Midweek Update

Midweek Update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • Politico reports,
    • “Congress is out of town this week and facing another government shutdown deadline with major health care implications.
    • “Lawmakers are confronted with two deadlines — March 1 for funding for the FDA and the VA and March 8 for HHS funding.
    • “It’s a key week for Congressional appropriators. How much progress they make now will determine whether lawmakers have to turn to another temporary spending package.
    • E”ven though Congress is away, negotiations continue, and key lawmakers are “encouraged” about the prospect of reaching a deal.
    • “But as POLITICO’s Caitlin Emma and Jennifer Scholtes report, there’s skepticism about whether the progress is being made quickly enough, according to sources familiar with the talks. Legislative text for some fiscal 2024 measures should ideally be finalized by this weekend to allow time for the Congressional Budget Office to pore over the bills and top lawmakers to calculate their next steps.”
  • Govexec offers a Kevin Moss article about OPM’s recent call letter for 2024 benefit and rate proposals for FEHB and PSHBP coverage. Bear in mind that the article does not appreciate the fact the Part D EGWP plans integrate Medicare and FEHB / PSHB coverage so that if Medicare does not cover a particular drug, like an obesity treatment, the FEHB / PSHB coverage will kick in.
  • FEDWeek discusses an OPM Inspector General report criticizing OPM’s FEHB disputed claims resolution process. The FEHBlog thinks that OPM does a good job with this process. Of course, any process can be improved but at what cost?
  • Healthcare Dive tells us,
    • “The CMS finalized a rule on Tuesday recalculating disproportionate share hospital payments, or reimbursements for hospitals serving a high proportion of low-income patients. Under the new definition, hospitals can only receive reimbursements for services rendered to beneficiaries for whom Medicaid is their primary insurer. 
    • “Congress tasked the CMS with clarifying DSH calculations in its Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. The final rule aims to reduce DSH overpayments by limiting hospitals’ ability to receive government and private payer funds for the same service, according to the rule.
    • I”n total, the CMS’ new calculations will result in an $8 billion reduction in DSH payments annually from fiscal year 2024 to 2027, according to the rule.” 
  • Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employee Benefit Security, Lisa Gomez, posted a blog entry about how to use your employer sponsored health benefits to improve heart health.
  • The Government Accountability Office issued a report on maternal health.
    • “Hundreds of women in the U.S. die each year from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth—a crisis exacerbated by COVID-19. The Department of Health and Human Services is working to address the crisis and meet long-term goals such as increasing women’s access to high-quality maternal care.
    • “As of September 2023, HHS hasn’t determined how it’ll measure progress toward achieving its maternal health goals. Following key performance measurement practices—such as setting near-term goals and establishing timeframes for results—would allow the agency to better understand if its efforts are effective. We recommended that HHS do so.”
  • The National Institutes of Health announced,
    • “launch[ing] a clinical trials network to evaluate emerging technologies for cancer screening. The Cancer Screening Research Network (CSRN) will support the Biden-Harris administration’s Cancer Moonshot℠ by investigating how to identify cancers earlier, when they may be easier to treat. Eight groups have received funding from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of NIH, to carry out the initial activities of the network.
    • “There are many cancers we still cannot reliably detect until it is so late that they become extremely difficult to treat,” said W. Kimryn Rathmell, M.D., Ph.D., director of NCI. “Emerging technologies such as multi-cancer detection tests could transform cancer screening and help to extend the lives of many more people. We need to be sure that these technologies work and understand how to use them so they benefit everyone.”
    • “Studies are needed, for example, to evaluate the benefits and harms of promising new technologies for cancer screening and to determine how best to incorporate these technologies into the standard of care.”
    • “In 2024, the network will launch a pilot study, known as the Vanguard Study on Multi-Cancer Detection, to address the feasibility of using multi-cancer detection (MCD) tests in future randomized controlled trials. MCDs are blood tests that can screen for several types of cancers. The study will enroll up to 24,000 people to inform the design of a much larger randomized controlled trial. This larger trial will evaluate whether the benefits of using MCD tests to screen for cancer outweigh the harms, and whether they can detect cancer early in a way that reduces deaths.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • KFF informs us,
    • The United States is knee-deep in what some experts call the opioid epidemic’s “fourth wave,” which is not only placing drug users at greater risk but is also complicating efforts to address the nation’s drug problem.
    • These waves, according to a report out today from Millennium Health, began with the crisis in prescription opioid use, followed by a significant jump in heroin use, then an increase in the use of synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
    • The latest wave involves using multiple substances at the same time, combining fentanyl mainly with either methamphetamine or cocaine, the report found. “And I’ve yet to see a peak,” said one of the co-authors, Eric Dawson, vice president of clinical affairs at Millennium Health, a specialty laboratory that provides drug testing services to monitor use of prescription medications and illicit drugs. * * *
    • Methamphetamine, a highly addictive drug often in powder form that poses several serious cardiovascular and psychiatric risks, was found in 60% of fentanyl-positive tests last year. That is an 875% increase since 2015. * * *
    • Among the report’s other key findings:
      • The nationwide spike in methamphetamine use alongside fentanyl marks a change in drug use patterns.
      • Polydrug use trends complicate overdose treatments. For instance, though naloxone, an opioid-overdose reversal medication, is widely available, there isn’t an FDA-approved medication for stimulant overdose.
      • Both heroin and prescribed opioid use alongside fentanyl have dipped. Heroin detected in fentanyl-positive tests dropped by 75% since peaking in 2016. Prescription opioids were found at historic low rates in fentanyl-positive tests in 2023, down 89% since 2013.
  • MedPage Today points out,
    • “Annual breast cancer screening at ages 40 to 79 resulted in the greatest reduction in mortality, according to a study comparing various screening scenarios.
    • “Using Cancer Intervention and Surveillance Modeling Network (CISNET) estimates of breast cancer screening outcomes published in 2009, 2016, and 2023, mortality was reduced by 41.7% with annual screening starting at age 40 and continuing up to age 79, reported Debra L. Monticciolo, MD, of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, and colleagues.”
  • AP reports,
    • “Emily Hollenbeck lived with a deep, recurring depression she likened to a black hole, where gravity felt so strong and her limbs so heavy she could barely move. She knew the illness could kill her. Both of her parents had taken their lives. 
    • “She was willing to try something extreme: Having electrodes implanted in her brain as part of an experimental therapy.
    • “Researchers say the treatment —- called deep brain stimulation, or DBS — could eventually help many of the nearly 3 million Americans like her with depression that resists other treatments. It’s approved for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy, and many doctors and patients hope it will become more widely available for depression soon.”
  • Fierce Healthcare lets us know,
    • “Given the impact that social factors have on overall health, employers can better manage costs and outcomes by embracing deeper, population-level data analysis, according to a new white paper.
    • “UnitedHealthcare and the Health Action Council (HAC), a nonprofit that represents large and midsize employers, dug into community health data from HAC’s plan sponsors representing 217,779 workers. The analysis found that 52% of adults have at least one social determinant of health risk.
    • “Of that group, 10% faced three or more risks, and 16% had two risk factors. Twenty-six percent have one SDOH risk factor, according to the report.
    • “Craig Kurtzweil, chief data and analytics officer for UnitedHealthcare Employer and Individual, told Fierce Healthcare that the study “gives us a first of its kind sort of view of all the different variables that are impacting the health of various communities and employers.”
    • “As you dive a little bit further, it just becomes a bit remarkable how much of an impact those factors are making,” he said.”
  • Becker’s Hospital Review brings us up to date on prescription drug shortages.

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Healthcare Dive reports,
    • “St. Louis-based Ascension Healthcare brought in $231 million in operating income during its second quarter 2024 ended Dec. 31, compared to an operating loss of $291 million during the prior-year period.
    • “Ascension attributed its operational improvement in part to volume growth. Inpatient admissions increased 0.5% in thesix months ended Dec. 31, with same-facility admissions increasing 1.2% for the same period year over year.
    • “The health system said it slowed the pace of expense growth during the quarter. Total salaries, wages and benefits decreased $152 million in the six months ended Dec. 31, totaling $54.9 million for the quarter, as Ascension outsourced lab services and continued retention programs to reduce dependence on pricey staffing agencies.”
  • STAT News notes,
    • DarioHealth, which makes apps for managing chronic diseases, today announced it will acquire digital mental health company Twill for $10 million in cash plus stock valued at over $20 million at the end of Tuesday trading. The move is a bet that a consolidated offering can attract a critical mass of large customers in a market where profits have been elusive.
    • “Founded in 2011, Dario started with a diabetes app targeted at consumers before expanding it to hypertension and weight management. It still maintains that direct-to-consumer business but has since shifted its focus to selling its suite of offerings, including a musculoskeletal care program it acquired in 2021, to health plans and employers in the hopes of reaching much larger patient populations. Recent updates aimed at making itself attractive to clients include a new offering built around popular, and expensive, GLP-1 weight loss drugs, and published real world data suggesting its tools can save clients money on downstream health care costs. With Twill, Dario adds a mental health app and related services, addressing a top demand of employers.”
  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “Teladoc offered a weaker-than-expected forecast for 2024, projecting slower revenue growth as the telehealth market has become crowded with digital health players.
    • “The virtual care giant pulled in $661 million in revenue in the fourth quarter of 2024, up 4% from $638 million in the same period a year ago. Access fees revenue grew 4% to $574 million, and other revenue grew 3% to $87 million. U.S. revenue grew 2% to $565 million, and international revenue grew 15% to $96 million.
    • “The company’s BetterHelp virtual mental health business saw flat growth in the fourth quarter, bringing in $277 million. The weakness in BetterHelp sales was the result of lower direct-to-consumer marketing yield.
  • Beckers Payer Issues offers an interview with an Aetna Executive about the company’s Medicare Advantage business.
  • MedCity News calls our attention to a continuing interoperability problem.
    • “The healthcare industry has notoriously struggled with disconnected data systems and a lack of interoperability. When health information cannot be easily exchanged between different systems and providers, it leads to fragmented care, medical errors and delays in treatment — not to mention an incredible amount of frustration and inconvenience for both providers and patients.
    • “Software developers have been working hard in recent years to create tools and data sharing standards that foster a more cohesive and integrated approach. However, these tools have a serious adoption problem, experts said last week during a virtual panel held by Reuters Events.
    • “Alistair Erskine, Emory Healthcare’s chief information and digital officer, pointed out that most provider referrals are still done by fax, even though there are tools available to send them digitally. Most providers use EHRs that are able to pull a patient’s health information and transport it to the EHR of the new provider to whom they’ve been referred, he said.
    • “Despite data sharing standards like FHIR and DICOM — and despite “the fact that the data has already been digitized” — completing a provider referral is still not a smooth process, Erskine remarked. He stated that 98% of referrals are done by fax even though they could “of course” be done electronically.
    • “Even though the standards are there, we have to make sure that people safely log into their systems, and we have to make sure that people are able to find their patient in their systems. And if you navigate from one system to the next, that presents a barrier to entry. It’s easier to just take a piece of paper, write what you need and send it in a fax,” Erskine explained.”

