Thursday Miscellany

Thursday Miscellany

In yesterday’s post, the FEHBlog accurately predicted that the Supreme Court would decide today whether to stay the OSHA ETS vaccination screening program and end the partial stay on the CMS healthcare worker vaccination mandate.

This afternoon, the Supreme Court issued its decision reinstating the nationwide stay of the OSHA ETS and its companion decision ending all stays on the CMS mandate. The decisions came down as many, many pundits predicted.

The Secretary of Labor who oversees OSHA commented that

“We urge all employers to require workers to get vaccinated or tested weekly to most effectively fight this deadly virus in the workplace. Employers are responsible for the safety of their workers on the job, and OSHA has comprehensive COVID-19 guidance to help them uphold their obligation. 

“Regardless of the ultimate outcome of these proceedings, OSHA will do everything in its existing authority to hold businesses accountable for protecting workers, including under the Covid-19 National Emphasis Program and General Duty Clause.”

In the OSHA ETS decision, the Supreme Court expressed the key point of administrative law on which the two cases turned:

Administrative agencies are creatures of statute. They accordingly possess only the authority that Congress has provided.

The Court reasoned that Congress had granted CMS the necessary authority to issue its broad mandate but had not granted OSHA the same level of authority.

The cases now return to the courts of appeal for a decision on the merits — 6th Circuit for the OSHA ETS case and 5th Circuit for the CMS mandate case. In the meantime the Court’s decisions on the stays will remain in place.

Given how the Court handled these stay decisions, we have a pretty good idea where the Supreme Court will land should either of those merits decisions return to the Court.Such a return likely only will happen if either appellate court disagrees with the Court’s administrative law conclusion on the merits.

In that regard, Bloomberg Law reports that

The Justice Department will appeal a Louisiana federal court’s ruling that blocked President Joe Biden‘s order for government-contractor workers to get the Covid-19 vaccine. 

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit will be the third federal appeals court to consider a challenge to the measure. A coalition of three states—Louisiana, Mississippi, and Indiana—sought to block the mandate for companies that do business with the federal government. U.S. District Court Judge Dee Drell of the Western District of Louisiana granted a preliminary injunction in December. 

The federal contractor mandate—which won’t be enforced while litigation proceeds—would apply to roughly a quarter of the U.S. workforce, and affect businesses including Lockheed Martin Corp., Microsoft Corp., Alphabet Inc.‘s Google, and General Motors Co.

Appeals are ongoing in the Eleventh and Sixth circuits, respectively, over a nationwide injunction against the measure from a Georgia federal court and a narrower one from a Kentucky federal judge for a coalition that includes Ohio and Tennessee. A Missouri federal court also blocked the executive order, but that ruling has yet to be appealed.

From the Omicron front, David Leonhardt writing in today’s New York Times cautiously senses that the Omicron surge is cresting in our country following Europe’s and South Africa’s leads. “To be clear, the current emergency is not on the verge of ending. Cases appear to be peaking only in places where Omicron arrived early, mostly in the Northeast. In much of the country, cases are still soaring.”

From the Covid vaccine front, the AP reports that

Distrust, misinformation and delays because of the holidays and bad weather have combined to produce what authorities say are alarmingly low COVID-19 vaccination rates in U.S. children ages 5 to 11.

As of Tuesday, just over 17% were fully vaccinated, more than two months after shots became available to the age group. While Vermont is at 48%, California is just shy of 19% and Mississippi is at only 5%.

Vaccinations among the elementary school set surged after the shots were introduced in the fall, but the numbers have crept up slowly since then, and omicron’s explosive spread appears to have had little effect.

The low rates are “very disturbing,” said Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director for the Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “It’s just amazing.”

Parents who hesitate “are taking an enormous risk and continuing to fuel the pandemic,” Murphy said.

From the telehealth front, STAT News informs us that

A handful of virtual care companies are inking new types of contracts that reward them for keeping patients’ cost low and penalize them for overspending — a model known as risk-sharing. It’s a departure from the traditional “fee-for-service” billing process, and a move  companies hope could help them get paid for the services they offer in addition to virtual doctors’ appointments, like in-app messaging, medication reminders, and digital health coaching. They’re also betting that embracing risk could endear them to the health plans and employers they depend on for contracts.

