Monday Roundup

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

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

Most people would get one Covid-19 shot annually—as they do with the flu shot—under Food and Drug Administration proposals for simplifying the nation’s Covid-19 vaccine procedures.

The drug regulator also proposed that people getting vaccinated for the first time receive vaccines that target both Omicron and the original strain of the coronavirus. 

The proposals, outlined in materials the FDA released Monday, would mark the biggest changes to Covid-19 vaccinations since boosters rolled out and are a sign of the nation’s shift to a more endemic-like approach to the coronavirus.

Vaccine experts who advise the FDA are scheduled to meet Thursday to discuss the proposals. The advisers are scheduled to vote on whether to give the bivalent shot as the initial inoculation, as is already allowed in Europe.

Makes sense to the FEHBlog.

From the OPM front, the House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) has sent OPM Director Kiran Ahuja a letter demanding documents and a staff briefing on the recent GAO report criticizing OPM’s internal controls over family member eligibility in the FEHBP. Here’s a little free advice for my favorite agency. Rather than coming up with your own solutions, adopt solutions that have been proven to work in the private sector — the HIPAA 820 standard enrollment transaction which ties premium payments to enrollees and dependent eligibility verification audits based on statistical sampling.

From the U.S. healthcare business front —

Fierce Healthcare informs us

Elevance Health has inked a deal to acquire Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana, with the Pelican State insurer joining the Anthem Blue Cross affiliated plans.

The acquisition builds on an existing partnership between the two insurers, according to the announcement. The two jointly own Healthy Blue, a plan that serves Medicaid and dual-eligible beneficiaries. 

The combination will also allow BCBSLA to accelerate its push toward improved access, affordability and quality for its 1.9 million members, thanks to the capabilities of Elevance Health’s Carelon subsidiary, the companies said. More than $4 billion has been invested in Carelon over the past several years, building out its behavioral health, complex and chronic care programs and digital health models.


CVS Health has named two key leaders for its pharmacy and consumer products business, including a returning face to the company, according to a report from Bloomberg.

David Joyner, a former executive at the company, will make a return as the leader of its pharmacy services segment, which includes the Caremark pharmacy benefit manager, people familiar with the matter told the outlet. Joyner left CVS three years ago and will succeed Alan Lotvin, M.D., who is set to retire.

In addition, former Express Scripts President Amy Bricker will join the company as the chief product officer for the consumer segment, which centers on developing new products for CVS’ consumer health brands, Bloomberg reported.

Fierce Healthcare points out a twist in the second story.

That Bricker had departed Express Scripts, a subsidiary of Cigna, was revealed last week when the PBM announced it had named a new president, veteran supply chain leader Adam Kautzner. What was next for Bricker, however, was conspicuously absent from the announcement.

The FEHBlog often counsels clients on Family and Medical Leave Act issues. He had no idea until today that the Labor Department offers helpful information to healthcare provider and employees on this law. For example,

This background information can fill knowledge gaps for employers too.

From the Rx coverage front —

  • The Washington Post reports on the reaction to “the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines, based on decades of scientific research, call[ing] for early and aggressive treatment, instead of “watchful waiting.” They urge intensive therapy for children as young as 6, weight loss drugs for those as young as 12 and surgery for teens as young as 13.”
  • The Institute for Clinical and Economic Research released a

Final Evidence Report on Fezolinetant for Vasomotor Symptoms Associated with Menopause

— Independent appraisal committee voted that evidence is not yet adequate to demonstrate a net health benefit for fezolinetant when compared to no pharmacological treatment —

—  Using point estimates from short-term clinical trials, analyses suggest this drug would achieve common thresholds for cost-effectiveness if priced between $2,000 – $2,600 per year for women who cannot or choose not to take menopausal hormone therapy —

— All stakeholders have a responsibility and an important role to play in ensuring that women have access to effective new treatment options for symptoms of menopause

The ICER upshot is “Given that many patients may benefit from readily available, effective, and low cost [menopausal hormone therapy] MHT, clinical experts agreed that it would be reasonable for payers to require prescriber attestation that patients are not appropriate candidates for MHT prior to prescribing fezolinetant.”

From the SDOH front, Health Leaders Media tells us about new ICD-10 diagnosis codes with an SDOH emphasis which will take effect on April 1, 2023.

From the telehealth front, U.S. News reports,

Despite distance and occasional technical glitches, a new study finds that most patients like seeing a surgeon for the first time via video.

The study was published Jan. 19 in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons. * * *

The study included 387 patients who participated in first-time visits between May 2021 and June 2022 at general surgery clinics across the Vanderbilt system. Researchers used a standard questionnaire to look at the quality of shared decision-making and asked patients and surgeons open-ended questions about their consultations.

In all, 77.8% of patients had an in-person visit, while 22.2% saw their doctor remotely.

Both groups reported high levels of quality communication during these appointments.

Levels of shared decision-making and quality of communication were similar between remote visits and in-person care, the study found.

In responding to the open-ended questions, patients praised the convenience and usefulness of telehealth appointments. Researchers received some negative comments about technical difficulties and not being physically present.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Politico reports tonight

Top appropriators struck a deal Tuesday night on a government funding framework critical to finalizing a mammoth year-end spending package.

In a statement, retiring Senate Appropriations Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said appropriators have “reached a bipartisan, bicameral framework that should allow us to finish an omnibus appropriations bill that can pass the House and Senate and be signed into law by the President.”

Leading negotiators didn’t release those government funding totals in announcing the deal, but appropriators have largely settled on an $858 billion defense budget in recent weeks.

That’s good news. Presumably, Congress still plans to extend the continuing resolution from December 16 to December 23 this week in order to allow time to write and pass the omnibus bill.

From the Omicron and siblings front, Healthcare Dive reports that

In the two years since the COVID-19 vaccine became available for U.S. patients, the country’s vaccination program prevented more than 18.5 million hospitalizations and 3.2 million deaths, according to new research from the Commonwealth Fund and Yale School of Public Health.

Many millions of infections were prevented, preserving hospital resources for patients who otherwise would not have received timely care, the researchers said. The vaccine also saved the country $1.15 trillion in medical costs, kept children in school and allowed businesses to reopen, the study said. 

To arrive at its findings, the study used a computer model of disease transmission, comparing the pandemic trajectory to a simulated scenario without a vaccination program. The results can be used to inform future evidence-based decisions on vaccine use to reduce disease burden, the researchers said.

The FEHBlog has no doubt that the rapidly developed mRNA vaccines pulled us out of a jam in winter 2020 while Paxlovid and other anti-virals saved us from the monstrous Omicron surge in winter 2021.

