Midweek update

Midweek update

From the COLA front, FedWeek informs us that

  • A federal retirement COLA of 5.9 percent will be paid in January to those retired under CSRS and 4.9 percent to those retired under FERS who are eligible for COLAs, increases that have been neared in recent decades only twice.
  • The announcement follows completion of the count toward that adjustment with release of the September inflation figure on Wednesday (October 13), which was up 0.4 percent. * * *
  • A 5.9 increase also will be paid on Social Security benefits. That’s primarily of interest to FERS retirees, for whom Social Security is a basic part of the retirement benefit, but also of interest to CSRS Offset retirees who have Social Security coverage as part of their benefit. Also, some “pure” CSRS retirees qualify for Social Security through from military service or earnings covered under that system before, after—and in some cases from outside earnings during—their CSRS working years. In many cases those benefits are reduced by the “windfall elimination provision” however. * * *
  • Congress appears to be on track to accept a raise payout by default of President Biden’s recommendation for a 2.7 percent average raise, with 2.2 percentage points to be paid across the board and the funds for the remainder divided up as locality pay.

From the Delta variant front, MedPage Today offers an interesting article on the efforts of primary care providers to convince their reluctant patients to receive a COVID vaccine.

[Australian social psychologist Matthew] Hornsey [observed] that in a world where the institutional memory of pandemics has been lost, only the perception of vaccine risk remains. With adverse effects making headlines daily, even in mainstream outlets, it’s hard to promote a message of safety.

David M. Oshinsky, PhD, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of medicine at NYU Grossman School of Medicine in New York City, noted the sense of euphoria with the polio vaccine, dubbed at the time as “the peoples’ vaccine.”

Well put.

Also, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) staff today released their vaccination advisory committee briefing book on the one dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. According to the Wall Street Journal’s report

A booster of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine showed signs of significantly bolstering the immune defenses of study subjects, federal health regulators said Wednesday.  The regulators cautioned, however, that data was limited and that they had to rely on J&J’s own analysis for some of the study findings, rather than conducting their own.

The committee will take up the Modern booster tomorrow and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as well as the topic of mixing and matching different COVID boosters on Friday.

From the telehealth front, Employee Benefit News reports that

Telehealth providers have found that their platforms are uniquely suited to address gaps in pediatric behavioral healthcare and are expanding their services to adolescents. Brightline, launched just before the pandemic, offers an “on-ramp” to behavioral health services, Allen says. The platform does an intake assessment and then provides education and 30-minute coaching services for parents and their children.

“Kids are actually more resilient using technology than we expected, and now there’s a strong preference for virtual first behavioral healthcare, because of the privacy and the comfort of delivering care in your home,” Allen says. “If Brightline hired every single pediatric therapist in the entire United States, we would still have a national shortage, so we instead use these tools to figure out what’s an appropriate care pathway and measure whether they’re working.”

From the Rx coverage front, STAT News informs us that Pfizer is backing up one of its expensive lung cancer drugs Xalkori with a insurance company backed warranty.

“In reality, this is for Medicare patients,” said Susan Raiola, president of Real Endpoints, an advisory and analytics firm that tracks reimbursement issues. Why? Medicare co-pays are used toward the so-called donut hole, the term used to describe a temporary limit on what Medicare will pay to cover a drug. The co-pays can add up, though, making refunds more desirable. * * *

To what extent warranties may become commonplace remains to be seen. But the concept may find takers among drug makers marketing high-priced treatments that cost $1 million or more, because winning reimbursement is challenging, according to Emad Samad, president of Octaviant Financial, a firm that is promoting the use of warranties in the pharmaceutical industry.

“So far, no one else has done this,” Samad said of the Pfizer program. “But where warranties will really come into play will be with high-cost treatments, such as gene and cell therapies. These companies will have to change commercial paths with these $1 million to $3 million drugs. They need tools – such as even more innovative warranty structures – so that payers can get comfortable with the varied outcomes potentially transformative therapies could have.”

From the medical devices front, Healthcare Dive informs us that the “FDA has awarded the latest crop of breakthrough device designations, granting regulatory privileges to investigational products including liquid biopsy tests for Alzheimer’s disease and bladder cancer. Check out the list.

From the medical research front, the National Institutes of Health announced that “A commonly available oral diuretic pill approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration may be a potential candidate for an Alzheimer’s disease treatment for those who are at genetic risk, according to findings published in Nature Aging. The research included analysis showing that those who took bumetanide — a commonly used and potent diuretic(link is external) — had a significantly lower prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease compared to those not taking the drug.” Fingers crossed.

Weekend Update

The U.S. House of Representatives is engaged in Committee business this week following Columbus Day and the Senate is on State work break / recess. The House also is expected to vote this week on the temporary debt limit increase.

The Medicare Open Season begins on Friday October 15.

From the Federal Benefits Open Season front, Federal News Network discusses the No Surprises Act (“NSA”) which takes effect on January 1, 2022. The NSA addresses three types of surprising billing — out of network emergency care; out of network care at in-network facilities and out-of-network air ambulance services. It does not address situations where the patient chooses out of network medical or mental health care or ground ambulance services. The article appropriately concludes

Of course, these [NSA] changes shouldn’t mean federal employees toss the basic rules of choosing an appropriate health insurance plan.

[Walt] Francis suggests FEHB participants check with their doctors each year to ensure they’re planning to stay within their preferred network — and then do some research about what new benefits are coming to your current plan and the others.

The plans change every year, and nearly all insurance providers add new benefits or perks to compete with others and respond to OPM’s priorities for the FEHBP.

From the mental healthcare front, the Wall Street Journal reported last week that “Finding a therapist who takes insurance was tough before the pandemic. Now, therapists and patients say, an increase in the need for mental-health care is making the search even harder.”

Especially in big cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., demand for mental-health care is so strong that many experienced therapists don’t accept any insurance plans, they say. They can easily fill their practices with patients who would pay out of pocket, they add. Therapists who do take insurance are often booked up. And in many smaller towns and rural areas, there are few mental-health professionals at all. Finding a provider who takes insurance, or lowering your rates in other ways, is possible but often takes legwork that can be draining when you are already grappling with mental-health issues.

[Among other approaches] Telehealth can provide access to a broader pool of providers, including therapists who are farther away from you. [Health plan sponsored telehealth providers are always in network.]

