Monday Roundup

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the Federal Employee Benefits Open Season front, Federal News Network is offering a free e-book on this timely topic.

Fierce Healthcare adds

When many people are looking to enroll in health benefits, they turn to Google as a source of key information on eligibility, the application process and in-network providers.

In this spirit, the Google Search team has quietly rolled out multiple features for its search engine that aim to make it easier for users to access key information about obtaining Medicaid and Medicare benefits, as well as which doctors locally accept those types of coverage.

The article offers more details on these new Google tools.

From the Omicron and siblings front

  • Beckers Hospital Review informs us “The CDC has begun tracking omicron subvariant XBB, which is now estimated to account for 3.1 percent of U.S. cases”[, somewhat higher in New York, New Jersey and New England states]. * * * Health experts anticipate the U.S. will see an increase in COVID-19 cases in the winter months as a collection of omicron subvariants circulates, though they have remained optimistic it will be less severe than last winter’s omicron surge.”
  • The National Institutes of Health discusses its research on the ability of the human body’s immune system to remember a previous Covid infection or vaccination to help ward off, or minimize symptoms during, a future infection.
  • Fierce Healthcare reports “The U.S. came in dead last compared to 20 other countries when it came to preventing deaths from COVID-19 as well as all-cause deaths, and it appears that relatively low vaccination rates might have played a part in those poor showings, a new study finds. * * * The U.S. continued to experience significantly higher COVID-19 and excess all-cause mortality compared with peer countries during 2021 and early 2022, a difference accounting for 150,000 to 470,000 deaths,” authors of the research letter published in JAMA Network wrote. ‘This difference was muted in the 10 states with highest vaccination coverage; remaining gaps may be explained by greater vaccination uptake in peer countries, better vaccination targeting to older age groups, and differences in health and social infrastructure.’”

From the public health front

  • Axios tells us “The RSV season normally runs from December to April, peaking in February and March, but this year has seen an earlier onset. [Dr.] Fauci noted that both the RSV and flu seasons have arrived earlier than usual this year.  Asked by [Meet the Press host Margaret] Brennan whether the U.S. is “in the worst of it” right now, Fauci replied, “I hope so.”
  • The American Hospital Association relates “The World Health Organization today recommended a new name for monkeypox that is intended to mitigate a rise in related racist and stigmatizing language associated with the ailment. The WHO’s newly recommended preferred term is “mpox.” The organization recommends a one-year transition period to mitigate confusion that could be caused by the change and allow for ICD and publication updates. The Biden administration voiced its support for the change, stating, ‘We welcome the change by the World Health Organization. We must do all we can to break down barriers to public health, and reducing stigma associated with disease is one critical step in our work to end mpox.’” The FEHBlog also will begin to refer to chickenpox as cpox.

From the regulatory front, MedPage Today informs us

In an effort to enhance care coordination for patients with substance use disorder (SUD), HHS, acting through its Office for Civil Rights and in collaboration with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, proposed changes to “Part 2” rules to better align privacy measures with those of HIPAA on Monday.

If implemented, the proposed rule would allow Part 2 programs to use and share patients’ records following a single signed consent by the patient “for all future uses and disclosures for treatment, payment, and healthcare operations.”

The proposal also aims to strengthen protections around disclosure of SUD treatment records to guard against discrimination and stigma.

The changes were initially called for in the CARES Act of 2020, provisions of which required the HHS secretary to better align the 42 CFR part 2 rule, better known as “Part 2,” with HIPAA’s Privacy, Security, Breach Notification, and Enforcement Rules.

“This proposed rule would improve coordination of care for patients receiving treatment while strengthening critical privacy protections to help ensure individuals do not forego life-saving care due to concerns about records disclosure,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra in a press release.

HHS adds

From the medical research front, we learn from STAT News that

A drug developed by Axsome Therapeutics significantly reduced a common side effect of Alzheimer’s disease — agitation — the company announced Monday.

The therapy, AXS-05, met its primary goal of delaying time to relapse and preventing patients from relapsing. Patients taking the drug had a 3.6-fold lower risk of relapse overall, compared to placebo.

People with Alzheimer’s disease can get restless, upset, or even aggressive as the disease gets worse. Axsome’s trial also showed an improvement on a scale commonly used to measure overall agitation.

* * *

The Food and Drug Administration has granted Axsome breakthrough therapy status for AXS-05 in Alzheimer’s agitation, which could help the company secure an accelerated, additional approval. Company officials said they plan to wait to see data from another Phase 3 trial called ADVANCE-2 before filing a drug application, according to a third-quarter earnings call transcript from Sentieo.

and

Dr. Thomas Perls has for decades studied so-called super agers, people who live deep into their 90s and beyond, essentially unburdened by the typical diseases of old age. He is convinced that the secret to this remarkable longevity is buried in people’s genes and passed down through generations.

But which genes harbor this power? And if researchers pinpoint the right genes amid thousands in a person’s body, could that knowledge be harnessed to develop drugs that mimic those genes and allow more people to enjoy longer, healthier lives?

That’s the premise behind an ambitious new trial, the SuperAgers Family Study, (superagersstudy.org) that aims to enroll 10,000 people who are 95 years old or older and their children.

From the benefit design front, Beckers Payer Issues offers more insights from a recent AHIP study of prior authorization practices:

Gold-card programs give providers exemptions from certain prior authorization requirements, but providers who have discontinued these programs have found them administratively difficult to implement, according to a Nov. 14 America’s Health Insurance Plans survey.  * * *

Here are the top three reasons insurers said they discontinued gold card programs, according to the report:

1. Administratively difficult to implement: 75 percent

2. Reduced quality/patient safety: 50 percent 

3. Higher costs without improved quality: 25 percent

From the healthcare business front, Healthcare Dive reports

[Telehealth vendor] Amwell is in advanced discussions to acquire online therapy app Talkspace for roughly $200 million, according to a report from Israeli business publication Calcalist.

The telemedicine company is in talks to pay $1.50 per share for Talkspace, Calcalist reported on Sunday. The price tag would represent a 150% premium over Talkspace’s share price at Friday’s close.

The reported transaction reflects a sharp decline in Talkspace’s value since the therapy company went public last summer at a $1.4 billion valuation.

Friday Stats and More

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

The Wall Street Journal again warns us about an impending tripledemic of Covid, the flu, and RSV.

The New York Times adds

As it gets colder and more people move their activities indoors, the recent decline in Covid-19 cases across the United States has started to level off. Coronavirus-related hospitalizations are ticking up in a number of states, including Arizona, Indiana, Illinois, Nevada, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin. And there have been a variety of unnerving headlines about the immune evasion and increased transmissibility of the next round of coronavirus subvariants.

At least half a dozen versions of the virus are competing to become the next dominant strain in the United States, but they are part of the same family tree. “They are all offspring of Omicron,” said Dr. Albert Ko, a physician and epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health. Though each subvariant has slightly different mutations, none of them seem to be creating significant waves just yet, the way the Delta and Omicron variants did when they first appeared, Dr. Ko said.

