Monday Roundup

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • Tomorrow at 10 am, the House Oversight and Accountability Committee will mark up several bills including the FEHB provisions in the DRUG Act, HR 6283. It’s unfortunate that the Committee did not hold a hearing on this disruptive bill. The FEHBlog will be listening to the markup.
  • The Federal Times informs us,
    • “A pair of contracts designed to improve the quality of care in Tricare’s civilian medical networks will take effect Jan. 1, 2025, according to defense officials.
    • “The contracts are moving forward following a Jan. 31 decision in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims affirming the Defense Health Agency’s choice of TriWest Healthcare Alliance as the Tricare West Region’s new manager, denying a protest lodged by incumbent contractor Health Net Federal Services last year.  * * *
    • “Humana Government Business, the incumbent contractor for Tricare’s East Region, will continue in that role under a new deal worth up to $70.8 billion.The new contracts for the two regions have a potential combined value of $136 billion over nine years.”
  • MedTech Dive lets us know
    • “FDA panel recommends new standards for pulse oximeters amid bias concerns.
    • “Studies have found that pulse oximeters overestimated oxygen saturation in people with dark skin pigmentation, resulting in delayed care.”
  • and
    • “Hologic has received regulatory clearance to sell an artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled cervical cancer screening system in the U.S. 
    • “The product, the Genius Digital Diagnostics System, creates digital images of Pap test slides and uses an AI algorithm to identify cells that cytologists and pathologists should review.
    • “Hologic’s clearance, announced on Thursday, comes days after BD partnered with Techcyte to promote a digital, AI-enabled cervical cancer screening test that is yet to come to market.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • Beckers Hospital Review tells us,
    • “Eli Lilly’s ingredient for Type 2 diabetes medication Mounjaro and its new weight loss drug, Zepbound, significantly lowered patients’ blood pressure by up to 10.6 mmHg, according to a new study published Feb. 5. 
    • “The study recruited about 500 adult patients with a body mass index at or more than 27, or the overweight range. Compared to a placebo, tirzepatide — the active pharmaceutical ingredient of Mounjaro and Zepbound — reduced blood pressure for participants taking 5, 10 and 15 milligrams each week. The patients were not diabetic and either had normal blood pressure or high blood pressure that was under control.” 
  • STAT News reports,
    • “Amgen is trying a unique strategy with its obesity drug candidate: testing whether it can wean patients toward lower or less frequent doses over time.
    • “Very early data hints that Amgen’s candidate, called MariTide, may provide longer-lasting weight loss than highly popular obesity drugs on the market like Novo Nordisk’s Wegovy and Eli Lilly’s Zepbound. Amgen is already seeing if that means its drug could also be dosed differently from Novo and Lilly’s products, which are costly and expected to be taken consistently for life.
    • “In an ongoing Phase 2 trial, Amgen’s researchers will first titrate participants up on MariTide, but then after some time, see if the drug can still be effective when transitioning patients to a less intensive dosing regimen, executives said in an interview.
    • “Could there be an opportunity for an induction maintenance-type of strategy for a molecule like MariTide?” said Narimon Honarpour, senior vice president of global development at Amgen, referring to a strategy used for anti-inflammatory drugs in which high, rapid doses are given at the start and then lower or less frequent doses are used for maintenance in the long run.”
  • HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality released a rapid evidence report about deprescribing to reduce medical harms in older adults.
    • “Deprescribing has emerged as a clinical practice to reduce polypharmacy and use of potentially inappropriate medications (PIMs) and serve as a mechanism for quality improvement and increased patient safety. The purpose of this rapid response is to summarize recent literature on the use of deprescribing to improve the safety of medication use among older adults (age ≥ 65 years).”
  • CBS News reports,
    • “Preterm and early-term births in the U.S. have increased from 2014 to 2022, raising risks to babies, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
    • Data released Wednesday from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics shows the preterm birth rate — meaning delivery before 37 completed weeks of pregnancy — rose 12% during that time period, while early-term birth rates, at 37 to 38 completed weeks, rose 20%. 
    • “This is compared to full-term births, which are those delivered at 39 to 40 weeks.
    • “Using data from the National Vital Statistics System, the analysis only looks at singleton births, since multiple births like twins and triplets tend to be born at earlier gestational ages, the authors note.
    • “Gestational age is a strong predictor of short- and long-term morbidity and early mortality,” the authors write. “Births delivered preterm are at the greatest risk of adverse outcomes, but risk is also elevated for early-term compared with full-term births.”
  • MedCity News points out,
    • “Mayo Clinic has entered into a collaboration with TruLite Health — Mayo is helping the Phoenix-based startup develop its software platform designed to address providers’ clinical bias. The health system said it chose to collaborate with TruLite because of the platform’s potential to mitigate health inequities and enhance patient outcomes at the point of care.”
  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “Artificial intelligence can help identify easy to miss patients who might be good candidates for a palliative or hospice care referral, a recent pilot at Mass General Brigham (MGB) revealed.
    • “The results of the findings were presented Friday at the Value-Based Payment Summit.
    • “Timely end-of-life care benefits patients. Patients and their families may also be more open to a conversation about goals of care during a hospital stay, MGB said in presentation slides shown to Fierce Healthcare.” 

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Per BioPharma Dive,
    • “Novo Holdings, the controlling shareholder of Danish drugmaker Novo Nordisk, will buy contract manufacturer Catalent for $16.5 billion in a take-private deal the companies announced Monday.
    • “In a related transaction, Novo Nordisk has agreed pay its parent company $11 billion to take over three Catalent plants in Italy, Belgium and Indiana to help expand production of its GLP-1 drugs Ozempic and Wegovy. Demand for the latter, which is approved in the U.S. for treating obesity, has greatly exceeded supply, forcing Novo Nordisk to restrict access.
    • “Novo Nordisk and Catalent already work together at the three sites, which employ more than 3,000 staff.”
  • and
    • “On Monday, Johnson & Johnson said one of its most closely watched experimental medicines appears to have positive effects on two autoimmune diseases, providing further support to a drug that, by the company’s estimates, could eventually generate billions of dollars in annual sales.
    • “J&J didn’t release any data, but rather said the drug hit the main goals of a mid-stage clinical trial testing it in patients with Sjögren’s disease as well as a late-stage study focused on generalized myasthenia gravis, a rare condition known in short as gMG. The company plans to present more detailed results from both studies at upcoming medical meetings, and to engage with regulators about the path to approval in gMG.”
  • Per Healthcare Dive,
    • “Cano Health filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy late Sunday, as the beleaguered primary care chain works to bolster its financials. 
    • “The filing is part of a restructuring support agreement with the majority of its lenders. Cano said it expects to emerge from restructuring during the second quarter this year, adding that the process will help it reduce debt and allow it to search for a strategic partner or buyer.
    • “Cano also announced it reached an agreement to receive $150 million in debtor-in-possession financing to fund its operations during restructuring.”
  • and
    • “Medicare Advantage rate changes proposed by regulators last week are upsetting Humana’s funding expectations for 2025.
    • “If finalized as proposed, the MA changes will lower Humana’s benchmark funding by around 160 basis points compared to a flat rate environment, the health insurer disclosed in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commissionon Monday.
    • “The discrepancy is because the CMS didn’t factor in persistently elevated medical costs into how it calculates rates, Humana said. However, regulators could do so in the final rule. Despite the uncertainty, the insurer reaffirmed its earnings outlook for 2025.”
  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “Rural providers feel financially stable, with most planning to expand existing service lines to increase revenue, a new survey has found (PDF).
    • “The survey was conducted by accounting firm Wipfli and reached 106 rural healthcare organizations across 26 states. Respondents included a mix of critical access hospitals, rural health clinics and others.
    • “Overall, most respondents are cautiously or completely optimistic about their financial viability. About 40% said their financial stability is higher than it was a year ago, and the portion of those who think they are in a better place than they were five years ago also rose compared to 2023. Despite challenges like high inflation, dwindling COVID-19 relief funds and flat reimbursement rates, growing optimism suggests rural providers learned how to manage unpredictability during the pandemic, the report said. * * *
    • Entering 2024, rural healthcare leaders are most concerned about revenue capture, digital capabilities and people management.
  • HR Morning offers nine tips on maximizing core health benefits.
  • The Society for Human Resource Management discusses best practices for hybrid work models.

