Thursday Miscellany

Thursday Miscellany

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Today is the first day of National Nurse’s Week. The well-deserved celebration begins each year on May 6th and ends on May 12th, Florence Nightingale’s birthday. What a marvelous profession.

Meanwhile Healthcare Dive reports that

  • Last year marked a historic shift in the organization of medicine, with fewer than half of U.S. doctors working in a private practice, according to the latest American Medical Association Physician Practice Benchmark Survey. And among those private practices that continue to operate, many are trending toward a larger size.
  • According to the report, 50.2% of physicians were employees, up from 47.4% in 2018 and 41.8% in 2012. The proportion of doctors working in a private practice was 49.1% last year.
  • Hospitals are one of the largest employers of physicians, with the proportion increasing nearly 50% between 2012 and last year. And with the vast majority of doctors under the age of 40 now employees rather than employers, it suggests the trend will continue over the long term.

The Raleigh (NC) News-Observer reports that

CVS [Health] announced Wednesday it’s joining the list of pharmacies offering people the coronavirus vaccine without requiring an appointment, spokesperson Matt Blanchette told McClatchy News. Same-day scheduling as soon as one hour ahead of time is also available.  Walk-ins are available at 8,300 CVS locations across the country, Blanchette said. The company has more than 9,900 locations across 49 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. 

The New York Times adds that “Chains like Walmart, Walgreens, Safeway and Stop & Shop have said that they are now offering vaccines to walk-in clients at some locations or in mobile clinics. Other pharmacies preceded the president’s announcement. Rite Aid said that it would accommodate walk-ins on a limited basis last week, for example.” Let’s go.

Forbes reports that Pfizer-Biontech and Moderna will apply for full FDA marketing approval of their respective COVID-19 vaccines later this month.

The FDA authorized the Moderna vaccine under an EUA on Dec. 18, after granting the same authorization to the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine. The FDA can grant emergency use authorizations when a panel of experts determine the “known and potential benefits outweigh the known and potential risks,” and when the secretary of Health and Human Services determines a health crisis deems emergency use of unapproved products “appropriate.” Pfizer announced Monday it would file for full FDA approval, and it’s likely Johnson & Johnson, manufacturers of the only other Covid-19 vaccine authorized for emergency use in the U.S., will file for full FDA approval as well. Emergency use authorizations can be revoked when public health crises subside, and FDA approval would allow companies, like Moderna and Pfizer, to directly market their vaccines to consumers. 

FLASH: Politico reports that Pfizer/BioNTech applied for full FDA approval on Friday May 7.

Errata: The FEHBlog included in a post last month an erroneous report that Moderna had filed for FDA approval. He had understood that the application was overdue. Whoops.

Forbes further informs us

Moderna announced Wednesday its booster shot showed a positive immune response against the Covid-19 variants found in South Africa and Brazil. Moderna is testing booster shots in individuals who already received their two-dose Moderna vaccine regimen. [Moderna CEO Stephane] Bancel has said he expects booster shots will be necessary, and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said it’s “likely” vaccinated individuals will need a booster within a year of being fully vaccinated. 

From the healthcare business front —

  • According to the Wall Street JournalWalmart Inc. said Thursday it purchased telehealth provider MeMD and plans to offer nationwide virtual healthcare services, another sign of the retail behemoth’s healthcare ambitions. The acquisition will allow Walmart to expand its Walmart Health service around the country, the company said. The retail giant didn’t disclose the financial details of the transaction.
  • The Journal further reports that ‘The MeMD deal opens another front in which Walmart and Amazon will compete, as Amazon recently announced plans to provide its telehealth service, Amazon Care, to its nearly 1 million U.S. employees by summer. Amazon Care, which now serves company workers in Washington state, will also be offered to other employers.” STAT News informs us that “Amazon Care signed its first enterprise customer this week, a significant milestone as the virtual-first health care platform looks to expand its footprint. The client, Precor, is a fitness business that was recently acquired by fitness technology company Peloton for $420 million in cash. Although small financially, the deal is a significant opener for Care.”
  • Healthcare Dive adds that “Nearly two out of three healthcare leaders say they’re currently prioritizing investment in telehealth as the pandemic continues, but that could change over the next few years, when investing in artificial intelligence shoots up the list of priorities, according to a new report from health tech giant Philips.”

Midweek Update

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OPM has released the 2020 highlights of its FEHB Plan Performance Assessment System. With this system, the 2020 plan scores which are based on 2019 data are used to determine the 2021 service charge for experience rated plans and the 2021 performance adjustment for community rated plans. 2020 was a tricky scoring year because the data was being gathered and analyzed just as the great hunkering down began in March 2020.

Reg Jones provide FEHB background for federal employees in Fedweek.