From the CMS front —

  • CMS has activated the Ground Ambulance and Patient Billing Advisory Committee required by the No Surprises Act. The Committee’s report likely will be released in the second quarter of 2023.
  • CMS released a readout from “We Can Do Better: Advancing Maternity Care Together – the first CMS convening on maternal health since the agency launched its Maternity Care Action plan in July 2022 as part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s Blueprint for Addressing the Maternal Health Crisis. Attendees discussed key actions to improve the health of pregnant and postpartum individuals – including the need for a robust and diverse maternity care workforce and the ability for consumers to easily identify health systems engaged in improving maternal care.”
  • CMS also called attention to the “recently released proposed rule that, if finalized, would modify the current National Council for Prescription Drug Programs (NCPDP) retail pharmacy standards for electronic transactions and expand the applicability of the Medicaid pharmacy subrogation transaction to all health plans.”
  • In related news, EHR Intelligence tells us, “In a recent letter, Health Level Seven International (HL7) called on the National Committee on Vital and Health Statistics (NCVHS) to include FHIR as a data standard for electronic clinical attachments. NSG encourages the public to submit comments on the proposed rule by January 9th, 2023.” The original version of HIPAA enacted over 25 years ago called for this attachments standard, which has been a thorn in CMS’s side.

In other HHS news —

  • HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research informs us that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has proposed to keep in place the grade A recommendation “that clinicians prescribe pre-exposure prophylaxis with effective antiretroviral therapy to persons who are at increased risk of HIV acquisition to decrease the risk of acquiring HIV infection.” The original PREP recommendation was made in 2018.
  • The American Hospital Association relates “The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration today proposed updating opioid treatment program standards and admission criteria to expand access to treatment. According to the agency, the rule would expand the definition of OTP practitioner to include any provider appropriately licensed to dispense and/or prescribe approved medications; no longer require one year of opioid addiction for admission; add evidence-based delivery models such as telehealth; expand patient access to take-home methadone doses, and no longer require annual reports from practitioners with a waiver to prescribe buprenorphine to up to 275 patients. The agency will accept comments on the proposed rule through Feb. 14.” That makes sense to the FEHBlog.

From the drug development front —

The Wall Street Journal reports

A customized Moderna Inc. MRNA 19.63%increase; green up pointing triangle vaccine helped ward off the recurrence of melanoma in a mid-stage trial, a milestone in long-running efforts to use the shots as treatments and a big step in the biotech’s ascent.

The combination of Moderna’s personalized cancer vaccine and MerckMRK 1.78%increase; green up pointing triangle & Co.’s Keytruda cancer immunotherapy reduced patients’ risk of relapse or death by about 44%, versus Keytruda alone, in the 150-volunteer study, the companies said Tuesday.

The results, which the companies said were statistically significant but haven’t been reviewed by independent scientists, suggest promise for an emerging but unproven class of vaccines that aim to treat diseases rather than prevent infections like typical shots.

MedCity News reports

Multiple myeloma can be treated by several drugs but relapse in this type of blood cancer is common and when that happens, patients need other treatment options. Johnson & Johnson is looking to fill that need with a drug that addresses a novel target. The pharmaceutical company is seeking regulatory approval for this molecule and the most up to date clinical data supporting the application were presented during the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology (ASH).

Patients in the Phase 1/2 clinical trial had some of the toughest cases that progressed after treatment with at least three different therapies, according to Ajai Chari, director of clinical research in the multiple myeloma program at Mount Sinai and an investigator in the study. Despite that, treatment with the J&J drug, talquetamab, led to response rates of up to 74%.

From the healthcare business front, Fierce Healthcare tells us

Operating margins for the three largest for-profit hospital chains exceeded pre-pandemic levels in the third quarter, according to a new analysis that comes as hospital lobbies are pushing for financial relief from Congress. 

The analysis, released Monday by the Kaiser Family Foundation, looked at the latest financial performance for large hospital chains HCA Healthcare, Tenet Healthcare and Community Health Systems. * * *

Kaiser’s analysis comes a day after The Wall Street Journal published a report that showed hospitals received billions of dollars in aid, with some going to profitable systems that didn’t need it. Part of the problem was a mismatch in the federal government’s allocation of the $175 billion Provider Relief Fund passed by Congress at the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, the report said. 

From the tidbits department, the FEHBlog learned at the ABA Washington Health Law Summit today

  • The third Texas Medical Association case filed November 30 and pending before District Judge Kernodle concerns the manner in which the qualifying payment amount is calculated – a new issue which nevertheless could have been joined to the second lawsuit. Go figure.
  • In 2018, Congress passed a law called the Eliminating Kickbacks in Recovery Act (“EKRA”), 18 U.S.C. § 220. The Epstein, Becker and Green law firm explains, “EKRA initially targeted patient brokering and kickback schemes within the addiction treatment and recovery spaces. However, since EKRA was expansively drafted to also apply to clinical laboratories (it applies to improper referrals for any “service”, regardless of the payor), public as well as private insurance plans and even self-pay patients fall within the reach of the statute.”

Weekend update

Congress remains on the campaign trail this week.

This is Red Ribbon Week, “an ideal way for people and communities to unite and take a visible stand against drugs.”

Speaking of illegal drugs, the Wall Street Journal tells the stories of three “high achieving” New York City dwellers who died on one day in March 2021 due to fentanyl-laced cocaine delivered by a single dealer.

New York City authorities have been warning of the risks of unknowingly taking fentanyl in cocaine and of its increased presence in cocaine seized by police. Health officials put up posters and sent drink coasters to clubs warning cocaine users to start with a small dose and to have naloxone, an opioid reversal drug, on hand to counter an overdose. They are handing out fentanyl testing strips that can be used to test cocaine and other drugs for fentanyl’s presence.

Multiple people died within hours from tainted cocaine in Long Island, N.Y., and in Newport Beach, Calif., last year. Nine were killed in Washington, D.C., in January. Law-enforcement officials said dealers often use coffee grinders or other basic equipment to cut drugs and prepare them for sale, which can result in deadly batches.

From the FEHB front, Tammy Flanagan, writing in Govexec, advises federal and postal employees and annuitants on how to prepare for the upcoming Federal Employee Benefits Open Season. The FEHBlog’s advice is to stack your plan’s summary of benefits and coverage which is available on all FEHB plan websites against other plans in which you are interested. The summary of benefits and coverage, which is an Affordable Care Act requirement, is four double-sided pages including consumer-tested practical information.

From the Omicron and siblings’ front

  • STAT News reports “FDA’s vaccines chief [Peter Marks, MD] sees the possibility of more Covid boosters — sooner than he’d like.”

Pfizer is considering hiking the price of its COVID-19 vaccine by roughly four times what it currently charges as it prepares for sales in the U.S. to shift from government contracts to the private market.

