Tuesday Tidbits

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

Roll Call tells us,

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


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

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

STAT News reports

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

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

From the medical and drug research fronts —

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

From the SDOH front,

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

From the AI department,

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

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

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From Washington DC —

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “Time isn’t on Washington’s side.
    • “With the U.S. facing a potentially economy-shaking default as soon as next month, logistical hurdles, disagreements on the scope of any talks, a tight legislative calendar and a late start are complicating negotiations over raising the debt ceiling.
    • “President Biden said Monday that the next meeting with congressional leaders will come Tuesday, while responding “no” when asked if there were updates regarding the talks with Republicans. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) said that the two sides remain “far apart” and that he would like a deal to be done by this weekend.” * * *
    • “A second meeting with the president and congressional leaders that was originally set to take place on Friday was postponed until early this week. The House and Senate are scheduled to be in session simultaneously for just one more week this month, and Mr. Biden is set to travel overseas for a Group of Seven meeting. Moreover, Republican leaders have so far rejected any short-term debt deal to buy more time.”
  • According to the White House’s briefing room,
    • “President Biden announced his intent to nominate Dr. Monica Bertagnolli as Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the world’s preeminent biomedical research organization. Dr. Bertagnolli is a world-renowned surgical oncologist, cancer researcher, educator, and physician-leader who has the vision and leadership needed to deliver on NIH’s mission to seek fundamental knowledge and promote human health.”  

From the litigation front, the American Hospital Association informs us

“The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit today temporarily restored an Affordable Care Act requirement that most health plans cover certain preventive services without cost sharing. The 5th Circuit ordered that this requirement remain in effect for everyone (except the few health plans challenging the requirement) until it issues a final decision in the case, which is expected later this year. A federal judge in Texas recently vacated the requirement nationwide, prompting the Department of Health and Human Services and plaintiff to appeal the decision and seek this temporary stay.”

From the public health front —

  • HealthDay tells us,
    • “Older Americans are dying of falls at more than double the rate of 20 years ago — with women, men and all racial groups showing increases, according to a new study.
    • “In 2020, the study found, just over 36,500 Americans age 65 and up died of a fall-related injury. That was up from roughly 10,100 deaths in 1999.
    • “Adjusted for age, those numbers translated into a more than twofold increase in the rate of fall-related deaths among older Americans: from 29 per 100,000 in 1999, to 69 per 100,000 in 2020.” * * *
    • The National Council on Aging has a tool for older adults to check their risk of falls.

From the Rx coverage front —

  • MPR relates
    • “The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Pulmonary-Allergy Drug Advisory Committee voted 16:6 in favor for adults, and 17:5 in favor for children (<18 years of age and ≥30kg), that available data support a favorable benefit-risk assessment for neffy® in the treatment of severe allergic reaction (Type 1), including anaphylaxis, for adults and children who weigh more than 30kg. * * *
    • “While not bound to the committee’s recommendations, the FDA does take them into consideration when making final decisions on approval. If approved, neffy would be the first needle-free epinephrine product to treat severe allergic reaction. A decision is expected by mid-2023.”
  • The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) announced today that it will assess the comparative clinical effectiveness and value of sotatercept (Merck & Co) for pulmonary arterial hypertension.
  • The Wall Street Journal delves into “How to Get Your Health Insurance to Cover Ozempic and Other Drugs Used for Weight Loss; Tips for checking whether your health plan will pay for a prescription and then getting authorization.”
  • Per Hub International,
    • “CMS recently released its updated Medicare Part D guidelines that can be used by group health plan sponsors to determine whether their plans’ prescription drug coverage is creditable for 2024 and to update the information needed for required Part D disclosures to eligible individuals and to CMS.
    • “To help determine whether prescription drug coverage is creditable, CMS has released the following 2024 parameters for the standard Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit:
      • Deductible: $545 (up from $505 in 2023);
      • Initial coverage limit: $5,030 (up from $4,660);
      • Out-of-pocket threshold: $8,000 (up from $7,400);
      • Total covered Part D spending at the out-of-pocket expense threshold for beneficiaries who are not eligible for the coverage gap discount program: $11,477.39 (up from $10,516.25 in 2023); and
      • Estimated total covered Part D spending at the out-of-pocket expense threshold for beneficiaries who are eligible for the coverage gap discount program: $12,447.11 (up from $11,206.28).”

From the artificial intelligence front —

  • This week’s episode of the Econtalk podcast features an artificial intelligence discussion between host Russ Roberts and his guest Tyler Cowen. Russ Roberts suggests using ChatGPT to formulate questions for your doctor or your parents’ or your kids’ doctors.
  • Bloomberg examines the use of AI by drug manufacturers.
  • Medcity News looks into the use of AI by pharmacists and PBMs.

From the miscellany department —

  • Fierce Healthcare points out, “Million-dollar claims per million covered employees rose 15% in the past year and 45% from 2019 to 2022, according to a report by Sun Life, a life and disability insurance company.”
  • EHR Intelligence reports,
    • “The Health IT End-Users Alliance has released a consensus statement regarding collecting and using social determinants of health (SDOH) data to support health equity.
    • “The Alliance brings together health information professionals, physicians, hospitals, and other front-line healthcare providers to advance end-user perspectives in health IT policy and standards development.
    • “The statement calls for additional efforts to standardize and increase the uniform collection and reporting of SDOH. The group also calls for more training on collecting this data, better use of appropriate tools and processes to manage and share SDOH, and ongoing research to support these efforts.”
  • Employee Benefit News notes, “Thirteen FSA and HSA-eligible expenses that may surprise you.”

