualifying payment amount for the item was $1,597 ($1,500 x 1.0648523983). The 2023 adjusted qualifying payment amount for the item is $1,720 ($1,597 x 1.0768582128).

      The notice also provides QPA adjustment guidance for plans that began after January 31, 2019.

      From the Omicron and siblings front, the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) released “an update to the health benefit price benchmark for nirmatrelvir/ritonavir (Paxlovid™, Pfizer) for the treatment of COVID-19.” 

      Based on the current evidence, ICER’s health-benefit price benchmark (HBPB) for Paxlovid is $563-$906 per treatment course. 

      ICER’s HBPB is a price range suggesting the highest US price a manufacturer should charge for a treatment, based on the amount of improvement in overall health patients receive from that treatment, when a higher price would cause disproportionately greater losses in health among other patients in the health system due to rising overall costs of health care and health insurance. In short, it is the top price range at which a health system can reward innovation and better health for patients without doing more harm than good.

      Of course, at this time, the federal government is covering the cost of Paxlovid for Americans. That may change in 2023 because, contrary to the FEHBlog’s expectation, the omnibus does not appear to include additional funding for Covid vaccines and treatment. However, the FEHBlog is confident that the federal government will find the money if it wants.

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

      • Looking to further boost its growing cell therapy business, Gilead Sciences on Wednesday said it plans to acquire Tmunity Therapeutics, a private biotechnology company trying to develop newer, better CAR-T treatments.
      • CAR-T uses genetically engineered T cells to help the body fight diseases like cancer. Gilead currently markets two such products, Yescarta and Tecartus, which it obtained through the $12 billion purchase of Kite Pharma in 2017. Combined, sales of Yescarta and Tecartus were just under $400 million in the third quarter, a nearly 80% increase from the same three-month period a year prior.
      • Gilead said that buying Tmunity should complement Kite’s cell therapy research capabilities by providing a new technology platform, a slate of preclinical- and clinical-stage programs, and a strategic partnership with the University of Pennsylvania. Financial terms of the acquisition weren’t disclosed. The companies expect their deal to close early next year.

      In good news, Health Payer Intelligence informs us

      The majority of Americans are satisfied with their employer-sponsored health insurance and cited it as the most important benefit an employer can offer, according to a poll conducted by Seven Letter Insight for the Protecting Americans’ Coverage Together (PACT) campaign.

      The poll surveyed 2,334 individuals with employer-sponsored health plans between November 14 and November 19, 2022. * * *

      Overall satisfaction with employer-sponsored coverage was also high. Most respondents (93 percent) said they were satisfied with their insurance, with 54 percent saying they were highly satisfied. Eighty-seven percent agreed that their plans were affordable, and 73 percent thought their insurance was worth what they paid.

      When respondents were asked to describe their employer-sponsored coverage, affordable, high-quality, and comprehensive were the top descriptions, the survey noted.

      From the miscellany department —

      • Medscape provides an in-depth look at the progress in the fight against aging.
      • Beckers Hospital Review identifies the top five patient safety issues for 2023.
      • Govexec reports on the progress the federal government’s Merit Systems Performance Board has made since Congress restored the Board’s quorum last May after five years without one.

      Friday Stats and More

      From the Centers for Disease Control’s Covid data tracker and its weekly interpretative summary of its Covid statistics:

      • New Cases totaled 455.556 this week, down 2.7% from last week.
      • Variants BQ.1.1 and BQ.1 are estimated to represent 78% of Covid / Omicron cases
      • New Hospitalizations averaged 5,010 this week, up 2.3% from last week.
      • New Deaths totaled 2,703, down 13.2% from last week.
      • “As of December 14, 2022, 660.4 million vaccine doses have been administered in the United States. About 228.8 million people, or 68.9% of the U.S. population, have completed a primary series.* More than 44.2 million people, or 14.1% of the U.S. population ages 5 years and older, have received an updated (bivalent) booster dose.”

      The CDC reports good news about the efficacy of the bivalent booster here and here.

      Pfizer announced the sale $2 billion worth of Paxlovid pills (3.7 million courses) to the federal government and its ongoing research on developing combined mRNA Covid and flu vaccine.

      From CDC’s Fluview — “Seasonal influenza activity remains high but appears to be declining in some areas.”

      Health Affairs brings us up to date on mpox.