On the COVID-19 front, Bloomberg discusses the work of the federal government’s recently created COVID-19 Community Corps. The article discusses a Maine dairy farmer who set up a COVID-19 vaccination clinic for her employees and community members. “Organized in small teams that run the gamut from veterans and religious groups to progressive youth organizations and a Black LGBTQ group, the corps has been in the forefront of reaching the reluctant. The idea is that this wide demographic outreach will radiate, so that the friends and neighbors of the vaccinated follow suit.” Bravo.

WTOP, a local news radio station here in Washington DC reports that Pfizer “will seek [emergency] approval for use [of its COVID-19 vaccine] in children between 2 and 11 years old as early as September.

In other healthcare news

  • Mobihealth News reports that “On-demand behavioral health platform Ginger is now available as a health benefit for Cigna’s 14 million members, the companies announced [on April 28]. Members with Cigna’s employer-sponsored or individual and family insurance plans can now access Ginger’s behavioral health coaching, therapy and psychiatry services as an in-network benefit.” Smart move.
  • Healthcare Dive reports that “Telehealth utilization among the commercially insured fell 16% from January to February, the first month-to-month drop since September, according to a tracker from nonprofit Fair Health. The data suggests a potential slowdown in demand for virtual care services that spiked last year in the early months of COVID-19. Historically high levels of telehealth utilization spurred an unprecedented influx of cash into the digital health sector, but the sustainability of that boom depends in part on continued demand from consumers that could be waning as vaccinations increase and the pandemic wanes. Mental health conditions continued to top the list of diagnoses. However, COVID-19, which joined the top five diagnoses list in December, dropped from the list, likely reflecting the national decline in cases in February.”
  • Since Monday the FEHBlog has been looking at the Health Affairs blog to post here Katie Keith’s follow up post on the 457 page long second final ACA notice of benefit and payment parameters. It turns out that he had posted Prof. Keith’s follow up post on Monday and that the lead entry was made last Saturday May 1. Here are the links to Prof. Keith’s lead and follow up posts on that important ACA rule making. Considering it’s Cinqo de Maio, lo siento lectors.

The FEHBlog hasn’t mentioned the Econtalk podcast in a while but he does listen every week. This week the host Russ Roberts spoke with behavioral scientist Katy Milkman of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania talks about her new book How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.” Professor Milkman talks about soft commitment strategies [to achieve goals] and hard commitment strategies. An example of a soft commitment strategy involved a doctor posting a letter visible to patients committing to specific Choosing Wisely recommendations such as proper prescribing of antibiotics. As for hard commitments she notes this example, which was news to the FEHBlog, “websites like StikK and Beeminder that let you fine yourself if you’re not achieving your goals.” She also discusses the carrot strategy .”The carrot is, let’s actually figure out ways to make it more enjoyable in the moment, and that way your willpower won’t be needed to do the thing that’s good for you.” An example is binging junk TV while using the treadmill. Their discussion on self control is fascinating. Check it out.

Thursday Miscellany

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Today the U.S. Office of Personnel Management released guidance to federal agencies on American Rescue Plan Act “provisions authorizing emergency paid leave (EPL) for covered Federal employees in specified qualifying circumstances through special funds.” The Federal News Network offers information on how federal employees can apply for EPL.

From the COVID-19 front, the Wall Street Journal reports that Astra-Zeneca now expects to file an emergency use application for its COVID-19 vaccine with the Food and Drug Administration in the middle of next month.

“One especially time-consuming task has been compiling British data from almost four months of vaccinations in the U.K., including efficacy, virus-transmission and safety statistics, people close to the process say. That has added to the complexity of AstraZeneca’s submission and is expected to lengthen any FDA review. Other shots that the FDA has authorized had large-scale human trial data but little or none from real-world rollouts outside of controlled studies.”

No good deed, etc.

From the patients safety front, the Leapfrog Group released its Spring 2021 hospital safety grades yesterday. The two hospitals closest in proximity to the FEHBlog’s residence are graded A and B. Beckers Hospital Review helpfully points out the 27 hospitals with straight A scores and F scores. Meanwhile, Healthcare Finance reports that

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on Wednesday released the overall hospital quality star ratings that now include new methodology in five measure groups.

CMS rated over 4,500 hospitals from one to five stars, with five representing the highest quality rating.

Of 4,586 hospitals, 13.5%, or 455 hospitals, received five stars; 988 received four stars; 1,018 received three stars; 690 received two stars; and 204 received one star.

For more than a quarter of hospitals, 1,181, no information was available.

This compares to January 2020 data, when of the 5,340 hospitals listed, 396 received five stars; 1,132 received four stars; 1,108 got three stars; 710 received two stars; and 226 got one star. Another 1,761 had no rating information available.

Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control released a new study setting a “Baseline to Measure Quality of Antibiotic Prescribing in U.S. Hospitals.”