Weekend Update

From Washington, DC

  • The House of Representatives and the Senate continue to engage in Committee business and floor voting this week. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget reminds us
    • The [current continuing resolution (CR)] measure extends the “laddered” approach from the previous CR, with the first set of appropriations bills expiring on Friday, March 1: Agriculture, Energy-Water, Military Construction-VA, and Transportation-HUD (these were previously set to expire Jan. 19). The second set of appropriations bills would expire a week later, on Friday, March 8: Commerce-Justice-Science, Defense, Financial Services-General Government, Homeland Security, Interior-Environment, Labor-HHS-Education, Legislative Branch, and State-Foreign Operations bills (these were previously set to expire Feb. 2).”
  • On February 1, The Government Accountability Office
    • issue[d] a new revision of the Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards, also known as the “Yellow Book,” which supersedes the 2018 revision of the standards. The Yellow Book is the book of standards and guidance for government auditing—outlining the requirements that make for effective, quality audits when reviewing government programs and spending. It’s used by our federal government auditors here at GAO, as well as federal, state and local auditors; inspectors general; and auditors of entities that receive government awards. 
  • The February 1 WatchBlog post takes a closer look at this important guidance and GAO’s updates.
  • Independent auditors base their audits of experience rated FEHB plans on the Yellow Book and related OPM guidance.
  • Last Tuesday, the Accreditation Association for Ambulatory Healthcare (AAAHC) released its updated FEHB Accreditation Handbook. Employee organization plans in the FEHB Program are accredited by AAAHC.
  • Reg Jones, writing in FedWeek, offers primers on annual leave and sick leave for federal and postal employees.

From the public health front,

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “Medical centers are starting programs to identify patients’ chances of cognitive decline and recommend ways to delay or prevent it. Most patients are in their 40s to 60s; some clinics take patients as young as 18. Insurance covers some services, otherwise tests and visits can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
    • “Doctors in these clinics counsel patients to make personalized lifestyle changes, such as building resistance training into workouts or eating more leafy greens. They also recommend medications to treat conditions linked to Alzheimer’s risk, such as statins for high cholesterol. There’s no guarantee of preventing the disease or other forms of dementia, however, and some doctors are skeptical of these programs. * * *
    • “If every primary-care doctor in every primary-care practice did prevention well, then this program may not need to exist,” says Dr. Zaldy Tan, who heads the new Memory & Healthy Aging Program at Cedars-Sinai. “But we know that that doesn’t happen.” 
  • MedTech Dive tells us,
    • Medical devices patients can use at home, such as infusion pumps and ventilators, are the top health technology hazard of 2024, a nonprofit patient safety organization said Wednesday.
    • ECRI named at-home devices as the top hazard in response to examples of harms such as medication errors with the use of infusion pumps that suggest products “may be too complex for laypeople to use safely and effectively.”
    • The group identified inadequate or onerous device cleaning instructions as the second biggest hazard of the year, reflecting evidence that reprocessing failures can spread infections.

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Per BioPharma Dive,
    • “Arch Venture Partners, one of the biotechnology sector’s most prolific company creators, is raising a new $3 billion fund, according to a regulatory filing.
    • “The fund, which would be Arch’s 13th, is being put together less than two years after the firm closed a similar-sized $3 billion raise that was its largest to date. Plans were outlined in a filing Arch made this week with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The form was signed by Arch managing director and CFO Mark McDonnell.
    • “Arch declined to comment on the filing.”
  • The New York Times reports
    • “A sharp shift in health care [spending?] is taking place as more than one-third of American adults now supplement or substitute mainstream medical care with acupuncture, meditation, yoga and other therapies long considered alternative.
    • “In 2022, 37 percent of adult pain patients used nontraditional medical care, a marked rise from 19 percent in 2002, according to research published this week in JAMA. The change has been propelled by growing insurance reimbursement for clinical alternatives, more scientific evidence of their effectiveness and an increasing acceptance among patients.
    • “It’s become part of the culture of the United States,” said Richard Nahin, the paper’s lead author and an epidemiologist at the National Center of Complementary and Integrative Health, a division of the National Institutes of Health. “We’re talking about the use for general wellness, stress management use, sleep, energy, immune health.”
    • “And for pain management. The use of yoga to manage pain rose to 29 percent in 2022 from 11 percent in 2002, an increase that Dr. Nahin said reflected in part efforts by patients to find alternatives to opiates, and the influence of media and social media.”
  • Fortune Well adds,
    • “According to the Global Wellness Summit’s 2024 trends report from the Global Wellness Institute, which combines research and insights from experts in the field—including scientists, CEOs, and academics—the wellness market is surging. And it’s not expected to slow down anytime soon. 
    • “The U.S. tops the global list of countries for spending on wellness, amassing an annual market of $1.8 trillion, up 14% since 2020. On average, people in the U.S. spend $5,321 per year on wellness, coming in 5th behind the Seychelles, Switzerland, Iceland, and Aruba.”         

Tuesday Tidbits

From Washington, DC

  • Federal News Network informs us
    • “Agencies don’t have to worry about a 1% sequestration on discretionary funds kicking in for a few more months.
    • “The Office of Management and Budget says the requirement to reduce discretionary spending under the Fiscal Responsibility Act (FRA), signed into law in June, wouldn’t take effect until “after full year appropriations are enacted, or April 30, whichever comes first.”
    • “OMB will take no action on Jan. 1, 2024, and no additional action should be taken by agencies to reduce impacted discretionary funding, even though a short-term continuing resolution will be in effect at that time,” OMB wrote in frequently asked questions on 2024 discretionary spending sent to agencies on Dec. 22. “If any discretionary appropriation account remains on a short-term CR past April 30, OMB is required to issue a final sequestration report that compares the annualized appropriation levels provided by all discretionary appropriations bills under current law as of April 30 against the [FRA’s] section 102 interim spending limits. A breach of the section 102 spending limits would require OMB to order a sequestration to bring the current law discretionary appropriations in line with those interim spending limits.”
  • Govexec identifies the federal agencies with the greatest increases and decreases in employee morale in 2023 according to OPM’s 2023 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.
  • Fedweek offers a summary of OPM’s current regulatory activities.