Insurance companies say they are trying to increase access to therapists. Anthem Inc. says it added about 2,000 additional providers to its telehealth platform during the early days of the pandemic to handle increased demand. UnitedHealth Group Inc. says it has grown its network of mental-health-care providers by 50% in the past five years to more than 260,000 nationwide.

As for therapists’ complaints of low reimbursement rates, Anthem health plans “routinely review reimbursements to ensure that providers receive market rates,” the company said in a statement. Margaret-Mary Wilson, UnitedHealth Group’s associate chief medical officer, says the company uses data on how patients are improving to financially “reward providers for delivering care with better outcomes.”

Fortune offers a fascinating article about Aetna’s preventive approach to mental health care. Among other tools the authors point out

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are also valuable modes of preventing escalated mental health concerns, as they provide 24/7 life assistance across a wide range of issues that can lower risks of feeling overwhelmed, anxious or depressed. In fact, one study found that companies with EAPs see a 24% improvement in life satisfaction and a 10% reduction in workplace distress among their workers. But we need to better inform people that EAPs are more than a workplace productivity tool. Aetna’s Resources for Living, which provides EAP services,is one example of a resource that supports those facing stress and anxiety, family conflict, legal and financial issues, grief and loss and even loneliness among our Medicare members.

Federal agencies and the Postal Service offer robust employee assistance programs to their employees independent of the FEHB Program and the FEHBlog’s view OPM should put more emphasis on coordinating such related services.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Roll Call reports that

The Senate passed a temporary debt limit increase along party lines Thursday evening, a move that would give the Treasury Department at least a couple of months before it once again bumps up against its legal borrowing cap.

The 50-48 vote sent the bill to the House, where that chamber will need to clear the measure before it heads to President Joe Biden. That vote, likely next week, could be tricky given GOP opposition to the short-term patch and Democrats in that chamber barely backing a longer suspension of the debt limit late last month.

Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House’s principal deputy press secretary, said Biden “looks forward to signing” the debt limit measure after it clears.

The Senate amended the House bill, which passed 219-212, replacing a longer debt ceiling suspension with a $480 billion increase in Treasury’s borrowing cap designed to last into early December, though it may go a little longer.

The current continuing appropriations resolution is set to expire relatively contemporaneously on December 3, 2021.

From the Federal Benefits Open Season front, federal benefits consultant Tammy Flanagan has posted her first GovExec column on this year’s Open Season while GEHA, the second largest plan in the FEHB, has posted information on its 2022 benefits.

From the Delta variant front, Healthcare Dive informs us that

Pfizer and BioNTech have officially asked U.S. regulators for emergency clearance of their coronavirus vaccine in children between 5 and 11 years old, making the developers the first to seek authorization for younger kids.

Thursday’s announcement, which Pfizer made on Twitter, comes nine days after the companies said they had started submitting data to the Food and Drug Administration in support of their application, which, if authorized, could make more than 28 million children in the U.S. eligible for vaccination.

The FDA has already scheduled an Oct. 26 advisory panel to discuss the vaccine’s potential authorization in children, more and more of whom have been infected and hospitalized as the delta variant spread and the school year began. Clearance is reportedly expected in November, though the evaluation could be complicated by turnover within the agency’s vaccine review office.

From the healthcare business front —

Healthcare Dive tells us that

Total revenue of hospital M&A so far this year dipped only slightly from last year despite the number of deals being nearly cut in half, according to a Wednesday report from Kaufman Hall.

The average seller size of $659 million was well above year-to-date average going back to 2015, the earliest year featured in the report. This year’s third quarter included the Intermountain Health merger with SCL Health to create an $11 billion system and HCA’s buy of five Steward Health hospitals in Utah.

Hospitals are increasing looking outside traditional care delivery methods to diversify business models by pursuing stakes in home health, virtual care and post-acute services. They are also identifying strategic partnership with payers, physicians groups and other adjacent sectors, Kaufman Hall said.

United Healthcare’s subsidiary Optum announced a collaboration with SSM Health, a Catholic health system in the Midwest.

Together, the organizations will work to improve the overall well-being of individuals and communities – while addressing the complex social and economic factors affecting each person’s health.

SSM Health and Optum will partner across certain functions – including inpatient care management, digital transformation and revenue cycle management – to improve health outcomes and patients’ health care experiences. The organizations also will collaborate to redefine the consumer health care journey through the design and development of a seamless digital experience to simplify patient access to the care and services they need.

“Creating a new ecosystem of care requires bringing together the best and the brightest to collaborate for the common good,” said Laura S. Kaiser, FACHE, president and chief executive officer, SSM Health. “The commitment of UnitedHealth Group and Optum to improving health care experiences and outcomes for everyone aligns well with SSM Health’s Mission to ensure all people have access to high-quality, compassionate and affordable care. We are excited to partner with them to achieve our vision of transforming health care in America – and address the health equity gap for the most vulnerable in society.”

To help advance health equity, UnitedHealth Group and SSM Health will jointly invest in vital community health programs to ensure the disadvantaged and vulnerable have equal access to quality health care services. These efforts will focus on closing the health equity gap and critical health priorities in the communities SSM Health serves throughout the Midwest.

Medcity News reports that

Primary and urgent care provider Carbon Health is expanding its service offerings with a new acquisition.

The San Francisco-based company has bought Alertive Healthcare, a remote patient monitoring provider, for an undisclosed sum. Alertive Healthcare provides a suite of RPM tools across a range of specialties, including primary care, cardiology, neurology and nephrology. * * *

Carbon Health launched in 2015 and has raised upwards of $522 million in funding, according to Crunchbase. Its goal is to become the “Starbucks of healthcare.”

As of August, Carbon Health operated 83 clinics across 12 states following its acquisition of Tucson, Arizona-based Southern Arizona Urgent Care and Sacramento, California-based Med7 Urgent Care.

From the telehealth front, Healthcare Dive reports that

Teladoc Health on Wednesday announced it is making its virtual primary care pilot broadly available to commercial health plans, employers and other benefits sponsors nationwide.

The Primary360 service, which the New York-based telemedicine giant has been piloting for the past few years, is currently being used by several large companies, and will be available through CVS Health-owned payer Aetna early next year, Teladoc said in a release.