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • Beckers Health IT informs us,
    • “U.S. lawmakers introduced bipartisan legislation Feb. 16 to better match patients with their EHRs.
    • “U.S. Reps. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., and Bill Foster, PhD, D-Ill., sponsored the Patient Matching and Transparency in Certified Health IT, or MATCH IT, Act of 2024.
    • “Patient matching errors have led to unnecessary expenses, medical mistakes, and even patient deaths,” Mr. Kelly said in a Feb. 16 news release. “This bipartisan legislation works to improve interoperability between healthcare systems and decrease these fixable matching errors, all while protecting patient privacy.”
  • STAT News tells us,
    • “Nearly four decades after its first conception, the first TIL therapy, an immunotherapy that harvests cancer-fighting immune cells from the patient’s own body, received accelerated approval from the Food and Drug Administration for advanced melanoma. The therapy, called Amtagvi or lifileucel from Iovance, is the first cell therapy approved for a solid tumor.
    • “It’s so exciting and gratifying,” said Allison Betof Warner, a cell therapy researcher and physician at Stanford University who has worked on Amtagvi. “This is a game-changing moment for our field. We’ve seen huge success of cellular therapy for hematologic malignancies, and we’ve yet to capitalize on that for solid tumors. This is hopefully the first of many to come.”
    • “In a Phase 2 clinical trial, titled C-144-01, 153 patients who had already been on a median of three prior lines of therapy received lifileucel, and 31% of them responded to therapy. “These are in very late line patients. They’ve exhausted every standard care option,” Betof Warner said. “The most promising part of this therapy for me is that 42% of patients who responded were still responding for 18 months or longer. It’s truly incredible.”
    • “The therapy is not expected to work for every patient, partially because the regimen has high toxicity. It will also be expensive. The therapy is expected to be priced at $515,000.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review adds, “Buzz for gene therapies is loud, but drugmakers struggle to get treatments off the ground.”
    • “A major barrier for many companies in the space is sheer cost to develop these advanced medical therapies. Though the Biden administration and CMS announced Jan. 30 plans to bring down prices for gene edited therapies, progress will take time. 
    • “The number of patients being treated with the existing gene therapies that are approved and available on the market is expected to decline year over year by nearly 33%, according to Bloomberg.”
  • Per the Food and Drug Administration,
    • “On Friday, the FDA published an Outbreak Advisory for an investigation of E. coli O157:H7 linked to raw cheddar cheese. The FDA recommends that consumers, restaurants, and retailers do not eat, sell, or serve Raw Farm-brand Raw Cheddar Cheese (block or shredded) and to throw it away. This is an ongoing investigation and the FDA will update the Advisory should additional consumer safety information become available.”
  • BioPharma Dive reports,
    • “AstraZeneca’s targeted cancer therapy Tagrisso can now be used alongside chemotherapy to treat a common type of locally advanced or metastatic lung tumor, following a Food and Drug Administration approval Friday.
    • “The FDA cleared Tagrisso together with chemotherapy based on results showing the combination reduced the risk of disease progression or death versus Tagrisso alone, which is currently the first-line standard for non-small cell lung cancer that harbors mutations in a gene known as EGFR.
    • “Over the weekend, meanwhile, AstraZeneca reported new clinical trial data showing Tagrisso outperformed placebo following chemoradiotherapy for Stage 3 EGFR-mutated non-small cell lung cancer that couldn’t be surgically removed. The results, which AstraZeneca will share with regulators, could further support early use of Tagrisso.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • Axios points out,
    • “More than half of U.S. newborns now appear to be protected by new RSV vaccines, according to updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
    • Why it matters: The virus is considered the second leading cause of death worldwide during the first year of a child’s life. The data suggests demand was strong despite broader vaccine skepticism and the potential for confusion over more childhood immunization options.”
  • The Wall Street Journal discusses a related RSV vaccine (Beyfortus) shortage — “A new antibody that protects babies from a deadly virus proved far more popular than drugmaker Sanofi expected.”
    • Beyfortus seller Sanofi in March last year set aggressive targets for how many doses to make, yet still underestimated demand. Some pediatricians delayed ordering immunizations because they didn’t know whether insurers would cover the $495 doses. And the U.S. government decided in August—months after Sanofi had locked in the number of doses it would make—to add the shot to the Vaccines for Children program, a federal initiative that covers children who are uninsured or on Medicaid, buying more than half of the doses.
    • Sanofi said it sought to distribute its shots equitably in the face of “unprecedented” demand and is working to increase supply for the next RSV season. 
  • HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research issued a Medical Expenditure Panel Survey about “Characteristics of Young Adults Aged 18-24 Who Had Ever Used an Electronic Nicotine Product, 2021.”
    • “Nearly one-third (30.6 percent) of U.S. adults ages 18-24 reported ever having used an electronic nicotine product.
    • “More than one-third (38.3 percent) of non-Hispanic White young adults reported ever having used an electronic nicotine product, nearly double the rate for Hispanic young adults and 12 percentage points higher than for non-Hispanic Black young adults.”
  • Medpage Today notes,
    • “Nearly all medication abortions obtained via telehealth, whether via video or secure text messaging, were completed without further intervention and without adverse events, the prospective CHAT study found.
    • “Among over 6,000 abortions, 97.7% (95% CI 97.2-98.1) were completed without further intervention, and the completion rate was similar for patients who had video calls (98.3%) or used text messaging (97.4%), reported Ushma Upadhyay, PhD, MPH, of the University of California San Francisco, and colleagues.
    • “Less than 1% of patients had a serious abortion-related adverse event (0.25%) or were treated for an ectopic pregnancy (0.16%), and 1.3% of abortions were followed by emergency department visits, the authors wrote in Nature Medicine.”
  • The FEHBlog has subscribed to a Substack series called “Your Local Epidemiologist.”
    • “Your Local Epidemiologist (YLE)” is written by Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, M.P.H. Ph.D.—an epidemiologist, wife, and mom of two little girls. During the day, she is a senior scientific consultant to several organizations, including CDC. At night, she writes this newsletter. Her main goal is to “translate” the ever-evolving public health world so that people will be well-equipped to make evidence-based decisions. This newsletter is free, thanks to the generous support of fellow YLE community members.”
    • Check it out.
  • Medpage Today offers an expert medical opinion concerning
    • “News surfaced last week suggesting a potential shift in COVID-19 isolation guidanceopens in a new tab or windowfrom the CDC. The planned guidance, which is expected to be released this spring for public comment, indicates a significant switch in how COVID-19 is conceptualized. The guidance would bring COVID-19 into line with how other common respiratory viruses are managed: with isolation recommended until the individual has mild and improving symptoms, and is fever-free (without pharmaceutical aid) for 24 hours.”
    • “With the news of the proposed guidance, many voices rose up to immediately attack the proposed guidance as a capitulation and not evidence-based. This was similar to the refrain from opponents when the federal or state governments dropped or loosened mask requirements or guidance.
    • I was not one of themopens in a new tab or window.
    • “Indeed, I welcome the proposed guidance change because it reflects the progress that has been made in the management of COVID-19. When evaluating this guidance, it is critical to understand that SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19, is situated among the myriad respiratory viruses that infect humans.”
  • Medscape lets us know,
    • “Availability of telehealth services for mental healthcare varies widely from state to state, a new study shows. One fifth of all facilities contacted reported no mental telehealth options and wait times for those that did ranged from 4 days to > 2 months, depending on the state.”
  • The National Institutes of Health announced,
    • “To prevent an emerging genomic technology from contributing to health disparities, a scientific team funded by the National Institutes of Health has devised new ways to improve a genetic testing method called a polygenic risk score. Since polygenic risk scores have not been effective for all populations, the researchers recalibrated these genetic tests using ancestrally diverse genomic data. As reported in Nature Medicine, the optimized tests provide a more accurate assessment of disease risk across diverse populations.
    • “Genetic tests look at the small differences between individuals’ genomes, known as genomic variants, and polygenic risk scores are tools for assessing many genomic variants across the genome to determine a person’s risk for disease. As the use of polygenic risk scores grows, one major concern is that the genomic datasets used to calculate the scores often heavily overrepresent people of European ancestry.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Healthcare Dive reports,
    • “After federal legislation protecting consumers from surprise medical bills was implemented, a growing number of medical claims were in network, according to a new analysis.
    • “The No Surprises Act went into effect on Jan. 1, 2022. From the fourth quarter of 2021 to the first quarter of 2022, in-network care as a percentage of all claim lines nationally increased 2.3%, according to the study by nonprofit Fair Health.
    • “It’s the latest research suggesting No Surprises has been successful in lowering the amount of unexpected out-of-network bills, though the rollout of the law has been tied up in lawsuits, and regulators currently face a backlog of billing disputes between payers and providers.”
  • and
    • “Insurers brace for continued Medicare Advantage medical costs. The big question coming out of the health insurance earnings season is how much elevated utilization among seniors is carrying over into 2024.”
  • EndPoint News points out,
    • “Cigna’s venture unit just made a bet on a startup focused on cardiometabolic conditions that wants to play a role in prescribing GLP-1 medications.
    • 9amHealth said on Tuesday it raised $9.5 million in a Series A extension led by The Cigna Group Ventures. It adds to $16 million from the Series A raised in April 2022 by the startup, which provides virtual visits, prescriptions and lab tests related to conditions like hypertension, type 2 diabetes and weight management.”
    • “Cigna’s investment comes as health plans and pharmacy benefit managers (the PBM Express Scripts is a subsidiary of Cigna) are grappling with how to cover the high cost of GLP-1 medications for conditions like type 2 diabetes and weight loss. It’s among the first investments from an insurance company’s venture arm into a startup prescribing the drugs, which have turned into huge blockbusters and prompted broad conversations about their cost — and benefit — to the healthcare system.”
  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “Pharmaceutical companies are spending billions of dollars to develop drugs that can target cancer like guided missiles.
    • “Therapies known as antibody-drug conjugates, which help deliver chemotherapy directly to tumors, have gotten most of the attention and are farthest along: 
    • Pfizer’s $43 billion acquisition of biotech Seagen Inc. last year underscored how hot the field has become. 
    • “More quietly, a concept known as radiopharmaceuticals is also gaining ground. In recent months, interest in this space has led to a rise in dealmaking. The idea is similar to ADCs in that a patient receives an old treatment—in this case, a radioactive particle instead of chemotherapy drugs—but it is bound with a molecule that can chase down tumor cells. The technology is at a more nascent stage, but a steady growth of venture capital money and acquisitions by large pharmaceutical companies means this could well become a key part of the fight against cancer in the next decade or so.”
  • HR Dive discusses an EEOC lawsuit against a Georgia retirement community “for firing a 78-year-old receptionist after repeatedly asking her to retire. “The right to decide a retirement age lies with an employee, not their employer,” an EEOC official said.