The pharmaceutical company is targeting between $110 and $130 per adult vaccine dose after that transition, said Angela Lukin, Pfizer’s head of global primary care and U.S. president, on an analyst and investor call Thursday.

“We feel confident that this range will be seen as highly cost effective and definitely one that will help to enable and ensure appropriate access and reimbursement to the vaccine,” Lukin said on the call. Discussions with insurers are still in early stages, she added.

No doubt this charming development seeks to pressure Congress to add more federal Covid dollars in the lame-duck session following the November 8 Congressional election.

In other vaccine news, MedPage Today reports

  • The CDC’s vaccine advisors updated their recommendations to clarify when to administer the 20-valent conjugate pneumococcal vaccine (PCV20; Prevnar 20) in adults who previously received the 13-valent conjugate vaccine (PCV13; Prevnar 13).
  • Three doses of hepatitis B vaccine with a cytosine phosphoguanine adjuvant (HepB-CpG; Heplisav-B) notched a perfect mark when it came to seroprotection for people with HIV who had never before been vaccinated against the hepatitis B virus (HBV), early results of a phase III trial showed.

In prescription drug development news, Fierce Healthcare points out “three drugs are set for FDA determinations soon.” The article explains why Optum says payers should take notice.

From the monkeypox front, Medpage Today adds

Cases of monkeypox are continuing to decline in the U.S., but the disease is still disproportionately affecting people of color, a White House official said.

“In the U.S., about 27,635 cases were reported as of yesterday,” Demetre Daskalakis, MD, White House National Monkeypox Response deputy coordinator, said at an online briefing Thursday. “We continue to have a decrease over time — we’re about 85% down from where we were at the peak of the outbreak. So that’s a lot of hopeful news, that we continue to see monkeypox going under better and better control.”

From the mental healthcare front, the Department of Health and Human Services “through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), announced more than $100 million this week in funding from the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA) to states and territories for mental health emergency preparedness, crisis response, and the expansion of 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline services. BSCA, signed into law by President Biden earlier this year, provided unprecedented funding to address the nation’s mental health crisis and make our communities safer.”

From the maternal care front, Health Payer Intelligence informs us Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Michigan has “decided to go beyond traditional maternal healthcare benefits, such as prenatal and postpartum care coverage. They teamed up with a virtual care provider for women and family health, Maven, to offer a suite of solutions that integrated family care and maternal healthcare.”

From the SDOH front, Beckers Payer Issues relates

In a letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and Management and Budget Office Director Shalanda Young, AHIP explained its vision for how demographic data can be improved and standardized across the healthcare system. 

Five things to know about the association’s recommendations for improving demographic data:  

1. Current challenges with demographic data include the lack of specificity for questions on race. AHIP highlights that current census and HHS standards do not include an option for people to identify as Arab, Middle Eastern or North African. Additionally, AHIP recommends options should be tailored to the local area, depending on the populations that live there. 

2. Current demographic questions do not have an “I choose not to respond” option. AHIP advises that a lack of information about how demographic information is used can lead to a lack of trust from patients. 

3. Current regulations that require multiple providers and payers to collect demographic information lead to inconsistent results and greater burden on patients, AHIP says.

4. To reduce burdens on providers and patients, AHIP wants demographic data to be electronic and able to be shared with other places in the healthcare system with patient consent. 

5. AHIP wants a wide range of government agencies to adopt its recommendations for demographic data collection, which include questions on race, ethnicity, language preference, sexual orientation, gender, diability status, veteran status and spirtual beliefs. 

Read the full letter here.

Interesting approach.

From the miscellany department —

  • STAT New discusses weaknesses in traditional Medicare catastrophic coverage. FEHBlog suggests that Congress stop permitting Medicare supplemental plans to impose pre-existing condition limitations unless circumscribed by state law.
  • The Society for Human Resources Management tells us

Employee 401(k) contributions for 2023 will top off at $22,500—a $2,000 increase from the $20,500 cap for 2022—the IRS announced on Oct. 21. Plan participants age 50 or older next year can contribute an additional $7,500, up $1,000 from 2022. * * *

he limit on total employer-plus-employee contributions to defined contribution plans will increase to $66,000 in 2023, up by $5,000 from $61,000 in 2022. “This limit usually increases by $1,000 at a time but now it’s jumping five steps in one year,” Sit said.

The IRS announced the 2023 adjustments for 401(k) and similar defined contribution plans, and for defined benefit pension plan, in Notice 2022-55.

  • The American Hospital Association reports “The AHA and American Medical Association Oct. 19 filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of a Texas Medical Association lawsuit claiming the revised independent dispute resolution process for determining payment for out-of-network services under the No Surprises Act skews the arbitration results in commercial insurers’ favor in ways that violate the compromise Congress reached in the Act.”
  • Business Insurance tells us “The U.S. Department of Justice has asked for more details on CVS Health Corp.’s proposed $8 billion deal to buy Signify Health, in a possible indication that the transaction will face a longer deal review rather than a quick approval, Reuters reports. The deal, announced last month, was expected to face a tough antitrust review even though the two companies do not compete directly in any market, according to experts.”
  • Following up on last Thursday’s post, RSV is a type of common cold according to the CDC.

Midweek update

Photo by Tomasz Filipek on Unsplash

From the Omicron and siblings front —

Novovax announced that

the Novavax COVID-19 Vaccine, Adjuvanted (NVX-CoV2373) has received emergency use authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to provide a first booster dose at least six months after completion of primary vaccination with an authorized or approved COVID-19 vaccine to individuals 18 years of age and older for whom an FDA-authorized mRNA bivalent COVID-19 booster vaccine is not accessible or clinically appropriate, and to individuals 18 years of age and older who elect to receive the Novavax COVID-19 Vaccine, Adjuvanted because they would otherwise not receive a booster dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

“The U.S. now has access to the Novavax COVID-19 Vaccine, Adjuvanted, the first protein-based option, as a booster,” said Stanley C. Erck, President and Chief Executive Officer, Novavax. “According to CDC data, almost 50 percent of adults who received their primary series have yet to receive their first booster dose. Offering another vaccine choice may help increase COVID-19 booster vaccination rates for these adults.”

Reuters adds

Moderna Inc said on Wednesday its COVID-19 vaccine booster targeting the BA.1 subvariant of Omicron generated a strong immune response against that variant, with antibody levels staying high for at least three months.

Omicron-tailored shots by Pfizer Inc  and Moderna are already authorized by regulators in several countries. The United States has given the go-ahead for booster vaccines that target the currently circulating BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of Omicron.

The New York Times provides an update on the new Omicron variants, including this critical point

Fortunately, Paxlovid works against these new variants. The mutations that make them spread so quickly are changes to the surface of the virus where it locks onto cells and where antibodies attach to it. Paxlovid attacks the virus in a different way. It detects the virus after it’s inside the cell and is replicating, and these new subvariants seem to be just as vulnerable to Paxlovid as the earlier variants.