The vendor hopes Primary360 will serve as an access point to the primary care system while enticing patients to its other services like specialty care and mental health to boost business.

From the miscellany department, Healthcare Dive interviewed the CEO of Morgan Health.

The mission of J.P. Morgan’s new healthcare venture is to innovate employer-sponsored healthcare, not just for the investment bank’s massive employee base but eventually for all 150 million Americans receiving coverage through their job. But it’s a lofty goal for the small business unit, called Morgan Health, launched late May, and there are many skeptics of efforts from major employers looking to disrupt the deep-rooted and complex healthcare industry.

Check it out.

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the Delta variant front

  • The New York Time reports that “Johnson & Johnson on Tuesday morning asked federal regulators to authorize a booster shot for adults, becoming the third coronavirus vaccine manufacturer to do so.”
  • Fierce Healthcare tells us that

AstraZeneca has taken another step toward bringing its COVID-19 antibody cocktail to market, filing for emergency use authorization of the long-acting candidate in coronavirus prophylaxis in the U.S. 

Last month, AstraZeneca delivered evidence that the candidate prevents COVID-19 in people who are unlikely to respond well to vaccines, bouncing back from an earlier failure to report a 77% reduction in the risk of symptomatic coronavirus infection. With all three cases of severe COVID-19 happening in the placebo cohort, AstraZeneca emerged from the study with evidence that it can protect some of the most vulnerable people from the coronavirus.

“Vulnerable populations such as the immunocompromised often aren’t able to mount a protective response following vaccination and continue to be at risk of developing COVID-19. With this first global regulatory filing, we are one step closer to providing an additional option to help protect against COVID-19 alongside vaccines,” Mene Pangalos, executive vice president for biopharmaceuticals R&D at AstraZeneca, said in a statement. 

In his final National Institutes of Health Director’s blog today. Dr. Francis Collins optimistically supports his opinion that most COVID vaccine hesitant people are willing to change their minds. “Over the course of this pandemic, hesitancy has decreased, and many who initially said no are now getting their shots. Many others who remain unvaccinated lean toward making an appointment. The findings come from Aaron Siegler and colleagues, Emory University, Atlanta.”

Dr. Collins today submitted his resignation from his position as NIH Director following over 12 years in that role. His statement reads in part “It has been an incredible privilege to lead this great agency for more than a decade,” said Dr. Collins. “I love this agency and its people so deeply that the decision to step down was a difficult one, done in close counsel with my wife, Diane Baker, and my family. I am proud of all we’ve accomplished. I fundamentally believe, however, that no single person should serve in the position too long, and that it’s time to bring in a new scientist to lead the NIH into the future. I’m most grateful and proud of the NIH staff and the scientific community, whose extraordinary commitment to lifesaving research delivers hope to the American people and the world every day.” Good luck, Dr. Collins, who will continue working in his genetics laboratory.

From the COVID vaccine mandate front, the Safer Federal Workforce Taskforce released more FAQs on the vaccine mandate for federal employees yesterday. Federal News Network summarizes those FAQs here:

Employees have a few more details about what they should expect if they’re planning to declare a medical or religious exception to the Biden administration’s recent federal vaccine mandate.

Employees who have previously had COVID-19 must receive the vaccine, the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force clarified Monday night in another round of frequently asked questions. The task force had previously made such a statement in guidance to contractors, not federal employees.

The Biden administration didn’t detail exactly what kinds of medical or religious reasons might grant an employee an exception to the federal vaccine mandate, but it did offer more hints about what employees might expect if they pursue that route.

More significantly in the FEHBlog’s view, Federal News Network reports that the Defense Department has “issued its guidance for civilian employees on Monday, giving workers [until November 22] to get inoculated.” In order to achieve this goal an employee must have received the Johnson & Johnson one dose vaccine or both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna by November 8 because the full vaccination status accrues two weeks are being fully vaccinated.

From the mergers and acquisitions front, Becker’s Hospital Review tells us that “More than three years after signing a letter of intent to merge [and overcoming regulatory challenges], Jefferson Health and Einstein Healthcare Network have finalized the deal. The combination of the Philadelphia-based organizations brings together two academic medical centers and creates an integrated 18-hospital system with more than 50 outpatient and urgent care locations.”

From the tidbits department:

Allowed in-network charges for fixed-wing air ambulances rose 76% between 2017 and 2020, and now top $15,000, a new study by Fair Health found. The average charge rose 27.6% during the same time period, to more than $24,500 from little more than $19,200. For helicopter transports, the average allowed charge rose 60.8%, from just over $11,600 to more than $18,600.

Meanwhile, the average Medicare reimbursement rose much less dramatically between 2017 and last year, and represents just a fraction of what commercial insurers are charged for air ambulance transports.

Demand may be part of the equation. Fair concluded that air ambulance claims rose 30% between 2016 and 2020. The leading reasons for such transports are digestive issues, heart attacks and bone breaks or fractures. The states with the largest volumes of fixed-wing air transports are rural: Alaska, Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana and New Mexico. For helicopters, it’s Idaho, South Dakota, New Mexico, West Virginia and Wyoming.

  • Health Payer Intelligences delved into the American Medical Association’s annual report on health insurer competition. Kaiser Permanente joined UnitedHealthcare, Anthem, Aetna, and Cigna in the top five.
  • Health Payer Intelligence also tells us that

A new study finds that while telehealth has surged during the pandemic, providers haven’t solved many of the issues that kept adoption low prior to COVID-19.

J.D. Power’s 2021 US Telehealth Satisfaction Survey, released this week, saw a surge in telehealth use from 7 percent in 2019 and 9 percent in 2020 to 36 percent in 2021, reflecting the shift to virtual care as the nation grappled with COVID-19. But the consumer advisory company’s third annual survey also saw a decrease in patient satisfaction, driven by complains over limited services (24 percent), lack of awareness on costs, confusing technology requirements and lack of information about care providers (all at 15 percent).

The more things change, etc.

It’s one of the biggest market failures in modern medicine. The lack of a widely shared data language is effectively blocking adoption of innumerable software applications designed to make health care cheaper, more effective, and personal.

On Tuesday, three large health systems formed a new nonprofit company to fill that gap. The venture, dubbed Graphite Health, is seeking to build an App-Store-like marketplace where digital health entrepreneurs can sell their software tools, and hospitals and consumers can more easily buy and implement them.