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “Immune-boosting drugs have revolutionized cancer care. Now doctors are experimenting with cutting them off.  
    • “Immunotherapies unleash the immune system on tumors. They have extended the lives of people with melanoma, lung and bladder cancers. They have also been a boon for drugmakers, generating global sales of $44 billion in 2022, according to Leerink Partners analysts. 
    • “But some patients are getting more of the drugs than they need, exposing them to side effects and costs they could avoid without risking their cancer recurring. Preliminary research suggests taking the drugs at a lower dose or for a shorter period could be sufficient, but drugmakers haven’t funded the studies needed to confirm the findings. 
    • “We don’t know when to stop,” said Dr. Jedd Wolchok, an oncologist focused on melanoma at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. * * *
    • “Recalibrating care toward less treatment is a fraught undertaking. Drug companies won’t fund studies exploring whether patients can do as well with less of their products, doctors said. Some doctors and patients worry about pulling back before exhausting their best chance to beat the disease.
    • “There was this dogma that more is better,” said Dr. Mark Ratain, an oncologist at the University of Chicago. 
    • “He is trying to recruit cancer patients to study whether they could do as well with less of Merck’s Keytruda or Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Opdivo, so-called immune checkpoint inhibitors. After three years, he has found just 60 of the 260 patients he wants, and most medical centers have declined to join the trial. “It was going to be difficult to convince people,” he said.”
  • Beckers Payer Issues interviews Kofi Essel, MD, Elevance Health’s first food as medicine program director. Dr Essel “sat down with Becker’s to discuss how Elevance is building a food as medicine strategy intended to eventually touch and improve the lives of its more than 47 million members nationwide.” Check it out.
  • MedPage Today tells us,
    • “The 988 lifeline routes callers to a network of more than 200 state and local call centers that are financially supported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), as well as state and local governments. In its first year, according to a July press release from SAMHSA, the lifeline answered nearly 5 million calls, texts, and chats from people looking for help with suicide, mental health, and substance use-related crises; that’s 2 million more contacts than the lifeline received in the previous 12 months, when it was a 10-digit phone number. (That 10-digit number — 800-273-8255 — is still in operation.)
    • “So far, 1.5 years in, things seem to be going well overall, said Michele Gilbert, MPH, senior policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. “Luckily, the implementation of 988 has seen some real success,” Gilbert said in a phone interview. “A lot of the operations have gone relatively smoothly.”
    • “Debbie Plotnick, MSS, executive vice president for state and federal advocacy for Mental Health America, agreed. “We have seen tremendous increases in the number of people who call, and even more importantly, what has improved dramatically is the wait time to speak to an actual human being,” she told MedPage Today. “Going back a couple of years, it could have been up to, like, 2 minutes, and now it’s within 30 or 40 seconds that you are actually connected to a live human being.”
    • “That decrease in wait time may not sound like a lot, but it’s actually “huge,” Plotnick said. “If you’re at the point where you’re going to hurt yourself and you don’t know if anybody in the world cares, 2 minutes can really feel like an eternity. But now calls are being answered very quickly.” She also praised the lifeline’s addition of text and chat options, as well as special lines for veterans, for Spanish speakers, and for LGBTQ+ callers.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Beckers Hospital Review points out,
    • “The median hospital operating margin rose to 2% in November after holding steady at 1.6% in September and October, but escalating expenses — including rising drug costs — remain a concern as 2023 draws to a close, according to a Dec. 21 report from Syntellis Performance Solutions, which includes data from more than 1,300 hospitals.
    • “U.S. hospitals began the year with a median operating margin of -0.9%, but that figure has steadily increased and looks set to end the year at a healthier level around the 2% mark in December. November was the ninth consecutive month of positive operating margins. 
    • “While the median hospital margin remains far below pre-pandemic levels, it has shown significant progress in recent months as hospitals continue their recovery after more than a year of negative results. 
  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “Drug company Bristol-Myers Squibb struck a $4.1 billion deal to buy  RayzeBio in a bet on a re-emerging cancer drug technology.
    • “RayzeBio develops radiopharmaceutical drugs, which use targeted forms of radiation that are delivered directly to cancer cells. Earlier products using the technology struggled commercially, but further research led to another wave of promising therapies that can attack tumors while limiting damage to surrounding healthy cells.  * * *
    • “Bristol said the RayzeBio deal is slated to close in the first half of 2024.”
  • and
    • AstraZeneca has agreed to buy Gracell Biotechnologies for a transaction value of $1.2 billion, as part of the former’s efforts to grow its cell therapies business.
    • The acquisition will help grow AstraZeneca’s pipeline of cell therapies for potential treatment of cancer and autoimmune diseases.
    • The transaction is expected to close in the first quarter of next year, AstraZeneca said. 

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • Bloomberg reports,
    • “House lawmakers worked over the weekend on a stopgap measure needed to fund the US government beyond a Nov. 17 deadline, Speaker Mike Johnson said.
    • “While Johnson didn’t mention the proposed length of the extension in a Fox News Sunday interview, he has floated a Jan. 15 timeline since being elected speaker in October.
    • “The extension “would allow us time” to continue the appropriations process, which involves bringing 12 spending bills to the House floor for passage, the Louisiana Republican said.”
  • The FEHBlog watched the House Rules Committee pass a rule on the financial services and general government appropriations bill (HR 4664), which means that the bill will be brought to the House floor this week.
  • From the other side of Capitol Hill,
    • “Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Ranking Member Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, today released the Chairman’s Mark of a legislative package to expand mental health care and substance use disorder services under Medicaid and Medicare, reduce prescription drug costs for seniors at the pharmacy counter, extend essential Medicaid and Medicare provisions that will expire this year, and increase Medicare payments to support physicians and other providers.
    • “The Committee will hold a markup on the legislation on Wednesday, November 8, at 10 a.m.
    • “The Chairman’s Mark can be found here. A section by section can be found here. A CBO analysis can be found here.
    • “Amendments and additional information will be posted here on Tuesday, November 7, after 12 p.m.”
  • The U.S. Office of Personnel Management announced,
    • “The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) released governmentwide results of the 2023 OPM Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) today. The OPM FEVS is the largest annual survey of government employees in the world that tracks how federal employees view their current work environment, including workforce management, policies, and new initiatives. OPM FEVS is an unmatched government data asset that collects employee feedback from more than 80 executive agencies to assist in driving improvement and supporting the workforce to serve the American people.   
    • “This year’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey highlights that federal employees remain remarkably resilient, increasingly engaged, and value diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in the workplace,” said Kiran Ahuja, Director of the Office of Personnel Management. “These encouraging results provide opportunities for agencies to build momentum and support their workforce to leverage workplace flexibilities, continue advancing DEIA, and remain motivated to continue delivering for the American people.”  
  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services proposed a new Medicare Advantage Program rule that covers multiple topics.
  • Health Payer Intelligence adds,
    • “Medicare Advantage beneficiaries experience higher quality care and better health outcomes than fee-for-service beneficiaries, according to a report from Harvard and Inovalon.
    • “Researchers used Inovalon’s claims data to assess care quality for people enrolled in Medicare Advantage and those with Medicare fee-for-service between 2015 and 2019.”
  • Healthcare Dive reports,
    • “Healthcare employment growth fell across the board during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some sectors have had more difficulty rebounding than others, according to a new study — especially skilled nursing facilities, which face a controversial federal push for more staffing.
    • “Employment in hospitals increased 0.4% per quarter before the pandemic, but that growth rate shrunk to 0.03% during COVID-19, according to the study published in JAMA. By comparison, employment at skilled nursing facilities was already declining before COVID, dropping at a rate of 0.2% per quarter. During the pandemic, the rate of job losses accelerated to 1.1%.
    • “The Biden administration is seeking to impose mandatory nursing staffing minimums at skilled nursing facilities, or SNFs. The nursing home industry largely opposes the rule, arguing there are not enough workers available to meet the staffing mandate.” 

From the public health and research front,

  • The FEHBlog took the RSV vaccine today. The pharmacist who administered the injection told him the RSV vaccine are expected to be a once-every-decade experience for adults like the Tdap vaccine.
  • American Hospital News informs us,
    • “The more than 11,000 patients who received care during the first 16 months of the Acute Hospital Care at Home initiative had a low mortality rate and minimal complications related to escalations back to the brick-and-mortar hospital, according to a study reported Friday in JAMA Health Forum. CMS launched the initiative in November 2021 to address the COVID-19 public health emergency and concerns about hospital bed capacity. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023 extended the CMS initiative through December 2024.
    • “The law also requires hospitals to provide additional data to CMS to monitor the quality of care, and for CMS to undertake a comprehensive study of the AHCAH initiative by September 30, 2024,” the authors note. “This study, data review, and additional monitoring will be important for identifying best practices that support safe and effective inpatient-level care delivered in the home environment.”
  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “U.S. hospitals made gains to reduce healthcare-acquired infections (HAIs) but saw patient experiences further deteriorate in the latest release of an independent watchdog’s twice-yearly safety report.
    • “According to The Leapfrog Group, the sector has significantly reduced the incidences of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), central line-associated bloodstream infections (CLABSIs) and catheter-associated urinary tract infections (CAUTIs) after reaching five-year highs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
    • “Specifically, 66% of the almost 3,000 general hospitals polled by the group improved their performance on at least one of the three HAIs. Nineteen percent improved across all three of the infection measures, while 16% either worsened or made no improvement.
    • “Now that we have pre- and post-pandemic data for patient safety measures, we are encouraged by the improvement in infections and applaud hospitals for reversing the disturbing infection spike we saw during the pandemic,” Leah Binder, president and CEO of The Leapfrog Group, said in a release.”
  • Here is a link to the Leapfrog Group report.
  • Beckers Hospital Review adds, “A comparison of data from CMS and The Leapfrog Group suggests that a hospital’s strong performance in one national quality rating system does not necessarily mean it will be a top performer in another.”
  • The New York Times Magazine gives us a story about the use of bariatric surgery on teenagers.