Since 2015, when the prescribing data were collected, CDC has been working diligently with partners like the American Hospital Association and others to implement stewardship efforts and programs in acute care.

CDC will continue building on this progress and important work in the coming years as a part of the newly released Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria National Action Plan. Good luck with that effort.

In healthcare business news:

  • Healthcare Dive informs us that ” Virtual care powerhouse Teladoc reported a wider-than-expected net loss in the first quarter, but beat Wall Street estimates on revenue with a topline of $454 million, up 151% year over year, driven by growth in specialty offerings and multi-product contracts. * * * CEO Jason Gorevic contended he is unworried about mounting competition in the lucrative telehealth space, banking the company’s heft and variety of clinical services will fend off entrenched rivals and new entrants like Amazon.”
  • Fierce Healthcare advises “Do not expect the Biden administration to pull away from price transparency even though the administration wants to pull a requirement for hospitals to post Medicare Advantage rates, experts say. The proposal included in a hospital inpatient payment rule released late Tuesday is more aimed at easing administrative burdens for hospitals still struggling due to the pandemic, several experts said. “The repeal of this requirement more falls into the bucket of easing hospitals’ burden as opposed to the agency’s stance on hospital price transparency,” said Caitlin Sheetz, head of analytics and a director for the consulting firm ADVI, in an interview with Fierce Healthcare.
  • Fierce Healthcare also reports that “Anthem has completed its acquisition of home health benefits manager MyNEXUS, the insurer announced Thursday morning. MyNEXUS offers comprehensive home-based nursing management to health insurers, providing integrated clinical services to some 1.7 million Medicare Advantage beneficiaries in 20 states. The company’s platforms largely automate the visit and authorization, which allows members to access care more quickly, according to the announcement. MyNEXUS will be folded into Anthem’s Diversified business group.”

In benefit design news, Health Payer Intelligence offers a thoughtful article describing key considerations for implementing diabetes management programs.

Weekend update

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Both of Houses of Congress are engaged in Committee business this week. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will meet Wednesday morning to consider moving Kiran Ahuja’s OPM Director nomination to the Senate floor. The Senate will be engaged in floor business this week. Among other business items, the Senate will consider confirming Jason Miller to be OMB Deputy Director for Management. The President will address a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night.

From the COVID-19 front —

According to the CDC, over 1/3 of Americans over age 18 and over 2/3s of Americans over 65 are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Bloomberg reports that “in the next few weeks, what the vaccine campaign is going to look like is going to change dramatically. The Biden administration is pursuing a strategy of abundance, which the White House has referred to as an “overwhelm the problem” approach. That means that there will likely still be widespread shipping of vaccines to pharmacies and health centers, inoculation clinics and mobile vaccine resources. But what’s likely to disappear are lines and scarcity.”

The FEHBlog has been looking for news that Pfizer and Moderna have applied for full Food and Drug Administration marketing approval for their vaccines. A San Diego television station reports on the implications of full marketing approval for these vaccines.

Companies want full approval for several reasons. Once the pandemic is no longer officially designated as an emergency, only fully approved products can remain on the market. And the stamp of approval from the FDA carries valuable credibility, [Dr. Sidney] Wolfe [co-founder of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group] said. “Aside from what benefit for marketing it does in this country, it will clearly have an international benefit,” he said.

The FEHBlog also understands that full marketing approval would allows the companies to distribute the vaccines directly to physicians’ offices.

Typically it takes the FDA about six months to review a licensure application for a high-priority drug. Pfizer said it expects to apply in the first half of 2021, and it expects a decision from the FDA in the second half of the year.

Another news source indicates that Moderna recently filed its licensure application with the FDA.

Good Housekeeping offers a timeline for when children will receive COVID-19 vaccines. Pfizer has applied to extend its COVID-19 vaccine’s emergency use authorization to people aged 12 to 15. However, the FEHBlog sees no FDA advisory committee scheduled to consider this request as yet.

From the artificial intelligence and telehealth fronts, the Wall Street Journal reports that

  • A journalist writes on her experience with telehealth over the past year.

For me, both in-person conversations and remote conversations have their unique advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes, eye contact or hands-on care is just what I need to feel confident in my doctor’s diagnosis or advice. But other times, there’s nothing like leveling the playing field with video or phone chat to make everything feel a bit more intimate and safer. One of the lessons we’ve learned from a year of remote everything is that in-person interactions have strengths that virtual conversations can’t quite match, and vice versa. Healthcare may be one more area where the future is hybrid.

It’s a reminder that health plans should focus their telehealth efforts on mental health services because people are comfortable with it and it extends the plan’s network.