Health Payer Intelligence reports

Federal funding was crucial in enhancing access to coronavirus resources during the initial phases of the pandemic, but questions remain about what will occur when the public health emergency ends and how it will impact consumer healthcare spending, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation brief.

The end of the public health emergency is still undetermined. However, experts have projected that it will end in 2023. The scheduled termination has been pushed back multiple times. Its final termination will signal the end of various flexibilities and protections that have been tied to the declaration.

Additional Covid funding is likely to occur in the Congressional lame-duck session following the November 8 election, in the FEHBlog’s opinion.

From the U.S. healthcare business front —

Fierce Healthcare tells us

Patient volumes continue to remain below pre-pandemic levels for hospitals and health systems this year as COVID-19 likely accelerated a shift to outpatient settings, a new report finds. 

Consulting firm Kaufman Hall released its “2022 Healthcare Performance Improvement” report (PDF), which outlines the barriers hospitals and health systems face in a rough year financially. Another key obstacle continues to be workforce shortages, as more and more facilities shift resources to retain staff. 

“Healthcare leaders must navigate short-term challenges that continue to pressure revenue and expenses, while also adapting organizational strategy to match larger transformations in the way care is delivered,” said Kaufman Hall Managing Director Lance Robinson in a statement on the report. 

and offers a discussion of an expert-touted hybrid approach to compensating primary care providers. In the FEHBlog’s view, adequately paying PCPs is critically important to resolving SDOH and mental health issues adversely impacting our country.

In the regard

  • A National Institutes of Health study uncovered racial disparities in advanced cardiac care.
  • STAT News reports on another SDOH study

When Sarka Lisonkova and her colleagues set out to study disparities in the birth outcomes of people who’ve used methods like IVF, they figured that any inequities that existed would be narrower in this group. After all, it can be expensive to get pregnant with medical assistance, and wealth is tied to better outcomes.

Instead, the researchers reported Wednesday, the racial and ethnic disparities for some metrics were even wider for babies of parents who had used IVF or other fertility treatments than among children who were conceived “spontaneously.”

One key finding: while neonatal mortality rates were twice as high among spontaneously conceived children of Black women versus white women, they were four times as high among infants of Black women conceived through technologies like IVF, according to the researchers’ study, which was published in the journal Pediatrics.

  • The National Committee for Quality Assurance gives us an update on their efforts to stratify HEDIS measures results by racial and ethnic categories.

In other U.S. healthcare business news, Healthcare Dive reports

As the U.S. heads toward a possible recession, Elevance Health CEO Gail Boudreaux said the insurer is preparing for a possible economic decline.

“Certainly we’re mindful of an economic downturn. We’re planning for it in our businesses,” Boudreaux said on a Wednesday call with investors to discuss third-quarter earnings.

Job losses spurred by a recession could cut into commercial enrollment for insurers who generate revenue from selling health coverage to employers of all sizes. About half of the U.S. population relies on employer-based insurance for coverage.

Elevance’s profit climbed to $1.6 billion for the third quarter, a 7% increase compared with the prior-year period on a bigger membership base of 47.3 million members.

Becker’s Payer Issues tells us

Despite little growth in the cost of medical services over the last year, inflation has finally caught up with healthcare.

As of September, medical services costs have risen 6.5 percent year over year, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report released Oct. 13. 

Analysts like Fitch have said the rise in costs will lead to payers raising insurance premiums across the board because of the growing cost pressures on providers, including workforce disruptions.

Studies have already confirmed employers are preparing for higher healthcare expenditures next year because of inflation. Aon analysts said Aug. 18 that U.S. employers’ healthcare costs are expected to rise by an average of 6.5 percent, or $13,800 per employee, in 2023.

“The only 100 percent sure way to keep within budget as the medical industry (especially hospitals) demand more and more is to raise premiums, increase deductibles, higher copays and coinsurance,” James Gelfand, president of the ERISA Industry Committee, told The Washington Post Oct. 14. “Employers hate to do this, but the medical-industrial complex demands an ever-increasing share of workers’ wages.”

The rise in insurance costs could begin to appear when employees sign up for employer-sponsored coverage during their next enrollment period, a trend that could continue through at least 2024, according to the Post.

STAT News reports

A large commercial insurer’s decision to cover a controversial class of software-based treatments for psychiatric and other conditions could prove to be a landmark moment in the development of these so-called prescription digital therapeutics, which until now had been unable to secure coverage from insurers skeptical that the new technologies are as effective as their makers claim.

Pittsburgh-based Highmark quietly put in place a policy in August describing when these treatments may be “medically necessary,” which paves the way for the health insurer to be the first to cover the category for a population of millions of members.

The policy indicates Highmark’s intention to pay for claims only for prescription digital therapeutics cleared by the Food and Drug Administration when prescribed by a clinician within the appropriate specialty and used as indicated on product labels. Highmark is currently negotiating with product developers about how much it will pay for individual treatments and over details such as what constitutes an “episode of care,” said Matt Fickie, a senior director at Highmark, which has 6 million members in Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia, and New York. “That’s the part that is sticky and that requires additional work,” he told STAT.

From the Rx coverage front —

STAT News informs us

After an extraordinary three-day hearing, an expert panel of advisers to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration voted on Wednesday to uphold an effort by the regulator to withdraw a controversial drug for preventing premature births.

The 14-to-1 vote came after the agency and Covis Pharma, the manufacturer of the drug, offered highly contrasting views of reams of clinical evidence — which they parsed in excruciating detail — in order to settle the fate of the treatment, known as Makena.

The FDA successfully persuaded the panel that the medication should be withdrawn because the results of a clinical trial, which was required when the agency approved Makena [on an accelerated basis] in 2011, failed to show the expected benefit. For its part, Clovis maintained that a follow-up trial showed its drug did benefit a select subset of patients — including Black women — but struggled to convince the panel that the drug should remain available while a lengthy follow-up study is run to confirm its argument.

The sentiment among most panelists was reflected in remarks by Susan Ellenberg, a professor emeritus of biostatistics, medical ethics, and health policy at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who said “unmet need is not a basis for keeping a drug available when you don’t know if it works.”

The FDA Commissioner, Robert Califf, MD, is the final decision maker.

The NCQA has created

A new website adds two key resources in the fight against antibiotic resistance:

* A How-To Toolkit: Webinars and written summaries outline best practices, emerging trends and lessons from the field about savvy stewardship of antibiotics.

* An “Honor Roll”: Learn which health plans’ management of antibiotics leads the industry.

From the No Surprises Act front, CMS today issued updated guidance on how to initiate an NSA arbitration. The new guidance reflects the revised final independent dispute resolution rule published this past summer.