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Reuters reports,
    • “Cigna is working with an investment bank to evaluate options for its Medicare Advantage business, which could fetch several billions of dollars in a potential divestment, the sources said.
    • “The discussions with interested parties, including other companies and private equity firms, are at an early stage, and Cigna may decide to keep the business, the sources added, requesting anonymity because the matter is confidential.”
  • Per Beckers Hospital Review,
    • “Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente reported $156 million in operating income (0.6% margin) for the third quarter, up from a $75 million operating loss (-0.3% margin) in the third quarter of 2022. 
    • “For the three months ended Sept. 30, Kaiser’s health plan, hospitals and their respective subsidiaries posted $24.9 billion in revenue and $24.7 billion in expenses, compared to $24.3 billion and $24.3 billion, respectively, in the same period of the prior year. 
    • “Net income for the third quarter was $239 million, up from a net loss of $1.5 billion in the third quarter of 2022.”
  • and
    • “As operating margins inch upward, hospitals are trending to profitability. But their performance still isn’t at pre-pandemic levels. 
    • “For the first three quarters of 2023, hospital operating margins were up 19% and operating EBIDA was up 11% compared to the same period last year, according to Kaufman Hall’s October National Hospital Flash Report. Net operating revenue per calendar day saw a 6% increase and even inpatient revenue was up 3%. Compared to 2020, year-to-date operating margins in September were down 2% and operating EBIDA margins were down 9%.”

Midweek Update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • Roll Call tells us, “The Senate on Wednesday voted 82-15 to pass the first three of its fiscal 2024 appropriations bills in a “minibus” as the House tees up votes this week on three of its remaining seven fiscal 2024 appropriations bills.”
    • The minibus included “the fiscal 2024 Military Construction-VA, Agriculture, and Transportation-HUD appropriations bills.” 
  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued its “calendar year 2024 Home Health Prospective Payment System (HH PPS) Rate Update final rule.”
  • Per Fierce Healthcare, the rule
    • increases the 2024 home health payments by 0.8%, or $140 million.
    • “The $140 million increase in estimated payments for CY 2024 reflects the effects of the CY 2024 home health payment update percentage of 3% ($525 million increase), an estimated 2.6% decrease that reflects the effects of the permanent behavioral assumption adjustment ($455 million) and an estimated 0.4% increase that reflects the effects of an updated FDL ($70 million increase),” the unpublished rule said.
    • “CMS expects increasing the rate will bring home health payments in line with statutory payment authority.”
  • BioPharma Dive informs us,
    • “An experimental sickle cell disease treatment made with CRISPR technology is one step closer to approval in the U.S., following a meeting Tuesday in which advisers to the Food and Drug Administration seemed generally comfortable with its safety.
    • “Made up of scientists and physicians, the advisory panel spent hours discussing highly technical questions around how best to assess the risk that CRISPR — the gene editing technique often likened to a pair of scissors — might make unwanted, or “off-target,” cuts to DNA.
    • “Ultimately, the panel appeared convinced that Vertex Pharmaceuticals, which developed the sickle cell treatment, had done enough to show the therapy is safe, although they pointed to several avenues for further study.”
  • Reuters adds, “Analysts have been optimistic the therapy, which is a first-of-its-kind product to reach the FDA for review, will win the health regulator’s nod by Dec. 8.”
  • On a related note, an article in Health Affairs Scholar prognosticates,
    • “Despite the potential of gene therapy to transform the lives of patients with rare genetic diseases, serious concern has been raised about the financing of the high up-front costs for such treatments and about the ability of the employer-sponsored insurance system in the United States, particularly in small firms, to pay for discoveries of this type. In this paper, we provide a conceptual framework and empirical evidence to support the proposition that, at present, private group insurance financing of cost-effective gene therapies is not only feasible and competitively necessary in the labor market for employers, regardless of group size, but also that, currently, the number of US workers in small firms who might be stressed by very high-priced claims is a tiny fraction of the group market for genetic treatments. The current system of employer-paid self-insurance supplemented by stop-loss coverage should be able to facilitate the use of new cost-effective gene therapies. Other alternative methods of financing that have been proposed may not be urgently needed. There are, however, some concerns about the long-term resilience of this system if stop-loss premiums continue to have high growth.”
  • The Society for Human Resource Management reminds us,
    • “Employers are required to use the latest version of Form I-9 beginning today.
    • “The new form from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has been available for use since August but becomes mandatory for all employers as of Nov. 1. 
    • “The new I-9 does not make any new changes to employer or employee obligations involved in the verification of work authorization. Cosmetic changes include the reduction of Sections 1 and 2 to a single page, slight revisions to the Lists of Acceptable Documents, and a new box that eligible employers must check if the employee’s documents were examined remotely under the newly authorized alternative procedure for qualified E-Verify employers.”

In FEHB news, as we approach the Open Season,

  • FedSmith offers its perspective on factors to consider when selecting an FEHB plan during Open Season.
  • FedWeek offers retired OPM executive Reg Jones’s views on the upcoming Open Season.
  • The Federal Times highlights the fine points of fertility coverage in 2024 FEHB plans.