  • In the other article three experts weigh in on whether artificial intelligence can replace human mental health therapists. Of course, the answer to that question is no. Nevertheless the experts’ responses on exciting uses of artificial intelligence in the mental health field is interesting, e.g., “In the near term, I am most excited about using AI to augment or guide therapists, such as giving feedback after the session or even providing tools to support self-reflection.” and

We can generate a vast amount of data about the brain from genetics, neuroimaging, cognitive assessments and now even smartphone signals. We can utilize AI to find patterns that may help us unlock why people develop mental illness, who responds best to certain treatments and who may need help immediately. Using new data combined with AI will likely help us unlock the potential of creating new personalized and even preventive treatments.

Encouraging.

From the federal employment front, the Federal Times informs us that “Even during the worst global pandemic of the century, increased demands on public jobs and a radical shift to predominantly remote work, federal employees are confident in their agencies’ ability to keep them safe and recognize their hard work, according to results of the [OPM] 2020 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.” Bravo.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID-19 Data Tracker website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 14th week of 2020 through 16th week of this year (beginning April 2, 2020, and ending April 21, 2021; using Thursday as the first day of the week in order to facilitate this weekly update):

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

The FEHBlog has noticed that the new cases and deaths chart shows a flat line for new weekly deaths  because new cases greatly exceed new deaths. Accordingly here is a chart of new COVID-19 deaths over the period (April 2, 2020, through April 21, 2021):

Finally here is a COVID-19 vaccinations chart over the period December 17, 2020, through April 21, 2021 which also uses Thursday as the first day of the week:

The Hill reports this evening that

Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccinations should resume immediately, federal regulators said Friday.

The approval follows a recommendation from a federal advisory panel that the shot’s benefits outweigh its risks. 

States could start administering the shots in hours, if not days. There are about 9.5 million doses of the vaccine sitting on shelves across the country that could be deployed immediately.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which had jointly recommended a nationwide pause 10 days ago, accepted the recommendation from CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

The panel wants the FDA to add a warning label intended to make providers aware of the risk of a rare complication involving blood clots in women under the age of 50. 

Johnson & Johnson has already negotiated warning label language with FDA, a company official told the panel.

Medscape adds that “The recommended pause on April 13 in the rollout of the Janssen/Johnson and Johnson vaccine has not substantially deflated confidence in COVID-19 immunization, a new poll reveals.” Let’s go.

From Capitol Hill, Healthcare Dive reports that “The Senate Finance Committee split upon party lines in a Thursday vote on the nomination of Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, President Joe Biden’s pick to head the powerful agency overseeing Medicare and Medicaid, voting 14-14 to move to a full Senate vote without a recommendation for confirmation.” The FEHBlog expects that Ms. Brooks-LaSure will be confirmed next week.

Speaking of health equity, Econtalk currently features a fascinating discussion between host Russ Roberts, who recently became President of Jerusalem’s Shalem College, and Washington University Sociology Professor Mark Rank  “on the nature of poverty and the challenge of ending or reducing it.”

Fierce Healthcare offers interviews with healthcare experts on telehealth regulation and health equity.

Beckers points out how UnitedHealthcare plans to make Optum a $100 billion business and how Anthem’s IngenioRx PBM business keeps growing.

Tuesday Tidbits

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Fedweek reports that

A Senate [Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs] Committee hearing is set for Thursday April 22 [at 10:15 am] on Kiran Ahuja’s nomination to become OPM director, potentially setting the stage for her confirmation in the near future.

No opposition has emerged to Ahuja, who was OPM’s chief of staff for part of the Obama administration and who most recently led the Biden transition team for the agency. She also has experience as a Justice Department attorney and with the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders under Obama, among other roles.

The FEHB Carrier Conference’s keynote speaker today was Dr. Garth Graham who spoke on social determinants of health issues. Dr. Graham who is Director and Global Head of Healthcare and Public Health at Google/YouTube published a 2018 study finding that

In this cohort study of 6402 patients from 2 acute myocardial infarction registries, self-identified black patients and white patients differed in several clinical and socioeconomic characteristics. The higher the prevalence of characteristics associated with being a black patient, the higher the 5-year mortality rate, but no differences were observed between black patients and white patients with similar characteristics.

These findings illustrate social determinants of health concerns in a nutshell. MedCity News discusses how healthcare providers and payers are addressing these concerns.

Another speaker Dr. Mark Fendrick from the University of Michigan discussed value based insurance design which focuses on paying more for high value care by identifying and excluding low value care.

The alignment of clinically nuanced, provider- facing and consumer engagement initiatives is a necessary and critical step to improve quality of care, enhance patient experience, and contain cost growth.

That’s easier said than done, but you have to start somewhere as OPM points out in its 2022 call letter.