Execs from companies like Heartbeat Health and Teladoc say they’re in the very early stages of cementing these contracts. While there’s no clear roadmap for how to structure them, whether they take hold could clarify how virtual care will fit into the brick-and-mortar healthcare system and incentivize those companies to work with traditional providers on prevention, said Jennifer Goldsack, CEO of the Digital Medicine Society. “There is an opportunity to reimagine what health care looks like when it is around the patient,” she told Mohana. Read the full story

From the healthcare cost front, STAT News tells us that

— Medical cost growth trailed that of other industries in 2021, though rising pressure from the omicron variant could fuel future increases in healthcare costs.

— Prices for goods and services skyrocketed at the fastest pace in four decades, rising 7% between December 2020 and December 2021, according to new data released Wednesday from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

— By comparison, prices for healthcare services rose roughly 2.5% last year, while the cost of medical care goods rose just 0.4%. However, that slow rate of growth could accelerate as COVID-19 cases persist in 2022 and beyond.

From the miscellany department —

  • The Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research’s Acting Director Dr. David Meyers looks back at 2021.
  • Biopharma Dive considers five questions facing gene therapy in 2022.
  • Fierce Healthcare notes that

As the healthcare system faces significant labor challenges, a new report suggests pharmacists are well positioned to fill some of the critical gaps.

The analysis, conducted by Express Scripts and the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, found that a majority of pharmacists see their roles transitioning to more direct patient care responsibilities over the next decade.

  • AARP’s Public Policy Institute examines the importance of medication literacy in the medication decision-making of older adults.

While health literacy is widely understood as a quality measure of health care decision making, another related measure calls for increased attention, particularly regarding older adults: medication literacy. Medication literacy is the degree to which individuals can obtain, comprehend, communicate, calculate, and process patient-specific information about their medications to make informed medication and health decisions in order to safely and effectively use their medications, regardless of the mode by which the content by which the content is delivered (i.e., written, oral, or visual).

  • Money offers a comprehensive update on the President’s mandate that health plans cover over the counter COVID tests effective on Saturday January 15.

Midweek update

From the Omicron front, Roll Call reports that

The White House COVID-19 Response Team stopped short of announcing major changes to anticipated guidance surrounding masks and instead focused on changes to testing strategy on Wednesday.

Experts have been calling for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to update its mask guidance to recommend high-filtration masks such as N95s and KN95s in light of the surge of the omicron variant. * * *

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky also echoed that an update to the CDC’s mask guidance was coming to “best reflect the options that are available to people, as you note, and the different levels of protection different masks provide.”

But she also doubled down on refusing to endorse a certain type of mask, instead repeating that the “best” masks are those that individuals will wear continuously in indoor settings.

“We are updating information on our mask website to provide information to the public,” she said. “We will provide information on improved filtration that occurs with other masks, such as N95s, and information that the public needs about how to make a choice of which mask is the right one for them. But most importantly, we want to highlight the best mask for you is the one that you can wear comfortably.”

For context, Bloomberg tells us that

The omicron variant represents about 98% of cases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday. That number is based on data for the week ending Jan. 8 and is a significant increase from just two weeks prior, when omicron accounted for 71.3% of cases. 

Omicron’s heightened transmissibility coupled with the immunity some have built to combat the delta through vaccination and exposure, have made conditions favor the “more mild” variant, said David Wohl, a professor at the Institute of Global Health and Infectious Diseases at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. But experts warn that for those who remain unvaccinated or who suffer from other health concerns, infection from any Covid-19 variant is a major concern. 

For even additional context, Bloomberg informs us that

Switzerland joined Spain and the U.K. in suggesting that the coronavirus pandemic may be shifting to an endemic phase. 

From the COVID vaccine front, Bloomberg reports that

Almost all teenagers who needed intensive care for Covid-19 were unvaccinated, according to a study published by the New England Journal of Medicine, bolstering the case for using the Pfizer-BioNTech shot in youths.

The vaccine prevented 98% of ICU visits and 94% of Covid-related hospitalizations in the real-world study of more than 1,000 adolescents ages 12 to 18 in 23 states. The research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a network of 31 hospitals is one is one of the most detailed yet showing that vaccines can prevent severe Covid complications in teenagers.

Following up on yesterday’s proposed national Medicare coverage determination on Aduhelm, Healthcare Finance News provides stakeholder perspectives on that decision. STAT News points out that because the CMS decision, if finalized would apply to all drugs under development to treat Alzheimers Disease that fall into the same drug class as Aduhelm — monoclonal antibody, the proposed decision is bad news for several of Biogen’s competitors too.

Both Eli Lilly and Roche have such treatments in the works, and Biogen has still two more, developed in partnership with Eisai, as well. All of those drug makers now have a big incentive to pressure Medicare to loosen the restrictions in the final version of its policy, which is due out this April.