From the Omicron and siblings front, the Center for Disease Control’s weekly interpretation of its Covid statistics tells us

Cases

As of November 2, 2022, the current 7-day average of weekly new cases (39,016) increased 4.7% compared with the previous 7-day average (37,261). A total of 97,604,763 COVID-19 cases have been reported in the United States as of November 2, 2022.

Variant Proportions

CDC Nowcast projections for the week ending November 5, 2022, estimate that the combined national proportion of lineages designated as Omicron will continue to be 100%. 

The Wall Street Journal points out

Two BA.5 offshoots, BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, are gaining ground in the U.S., now accounting for an estimated 35% of cases this past week, CDC data show. Researchers and health officials have flagged both BQ variants and another variant called XBB as strains to watch, in part because they might heighten the risk for reinfection or evade certain treatments.

Hospitalizations

The current 7-day daily average for October 26–November 1, 2022, was 3,272. This is a 1.0% decrease from the prior 7-day average (3,306) from October 19–25, 2022.

Deaths

The current 7-day average of new deaths (358) decreased 3.0% compared with the previous 7-day average (369). As of November 2, 2022, a total of 1,068,667 COVID-19 deaths have been reported in the United States.

Vaccinations

As of November 2, 2022, 640.9 million vaccine doses have been administered in the United States. Overall, about 266.4 million people, or 80.2% of the total U.S. population, have received at least one dose of vaccine. About 227.4 million people, or 68.5% of the total U.S. population, have completed a primary series.

Of those who have completed a primary series, about 112.5 million people have received a booster dose, and more than 26.38 million people have received an updated (bivalent) booster dose. But 49.1% of the total booster-eligible population has not yet received a booster dose. 

STAT News adds

New data from Pfizer and BioNTech on their bivalent Covid-19 vaccine suggests the updated product may be more protective against more recent Omicron subvariants than the original version of the vaccine, the companies said in a statement released Friday.

The companies said the levels of neutralizing antibodies that target the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus were four-fold higher in people aged 55 and older who received the bivalent booster than in similarly aged people who received a monovalent booster. 

The CDC’s Fluview tells us that for the week ended last Saturday

Early increases in seasonal influenza activity continue nationwide. The southeastern and south-central areas of the country are reporting the highest levels of activity followed by the Mid-Atlantic and the south-central West Coast regions.

CDC estimates that, so far this season, there have been at least 1,600,000 illnesses, 13,000 hospitalizations, and 730 deaths from flu.

The cumulative hospitalization rate in the FluSurv-NET system is higher than the rate observed in week 43 during every previous season since 2010-2011.An annual flu vaccine is the best way to protect against flu.

Vaccination helps prevent infection and can also prevent serious outcomes in people who get vaccinated but still get sick with flu.

CDC recommends that everyone ages 6 months and older get a flu vaccine annually.

There are also prescription flu antiviral drugs that can be used to treat flu illness; those need to be started as early as possible.

Forbes informs us about the availability of an RSV immune agent

While clinical trials are currently underway to provide RSV vaccines to pregnant women in order to protect their soon-to-be newborns from RSV infections, pediatric specialists have been administering an RSV “vaccine” for years. This vaccine, called palivizumab (Synagis) isn’t actually a vaccine. It is a preventative monoclonal antibody injection which has been available to high-risk infants since 1998. 

This therapy is administered as an injectable agent, thus was given the vernacular “vaccine” term, even though it is not a vaccine, nor does it act as one. It is an immune agent, providing antibody protection from severe RSV infections in vulnerable infants. It is given as an injection every month for five consecutive months. It was shown to reduce hospitalization by an average of 50% in two large placebo-controlled double-blind studies which included a total of nearly 3,000 high-risk babies. 

[T]he American Academy of Pediatrics has presented updated guidelines for use of Synagis during any time where a particular region is experiencing a surge of RSV cases:

“With the shift in seasonality noted in 2021 and the current regional variability in interseason RSV cases, the AAP continues to support the use of palivizumab in eligible infants in any region experiencing rates of RSV activity at any time in 2022 similar to a typical fall-winter season. The AAP recommends initiating the standard administration of palivizumab, which consists of 5 consecutive monthly doses.”

From the healthcare cost front, Employee Benefits News reports

The Business Group on Health named cancer as the top driver of employer healthcare costs, a spot previously held by musculoskeletal conditions. In fact, 13% of employers surveyed say they have seen more late-stage cancers impacting their workforce, and 44% predict they will see an increase in cancer diagnoses in the future. 

Again, Kelsay points out that delays in screenings, such as mammograms and prostate exams, left many Americans to unknowingly live with cancer. An estimated 64% of Americans deferred cancer screenings in 2021, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. And as a condition that can take months or years to treat, cancer is incredibly costly. The National Cancer Institute estimates the average cost of medical care and drugs is approximately $42,000 in the year following a cancer diagnosis.

“A lot of cancer treatments require immunotherapies, which are very expensive pharmaceuticals, as well as hospital stays and surgeries,” says Kelsay. “Cancer is just a terribly expensive condition to have.”

EBRI offers a detailed report on out of pocket spending in employer sponsored plans.

From the U.S. healthcare business front, Fierce Healthcare relates

Kaiser Permanente posted a $1.6 billion profit for the third quarter, which is down by nearly half from the $3 billion it generated in the previous quarter.

The 39-hospital system and health plan’s earnings, reported Friday, were affected by a major surge of COVID-19 that caused expenses to increase. Kaiser Permanente’s hospital system and health plan reported total operating revenue of $23.2 billion and expenses of $23 billion.

From the virtual care front, mHelath Intelligence reports

 Recent survey results released by Elevance Health found that most Americans who participated in virtual primary care said their experience was satisfactory and that the service effectively enabled them to manage their health.

Formerly known as Anthem Inc., Elevance Health is a health insurer. Through the survey, Elevance aimed to gather data on virtual primary care, its outcomes, and what patients think. The payer commissioned the Harris Poll to conduct an online survey of more than 5,000 US adults aged 18 and over.

Researchers found that 79 percent of study participants believed virtual primary care allowed them to take charge of their health, and 94 percent were satisfied with their experience. * * *

These survey findings come on the heels of a report released at the end of October, which found that telehealth was highly used among those engaging in primary care and mental health services. It also showed that patient satisfaction with telehealth was high.

From the miscellany department, The New York Times offers advice to insomniacs.

A good night’s sleep can make us more empathetic, more creative, better parents and better partners, according to Aric Prather, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco who treats insomnia and is the author of the new book “The Sleep Prescription.” Sleep can help us manage stress; it can make us competent and capable and better able to take on the day. But Dr. Prather says we too often view sleep as an afterthought — until we find ourselves frozen in the middle of the night, our thoughts racing, fumbling for rest or relief.

Thursday Miscellany

From the Federal Employee Benefits Open Season front, we find guidance from FedSmith, FedWeek, and My Federal Retirement.