From the public health and research front,

  • The Centers for Disease Control reminds us,
    • Every U.S. household can order 4 more free COVID-19 self-tests. 
    • Self-tests (also called at-home tests and over-the-counter tests) are one of several tools that protect you and others by reducing the chances of spreading COVID-19.
    • Self-tests can be taken at home or anywhere, are easy to use, and produce rapid results.
    • You can place an order 
      • Online at COVIDTests.gov
      • By calling 1-800-232-0233 (TTY 1-888-720-7489)
      • By calling or emailing the Disability Information and Access Line (DIAL) at 1-888-677-1199 or DIAL@usaginganddisability.org (for people with disabilities)
  • The Washington Post reports,
    • “Dying from heart failure and ineligible for a human heart transplant, Lawrence Faucette knew that the last chance he had at extending his life was to receive a heart transplanted from a pig. The 58-year-old man said from his Baltimore hospital bed in September that he was “hoping for the absolute best,” but understood that he was the second person in the world to undergo the procedure — and the highly experimental surgery did not guarantee that he would get more time with his wife and two sons.
    • “We’re going to do the best we can,” he said in a video posted by the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “Now at least I have hope. And now I have a chance.”
    • “Faucette died Monday, nearly six weeks after the surgery, becoming the second patient to die after receiving a genetically modified pig heart, medical school officials announced Tuesday.”
  • RIP, Mr. Faucette.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “The rate of babies dying in the U.S. increased significantly for the first time in two decades, raising new alarms about maternal-infant health in America.
    • “The nation’s infant mortality rate rose 3% from 2021 to 2022, reversing a decadeslong overall decline, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday. The rate increased from 5.44 infant deaths for every 1,000 births to 5.6 in 2022, a statistically significant uptick. * * *
    • “The death rate increased significantly for babies born to American Indian and Alaska Native women, babies born to white women, babies born to women ages 25 to 29 years, male babies and preterm babies.
    • “Changes in the rates for other groups weren’t significant, though the agency’s data showed that mortality rates among racial groups in the U.S. remain wide. The rate for babies born to Black mothers was more than double that of white mothers.”
  • STAT New calls attention to the fact that
    • “Most lung cancer screening guidelines hinge on how much people smoked tobacco and when they last smoked, but the American Cancer Society now says it doesn’t matter how long ago they quit. On Wednesday, the ACS released guidance recommending that anyone with a significant smoking history get an annual low-dose CT scan for lung cancer.
    • “The new guidelines also expand the age range for lung cancer screening to 50 through 80, instead of 55 through 74, and lower the smoking history requirement from 30 cigarette pack years to 20 pack years or more. That means the equivalent of a pack a day for 20 years, which includes two packs a day for 10 years or four packs a day for five years. Most private insurance plans are required to cover screening guidelines with an A or B-grade recommendation from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, though some organizations do follow ACS guidelines.
    • “These recommendations bring the ACS’ new age range and smoking history requirements in line with that of the task force’s lung cancer guidelines, which were updated in 2021. However, the task force still only extends lung cancer screening eligibility to patients who quit smoking within the last 15 years. 
    • One of the main reasons the ACS wanted to strike the years-since-quit requirement from their guidelines was that many former smokers are still at high risk for lung cancer regardless of when they quit smoking. “The more we dug into the data, the more we saw there was no real evidence for that criterion,” said Robert Smith, the senior vice president of early detection science at the American Cancer Society.”
  • The Lown Institute issued a report on unnecessary heart stent procedures in the U.S.
    • “Every seven minutes, a Medicare patient receives an unnecessary coronary stent at a U.S. hospital, a new report finds. The Lown Institute, an independent think tank, examined the overuse of percutaneous coronary interventions (coronary stent or balloon angioplasty) at 1,733 general hospital inpatient and outpatient facilities and found more than 229,000 procedures met the criteria for overuse.
    • “While coronary stents can be lifesaving for someone having a heart attack, years of research shows that stents for stable heart disease provide no benefit over optimal medication therapy. Across all hospitals, Lown estimates that more than one in five stents were placed unnecessarily in Medicare patients from 2019 to 2021, at a cost of $2.44 billion.
    • “When physicians continue a practice despite the evidence against it, it becomes more dangerous than useful,” said Dr. Vikas Saini, a cardiologist and president of the Lown Institute. “The overuse of stents is incredibly wasteful and puts hundreds of thousands of patients in harm’s way.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Per Healthcare Dive,
    • CVS Health beat Wall Street expectations for earnings and revenue in the third quarter, as growth in pharmacy benefits offset higher spending in its health insurance segment.
    • The Rhode Island-based healthcare behemoth continues to wrangle with headwinds including higher-than-expected healthcare utilization, a pharmacist strike and lost bonus payments in Medicare Advantage.
    • As a result, interim CFO Tom Cowhey cautioned investors on a Wednesday morning call to expect 2024 earnings at the low end of the company’s guidance.
  • and
    • “Humana reported growing medical costs in its insurance segment during the third quarter as a result of increased medical utilization among Medicare Advantage members and higher-than-anticipated COVID-19 admissions.
    • “The payer expects higher levels of utilization to continue for the remainder of the year, and is now forecasting its 2023 medical loss ratio (MLR) will outpace prior guidance. Humana is projecting an MLR of 87.5% for 2023, up from the 86.6% to 87.3% range it previously expected.
    • “Humana’s shares slid following the earnings release Wednesday, despite the insurer beating Wall Street expectations on revenue of $26.4 billion and profit of $1.1 billion.
  • Forbes reports that biopharma giant “GSK shares rose on Wednesday after the pharma giant upgraded its profit guidance for the second time this year amid booming demand for its new vaccine for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).”

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From Washington, DC

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) embraced border security as a possible way to break a congressional impasse over funding the government, saying it could be a key ingredient in any last-ditch push to avert a partial shutdown this weekend.  * * *
    • Speaking to reporters on Thursday morning, McCarthy said concerns among both Democrats and Republicans about the pace of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexican border could provide enough common ground for them to work out a short-term deal to keep the government open past Sept. 30, when the fiscal year ends.
    • He said he had spoken with some Democratic senators about border enforcement as recently as Thursday morning.“They want something on the border. They’re working on it,” he said of Democrat senators. “And so I think there’s an opportunity here. We know we have to keep the government funded. We know we have a concern about the border—both sides.” Asked directly by a reporter if he expects a shutdown, McCarthy said: “No, I’m saying we work through this and get it done.”
  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • Following a Senate Finance Committee markup hearing in July, where members voted 26-1 in favor of the Modernizing and Ensuring PBM Accountability (MEPA) Act, Senators Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, formally introduced the bill on Thursday.
    • Designed to curb the power of pharmacy benefit managers, the bill would prohibit PBM compensation in Medicare from being tied to the price, increase audit and enforcement measures and aid independent community pharmacies that have struggled because of PBM practices, according to a news release.
  • AHIP announced that yesterday
    • Following reports of some patients having difficulties accessing new COVID-19 boosters without cost sharing, Alliance of Community Health Plans, Association for Community Affiliated Plans, AHIP, and Blue Cross Blue Shield Association came together in a letter to Xavier Becerra, Secretary of the Department of Health & Human Services, to reiterate their commitment to providing access, swiftly addressing any challenges, and continuing to partner with HHS and others across the health care system.”
    • Good to hear.
  • STAT News offers six approaches to resolving the drug shortages confronting our country.
  • STAT News also informs us
    • “A panel of independent advisers to the Food and Drug Administration voted overwhelmingly against a polarizing potential treatment for ALS on Wednesday, concluding that the medicine’s messy supporting data did not meet the standard for approval.
    • “After a day-long meeting that included impassioned testimony from ALS patients, the agency’s expert advisers voted 17-1 with one abstention that the case for NurOwn, a treatment from BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics, was based too heavily on convoluted clinical trial results and compelling but unreliable anecdotal evidence.”
  • Per Beckers Hospital Review,
    • “The label for Novo Nordisk’s weight loss drug Ozempic now acknowledges some users’ reports of ileus or intestinal blockage. 
    • “In its update, however, the FDA said it’s difficult to confirm a causal relationship between the side effect and the drug. 
    • “Because these reactions are reported voluntarily from a population of uncertain size, it is not always possible to reliably estimate their frequency or establish a causal relationship to drug exposure,” the label says. 
    • “Wegovy and Mounjaro, also GLP-1 agonist medications, already acknowledge reports of ileus on their labels. Novo Nordisk is the maker of both Ozempic and Wegovy, which both use an injection of semaglutide.” 
  • The Affordable Care Act regulators released ACA FAQ 61, which updates interested parties on transparency in coverage and RxDc reporting issues.
  • The U.S. Office of Personnel Management announcedissuing an interim final rule today to extend the eligibility date for noncompetitive appointment of military spouses married to a member of the armed forces on active duty through December 31, 2028, as called for by enactment of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) (P.L. 117-263).” 

From the public health front,

  • STAT News tells us
    • “[A 36-year-old woman living in San Francisco was told her kidneys would heal. But they didn’t; dialysis became a regular routine. She moved to UCSF Medical Center, seeking better care and a place that would allow her parents to visit. There, she met Chi-yuan Hsu, UCSF’s chief of nephrology, who was looking to study patients who might be successfully weaned from dialysis. He believed many patients with acute kidney injury like Lawson stayed on dialysis for longer than they needed.
    • “The results of a new study by Hsu, published Thursday in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, validate his suspicions. The study of nearly 8,000 patients, nearly 2,000 with acute kidney injury, found 40% of patients with acute kidney injury recovered their kidney function. But of these patients, just 18% were weaned from dialysis through having fewer sessions, and 9% by having shorter sessions.
    • “More than 70% of these patients ended up eventually stopping dialysis without any weaning — “cold turkey” as Hsu puts it — suggesting they could have been having fewer, or shorter treatments earlier. This is important, he said, because dialysis not only impacts quality of life, as it did for Lawson, it can also lead to infection and heart damage, and possibly — this is still under debate — to additional kidney injury that could inhibit recovery and lead to a need for permanent dialysis.”
  • Health Leaders Media explains how to address the relationship between patient safety and health equity.
  • Employee Benefit News points out the need for mental health benefits to cover suicide prevention.