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Washington, DC

Fierce Healthcare reports

  • “Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, reached a deal on new legislation that aims to increase access to generic drugs and impose transparency measures on pharmacy middlemen.
  • “The two senators, the new leaders of the powerful Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), said the legislative package will “reform pharmacy benefit managers and expand the availability of low-cost generic drugs.”
  • “The committee will hold a hearing on May 2 to consider the legislative package, which includes four bills.”

Govexec adds

  • “Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Reps. Gerry Connolly of Virginia, Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, D.C., and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, all Democrats, and Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina, a Republican, [introduced] the Family Building FEHB Fairness Act on Tuesday, marking National Infertility Awareness Week.
  • “Duckworth said the proposed legislation would cover other IVF-related costs and expand coverage to all the different forms of assisted reproductive technology. The most common type of assisted reproductive technology by far is IVF, but there is also gamete intrafallopian transfer, zygote intrafallopian transfer and frozen embryo transfer.” 

The FEHBlog expects that fertility coverage advocates will be pleased with FEHB carrier initiatives for 2025.

From the social determinants of health front —

  • Patient Engagement HIT informs us,
    • The different social determinants of health have different impacts on healthcare quality, utilization, and outcomes, with new Humana data showing that some SDOH are more closely related to poor care quality while others are more closely related to high healthcare utilization.
    • For other SDOH, like social isolation and limited access to transportation, patients experience both poor care quality and high acute care utilization, the JAMA Network Open report showed. * * *
    • This latest study looked at which SDOH have the biggest impact on health and well-being, as measured by care quality and acute care utilization, to better determine effective SDOH interventions going forward.

From the public health front

  • The All of Us Research Program celebrates National DNA Day!
  • Medscape reminds us that unexpected weight loss can be a health warning.
    • “Our study emphasizes the importance of weight loss even in relatively healthy individuals who are free from evident cardiovascular disease (CVD), dementia, physical disability, or life-limiting chronic illness,” first author Monira Hussain, MBBS, MPH, PhD, told Medscape Medical News.
    • “Clinicians should be aware that even minor weight loss of 5% or more in older adults without life-limiting illnesses can increase mortality risk,” Hussain said. “Regular monitoring of weight changes can help early identification of associated risks.”
    • The study was published online April 10 in JAMA Network Open.
  • STAT News tells us, “Consumers turning to melatonin gummies to get some help falling asleep might be getting a lot more help than they bargained for, according to a new study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.”
    • “However, one dietary supplement lobbying group argued that variability in strength of the gummies studied is to be expected, and is often purposefully done by manufacturers to ensure they do not degrade overtime and thereby run afoul of the FDA’s rules. Dietary supplements are required to demonstrate they contain 100% of the listed ingredient until their expiration date, and thus manufacturers will “put an overage in to start to be sure that six months from now that when that consumer buys the product, they’re still getting 100% of what’s on the label,” according to Steve Mister, the CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition.
    • “Mister conceded that he did share concerns about two of the products studied — one which included no melatonin and another that included more than 300% of the advertised amount. He maintained, however, that “there is … absolutely nothing in this study that should alarm consumers.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front

  • Fierce Healthcare relates, Health insurer “Centene Corporation posted $1.1 billion in profit for the first quarter of 2023, up from $849 million in earnings in the prior year quarter. The company’s revenue was also up year-over-year, reaching $38.9 billion compared to $37.2 billion in the first quarter of 2022. The numbers fall short of Wall Street analysts’ expectations on profit but exceed their predictions on revenue, according to analysts at Zacks Investment Research.”
  • Per Healthcare Dive,
    • “Tenet Healthcare, one of the largest for-profit hospital operators in the U.S., raised its forecast for full-year profit after posting growth in case volumes that boosted revenue and net income in the first quarter.
    • “The company said on Tuesday that quarterly profit climbed 2.9% from a year earlier to $143 million, beating an earlier forecast that net income would range between $90 million and $125 million in the period..
    • “The earnings results also beat Wall Street revenue estimates, according to SVB Securities analysts. Tenet logged $5 billion in revenue, a 5.8% increase compared to the first quarter of 2022.”
  • Per MedTech Dive,
    • “Labcorp on Tuesday reported a 10% increase in its base business revenue in the first quarter and said the proposed spinoff of its clinical development unit would be completed as expected at mid-year.
    • “The company’s base business benefited from an agreement to manage laboratories for the Ascension health system, Labcorp said. That relationship contributed about 4% of Labcorp’s organic growth in the first quarter, CEO Adam Schechter said on the company’s earnings call.
    • “Labcorp is now managing laboratories in nearly 100 Ascension hospitals, Schechter said. The partnership, established early last year, covers Ascension hospital-based labs in 10 states.”

Axios updates us with developments from the No Surprises Act front.