Thursday Miscellany

As you may be able to tell, it’s a late FEHBlog post because the FEHBlog was returning home to Dripping Springs, TX, last night from our Nation’s capital.

In case, here are some highlights from Washington DC.

  • The GAO released a troubling report on our country’s fiscal health this week. Here’s a link to a Wall Street Journal Opinion Watch podcast about the report. The podcast is about 20 minutes long, and it may make your hair stand on edge.
  • Mercer Consulting discusses changes to the RxDC reports due annually on June 1.
    • “CMS released instructions for the third prescription drug data collection (RxDC) reports due June 1, 2024 – and they may cause plan sponsors to reconsider whether they need to make “plan level” submissions, instead of relying on their vendors to make “aggregate” submissions on their behalf. The good news is that the instructions largely mirror prior versions, so plan sponsors should be able to build off prior RxDC reporting efforts. However, for the first time, CMS plans to enforce the “aggregation restriction”—a provision in the 2021 regulations that CMS suspended for the first two reporting cycles. As explained [in the article], the reinstated aggregation restriction may cause headaches for some plan sponsors, who find that they can no longer rely on their PBM’s aggregate submission of pharmacy data but must instead submit plan level data. Other plan sponsors may welcome the opportunity to do a plan level submission so they can obtain otherwise unavailable prescription drug data.”
  • Per Govexec,
    • “With federal budget talks still unresolved less than a month away from Congress’ latest deadline, the Office of Personnel Management said Friday that the decade-long pay freeze for senior political appointees like Vice President Kamala Harris and others will remain in effect.
    • “In a Feb. 9 post, OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said that under January’s continuing resolution that extended federal funding to agencies until March 1 and 8, certain senior political appointees will continue to see their payable pay rates remain at current levels at least through the latter budget deadline, when Congress will have to decide whether it will continue to fund the federal government. 
    • “Future Congressional action will determine whether the pay freeze continues beyond March 8, 2024,” Ahuja said. “Until such time, the OPM guidance issued on Dec. 21, 2023, regarding the pay freeze for certain senior political officials continues to be generally applicable in applying the pay freeze in 2024.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “There isn’t a silver bullet to maintaining mental acuity or warding off dementia [as we age], scientists of aging say. But a combination of genetics, healthy lifestyle habits and factors such as cleaner air and good education have been linked to prolonged mental agility.  * * *
    • “Genetics is thought to play a role in brain maintenance, as does diet, exercise and a person’s risk of vascular disease. More education, mental stimulation and social connectivity have been associated with improved cognitive reserve.
    • “Better brain maintenance and cognitive reserve might help keep symptoms of dementia at bay. Almost 50% of people 40 and older think they will likely develop dementia, according to a 2021 AARP survey. The actual number of U.S. adults 65 and older with dementia is closer to 10%, a 2022 study found. * * *
    • “Sleeping too little—or too much—can also lead to cognitive problems. Activities including yoga and tai chi, the Chinese martial art, could help improve cognitive function, research suggests. 
    • “Hearing loss is a risk factor for dementia, too. Lost hearing might cause the brain to atrophy more quickly and can make people more isolated, said Dr. Dung Trinh, chief medical officer of the Healthy Brain Clinic. Hearing aids can help preserve mental fitness.”
  • AHA News adds,
    • “About half of U.S. health care workers have witnessed racial discrimination against patients and say discrimination against patients is a crisis or major problem, according to a survey released Feb. 15 by the Commonwealth Fund and African American Research Collaborative. Younger workers and workers of color were more likely than their older or white counterparts to say they witnessed discrimination, as were workers at facilities with more patients of color. About six in 10 Black health care workers and four in 10 Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander workers say they have been discriminated against because of their race or ethnicity. 
    • “While most health care workers see positive efforts from employers to address discrimination, a majority of Black, Latino, and AAPI workers worry about retaliation if they raise discrimination concerns. When asked about potential solutions, more than two-thirds of health care workers thought the following could help: providing an easy way to anonymously report situations involving racism or discrimination; creating opportunities to listen to patients and health care professionals of color; examining treatment of non-English-speaking patients; and training health care staff to spot discrimination.” 
  • Employee Benefit News offers three suggestions on how employers can help employees hold cancer at bay with preventive screenings.
    • “A new report from healthcare platform Color Health shows that although 80% of employers are concerned by rising cancer costs and 96% of benefits leaders agree early detection is the best solution, the majority of focus is devoted to post-diagnosis treatment, rather than evidence-based screenings. 
    • “According to the report, three out of four employers say they are placing more emphasis on screening, early detection and risk prevention efforts, but they are going to have to go beyond their current benefits setup: Only a quarter believe their current health plans meet the screening needs of their workforce, and three-quarters say employees are not being adequately screened by their primary care provider. Leaders report that 40% of employees are not compliant with screenings in general, and for the most deadly forms of cancer — lung and bronchus — the American Lung Association reports that only 6% of people eligible get screened. 
    • “The assumption [has been that] if we cover mammograms and colonoscopies and lung CTs, then people will actually get them, and that’s turned out to be false,” says Othman Laraki, Color Health’s CEO. “The big driver for that is that for non-acute care services, availability is not the same thing as access.” 