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Forbes reports that CVS, Walgreens And Rite Aid are closing nearly 1,500 stores across the U.S.
    • “All three drug chains have different reasons for closing stores, but the downsizing prescription is the same. Chain drugstores cost a lot to operate, and they don’t have sufficient differentiation to attract customers feeling the economic pinch.”
  • STAT News says,
    • Ophthalmologists who accepted payments from drug companies were less likely to prescribe a cheaper medicine to treat an eye disease that causes blindness in older people, rather than a pair of more expensive alternatives, according to a new study. This led Medicare to spend an additional $643 million during a recent six-year period.
    • Specifically, physicians who received money prescribed Avastin, an older cancer medicine, 28% of the time for combating age-related macular degeneration. And they prescribed two costlier treatments, which have approved specifically to treat the eye disease, 72% of the time. Physicians who did not accept payments prescribed Avastin 46% of the time, nearly twice as often as those who accepted payments.
    • “As a result, Medicare shelled out an estimated $642.8 million from 2013 to 2019, presumably due to the company payments, according to the study, which was published in JAMA Health Forum. The researchers examined Medicare Part B data that encompassed nearly 21,600 ophthalmologists who accepted money from Roche and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, which sell the pricier eye treatments.”
  • Per Healthcare Dive,
    • “Satisfaction with telehealth is significantly higher among younger patients, according to a study by consumer data company JD Power. 
    • “Members of Generation Y, who were born between 1977 and 1994, and Generation Z, born between 1995 and 2004, report a satisfaction score of 714 out of 1,000. But Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and and 1964, and people born earlier had a significantly lower score of 671.
    • “The satisfaction gap between older and younger generations is widest when it comes to digital channels and appointment scheduling, which could mean older users are struggling to use telehealth providers’ digital interfaces, the study argues.” 
  • Beckers Hospital Review lets us know
    • “Medicare Advantage provides health coverage to more than half of the nation’s seniors, but a growing number of hospitals and health systems nationwide are pushing back and dropping the private plans altogether.
    • “Among the most commonly cited reasons are excessive prior authorization denial rates and slow payments from insurers. Some systems have noted that most MA carriers have faced allegations of billing fraud from the federal government and are being probed by lawmakers over their high denial rates.
    • “It’s become a game of delay, deny and not pay,” Chris Van Gorder, president and CEO of San Diego-based Scripps Health, told Becker’s. “Providers are going to have to get out of full-risk capitation because it just doesn’t work — we’re the bottom of the food chain, and the food chain is not being fed.” 
    • “In late September, Scripps began notifying patients that it is terminating Medicare Advantage contracts for its integrated medical groups, a move that will affect more than 30,000 seniors in the region. The medical groups, Scripps Clinic and Scripps Coastal, employ more than 1,000 physicians, including advanced practitioners.”
  • and
    •  interviews an Aetna executive about successful value based care.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports about employer groups that are successfully advocating for lower hospital prices in their states. The flagbearer is Gloria Sachdev, who is chief executive officer of the Employers’ Forum of Indiana. Good luck.

Friday Factoids

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • Govexec tells us, “The Office of Personnel Management on Friday proposed new regulations aimed at granting federal agencies greater flexibility in selecting new federal employees during the hiring process.” The public comment deadline is September 19, 2023.
  • Federal News Network offers a table of federal government return-to-office policies.
  • The Society for Human Resource Management informs us,
    • “The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced Friday a new Form I-9—which has been streamlined and shortened—that employers should use beginning Aug. 1, 2023.
    • “Employers may continue to use the older Form I-9 (Rev. 10/21/19)  through Oct. 31., 2023. After that date, they will be subject to penalties if they use the older form. The new version will not be available for downloading until Aug. 1.  
    • “Additionally, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a final rule that allows the agency to create a framework under which employers could implement alternative document examination procedures, such as remote document examination. The new form subsequently has a checkbox to indicate when an employee’s Form I-9 documentation was examined using a DHS-authorized alternative procedure.
    • “At this time, the final rule only allows employers using E-Verify to use alternative verification methods.”
  • Healthcare Dive notes
    • “The Federal Trade Commission and the HHS’ Office for Civil Rights are warning hospitals and telehealth companies about embedding online tracking technologies on their websites or apps, saying the trackers risk exposing consumers’ personal health data to third parties. 
    • “The trackers, like the Meta Pixel or Google Analytics, collect identifiable information about users and could reveal information about health conditions, diagnoses, treatments, frequency of visits and more, the agencies wrote in a letter to about 130 health systems and telehealth providers.
    • “The warning marks the latest move from regulators regarding the healthcare industry’s use of tracking technologies, which monitor user behavior on websites. Sharing consumers’ health data with third parties, like advertisers, has been a recent target of FTC oversight.”

Following up on the tornado that struck a Pfizer factory in Rocky Mount, NC, STAT News reports

  • “Pfizer says a tornado that ripped through a key manufacturing plant in North Carolina does not appear to have caused “any major damage” to areas that produce medicines.
  • “The company reported most damage from the storm occurred at a warehouse that stores raw materials, packaging supplies, and finished medicines awaiting release by quality assurance personnel. As a result, it remains unclear about the extent to which destruction at the facility — which produces nearly 8% of all sterile injectables used in U.S. hospitals — will exacerbate a growing shortage of prescription drugs across the country.”

The Food and Drug Administration also issued a report on the incident.

From the medical malpractice front, STAT News points out

  • “A new study published this week in BMJ, * * * estimates that “371,000 people die every year following a misdiagnosis, and 424,000 are permanently disabled — a total of 800,000 people suffering “serious harm,” said David Newman-Toker, the lead author of the paper and a professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and director of its Center for Diagnostic Excellence. Settling on an exact number is hard because many cases of misdiagnosis go undetected, he said. It could be fewer than his study identified or more — between half a million and a million — though in any event, it would be the most common cause of death or disability due to medical malpractice. 
  • “He likens the issue of misdiagnosis to an iceberg, saying cases leading to death and disability are but a small fraction of the problem. “We focused here on the serious harms, but the number of diagnostic errors that happen out there in the U.S. each year is probably somewhere on the order of magnitude of 50 to 100 million,” he said. “If you actually look, you see it’s happening all the time.” 
  • “But misdiagnoses typically don’t lead to severe consequences because, most times, people aren’t visiting the doctor with a serious condition. “The risk level just walking through the door in the doctor’s office that something horrible is going to happen to you because of a diagnostic error is actually quite low,” said Newman-Toker.”

In related news “[The American Hospital Association] AHA today released its quarterly Health Care Plan Accountability Update, featuring the latest news on AHA efforts to hold commercial health insurers accountable for policies that can delay care for patients, burden health care providers and add unnecessary costs to the health care system. READ MORE.”

From the factoid front —

  • HealthEquity suggests three ways to drive health savings account plan adoption.
  • Beckers Payer Issues points out how seven payers are using artificial intelligence.
  • MedTech Dive reports, “Intuitive Surgical posted strong robotic volume growth in the second quarter and raised its full-year procedure outlook but said patient interest in new weight-loss drugs is curbing demand for bariatric surgeries.”