What we’re watching: Lawmakers in the House and Senate said they’re planning to conduct oversight of the law, with Republicans focusing on how the Biden administration is implementing it.

  • “Senate health committee ranking member Bill Cassidy (R-La.) noted that “the courts continue to toss out the way that the administration has implemented [the law]. So, oversight hearings, we’re going to have some discussions in the HELP Committee. I think that’s all appropriate.”
  • “A federal judge in Texas has ruled in favor of providers in two of the lawsuits.
  • “Florida Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan, chair of the Ways and Means Health Subcommittee, said the committee would hold a hearing on the topic in June. A GOP committee aide said “the hearing schedule was fluid,” but given the bipartisan interest, “this is a strong potential topic” for a hearing.

Yes, but: When asked, lawmakers weren’t sure what Congress might be able to do to fix providers’ issues, though some are open to new legislation.”

The FEHBlog is on record favoring that the Administration’s approach to implementing the law in a way that controls healthcare spending.

Weekend update

Photo by Eric Heininger on Unsplash

Congress remains on a District / State work break which concludes next Monday following the Easter and Passover holidays.

OPM has rescheduled the second day of the 2023 OPM AHIIP carrier conference for April 20, 2023 from 11 am to 4:15 pm ET.

From the public health front —

  • NPR Shots discusses the simple intervention that may keep Black moms healthier — daily home-administered blood pressure readings.
    • Blood pressure is just one way to measure a person’s health, but during pregnancy and soon after, it’s a critical metric. Unchecked, high blood pressure can contribute to serious complications for the pregnant woman and baby, and increase the risk of death.
  • Politico tells about new efforts underway to solve the crisis in mental health problems among children and adolescents that accompanied the Covid pandemic.
    • Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) plans to introduce three bills aimed at improving mental health care for kids, one of his aides told POLITICO. One bill, set to be reintroduced soon, would create grants for children’s mental health services and make them more accessible. Another would help gather more accurate national data on mental health and children, and the third would focus on the mental health of kids in foster care.
    • And children’s health providers tell government leaders it’s now critical that the federal government step up support for an overburdened system, arguing for increased funding for graduate medical education programs and boosted government reimbursement rates for mental health services.

From the Rx coverage front —

  • USA Today discusses challenges related to using the new generation of weight loss drugs. “Drugmakers are working hard to convince Americans they need their next-generation weight loss medications. But many come with side effects – and the fact we don’t really know what happens long-term.”
  • The Wall Street Journal offers an essay about potential uses for inhalable therapies beyond asthma.
    • “We’re pushing the boundaries of delivery,” said Philip Santangelo, a professor of biomedical engineering at Emory University. 
    • Respiratory diseases that spread through the air are a key target. Dr. Santangelo and colleagues are developing inhalable drugs that use an RNA-editing tool known as CRISPR-Cas13 and messenger RNA to kill viruses such as Covid-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus or RSV. Using nebulizers that dispense medicine as mist via a mask, they have tested the delivery of some of the medicines on rhesus monkeys, cows, horses and pigs. The tests in pigs showed that getting the drugs to the lungs reduces the severity and spread of infections, Dr. Santangelo said. 

From the medical research front —

  • Forbes reports, “Researchers have uncovered an unusual way some cancer cells make nutrients they need to grow, a discovery that could hold the key to starving one of America’s deadliest cancers [pancreatic] with a drug we already possess and raising hopes for a powerful new treatment against a disease that is often caught late and has one of the lowest survival rates of any cancer.”
  • Fortune Well discusses new developments in cancer testing via blood studies.

Friday Factoids

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

The various Covid-19 pandemic-related mandates are tied to the end of the public health emergency and the end of the national emergency. The Administration has told us to expect the end of both emergencies on May 11.

The CDC’s Covid data tracker and weekly review support ending the emergencies.

Congress has passed a bill (House Joint Resolution 7) which the President has agreed to sign ending the national emergency upon signing. Mercer Consulting explains:

During the NE, group health plans have been required to extend certain participant deadlines that would have expired during the “Outbreak Period,” which began March 1, 2020, and will end 60 days after the end of the NE. These deadlines related to:

  • Special enrollment rights under HIPAA
  • COBRA elections, payments and notifications
  • Benefit claims, appeals and external reviews

Employers will have less time to prepare for the end of the Outbreak Period relief if, as the pending legislation would require, the NE ends before May 11, 2023. Other COVID-19 relief measures, described in this post, are tied to the PHE and are not impacted by the pending legislation.

This week, regulators provided FAQs and a blog to assist employers preparing for the NE and PHE to end. The FAQs provide many helpful examples illustrating how the extended deadlines available during the Outbreak Period will wind down. However, the FAQs assume that the NE will end on May 11 and the Outbreak Period 60 days later, on July 10. Assuming President Biden signs the legislation ending the NE earlier than May 11, the dates in the FAQs will need to be adjusted.

Any deadline adjustments for these three mandates impact employers directly and group health plans indirectly. The three mandates had have had limited FEHBP impact.