Midweek Update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

From Washington, DC

  • The American Hospital Association News reports,
    • “The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health Feb. 14 held a hearing on AHA-supported legislation to reauthorize through 2029 the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act (H.R. 7153), which provides grants to help health care organizations offer behavioral health services for front-line health care workers. The bill also would reauthorize a national campaign that provides hospital leaders with evidence-based solutions to support worker well-being. Without congressional action, the law will expire at the end of this year.  
    • “Among other measures, the hearing highlighted legislation (H.R. 6960) to reauthorize the Emergency Medical Services for Children Program, which provides funding for equipment and training to help hospitals and paramedics treat pediatric emergencies. AHA advocated for funding the program at $28 million for fiscal year 2024.”
  • According to HHS press releases,
    • “On Wednesday, February 14, 2024, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra and leaders from across HHS met with state leaders and representatives from the National Governors Association (NGA) to announce the launch of HHS Secretary’s Postpartum Maternal Health Collaborative. The six states that have agreed to participate in the Postpartum Maternal Health Collaborative are Iowa, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, and New Mexico.
    • “This new collaborative seeks to bring together state experts, local providers, community partners, and federal experts to develop a better understanding of the challenges being experienced among the postpartum population and support new solutions that will improve postpartum mortality. In conjunction with this new HHS collaborative, the National Governors Association launched their Improving Maternal and Child Health in Rural America State and Territory Policy Learning Collaborative. This new initiative will focus on implementing policy changes to improve maternal and child health outcomes in rural America.”
  • and
  • and
  • Meritalk adds,
    • “The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) today released its 2023 Equity Action Plan, which spotlights data as a tool to better understand barriers and advance diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) in the Federal workforce.
    • “OPM plans to advance the equitable participation of Federal employees in the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) Program by conduct a mixed methods study that will access and analyze data to identify barriers and potential solutions to accessing health benefits.”
  • Per BioPharma Dive,
    • “The Food and Drug Administration has approved a new regimen for pancreatic cancer, clearing Ipsen’s Onivyde to be used with chemotherapy in treating recently diagnosed metastatic tumors, the company announced Tuesday.
    • “Onivyde, which Ipsen bought from Merrimack Pharmaceuticals seven years ago, has been available for second-line use in pancreatic cancer, after tumor progression. The new OK will give physicians the option to use it earlier.
    • “The FDA’s decision was based on results from a Phase 3 trial Ipsen ran involving 770 people with metastatic pancreatic cancer. The data showed that Onivyde plus the chemo regimen FOLFOX improved survival and delayed tumor progression for longer than a combination of the drugs Abraxane and gemcitabine.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review informs us,
    • “On Feb. 14, the FDA approved Aurlumyn, the nation’s first treatment for severe frostbite. 
    • “Severe frostbite, which is estimated to affect 1% of the general population, happens when the skin and underlying tissue are frozen and blood flow is stopped. Aurlumyn (iloprost) is an injection that works by opening blood vessels, preventing blood from clotting.
    • “The skin damage from severe frostbite sometimes requires finger and toe amputations. In a trial of 47 patients, a bone scan after one week predicted that zero of the 16 study participants who received iloprost alone would need an amputation, compared to 3 of the 16 who received the drug with another experimental frostbite therapy and 9 of 15 who received another unapproved therapy alone. 
    • “Actelion Pharmaceuticals US received the drug approval.” 
  • STAT News tells us,
    • “An advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration voted in favor of a new device from Abbott meant to treat patients with tricuspid heart valve disease. All but one of the 14 panelists said the treatment’s benefits outweighed its risks. The FDA tends to follow advisory panel recommendations.
    • “If we can help symptoms with this at a low cost in terms of risk, I think it makes a lot of sense,” said James Blankenship, a panelist and cardiologist at the University of New Mexico. 
    • “The device is called the TriClip, and it addresses a disease called tricuspid regurgitation: a heart condition that causes blood to leak backward through the tricuspid heart valve. The condition impacts 1.6 million people in the United States. Symptoms include fatigue, swelling, and atypical heart rhythms. In severe cases, the condition can lead to heart failure. 
    • “Current treatment options are drugs to reduce extra fluids or correct heart rhythm, or in more serious cases, surgery to correct the valve. Abbott hopes to cater to patients for whom medications are ineffective and surgery is too risky. The device, which clips together the disparate parts of the valve, is delivered via a catheter rather than open heart surgery.” 
  • Per an HHS press release,
    • “Today the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) jointly issued a Request for Information to understand how the practices of two types of pharmaceutical drug middlemen groups—group purchasing organizations (GPOs) and drug wholesalers—may be contributing to generic drug shortages.
    • “In the Request for Information (RFI) – PDF, the FTC and HHS are seeking public comment regarding market concentration among large health care GPOs and drug wholesalers, as well as information detailing their contracting practices. The joint RFI seeks to understand how both GPOs and drug wholesalers impact the overall generic pharmaceutical market, including how both entities may influence the pricing and availability of pharmaceutical drugs. The joint RFI is asking these questions to help uncover the root causes and potential solutions to drug shortages.”
  • Per Govexec,
    • “Last December, lawmakers included a new provision in the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act clarifying that “honorable” active duty military service will count toward the FMLA’s eligibility requirements, and in turn to the federal workforce’s paid parental leave benefit.
    • “In a memo to agency heads Tuesday, OPM Director Kiran Ahuja outlined how federal agencies should implement the tweak. Specifically, federal employees whose military service would put them over a year of federal service should “immediately” become eligible for the two forms of leave, dating back to Dec. 22, 2023, the day President Biden signed the NDAA into law.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The National Institutes of Health explains,
    • “Women who receive an mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccination or booster during pregnancy can provide their infants with strong protection against symptomatic COVID-19 infection for at least six months after birth, according to a study from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health. These findings, published in Pediatrics(link is external), reinforce the importance of receiving both a COVID-19 vaccine and booster during pregnancy to ensure that infants are born with robust protection that lasts until they are old enough to be vaccinated.
    • “COVID-19 is especially dangerous for newborns and young infants, and even healthy infants are vulnerable to COVID-19 and are at risk for severe disease. No COVID-19 vaccines currently are available for infants under six months old. Earlier results from the Multisite Observational Maternal and Infant COVID-19 Vaccine (MOMIv-Vax) study revealed that when pregnant volunteers received both doses of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine, antibodies induced by the vaccine could be found in their newborns’ cord blood. This suggested that the infants likely had some protection against COVID-19 when they were still too young to receive a vaccine. However, researchers at the NIAID-funded Infectious Diseases Clinical Research Consortium (IDCRC), which conducted the study, did not know how long these antibody levels would last or how well the infants would actually be protected. The research team hoped to gather this information by following the infants through their first six months of life.”
  • STAT News lets us know,
    • “Public health messages have told us for decades that if you smoke, you should quit. And if you don’t smoke, don’t start. But a new study suggests smoking may be even worse than we thought.
    • “The study, published Wednesday in Nature, underscores the importance of never lighting up that first cigarette, based on its conclusion that smoking has much longer harmful effects on immune responses than previously understood.
    • “People who quit smoking soon regained normal function of their immune system’s power to mount fast and general innate responses to bacteria or viruses. But researchers also found that slower, more targeted adaptive T cell defenses remembered from past pathogens did not come back so soon after that last cigarette.
    • “We could see that the effect of active smoking on inflammatory responses to bacterial stimulation were lost when individuals quit smoking,” senior study author Darragh Duffy of the Institut Pasteur said about the innate response on a call with reporters. “In contrast, the effect on the T cell response was maintained for many years after the individuals quit smoking.”
  • STAT News further reports
    • “The HPV vaccine is a success story in some countries, including the U.K., where it beat estimates of how long it would take to nearly eliminate cervical cancer, the disease it is designed to prevent, among young women. And that was more than two years ago. Last month, a study in Scotland found no cases of cervical cancer in women who were vaccinated before age 14. In the U.S., it’s still a work in progress. A CDC report out today tells us that 39% of children age 9 to 17 had received at least one dose of the HPV vaccine, with rates rising with age from 7% in the youngest kids  to 57% in the oldest. Some differences in who got vaccinated:
      • “By insurance: Private health insurance (42%), Medicaid (37%), other government coverage (30%), and no insurance (21%).
      • “By neighborhood: Large central metropolitan areas (4o%), large fringe metropolitan areas (41%), and medium and small metropolitan areas (39%), and nonmetropolitan areas (30%).” 

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Fierce Healthcare points out,
    • “Elevance Health’s $2.5 billion acquisition of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana is on pause yet again amid concerns about the impact on competition.
    • “BCBSLA posted a statement on its website Wednesday, saying that while the insurer wants to find a “strong partner” that can support it into the future, the team has also heard the skepticism in the Pelican State.
    • “We continue to hear from our stakeholders that they want Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana to remain their trusted partner in their healthcare journey, and we pursued this transaction to help us do exactly that — by changing for the better,” the insurer said. “However, it is clear that our stakeholders need more time and information to understand the benefits of the changes we have proposed.”
    • “This is why we have decided to again pause the process in our proposed transaction with Elevance Health,” BCBSLA said.”
  • BioPharma Dive notes,
    • “Sage Therapeutics said its new medicine, the first oral treatment for postpartum depression, is off to an encouraging start, with signs of demand from prescribing doctors.
    • “Sage and partner Biogen began selling the drug, Zurzuvae, in mid-December and on Wednesday Sage shared the first data from an estimated 10 days when doctors’ offices were open at the end of the month. During that time, physicians wrote about 120 prescriptions for the drug and 50 prescriptions were shipped and delivered to patients.”

Happy Lincoln’s Birthday!

Our greatest President, Abraham Lincoln, was born on February 12, 1809, in Hodgenville, Kentucky.  RIP.