Its founders, including Intermountain Healthcare of Utah, previously launched CivicaRX, another hospital-led nonprofit built to create a cheaper, more reliable supply of generic medicines. If it gains the same level of uptake, Graphite could essentially eliminate the long and costly process of vetting and customizing software that hospitals use to do everything from selecting the best treatments for patients to managing their beds and operating rooms. It will also offer a range of apps for patients.

Second Interim Final Rule on NSA Implementation Released / Gov’t Shutdown Avoided

The White House

Today, the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Health and Human Services, and OPM issued the second interim final rule on No Surprises Act (“NSA”) implementation. This rule concerns the independent dispute resolution (“IDR”) process. The process is intended to resolve disputes that arise when an out-of-network provider is dissatisfied with the qualifying payment amount (“QPA”) from the health plan pursuant to the NSA.

The IDR process timeline is as follows:

Independent Dispute Resolution ActionTimeline
Initiate 30-business-day open negotiation period30 business days, starting on the day of initial payment or notice of denial of payment
Initiate independent dispute resolution process following failed open negotiation4 business days, starting the business day after the open negotiation period ends
Mutual agreement on certified independent dispute resolution entity selection3 business days after the independent dispute resolution initiation date
Departments select certified independent dispute resolution entity in the case of no conflict-free selection by parties6 business days after the independent dispute resolution initiation date
Submit payment offers and additional information to certified independent dispute resolution entity10 business days after the date of certified independent dispute resolution entity selection 
Payment determination made30 business days after the date of certified independent dispute resolution entity selection
Payment submitted to the applicable party30 business days after the payment determination

The NSA IDR process uses the so-called baseball arbitration approach under which the decision maker selects one of the parties proposals rather than craft an independent approach as judges do. The requirements description accompanying the final rule explains

When making a payment determination, certified independent dispute resolution entities must begin with the presumption that the QPA is the appropriate OON amount. If a party submits additional information that is allowed under the statute, then the certified independent dispute resolution entity must consider this information if it is credible. For the independent dispute resolution entity to deviate from the offer closest to the QPA, any information submitted must clearly demonstrate that the value of the item or service is materially different from the QPA. Without this additional information, the certified independent dispute resolution entity must select the offer closest to the QPA.

Basically this instructs the health plan to make a proposal close to, if not equal to, the QPA. Then the burden of proof for a higher amount is necessarily placed on the provider. The FEHBlog’s hunch is supported by the following American Hospital Association (“AHA”) statement from the provider side:

AHA Executive Vice President Stacey Hughes said, “The No Surprises Act was an important step forward in protecting patients from surprise medical bills. Hospitals and health systems strongly support these protections and the balanced approach Congress chose to resolve disputes. Disappointingly, the Administration’s rule has moved away from Congressional intent and brought new life to harmful proposals that Congress deliberately rejected. Today’s rule is a windfall for insurers. The rule unfairly favors insurers to the detriment of hospitals and physicians who actually care for patients. These consumer protections need to be implemented in the right way, and this misses the mark.”

AHA staff are reviewing the rule. Watch for a Special Bulletin tomorrow with additional details.

On the bright side for providers, it appears that the IDR process allows the health plan no opportunity to make a low ball proposal to the decision maker. However, it’s the FEHBlog’s view that the devil remains in the details of this lengthy rule and no one should underestimate the ingenuity of lawyers on either side in these novel legal situations. Finally, the apparently simple approach that the regulators took will facilitate implementing the principal feature of the No Surprises Act on January 1, 2022.

From Capitol Hill, Roll Call reports that

President Joe Biden signed a stopgap funding measure Thursday with hours to spare before federal agencies would otherwise have to start shutting down.

The continuing resolution gives lawmakers and the White House nine more weeks to reach agreement on spending levels and negotiate a dozen fiscal 2022 appropriations bills. * * *

The stopgap bill extends federal agencies’ current spending rates, with some exceptions known as “anomalies,” through Dec. 3, as well as certain expiring program authorizations like the National Flood Insurance Program’s ability to sell new policies and renew existing ones. 

The measure provides $28.6 billion to address natural disasters like Hurricane Ida which slammed into the Gulf Coast earlier this month, and $6.3 billion to provide resettlement assistance for Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban. Another $2.5 billion goes toward care and shelter for undocumented migrant children who crossed the border alone while the government reviews their status.

From the telehealth front

Telehealth usage was four times higher than a year ago, but the industry and patients are still grappling with growing pains including service limitations, difficulty accessing appointments and inconsistent care, a survey from J.D. Power found.

From 2020 to 2021, overall satisfaction with both direct-to-consumer and payer-sponsored telehealth services declined, according to the survey. Patients frequently cited limited services, lack of awareness of costs and confusing technology requirements.

Among direct-to-consumer brands, Teladoc ranked highest for telehealth satisfaction, followed by MDLive. Among payer-sponsored telehealth services, UnitedHealthcare ranked the highest, followed by Humana and Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, both in a tie for second, the survey found.

Despite the wide-ranging expansion of telehealth in the past year, there is still a broad swath of the U.S. population it has largely failed to reach: the 57 million people in rural parts of the country.

Even now, as employers rush to add virtual care to their benefits, many telehealth companies have avoided rural areas. Several acknowledged to STAT that most of their users remain in urban and suburban areas, and they’ve made far less progress than they’d like to in reaching rural patients. The companies recognize they face an uphill battle. Beyond the foundational barrier of broadband access, providers must contend with questions about reimbursement rates, strict rules on interstate licensing, and a hazy road map without clear inroads for reaching rural patients and providers.

“Honestly, as much as our mission statement fits well with rural health care, we haven’t really made enough progress to date around this work,” Brad Younggren, the chief medical officer of telehealth company 98point6, told STAT.

As it is Thursday from the miscellany department

  • Recycle Intelligence discusses “Lessons learned from Aetna, Cleveland Clinic’s Joint ACO Mode / Leaders from Aetna and Cleveland Clinic reflect on the first year of their joint ACO and health plan and share how others can deliver value-based care to their local markets.” Check it out.

Scientists have unveiled new maps of the protein networks underlying different types of cancer, offering a potentially clearer way to see what’s driving the disease and to find therapeutic targets.