“While so much of the focus has been on what this means for [the Biogen drug], this recommendation impacts an entire class of drug and is likely to result in a more aligned effort by stakeholders as they try to influence the final version,” said a consultant for different drug makers, including Biogen.

“All of the other companies have to start over,” said George Vradenburg, the founder of the advocacy group UsAgainstAlzheimer’s. “This now applies to three drugs that, in fact, might be better.”

In other healthcare news —

  • Fierce Healthcare reports on the third day of the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference.
  • Health Affairs discusses how to create a stronger Medicare.
  • The director of NIH’s Heal Inititiative which focuses on substance use disorders / overdose deaths offers her ideas on the new year.
  • Forbes reports that “Walgreens Boots Alliance will have more than 160 of its doctor-staffed Village Medical clinics open next to drugstores by the end of this year.”

In Postal Service news, Govexec reports that

The U.S. Postal Service on Wednesday elected a new Republican chairman of its governing board, elevating one of President Trump’s appointees over President Biden’s picks.  

Roman Martinez, who joined the USPS board of governors in 2019, will serve as the panel’s 25th chairman. Anton Hajjar, a former American Postal Workers Union official nominated to his post by Biden, will serve as vice chairman. The board members voted unanimously for the leadership positions at a meeting on Wednesday. * * *

The new chairman has been an ally of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, defending his controversial decisions, endorsing his 10-year plan to improve postal finances through, among other things, service cuts and price hikes, and calling him the right leader for the Postal Service. Hajjar, meanwhile, has voiced a lukewarm response to DeJoy’s tenure. The new vice chairman has said, however, that there was “a lot to like” in DeJoy’s plan, despite having reservations over some provisions.  * * *

DeJoy said on Wednesday he has “benefited from Martinez’s broad experience and wise counsel throughout my tenure as postmaster general and especially during the development of the Delivering for America plan.”

Keeping DeJoy in charge and one of his allies in charge of the board raises the prospect for sweeping postal reform legislation to make its way through Congress, with a House bill so far earning only tepid Republican support. 

It’s worth noting too that at 10 am ET tomorrow the U.S. Supreme Court will release decisions in pending cases which could include a stay of the OSHA ETS as OSHA began the enforcement clock on that measure last Monday.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID Data Tracker and using Thursday as the first day of the week, here is the FEHBlog chart of weekly new COVID cases for the end of June 2021 through the first week of 2022:

Omicron has produced a staggering number of new COVID cases while the number of weekly new COVID deaths has remained with a stable range for several months.

The Wall Street Journal offers an lab test based explanation for Omicron’s mild nature:

The threat posed by the Omicron variant has now come into sharper focus, with recent clinical data and laboratory studies lending support to early reports suggesting that it is milder but more transmissible than other variants of the new coronavirus.

“It spreads very, very fast, but it doesn’t appear to have the virulence or machismo to really pack as much of a wallop as the Alpha or Delta variants,” James Musser, chairman of Houston Methodist Hospital’s pathology and genomic medicine department and the leader of a new study of Omicron infections, said of the variant.

Recent laboratory studies suggest that Omicron’s lower virulence may reflect its apparent tendency to thrive in cells in the upper respiratory tract rather than in the lungs, where Covid-19 infections can cause potentially fatal breathing problems.

That’s a reassuring tidbit.

Here’s the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of COVID vaccinations from the 51st week of 2020 through the 1st week of 2022:

Throughout the holiday period the number of administered vaccinations averaged six million which is impressive. Nearly two thirds of Americans aged five years and older are fully vaccinated and half of Americans aged 50 and older also have received a booster.

Here are a link to the CDC’s interpretation of its COVID statistics and a link to the CDC’s Fluview.

From the Supreme Court front, the Wall Street Journal reports that

A majority of Supreme Court justices expressed skepticism Friday of the Biden administration’s Covid-19 vaccine-or-testing plan for large employers but somewhat less concern about a vaccination mandate for healthcare workers, in a special [four hour long] session that examined the scope of the federal government’s powers during a fast-moving pandemic.

The Court focused its attention whether the issuing agency has necessary authority to issue its broad mandate. The Court should issue a decision within a month. The Wall Street Journal adds

The Supreme Court took up the vaccine lawsuits with alacrity, acting shortly before Christmas to add a rare Friday argument to its docket, ahead of the year’s first scheduled cases. Some parts of the OSHA rules begin to take effect next week, though the agency is waiting until next month to enforce Covid-19 testing requirements. Several justices signaled the court would seek to rule quickly—and potentially could put the requirements for private employers on hold temporarily for at least a few days to give themselves time to digest the case.