Following up on Thursday’s post, MedPage Today offers a broader perspective on Thursday’s Senate Finance Committee PBM hearing. The hearing’s theme was “transparency.” For over ten years, OPM has required FEHB carriers covering most enrollees to use a strict drug pricing transparency system. This has allowed the FEHB to avoid certain practices criticized at the hearing, such a spread pricing, and it facilitates OPM Inspector General audits of the PBMs. However, it takes Congress to address the key economic concern about rebates inflating drug prices discussed at the hearing:

Karen Van Nuys, PhD, of the Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, highlighted her 2021 JAMA Internal Medicine research letter that found that Medicare would have saved $2.6 billion in 2018 on 184 drugs if patients had purchased them without insurance at Costco.

CMS finalized its Medicare Advantage and Medicare Part D payment policies for 2024 today. Of note, Fierce Healthcare reports,

The Biden administration finalized a proposal to raise Medicare Advantage payments by 3.32% in 2024, slightly above the 1% raise that it proposed. 

The final payment rule released Friday comes after an intense lobbying campaign from insurers who claimed that the original advance notice released in February would amount to a cut to plans. The agency also finalized changes to the MA risk adjustment model, but will instead phase the changes in over three years as opposed to implementation next year.

CMS also offered a fact sheet on the final actions.

From the SDOH front, Health Payer Intelligence informs us

OMB’s 1997 Statistical Policy Directive No. 15: Standards for Maintaining, Collecting, and Presenting Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity (Directive No. 15). The directive regulates consistency in federal data-sharing and the 1997 iteration emphasized that data gathering practices should seek to mirror the nation’s diversity.

OMB’s directive requires that data collection include two category options for ethnicity (Hispanic or Latino and Not Hispanic or Latino) and five for race (American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and white). In contrast, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) includes over 900 categories for these two designations.

The directive does not include any requirement to indicate sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) data. Very few regulations or standardizing entities do.

OMB will release changes to Directive No. 15 in 2024.

Several associations, including AHIP and BCBSA, have commented on the importance of OMB including changes to Directive No. 15 that facilitate health insurer efforts to reduce social determinants of health-related health disparities.

From the miscellany department —

  • EBRI posted Fast Facts on “High-Cost Health Care Claimants: Health Care Spending and Chronic Condition Prevalence Among Top Spenders.”

Midweek Update

From Washington, DC —

Roll Call reports on the state of the debt ceiling negotiations and Senator Bernie Sanders’s encounter today with the Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel at a Senate hearing that Senate Sanders chaired. The FEHBlog can’t understand why Senator Sanders and his majority colleagues are flipping their lids over a $100 price per vial increase on a low-cost vaccine.

Fierce Healthcare tells us,

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission’s recent breakdown of the hospital sector’s financial viability largely struck a different tone from the doom and gloom industry groups have voiced as of late.

The independent commission advises Congress on year-to-year Medicare policy adjustments, which are largely based on data from 2020 and 2021, preliminary data for 2022 and trend projections for upcoming years. It released its annual report to Congress last week.

With the exception of additional support for safety-net providers—which industry group America’s Essential Hospitals (AEH) has already criticizedfor “overlooking” uncompensated care delivered to non-Medicare patients—the group largely told Congress that most hospitals will manage their finances and recommended that lawmakers stay the course with 2024’s inpatient prospective payment system (IPPS) and outpatient prospective payment system (OPPS) rules.

“The Commission anticipates that a 2024 update to hospital payment rates of current law plus 1% would generally be adequate to maintain FFS beneficiaries’ access to hospital inpatient and outpatient care and keep IPPS and OPPS payment rates close to the cost of delivering high-quality care efficiently,” the group wrote in its report (PDF).

This decision must have the American Hospital Association flipping its lid.

The Department of Health and Human Services announced an organ procurement and transplantation network modernization initiative that “includes the release of new organ donor and transplant data; prioritization of modernization of the OPTN IT system; and call for Congress to make specific reforms in the National Organ Transplant Act.” More background on his announcement is available at Roll Call.

From the Rx coverage front

STAT News reports

An independent panel of advisors to the Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday concluded that a treatment developed by Biogen for a rare, genetic form of ALS should be approved, despite unanswered questions about its benefit to patients.

By a 9-0 vote, the FDA advisory panel said the “totality of the evidence” was sufficient to support conditional approval of the Biogen drug, called tofersen. By a 3-5 vote (with one abstention) the same experts concluded that the tofersen data, including from a failed clinical trial, were not sufficiently convincing to support full approval.

The FDA is not required to follow the recommendation of its outside advisors, but often does. The mixed votes suggest the FDA will likely grant Biogen accelerated approval for tofersen based on preliminary evidence. This would allow the company to market the drug while it collects additional data to confirm its benefit.

Benefits Pro offers guidance on employer-sponsored health plan coverage of the new weight loss drugs, Mounjaro, Saxenda, and Wegovy. OPM has already decided that FEHB carriers will oprovidecoverage of one or more of these drugs in their 2024 formularies. Currently, carriers are developing their 2024 benefit and rate proposals.

The FEHBlog has flipped his lid because he discovered that OPM hhadrefreshed its FEHB carrier website. This merits further investigation.

The Wall Street Journal reports

Federal health regulators are nearing a decision on whether to authorize a second round of the Omicron-targeted booster shots for the elderly and other people at high-risk of severe Covid-19, people familiar with the agency’s deliberations said.

Food and Drug Administration officials could make the decision within a few weeks, the people said.