Sequencing the genetic information of tumors can provide a trove of data about the mutations contained in those cancer cells. Some of those mutations help doctors figure out the best way to treat a patient, but others remain more of a mystery than a clear instruction manual. Many are exceedingly rare, or there are so many mutations it’s not clear what’s fueling the cancer.

In a quest to come up with more practical and actionable tools, experts have been looking beyond the genes. Instead, they’re mapping out the proteins the genes encode and the interactions among those proteins in hopes of getting a clearer view of cancer-propelling pathways. And in a series of papers published Thursday in the journal Science, a team of researchers outlined those “protein-protein interaction” maps for certain cancers and explain how charting those landscapes and others like them could reveal insights about patients’ prognoses, point to drugs to try for particular patients, and perhaps identify targets for new therapies.

  • STAT News also seeks to predict what will become of the COVID pandemic this coming winter. The article hopefully concludes

Barney Graham, who led the vaccine design work that laid the foundation for many of the current Covid vaccines, is hopeful, though, that in Delta the virus has hit a sweet spot that will eventually undermine it.

“I’m hoping the virus has gotten itself to a point where it’s basically trapped now,” said Graham, who was deputy director of the NIH’s Vaccine Research Center until his retirement at the end of August. “That it can’t get any better at transmission, and any adaptation it makes in the immune response is going to make it less transmissible.”

  • In support of this optimism, Reuters reports that

Laboratory studies show that Merck & Co’s (MRK.N) experimental oral COVID-19 antiviral drug, molnupiravir, is likely to be effective against known variants of the coronavirus, including the dominant, highly transmissible Delta, the company said on Wednesday.

Since molnupiravir does not target the spike protein of the virus – the target of all current COVID-19 vaccines – which defines the differences between the variants, the drug should be equally effective as the virus continues to evolve, said Jay Grobler, head of infectious disease and vaccines at Merck.

Molnupiravir instead targets the viral polymerase, an enzyme needed for the virus to make copies of itself. It is designed to work by introducing errors into the genetic code of the virus.

Data shows that the drug is most effective when given early in the course of infection, Merck said.

What’s more, the Merck drug is administered in pill form.

Midweek Update

Photo by Tomasz Filipek on Unsplash

Yesterday was the deadline for submitting public comments on the first No Surprises Act (“NSA”) interim final rule. The first IFC concerns the surprise billing protections afforded to consumers in emergency case, out of network care at in-network facilities and air ambulance care.

Here is potpourri of pertinent articles from Becker’s Payer Issues (about AHIP’s comments), the American Hospital Association, and Health Leaders Media (MGMA’s comments). When the same tri-agencies issued interim final rules implementing the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) in 2011, those agencies did not issue “final final” rules until four or five years later.

While the NSA law is narrower in scope than the ACA, it poses much more complicated administration issues than those ACA provisions. Consequently the final final NSA rules may be accelerated. Sensibly, AHIP suggests that the tri-agencies create a good faith safe harbor for health plans and insurers during 2022 and 2023 to allow them to come into full compliance with this complex law.

In other healthcare news

  • A friend of the FEHBlog called his attention to the September 2021 issue of NIH in the News which may provide useful article for health plan newsletters to members.
  • The Journal of AHIMA breaks down the ICD-10 diagnosis code changes that will take effect on October 1, 2021, under the HIPAA transactions and code sets rule.
  • NCQA has made available a kidney health toolkit.
  • Fierce Healthcare reports that “Anthem is teaming up with The Clinic by Cleveland Clinic to offer virtual second opinions to members. The Clinic is a digital health joint venture from Cleveland Clinic and Amwell that provides video consultations, digital record collection and concierge service to insurers, providers, employers and patients. Through the partnership, eligible members can seek online second opinions from the health system’s 3,500 physicians. Anthem will initially make these consults available to its large employer clients, with the potential to expand to other employers and other insurance programs, according to the announcement.”
  • Health Payer Intelligence tells us that “In 2020, the prevalence of employer-sponsored health plan coverage fell during the coronavirus pandemic even as employment rebounded, according to a recent study published in the JAMA Health Forum. * * * In 2021, the data forms a clearer picture. Employer-sponsored healthcare coverage declined even as employment levels recovered, potentially indicating a shift to Affordable Care Act marketplace or Medicaid plans.” That is hardly surprising given the enormous funding that Congress has provided to the ACA marketplace.

Finally, the Wall Street Journal’s the Future of Everything series today discusses how

Researchers around the world are trying to turn the humble cough into an inexpensive tool to diagnose and stop respiratory-disease killers like tuberculosis and Covid-19. They’re collecting recordings of millions of the explosive sounds from patients and consumers on smartphones and other devices. And they’re training artificial intelligence to find patterns to try to identify the type and severity of disease from the cough itself. 

“We call it acoustic epidemiology,” says Peter Small, a tuberculosis expert and chief medical officer of Hyfe Inc., a Delaware-based company with two free smartphone apps—one for consumers, another for researchers—that use AI to detect and track how often someone coughs.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

On the Delta variant front and acccording to the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker, the United States reached two data points today — the number of COVID cases now exceeds 40 million and the percentage of Americans aged 18 and over who have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine reached 75%.

At the end of 2020, the number of cases according to the CDC stood at 20 million. In his blog, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins discusses a recent Nature study estimating that “the true number of [COVID] infections by the end of 2020 at more than 100 million [1]. That’s equal to just under a third of the U.S. population of 328 million. This revised number shows just how rapidly this novel coronavirus spread through the country last year. It also brings home just how timely the vaccines have been—and continue to be in 2021—to protect our nation’s health in this time of pandemic.” It also suggests to the FEHBlog that we may to closer to effective herd immunity in some areas of the U.S. than generally thought.

Also David Leonhardt in today’s New York Times tells us about another way to look at the situation.

The C.D.C. reported a terrifying fact in July: Vaccinated people with the Delta variant of the Covid virus carried roughly the same viral load in their noses and throats as unvaccinated people.

The news seemed to suggest that even the vaccinated were highly vulnerable to getting infected and passing the virus to others. Sure enough, stories about vaccinated people getting Covid — so-called breakthrough infections — were all around this summer: at a party in Provincetown, Mass.; among the Chicago Cubs; on Capitol Hill. Delta seemed as if it might be changing everything.