From the unusual viruses front —

The American Hospital Association reports that

The Department of Health and Human Services today renewed the nation’s monkeypox public health emergency declaration for another 90 days. When the PHE was announced in August, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., said the declaration would provide access to resources and flexibilities, expedite state data sharing, and provide more detailed data on testing and hospitalizations. CDC yesterday reported over 28,000 U.S. monkeypox cases since the first confirmed case May 18.

For a more current information on monkeypox, check out these articles from the Hill and MedPage Today.

From the Rx coverage front., Bloomberg reports

Hundreds of community pharmacies are having trouble filling prescriptions for amoxicillin, a common antibiotic that’s often used to treat bacterial infections in children.

Two-thirds of 333 pharmacy owners and managers who responded at the end of October to a National Community Pharmacists Association survey about drug shortages said they were having difficulty getting the antibiotic. The liquid form of the drug has been in limited supply in the US since October, according to the Food and Drug Administration, and it’s also in shortage in other countries

 

Another Bloomberg article attributes the shortage to demand due the RSV epidemic and school age children illnesses plus the generic drug’s low price.

“A lot of that risk is driven by market factors, particularly price,” explained Matt Christian, USP’s director of supply chain insights. In general, antibiotics are generic drugs that have existed for years and tend to be cheaper and have lower margins than newer drugs. That means drug companies have a lot less incentive to set up robust, resilient supply chains  and may be caught short if something goes wrong at a competing supplier.

“Lower priced drugs have a higher risk of shortage,” Christian said. “No margin, no inventory.”

An analysis by the FDA found a similar correlation: Drugs in short supply typically cost less than other medicines. * * *

“If you run out of an antibiotic as ubiquitous as amoxicillin, there is a concern that unnecessarily moving [to a more aggressive antibiotic] can further cause antimicrobial resistance,” Christian said.

Why doesn’t the federal government manufacture amoxicillin?

In other medical development news —

MedPage Today tells us

Hard thresholds for pain medication doses and duration are no longer promoted through the CDC’s new Clinical Practice Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Pain.

The new guidance — which covers acute, subacute, and chronic pain for primary care and other clinicians — updates and replaces the controversial 2016 CDC opioid guideline for chronic pain. The 2016 guideline was interpreted as imposing strict opioid dose and duration limits and was misapplied by some organizations, leading the guideline authors to clarify their recommendations in 2019.

The 2022 recommendations are voluntary and give clinicians and patients flexibility to support individual care, said Christopher Jones, PharmD, DrPH, MPH, acting director of CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control in a CDC press briefing. They should not be used as an inflexible, one-size-fits-all policy or law, or applied as a rigid standard of care, or replace clinical judgement about personalized treatment, he emphasized.

More details can be found in the STAT News article.

Bloomberg informs us

In just 15 minutes, a small, handheld blood test can tell doctors whether a patient has likely suffered a concussion or traumatic brain injury — no brain scan required.    

After more than a decade of research, the Abbott Laboratories test is being used for the first time in a real-world setting to evaluate patients at Tampa General Hospital in Florida. Doctors using the test say it’s better at evaluating concussions than the brain scans that have been widely used for the last 30 years.  * * *

[Abbott Labs’] test, called the i-STAT TBI Plasma test, was greenlit by the Food and Drug Administration in 2021 to rule out the need for a CT scan when evaluating mild traumatic brain injuries. * * *

Though Abbott’s test is not yet ready to be used on the sidelines of sporting events, the ultimate goal for Abbott is for every hospital, urgent care clinic, ambulance, school and sporting event to have a portable test available. The company is also working on research that will help doctors know the severity of a concussion or brain injury, for both adults and kids, to aid in diagnoses.

Abbott worked with the Department of Defense to develop the test, which supported development with millions of dollars in funding. More than 450,000 US service members were diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury from 2000 to 2021, according to the CDC. It’s an area the DOD is “very concerned about,” said Beth McQuiston, a neurologist and chief medical officer for Abbott’s diagnostic business.  

Bravo.

From the U.S. healthcare business front

Beckers Payer Issues reports

Cigna raised its annual earnings outlook and reported a 70 percent boost in third quarter profits compared to the same period last year, according to the company’s earnings report published Nov. 3.

“We built on our momentum from the first half of 2022 with strong execution in the third quarter across our businesses and a continued focus on serving customers and clients with our differentiated health and well-being solutions,” CEO David Cordani said.

Healthcare Dive offers an M&A perspective on the Cigna announcement.

The Wall Street Journal reports

Moderna Inc.’s third-quarter revenue fell by nearly a third and the pharmaceutical company cut its outlook, saying as part of its earnings report that supply constraints for its Covid-19 vaccines might sap as much as $3 billion in sales this year.

The Cambridge, Mass.-based company said Thursday that higher costs and a decline in demand for its original Covid-19 vaccine also hit its performance.

Moderna, which three months ago said it projected $21 billion in product sales of its Spikevax vaccine for anticipated delivery this year, now expects between $18 billion and $19 billion. The company said short-term supply constraints will delay some sales into 2023.

Beckers Hospital Review cautions

The third quarter brought little relief to hospitals in what is shaping up to be one of their worst financial years.  

Kaufman Hall’s October National Hospital Flash Report — based on data from more than 900 hospitals — found slightly lower hospital expenses in September did not outweigh lower revenue across the board, with decreases in discharges, inpatient minutes and operating minutes.

The median year-to-date operating margin index for hospitals was -0.1 percent in September, marking a ninth straight month of negative operating margins and a dimmer outlook for their climb back into the black by year’s end. 

Kaufman Hall noted that expense pressures and volume and revenue declines could force hospitals to make “difficult decisions” about service reductions and cuts. 

Meanwhile according to MedCity News, the American Medical Association “blasted the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Tuesday for its 2023 Physician Fee Schedule final rule, which would cut the Medicare payment rate to physicians by nearly 4.5%.” The AMA is demanding that Congress prevent the cut from occuring January 1, 2023.

The article adds

[O]ther organizations applauded it for areas that reflected their respective priorities. For instance, the National Association of ACOs (NAACOS) praised changes to the Medicare Shared Savings Program for 2023 that included providing more time to Accountable Care Organizations before they have to assume financial risk. The final rule also gave advance shared savings payments to ACOs that care for underserved communities. CMS said it expects these changes to increase participation in rural and underserved areas. * * *

[T]he final rule made changes to policies related to telehealth. This includes extending several telehealth services that were temporarily made available during the public health emergency through at least 2023. This will “allow additional time for the collection of data that may support their inclusion as permanent additions to the Medicare Telehealth Services List,” CMS said. The change is in line with comments CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure made at a recent conference. 

The Telehealth Access for America (TAFA), which includes the American Hospital Association, applauded the changes to telehealth, though the group called on Congress to make permanent actions.