From the Medicare front, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released a proposed rule with 2023 updates to the Medicare Advantage and Medicare Part D programs. Here are links to the CMS fact sheet and a Fierce Healthcare article on this development. Of note, Fierce Healthcare tells us that

The proposal takes a major aim at price concessions that Part D plans extract from drug makers, but does not affect rebates negotiated between drug makers and insurers. Under the concessions, the plan pays less money to a pharmacy if it doesn’t meet several metrics. CMS is concerned, however, that the end-user doesn’t know about the arrangement and the lower prices are not passed on at the point-of-sale.

The proposed rule also said that the negotiated prices “typically do not reflect any performance-based pharmacy price concessions that lower the price a sponsor ultimately pays for the drug.”

The proposed rule wants to require all Part D plans to apply the concessions at the pharmacy counter.

Fierce Healthcare also calls attention to the November 2020 Kaufmann Hall report on hospital service utilization.

Hospital volumes softened in November overall as operating margins remain depressed, signaling that once again consumers could be delaying or avoiding care due to the pandemic, a new report from consulting firm Kaufman Hall found.

The firm released Tuesday its latest hospital flash report detailing revenues and volumes for November before the omicron-fueled surge of COVID-19 took hold. The report found hospitals are still facing major pressures from rising expenses and labor shortages. * * *

Kaufman found that hospital volumes softened in November, with discharges dropping nearly 5% and adjusted discharges by 3.9% compared to the month before. Discharges were also down 6.1% compared with pre-pandemic levels.

Meanwhile, the average length of stay at hospitals increased by 0.8% compared to October and 8.6% compared with November 2019.

The report estimates consumers could be postponing non-COVID-19 care.  

“The potential impact of the omicron variant in future months may influence this trend further,” Kaufman’s analysis said.

Thursday Miscellany

From the Omicron front, the American Hospital Association offers its January 2022 monthly COVID snapshot. “The COVID-19 Snapshot is the American Hospital Association’s look at what America’s hospitals and frontline workers are facing as they provide care during the public health emergency.”

From the COVID testing front, the FEHBlog commends this 20 minute long Wall Street Journal podcast on why at home COVID tests are so hard to find.

In that regard STAT News offers a report on a

new study raises significant doubts about whether at-home rapid antigen tests can detect the Omicron variant before infected people can transmit the virus to others.

The study looks at 30 people from settings including Broadway theaters and offices in New York and San Francisco where some workers were not only being tested daily but were, because of rules at their workplaces, receiving both the antigen tests and a daily test that used the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, which is believed to be more reliable.

On days 0 and 1 following a positive PCR test, all of the antigen tests used produced false-negative results, even though in 28 of the 30 cases, levels of virus detected by the PCR test were high enough to infect other people. In four cases, researchers were able to confirm that infected people transmitted the virus to others during the period before they had a positive result on the rapid antigen test.

This study suggests to the FEHBlog that one rapid at home tests are still useful to help decide whether to end an isolation or quartine period at five days or once available whether or not a COVID pill should be taken. However, one use of a rapid at home test may not be so reliable to help decide whether or not to enter a gathering. In fairness to Abott and Quickvue, both manufacturers include two tests in each kit so that the test can be repeated a couple days later. If you are using these at home tests follow the manufacturers’ instructions.

From the COVID vaccine mandate front, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit on January 5 upheld by a 2-1 vote a regional stay on the Biden Administration’s government contractor mandate. As you know the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit is considering a nationwide stay on that mandate after deciding the stay may remain in place pending the Court’s final decision on that matter.

On Friday morning the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether or not to maintain stays on the Biden Administation’s healthcare worker vaccination mandate and its OHSA ETS vaccinate or test program for employers with 100 or more employees. The Supreme Court allows the public to listen to the oral argument or read the transcript. The proceedings will begin at 10 am ET. The FEHBlog expects a decision from the Court in this accelerated proceeding next month.

On the private sector initiated vaccine front, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) adds that

​Employers are on safer legal footing terminating employees for violating mandatory vaccination policies than imposing lesser punishments, legal experts advise. They say employers should not opt, for example, to withhold pay raises, make only vaccinated workers eligible to apply for internal positions or promote only vaccinated employees.