      Looking forward, Healthcare Dive reports

      • Leaders at hospitals and health systems across the country are anticipating a potentially turbulent operating environment in the coming year, according to a survey from Deloitte.
      • Among health system leaders, 85% said staffing challenges would have a major impact on their 2023 strategy and 76% said inflation is a significant factor. Other expected headwinds include affordability issues for patients, shrinking margins and continual supply chain disruptions.
      • Deloitte also polled health plan executives and found they face challenges related to inflation and a tight labor market, though are generally in a better financial position than hospitals and health systems.

      Speaking of hospitals, Fierce Healthcare informs us

      The care given in emergency departments came under fire yesterday with the release of a government study saying that 250,000 Americans die every year due to misdiagnoses.

      The findings spurred an immediate response from the president of the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP), who questions the study’s veracity and methodology.

      Christopher S. Kang, M.D., president of the ACEP, said in a statement that “in addition to making misleading, incomplete and erroneous conclusions from the literature reviewed, the report conveys a tone that inaccurately characterizes and unnecessarily disparages the practice of emergency medicine in the United States.”

      One of the authors of the study—David Newman-Toker, M.D., Ph.D., a neurologist at Johns Hopkins University—vehemently defends the methodology and told Fierce Healthcare that “high levels of variation in care (across conditions, across hospitals, across demographic groups) tells us that these errors do not need to be thought of as ‘the price of doing business.’ It tells us that there are already probably ways to get it right.”

      The study, conducted by Johns Hopkins for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, states that among 130 million ED visits in the U.S. per year, 7.4 million patients are misdiagnosed. In addition, 2.6 million suffer an adverse event, and about 370,000 suffer serious harm from diagnostic errors.

      The teenage daughter of CNN reporter Jake Tapper writes in CNN about her frightening ER experience. The FEHBlog joined his wife at a Dripping Springs TX knitting store holiday event. He mentioned the Alice Tapper story to two nurses who were horrified. In the FEHBlog experience, nurses are the best judge of hospital care across facilities.

      In HIPAA news, the American Hospital Association tells us

      The Department of Health and Human Services yesterday proposed a standard format for attachments to support electronic health care claims and prior authorization transactions under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. The standard would apply to all health plans, health care clearinghouses, and providers, who currently lack an efficient and uniform method of sending attachments, which can lead to provider burnout, slow down processing and delay payments or patient care.

      “The AHA supports establishing a standard for attachments to reduce the administrative burdens facing clinicians, and we look forward to providing robust commentary after analyzing the rule’s specifics,” said Terrence Cunningham, AHA’s director of administrative simplification policy.

      Comments on the rule are due March 21. 

      Friday Stats and More

      Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

      Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s Covid Data Tracker, the CDC’s weekly interpretation of those new cases, hospitalizations and death statistics shows across-the-board increases. Welcome winter.

      New Cases

      As of December 7, 2022, the current 7-day average of weekly new cases (65,569) increased 49.6% compared with the previous 7-day average (43,825). A total of 99,241,649 COVID-19 cases have been reported in the United States as of December 7, 2022.

      Variant Proportions

      CDC Nowcast projections* for the week ending December 10, 2022, estimate the proportion of lineages designated as Omicron with estimates above 1%: BA.5—and four of its sublineages (BQ.1, BQ.1.1, BF.7, and BA.5.2.6)—BA.4.6, and XBB. XBB is a recombinant of two BA.2 sublineages.

      The two predominant Omicron lineages and the two that are increasing this week are BQ.1.1, projected to be 36.8% (95% PI 34.1-39.6%) and BQ.1, projected to be 31.1% (95% PI 29.0-33.4%) nationally. All other lineages (BA.5, BF.7, XBB, BN.1, BA.5.2.6, and BA.4.6) are decreasing in proportion this week compared to last.

      New Hospitalizations

      The current 7-day daily average for November 30–December 6, 2022, was 4,844. This is a 13.8% increase from the prior 7-day average (4,256) from November 23–29, 2022.

      New Deaths

      The current 7-day average of new deaths (426) increased 61.7% compared with the previous 7-day average (263). As of December 7, 2022, a total of 1,080,472 COVID-19 deaths have been reported in the United States.

      CNN adds,

      Hospitals are more full than they’ve been throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a CNN analysis of data from the US Department of Health and Human Services. But as respiratory virus season surges across the US, it’s much more than Covid that’s filling beds this year.

      More than 80% of hospital beds are in use nationwide, jumping 8 percentage points in the past two weeks.

      Hospitals have been more than 70% full for the vast majority of that time. But they’ve been 80% full at only one other point: in January, during the height of the Omicron surge in the US. Back in January, about a quarter of hospital beds were in use for Covid-19 patients. But now, only about 6% of beds are in use for Covid-19 patients, according to the HHS data.