The officials are moving toward authorizing the second jabs of the Omicron-targeted shots for people who are 65 years and older or who have weakened immune systems, though the officials haven’t reached a final decision and could change their mind, one of the people said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would then have to recommend the shots for them to become widely available. 

From the primary care front, Healthcare Finance informs us

People are shifting away from traditional primary care providers, with about three in 10 foregoing primary care altogether between 2016 and 2022, according to FAIR Health’s new analysis of private claims data.

That number, though, ranged from a high of 43% in Tennessee to a low of 16% in Massachusetts, suggesting significant regional variations. Of the providers who performed primary care services in that time, 56% were physicians, while 44% were nonphysicians. * * *

The analysis pointed to evidence showing that primary care improves health regardless of age, sex, race, ethnicity, education, employment, income, health insurance and smoking status. It has also been reported that a gain of 10 additional primary care physicians per 100,000 people is associated with an increase in life expectancy by 51.5 days.

Guiding members to primary care providers is a vital health plan task, in the FEHBlog’s opinion.

From the miscellany department —

  • Health IT Analytics highlights, “Researchers from Utica University recently leveraged socioeconomic data to gain insights into generational poverty and other health equity barriers that impact patients’ ability to prioritize their health to improve clinical outcomes.”Hela
  • Health Payer Intelligence relates, “The National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions (National Alliance) has announced the publication of its playbook which aims to encourage biosimilar adoption among employers.”
  • EHR Intelligence informs us, “Nuance Communications, a Microsoft company, has announced Dragon Ambient eXperience (DAX) Express, the first clinical documentation application to combine conversational and ambient artificial intelligence (AI) with OpenAI’s newest model, ChatGPT-4.:

Thursday Miscellany

    Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

    From our Nation’s capital, the President presented his Fiscal Year 2024 budget to Congress today. Roll Call informs us

    While spending would increase by $1.9 trillion over a decade, revenue would increase by $4.7 trillion, for over $2.8 trillion in a 10-year deficit reduction. But according to the Office of Management and Budget’s numbers, the budget shortfall would still total more than $17 trillion over the next decade even if Biden’s plans were fully implemented, which seems unlikely.

    The Wall Street Journal adds, “Biden’s budget shows the rising cost of leaving Medicare and Social Security untouched. In the President’s blueprint, the two programs plus interest consume a sharply growing share of economic output.


    The President’s proposed spending and tax increases will face an unfriendly reception among Republicans in Congress, as lawmakers gear up for a fight over the debt ceiling that could come before the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year. GOP leaders in the House have called for unspecified spending cuts as a condition of raising the federal debt limit. But the president has said he won’t negotiate over raising the debt ceiling.

    Republicans plan to release their own budget proposal in the coming months, though they haven’t agreed on a plan.

    The President will make public more budget details over the next few days. Until then, it’s worth noting that the budget includes the following healthcare proposal

    The budget proposes $11 billion for a five-year effort the White House hopes will eliminate hepatitis C in the U.S., said Dr. Francis Collins, the former National Institutes of Health director who is spearheading the initiative. Drugs to treat the disease have been on the market since 2013, but normally retail for about $24,000 per patient. 

    In related news, the American Hospital Association tells us,

    “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] today recommended screening all U.S. adults at least once in their lifetime for hepatitis B using three laboratory tests. It also expanded risk-based testing recommendations to certain populations and activities with increased risk for the hepatitis B virus.”

    The FEHBlog is unsure how this meshes with the ACA’s preventive services mandate because the current US Preventive Services Task Force recommendation is Grade B for “screening for hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection in adolescents and adults at increased risk for infection.” The CDC’s new recommendation is significantly broader.

    The Office of Personnel Management released on March 7 “a new memorandum today detailing a vision for the future of the workforce: a Federal government with a workforce that is inclusive, agile and engaged, with the right skills to enable mission delivery.”

    From the public health front —

    • The Kaiser Family Foundation notes ten numbers to mark the third anniversary of the Covid pandemic
    • The Dana Farber Cancer Institute highlights a comprehensive article about colon cancer in young adults.
    • The Food and Drug Administration “published updates to the mammography regulations to, among other things, require mammography facilities to notify patients about the density of their breasts, strengthen the FDA’s oversight and enforcement of facilities and help interpreting physicians better categorize and assess mammograms.
    • The New York Times reports, “A review of poisonings among children 5 and younger found that opioids contributed to nearly half of the deaths from 2005 to 2018, largely from accidental overdoses, according to new research. * * * The study, published on Wednesday in the journal Pediatrics, analyzed 731 poisoning-related deaths that occurred from 2005 to 2018 across 40 states.”

    From weight loss drugs front —

    • STAT News continues its reporting on obesity drugs. The latest article concerns “‘Emotional hunger’ vs. ‘hungry gut’: The attempt to subtype obesity and tailor treatments.”
    • Medscape provides the account of a physician who took the new obesity drugs, specifically Ozempic. This article is particularly worth a gander.

    From the SDOH front, Mercer Consulting lays out its latest “Must-Do Strategy: Lean in on Benefits Strategy to Support DEI Goals.”