In other telehealth news, Healthcare Dive reports

  • COVID-19 diagnoses fell by about 1% to 2% as a share of telehealth claims nationally in August, according to Fair Health’s monthly tracker data out Thursday.
  • In the South and West, COVID-19 fell from the second top diagnosis to the third from July to August. It remained in second place in the Midwest and Northeast.
  • Mental health conditions stayed as the top telehealth diagnoses nationally and in every region, and one hour of psychotherapy remained the top telehealth procedure code.

Midweek update

From the alcohol abuse front, MedPage Today tells us

One out of every eight deaths in Americans ages 20 to 64 resulted from drinking too much alcohol, according to a U.S. population-based study.

Nationally, 12.9% of total deaths per year among adults in this age group were attributed to excessive alcohol consumption from 2015 to 2019, and that number rose to 20.3% of total deaths per year when restricted to people ages 20 to 49, reported Marissa Esser, PhD, MPH, of the CDC in Atlanta, and colleagues.

Alcohol-attributed deaths ranged from 9.3% in Mississippi to 21.7% in New Mexico and were more common among men than women (15% vs 9.4%), the authors wrote in JAMA Network Open.

That is startling.

From the unusual viruses front, Beckers Hospital Review explains

Wastewater testing has found polioviruses genetically tied to a case that left an unvaccinated Rockland County, N.Y., resident paralyzed this summer in at least five of the state’s counties, according to a new CDC report. 

The report, published Oct. 28, is based on wastewater testing from samples collected from March 9 through Oct. 11 from 28 sewersheds serving parts of Rockland County and 12 other counties. Eighty-nine samples, or 8.3 percent of 1,076 samples collected, tested positive for poliovirus type 2. Of those, 82 were linked to the virus isolated from the Rockland County patient who was left paralyzed 

“Although most persons in the United States are sufficiently immunized, unvaccinated or undervaccinated persons living or working in Kings, Orange, Queens, Rockland, or Sullivan counties, New York should complete the polio vaccination series to prevent additional paralytic cases and curtail transmission,” the CDC report said. 

CDC officials recently told CNBC they are considering the use of a novel oral polio vaccine not used in 20 years to halt the outbreak. 

From the opioid epidemic front, Healthcare Dive informs us

CVS Health agreed on Wednesday to pay $5 billion to settle almost all opioid-related lawsuits and claims the company been battling over the past decade that alleged it mishandled prescriptions of the painkillers.

If the deal is finalized, CVS will pay $4.9 billion to states and political entities such as counties and cities, and $130 million to U.S. tribes.

The payments, which depend partially on the number of government entities that agree to join the settlement, will be spread out over the next 10 years beginning in 2023.

Cities, counties and states have filed more than 3,000 lawsuits against drugmakers, distributors and pharmacies for their role in perpetrating the opioid epidemic in the U.S. According to government data, three-fourths of the 92,000 drug overdose deaths in 2020 involved an opioid.

Walgreens and Walmart also have reached deals to settle opioid-related claims, Reuters reported, citing people familiar with the matter. Walgreens will pay $5.7 billion over 15 years and Walmart will pay $3.1 billion, mostly up front, according to the report.

If the settlements from the three companies, which are the largest retail pharmacies in the U.S., become final, it may end much of the yearslong litigation over opioids. Cases still are pending against smaller pharmacies such as Rite Aid.

The deals follow some victories for plaintiffs against the chains. 

In related healthcare business news, Beckers Hospital Review reports

CVS Health raised its annual earnings outlook after beating investor expectations in the third quarter, but the company reported $3.4 billion in losses after agreeing to pay into a global opioid lawsuit settlement starting next year.

The $5 billion settlement will be paid out over 10 years and “substantially resolve all opioid lawsuits and claims against the company by states, political subdivisions, such as counties and cities, and tribes in the United States,” the company said in its Nov. 2 earnings report.

The company’s third quarter EPS is $2.09 and $6.71 for 2022. It also raised its full year guidance and expects adjusted EPS to rise from a range of $8.40-$8.60 to $8.55-$8.65.

“We delivered another outstanding quarter, and have raised full-year guidance as a result. We continue to execute on our strategy with a focus on expanding capabilities in health care delivery, and the announced acquisition of Signify Health will further strengthen our engagement with consumers,” President and CEO Karen Lynch said.

and

Humana reported $1.2 billion in profits during the third quarter and is expecting major increases in Medicare Advantage membership, according to the company’s Nov. 2 earnings report.

The company reported $22.8 billion in third quarter revenues, increasing 10.2 percent from $20.7 billion year over year. Total revenues in 2022 are $70.4 billion

The company expects an annual adjusted EPS guidance of $25 and raised its 2022 earnings outlook to $91.6 billion – $93.2 billion.

Healthcare Dive adds

Los Angeles-based Heal, a provider of primary care through house calls, telemedicine visits and remote patient monitoring, said it has partnered with Cigna Medicare Advantage plans in four states as it continues its national expansion.

The organization is now an in-network provider for Cigna MA enrollees in Illinois, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, effective immediately, it said. Its markets also include Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Washington.

Heal works with Humana, WellCare, Aetna and UnitedHealthcare insurance plans, according to its website.

Fierce Healthcare relates

Nearly 334,000 physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and other clinicians left the workforce in 2021 due to retirement, burnout and pandemic-related stressors, according to new data [found in the Definitive Healthcare report]. * * *

Hospitals and health systems are spending more money to hire and retain healthcare workers, the report found. These facilities are increasing salaries, offering sign-on bonuses, and expanding benefits to lure in new workers. Hospitals nationwide spent a total of about $97.3 million on employees and physician salaries in 2020, compared with $82.7 million in 2016, according to data from the October 2021 Medicare Cost Report.

From the medical devices front, STAT News tells us

A Food and Drug Administration advisory panel suggested Tuesday that the agency improve how it regulates pulse oximeters, calling for clearer labeling and more rigorous testing of the devices. The widely used instruments monitor blood oxygen levels and have been shown to work less well on patients with darker skin, possibly exacerbating health disparities in many racial and ethnic groups. 

Healthcare Dive points out

Optical sensor solution in fingertip monitors gives medical-grade accuracy of oxygen level measurement across skin tones and while in motion.

A patented SpO2 sensor chipset, integrated processing and reference design capability has uses in other wearable devices, according to BioIntelliSense.

The inability of many fingertip monitors to accurately read blood oxygen levels has caused people with darker skin to wait hours for supplemental oxygen and in some cases has caused deaths.

That’s good news for you.

Moreover, Health IT Analytics reports

A team of Yale University researchers has developed a machine learning (ML)-based clinical decision support tool to personalize recommendations for pursuing intensive or standard blood pressure treatment goals among individuals with and without diabetes.

The tool, described in a study published earlier this week in The Lancet Digital Health, is designed to facilitate shared decision-making between providers and patients with hypertension through a data-driven approach. Hypertension is defined as a sustained blood pressure greater than 140/90 mm Hg and is a leading cause of heart disease and mortality.