Midweek update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

From Washington DC —

  • STAT News tells us,
    • “Ahead of a major Food and Drug Administration meeting on a new Alzheimer’s treatment this week, several Democratic lawmakers are ratcheting up their criticism of how the Biden administration is planning to handle a potential approval this summer.
    • “Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who leads the Senate’s health committee, wrote to health secretary Xavier Becerra on Wednesday asking him to ”use the full extent” of his authority to ensure Medicare doesn’t pay the list price of $26,500 for Eisai and Biogen’s Leqembi.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front —

  • Healthcare Dive informs us,
    • “The financial performance of the seven largest publicly traded U.S.-based insurers remains stable so far this year, despite “continued challenges” in the healthcare sector, according to a report out Tuesday from credit ratings agency Fitch Ratings.
    • “Though persistent staffing shortages and high inflation has been pressuring healthcare providers, the largest payers, which Fitch estimates to account for about 70% of the privately ensured U.S. population, reported a 7.7% operating EBITDA margin in the first quarter compared with 7.6% during the same period in 2022.
    • “However, the report noted that cost pressures at the provider level could impact payer and provider contract negotiations and cause premium rates to increase over the next few years, contributing to “heightened public discourse around healthcare costs for consumers.”
  • Per the Lown Institute
    • A recent New York Times investigation found that Allina Health System, a nonprofit health system in the Midwest, has been rejecting patients for appointments if they have unpaid medical bills. If patients amass at least $1,500 in medical debt three separate times, they may not be allowed to come back to a clinic or hospital until they pay up. In many cases, Allina’s electronic health record system precludes doctors from making new appointments with patients that have unpaid debt.
    • The policy, which was started in 2006, applies to patients struggling with chronic conditions like diabetes and depression, and is even applied to children. The Times heard from doctors and patients who described being unable to complete medical forms that children needed to enroll in day care or show proof of vaccination for school. Allina’s dominance in the region also means that patients who are rejected for care–especially patients in rural areas–may have trouble finding other providers. 
    • How is a nonprofit system allowed to deny needed care for patients with debt? While nonprofit hospitals are required by federal law to accept any patient for emergency care regardless of ability to pay, the same requirement doesn’t apply to non-emergency care. 
    • Because there aren’t regulations against this practice, Allina is not alone in rejecting patients with debt. According to a 2022 KFF Health News investigation of 528 hospitals sampled nationwide, 55 indicated in their written policy that they do allow deniels of non-emergency care for patients with medical debt, 22 said this is allowed but not current practice, and 85 others had no information in their policy on whether or not they do this. (Allina Health Faribault Medical Center was included in this last group, but no other Allina hospitals were included in the study). Among the hospitals that allow for care denials are within some of the largest nonprofit systems in the country, including Ascension, Indiana University Health, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Mayo Clinic, Trinity Health, and more.

From the healthcare research front, BioPharma Dive offers its wrap-up report on the ASCO conference held in Chicago this week.

From the SDOH front —

  • Healthcare Dive points out,
  • “Patients of color, or those on public insurance, are still at increased risk for certain adverse events compared to White patients, regardless of high hospital safety ratings, according to a report out Wednesday from the Leapfrog Group.
  • “Although higher hospital safety ratings generally correspond with fewer adverse safety events, the report found that pattern doesn’t hold true for patients of color or those on Medicare or Medicaid, who were more likely to experience adverse events after surgery, including sepsis, blood clots and respiratory failure.
  • “Rather than suggesting problems with individual hospitals, the data points to a “systemic issue impacting the quality of care for Black and Hispanic patients and those with public insurance plans,” according to the report.”

From the mental healthcare front, Health Payer Intelligence discusses six strategies that payers can use to promote behavioral health prevention, along with a strong provider network.

From the litigation front —

  • Fierce Healthcare reports
    • “A federal appeals court held a brief hearing Tuesday afternoon to hear from attorneys on both sides as it decides whether to lift a nationwide freeze on a lower court’s ruling that struck down preventive care protections in the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
    • “A panel of judges at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New Orleans, issued a stay on the District Court ruling while the appeals process plays out, though it could choose to lift the stay following Tuesday’s hearing. Legal experts expect a decision on the pause in short order.”
  • The FEHBlog is willing to bet the ranch that the panel will uphold the existing stay.

From the generative AI front —

  • Healthcare Dive relates
    • “Google is linking up with longtime collaborator Mayo Clinic to explore generative artificial intelligence’s applications in the hospital, the tech giant announced Wednesday morning.
    • “Mayo will use a Google Cloud tool that lets organizations create chatbots and search applications using generative AI to answer complex questions and produce summaries faster than traditional search functionalities.
    • “Mayo could improve the efficiency of clinical workflows and make it easier for clinicians and researchers to find information, Google said.”

In federal employee benefits news, Federal News Network tells us

  • “The Office of Personnel Management’s backlog of retirement claims dropped by 2,259 in May. OPM received 6,096 claims, just over 2,200 fewer than in April, which saw 8,298. OPM processed 8,355 claims, bringing down the inventory backlog to 18,125, the lowest it has been since June 2020, when it reached 17,432.
  • “OPM still has improvements to make, as the inventory backlog is more than 5,000 claims above the steady state goal of 13,000.”

Midweek update

From Washington, DC —

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “The House passed a sweeping bill that suspends the federal government’s $31.4 trillion debt ceiling in exchange for spending cuts, as Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy muscled through a deal struck with President Biden to avert a looming government default.
    • “The 314-117 vote relied on support from both Republicans and Democrats. Passage of the deal sends the measure to the Senate, where leaders have promised quick action, and Biden has said he is eager to sign the measure into law. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said the government could run out of the cash it needs on June 5 to pay its bills on time and warned of severe economic damage and market disruptions unless Congress acts.
    • “The House vote marks the culmination of a hard-fought debate in the chamber, where Republicans were intent on using the debt ceiling as leverage to deeply cut deficit spending and roll back many of Biden’s signature initiatives—but ended up settling for more modest changes.
    • “The outcome showed, for now, that McCarthy has the power to deliver high-stakes deals with Democrats while still keeping his job, and bolstered Biden’s reputation as a deal maker who was willing to find a middle ground with Republicans.”
  • Healthcare Dive provides details on the healthcare provisions in the bill (HR 3746).
  • STAT News tells us
    • “As Congress considers wide-ranging reforms to pharmacy benefit managers, a top executive at CVS Health, which owns one of the largest PBMs in the country, said the company would find ways to maintain its level of profit if those reforms to things like drug rebates went into effect.
    • “There’s other ways in the economic model that we can adjust to if one of those things changes,” Shawn Guertin, CVS’ chief financial officer, said at an industry conference Wednesday. “The other important part of this, if some of these things change, it could lead to higher costs for employers and health plans.”
  • If the FEHBP’s experience with transparent prescription drug pricing is any guide, the reforms under consideration will not lower costs for employers and health plans. For example, OPM mandated full transparency of manufacturer rebates and 100% distribution of those rebates to the health plans, causing higher administrative expenses for FEHB plans. Presumably, the larger rebates and higher administrative expenses wash. OPM also mandates triennial RFP processes for PBM contracts which do produce savings.

Speaking of FEHBP, Govexec brings us up to date on Postal Service Health Benefits Program implementation. The article illustrates the support that carriers and the Postal Services, among other agencies, are providing OPM with this project. All of the major Postal unions are FEHB carriers.

Today is the deadline for FEHB carriers to submit their 2024 benefit and rate proposals to OPM. Fierce Healthcare discusses a Mercer survey of employer expectations for 2024 premiums.

From the public health front —

  • Kaiser Family Foundation News points out that medical debt is materially higher in the Diabetes Belt found in the southeastern U.S. “The CDC says the Diabetes Belt consists of 644 mostly Southern counties where rates of the disease are high. NPR found that more than half of the counties have high levels of medical debt in collections — meaning at least 1 in 5 people are affected.”
  • Healio relates
    • Compared with reoffering colonoscopy and fecal immunochemical test alone, offering a blood test as a secondary option resulted in a nearly twofold increase in colorectal cancer screening in veterans who had declined first-line screening. 
    • “We know screening prevents colorectal cancer, but participation in screening is suboptimal,” Peter S. Liang, MD, MPH, assistant professor of medicine and population health at NYU Langone Health, told Healio. “Compared to widely used screening modalities such as colonoscopy and stool-based testing, a blood test has certain advantages: It is noninvasive, can be done at point of care and does not require self-collection.”
  • Leapfrog Group calls attention to its newly released 2023 maternity care report.
  • STAT News explains why new cancer patients need navigation support
    • [P]eople * * * in this suspected peri-diagnostic period (the time between a positive finding on a screening test and leading up to a formal diagnosis and treatment) are not looking for specific answers so much as they are seeking general support.
    • Patients want a trusted person to help provide a general overview of the journey ahead. They want someone to help them through the structural and logistical challenges of our cumbersome and sometimes unresponsive health systems. They would like triage on whether their case is common enough that they can access high-quality, convenient, and accessible community care, or whether their diagnosis warrants the specialized care available at large academic medical centers. They want guidance on what sorts of questions to ask their care team. They want to know if they should pursue second opinions, and if so, how to go about getting insurance approval or the mechanics of how to actually secure an appointment.
  • Medscape reports
    • “About 10% of people infected with Omicron reported having long COVID, a lower percentage than estimated for people infected with earlier strains of the coronavirus, says a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association.”