From Washington, DC,

  • The Federal Times reports,
    • “By the second week in February lawmakers are supposed to be busy picking apart the White House’ budget request with an eye towards policy debates in coming months. But the process hasn’t worked that way in recent years.
    • “Administration officials earlier this month announced their fiscal 2025 budget proposal would arrive more than a month late — on March 11 — marking the fourth consecutive year that Biden has missed the statutory deadline for a spending plan in early February.”
  • Federal News Network explains,
    • “For decades, Federal Executive Boards have been at the forefront of bridging together the nationwide federal workforce. Stretching from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Boston, Massachusetts — Seattle, Washington, to South Florida, and many places in between, FEBs have a large network already underway. Even so, recent changes to the decades-old program will refresh how FEBs function moving forward.
    • “Federal News Network has spent months connecting with FEB leaders all across the country to learn more about what they do, the impact they have had in their local areas, and their plans in store for the future. Over the next week, we’ll be focusing on four different regions of the country — one per day:
    • Eastern Region (Feb. 12) | Southern Region (Feb. 13) | Central Region (Feb. 14) | Western Region (Feb. 15).”
    • Check it out.
  • According to this press release,
    • “The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), announced today that two additional organizations—CommonWell Health Alliance and Kno2—have been designated as Qualified Health Information Networks™ (QHINs™) capable of nationwide health data exchange governed by the Trusted Exchange Framework and Common AgreementSM (TEFCASM). ONC has led a multi-year, public-private process alongside its Recognized Coordinating Entity®, The Sequoia Project, Inc., to implement TEFCA, which was envisioned by the 21st Century Cures Act to support nationwide interoperability. TEFCA became operational in December 2023 with the designation of the first five QHINs—eHealth Exchange, Epic Nexus, Health Gorilla, KONZA, and MedAllies.
    • “CommonWell Health Alliance and Kno2 can immediately begin supporting the exchange of data under the Common Agreement’s policies and technical requirements along with the other designated QHINs. QHINs are the pillars of TEFCA network-to-network exchange, providing shared services and governance to securely route queries, responses, and messages across networks for health care stakeholders including patients, providers, hospitals, health systems, payers, and public health agencies.”
  • STAT News reports,
    • “A federal district judge [in Austin, Texas] on Monday granted the Biden administration’s request to dismiss a lawsuit challenging Medicare’s new drug price negotiation program from the drug industry lobbying organization PhRMA. * * *
    • “However this [decision] wasn’t about the substance of those groups’ arguments. The Texas judge dismissed one of the co-plaintiffs, the National Infusion Center Association, from the case because it didn’t have subject matter jurisdiction to bring the lawsuit. And because NICA was the only party to the lawsuit in Texas, the whole case got tossed.
    • “That means the Biden administration still has to brace for battles in Washington D.C., New Jersey, and Delaware, where a judge recently heard arguments in an AstraZeneca suit against the negotiation plan.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • MedPage Today points out,
    • “Blood protein profiles predicted future dementia in healthy adults, a large longitudinal study showed.
    • “Blood samples from over 50,000 people in the U.K. Biobank showed that four proteins — glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP), neurofilament light (NfL), growth differentiation factor-15 (GDF-15), and latent-transforming growth factor beta-binding protein 2 (LTBP2) — consistently were associated with subsequent all-cause dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or vascular dementia over 14 years, according to Jin-Tai Yu, MD, PhD, of Fudan University in Shanghai, and co-authors.”
  • The Hill reports,
    • A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the rate of preterm births rose by 12 percent nationally between 2014 and 2022. 
    • Manisha Gandhi, chair of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Clinical Practice Guidelines Committee, told The Hill’s Alejandra O’Connell-Domenech that several factors could be at play. 
    • “We are seeing more patients with obesity, higher risks for hypertension or preeclampsia … seeing more diabetes,” Gandhi said. “Potentially some of those risk factors that lead to earlier delivery could be playing a role.” 
    • Environmental factors such as exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals and air pollution may also be contributing to the rise in preterm births. 
  • The Wall Street Journal lets us know,
    • “Uterine is the only cancer for which survival has fallen in the past four decades, the American Cancer Society said. The disease will kill some 13,250 women in the U.S. this year, the group estimates, surpassing ovarian cancer to become the deadliest gynecologic cancer. 
    • “Case rates have been increasing by about 1% annually over the past decade, with steeper rises for Black and Hispanic women. Rising obesity rates are partly to blame because excess weight increases estrogen levels that can fuel the cancer, researchers said. And fewer women are getting their uteruses removed to treat abnormal bleeding or noncancerous fibroids, leaving them exposed to the risk cancer develops in the organ as they age.
    • “But those factors alone don’t explain the rise. The disease, more common after menopause, is rising across age groups including in women under 50 for reasons that aren’t completely clear. * * *
    • “Uterine cancer, also called endometrial cancer, comes in two forms. The more common one is slow-growing, linked to elevated estrogen levels, and curable when caught early. The rarer type isn’t hormonal and is harder to treat. Cases of this more aggressive kind are increasing faster and driving rising death rates. 
    • “Chemical hair straighteners have been linked to uterine cancer risk. The Food and Drug Administration plans in July to propose a ban on formaldehyde in hair straightening or smoothing products. 
    • “I don’t think it’s just hair products, sadly,” said Dr. Premal Thaker, a gynecologic surgeon at Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis. “There’s more diabetes, more obesity, and there’s probably something else that we just don’t know.” 
  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “An “overwhelming” 88% of respondents reporting healthcare discrimination in a new screening initiative were Black, according to a new Humana study.
    • “The report focused on the structural determinants of health as opposed to the more common social determinants of health. While such social determinants center on the conditions in which people live, work, play, learn and worship, structural determinants focus on the economic and social experiences and policies that influence health such as discrimination and health literacy. Both social and structural determinants are often interrelated, according to the study authors. 
    • “The study, published in the American Journal of Managed Care, is the first of its kind by a U.S. insurer to focus on the structural determinants of health, aspects which are “critical” but often overlooked, Humana said.
    • “The healthcare discrimination finding was somewhat problematic given a small sample size and how exactly to frame and ask questions but was nevertheless quite instructive, said co-author J. Nwando Olayiwola, M.D., chief health equity officer and senior vice president at Humana.” 
  • According to an NIH press release,
    • “Scientists have identified an area within the brain’s frontal cortex that may coordinate an animal’s response to potentially traumatic situations. Understanding where and how neural circuits involving the frontal cortex regulate such functions, and how such circuits could malfunction, may provide insight about their role in trauma-related and stress-related psychiatric disorders in people. The study, led by scientists at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a part of the National Institutes of Health, was published in Nature.
    • “Experiencing traumatic events is often at the root of trauma-related and stress-related psychiatric conditions, including alcohol use disorder (AUD),” said the study’s senior author, Andrew Holmes, Ph.D., senior investigator in NIAAA’s Laboratory of Behavioral and Genomic Neuroscience. “Additionally, witnessing others experience traumatic events can also contribute to these disorders.”
  • MedPage Today explains how patients are using artificial intelligence tools.
    • “It’s no secret that patients have been using Dr. Google for years. The introduction of ChatGPT is ushering in a new era. ChatGPT and other types of artificial intelligence have their drawbacks. Still, they can offer a range of benefits to healthcare providers and patients alike.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “Kaiser Permanente wrapped up its fiscal year with $329 million of operating income (0.3% operating income), net income of $4.1 billion and more than $100 billion in both operating revenues and expenses, the Oakland, California-based nonprofit announced Feb. 9.
    • “The rebound performance follows sizable losses during 2022, when the system logged a $1.3 billion operating loss (-1.3% operating income) off of $95.4 billion in operating revenues and $96.7 billion in operating expenses. It had also weathered a net loss of $4.5 billion due to a $3.2 billion loss across “other income,” which largely reflected down investments.
    • “I want to thank the people of Kaiser Permanente for their hard work in 2023 to provide members and patients with a positive experience at all touch points while also embracing new ways to drive efficiencies, improve access, and advance health outcomes,” said Chair and CEO Greg A. Adams said in a press release sharing the year’s top-line financial results. “Together, we navigated another challenging year and are on a path to deliver on our mission and bring our distinct brand of value-based care to more people.”
  • Per BioPharma Dive,
    • “Gilead Sciences will acquire CymaBay Therapeutics and the biotechnology company’s liver disease drug in a $4.3 billion deal announced Monday.
    • “The proposed buyout would hand Gilead an experimental medicine for primary biliary cholangitis, or PBC, a chronic condition characterized by the toxic build-up of bile acid in the liver. CymaBay disclosed Monday that the Food and Drug Administration has accepted its application for the drug, called seladelpar, and will decide on approval by mid-August.”
  • Health IT Analytics notes,
    • “The American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) has launched its AI Resource Hub to provide healthcare and health information (HI) stakeholders with knowledge around the use of non-clinical artificial intelligence (AI) tools.
    • “In response to the rise of AI utilization in healthcare, AHIMA partnered with Alazro Consulting to interview experts in the space and AI implementers representing over 200 hospitals and 1,000 clinics across the United States. These structured interviews were then used to develop AHIMA’s newest white paper, upon which the AI Resource Hub is based.  
    • “One of the white paper’s major findings is that the use of AI in healthcare is growing as organizations turn to the technology to optimize efficiency and workflows. These tools are often deployed to support health information management, clinical care, operations, and revenue cycle management.”
  • Fierce Healthcare identified its Fierce 15 of 2024.
    • “This year’s 15 honorees recognized a significant gap in the market, whether it’s for personalized GI care, opening up access to mental health or addressing loneliness among seniors with a robot companion. They then set to work to build forward-thinking solutions to address a specific problem.
    • “They are all taking a fresh angle to long-standing problems in healthcare, such as harnessing AI to streamline clinical documentation or using virtual care to treat the root causes of obesity.”

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • The FEHBlog listened to the House Oversight and Accountability Committee’s markup of HR 6283, the Delinking Revenue from Unfair Gouging Act. Is there such as thing as fair gouging? In any case, the FEHBlog was relieved by the amount of bipartisan opposition to the bill. However, as explained in this STAT News article, the Committee Chairman James Comer (R Ky) steered an amended version of the original bill through his Committee this morning. Like Committee members with doubts about the bill, the FEHBlog looks forward to the Congress Budget Office report on the measure.
  • The American Hospital Association (AHA) News reports
    • “In a statement submitted to the House Ways and Means Committee for a hearing Feb. 6 on chronic drug shortages, AHA recommended Congress enact legislation to diversify manufacturing sites and sources for critical pharmaceutical ingredients; support an increase in end-user and supply chain inventories for critical medications; develop a rating system for drug maker quality management processes; identify essential drugs needing more domestic manufacturing capacity; and require drug makers to disclose where their products are made and when demand for essential drugs spikes.” 
  • and
    • “The Health Resources and Services Administration Feb. 6 requested vendor proposals to support changes to governance, technology and operation of the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, as authorized by Congress last year. HRSA also directed the current OPTN vendor, the United Network for Organ Sharing, to standardize and update data reporting for greater accountability and equity in organ procurement and transplant practices. HRSA indicates that the scope and scale of the contract awards will be contingent on final 2024 appropriations.”
  • The Department of Health and Human Services announced,
    • releasing the National Public Health Strategy to Prevent and Control Vector-Borne Diseases in People (VBD National Strategy). As directed by the 2019 Kay Hagan Tick Act—named after the U.S. Senator who died due to complications from a tickborne illness—HHS led a four-year process with civilian agencies and defense departments to deliver this strategy. Co-led by the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the strategy identifies and describes federal priorities to detect, prevent, respond to, and control diseases and conditions caused by vectors in the United States.
    • “Vector-borne diseases are a global threat, with national security, economic, and health implications for the United States. As the federal government continues to proactively strengthen its response to this threat, HHS and CDC plan to develop future iterations of the VBD National Strategy with opportunities for public engagement. Read the VBD National Strategy.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review tells us,
    • “Respiratory syncytial virus vaccinations could soon extend to adults aged 50-59. 
    • “Arexvy, which was initially approved by the FDA in May 2023 for administration in adults over 60, has been granted priority review in the U.S. for use in adults ages 50-59.
    • “If approved, it will become the first RSV vaccine available for the age group, according to a Feb. 6 news release. 
    • “The FDA is slated to make a decision on the drug’s approval for the new age group by June 7.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • Medscape informs us,
    • “Lowering the recommended age for baseline prostate-specific antigen (PSA) would reduce prostate cancer deaths by about 30% in Black men without significantly increasing the rate of overdiagnosis, according to new screening guidelines from the Prostate Cancer Foundation.
    • “Specifically, baseline PSA testing in Black men should begin at age 40-45, sooner than current guidelines recommend, and should be followed by regular screening intervals, preferably annually, at least until age 70, a multidisciplinary panel of experts and patient advocates determined based on a comprehensive literature review.”
  • Per the Food and Drug Administration,
    • On Monday, the FDA issued an outbreak advisory warning consumers not to eat, sell, or serve recalled brands of cheeses, sour creams (cremas), or yogurts manufactured by Rizo Lopez Foods, Inc. The FDA and CDC, in collaboration with state and local partners, are investigating illnesses in a multi-year, multistate outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes infections linked to queso fresco and cotija cheeses manufactured by Rizo Lopez Foods, Inc., of Modesto, California. There are 26 illnesses with 23 hospitalizations in 11 states. The firm has recalled several dairy products and has temporarily ceased the production and distribution of these products while their investigation is ongoing. The FDA’s investigation is ongoing, and the FDA will continue to update this advisory as information becomes available.”
  • Per KFF,
    • “About 1 in 5 adolescents report symptoms of anxiety or depression, according to a KFF analysis of a new federal survey of teen health.
    • “While some teens are getting mental health care, a significant share say they are not receiving the therapy they need due to costs, fear of what others will think, and/or not knowing how to get help.”
  • The American Medical Association lets us know what doctors wish their patients knew about iron deficiency.
  • Healio notes,
    • “Infants aged younger than 3 months and children with a history of prematurity experience the highest rates of hospitalization for respiratory syncytial virus, according to study findings published in Pediatrics.
    • “Last year, two new tools became available to combat RSV, the leading cause of infant hospitalization in the United States: a vaccine for pregnant people and a new monoclonal antibody.” * * *
    • “Most RSV-associated hospitalizations occurred in healthy, term infants,” Meredith L. McMorrow, MD, MPH,a researcher in the CDC’s Coronavirus and Other Respiratory Viruses Division said. “This is why allbabies need protection from either maternal RSV vaccination or nirsevimab during their first RSV season.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review offers five Ozempic updates.