From the Rx coverage front, STAT News tells us

A blockbuster weight-loss medicine led to dramatic effects for adolescents diagnosed with obesity, a result that will likely widen the use of an in-demand drug — and fan a debate over whether someone’s body weight should be treated as a disease.

The drug, a weekly injection called semaglutide, led to a 17% reduction in body mass index compared to placebo in a study of about 200 people between the ages of 12 and 18. On average, adolescents treated with semaglutide lost 34 pounds, or 15% of their body weight, over the course of the 68-week study, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday. Those on placebo gained an average of five pounds, or 3% of their baseline weight.

The trial’s relatively small size and short duration leave outstanding questions about whether semaglutide’s side effects, which include nausea and rare cases of gallstones, will lead to long-term problems, said Julie Ingelfinger, a pediatric nephrologist at Massachusetts General Hospital who was not involved in the study. But the results suggest semaglutide, sold by the Danish drug company Novo Nordisk, could be a powerful tool for adolescents unable to lose weight through diet and exercise.

From the post Dobbs front, the New York Times surveys the landscape and finds increasing use of telemedicine services, such as Aid Access, to obtain abortion pills.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

Kaiser Health News announced the winner of their fourth annual Halloween haiku contest.

Covid, Ebola,
Monkeypox, seasonal flu —
Who needs Halloween?

— Paul Hughes-Cromwick

The Department of Health and Human Services reminds us that the federal healthcare / Obamacare marketplace will be open for business tomorrow. Professor Katie Keith, writing in Health Affairs Forefront, provides all the details.

The U.S. Office of Personnnel Management issued a press release today with a list of senior staff transitions and additional key staff appointments.

From the Omicron and siblings front, Medscape reports

The U.S. National Institutes of Health’s $1 billion RECOVER Initiative has picked Pfizer Inc’s antiviral drug Paxlovid as the first treatment it will study in patients with long COVID, organizers of the study said on Thursday.

The complex medical condition involves more than 200 symptoms ranging from exhaustion and cognitive impairment to pain, fever and heart palpitations that can last for months and even years following a COVID-19 infection.

According to details of the study, posted on Clinicaltrials.gov, the randomized, placebo-controlled trial will test Pfizer’s treatment or a placebo in 1,700 volunteers aged 18 and older.

The Duke Clinical Research Institute is supervising the study, which is scheduled to start on Jan. 1.

The New York Times offers readers background on the RSV epidemic and related matters.

R.S.V. is a common winter virus that typically causes mild cold-like illness in most people, but can occasionally be very dangerous for young children and older adults, said Emily Martin, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

“The youngest infants have a high risk of coming into the hospital in what we call their first R.S.V. season,” Dr. Martin said. “If a child is born in the summer and they get exposed for the first time in the winter, they are at risk of having more serious disease. But many infants didn’t experience the first R.S.V. season on the regular schedule that they would have, particularly if they were born in or after 2020.”

In a normal prepandemic year, 1 to 2 percent of babies younger than 6 months with an R.S.V. infection may need to be hospitalized. And virtually all children have gotten an R.S.V. infection by the time they are 2 years old.

But many experts believe masking, social distancing, school closures and other precautions taken during the first year or two of the pandemic protected most children from exposure to the virus and other germs. “As a result, there are still many children who are less than 3 years old who’ve never been exposed to R.S.V.,” said Dr. James Antoon, an assistant professor of pediatrics and pediatric hospitalist at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “The virus is now playing catch-up in all these kids.”

No good deed, etc.

From the virtual care front, mHealth Intelligence informs us

In collaboration with Mayo Clinic, Memora Health has launched the first phase of a research program focused on virtual postpartum care.

The program aims to improve communication between patients and providers through the addition of new technology to enhance postpartum care.

Memora Health, which offers digital and automated care programs, is working with Mayo Clinic to implement the virtual care program, which will provide the health system’s maternal care teams access to technology that can help them extend care for postpartum patients in the home and between clinic visits.

From the healthcare cost front, Health Payer Intelligence tells us

Dialysis increased monthly spending for privately-covered members with chronic diseases by approximately 292 percent, according to a study published in JAMA Open Network.

The researchers drew their insights from a sample of nearly 12,400 private insurance enrollees over the course of 309,800 enrollee-months. The data from Health Care Cost Institute spanned 2012 to 2019 and was analyzed from late August 2021 to mid-August 2022. Enrollees had employer-sponsored insurance for a year after starting dialysis.

Most enrollees were in preferred provider organization health plans that were self-funded. * * *

Medicare beneficiaries had much lower costs than their employer-sponsored health plan counterparts. The mean spending for enrollees on Medicare in the year after starting dialysis was $80,509, compared to $238,126 for individuals with private healthcare coverage.

“The large costs borne by private insurers to cover enrollees with kidney failure underscore the importance of Medicare becoming a primary payer after 30 months,” the study indicated. “The differences in spending between enrollees receiving dialysis with private insurance and those with Medicare are especially important given growing concerns about the market power of large dialysis organizations and recent policy proposals.”

The level of spending increase post-dialysis initiation that the researchers discovered in this study was higher than previous studies indicated.

The Wall Street Journal adds

Rival drugmakers are seeking to upend Pfizer Inc.’s dominance of the $7 billion worldwide market for pneumonia vaccines, launching what is shaping up to be one of the industry’s fiercest battles.

Merck & Co. has already introduced a new competitor to Pfizer’s Prevnar vaccine franchise, while GSK PLC and VaxcyteInc. are among companies developing shots that aim to win sales by protecting against even more strains of the pneumonia virus.

The companies are all vying for a piece of a lucrative market that Pfizer has commanded for more than a decade and is forecast to reach more than $10 billion annually by 2028, according to Wall Street analysts.

“It is kind of an all-out battle to see who can get this $10 billion that’s out there on the table,” said Louise Chen, an analyst at Cantor Fitzgerald & Co.

Weekend update

Congress remains on the campaign trail with the November 8 election just nine days away.

The Federal Employees Benefits Open Season starts two weeks from tomorrow.

From the Omicron and siblings front, Fortune Well tells us about the Zoe Health Study, a study of Covid symptoms among five million people.

Getting vaccinated against COVID reduces your risk of severe illness, hospitalization, and death if you do catch the disease—but according to new research, it could also dictate which batch of the milder, more common symptoms of the virus you end up getting. It’s thought that a large proportion of cases are still asymptomatic.

In an update to the ongoing Zoe Health Study, which has collected data from almost 5 million participants since 2020, researchers said they had identified symptoms that had emerged in recent weeks, noting that they appeared to differ depending on vaccination status. 

“Generally, we saw similar symptoms of COVID-19 being reported overall in the app by people who had and hadn’t been vaccinated,” the research team said in its update. “However, fewer symptoms were reported over a shorter period of time by those who had already had a jab, suggesting that they were falling less seriously ill and getting better more quickly.”