In COVID-19 tidbits

  • ABC News reports that as of yesterday, “All adults in the United States are eligible for COVID-19 vaccines starting Monday, with all 50 states and Washington, D.C., meeting the April 19 deadline President Joe Biden had set for opening eligibility.” The minimum age for the Pfizer vaccine is 16 years old. The minimum age for the Moderna and currently paused Johnson and Johnson vaccine is 18 years old.
  • STAT News informs us about the “many key questions about SARS-2 and the disease it causes, Covid-19, [that] continue to bedevil scientists.” “There was surprising diversity in the questions, though many cluster around certain themes, such as the nature of immunity or the impact of viral variants. Knowing what scientists still want to learn shows us how far we’ve come — and how far we have left to go to solve the mysteries of SARS-2 and Covid-19.”

In telehealth tidbits:

  • More news comes out of last week’s United Healthcare first quarter 2021 earnings report. Becker’s Hospital News reports that “UnitedHealth Group subsidiary Optum has deployed a new telehealth product across all 50 states, company leaders said April 15. The new virtual care product, dubbed Optum Virtual Care, is now live in all 50 states, said OptumHealth CEO Wyatt Decker during UnitedHealth Group’s Q1 2021 earnings call transcript, which was transcribed by the Motley Fool. With the new offering, Optum aims to integrate physical care, virtual care, home care and behavioral care. Optum Virtual Care offers virtual health services but also, if necessary, can connect patients to a bricks-and-mortar facility for more complex care or identifying and triaging both physical and behavioral healthcare needs, Mr. Decker said.
  • Fierce Healthcare reports that “Cigna’s Evernorth has completed its acquisition of virtual care provider MDLive. Cigna first announced the deal in late February, with the expectation it would close in the second quarter. The deal, the insurer said, will enhance the Evernorth subsidiary’s efforts to lower healthcare costs.
  • The upshot of the FEHB Carrier Conference’s discussion of telehealth today was that health plan payments for virtual care should reflect the quality and efficacy of care relative to in-person care. For example, the Insurance Journal reports that

Published in the April issue of Health Affairs, the [University of Michigan] study finds that patients who had an on-demand virtual care visit for an upper respiratory infection in the three years before the pandemic began were slightly more likely to receive additional follow-up care than similar patients who had their first visit in person.

The study compared data from more than 28,700 virtual visits with data from more than 57,400 in-person visits for acute respiratory infections in 2016 through 2019. Those visits, and any follow-up care, were all covered by a large insurer. All the virtual visits were done through a direct-to-consumer telehealth company with which the insurer had partnered.

The authors say it’s important to note that the vast majority of the patients did not require any further care for their infections, which included ear infections, bronchitis, laryngitis, sore throat and pneumonia.

But 10.3% of the patients first seen through a direct-to-consumer telehealth visit ended up having an in-person visit in the next week, compared with 5.9% of those who had their first visit in person. This includes second telemedicine visits or visits to clinics, urgent care centers and emergency rooms.

In other tidbits, Healthcare Dive discusses what to watch as public traded providers and payers report their first quarter 2021 results and CVS Health announced a new joint CVS Health / Aetna benefit design.

Monday Roundup

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The Wall Street Journal offers an interesting story about how many patients with long or long haul COVID-19 (about 10% of total case) wind up receiving cognitive rehabilitation.

Cognitive problems are some of the most persistent and common long-term symptoms that people struggle with months after getting Covid. Patients report short-term memory problems, slow processing speeds, poor word recall and difficulty multitasking. To help them, doctors at medical centers including Mayo Clinic, Yale and Johns Hopkins are starting to refer some patients to cognitive rehabilitation more typically used for patients with concussions and other traumatic brain injuries. 

AHIP presents an interview with Kim Lauersdorf, Vice President of Marketing at EmblemHealth, about crafting communications about vaccinations, including the COVID-19 vaccines.

What should health care organizations take away from the study, what are some next steps to help drive vaccine adoption and acceptance?

Lauersdorf: As health care professionals, we need to accept responsibility when communicating to our base and know that if we are not intentional of the language we use, the voices we amplify, and the methodologies we use to get our messages out, we will perpetuate greater health disparity.

First, it’s clear that terminology matters. The widely used term “shot”, for example, evokes significant negative connotations across all populations, but specifically in low-income, younger, and Black communities. Clinically, it evokes needles, injection, and pain. Non-clinically, it evokes violence. Continued usage of the term will drive continued disparity in vaccine adoption.

Second, we must amplify trusted voices. People, across the board, trust their primary care providers above all other messengers. To take this even further, people have more trust in primary care providers who look like them or come from their same communities.

In addition, word of mouth—especially from trusted sources—is as important today as it ever was. Even more so, as we are each dealing with a worldwide crisis, coupled with a large scale, new, possible way out of it. We have to understand that this is all new territory that this generation has never experienced before. That too fosters hesitation.

Third, we must use multiple channels to get our messages out. While there has been an increase in digital health adoption, as seen through rising telehealth usage, we have to know that many of our communities still don’t have reliable Internet access or access to certain technology. We have to get our message to all of those we serve to ensure vaccine adoption doesn’t perpetuate existing health disparities.