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Let’s lead off with the OPM Inspector General’s new annual report on top management challenges facing the agency. This is the first such report of the current Inspector General Krista Boyd. The report’s FEHB Program concerns focus on prescription drug spending, eligibility issues, and the Postal Service Health Benefits Program.

As the FEHBlog has noted, FEHB prescription drug spending is not a unique FEHB issue. While the Inspector General’s report calls attention to these statistics:

As in prior years, drug costs continue to increase in the FEHBP. Currently, total FEHBP drug
costs (excluding drugs administered in an inpatient hospital setting) represent approximately 32
percent of total health care costs. Approximately 23 percent of total FEHBP health care costs are
attributable to the pharmacy benefit alone (drugs dispensed through outpatient pharmacies). As
of 2021, FEHBP pharmacy benefits represented more than $13 billion annually.

To place these statistics in context, the FEHB again calls attention to the fact that the FEHB Program has a large cadre of annuitants with primary Medicare Parts A and B coverage. This group understandably does not enroll for Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage. As a result, Medicare picks up the bulk of cost of FEHB hospital and doctor expenses for this group, while FEHB covers virtually of the pharmacy spending for this group. The FEHBlog is unaware of any other large employer in this situation because employers who have retiree health coverage generally rely on Medicare Advantage plans.

The saving grace found in Congress’s design of the FEHB Program is that all enrollees are in one risk pool per plan option which allows carriers to compete and also use group insurance principles to spread costs among all enrollees. Medicare prime annuitant and younger enrollees subsidize the more costly people in the middle.

The FEHBlog agrees with the Inspector General that the FEHB has eligility issues principally because OPM in contrast to every other employer in the U.S. reports enrollment and premiums separately. Typically health plans receive enrollment rosters known as HIPAA 820 standard electronic transactions that list each enrolled individual and the premium paid for that individual. This allows the health plan to systematically compare the roster and premiums against their records. A plan for example would know that OPM is paying it for self only coverage when according to the plan’s records the member has self plus one coverage.

OPM has been building a master enrollment index which is one of the steps that OPM has been taking in the right direction. In the FEHBlog’s opinion, implementing the HIPAA 820 standard transaction would take eligibility off of the Inspector General list of management challenges.

As for the Postal Service Health Benefits Program, the FEHBlog has confident that OPM, with support from the Postal Service and carriers, to launch the PSHBP on time January 1, 2025.

Here’s a Govexec article on the report which takes a broader perspective.

From Omicron and siblings front —

  • STAT News reports on the federal government’s and drug manufactures efforts to close the developing treatment gap for immunocompromised folks who contract certain strains for Omicron, e.g., BA 4.2.y and BQ.1

[Monoclonal antibody] Evusheld is still effective against many variants, but it is not possible for physicians to know which strains a patient using it as prophylaxis could be exposed to, an AstraZeneca spokesperson told STAT.

“Variants are rarely dominant for more than a few months — they tend to either evolve further into different subvariants or are replaced by newer variants,” the spokesperson said, adding the company is running early studies on other antibody options. * * *

Complicating the matter, the next potential monoclonal antibody — an Eli Lilly treatment dubbed bebtelovimab — could be ready within two months, but it has already been shown ineffective against the other fast-rising variant, BQ.1. The federal government has purchased 60,000 bebtelovimab doses for uninsured and under-insured patients, according to two people familiar with the HHS monoclonal antibody planning.

In the HHS meeting, officials discussed the prospect that BA.4.6’s rise could render Evusheld ineffective within two months. They laid out the timelines for as many as six potential alternates in the pipeline, according to two people familiar with the discussion.

a new national biodefense strategy, aiming to adapt lessons drawn from the rocky response to the Covid-19 pandemic as it prepares the country for future public health emergencies.

The strategy, which has been long anticipated, includes such goals as strengthening public health workforces both in the United States and globally, and establishing international mechanisms to bolster laboratory safety.

The government’s plan outlines policy targets for more than 20 federal agencies to help the country and world try to prevent epidemics, detect them faster, respond when they occur, minimize their impact, and recover, senior administration officials said on a call with reporters Monday as they previewed the strategy. Oversight for the strategy will be at the White House, under the national security advisor.

  • On a related note, Insurance News Net discusses the pandemic’s adverse impact on the life insurance industry, and Healthcare Dive tells us “The HHS’ current management of the strategic national stockpile and its subsequent relaying of information to Congress is fractured and needs updates to ensure the country is prepared for future public health emergencies, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office.”

From the SDOH front, MedPage Today delves into a CDC Vital Signs reports released yesterday

Influenza-associated hospitalization rates were nearly 80% higher among Black adults compared with white adults from 2009-2010 to 2021-2022, according to a CDC Vital Signs report released Tuesday.

These rates were also 30% higher among American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) adults and 20% higher among Hispanic adults compared with white adults, reported Carla L. Black, PhD, of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, and colleagues.

Furthermore, vaccination coverage for influenza has been “consistently lower among Black, Hispanic, and American Indian and Alaska Native adults since 2010,” she noted on a call with reporters.

During the 2021-2022 flu season, vaccination coverage was lower among Hispanic (37.9%), AI/AN (40.9%), Black (42.0%), and other/multiple race (42.6%) adults compared with coverage among white (53.9%) and Asian (54.2%) adults, Black and team said.

From the IRS front, the Service issued its annual notice of inflation adjustments to tax items for the 2023 tax year. The Wall Street Journal adds “The Internal Revenue Service adjusted key tax code parameters for 2023 to reflect higher inflation, raising the standard deduction and the income thresholds where tax rates take effect.” The notice also includes many inflation adjustments to tax-exempt or deductible employees benefits. You will find a handy table of contents at the front of the notice.

From the miscellany department

  • The Justice Department on the Food and Drug Administration’s behalf has asked various federal courts to shut down the e-cigarette operations of six manufacturers.
  • The Justice Department also announced Sutter Health’s agreement “to pay $13 million to settle allegations that it billed government health programs for lab tests performed by others,” said U.S. Attorney Stephanie M. Hinds. ‘Government health care programs [including the FEHB in this case] must be protected, and this office will investigate and pursue health care providers that fail to provide the services paid for by public health care programs.’”

Apple will reportedly enter the health insurance business in 2024 in partnership with a major payer, Forbes reported Oct. 18.

CCS Insight’s chief analyst predicts the tech giant will power the new offering through health data collected by Apple Watches, such as blood pressure, blood oxygen levels, ECG readings and body temperature. The analyst said having access to this data from the beginning gives the company an advantage toward entering the market and cutting costs.

Apple is already a flagship partner in John Hancock’s Vitality program and UnitedHealthcare’s commercial plans.