    From the miscellany department

    • Cigna offers its insights on how to choose among virtual care, urgent care centers, and emergency rooms.
    • Beckers Hospital Review notes
      • “In a March 8 Twitter thread, the FDA acknowledged it’s aware of a potential drug supply disruption after Gurnee, Ill.-based Akorn Operating Co. closed in late February. 
      • “The FDA clarified that the ongoing shortage is of a specific albuterol inhalation solution used in nebulizers, typically in hospitals, for patients having trouble breathing, not in inhalers at the consumer level. The agency said it is working with manufacturers to ease the shortage and “reiterated that outsourcing facilities may compound the specific product.”

    Finally, following up on the FEHBlog’s message to Congress about FEHB prescription drug costs, OPM stated its position against carving out prescription drug coverage from FEHB carrier responsibilities in the agency’s FY 2018 annual financial report on page 123:

    OPM does not concur with OIG’s suggestion that OPM continue to pursue efforts towards a prescription carve-out program. The Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) Program is a market-based program that provides complete health benefits within each FEHB plan. The FEHB Program is not a self-funded plan and its statutory framework does not contemplate it to be the direct payer of benefits. Each FEHB Program plan offers comprehensive medical services including services provided by physicians and other health care professionals, hospital services, surgical services, prescription medications, medical supplies and devices, and mental health services. FEHB Program plans compete to offer all of these benefits in a high quality manner at the most competitive price possible.

    Carving out pharmacy benefits or any of the other services normally covered under an FEHB Program contract and administering the benefit as a separate contract or program, could undermine the fundamental market-based nature ofthe FEHB Program. It would be disruptive and could lead to a reduction in plan participation, and limit the ability of FEHB carriers to focus on comprehensively improving the health of the population. There would likely be less effective

    coordination of medical and pharmacy claims, and potentially less effective, one-size-fits-all pharmacy utilization and disease management programs. OPM is now assessing carrier performance on the basis of clinical quality measures that require tight coordination between medical and pharmacy benefits. A carved out pharmacy benefit is not consistent with or supportive of plan performance assessment, and may impair achievement of OPM’s long-term population health goals. As an example, carriers being held accountable for controlling diabetes and hypertension in the population they serve cannot do so readily if they do not have control over pharmacy benefit design and real time access to adherence data.

    To control the cost of prescription drugs, OPM works with carriers to better manage pharmacy networks, focus on drug utilization techniques, coordinate coverage of specialty drugs between the medical and pharmacy benefit, optimize the prescription drug benefit via formulary design, and implement effective cost comparison tools for members and prospective enrollees. Additionally, OPM notes that the most recent drug trend reported by FEHB carriers showed a significantly slower rate of growth compared with previous years, in line with industry trends.

    This statement continues to warm the FEHBlog’s heart.

    Happy International Women’s Day

    Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

    The Wall Street Journal reports

    American women are staging a return to the workforce that is helping propel the economy in the face of high inflation and rising interest rates.

    Women have gained more jobs than men for four straight months, including in January’s hiring surge, pushing them to hold more than 49.8% of all nonfarm jobs. Female workers last edged higher than men on U.S. payrolls in late 2019, before the pandemic sent nearly 12 million women out of jobs, compared with 10 million men. 

    The Society for Human Resource Management offers five ways employers can reduce gender disparities at work.

    Following up on recent posts —

    • The Wall Street Journal brings us up to date on Lilly’s decision to offer its insulin products on the commercial market with a $35 copayment.
      • “Lilly comes out the winner of this saga, for now. It dealt PBMs a blow, avoided paying Medicaid rebates that were going to rise next year if its insulin products remained highly-priced, and received plaudits from President Biden. The move also complicates matters for upstarts such as Civica. But Allan Coukell, Civica’s senior vice president of public policy, says plans to introduce low-cost insulin as soon as next year are unchanged.”
    • Bloomberg offers an article on biological age testing that mentions Elysium Health, whose CEO spoke at the WSJ Health Forum on Monday.
    • Beckers Hospital Review tells us that the Amoxicillin shortage is continuing. Because Amoxicillin is one of several drug shortages, Pharma News Intelligence offers short-term and long-term management strategies to deal with them.
    • STAT News reports
      • Last week, the Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency authorization for the first at-home Covid-19 and flu combination test. The news came just days after the test’s maker, Lucira, filed for bankruptcy, blaming the FDA’s “protracted” approval process for its financial problems.
      • “Now the FDA has released a rare comment clarifying what happened during its authorization process. The new details are raising hopes among other home-test manufacturers that the FDA is becoming more flexible about its requirements for approving at-home flu test kits.”
    • Beckers Payer Issues informs us,” Providers join payers in urging CMS to halt proposed 2024 Medicare Advantage rates.” Good news for AHIP. Healthcare Dive reviews insurer and trade association comments to CMS on this topic.
    • The Wall Street Journal highlights the growing backlog of No Surprises Act arbitrations. The silver lining in this cloud is that the litigation-related backup does not impact the law’s Open Negotiation Process. Providers and payers should work to resolve qualifying payment disputes through that effective process.