The American Hospital Association reports on five takeaways from a maternal / mental healthcare conference. Here’s one of them:

Technology alone will not be enough.

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven how crucial technology is for health care delivery. Telehealth improves access to OB/GYNs, doulas, lactation consultants and specialists. Remote patient monitoring, chat and text-based navigation services, and apps have provided additional ways to support and coordinate care. 

Yet, speakers acknowledged technology alone will not be enough. Melissa Hanna, founder and CEO of Mahmee, which delivers data-driven care coordination and personalized support to new moms, shared “technology will not be the end all be all solution” to our challenges in maternal health. She also shared, “this is always going to be about care, and it’s plenty of people working together to center the experiences of mothers, and be there in a proactive way to guide, support and advocate.” 

We have seen firsthand that a combined approach of offering health care services through technology and human connection can drive better outcomes for mothers. Mayo Clinic developed the OB Nest program to optimize prenatal care for low-risk expectant mothers. The program uses a combination of in-person and telehealth prenatal visits, home monitoring, and a social media community that allows patients to share their experiences with other mothers. It also has dedicated nurses that help with patient education and serve as a resource for mothers throughout the program. This combination has provided pregnant moms with more autonomy in their prenatal care. 
 

In other benefit news

  • Fierce Healthcare reports that Verizon has jumped into the telehealth market with an offering directed at providers of care.

Many hospitals and health clinics have adopted video conferencing services during the pandemic for providing patient care. BlueJeans Telehealth, which launched Monday, was designed from the ground up for healthcare organizations to simplify the virtual experience and offer greater access to care, Verizon executives said in a press release.

  • Employee Benefit News informs us that

Benefitfocus, a cloud-based software solutions provider for healthcare and benefits administration, published a report on the current state of employee benefits. The research provides insight into employee enrollment behavior for the last four years, and takes a closer look at how 2020 impacted employee benefits.

The EBN article offers an interview with Benefitfocus’s director of consumer advocacy.

Finally former NTEU President Robert Tobias presents in Govexec.com his thoughts on the National Academy of Public Administration’s recent report on the future of OPM.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID-19 Data Tracker website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 14th week of 2020 through 12th week of this year (beginning April 2, 2020, and ending March 24, 2021; using Thursday as the first day of the week in order to facilitate this weekly update):

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

The FEHBlog has noticed that the new cases and deaths chart shows a flat line for new weekly deaths  because new cases greatly exceed new deaths. Accordingly here is a chart of new COVID-19 deaths over the period (April 2, 2020, through March 24, 2021):

Finally here is a COVID-19 vaccinations chart for the past three months which also uses Thursday as the first day of the week:

The charts continue to look pretty good. As of today 34.6% of the U.S. population over 18 years old has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 46% of the U.S. population over 65 years old is fully vaccinated.

STAT News reports that

Pfizer and BioNTech said Thursday they are beginning a study aimed at showing their Covid-19 vaccine can be used in children as young as 6 months.

The study follows the launch of a separate and ongoing trial in children ages 12 to 15, which was fully enrolled in January. That study could lead to results by the end of the first half of the year, depending on the data, and then to an emergency use authorization. That will depend on the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The vaccine already has an EUA for people 16 and older.

“The FDA, if it sees fit to do this, could, grant an EUA and get them into children in that age group by the fall, provided the CDC also agrees and that that should be the vaccine they receive,” said William Gruber, Pfizer’s senior vice president of vaccine clinical research and development.

Moderna began a similar study of their vaccine on children from age 6 months to 12 years old on March 16.

STAT News also offers “A user’s guide: How to talk to those hesitant about the Covid-19 vaccine.” Here’s one good idea:

Have a conversation

Don’t lecture your family and friends, and don’t assume you know what their concerns are. Make sure to listen.

“Try to address their concerns, not what you assume are their concerns,” said Jorge Moreno, an internist and assistant professor at the Yale University School of Medicine. While you may be thinking people are ensnared in the darkest of conspiracy theories, many may have concerns that are much simpler to address. For Moreno, who even had to convince his mother the vaccine was safe, many questions he’s received have centered around side effects, and whether they might make people too sick to work. A Carnegie Mellon University survey released this week showed 70% of vaccine-hesitant people were concerned about side effects.

“Let people know it’s OK to have questions and that having concerns is legitimate,” added Reed Tuckson, the former public health commissioner for Washington, D.C., and a founding member of the Black Coalition Against Covid, which co-developed a campaign called “The Conversation” to provide Black families credible vaccine information. “Letting people have a safe space to have this conversation is essential,” he said. “Wagging your finger against someone is not very useful.”