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • BioPharma Dive reports,
    • “Sales of Eli Lilly’s diabetes drug Mounjaro exceeded $5 billion in 2023, its first full year on the market, the company said Tuesday, in the latest sign of surging demand for the therapy and other medicines of its kind.
    • “Mounjaro’s fast launch helped drive Lilly’s revenue last year to $34 billion, a 20% increase over 2023. Fourth quarter revenue of $9.4 billion eclipsed analysts’ consensus expectations by 5%, Leerink Partners’ David Risinger wrote in a note to clients.
    • “Lilly said Mounjaro now accounts for 27% of total prescriptions in the U.S. for injectable “incretins,” the fast-selling group of drugs that work by modulating hormones that control insulin production. Sales of an older drug in this class, Lilly’s Trulicity, fell 4% in 2023 to $7 billion, but still led Lilly’s business.
    • “The obesity drug Zepbound, which contains the same active ingredient as Mounjaro, launched in the fourth quarter and brought in sales of $176 million through Dec. 31.”
  • STAT News adds,
    • “Eli Lilly reported during its fourth-quarter earnings call that tirzepatide, which is sold commercially as Mounjaro or Zepbound, succeeded in a Phase 2 test as a treatment for the liver disease MASH. Around 74% of adults in the trial taking the drug were free of MASH after 52 weeks, compared to approximately 13% of the placebo group.”
  • Wait, there’s more from Bloomberg,
    • Eli Lilly & Co.’s blockbuster diabetes drug Mounjaro, which is commonly used off-label for weight loss, is again in short supply due to increased demand.
    • “There will be limited availability of higher doses of the treatment through early March, according to a US Food and Drug Administration database that tracks shortages. So far, the FDA doesn’t list Mounjaro’s sister drug Zepbound, which is approved for weight loss, on its shortage list, though the two contain the same active ingredient.
    • “The company is continuing to ship all doses to wholesalers, but anticipates intermittent backorders of higher doses over the next month, a Lilly spokesperson said in an emailed statement. 
    • “We recognize this situation may cause a disruption in people’s treatment regimens and we are moving with urgency to address it,” the spokesperson said.”
  • BioPharma Dive points out
    • “The Japan-based pharmaceutical firm Eisai had hoped that, by the end of March, 10,000 patients in the U.S. would be taking its closely watched drug for Alzheimer’s disease. But that goal now seems lofty, following updates in the company’s latest earnings report.
    • “Eisai developed the drug, called Leqembi, in partnership with Biogen, and is leading its commercialization. As with an earlier Alzheimer’s therapy from the two companies, Leqembi’s launch started off slow. Yet Eisai and Biogen have argued that recent decisions from drug regulators and insurers should significantly increase both prescriptions and sales.
    • “Still, growth doesn’t appear to be coming as quickly as the companies want. Eisai recorded 1.1 billion yen, or roughly $7.4 million, in revenue from Leqembi between October and December — around half of what Wall Street analysts had generally expected, according to Michael Yee of the investment bank Jefferies.
    • The company also said Leqembi had been administered to a total of 2,000 U.S. patients as of Jan. 26, with another 8,000 or so on a waiting list. Eisai maintains the 10,000 patient milestone could be hit in a few months, though the team at Jefferies believes it might take longer “given launch dynamics have been slow to begin with.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review reports,
    • “San Francisco-based UCSF Health has signed a $100 million definitive agreement with San Francisco-based Dignity Health to take on two of its hospitals: Saint Francis Memorial Hospital and St. Mary’s Medical Center, both of which are in the city.”San Francisco-based UCSF Health has signed a $100 million definitive agreement with San Francisco-based Dignity Health to take on two of its hospitals: Saint Francis Memorial Hospital and St. Mary’s Medical Center, both of which are in the city.
    • UCSF Health began acquisition talks with Dignity Health, part of Chicago-based CommonSpirit Health, for the two hospitals in July. 
    • “Under the acquisition, which UCSF Health hopes to close by this spring, the hospitals will be renamed UCSF Health Saint Francis Hospital and UCSF Health St. Mary’s Hospital, respectively, according to a Feb. 5 UCSF news release.”
  • Per Healthcare Dive,
    • “Providence will refund payments and forgive outstanding medical debt for nearly 100,000 low-income Washington residents to settle a 2022 lawsuit alleging the health system skirted its charity care obligations, according to a Thursday announcement from Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
    • “The Renton, Washington-based operator will refund approximately $20 million to over 30,000 patients who were billed improperly and forgive $137 million for more than 65,000 additional patients, in what the AG called the “largest resolution of its kind in the country.”
    • “The settlement is the latest win for the AG, who has successfully brought other health systems into compliance with the state’s charity care law, which offers reduced or free medical care for approximately half of Washingtonians based on financial status.”
  • and
    • “Centene has become the second major health insurer to warn investors of an impending funding decrease in Medicare Advantage — if regulators finalize 2025 rates as proposed.
    • “New payment parameters released by the CMS last week would cause Centene’s MA rate to fall 1.3%, CFO Drew Asher said during a Tuesday morning call discussing the payer’s fourth-quarter earnings results.
    • “However, this dip is before Centene risk scores its enrollees, a process which should result in an overall increase in MA reimbursement next year, Asher said. Humana disclosed similar concerns in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Monday.”

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

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

From the public health and medical research front,

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

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

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

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Washington, DC,

  • The Department of Health and Human Services announced today that
    • “Sickle cell disease (SCD) will be the first focus of the Cell and Gene Therapy (CGT) Access Model, which was initially announced in February 2023. The model is designed to improve health outcomes, increase access to cell and gene therapies, and lower health care costs for some of the nation’s most vulnerable populations. * * *
    • “Gene therapies for sickle cell disease have the potential to treat this devastating condition and transform people’s lives, offering them a chance to live healthier and potentially avoid associated health issues,” said CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure. “Increasing access to these promising therapies will not only help keep people healthy, but it can also lead to savings for states and taxpayers as the long-term costs of treating sickle cell disease may be avoided.” * * *
    • “For additional information see the fact sheet – PDF and CGT model page.
  • The American Hospital Association reports,
    • “Paxlovid may no longer be distributed with an emergency use label after March 8, the Food and Drug Administration announced. Providers may dispense unexpired Paxlovid labeled for emergency use to patients through March 8, after which Paxlovid labeled for emergency use must be returned to the manufacturer or disposed of in accord with regulations, the agency said.
    • “The FDA last May approved a new drug application for Pfizer’s Paxlovid to treat adults at high risk of progressing to severe COVID-19. Paxlovid labeled under the new drug application will continue to be authorized for emergency use to treat eligible pediatric patients, the agency said.”
  • Following up on Affordable Care Act FAQ 64, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management issued today a carrier letter no. 2024-03 on contraceptive coverage and patient education.
  • Reuters reports,
    • “Pharmaceutical companies are due to receive by Thursday the U.S. government’s opening proposal for what are expected to be significant discounts on 10 of its high-cost medicines, an important step in the Medicare health program’s first ever price negotiations.
    • “Five Wall Street analysts and two investors told Reuters they expect the negotiations over prices that will go into effect in 2026 to result in cuts ranging from the statutory minimum of 25% to as much as 60% when the final numbers are set in September.
    • “The drugmakers and the government are expected to wait until then to disclose them.” * * *
    • “Pharmaceutical companies and business groups have filed more than half a dozen lawsuits to stop the negotiations from taking place, saying that they are unlawful.
    • “Drug companies say the law’s costs will hurt drug development programs and patients.”
    • “The lawsuits have not slowed the implementation timeline.”
  • Axios points out that CMS’s recent prior authorization proposed rule do not apply to prescription drug claims.
  • The Federal Acquisition Regulation Council published in the Federal Register today a proposed rule
    • “would prohibit contractors and subcontractors from seeking and considering information about job applicants’ compensation history when making employment decisions for certain positions. Under the proposed policy and the proposed regulatory amendments, contractors and subcontractors would also be required to disclose the compensation to be offered to the hired applicant in job announcements for certain positions.”
  • The public comment period ends on April 1, 2024.