Precision Vaccinations informs us

As World Pneumonia Day approaches on November 12th, the ongoing effort to reduce fatalities from infectious diseases has never been more urgent.

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that needlessly affects millions worldwide each year. Most of the people affected by pneumonia in the U.S. are adults.

Previous U.S. CDC data indicates 47,000 people died from pneumonia in the U.S. in 2020.

And that negative trend continues today.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) Mortality Surveillance data available on October 27, 2022, 9.2% of infectious disease fatalities that occurred during week #42 were due to pneumonia, influenza, and/or COVID-19 (PIC).

Among the 2,128 PIC deaths reported last week, 1,164 listed pneumonia as an underlying or contributing cause of death on the death certificate, 949 had COVID-19, and 15 listed influenza.

Pneumonia always has been a killer. The FEHBlog’s Dad referred to the disease as “the old man’s friend.” He was not alone. A 2018 medical editorial explains

The term “old man’s friend” is often used when referring to pneumonia. Searching for it on Google yields 16,400 results in 0.33 s for this combination.

The term is attributed to William Osler, who in the first edition of his book The Principles and Practice of Medicine (1892) wrote:

In children and in healthy adults the outlook is good. In the debilitated, in drunkards and in the aged the chances are against recovery. So fatal is it in the latter class [i.e. the elderly] that it has been termed the natural end of the old man [1].

In the 9th edition, published after Osler himself already died (in 1919 from pneumonia at the age of 70 years [2]), this excerpt was rephrased as “.. . one may say that to die of pneumonia is almost the natural end of old people” [3]. But that was 100 years ago. Fortunately, a lot changed for the better in the century that followed.

Today, pneumonia still affects many ‘old’ men. Medical progress made since William Osler’s time has resulted in survival rate for hospitalized pneumonia that now sits above 90–95%. However, longer-term mortality is high. The reasons for this are still largely unknown. A hypothesis from the editors of Pneumonia? Perhaps chronic inflammation leading to silent progression of cardiac disease is an underlying mechanism.

In mental healthcare news, the Wall Street Journal reports

Mental-health screenings for kids are expanding across the country. But as more children are identified as needing assistance, families can face a tough time getting help from resources that are already stretched thin.

and

Startups [i.e., this site] are prescribing ketamine online to treat serious mental-health conditions, raising concern among psychiatrists about the safety of taking the mind-altering anesthetic without medical supervision, sometimes at high doses that raise risks of side effects.

The first story illustrates an issue for which telehealth is a solution, while the story shows why telehealth cannot replace in-person care.

In U.S. healthcare business news, Bloomberg relates

VillageMD, which is majority owned by Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc., is exploring a deal to merge with Warburg Pincus-backed Summit Health, according to people familiar with the matter. 

The acquisition by primary-care provider VillageMD of Summit, a health-care network and the parent of CityMD, would value the combined entity at between $5 billion to $10 billion, said the people, who asked to not be identified because the matter isn’t public.

An agreement could be reached in the coming weeks, though talks could still fall apart, the people added. Representatives for VillageMD, Walgreens and Warburg Pincus declined to comment, while Summit Health didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From the Omicron and siblings front, the National Institutes of Health announced

As SARS-CoV-2 — the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 — continues to spread, its genetic material mutates, leading to viral variants. These changes happen most often in the virus’s spike protein, which allows the virus to attach to and invade cells.

Because most COVID-19 vaccines are targeted to the spike protein, antibodies resulting from vaccinations provide less immune protection against variants. This increases people’s risk of getting COVID-19 despite vaccination.

Researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) are exploring a different idea for vaccines. Instead of focusing on the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, they are studying the virus’s nucleocapsid (N) protein, which rarely mutates.1 The N protein could be the key to creating a future universal vaccine to fight emerging variants.

Fingers crossed.

In other public health news, the American Hospital Association tells us

Overall cancer death rates continued to decline between 2015 and 2019 for men, women and children and all major racial and ethnic groups, according to the latest Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer. The overall death rate fell an average 2.3% per year in men and 1.9% per year in women, led by declining rates for lung cancer and melanoma. Death rates increased in men for cancers of the pancreas, brain, bones and joints and in women for cancers of the pancreas and uterus. New cancer cases remained stable for men and children between 2014 and 2018, but increased for women, adolescents and young adults. This year’s report also highlights trends in pancreatic cancer, as well as racial and ethnic disparities in incidence and death rates. 

MedCity News points out three reasons why Americans are underutilizing primary care.

From the Federal Employee Benefits Open Season front, OPM informed agency benefit officers

Please see the attached document listing the 84 FEHB plan choices where the enrollee share of premiums for the Self Plus One enrollment type is higher than for the Self and Family enrollment type for the 2023 plan year.

Please share this information with your employees and inform them that enrollees who wish to cover one eligible family member may elect either the Self and Family or Self Plus One enrollment type.

Enrollees should carefully check the 2023 rates of their current plan and any other plan choices they are considering for 2023.  For enrollees wishing to change, they must do so during Open Season, which is held from November 14th through December 12th.

In all of these cases, the self and family premium exceeds the self plus one premium. Nevertheless, these anomalies occur because FEHB family sizes are small and the self plus one government contribution is lower than the self plus family government.

A FedWeek expert identifies eight mistakes to avoid when shopping for a health plan during the Open Season.

The Kaiser Family Foundation released its 2022 Employer Health Benefits Survey.

In 2022, the average annual premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance are $7,911 for single coverage and $22,463 for family coverage. These amounts are each similar to the average premiums in 2021. In contrast to the lack of premium growth in 2022, workers’ wages increased 6.7% and inflation increased 8%.2 This difference may be due to the fact that many of the premiums for 2022 were finalized in the fall of 2021, before the extent of rising prices became clear. As inflation continues to grow at relatively high levels, we could potentially observe a higher increase in average premiums for 2023 than we have seen in recent years.

In other federal employment news,

  • FedWeek offers federal and postal employees advice on getting a head start on planning for retirement.

More federal employees are working onsite and more often this year than last, continuing a downward trend since the mid-2020 peak in offsite work caused by the pandemic, the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey showed.

Thirty-six percent said they are present at their worksite all of the time, up from 29 percent in 2021 and 17 percent in 2020, while 18 percent said they had not been present onsite this year, down from 22 and 30 percent. The percentage who said they are onsite less than a quarter of the time fell over the three years from 24 to 20 and now 15.

While the share of full-time telework is down, many of those who are continuing to telework do so a substantial portion of their time, however. Those reporting that they telework three or four days a week now stands at 25 percent, up from 11-12 percent in the prior years, while those doing it one or two days a week stands at 17 percent, up from 8 and 10 percent.

and shares statistics on federal employee use of the new paid parental leave benefit as reported in the Federal Employees Viewpoint Survey — “Four percent of employees took at least some of that time over the last year.”

From the Affordable Care Act front, the Kaiser Family Foundation released its annually updated fact sheet on Preventive Services Covered by Private Health Plans under the ACA. “This fact sheet summarizes the federal requirements for coverage for preventive services in private plans, major updates to the requirement, and recent policy activities on this front.”