From the tax front:

  • The Internal Revenue Service recently announced that “amounts paid for personal protection equipment, such as masks, hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes, for the primary purpose of preventing the spread of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19 PPE) are treated as amounts paid for medical care under § 213(d) of the Internal Revenue Code (Code). * * * Group health plans, including health FSAs and HRAs, under the terms of which expenses for COVID-19 PPE may not be reimbursed, may be amended pursuant to this announcement to provide for reimbursements of expenses for COVID-19 PPE incurred for any period beginning on or after January 1, 2020, and such an amendment will not be treated as causing a failure of any reimbursement to be excludable from income under § 105(b) or as causing a § 125 cafeteria plan to fail to meet the requirements of § 125.”
  • What’s more, Spotlight on Benefits explains how the IRS has clarified Pandemic-Related Relief for Dependent Care FSAs.

In healthcare business news, Healthcare Dive explains why being a hospital chief financial officer is a particularly tough job during the pandemic. Also Fierce Healthcare discusses a CIGNA telehealth study finding that

while virtual visits for other types of services declined after the initial COVID-19 spike, virtual visits for behavioral health remained in high demand. In April 2020, virtual visits made up about 50% of claims for non-behavioral health services and declined over the course of the year to account for nearly 25% today.

“Virtual behavioral health care is not only a way to access mental health services in the wake of social distancing, but it also allows us the option to pursue treatment in the privacy and comfort of our own homes,” Lustig said.

By contrast, in April, 66% of office visits for behavioral health were conducted virtually, and it’s remained largely flat since.

Behavioral telehealth users also reported higher productivity at work, according to the survey. These patients reported a 45% decrease in sick days, compared to a 28% decrease in miss workdays among patients who did not use telehealth.

That’s good news for the spoke and hub telehealth companies and for health plans and consumers because the spoke and hub telehealth network therapists are in-network.

Midweek update

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, STAT News reports that Senate leaders have reached an agreement to extend a Medicare pay bump for health care providers through 2021, a major lobbying win for hospitals.”

The Wall Street Journal reports two Senate confirmations in healthcare positions:

The Senate [today] confirmed Dr. Rachel Levine as assistant health secretary, making her the first openly transgender federal official approved by the Senate.

The vote was 52 to 48, largely along party lines, with GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine joining all 50 Democrats.

The pediatrician and former Pennsylvania secretary of health helped steer the state’s response to Covid-19. She has also worked to increase awareness of equity issues that the LGBT community faces and is a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Penn State College of Medicine. 

and

Yesterday, the Senate approved Vivek Murthy, President Biden’s pick for surgeon general, by a 57-to-43 vote, marking his second stint in the post, which he held from 2014 through 2017. Dr. Murthy, who was co-chairman of Mr. Biden’s Covid-19 advisory board, has said he would use his position to provide science-based guidelines for ending the coronavirus pandemic.

From the COVID vaccine front, Medscape informs us that

White House officials said at a briefing Wednesday they are still anticipating updated vaccine data from AstraZeneca, after federal officials called Tuesday’s release of interim phase 3 data from the company “outdated information.”

“Right now, AstraZeneca is getting back with the Data and Safety Monitoring Board and will likely come out with an updated statement,” said Anthony Fauci, MD, a top COVID-19 official and chief of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the agency that complained to the pharmaceutical company that their current information was “incomplete.”

Andy Slavitt, senior White House adviser for COVID-19 response, added: “Our takeaway is the importance of transparency and trust…. I would urge us not to focus on the process of the last couple days, but instead to focus on what really matters, which is what happens when these applications for these candidates are submitted to the FDA.”

FLASH — The Washington Post reported at 10:30 pm Wednesday night that

An updated company analysis of the coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford showed that the two-shot regimen was robustly effective — 76 percent at preventing symptomatic illness — according to a news release from the drugmaker late Wednesday.

The finding, only slightly lower than results announced days earlier, underscores that the vaccine being widely used by many countries appears to be a powerful tool to help end the pandemic. No severe cases of illness were reported in study volunteers who received the vaccine. Among people 65 and older, the vaccine was 85 percent effective, the company reported.

Yesterday, the FEHBlog watched a Wall Street Journal interview with Mr. Slavitt as part of the WSJ’s Health Forum. The FEHBlog really enjoyed this WSJ video featuring reporter Joanna Stern with a COVID vaccine hunter from New Jersey. It’s certainly worth five and half minutes of your day.

HR Dive reports that

Employers should offer paid sick leave to employees with “signs and symptoms” following COVID-19 vaccination, according to guidance updated March 16 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Employers should consider on-site vaccination programs if they have a large workforce with predictable schedules and enough space to run a clinic that meets social distancing requirements, CDC said. Employers that choose to offer vaccinations should record each offer and employees’ decisions. Employers should consider off-site vaccination if they are a small- or medium-sized organization lacking the resources to host a vaccination clinic, it said.