  • Reg Jones writing in the Federal Times explains how to enroll for Medicare Part without incurring a late enrollment penalty. It’s not hard if you know the rules.

Weekend Update

As we wrap up the last weekend of summer, we can look forward to the House of Representatives and the Senate holding Committee business and floor voting. Yahoo Finance adds

Once again, the threat of a government shutdown looms at the end of the fiscal year, which arrives on September 30. Lawmakers have two weeks to provide funding to keep large swaths of the federal government open and functioning, and the most likely result at this point is a short-term bill called a continuing resolution that funds the government for about 10 weeks, or until mid-December. Lawmakers would then look to pass an omnibus spending package to cover the rest of the 2023 fiscal year.

From the Omicron and siblings front, the Wall Street Journal offers an engaging interview with Moderna’s CEO Stéphane Bancel who “discusses the company’s latest Covid shot and research on using mRNA in seasonal flu vaccines and personalized treatments for cancer.”

From the social determinants of health front, Health Affairs discusses best practices to improve the collection and distribution of race, ethnicity, and language data for use by health care providers and payers. Healthcare payers, in particular, cannot address SDOH issues strategically without having REL data. The FEHBlog’s idea, which he has floated unsuccessfully to date, is to add REL codes to the AMA’s CPT 4 code system, thereby allowing the ready distribution of that data via reliable coders.

Speaking of the distribution of healthcare data, EHR Intelligence reports that “Large Health IT Networks Unveil Plans to Become Qualified Health Information Network (“QHIN”) Under TEFCA.” TEFCA will act as the Electronic Health Records “backbone” to vastly improve health record interoperability, which has long been a national EHR goal.

From the mental healthcare front, last Friday, “the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released the HHS Roadmap for Behavioral Health Integration (Roadmap), which details policy solutions that would help to better integrate mental health and substance use care into the larger health care system and other systems. The Roadmap is based on feedback Secretary Becerra received from patients and providers during more than two dozen stops on his National Tour to Strengthen Mental Health.”

Finally, a government contract expert discusses in Federal News Network why the 1994 federal acquisition reform law (actually the related 1994 and 1996 laws) aiming to simplify the federal procurement process needs a reboot. The FEHBlog heartily agrees.

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the omicron and siblings front, Govexec and Federal News Network recount today’s oral argument before the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals over the legality of the Administration’s Covid vaccine mandate on federal employees.

The en banc ruling, expected in the next few weeks, could be the last step after a lengthy court battle that has played out through many fits and starts over the last year. Feds for Medical Freedom has previously said it will take its case to the Supreme Court if the Fifth Circuit rules against it, though the high court may be less inclined to weigh in on the case after it already ruled on two vaccine mandate cases in January. If the mandate is ultimately permitted to stand, individual employees could still wind up in the federal circuit if they take their cases to MSPB and appeal further after an initial decision. The mandate has not been enforced since a U.S. district judge in Texas first enjoined it in January.

In other virus news, the Wall Street Journal offers one of its helpful overview articles titled “What to Know About Polio Symptoms, Vaccines and the Virus’s Spread in New York.”

From the healthcare cost front, HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research called attention to a recent agency report about the characteristic “high spenders”:

• In 2019, the top 1 percent of persons ranked by their healthcare expenditures accounted for about 21 percent of total healthcare expenditures, while the bottom 50 percent accounted for only 3 percent.
• Hypertension and osteoarthritis/other non-traumatic joint disorders were the most commonly treated conditions among the top 5 percent of spenders.
• Persons ages 65 and older and Whites were disproportionately represented in the top spending tiers.
• Inpatient hospital care accounted for about 37 percent of spending for persons in the top 5 percent of spenders.
• Over three-quarters of aggregate expenses for persons in the top 5 percent of spenders were paid for by private insurance or Medicare.

From the SDOH front, MedCity News reports about “Information as a social determinant: Three ways Google is addressing health inequity: Google announced three updates at the Google Health Equity Summit, including a new video series partnership, improved search features and an expanded program with Fitbit.”

In coding news, Healthcare Dive tells us

The American Medical Association said its 2023 Current Procedural Terminology code set, released Friday, contains burden-reducing revisions to the codes and guidelines for providers.

The updates to the data-sharing terminology for medical procedures and services are intended to make coding and documentation easier and more flexible, freeing providers from time-wasting administrative tasks that are clinically irrelevant to providing high-quality care to patients, the AMA said.

The modifications follow the 2021 revisions made to the evaluation and management codes for office visit services. They extend to inpatient and observation care services, consultations, emergency department services, nursing facility services, home and residence services and prolonged services.

HHS regulations implementing HIPAA electronic transaction standards require that the CPT be used to code outpatient services.

Weekend Update

The House of Representatives and the Senate will be engaged in Committee business and floor voting this coming week.

From the Omicron and siblings front —

Bloomberg Prognosis offers an interesting observation from Katrine Wallace, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago,

“For some viruses, where there is better mucosal immunity in the nose (via past infection or vaccines), people can fight off pathogens and develop an immune response without ever feeling ‘sick.’” In other words, for certain infections, your immune system might get revved up by recognizing a virus, and then swiftly fight it off. 

“However, Covid-19 is not a virus that we have developed lasting mucosal immunity for, either through vaccines or via previous infections,” says Wallace.

This is the whole rationale for the development of the new Covid shots that are inhaled instead of injected, she says. The nose and mouth are where Covid first enters the body, so the vaccine antibodies elicited by those types of vaccines give people a more immediate line of defense. 

The Wall Street Journal provides details on nagging Covid death levels:

Roughly 85% of people who died from Covid-19 through mid-August this summer were 65 or older, a Wall Street Journal analysis of death-certificate data show. The rate is similar to 2020 peaks, before vaccines were available. Deaths trended younger for much of last year.

Covid-19 is on pace to be the third-leading cause of death for the third straight year, said Dr. Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. Since 2020, it has trailed only heart disease and cancer, significantly reducing life expectancy. * * *

The health system AdventHealth counted 24 deaths related to Covid-19 at its Orlando, Fla.-area hospitals in August. Age was the biggest factor, although younger patients with compromised immune systems were also at risk, doctors with the health system said. All but one Covid-19 patient who died had serious health problems such as diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart failure and obesity.

Unfortunately, the Journal’s article discusses vaccination status but does not factor in the Paxlovid pill or other available treatments, which should be a game changer for older folks with Covid.

From the mental healthcare front — ‘

Yesterday, September 10, was World Suicide Awareness Day. McKinsey and Company reported,

The suicide rate in the United States has risen over the past 20 years to become the second-leading cause of death for people between the ages of ten and 34, write partner Erica Hutchins Coe, senior partner Martin Dewhurst, senior partner Tom Latkovic, and co-authors in a recent report from the McKinsey Health Institute (MHI). And by winter of 2021, the weekly rate of ER visits by adolescents who attempted suicide was 39 percent higher than pre-pandemic levels. By taking action to address this urgent public health issue, organizations, educators, healthcare professionals, governments, and society at large could help millions in crisis. This #WorldSuicidePreventionDay, learn about ongoing efforts by MHI and its collaborators to improve crisis care in the United States * * * .