Many lower courts have upheld employers’ mandatory vaccination policies, which, unlike the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s emergency temporary standard, aren’t yet before the Supreme Court, though the court may address them in passing.

On the human resources front —

  • SHRM offers 2022 guidance and reminders for benefit and compensation managers.
  • Govexec digs into the details of the President’s recent executive order adjusting federal employee compensation for 2022.

From the healthcare business front —

Healthcare Dive tells us that

Value-based primary care provider Vera Whole Health has announced plans to acquire health data and navigation company Castlight in a deal valued at approximately $370 million.

The transaction, which will bring a value-based care model to the employer healthcare market by integrating Castlight’stechnology with Vera’s clinical network and medical workers, is structured as an all-cash tender offer under which Vera will acquire all of Castlight’s outstanding shares.

Vera’s majority equity holder, Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, has committed to invest up to $338 million in the combination, while major health insurer Anthem (a long-time Castlight customer) has also pledged to make an investment, the size of which has yet to be disclosed.

Fierce Healthcare reports that

Magellan Healthcare has partnered with NeuroFlow to launch a digital emotional well-being program accessible to all Magellan members. 

The program went live at the start of the new year and aims to be a self-help tool, enabling members to take charge of their own mental health and build confidence and stress-management skills. NeuroFlow supplies the technology via a member-facing platform, which can be accessed either via an iOS or Android app or web browser. 

Members who use the platform can access exercises that are meant to keep them engaged and can receive recommendations for resources based on their needs. Activities include evidence-based videos, behavioral trackers and digital cognitive behavioral therapy programs developed by Magellan. The program can also refer members to a care manager or therapist.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year 2022 from

Welcome 2022!!

  • Federal Benefits Open Season changes took effect yesterday for annuitants and today for employees.
  • The Senate reconvenes for the second session of the 117th Congress tomorrow. The Wall Street Journal reminds us that “The Senate returns for a new session on Monday with Democrats focused on trying to change the chamber’s rules to muscle through elections legislation over Republican opposition, as lawmakers also hope to revive President Biden’s stalled economic and climate agenda.” The Senate also will hold some Committee business this week.
  • The House of Representatives reconvenes on January 10, a week from tomorrow.
  • The Supreme Court will hear oral argument on Friday January 7 about whether or not to stay the OSHA ETS creating a COVID vaccination or testing program for business with 100 or more employees and the CMS vaccination mandate for most healthcare workers.
  • From the Omicron front, David Leonhardt writing in the New York Times illustrates with charts why we have reason to hope that the pandemic will become endemic / a part of life rather than gripping our lives in 2022.

[W]hen the current surge begins receding, it will likely have left a couple of silver linings: Omicron is so contagious that it will have infected a meaningful share of the population, increasing the amount of Covid immunity and helping defang the virus. Omicron has also helped focus Americans on the importance of booster shots, further increasing immunity.

As important, the world has more powerful weapons to fight Covid than it did only a few weeks ago: two new post-infection treatments, one from Merck and a more powerful one from Pfizer, that lower the risk of hospitalization and death. With Pfizer’s treatment, the reduction is by almost 90 percent, according to early research trials.

All of which suggests that the U.S. could emerge from the Omicron wave significantly closer to the only plausible long-term future for Covid — one in which it becomes an endemic disease and a more normal part of daily life. It will still cause illness and death; a typical flu season kills more than 30,000 Americans, most of them elderly. For the foreseeable future, battling Covid — through vaccination, treatment and research — will remain important.

The FEHBlog heartily agrees with these sentiments.

Weekend update

Photo by Jessica Delp on Unsplash

Congress has lowered the curtain on the first session of the current two year long Congress, the 117th in our Nation’s history.

Roll Call reports that

Sen. Joe Manchin III said on Sunday that he can’t support the sweeping social safety net and climate change package that President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders have made their top legislative priority.

The West Virginia Democrat’s opposition is likely the final nail in the massive $2 trillion-plus “Build Back Better” legislation given the Senate’s 50-50 split, unless extensive changes are made that would result in key provisions being scuttled.

“I can’t vote for it and I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation,” Manchin told “Fox News Sunday.” “I just can’t. I’ve tried everything humanly possible.  I can’t get there … This is a ‘no.’ “

Of course, the legislative struggle over the BBB bill is not over but at least we should enjoy a peaceful holiday period.

From the Omicron front, Bloomberg reports that

Lockdowns in the U.S. will likely not be necessary even as Covid-19 cases increase, according to President Joe Biden’s top medical adviser, Anthony Fauci. Even so, many hospitals may be strained as the omicron variant spreads, especially in regions with lower levels of vaccination, he said. 