From the telehealth front —

  • Beckers Hospital Review offers an interview on the topic of “Telesitting, remote maternity care: Where telehealth is going next at Kaiser Permanente.”
  • Fierce Healthcare informs us “COVID-era emergency department patients who had follow-up appointments via telehealth more often returned to the ED or were hospitalized than those who followed up with doctors in person, according to a new retrospective study [published in JAMA Network Open]. * * * The researchers noted their investigation had several limitations, such as no data on certain “complex” social determinants of health like unemployment and whether patients received a follow-up outside of the health system. The findings “need to be considered in the context of a substantial body of science demonstrating the benefits of telemedicine,” such as those that found lower rates of rehospitalization in certain chronic condition populations tied to telehealth use.”
  • Healthcare Dive reports “Teladoc reported better than expected revenue in the third quarter, on the back of its mental health business, BetterHelp, and issued moderate fourth-quarter guidance, leading some industry watchers to say the telehealth vendor is setting itself up for achievable growth after uncertainty contributed to stock losses this year.”

In other U.S. healthcare business news

  • Politico brings us up to date on the low participation rate in the new federal designation of rural emergency hospitals. It’s back to the drawing board.
  • Beckers Payer Issues reports that CareFirst and Johns Hopkins Medicine “have signed a multiyear contract following a dispute over reimbursement rates that would have left hundreds of thousands of people out of network.” Cheers to that.
  • MedTech Dive informs us, “Labcorp lowers 2022 forecasts after Q3 profit falls on labor costs, declining COVID-19 revenue.”
  • Employers should know that the Equal Employment Opportunity slide has updated its workplace notice. HR Dive warns us, “Hang new EEO poster ‘as soon as possible,’ EEOC advises. An EEOC spokesperson also told HR Dive how employers with remote and hybrid employees should handle the poster.”

From the Rx coverage front

  • Reuters relates that “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has delayed a meeting of its advisory panel to discuss Perrigo Co Plc’s (PRGO.N) over-the-counter (OTC) contraceptive, the drugmaker said on Wednesday. The meeting, scheduled for Nov. 18, was delayed to review additional information, and no new date has yet been set, in a setback for what was expected to be the first approved daily OTC birth control pill in the United States.”
  • STAT News calls our attention to this news

Amid sporadic shortages of a drug that is essential in preparing patients for lifesaving, cancer-fighting treatments, one manufacturer has returned to the market — but is selling its medicine for 10 to 20 times the prices offered by the only other companies with available supplies.

Over the past week, Areva Pharmaceuticals began marketing vials of fludarabine at a wholesale price of $2,736, a much steeper cost than the $272 charged for the same dosage by Fresenius Kabi and the $109 price tag from Teva Pharmaceuticals, according to data from IBM Micromedex, which gathers pricing data that is reported by manufacturers.

The move comes as hospitals around the U.S. grapple with persistent shortages of fludarabine, an older chemotherapy that is used during the run-up to bone marrow transplants in patients with a form of leukemia. More recently, the drug has also become a crucial tool in readying patients to undergo CAR-T cell therapy, a customized approach to fighting some cancers that involves re-engineering patient cells.

That’s a big bowl of wrong.

Let’s conclude with this wonderful piece of Govexec miscellany explaining the genesis of federal government shutdowns in the late 1970s.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the Omicron and siblings front —

The American Hospital Association reports

The Department of Health and Human Services will launch a national advertising campaign and tour to encourage families to get the updated Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine booster to protect themselves against the omicron variants before winter and the holiday season, the White House announced today. As part of the tour, HHS will host pop-up vaccination events, and encourage others to share information on COVID-19 vaccines and host vaccination events.

NPR Shots reflects on Omicron’s staying power.

Whereas alpha, beta, gamma and the other named variants sprouted new branches on the SARS-CoV-2 family tree, those limbs were dwarfed by the omicron bough, which is now studded with a plethora of subvariant stems.

“The children of omicron — so the many direct children and cousins within the diverse omicron family — those have displaced each other” as the dominant strains driving the pandemic, says Emma Hodcroft, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of Bern. “But that same family has been dominating” by outcompeting other strains.

The article delves into the future as well.

From the Rx coverage front —

  • Fierce Healthcare tells us that health insurer Centene announced its third-quarter results and a new PBM contract with Express Scripts.
  • Florida Blue Cross announced a mail-order pharmacy agreement with Amazon.

From the telehealth front —

  • The Federal Times discusses FEHB telehealth coverage available in 2023.

As federal employees prepare to make their selections for next year’s health insurance benefits, some may wonder whether telehealth services, made especially popular and necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic, will stick around.

For the most part, beneficiaries under the Federal Employee Health Benefits program will not see a major drop-off of telehealth options for 2023, said the White House’s Office of Personnel Management’s Edward DeHarde, who leads federal employee insurance operations, in an interview.

  • While the Federal Times article is focused on the hub and spoke telehealth services, STAT News considers the growing practice of pharmaceutical manufacturers making their drugs available to consumers through a third-party telehealth service.

From the tidbits department

  • The Wall Street Journal discusses the impact of health insurance spending on the consumer price index. In short, “The subindex of the consumer-price index is about to turn from a driver of inflation into a deflationary drag.”
  • The U.S. Public Health Service Task Force released for public comment a draft I (or inconclusive_ recommendation: “The USPSTF concludes that the current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of visual skin examination by a clinician to screen for skin cancer in [asymptomatic] adolescents and adults.” The comment deadline is November 21, 2022.
  • CNN reports “One in 10 Americans over 65 had dementia, while 22% experienced mild cognitive impairment, the earliest stage of the slow slide into senility, according to a new study conducted between 2016 and 2017.” The study — the first in 20 years — breaks down its results by demographic categories.
  • My Federal Retirement offers its take on Medicare income adjusted premiums, known as IRMAA.

Employees and retirees are to be reminded that the IRMAA determination is usually based on Medicare Part B beneficiary’s federal income tax returns from two years earlier [e.g. 2021 governs 2023]. If a beneficiary’s income has dropped in the following year, then the beneficiary can appeal the IRMAA decision using Social Security Form SSA-44 (Medicare Income-Related Monthly Adjustment Amount -Life-Changing Event), providing proof that the beneficiary has experienced a “life-changing” event such as the death of a spouse or a divorce resulting in a significant decrease in income in the following year.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the Federal Employee Benefits Open Season front, Govexec takes “a closer look at 2023 FEHB premiums.”

On a related note, Health Payer Intelligence informs us

Member experience is key to member retention and, in order to boost member experience, payers must consider whether they are offering easy access to care and straightforward care navigation, according to an Accenture report.

The organization surveyed nearly 21,000 Americans who are consumers of both payers and providers.

Reg Jones, writing in the Federal Times, answers a “lightning round” of cost of living adjustment questions posed by federal and postal employees and annuitants.