In recent weeks, however, more data has become available, and it suggests that the true picture is less alarming. Yes, Delta has increased the chances of getting Covid for almost everyone. But if you’re vaccinated, a Covid infection is still uncommon, and those high viral loads are not as worrisome as they initially sounded.

How small are the chances of the average vaccinated American contracting Covid? Probably about one in 5,000 per day, and even lower for people who take precautions or live in a highly vaccinated community. * * *

I will confess to one bit of hesitation about walking you through the data on breakthrough infections: It’s not clear how much we should be worrying about them. For the vaccinated, Covid resembles the flu and usually a mild one. Society does not grind to a halt over the flu.

In Britain, many people have become comfortable with the current Covid risks. The vaccines make serious illness rare in adults, and the risks to young children are so low that Britain may never recommend that most receive the vaccine. Letting the virus continue to dominate life, on the other hand, has large costs.

“There’s a feeling that finally we can breathe; we can start trying to get back what we’ve lost,” Devi Sridhar, the head of the global public health program at the University of Edinburgh, told The Times.

Well put, Mr. Leonhardt, as usual.

From the federal employee benefits front, OPM posted on the Federal Register website today a notice of changes to Federal Group Life Insurance premium rates for “Employee Basic Insurance, Option A (most age bands), Option B (most age bands), Option C (most age bands), and Post-Retirement Basic Insurance. These rates will be effective the first pay period beginning on or after October 1, 2021.”

From the tidbits department

  • Federal News Network reports that “The White House is proposing billions of dollars in supplemental funding for disaster relief and other programs, which it’s asking Congress to attach to a short-term continuing resolution that will be critical toward avoiding a government shutdown at the end of the month. ‘With the end of the fiscal year rapidly approaching, it’s clear that Congress will need to pass a short term continuing resolution to provide more time for the fiscal 2022 process to unfold,’ Shalanda Young, the Office of Management and Budget’s acting director, said Tuesday in a blog post.” 
  • Fierce Healthcare informs us that “The American Medical Association [“AMA”] released updates to its medical codes for 2022 with many tied to new technology services and the administration of COVID-19 vaccines. The AMA made 405 changes in the 2022 Current Procedural Terminology code set, including 249 new codes, 63 deletions and 93 revisions. The changes will take effect Jan. 1. ” The CPT is recognized as a HIPAA electronic transaction code set.
  • AP News reports that “Four companies in the drug industry said Saturday that enough states had agreed to a settlement of lawsuits over the opioid crisis for them to move ahead with the $26 billion deal. An announcement from the three largest U.S. drug distribution companies and a confirmation from drugmaker Johnson & Johnson, which had previously announced that it would move ahead, came Saturday. That was the deadline for the companies to decide whether there was enough buy-in to continue the settlement plan. * * * Together, the settlements are likely to represent the biggest piece of a string of settlements between companies in the drug industry and state and local governments over the addiction and overdose epidemic in the U.S.”
  • Healthcare Dive tells us that “The use of telehealth for patient visits seems to have leveled off at 20% or fewer of all appointments, more than a year and a half after COVID-19 first spurred an unprecedented jump in utilization, according to a new survey from KLAS Research and the Center for Connected Medicine.”
  • The AMA discusses “what doctors wish patients knew about a prediabetes diagnosis,” which of course is a fairly common diagnosis in our country.
  • The Wall Street Journal continues its series on the Future of Everything in healthcare with an article about sensor studded smart clothes. “From a prescription bra that signals cardiac arrest to a mosquito-proof textile, startups and scientists are developing garments for healthier living.”

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the Delta variant front —

Medscape reports on yesterday’s CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices meeting:

“Vaccines remain effective in preventing hospitalization and severe disease but might be less effective in preventing infection or milder symptomatic illness,” Sara Oliver, MD, the CDC scientist who presented the information [about the mRNA vaccines], told the committee.

In a new data analysis released by the CDC on Sunday, unvaccinated adults were 17 times more likely to be hospitalized than vaccinated adults. Hospitalization rates were higher for unvaccinated people in all age groups.

Among the fully vaccinated, people who were hospitalized were much older, more likely to be nursing home residents and more likely to have three or more underlying medical conditions. Nearly a third had immunosuppressive conditions.

Healthcare Dive tells us that

The U.S. government will resume distribution of Eli Lilly’s COVID-19 antibody drug combination in a number of states, HHS said Friday, as cases and hospitalizations in the U.S. are driven higher by the spread of the delta variant.The decision comes roughly two months after administration of Lilly’s therapy was halted by U.S. officials due to concerns of reduced efficacy against coronavirus infections stemming from the beta and gamma variants. Those are now much less prevalent compared with delta, which laboratory testing has shown remains susceptible to treatment with the dual-antibody therapy, HHS said.

Fierce Pharma reports that

Last week’s FDA approval of Pfizer’s Comirnaty vaccine boosted consumer confidence among both vaccinated and unvaccinated people.

A Harris Poll survey over the weekend found that 80% of Americans who were aware of the approval now have more confidence in it. Even more encouraging? Almost half (49%) of unvaccinated people who heard about the approval said they will “probably” or “definitely” get vaccinated.

Overall awareness of the Pfizer approval was high—79% of those surveyed by The Harris Poll were aware of the FDA thumbs-up.

From the telehealth front, Kaiser Health News discusses re-emerging state law barriers to telehealth. “’The whole challenge is to ensure maximum access to health while assuring quality,’said Barak Richman, a Duke University law professor, who said laws and policies haven’t been updated to reflect new technological realities partly because state boards want to hang onto their authority.” The article provides an overview of options available to doctors and state boards.

From the miscellany front

  • Beckers Hospital Review unveils six big ideas in health innovation. For example, Jason Joseph. Senior Vice President and Chief Digital and Information Officer at Spectrum Health (Grand Rapids, Mich.). As we innovate, we are forcing hidden barriers into the light via experimentation. We saw so many of these barriers uncovered within health care, such as lack of connectivity, digital competency, and the need for comprehensive managed workflow. We have shined a spotlight on how much of healthcare relies on people and inconsistent manual processes to get through the system. That needs to change, and that also requires changing a leader’s traditional mindset.
  • The Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research is offering a toolkit to help healthcare providers and possible health plans get patients and members engaged with the diagnosis process.