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called on the federal government to step up supplies of tests and treatments to the city amid a spike in infections caused by the omicron variant. New York state broke a record for new infections for the third consecutive day.

From the COVID mandate challenge front —

Since last Wednesday

  • The Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals lifted the nationwide stay on the CMS healthcare provider COVID vaccine mandate, but left the stay in place for 24 states which had obtained their own stays. The federal government has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to lift the stays applicable to those 24 states. The Supreme Court has allowed the respondent states until December 30, 2021, to respond to the federal government’s motion.
  • The American Hospital Association (“AHA”) reports in the wake of the Court action that “CMS’s website states that CMS “has suspended activities related to the implementation and enforcement of [the mandate] pending future developments in the litigation.” AHA has confirmed with CMS that this statement applies nationwide and remains accurate even after the Fifth Circuit’s order staying the nationwide effect of the Louisiana district court’s preliminary injunction. 
  • The Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals lifted the nationwide stay on the OSHA ETS COVID vaccination screening program. The State of Georgia has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate the stay.
  • The American Hospital Association reports again in the wake of the Court action that “OSHA has announced that it is ‘exercising enforcement discretion with respect to the compliance dates of the’ mandate. OSHA states that ‘it will not issue citations for noncompliance with any requirements of the [mandate] before January 10 and will not issue citations for noncompliance with the [mandate’s] testing requirements before February 9, so long as an employer is exercising reasonable, good faith efforts to come into compliance with the standard.’ OSHA has also promised to ‘work closely with the regulated community to provide compliance assistance.’”
  • The Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the nationwide stay on the government contractor mandate. The federal government is expected to ask the Supreme Court to lift this stay tomorrow.
  • It certainly appears that all three mandate issues will be presented to the Supreme Court simultaneously. 

In Affordable Care Act news, CMS announced on Friday that

Health insurers have provided approximately $2 billion in rebates for the 2020 reporting year to an estimated 9.8 million consumers, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is announcing today. Insurers were generally required to provide such rebates and notice of any rebates owed to consumers no later than September 30, 2021. Rebate payments can be provided in the form of a premium credit, lump-sum check, or, if a consumer paid the premium using a credit card or direct debit, by lump-sum reimbursement to the account used to pay the premium.

CMS released a list today of all insurers owing Medical Ratio Loss (MLR) rebates for the 2020 reporting year, with total amounts by state and market. The CMS market breakdown estimate includes approximately 4.8 million consumers in the individual market and 5 million employees in the group market (this represents 2.6 million employees in the small group market, and 2.4 million employees in the large group market). 

Today’s release also includes the Public Use Files (PUFs) containing the data from all health insurers’ final MLR filings for the 2020 reporting year. 

For more information visit:

Link to PUFs here:

If federal employee compensation news, Govexec tells us that

[Last] week, the President’s Pay Agent, which is made up of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, Acting Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young and Office of Personnel Management Director Kiran Ahuja, issued its annual report ahead of President Biden’s executive order finalizing an average 2.7% pay raise in 2022. The pay agent declined to issue waivers based on a locality’s number of authorized positions, but approved Carroll County’s addition to the Davenport, Iowa, locality pay area due to the fact that it recently has met the 2,500 employee threshold.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID data tracker and using Thursday as the first day of the week, here is the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new COVID cases for 2021:

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

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

The Wall Street Journal adds that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wall Street Journal notes that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Capitol Hill front, FedWeek informs us that

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

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

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

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

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

From the judicial front

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

From the healthcare business front —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weekend update

Photo by Tomasz Filipek on Unsplash

The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate continue to be engaged in Committee business and floor voting this week which should be a humdinger on Capitol Hill. The Wall Street Journal sums the situation up as follows:

Congress Heads Into Tumultuous Week Pressured by Converging Deadlines
Government shutdown, debt ceiling loom as Democratic leaders plan votes on multitrillion-dollar spending ambitions

The Supreme Court prepares for the opening of its October 2021 term on October 4. Amy Howe informs us

The Supreme Court announced on Tuesday that oral arguments will follow a slightly different plan when the justices return to the courtroom for in-person arguments next month. Instead of reverting entirely to the traditional “free for all” format for asking questions, the justices will adopt a hybrid approach that sets aside time for the justices to take turns asking questions, just as they did when hearing oral arguments by telephone during the pandemic. The change appears to increase the chances that Justice Clarence Thomas, who was rarely heard in the courtroom but was an active participant in remote arguments, will continue to participate when in-person arguments resume.