The article provides links to relevant McKinsey publications on this important topic.

The American Medical Association’s “What Doctors Wish Their Patients Knew” column delves into loneliness and health.

From the social determinants of health front, Fierce Healthcare looks into CVS’s Healths efforts to improve health equity.

When the CVS Caremark team geared up to take on health disparities, it quickly realized that any initiative would require a significant basis in data to succeed.

That entailed both gathering more data and building the tools necessary to track and analyze them.  For example, Joel Helle, vice president of physician services at CVS Specialty, told Fierce Healthcare that Caremark has not historically gathered race and ethnicity data, but now asks payers and plans sponsors for that information to more accurately target where disparities are occurring.

“It’s real race and ethnicity data, and we know who those patients are,” he said. “That’s the future, in my mind, of what everybody needs to do.”

In addition, the company built a proprietary tool that combs data from 17 different indexes to identify where disparities exist, he said. That tool, he said, puts “red dots” on the map to highlight risks, and the Caremark team can then use its internal data to further drill down to challenges in specific communities.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From the omicron and siblings front, AHIP informs us

Today the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) voted to recommend the use of the bivalent mRNA COVID-19 vaccines as a single-dose booster for all individuals ages 12 and older (Pfizer-BioNTech) and 18 and older (Moderna), at least two months following primary series or previous booster dose.  The ACIP recommendation for the bivalent boosters was approved by a vote of 13-1.

The Committee reviewed modeling data showing the vaccine has the potential to reduce hospitalizations and deaths, especially among high-risk groups.  The bivalent boosters are recommended for all those over age 12 who have completed a primary series, at least 2 months after the most recent dose. The modeling data indicates that the vaccine is safe and effective, and that booster strategies will be executed in an equitable manner.  Models also indicate that waiting until more trial data is available (in two to three months) could lead to preventable hospitalizations and deaths.

ACIP members expressed concern that many assumptions had been made with the modeling, and that the vaccine being recommended – which includes protections specific to the BA.4/BA.5 variants – has not been tested in humans.  Mouse models were used for data on this vaccine, in addition to extrapolations from human trials using the BA.1-specific vaccine. CDC pointed out that annual influenza vaccines are modified based on projected variants without direct clinical evidence. ACIP members also expressed concerns that the bivalent booster makes assumptions about future variants, which this booster may not protect against.

Earlier this week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) amended the Emergency Use Authorizations (EUAs) for both the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine and the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to authorize bivalent formulations of the vaccines for use as a single booster dose at least two months following primary or booster vaccination. The bivalent Moderna vaccine is authorized for use as a single booster dose in individuals 18 years of age and older and the Pfizer bivalent vaccine is authorized for use as a single booster dose in individuals 12 years of age and older.  FDA also released fact sheets on both the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and the Moderna vaccine.

With the authorization, FDA has revised the EUAs to remove the use of the monovalent versions of the vaccines for booster administration for the age groups now covered by the bivalent booster products. ACIP also rescinded its recommendations for the monovalent booster vaccines.

Bivalent boosters may be available as early as next week.

The FEHBlog finds it noteworthy that the new bivalent booster replaces the monovalent booster.

STAT News offers FAQs on the new boosters.

STAT News also discusses the Omicron outlook for this autumn.

In a way, some physicians have said, Covid is becoming more like the other respiratory pathogens that most of us shake off but that can occasionally cause severe illness and death among the oldest adults or people who are already sick. So many more people are dying from Covid than from those other viruses, however, because of the massive number of cases that are still occurring overall.

Another trend that has continued into 2022 has been the racial and ethnic disparities associated with Covid. The gaps between different demographic groups’ death rates have shrunk over time, but at the peak of this summer’s wave, for example, death rates by age group among Hispanic adults were notably higher than those among white adults, federal data indicate.

One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that, unlike with some viruses, SARS-2 did not pose a particularly serious threat to children. That’s not to minimize the hospitalizations and deaths — as well as incidents of long Covid and MIS-C — that the virus did cause in pediatric populations. But overall, kids have faced much lower risks of severe outcomes from Covid than adults.

Still, something worrisome occurred this summer with kids and Covid, as hospitalizations reached their second highest peak of the entire pandemic, surpassing last summer’s Delta wave and only trailing the initial Omicron spike early this year.

The article’s experts encourage vaccinating children to stem this tide.

From the FEHB front, Govexec provides a handy just before and just after federal retirement checklist, and Fedweek helpfully delves into “What Counts and What Doesn’t for Keeping FEHB Coverage in Retirement,” which should be a key consideration for career feds.

From the public health front, the CDC reminds us September is Sepsis Awareness Month

Anyone can get an infection, and almost any infection, including COVID-19, can lead to sepsis. Sepsis is the body’s extreme response to an infection and is a life-threatening medical emergency.

September is Sepsis Awareness Month and CDC encourages patients and healthcare professionals to share Get Ahead of Sepsis resources, below, to learn how to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their patients from sepsis:

Patients and families:
* New this year is an updated patient and family brochure.
* Download and share any of CDC’s FREE patient education materials with your friends and loved ones to learn how to prevent infections, be alert to the signs and symptoms of sepsis, and act fast if sepsis is suspected.
* Share updated sepsis graphics on social media to educate friends and loved ones about sepsis.
* Are your children back to school? Talk to your child’s healthcare professional and school nurse about steps you can take to prevent infections that can lead to sepsis. Some steps include taking good care of chronic conditions and getting recommended vaccines.
Healthcare professionals:
New this year are two fact sheets for long-term care nurses and certified nurse assistants.
Download and share CDC’s FREE healthcare professional education materials with your colleagues to educate them about how to recognize signs and symptoms of worsening infection and sepsis, how to get ahead of sepsis, and what to do if they suspect sepsis.
Educate your patients and their families about:
o Preventing infections
o Keeping cuts clean and covered until healed
o Managing chronic conditions
o Recognizing early signs and symptoms of worsening infection and sepsis
o Seeking immediate care if signs and symptoms are present

This Sepsis Awareness Month, spread the word about sepsis—you can help save lives.

To learn more about sepsis and how to prevent infections, visit or call 1-800-CDC-INFO.