The toolkit contains two strategies, Be The Expert On You and 60 Seconds To Improve Diagnostic Safety. When paired together, these strategies enhance communication and information sharing within the patient-provider encounter to improve diagnostic safety. Each strategy contains practical materials to support adoption of the strategy within office-based practices.

Be The Expert On You is a patient-facing strategy that prepares patients and their families to tell their personal health stories in a clear, concise way. Research suggests that 79 percent of diagnostic errors are related to the patient-clinician encounter and up to 56 percent of these errors are related to miscommunication during the encounter. Environmental scan findings show that inviting patients to share their entire health story, uninterrupted, and in a way that gives clinicians the information they need can reduce diagnostic errors.

60 Seconds To Improve Diagnostic Safety prepares providers to practice deep and reflective listening for one minute at the start of a patient-encounter. Research suggests that patients are interrupted by their providers in the first 11 to 18 seconds of telling their diagnostic story. Diagnostic safety can be improved when a provider allows a patient to tell his or her health story without interruption for one minute, and then asks questions to deepen understanding.

  • Not every innovative idea makes sense to implement though. The President and Democrat leadership in Congress want the Centers for Medicare Services to “negotiate” drug prices for Medicare Part D plans. Regulatory Focus informs us that “A new drug development model released by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates a Medicare drug pricing bill like the one proposed by Democrats in the US House of Representatives could result in between 21 and 59 fewer drugs brought to market over the next three decades.”

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the Delta variant front, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices met today. It turns out that the principal topic at the meeting was reviewing the Food and Drug Administration’s final marketing approval for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. ACIP ratified that decision, which was a foregone conclusion.

The Wall Street Journal adds

Health experts advising the U.S. government on vaccines expressed initial support for giving booster shots to people vaccinated against Covid-19, starting with healthcare workers, nursing-home residents and others immunized earliest.

Members of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, or ACIP, on Monday indicated their agreement with the Biden administration’s plans to offer the extra doses. Yet they said the priority should remain increasing vaccinations of unvaccinated people, and that boosters shouldn’t distract or impede from doing that.

When giving boosters, some panel members added, the priority should be preventing severe disease in people at highest risk of becoming sick with Covid-19, as opposed to preventing infections.

For more information, here’s a link to the presentation slides for today’s ACIP meeting.

OPM helpfully sent FEHB plan carriers the following standard guidance to FEHB carriers today about Hurricane Ida:

Due to Hurricane Ida impacting the Gulf Coast and connecting states, we remind you that under Section 2.2 BENEFITS PROVIDED, you are authorized, “To pay for or provide a health service or supply in an individual case which does not come within the specific benefits provisions of the contract, if the Carrier determines the benefit is within the intent of the contract, and the Carrier determines that the provision of such benefit is in the best interest of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.”

If you decide to apply Section 2.2, we ask that you demonstrate maximum flexibility, including the following:

·         Relax certain provisions such as pre-certification requirements that the plan must be notified within 2 business days of an emergency admission.

·         Relax requirements about notification and levels of benefit payment if victims are taken to non-plan and/or non-PPO hospitals or other treatment centers.

·         Allow certain FEHB members to get additional supplies of medications as backup, if necessary.

·         Though charges for work-related injuries sustained by Federal workers are payable by the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP), we are encouraging FEHB plans to provide immediate payment and seek subsequent reimbursement from OWCP.

Today, the Department of Health and Human Services announced the establishment an Office of Climate Change and Health Equity. The Wall Street Journal notes that “The new office is likely to spur initiatives touching on many aspects of healthcare, HHS officials announced Monday. It is expected to offer protections for populations most at risk—including the elderly, minorities, rural communities and children, and the office could eventually compel hospitals and other care facilities to reduce carbon emissions.”

STAT News identifies three trends divined from research on telehealth utilization by Medicare beneficiaries during the COVID-19 pandemic. The FEHBlog’s attention was drawn to this trend:

Telemedicine use has not varied substantially by race and ethnicity. Many commenters * * * have expressed concern that telemedicine will widen disparities of care. Surprisingly, this has not by borne out by the data. Through the end of 2020, we observed no substantive differences in the proportion of beneficiaries using telemedicine by race and ethnicity: 51% of non-Latino white beneficiaries, 55% of Black beneficiaries, and 56% for both Latino and Asian beneficiaries.

This pattern may in part reflect the fact that people of color are more likely to live in urban areas, where the use of telemedicine is higher. Beneficiaries living in large metropolitan counties were substantially more likely to use telemedicine than those living in rural areas.

STAT News also offers a fascinating peak inside Pfizer’s Pearl River (NY) Research Center where a “team of “variant hunters,” as they call themselves, race to track changes in the fast-mutating SARS-CoV-2. A “virus farmer” grows the latest variants so researchers can test how they fare against the vaccine. And a colleague known as the “graphing unicorn” converts the data into intelligible results overnight.” Extraordinary.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Roll Call reports that

Speaker Nancy Pelosi floated a compromise to moderate holdouts Monday that would advance the budget resolution needed to unlock a $3.5 trillion package of aid to families, students and clean energy subsidies in exchange for a guaranteed vote on a separate, $550 billion infrastructure package.

The plan would “deem” the fiscal 2022 budget resolution adopted when the chamber adopts the combined rule for floor debate on the Senate-passed infrastructure bill and voting rights legislation. Pelosi, D-Calif., also committed to a floor vote on the infrastructure bill before Oct. 1, when current surface transportation program authorizations lapse.

The House of Representatives convened at 5 pm ET this evening and went into a recess at 5:30 pm ET for a Democrat member caucus. The House resumed its session with routine business at 6 pm ET and the House recessed again at 8 pm likely for another Democrat member caucus. [Follow-up — Early Tuesday morning the Wall Street Journal reports that “Plans to hold that vote Monday night were [later] abandoned, though, and Mrs. Pelosi said the chamber would vote on the measure on Tuesday as she left the Capitol after midnight.”

From the Delta variant front, Mondays have tended to be a good day for COVID-19 vaccine news. This morning the Food and Drug Administration “approved [for marketing] the first COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccine has been known as the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine, and will now be marketed as Comirnaty (koe-mir’-na-tee), for the prevention of COVID-19 disease in individuals 16 years of age and older. The vaccine also continues to be available under emergency use authorization (EUA), including for individuals 12 through 15 years of age and for the administration of a third dose in certain immunocompromised individuals.” This action occurred two weeks before the Labor Day.