How collegial.

We also can look forward to the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Treasury as well as OPM issuing the second big No Surprises Act interim final rule this week. The statutory deadline for releasing this rule concerning the independent dispute resolution process is Friday October 1.

From the Delta variant front

  • Both CVS Health and Walgreen’s have announced that their multitude of pharmacies are offering the Pfizer booster to all eligible folks.
  • If you noticed the articles recently reporting that the number of COVID-19 deaths in America exceeds the 1918 flu pandemic, check out this Health Affairs blog article from last April debunking this apples to oranges comparison.

In any event check out this Health Payer Intelligence article on three strategies for sustaining payer innovation momentum post-pandemic. “The coronavirus pandemic resulted in accelerated payer innovation and payers can continue that momentum by identifying opportunities, involving members, and using data effectively.”

Friday Stats and More

Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s (“CDC”) improved COVID-19 Data Tracker website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 14th week of 2020 through 26th week of this year (beginning April 2, 2020, and ending June 30, 2021; using Thursday as the first day of the week in order to facilitate this weekly update):

and here is the CDC’s latest overall weekly hospitalization rate chart for COVID-19:

The FEHBlog has noticed that the new cases and deaths chart shows a flat line for new weekly deaths  because new cases significantly exceed new deaths. Accordingly here is a chart of new COVID-19 deaths over the period (April 2, 2020, through June 30, 2022):

Finally here is a COVID-19 vaccinations chart over the period December 17, 2020, through June 30, 2022 which also uses Thursday as the first day of the week:

In its weekly COVID-19 update the CDC reminds us that

The emergence and spread of variants also have the potential to chip away at our nation’s progress to end this pandemic. On June 15, 2021, CDC announced classification of the SARS-CoV-2 variant B.1.617.2 (Delta) as a variant of concern because it spreads more easily. The spread of the more transmissible B.1.617.2 variant combined with the U.S. population that remains unvaccinated leaves many people at risk of infection. With B.1.617.2 now spreading across the country and infecting people worldwide, it’s more important than ever that all eligible people get vaccinated as soon as possible.

The COVID-19 vaccines authorized for use in the United States offer protection against all known variants, including the B.1.617.2 variant. Getting vaccinated will protect you and the people you love. COVID-19 vaccines are free and available for everyone ages 12 and up. They are nearly 100% effective against severe disease and death, meaning nearly every death due to COVID-19 is preventable. No matter your age, or your health history, until you’re fully vaccinated*—you are at risk of infection. By getting vaccinated and encouraging those around you to do the same, you can safely engage in activities you enjoyed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Get vaccinated, help others get vaccinated, and use prevention measures if not fully vaccinated so we can all celebrate our freedom from the virus.

Also from the COVID-19 front Becker’s Payer Issues reports that

The Vaccine Community Connectors program, which was launched by AHIP and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, has helped vaccinate more than 2 million people over 65 against COVID-19 in under 100 days, according to a July 1 news release.

More than 50 health insurers are now participating in the program, which was initiated to expand vaccination efforts of people in low-income communities.

“The most vulnerable people in our country have suffered disproportionately from the COVID-19 crisis, which is why we have been working side-by-side with industry partners to help millions of vulnerable Americans get vaccinated against the virus,” BCBSA CEO Kim Keck said in the statement.

Bravo! Health Payer Intelligence reports on how employers can best assist the nationwide vaccination campaign.

Seventy-three percent of workers whose employers encouraged them to receive the coronavirus vaccine had at least one vaccine shot. Additionally, 75 percent of those who received paid time off to get the vaccine have gotten at least one shot.

In contrast, only four in ten of those whose employers did not encourage employees to get vaccinated had received a coronavirus vaccine shot. Similarly, half of those whose employers did not provide paid time off to get the vaccine reported that they had received the coronavirus vaccine.

These distinctions remained true regardless of variations in race, age, ethnicity, income, and even regardless of whether the individual identified as Republican or Democrat.