The agency also said that whether an employer may require COVID-19 vaccinations is a matter of state or other applicable law but noted that exemptions may apply: Medical exemptions for people who are at risk for an adverse reaction because of an allergy to one of the components used in the vaccine or a medical condition; and religious exemptions for people who reject being vaccinated because of their religious beliefs.

In healthcare business news, Fierce Healthcare lets us know that

Uber is ramping up its prescription delivery business by teaming up with software company ScriptDrop. The ride-share giant will be the default delivery service for ScriptDrop pharmacies in 37 states and will eventually expand to others.

ScriptDrop works with some of the top grocery chains, pharmacy chains and health systems in the U.S., including Albertsons, Jewel-Osco, Safeway and Vons. Through the tie-up with Uber, those pharmacies will be able to leverage the company’s technology to deliver more prescriptions to more customers.

From the report front, the FEHBlog noticed

Finally March 22 to 28, 2021, is National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week. “Held since 2010, NDAFW brings teens and scientific experts together to discuss the scientific facts about drugs, as well as their potential health effects on teen bodies and brains. ”

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

In the wake of yesterday’s announcement that Amazon is breaking into the employer sponsored plan telehealth market, there was plenty of news today about telehealth.

STAT News reports that

“The market for virtual care is still massively underpenetrated,” wrote Cowen analysts Charles Rhyee, Calvin Sternick, James Auh, and Gwen Shi in a research note Wednesday. While Teladoc expects to provide 10 million visits in the U.S. in 2021, each year the country sees roughly 850 million outpatient visits, plus 300 million additional visits specific to mental health, according to the Cowen analysts. “This is not a zero sum game by any stretch,” they added.

Med City News effectively seconds this point of view as follows:

Amazon will need to build out relationships with health plans and health systems, so it can have a referral network for patients who need to see a specialist.   Teladoc, for example, says it has partnerships with more than 50 health plans and 600 health systems, perhaps implying that it’s not going to be that easy.

“New entrants to virtual care will continue to confront many of the challenges Teladoc Health has overcome over the past decade as we have built worldwide capabilities to deliver, enable and empower whole-person virtual care,” a Teladoc spokesperson wrote in an email.

While that may well be true, what Teladoc and Amwell encountered and overcame was low utilization — something that Amazon won’t have to contend with given that Covid-19 has ramped up utilization and adoption sky-high.

It will be interesting to see the jockeying for market share, but no matter which company wins, telehealth has already come out on top.

In that regard, Healthcare Dive reports that “Virtual behavioral health visits surged in the first half of 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated mental health needs, according to a new analysis by Milliman and Well Being Trust.”

Healthcare IT News cautions us that “Telehealth experienced sudden and massive growth starting a year ago, but it didn’t happen everywhere. A new report from the RAND Corporation suggests that the biggest upticks in virtual care availability occurred in more affluent and metropolitan communities, and that telemedicine services were mostly enjoyed by patients with private insurance.”

Healthcare Dive offers an interview with Health Affairs editor in chief Alan Weil that features a discussion of telehealth.

In healthcare equity news

  • Health Payer Intelligence reports that “Blue Shield of California has enhanced its provider network to expand COVID-19 vaccine access in underserved communities.”
  • Fierce Healthcare reports that

The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA) is teaming with Feeding America for COVID-19 vaccine outreach in vulnerable communities.

Clinical information and educational materials highlighting the safety and efficacy of the vaccines will be made available at Feeding America’s 200 food banks, which reach 40 million people. BCBSA will provide physical handouts as well as social media posts with information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its own clinicians.

The materials will be available in both English and Spanish, BCBSA said, and aim to “dispel common myths” that may prevent people from getting vaccinated.

In other healthcare industry news

  • Healthcare Dive reports that the Senate confirmed the President’s nomination of Xavier Becerra to be Health and Human Services Secretary by a 50-49 vote. “Becerra has the support of payer and provider groups including the American Hospital Association and American Medical Association.”
  • Also coming out of Congress,

Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Representatives Scott Peters (D-Calif.) and John Curtis (R-Utah) today introduced the Methamphetamine Response Act, a bill declaring methamphetamine an emerging drug threat which would require the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) to develop, implement and make public a national plan to prevent methamphetamine addiction and overdoses from becoming a crisis.

 “In a single year we’ve seen psychostimulant-related overdose deaths, which include meth, spike by 42 percent,” said Feinstein. “The meth available on our streets is pure, potent and cheap and law enforcement is seizing more of the drug than ever. Two of the largest seizures on record occurred in California last year and in just a five month period, U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized more than 75,000 pounds of methamphetamine. Clearly we are in the midst of a meth crisis and we must implement a national, comprehensive plan to address this threat before it claims even more American lives.”

No bueno.

In further celebration of Patient Safety Awareness Week and because the FEHBlog believes that communication plays an important role in patient safety here’s an AHRQ article on using better communication to improve drug safety / avoid medication errors.