In other OPM news, Federal News Network reports

With a fast-approaching deadline to apply for a Public Service Loan Forgiveness limited-time waiver, the Office of Personnel Management said agencies should help federal employees with their applications.

If they have the documentation available, agencies can certify a current employee’s entire work history, including that individual’s time working previously at other agencies.

“The federal employee should present a separate PSLF form for each federal agency and period of employment for which they are seeking certification and the agency official should certify each form as appropriate,” OPM wrote in an Oct. 24 memo.

Employment certification forms are just one of the requirements to apply for the temporary PSLF waiver, which expires on Oct. 31.

From the Omicron and siblings front, the New York Times reports

Younger people have also been less likely to receive boosters than the original vaccinations, and only about one-third of people of all ages have received any booster, The New York Times vaccine tracker indicates. But seniors, who constitute 16 percent of the population, are more vulnerable to the virus’s effects, accounting for three-quarters of the nation’s 1.1 million deaths.

“From the beginning, older people have felt the virus was more of a threat to their safety and health and have been among the earliest adopters of the vaccine and the first round of boosters,” said Mollyann Brodie, the executive director of public opinion at Kaiser Family Foundation, which has been tracking vaccination rates and attitudes.

Now Kaiser’s most recent vaccine monitor survey, published last month, has found that only 8 percent of seniors said they had received the updated bivalent booster, and 37 percent said they intended to “as soon as possible.” As a group, older adults were better informed than younger respondents, but almost 40 percent said they had heard little or nothing about the updated bivalent vaccine, and many were unsure whether the C.D.C. had recommended it for them.

(Currently the C.D.C. recommends that individuals over age 5 receive the bivalent vaccine, which is effective against the original strain of Covid-19 and the Omicron variant, if two months have passed since their most recent vaccination or booster.)

The article adds

Kaiser surveys have found that doctors and other health care professionals are trusted sources of information, and the older population is in frequent contact with them.

“If more providers recognized that four in 10 older adults don’t realize there’s a new booster and they should get it, that’s a lot of opportunity to make an impact,” Dr. Brodie said.

While on patient-provider communications, the Washington Post points out a free National Institute of Aging online resource that helps older adults prepare for doctor’s visits.

From the telehealth front, mHealth Intelligence reports

Telehealth usage has dropped significantly since its peak during the pandemic, with visit volumes falling 37 percent from 73.7 million in the second quarter of 2020 to 46.4 million in the first quarter of 2022, according to a new report by market research firm Trilliant Health.

Further, telehealth’s popularity among patients appears to be waning. Less than half (48.7 percent) of patients who used telehealth in 2021 did so once, and only 6 percent used the care modality five to six times last year.

This data “suggests that expanded availability of virtual care options has not had a widespread impact on consumer preferences,” said Sanjula Jain, Ph.D., senior vice president of market strategy and chief research officer at Trilliant Health, in an email. * * *

Though the overall shifts in telehealth use indicate a move back to in-person care, certain sub-groups continue to flock to telehealth.

Telehealth continues to be widely used to access behavioral healthcare services, the report shows. In Q1 2019, 32.4 percent of all telehealth visits were related to behavioral healthcare. That figure spiked to 59.9 percent by Q1 2022.

For providers, “behavioral health presents the greatest opportunity, and deploying virtual behavioral health services can be a good way to reach broader populations, engage existing customers while bringing in new ones, and provide new revenue opportunities via engagement in other care services,” Jain said.

In addition, telehealth-enabled prescribing is on the rise, according to the report. Around 35 percent of antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs were prescribed via telehealth in 2020 and 2021, compared to 1 percent in 2019.

In studies news, STAT News discusses the importance of fine-tuning artificial intelligence tools before releasing them for patient use and the cardiovascular differences between women and men.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the Affordable Care Act front, the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans explains

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued final regulations on affordability of employer coverage for family members of employees.

The final regulations under section 36B of the Internal Revenue Code (Code):

* Amend the regulations regarding eligibility for the premium tax credit (PTC) to provide that affordability of employer-sponsored minimum essential coverage (employer coverage) for family members of an employee is determined based on the employee’s share of the cost of covering the employee and those family members, not the cost of covering only the employee;

* Add a minimum value rule for family members of employees based on the benefits provided to the family members; and

* Affect taxpayers who enroll, or enroll a family member, in individual health insurance coverage through a Health Insurance Exchange (Exchange) and who may be allowed a PTC for the coverage. 

The final regulations are effective 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.

IRS issued Notice 2022-41 in conjunction with regulations under section 36B.

The notice expands the application of the permitted change-in-status rules for health coverage under a section 125 cafeteria plan (cafeteria plan). In particular, the notice addresses the situation in which, during a period of coverage (typically a plan year), a cafeteria plan participant may wish to revoke the employee’s election under the cafeteria plan for other than-self-only (family) coverage under a group health plan (other than a flexible spending arrangement (FSA)) in order to allow one or more family members to enroll in a Qualified Health Plan (QHP) through a Health Insurance Exchange (Exchange) in the individual market. 

Under the notice, the employee will be able to elect out of family coverage and into self-only coverage (or family coverage including one or more already-covered related individuals) under that health plan prospectively during a period of coverage, provided specific conditions are satisfied.

The Department of the Treasury and IRS intend to modify the Income Tax Regulations under section 125 of the Code consistent with the provisions of the notice.

Taxpayers may rely on the guidance in the notice for plan amendments allowing elections effective on or after January 1, 2023.

These rules are intended to fix the so-called “family glitch” in the ACA. Responsibility for implementing this rule in the FEHB Program falls on the employer, here OPM. More to follow on Wednesday because the FEHBlog needs to understand this change better.

Speaking of ACA changes, the U.S. Preventive Task Force gave a B grade to a modified description of its recommendation for primary care physicians to screen asymptomatic adolescents aged 12 to 18 for major depressive disorder and suicide risk. The USPSTF also expanded its new B grade anxiety screening recommendation for adults to asymptomatic adolescents and children aged 8 to 18.

Access to and availability of mental health providers must be expanded as well. Healthcare IT News reports on “how telehealth can help curb the mental health staffing shortage. A physician and virtual care expert discusses how demand for behavioral health services is increasing and what telemedicine can do to meet these needs. He shows how the tech can help serve vulnerable populations.”

On similar notes, McKinsey delves in “How to protect and improve mental health on World Mental Health Day,” which was this month and “The Gathering Storm in U.S. Healthcare.”

In the U.S healthcare business news, Healthcare Dive informs us

Walgreens is buying the remaining 45% stake in post-acute and home care services provider CareCentrix for roughly $392 million, the pharmacy giant said Tuesday.

Walgreens acquired a 55% majority stake in CareCentrix, which coordinates home care for health plans, patients and medical providers, for $330 million in a deal that closed earlier this year.

The Illinois-based retailer has said the buy will expand its reach in the health sector, especially in the fast-growing areas of primary.