From the miscellany department —

  • Medpage Today offers a special report about a ” New Behavioral Health Database Reveals Gaps in Care — Researchers behind it hope to provide the data needed to remedy the problem.”
  • STAT News reports “Drug treatment of veterans with opioid use disorder increased during the first year of the pandemic, according to a new study, suggesting that the rapid shift from in-person to telehealth visits at VA medical centers enabled patients to get access to care despite Covid-related disruptions.”
  • Fierce Healthcare tells us “Cigna’s Evernorth subsidiary is expanding its diabetes care value program to combine traditional pharmaceutical interventions with devices, tools and resources to help patients better understand and manage their diabetes.”
  • Healthcare Dive informs us that “To staunch the losses of rural hospital closures that endanger access to care for millions, federal regulators are hoping some facilities opt in to a new payment model, but providers say they want more flexibilities and clarity before making the pivot. * * * The new rule ‘maybe gets halfway there,’ Jennifer Findley, vice president of education and special projects at the Kansas Hospital Association, told Healthcare Dive. ‘It’s not as much as we were hoping for but it does give some more flexibility than what you have today.’”
  • Health Payer Intelligence reports “Chronic diseases are common among emergency department patients, particularly among seniors and those ages 45 to 64, according to a National Health Statistics Report. ‘Monitoring ED visits made by adults at highest risk of severe COVID-19-related illness is important for understanding the health burden of COVID-19 and for planning prevention strategies,’ the researchers explained. ‘Ongoing monitoring of the presence of these underlying chronic conditions at ED visits will continue to inform COVID-19 response efforts.’”
  • Also Health Payer Intelligence notes that “Three major social determinants of health factors are particularly predominant barriers to care for America’s seniors: economic instability, loneliness, and food insecurity, according to a study sponsored by Alignment Healthcare. Researchers from Toluna conducted an online survey from July 24 to August 13, 2022, which reached 2,600 seniors ages 65 and older. Most respondents identified as white. Half were in Medicare Advantage and this population was divided primarily between preferred provider organizations and health maintenance organizations.”

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 latest weekly chart of new Covid cases for this year.

On the left side of the chart are the peak and downslope of the original Omincron strain, and what a peak it was. On the right side of the chart is the Omicron sibling’s plateau.

The CDC’s weekly review of its Covid statistics adds

As of August 24, 2022, the current 7-day moving average of daily new cases (90,676) decreased 6.7% compared with the previous 7-day moving average (97,184). * * *

CDC Nowcast projections* for the week ending August 27, 2022, estimate that the combined national proportion of lineages designated as Omicron will continue to be 100% with the predominant Omicron lineage being BA.5, projected at 88.7% (95% PI 87.3-89.8%).

Here’s the CDC’s latest chart of daily trends in new Covid hospitalizations:

The CDC’s weekly review adds “The current 7-day daily average for August 17–23, 2022, was 5,314. This is a 6.6% decrease from the prior 7-day average (5,687) from August 10–16, 2022.” That converts to a very low percentage of new Covid cases.

Here is the FEHBlog latest weekly chart of new Covid deaths for 2022:

Omicron is on the left, and Omicron’s siblings are on the right. The CDC’s weekly review adds “The current 7-day moving average of new deaths (390) has decreased 11.6% compared with the previous 7-day moving average (441).”

Contributing to the current low Covid death rate are the Covid vaccines, and here is the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of Covid vaccinations distributed and administered from the beginning of the Covid vaccination era in the 51st week of 2020 through the 34th week of 2022:

The CDC’s weekly review adds

As of August 24, 2022, 608.9 million vaccine doses have been administered in the United States. Overall, about 262.6 million people, or 79.1% of the total U.S. population, have received at least one dose of vaccine. About 223.9 million people, or 67.4% of the total U.S. population, have been fully vaccinated.

In other Covid news

  • Medscape reports “Long COVID Mimics Other Post-Viral Conditions.” That’s reassuring.
  • Medscape also tells us that a major weak spot on the Omicron variants which could lead to effective treatments.

In Covid-related legal news, STAT News informs us

It’s the stuff that headline writers’ dreams are made of: Moderna is suing Pfizer and BioNTech over their Covid vaccines.

As someone who has written dozens of catchy headlines about patent suits and read hundreds more, let me offer a bit of advice: Take several deep breaths. Most likely, this is less dramatic than it seems.

The reality of patent litigation in the pharmaceutical industry is that it proceeds at a glacial pace. And it rarely results in products being pulled from the market (Moderna isn’t even asking for that!) or for payments or royalties so significant that they dramatically change the profitability of a product. These lawsuits, though, can involve sums large enough that they make a financial difference to investors.

Time will tell.

From the monkeypox front, the New York Times reports

Monkeypox cases are declining in New York City and globally as more people get vaccinated and as they change their sexual behavior in response to the outbreak, health officials said this week.

New York City on Thursday reported that 2,885 monkeypox cases had been identified in the city since the first case in the city was identified in May. In mid-August, about 50 new monkeypox cases were being detected each day, a drop from the 70 or so new daily cases emerging in late July and early August, according to city data. * * *

Monkeypox infections are also declining in parts of California and in Europe, which at one point had 90 percent of the world’s cases. The World Health Organization on Thursday reported that monkeypox cases globally dropped 21 percent last week. But the overall trend masked rising cases in other parts of the world, including Latin America and Africa.

In New York, Dr. Vasan attributed the decline to the city’s efforts to get tens of thousands of people vaccinated; the city has administered 69,311 doses of the vaccine, according to city data.

In Medicare news, Fierce Healthcare tells us

More than 28 million people are in a Medicare Advantage (MA) plan in 2022, with the program accounting for nearly half of all Medicare beneficiaries, a new analysis finds. 

The analysis, released Thursday by the Kaiser Family Foundation, also showed how spending on MA, especially on quality bonuses, has surged to take up more than half of all federal Medicare spending. The findings underscore the widespread interest in the insurance industry on the MA marketplace, which has grown more lucrative in recent years. 

Kaiser found that the share of eligible Medicare beneficiaries who chose an MA plan has more than doubled since 2007, growing from 19% that year to 48% in 2022. An earlier projection from the Congressional Budget Office projected that the percentage of Medicare beneficiaries in MA will swell to 61% by 2032.

From the substance use disorder front, Health IT Analytics reports

A new study by Epic Research and the University of Maryland’s Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR) shows that only 5 percent of drug overdose patients admitted to the emergency department are tested for fentanyl and synthetic opioids, despite these drugs being the leading cause of death for Americans 18 to 45 years.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that synthetic opioids are currently the main driver of drug overdose deaths, which increased by 31 percent from 2019 to 2020. Opioids were involved in 75 percent of all drug overdose deaths in 2020, and 82.3 percent of all opioid overdose deaths involved synthetic opioids.

That is confounding.

From the coding front, Becker’s Hospital CFO Review points out the top 10 states with the highest coding rates for social determinants of health diagnoses. The FEHBlog suspects that these states have the most reliable coders.