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • “People who are suffering from severe pain but don’t want to risk addiction to an opioid are closer to a new option for treatment.
    • Vertex Pharmaceuticals on Tuesday reported positive study results for its closely watched non-opioid painkiller. The drug lowered the moderate-to-severe acute pain reported by study volunteers, a sign it could be the first in a new class of painkiller to be approved for use.
    • “But the experimental medicine is more likely to provide an alternative to opioids, rather than supplant them, because it didn’t work better than a widely used opioid drug sold under the brand name Vicodin.
    • “Vertex said it would file for approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration by the middle of this year.”
  • STAT News tells us,
    • “Drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy — already game changers for diabetes and obesity — are being studied to treat an entirely different growing health problem: mental health illnesses, including depression and bipolar disorder.
    • “Early data and anecdotes suggest that this class of GLP-1 drugs could help patients feel less depressed and anxious. The treatment may also fight the decline in cognitive and executive function that many people with mental health disorders experience, like worsening memory and losing the ability to focus and plan.
    • “If further research yields positive results, it could drive even more demand for the highly popular GLP-1 treatments, which have increasingly been shown to help with problems across the body, such as heart and kidney complications. And especially if the cognitive benefits are proven out, the GLP-1 drugs would plug a critical gap in current treatments for depression, since most depression drugs help with mood, but close to none address cognitive symptoms that affect memory and attention.”
  • and
    • “The U.S. syphilis epidemic isn’t abating, with the rate of infectious cases rising 9% in 2022, according to a new federal government report on sexually transmitted diseases in adults.
    • “But there’s some unexpected good news: The rate of new gonorrhea cases fell for the first time in a decade.
    • “It’s not clear why syphilis rose 9% while gonorrhea dropped 9%, officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, adding that it’s too soon to know whether a new downward trend is emerging for the latter.
    • “They are most focused on syphilis, which is less common than gonorrhea or chlamydia but considered more dangerous. Total cases surpassed 207,000 in 2022, the highest count in the United States since 1950, according to data released Tuesday.”
  • MedTech Dive calls attention to “four heart device trends shaping the medtech sector in 2024. Medtronic, Boston Scientific and J&J are among the medtech companies advancing treatments in cardiac care for when medicines are not enough.
  • MedCity Dive discusses “How Food as Medicine is Becoming A Core Team Capability. As the food as medicine movement grows, some payers and healthcare organizations are carving out specific roles and teams dedicated to food and nutrition. Doing so can be beneficial considering the significant impact diet can have on health outcomes.”
  • The Washington Post notes,
    • “Older adults spend an average of three weeks every year on doctor’s appointments and other health care outside their homes, according to research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
    • “Of those 21 “health care contact days,” 17 involve ambulatory services, such as office visits with primary-care doctors or specialists, testing and imaging, procedures, treatments and therapy. The remaining four days included time spent in an emergency room, hospital, skilled nursing facility or hospice.
    • “The study also found that about 11 percent of people 65 and over spend even more time — 50 or more days each year (nearly one day a week) — obtaining routine health care away from home. The research was based on Medicare data from a nationally representative sample of 6,619 people 65 and older.
    • “The findings represent “not only access to needed care but also substantial time, efforts and cost, especially for older adults and their care partners,” the researchers wrote.”
  • Peterson – KFF Health System Tracker offers a study comparing U.S. life expectancy to other countries.

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Pfizer released its full year 2023 results and reaffirmed its full year 2024 financial guidance provided on December 13, 2023. “The fourth-quarter 2023 earnings presentation and accompanying prepared remarks from management as well as the quarterly update to Pfizer’s R&D pipeline can be found at www.pfizer.com.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review reports,
    • “Nashville, Tenn.-based HCA Healthcare saw revenues of $17.3 billion in the fourth quarter of 2023, up from $15.5 billion over the same period in 2022, according to its financial report released Jan. 30.” 
  • and
    • “Nonprofit Hospitals’ operating margins are far below the pre-pandemic “magic number” of 3% and are in danger of a permanent reset in the 1%-2% range, according to a Jan. 29 report published by Fitch Ratings.
    • “This operating margin reset is worrying some investors, but “hospital downgrades en masse would be unlikely because many systems have built up robust balance sheets and learned to economize on capital spending to a certain degree,” Kevin Holloran, senior director and sector head at Fitch, said.

King Day Weekend Update

Happy King Day. Dr. King would have been 95 years old today.

From Washington DC,

  • Roll Call adds
    • “House and Senate leaders have agreed to extend temporary government funding in two batches, through March 1 and March 8, according to a source familiar with the plan.
    • “The decision comes as lawmakers face a Friday, Jan. 19 deadline to clear a temporary spending bill for four of the dozen annual appropriations bills — Agriculture, Energy-Water, Military Construction-VA and Transportation-HUD. The remaining eight bills’ stopgap funds expire after Feb. 2 under the most recent interim spending law.”
  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • Medicare patients lining up to fill pricey prescriptions at the pharmacy counter this year will realize some good news: For the first time, there is a ceiling on how much they will pay in 2024 for their Part D drugs.
    • Changes brought about by the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act mean that people on Part D plans now pay no more than roughly $3,300 on drugs annually—a number that could shift a bit based on whether they take brand or generic medications. In 2025, that cap will change again to a flat $2,000.
  • Patient Engagement HIT informs us,
    • “Transportation access continues to be a leading social determinant of health, with new CDC data showing it affected 5.7 percent of adults over the course of 12 months.
    • “The report, which used 2022 data, also showed that women were more likely than men to face transportation access barriers, with 6.1 percent and 5.3 percent reporting as much, respectively. * * *
    • “Younger adults rather than older adults, for example, were more likely to face challenges related to transportation access, with 7 percent of 18-34-year-olds reporting problems compared to 4.5 percent of those over age 65. Odds of transportation-related barriers decreased with age, the CDC researchers said.
    • “Moreover, racial disparities persisted, with American Indian/Alaska Native adults being the most likely to report a lack of reliable transportation. Of those respondents, 17.1 percent said they faced barriers in the previous 12 months.
    • “That compares to 9.2 percent of Black respondents, 7.6 percent of other or multiple-race respondents, 6.9 percent of Hispanic respondents, 4.8 percent of White respondents, and 3.6 percent of Asian respondents who said the same.”

From the public health and medical research front,

  • The Washington Post and Consumer Reports tell us “How to prevent shingles and what to do if you get it.”
    • Shingrix, a two-dose shingles vaccine that was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2017, can reduce the incidence of shingles and its complications significantly. “The vaccine, the one we have available today, is spectacularly effective,” says William Schaffner, an infectious-disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.
    • “But only about 30 percent of adults eligible for this vaccine have gotten it, according to 2022 report by the Government Accountability Office. If you’re wondering about the effects and risks of shingles and whether Shingrix is right for you, [the article provides] what you need to know.
  • The New York Times reports,
    • “Marijuana is neither as risky nor as prone to abuse as other tightly controlled substances and has potential medical benefits, and therefore, should be removed from the nation’s most restrictive category of drugs, federal scientists have concluded.
    • “The recommendations are contained in a 250-page scientific review provided to Matthew Zorn, a Texas lawyer who sued Health and Human Services officials for its release and published it online on Friday night. An H.H.S. official confirmed the authenticity of the document. * * *
    • “President Biden urged federal officials to “expeditiously” re-examine marijuana classification in October 2022, when he also issued pardons for those charged with marijuana possession under federal law.”
  • Fortune Well identifies “seven immune-boosting foods to eat when you’re sick with COVID or flu.”

From the U.S. healthcare business front

  • Benefits Pro points out,
    • “A new report from Humana finds that “value-based care,” which focuses on quality of care and patient experience with deeper patient engagement, that is provided to Medicare Advantage members kept patients healthier and lowers costs.
    • The new report is part of an annual assessment of the model, which stresses a more personal approach, more time spent with patients, and more coordinated care than traditional fee-for-service models of care. The model also puts an emphasis on prevention and lifestyle changes to help patients manage their health.
    • “The tenth-annual report on the efficacy of the value-based model for Medicare Advantage members noted that the U.S. health system has faced some significant challenges in recent years, including the COVID pandemic, a stressed workforce, and growing awareness of inequities in health care. The Humana analysis acknowledges challenges remain but found better scores on measurements across the board for patients in the value-based care model.”
  • Per Forbes,
    • “On November 13, 2023, women’s health advocates – including entrepreneurs and investors – celebrated a positive step forward for the industry; that day, the White House announced the first-ever Initiative on Women’s Health Research. The goal of the Initiative is to engage the federal government and private and public sectors to fund women’s health, spur innovation, close research gaps, and improve diagnosis, disease prevention, education, treatment, and more.
    • “This Initiative, however, was not the only new and noteworthy event in women’s health recently. In 2023 alone, women’s health startups saw gains in their average deal sizes, in the percentage of healthcare venture capital funding they raised, and in the attention they received. If these trends continue, 2024 could be the long-awaited and much-needed transformative year, bringing attention, capital, and recognition to this historically overlookedunderinvested, and undervalued space.”

Friday Factoids

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

From Washington, DC

  • Roll Call reports,
    • “Speaker Mike Johnson reiterated support Friday for the fiscal 2024 spending agreement he negotiated in the face of opposition from members of the House Freedom Caucus, who’ve been lobbying him to toss the deal. 
    • “Johnson, R-La., told reporters that while he is seeking feedback from across his conference, he is committed to the “strong” deal he negotiated with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.
    • “Our topline agreement remains; we are getting our next steps together, and we are working toward a robust appropriations process,” he said.”  * * *
    • “Next week, Congress will face a more pressing Jan. 19 spending deadline for agencies covered under four of the 12 annual appropriations bills. Schumer took the first procedural step needed for a stopgap spending bill Thursday, filing cloture on the motion to proceed to a shell vehicle. 
    • “The Senate’s continuing resolution is expected to last until March, sources familiar with the talks say. But while Johnson has said he is “not ruling out” the need for another continuing resolution, he has not yet said definitively whether or not he would support one. 
    • “And that stopgap measure will be essential to keep the government open, as Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., and House Appropriations Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, are continuing to negotiate over the final subcommittee allocations, also known as 302(b)s. 
    • “Negotiators will need about a month to wrap up their work after those allocations are finalized, House Appropriations ranking member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said Friday. “
  • Govexec tells us,
    • “The Office of Personnel Management made some of its best progress at reducing the number of pending retirement applications from federal workers last year, reducing the backlog by 34% in 2023 and breaking multiple recent records in the process.
    • “Long a source of frustration for the governmental HR agency, lawmakers and retirees alike, OPM’s inventory of pending retirement claims has been plagued by delays due to the still largely paper-based nature of federal employment records, staffing issues and other challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated many of these issues, as the backlog climbed to a high of more than 36,000 pending claims in March 2022.
    • “But OPM moved on multiple fronts last year to improve the process. The agency released its long-awaited IT strategic plan, which includes plans to develop a “digital retirement system,” complete with electronic records and an online retirement application process.
    • “And officials launched a series of short-term fixes aimed at shoring up the current system, including a guide for retirees to follow as they navigate the retirement process, as well as staffing up and coordinating more actively with federal agencies to prepare for the annual wave of new retirement claims that occurs between January and March.”
  • Federal News Network informs us,
    • “The Postal Service says its competitive package business is growing, following its busy year-end holiday season.
    • “USPS says it delivered 130 million more packages in the “peak” first quarter of fiscal 2024, a nearly 7% increase, compared to the same period last year.
    • “USPS delivered more than 1.9 billion packages in the first quarter of fiscal 2023, which covers October through the end of December.
    • “Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, in a video message to employees, said growing the package business is the key to turning around the Postal Service’s long-term financial problems.”
  • KFF analyzes the Food and Drug Administration’s recent decision to allow Florida to import prescription drugs from Canada.
  • Per Fierce Healthcare, AHIP, among others, expressed opposition to the provision in the proposed 2025 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters Notice, reducing the number of non-standardized plans that an Affordable Care Act plan carrier can offer from four to two.
    • “AHIP is particularly concerned about the impact of non-standardized plan limits on issuers’ ability to offer broad networks for consumers that want access to a variety of providers and specialists, which is often a key factor in plan selection for those with chronic health conditions,” the lobbying group wrote in comments on the proposed rule.”
  • The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force offers a report on its 2023 accomplishments.