In the more news category:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court today added two healthcare cases to its October 2021 docket. According to Law360, the Court “agreed to review whether the federal government lawfully cut billions of dollars from reimbursements for drugs bought through a discount program for hospitals in low-income areas, as well as a reimbursement calculation for hospitals that serve a high amount of low-income individuals.”
  • Benefits Pro reports that “Under pressure to rein in skyrocketing prescription drug costs, states are targeting companies that serve as conduits for drug manufacturers, health insurers and pharmacies. More than 100 separate bills regulating those companies, known as pharmacy benefit managers, have been introduced in 42 states this year, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy, which crafts model legislation on the topic. The flood of bills comes after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling late last year backed Arkansas’ right to enforce rules on the companies. At least 12 of the states have adopted new oversight laws. But it’s not yet clear how much money consumers will save immediately, if at all.” The source of the cost problem is not the PBMs who work with health plans to control costs. The PBMs vastly expanded prescription drug coverage for Americans. The sources of the cost problem are the manufacturers and wholesales. All these new state law simply adds more costs to the drug distribution process in the FEHBlog’s view.
  • Becker’s Payer Issues explains how the BCBSA chief innovation officer seeks to transform healthcare one step at a time. Good luck to her. The FEHBlog loves her title.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

Bloomberg has released its latest COVID-19 resilience ranking.

Almost a year and a half into the pandemic, the best and worst places to be in the Covid-19 era are increasingly defined by one thing: normalization.

The biggest vaccination drive in history is enabling parts of the globe to abolish mask mandates, relax restrictions and dismantle border curbs, making the magnitude of reopening key to quality of life. Taming cases and deaths was once paramount, along with ensuring a robust health-care system. Now, the ability to essentially turn back the clock and return to pre-pandemic times is taking on an even greater significance.

Central to that is an economy’s openness to the world, and that’s why we’ve introduced a new element—Reopening Progress—to Bloomberg’s Covid Resilience Ranking. Two new metrics capture the ease of moving in and out of a place and how much air travel has recovered, alongside our 10 other measures tracking mortality rates to infection counts, freedom of movement to economic growth.

This pivot has ushered in dramatic changes to the ranks. The U.S. is now No. 1, with its fast and expansive vaccine rollout, dominated by the highly effective Messenger RNA shots, stemming what was once the world’s worst outbreak.

The U.S. Supreme Court today according to Fierce Healthcare

declined to hear an appeal of a lower court decision upholding the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS’) site-neutral payments policy.

The appeal was requested by the American Hospital Association (AHA) in February as part of a multiyear legal battle challenging HHS’ authority to bring Medicare payments to off-campus clinics in line with independent physician practices. The AHA’s bid was supported by a long list of other provider industry stakeholders.

By taking a pass on the case, the top court has now paved the way for HHS to move forward with the 2019 Outpatient Prospective Payment System rule—a policy the agency has said would have saved the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services roughly $800 million in payments to outpatient departments during 2020. * * *

HHS’ rule aims to remove payment disparities where hospital-affiliated clinics receive more Medicare reimbursement than physicians’ offices providing the same services. Researchers have suggested over the years that these disparities have played a part in provider consolidation.

Also today the Department of Health and Human Services released a third notice of Affordable Care Act Benefit and Payment Parameters as a proposed rule. Fierce Healthcare informs us that the proposed rule would set the ACA’s open season at an expanded November 1 through January 15 and also would allow exchanges to offer special enrollment periods for low income customers who may benefit from the American Rescue Plan’s expanded premium credits. Health Payer Intelligence discusses two impacts from the current ongoing special ACA open enrollment period which runs until August 15.

In other round up items

  • The ICD-10 Monitor tells us that the Centers for Disease Control released new ICD-10-CM codes for federal fiscal year 2022 which include 19 new social determinants of health codes in the “Z” chapter. Many of these new “Z” codes are attributable to the Gravity Project which is an HL7 FHIR accelerator organization.
  • The Wall Street Journal discusses what doctors want their patients to know about the new Alzheimer’s disease drug Aduhelm. For example, “The treatment would work over years, not weeks or months. Dr. [Paul] Aisen estimates that patients with mild cognitive impairment, which is often a precursor to dementia, might get an extra year or two before they start losing their ability to function independently.”
  • Fierce Healthcare reports that

Future demand for healthcare services will be relatively flat to declining, with little to no effect from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new forecast report.

At the same time, hospitals and health systems are facing increasing competition from consumer businesses such as Amazon and Walmart, retail behemoths that are rapidly expanding the supply of healthcare services.

The implications of softening demand and increasing supply suggest that pricing trends are ultimately unsustainable for healthcare providers, according to a new report from health system analytics company Trilliant Health.

The company’s analysis, based on 70 billion medical claims across 309 million patient visits, contradicts the commonly held belief that the demand for healthcare services nationwide is rising, according to Sanjula Jain, Ph.D., senior vice president of market strategy and chief research officer at Trilliant Health.

Time will tell.