      From the Omicron countermeasures front, the weekly interpretation tells us

      As of December 7, 2022, 657.9 million vaccine doses have been administered in the United States. Overall, about 228.6 million people, or 68.9% of the total U.S. population, have completed a primary series.* More than 42.0 million people, or 13.5% of the U.S. population ages 5 years and older, have received an updated (bivalent) booster dose.

      Medscape adds, “Getting at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine decreases the chances of having symptoms beyond 3 weeks or developing long COVID, a new analysis shows.”

      The weekly interpretation usually encourages more Covid vaccinations. This week, the interpretation opens by touting the use of Paxlovid, to wit —

      As we enter the holiday season, it’s important to take steps to protect yourself and others from serious illness with COVID-19, including staying up to date on COVID-19 vaccines and promptly talking to your healthcare provider about treatment options if you test positive for COVID-19.

      If you have COVID-19 symptoms:

      Test : Use a self-test, locate a test site, or find a Test to Treat location.

      Talk: If you test positive, talk to a healthcare professional to determine if you are eligible for treatment, even if your symptoms are mild right now.

      Treat: Start treatment within five days of developing symptoms.

      Note to Readers: Paxlovid is not a replacement for COVID-19 vaccination. COVID-19 vaccination makes you much less likely to get very sick. Still, some vaccinated people, especially those ages 65 years or older or who have other risk factors for severe disease, may benefit from treatment if they get COVID-19. A healthcare provider will help decide which treatment, if any, is right for you.

      That’s the full picture for most folks. Here’s the “real-world data” link if you are interested. Thank you CDC.

      Here are the key points from this week’s CDC FluView:

      • Seasonal influenza activity is high across the country.
      • Of the influenza A viruses detected and subtyped during week 48, 76% have been influenza A(H3N2), and 24% have been influenza A (H1N1).
      • Seven influenza-associated pediatric deaths were reported this week, for a total of 21 pediatric flu deaths reported so far this season.
      • CDC estimates that, so far this season, there have been at least 13 million illnesses, 120,000 hospitalizations, and 7,300 deaths from flu.
      • The cumulative hospitalization rate in the FluSurv-NET system is higher than the rate observed in week 48 during every previous season since 2010-2011.
      • The number of flu hospital admissions reported in the HHS Protect system increased during week 48 compared to week 47.
      • 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.
      • All viruses collected and evaluated this season have been susceptible to influenza antivirals.
      • An annual flu vaccine is the best way to protect against the flu. Vaccination helps prevent infection and can also prevent serious outcomes in people who get vaccinated but still get sick with the flu.
      • CDC recommends that everyone ages 6 months and older get a flu vaccine annually. Now is a good time to get vaccinated if you haven’t already.
      • There are also prescription flu antiviral drugs that can be used to treat flu illnesses. It’s very important that flu antiviral drugs are started as soon as possible to treat patients who are hospitalized with flu, people who are very sick with flu but who do not need to be hospitalized, and people with flu who are at higher risk of serious flu complications based on their age or health.
      • Multiple respiratory viruses are currently co-circulating with influenza.  Testing is important to determine the appropriate treatment.

      From the FEHB front, the FEHBlog was bowled over to discover on reginfo.gov that on November 29, the Office of Personnel Management took a major step forward in implementing the Postal Service Health Benefits Program by submitting a draft interim final rule to OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for its review. This is the final step before the rule is published in the Federal Register. The statutory deadline for so promulgating this rule is April 8, 2023.

      From the miscellany department

      • HR Dive discusses a Mercer report on how employers can impact the maternal mortality problem.
        • EBRI offers a useful analysis of telemedicine and its relationship with other healthcare services, enrollee health, and costs.
        • Chain Drug News reports that PCMA, the prescription drug manager trade association, has issued policy recommendations to accelerate patient biosimilar drug use.
        • The Wall Street Journal offers encouraging news about prison programs to resolve inmate addiction issues.

        Two-thirds of people entering prisons and jails have what the Department of Health and Human Services diagnoses as substance-use disorder. For years, the only treatment in all but a handful of detention centers was to detox.

        Some 630 of the roughly 5,000 jails and prisons nationwide now provide medication treatment for opioid use, according to the nonprofit Jail and Prison Opioid Project, up from about 20 in 2015. The drugs include buprenorphine, which tamps cravings for opioids, naloxone, which reverses their effects, and methadone, which eases withdrawal symptoms. Some are taken daily, others can be taken once a month in extended-release versions. The Biden administration said it wants medication available for every drug user in federal custody and at half of state prisons and jails by 2025.