From the public health and medical research front,

  • Becker’s Hospital Review provides three updates on the predominant Omicron strain JN.1.
    • “Disease severity: New findings from a study led by researchers at the Ohio State University indicate BA.2.86 and its close relative, JN.1, may be linked to an increase in disease severity. The research focused on mutations in the spike protein of BA.2.86 and found it can infect human cells that line the lower lung, which is a feature linked to severe symptoms. Researchers emphasized additional research is needed to confirm the findings, since the study used pseudoviruses. 
    • “But from our past experience, we know that infectivity in human epithelial cell lines provides very important information,” Shan-Lu Liu, MD, Ph.D., senior study author and virology professor at OSU, said in a news release. “The concern is whether or not this variant, as well as its descendants including JN.1, will have an increased tendency to infect human lung epithelial cells similar to the parental virus that launched the pandemic in 2020.” 
    • “In late December, the WHO classified JN.1 as a “variant of interest” due to its rapid spread. At the time, the agency said the overall risk to public health posed by the strain remains low, since updated vaccines continue to offer protection against severe illness. The CDC published its latest update on JN.1 Jan. 5, stating, “At this time, there is no evidence JN.1 causes more severe disease.” 
  • The Centers for Disease Control points out,
    • “As seasonal flu activity remains elevated nationally, CDC is tracking when, where and what influenza viruses are spreading and their impact on the public’s health. So far this season, the most commonly reported influenza viruses are type A(H1N1) and type B viruses. According to CDC research, this could mean more severe outcomes among people who are hospitalized with flu.”
  • Here’s a link to the CDC’s latest Fluview report.
    • “Seasonal influenza activity remains elevated in most parts of the country.
    • “After several weeks of increases in key flu indicators, a single week of decrease has been noted.  CDC will continue to monitor for a second period of increased influenza activity that often occurs after the winter holidays.
    • “Outpatient respiratory illness has been above baselinenationally since November and is above baseline in all 10 HHS Regions.
    • “The number of weekly flu hospital admissions decreased slightly.”
  • The CDC also announced,
    • “On October 23, 2023, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued Health Alert Network (HAN) Health Advisory 499 to provide guidance for prioritization of nirsevimab given the limited supply. Nirsevimab (Beyfortus, Sanofi and AstraZeneca) is a long-acting monoclonal antibody immunization recommended for preventing RSV-associated lower respiratory tract disease in young children.
    • Given the recent increase in nirsevimab supply and the manufacturers’ plan to release an additional 230,000 doses in January, the CDC advises healthcare providers to return to recommendations put forward by the CDC and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) on the use of nirsevimab in young children. Infants and children recommended to receive nirsevimab should be immunized as quickly as possible. Healthcare providers should not reserve nirsevimab doses for infants born later in the season when RSV circulation and risk for exposure to RSV may be lower. RSV activity remains elevated nationwide and is continuing to increase in many parts of the country, though decreased activity has been observed in the Southeast.” 
  • Fierce Healthcare reports,
    • “Though prescriptions for antiviral influenza medications have declined somewhat since 2023, perhaps indicating that the United States might be less encumbered by the flu than in recent record-breaking years, healthcare providers still find themselves battling a surge above historic norms, according to data by the Evernorth Research Institute.
    • “Researchers there examined pharmacy claims for more than 32 million people during current and past flu seasons and found an increasing prevalence of antiviral medication prescriptions since Thanksgiving 2023, though that’s tapered off slightly recently. More individuals experience flu symptoms severe enough to send them to physicians’ offices for prescriptions, and most of many of those forced to do so did not get the flu vaccination. Evernorth, a Cigna subsidiary, tries to develop cost-effective delivery systems for pharmacy benefits.
    • “Urvashi Patel, M.D., vice president of the Evernorth Research Institute, told Fierce Healthcare in an email that “since the shift to remote work from the pandemic, many employees who used to get their flu vaccines at the office are no longer able to. This may change as more workers continue to return to the office, but it’s likely a contributor to lower vaccination rates.”
  • The Wall Street Journal shares an employee’s favorable experience with the powerful weight loss drug Mounjaro.
  • Health Day provides the following study notes:
    • “U.S. doctors are prescribing antifungal creams to patients with skin complaints at rates so high they could be contributing to the rise of drug-resistant infections, new research shows.
    • “These are “severe antimicrobial-resistant superficial fungal infections, which have recently been detected in the United States,” noted a team led by Jeremy Gold, a researcher at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
    • “One of the biggest emerging threats: Drug-resistant forms of ringworm (a form of dermatophytosis).”

From the U.S. healthcare business front,

  • Healthcare Dive reports,
    • “UnitedHealth was slammed with medical costs as it closed out 2023. The health insurance behemoth still managed to exceed Wall Street’s financial expectations.
    • “UnitedHealth posted a medical loss ratio of 85% in the fourth quarter — its highest MLR since the COVID-19 pandemic began early 2020.
    • “MLR is a metric of how much payers shell out to cover their members’ medical expenses. Payers tried to shake the effects of higher medical costs all last year as patients who delayed healthcare during the pandemic returned to doctor’s offices.
    • “The bulk of higher costs in the fourth quarter was driven by more seniors using outpatient services, a trend that first appeared in the second quarter of 2023, said UnitedHealth CEO Andrew Witty on a Friday morning call with investors.”
  • Beckers Hospital Review offers an interview with Mayo Health System President “Prathibha Varkey, MBBS, [who] is excited about the future of healthcare,” and an analysis of nurse practitioner pay by specialty.
  • The Washington Post offers an interview with the American Medical Association President Jesse Ehrenfeld, MD.
  • Mercer Consulting offers guidance on network strategies to optimize patient care and save while its sister company, Oliver Wyman, peers into the crystal ball concerning the state of healthcare in 2035.
  • Beckers Payer Issues offers a look at ten updates to the 2024 Medicare Advantage landscape.
  • MedCity News discusses seven JP Morgan Conference news items that you don’t want to miss.
  • BioPharma Dive poses five questions facing the pharmaceutical industry this year. “Many drugmakers hope to compete with Novo and Lilly in obesity, while others seek to win oncology’s next era. Meanwhile, a contentious drug pricing law looms.”
  • Drug Channels shares a guest post titled “Repairing the Patient Journey: How Pharma Can Fix the Obvious–and Not So Obvious–Breaking Points of Nonadherence.”
  • The Wall Street Journal reports,
    • CVS Health plans to close dozens of pharmacies inside Target stores at a time when pharmacy chains are struggling to grow retail profits.
    • “CVS will close the pharmacies between February and April this year, said a company spokeswoman. The closures are part of CVS’s efforts to pare down its retail footprint “based on our evaluation of changes in population, consumer buying patterns and future health needs,” she said. * * *
    • “CVS has operated pharmacies inside Target stores since late 2015 when it bought the business from the retailer for around $1.9 billion. It has pharmacies in around 1,800 of Target’s more than 1,950 U.S. stores. A Target spokeswoman declined to comment. The latest round of closures account for a small percentage of CVS’s pharmacies at Target stores.” 
  • Per Fierce Healthcare,
    • “Artificial intelligence was dominating CES 2024 this week. From assistive speech tools to pet wearables to AI-enabled pillows to prevent snoring, the majority of companies exhibiting at CES boasted the use of the technology as part of their products.
    • “Digital health companies at the show also are putting AI to use from Intuition Robotics’ AI-enabled ElliQ care companion robot to hearing eyewear.
    • “Amid all this hype, entrepreneur and investor Mark Cuban believes AI will be transformative for healthcare.
    • “There are two types of companies in the world — those who are great at AI and everyone else and either you know how to use it to your advantage or you’re in trouble,” he said during a digital health panel at CES on Thursday.
    • “He added, “I don’t think it will be dominated by five or six big models. I think there will be millions of models. I think we’ll find every company will have a model, every vertical will have its own model, individuals will have their own models, doctors have their own models, and trying to get to the point where it’s more democratic so that specific verticals will be used within healthcare is going to be an evolution and I don’t think we’ve figured all that out.”
  • Healthcare Dive adds
    • “Generative artificial intelligence can be used to pull social determinants of health data, like housing or employment status, from clinician notes to identify patients who need additional support, according to a new study.
    • “Large language models trained by researchers could identify 93.8% of patients with adverse social determinants of health, while official diagnostic codes include that data in only 2% of cases. 
    • “The finely tuned models were also less likely than OpenAI’s GPT-4 to change their determination when demographic information like race or gender was added. Algorithmic bias is a major concern for AI use in healthcare, amid fears the technology could worsen health inequities.”