    In other news

    • JAMA points out a recent CDC report documenting disparities in mental health-related emergency department care.
    • The Drug Channels blog lists the 15 largest U.S. pharmacies. (Trigger warning the link is principally a sales pitch for Drug Channels, but the information is useful.)
    • MedTech Dive informs us
      • “Abbott received U.S. Food and Drug Administration clearance for what it said will be the first commercially available laboratory blood test to help evaluate traumatic brain injury (TBI), also known as concussion.
      • “The test offers a result in 18 minutes, allowing clinicians to quickly assess patients with concussion and triage them, the company said Tuesday. A negative test result can rule out the need for a CT scan, eliminating wait time at the hospital.
      • “The test runs on Abbott’s Alinity i laboratory instrument, making it widely available to U.S. hospitals, the Chicago area-based company said.”
    • NPR discusses efforts to right various healthcare debt collection wrongs:
      • “Dozens of advocates for patients and consumers, citing widespread harm caused by medical debt, are pushing the Biden administration to take more aggressive steps to protect Americans from medical bills and debt collectors.
      • “In letters to the IRS and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the groups call for new federal rules that, among other things, would prohibit debt for medically necessary care from appearing on consumer credit reports.
      • “Advocates also want the federal government to bar nonprofit hospitals from selling patient debt or denying medical care to people with past-due bills, practices that remain widespread across the U.S., KHN found.
      • “And the groups are pressing the IRS to crack down on nonprofit hospital systems that withhold financial assistance from low-income patients or make getting aid cumbersome, another common obstacle KHN documented.”

    FEHBlog message to Congress

    • FEDWeek reports
      • The House Oversight and Accountability Committee has started an investigation into the role of “pharmacy benefit managers” (PBMs), which act as a middleman between insurance carriers and pharmaceutical companies in healthcare programs, including the FEHB.
      • “Greater transparency in the PBM industry is vital to determine the impact PBM tactics are having on patients and the pharmaceutical market,” chairman Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., wrote to OPM. He asked for copies of the PBM contracts in the program and information on how they are carried out, as well as for information on the rebates, fees, or other similar charges received by PBMs and any efforts the agency has made to recoup overpayments to them.”
      • “The use of pharmacy benefit managers has been a long-running issue in the FEHB, with prior proposals—mainly sponsored by Democrats, unsuccessfully—to limit their role or even have OPM negotiate with pharmaceutical companies directly on a program-wide basis.
      • “The inspector general’s office at OPM also has raised that issue, in a recent report saying that “the discounts and other financial terms differed significantly among carriers, with those that have higher enrollments receiving the best deals, reducing the likelihood that the FEHB is maximizing prescription drug savings.” 
      • “That report recommended that OPM conduct a study on options to hold down prescription drug costs, which account for a quarter of all spending in the FEHB. OPM agreed in principle, although it said it does not have the needed funds to conduct such a study.”
    • OPM should inform Rep. Comer that
      • The FEHB Program’s experience-rated carriers, who cover 80% of the FEHB enrollment, are subject to the country’s strictest PBM price transparency arrangement, as far as the FEHBlog knows. Congress should evaluate that system to help the legislative body decide whether transparency should be expanded to ERISA and ACA marketplace plans.
      • In the late 2010s, OPM announced in a management report that the agency agreed with carriers that the FEHB Program saves money by allowing carriers to manage medical and pharmacy benefits under OPM’s oversight. FEHB plan carrier HealthPartners offers a useful examination of carve-in vs. carve-out Rx program management topics.
      • OPM has authorized FEHB carriers to offer prescription drug plans integrated with Medicare Part D beginning in 2024. This change will rapidly reduce the FEHB Program’s prescription drug spend to commercial plan levels. It’s not magic.
      • In sum, the FEHB Program remains a model employer-sponsored health program.

    Weekend update

    Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

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

    As we close out Black History Month, let’s join the Trust for American Health in celebrating notable African American in public health.

    From the Covid front, the Wall Street Journal reports

    The U.S. Energy Department has concluded that the Covid pandemic most likely arose from a laboratory leak, according to a classified intelligence report recently provided to the White House and key members of Congress.

    The shift by the Energy Department, which previously was undecided on how the virus emerged, is noted in an update to a 2021 document by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines’s office.

    The new report highlights how different parts of the intelligence community have arrived at disparate judgments about the pandemic’s origin. The Energy Department now joins the Federal Bureau of Investigation in saying the virus likely spread via a mishap at a Chinese laboratory. Four other agencies, along with a national intelligence panel, still judge that it was likely the result of a natural transmission, and two are undecided.

    From the miscellany department —

    • Fortune Well provides us with insights on how to manage a life-threatening diagnosis.
    • Health Payer Intelligence tells us what payers can expect to find in the proposed CMS electronic prior authorization rule. The public comment deadline on the rule is March 13, 2023

    Thursday Miscellany

    Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

    From our Nation’s capital

    • Govexec informs us that the President “doubled down Thursday on his administration’s commitment to using the federal government’s power to support underserved communities and advance racial equity.  A new executive order issued by the president builds on one he signed his first day in office as well as other executive and legislative actions.”
    • “The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Department of Labor, and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) have developed and launched a new portal on USAJOBS for prospective Federal interns. Located at intern.usajobs.gov, the Federal Internship Portal is a one-stop shop for prospective interns to find opportunities and apply for internships in the Federal government.”
    • The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee held a hearing on PBM transparency and accountability, which Fierce Healthcare describes as the hearing as “heated.”
    • The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee held a hearing on healthcare workforce shortages, which Fierce Healthcare describes as the beginning of “a major effort to shore up the healthcare workforce after lingering shortages have roiled the industry.”
    • The U.S. Commissioner of Food and Drugs updated the public on his agency’s efforts prevent drug overdoses and reduce deaths.
      • In related news from MedPage Today, “Advisors to the FDA unanimously recommended the agency approve the first over-the-counter (OTC) naloxone (Narcan) product, though many committee members expressed continued concern about user instructions for the opioid overdose reversal drug. * * *While the FDA is not required to follow the recommendations of its advisory committees, it typically does.”