From the Rx coverage front —

  • The Hill reports
    • “The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Wednesday approved Pfizer’s vaccine to prevent the respiratory disease RSV in older adults, the company announced.
    • The approval of Pfizer’s Abrysvo marks the second authorized RSV shot for older adults in the U.S. this month, after GlaxoSmithKline won approval for its rival shot, Arexvy. “
  • Medscape informs us
    • Sotagliflozin, a novel agent that inhibits sodium-glucose cotransporter (SGLT) 1 as well as SGLT2, received marketing approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on May 26 for reducing the risk for cardiovascular death, hospitalization for heart failure, and urgent heart failure visits in patients with heart failure, and also for preventing these same events in patients with type 2 diabetes, chronic kidney disease (CKD), and other cardiovascular disease risk factors.
    • This puts sotagliflozin in direct competition with two SGLT2 inhibitors, dapagliflozin (Farxiga) and empagliflozin (Jardiance), that already have indications for preventing heart failure hospitalizations in patients with heart failure as well as approvals for type 2 diabetes and preservation of renal function.
    • Officials at Lexicon Pharmaceuticals, the company that developed and will market sotagliflozin under the trade name Inpefa, said in a press release that they expect US sales of the agent to begin before the end of June 2023. The release also highlighted that the approval broadly covered use in patients with heart failure across the full range of both reduced and preserved left ventricular ejection fractions.
    • Lexicon officials also said that the company will focus on marketing sotagliflozin for preventing near-term rehospitalizations of patients discharged after an episode of acute heart failure decompensation.

From the U.S. healthcare business front —

  • Beckers Hospital Review reports
    • “The median year-to-date operating margin index for hospitals slightly improved in April to 0 percent, according to Kaufman Hall. 
    • “The neutral margin marks a slight improvement from the -0.3 percent recorded in March, according to Kaufman Hall’s latest “National Flash Hospital Report” — based on data from more than 900 hospitals.
    • “Hospitals saw increased bad debt and charity care and decreased inpatient and outpatient volumes in April, which Kaufman Hall experts correlate to the winding down of the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency, which ended May 11.” 
  • Healthcare Dive tells us
    • “Nonprofit hospital and health plan operator Kaiser Permanente announced Tuesday that it was committing $10 million to safety-net hospital and regional operator Denver Health, as the facility struggles with “unprecedented financial challenges” including increased expenses and a rise in uninsured patients.
    • “Denver Health provides care for around 30% of the city’s population — including the largest percentage of uninsured patients. The system has struggled with a rise in costs and a surge in sicker patients, with expenses totaling $1.3 billion for Denver Health in fiscal year 2022.
    • “The announcement comes as both nonprofit and for-profit hospitals across the country struggle with negative margins and pent-up financial challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, including persistent heightened contract labor costs, inflationary pressures and unfavorable payer mixes.”

From the miscellany department —

  • Bloomberg updates us on the promising hunt for a breast cancer vaccine.
  • MedCity News relates
    • About 65% of Americans believe that employer-sponsored insurance provides them with “financial peace of mind,” a new survey shows.
    • The AHIP report, published Wednesday, was conducted by Locust Street Group from April 17 to April 25 as part of AHIP’s Coverage@Work campaign, which aims to gather insights on Americans’ thoughts on employer-sponsored coverage. It included responses from 1,000 U.S. consumers with employer-sponsored coverage.
  • Beckers Payer Issues ranks the States by Medicare Advantage enrollment.
  • The Society for Human Resource Management reports
    • “In a memo released May 30, National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo announced that noncompete agreements violate the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The announcement, which applies to nonunionized and unionized employers, may result in unfair labor practice charges for any employer that uses noncompetes, said Thomas Payne, an attorney with Barnes & Thornburg in Indianapolis.
    • “However, a manager’s or supervisor’s noncompete would seemingly be unaffected by the memo because the NLRA applies only to nonmanagerial, nonsupervisory staff, said James Redeker, an attorney with Duane Morris in Philadelphia.  Managers and supervisors are the most likely to have noncompetes, he noted.”

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

Roll Call tells us,

“President Joe Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Tuesday tapped proxies to negotiate directly over how to increase the debt limit with time running short before the government runs too low on funds.”

and

“Lawmakers are beginning to think about changing their plans and staying in Washington in the coming weeks as a standoff over increasing the debt limit bears down. Members of both parties’ leadership said on Tuesday that plans for the Senate to recess next week and the House to leave town the following week could shift.”

BenefitsLink pointed out that the Internal Revenue Service released a revenue procedure identifying inflation-adjusted high deductible health plan and health savings account amounts for use in 2024 just in time for FEHB high deductible health plan benefit proposals due May 31.

STAT News reports

“In an unexpected move, the Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday filed a lawsuit to block Amgen from acquiring Horizon Therapeutics, claiming the $27.8 billion deal would make it possible for Amgen to develop monopolies through a tactic that manipulates health coverage and drives up consumer costs.

“At issue is a practice known as bundling. Simply put, a drug company combines two or more medicines in a package deal for health plans and pharmacy benefit managers, which determine lists of medicines that are covered by insurance. The practice has previously sparked concerns that a drug company will unfairly offer higher rebates for bundles in order to win favorable placement.”

From the medical and drug research fronts —

  • The National Institute of Health informs us,
    • “A study from the National Institutes of Health shows that new cases of chronic pain occur more often among U.S. adults than new cases of several other common conditions, including diabetes, depression, and high blood pressure. Among people who have chronic pain, almost two-thirds still suffer from it a year later. These findings come from a new analysis of National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) data by investigators from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) at the NIH, Seattle Children’s Research Institute, and University of Washington, Seattle, and are published in JAMA Network Open.”
  • The New York Times reports
    • “The man should have gotten Alzheimer’s disease in his early 40s — he had a gene mutation that guaranteed it, or so it seemed. Scans of his brain even revealed severe atrophying and the hallmarks of the disease: rough, hard, amyloid plaques and spaghetti-like tangles of tau proteins. But the fatal brain disease did not appear until the man was 67.
    • “Now an intense research effort has discovered why. The man was protected because another mutation in a different gene blocked the disease from entering his entorhinal cortex. That tiny area of the brain is a hub for neurons involved in memory, recognition of objects, navigation and time perception. And it is there that scientists believe that Alzheimer’s disease begins.
    • “A paper on the finding was published Monday in the journal Nature Medicine.
    • More than six million people in the United States have Alzheimer’s, a disease that has been notoriously difficult to treat. Yet here was a man with a mutation that causes the most severe and rapidly progressing form of Alzheimer’s. And his disease was delayed for two decades. If a drug could do what the mutation did, resulting in most people getting Alzheimer’s very late in life, the outcome could be transformative.”

From the SDOH front,

  • the National Institutes of Health shared
    • “New research shows that the economic burden of health disparities in the United States remains unacceptably high. The study, funded by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), part of the National Institutes of Health,  revealed that in 2018, racial and ethnic health disparities cost the U.S. economy $451 billion, a 41% increase from the previous estimate of $320 billion in 2014. The study also finds that the total burden of education-related health disparities for persons with less than a college degree in 2018 reached $978 billion, about two times greater than the annual growth rate of the U.S. economy in 2018.”

From the AI department,

  • Beckers Payer Issues informs us
    • Payers are putting artificial intelligence to work. 
    • Google recently launched a new AI-powered cloud program for prior authorization and claims processing. Elevance Health is piloting AI-powered concierge care for members. 
    • Becker’s asked 18 payer executives how AI will transform the insurance industry. [The interview squibs are available in the article.]

From the patient front, here is a link to HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research March 2023 Chartbook on Patient Safety.