    From the medical research front

    • STAT News tells us, “A team of researchers from Stanford and University of California San Francisco have built a predictive model that uses electronic health records to calculate the risk of sepsis, cerebral palsy, and other serious conditions in newborns. The team trained a deep learning model on health records from more than 30,000 mother-newborn pairs treated in the Stanford health system, building a neural network that could predict 24 different health outcomes. The researchres, who also published an interactive website for readers to explore the network’s data. said the predictions outperformed currently-used risk scores.” 
    • Nature explains “How a pioneering diabetes drug teplizumab offers hope for preventing autoimmune disorders. Approving an antibody therapy that pauses the progression of type 1 diabetes is a first in the field, and some say, a model for other drug developers.
    • The National Institutes of Health disclosed that “Black and Hispanic Americans appear to experience more symptoms and health problems related to long COVID, a lay term that captures an array of symptoms and health problems, than white people, but are not as likely to be diagnosed with the condition, according to new research funded by the National Institutes of Health. The findings – from two different studies by NIH’s Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery (RECOVER) Initiative – add to a growing body of research aimed to better understand the complex symptoms and other issues associated with long COVID that millions have experienced.”
    • The All of Us program shared its research roundup, focusing on heart disease this month.
    • The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation offers an award-winning scholar’s “Lessons From the Intersection of Race, Inequality, and Health.”
    • The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review “released a Draft Evidence Report assessing the comparative clinical effectiveness and value of resmetirom (Madrigal Pharmaceuticals, Inc.) and obeticholic acid (Ocaliva®, Intercept Pharmaceuticals, Inc.) for non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). This preliminary draft marks the midpoint of ICER’s eight-month process of assessing these treatments, and the findings within this document should not be interpreted to be ICER’s final conclusions.

    From the U.S. healthcare business front —

    • Beckers Payer Issues identified over thirty payers who made Forbes rankings of top U.S. employers.
    • Beckers also reports, “A federal judge granted Cigna a temporary restraining order in its lawsuit alleging former executive Amy Bricker’s departure for rival CVS Health violated a noncompete agreement, Bloomberg Law reported Feb. 15.”  A TRO is a short duration order that allows the court time to consider awarding a preliminary injunction.
    • According to Healthcare Dive
      • CommonSpirit Health announced Wednesday that it will acquire regional health system Steward Health Care in Utah for $685 million.
      • The deal marks CommonSpirit’s entry into Utah, expanding the hospital operator’s footprint to a total of 22 states.
      • CommonSpirit will acquire five hospitals from Steward, along with more than 40 clinics and other ambulatory services, the system said. The deal is expected to close later this year. CommonSpirit’s Centura Health will manage the Utah sites.
    • Also from Healthcare Dive
      • Wednesday is the last day that LHC Group will trade on the Nasdaq, suggesting UnitedHealth will complete its acquisition of the home health business prior to market open on Thursday.
      • LHC’s stock will be halted aftermarket on Wednesday, according to a Nasdaq notice. As a result, the merger is tentatively scheduled to close the next morning, subject to pending regulatory approvals.
      • Speculation that the Federal Trade Commission will move to block the $5.4 billion deal has been rampant, but reports late last month suggest that regulators are unlikely to challenge the transaction. 
      • Louisiana-based LHC is a major player in the home health space, with more than 960 locations in 37 states and $2.2 billion in revenue last year
    • The Baton Rouge Business Report discusses a foundation that would be created in the wake of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana sale would have more than $3 billion in assets. The Accelerate Louisiana Initiative, as the foundation would be called, would be one of the largest private foundations in the nation, says Cindy Wakefield with BCBSLA. 
    • Fierce Healthcare reports, “EHR provider Elation Health announced its acquisition of medical billing company Lightning MD. The growth adds a piece to the Elation puzzle as it seeks to become the sector’s first all-in-one technology solution for primary care practices, the company said.”

    From the miscellany department —

    • Health Payer Intelligence reports, “AHIP Asks CMS to Reconsider Proposed Medicare Advantage Policy Changes. The extensive policy changes included in the proposed rule will negatively impact Medicare Advantage beneficiaries and plans, AHIP said.” It’s easier to write up orders than to implement them.
    • CMS announced that “a new chart titled Top 10 Section 111 Group Health Plan Reporting Errors, covering the July 1 – December 31, 2022, is now available in the Download section below.  Descriptions of these and all reporting errors are available for review in the GHP User Guide.”
    • WTW explains “What the end of the COVID-19 emergencies will mean for group health plans.”