The Wall Street Journal reports that

The Food and Drug Administration’s approval was seen by public health officials as a key step to convince hesitant individuals to get the shot and to encourage employers to mandate it. 

“Today I’m calling on more companies in the private sector to step up with vaccine requirements that will reach millions more people,” President Biden said. “I call on you to do that—require it.” * * *

The vaccine is now eligible for off-label prescriptions—or use beyond the approved populations. That could include booster doses, according to the FDA. Prescribing the vaccine off label for children wouldn’t be appropriate as there is no data on proper dosing or safety in youth, said acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock. * * *

Pfizer * * * is now permitted to market the vaccine to doctors, healthcare providers and the general public as it does with other approved products. Pfizer declined to share its marketing and advertising plans but said it seeks to take a thoughtful approach with such communications in hopes of increasing vaccine confidence. 

Pfizer made its FDA marketing approval application last May and Moderna, which produces the other mRNA vaccine, applied for FDA marketing approval in June so Moderna now moves from the on deck circle to at bat.

Federal News Network informs us that “The Pentagon said Monday that it will require service members to receive the COVID-19 vaccine now that the Pfizer vaccine has received full approval. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is making good on his vow earlier this month to require the shots once the Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine. He said guidance is being developed and a timeline will be provided in the coming days.”

Govexec tells us that

During the White House’s daily press briefing, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that some agencies may roll out requirements that subsets of the federal workforce must be vaccinated, similar to those announced for health care workers at the Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services departments. Across the federal government, agencies are working to implement President Biden’s requirement that all federal workers and contractors either attest that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to a stringent regimen of wearing masks and being tested regularly for the virus.

“I expect there will be more . . . we certainly expect there will be more mandates for factions of federal employees,” Psaki said. “I think you’re looking more at agency-to-agency, or different factions of the government at this point, but expect there will be more on that front.”

In the meantime, federal employee unions have already begun engaging with management at various agencies to negotiate how the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate will be implemented. Matt Biggs, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Employees, said that although his union publicly announced its support for the vaccine mandate, it is working to ensure workers’ rights are protected, regardless of whether they elect to be vaccinated.

In other vaccine news, the UPI reports

Most teens and young adults want to get vaccinated against COVID-19, a survey published Friday by JAMA Health Forum found.

About 75% of people ages 14 to 24 years in the United States who responded to the survey, conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation, said they would get the shot, the data showed.

Most agreed with the statement that vaccination was important to “help stop the spread [of the virus], as well as get back to normal as soon as possible,” the researchers said.

Still, about 42% of respondents said they were concerned about COVID-19 vaccine side effects and 12% indicated they worried about the shot’s effectiveness, according to the researchers.

From the health savings account front, Benefits Pro informs us that

Devenir has given another peek into the current state of HSAs with its demographic survey. Among its key findings:

  • As of December 31, 2020, the study estimates there were over 30 million HSAs covering 63 million people in the United States.
  • Nearly 1 in 5 Americans in their 30s had a health savings account by the end of the year.
  • HSAs are just as popular with older Americans: Account holders over 50 years of age held more than $44 billion in their accounts, with an average balance of just over $4300.

The study also found that HSAs are being used in every state in the country, with some states reporting nearly 77% of the privately insured populations being covered by an HSA. See our slideshow above for the states with the highest and lowest numbers of people covered by HSAs, and click here for the full study.” Here’s a link to another interesting Benefits Pro article on HSAs.

From the telehealth front, mHealth Intelligence reports that

The pandemic has proven the value of telehealth to parents, according to a recent survey by Nemours Children’s Health. But it has also highlighted the need to continue emphasizing the value of virtual visits to overcome barriers to care and improve health and wellness.

A survey of more than 2,000 adults conducted earlier this year in conjunction with Amwell found that while 35 percent of parents used telehealth prior to the COVID-19 crisis (based on a 2017 survey), that percentage jumped to 77 percent during the pandemic. In addition, almost 80 percent have accessed pediatric telehealth services, compared to 35 percent before the pandemic.

Overall, the survey reports, more than 60 percent of parents want to continue using connected health services after the pandemic – including almost 30 percent of parents who hadn’t used any telehealth in the past.

“While one might expect that factors such as income or access to technology are barriers to telehealth, this survey underscores how telehealth proved to be a viable solution to expanding access and reducing disparities in providing timely care during COVID-19,” R. Lawrence Moss, MD, president and CEO of Nemours Children’s Health System, said in a press release. “Regulations that were eased during the pandemic need to become permanent to support telehealth access for the long-term. Telehealth can be part of building health equity among people experiencing social, economic and family challenges.”

From the research front, the National Institutes of Health announced the results of a study of pregnant women:

Drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco cigarettes throughout the first trimester of pregnancy is associated with nearly three times the risk of late stillbirth (at 28 or more weeks), compared to women who neither drink or smoke during pregnancy or quit both before the end of the first trimester, according to a study funded by the National Institutes of Health. Although prenatal smoking is known to increase stillbirth risk, the researchers conducted the study to examine how smoking combined with alcohol use might influence the risk. The researchers also confirmed the higher stillbirth risk from alcohol alone, which has been suggested by earlier, less comprehensive studies.

In healthcare business news, Healthcare Dive tells us that

  • “Google is dissolving its health division, Google Health, after three years as the head of the unit, David Feinberg, departs to become CEO of health IT vendor Cerner.
  • “Google is splitting its health projects and teams across several other divisions of the company, according to an Aug. 19 internal memo to employees from Jeff Dean, the head of Google’s research division, obtained by Insider.
  • Alphabet’s Google created the Google Health division in 2018 to bring its health initiatives under a single umbrella. The Mountain View, California-based company remains committed to healthcare and will continue to invest in the space, but the goal of the reshuffling is to put its teams in the areas that make the most sense for its projects, a​ Google spokesperson told Healthcare Dive.”

Finally, the American Medical Association President Gerald E. Harmon, MD, opines on the actions that the medical community needs to take into order for American life expectancy to resume its upward track:

The AMA is committed to vigorous advocacy and broad-based collaboration to help people everywhere live longer, healthier lives. Our longstanding efforts targeting heart disease and type 2 diabetes—two of our country’s most common and most devastating chronic diseases—bring physicians in multiple practice settings and specialties together with patients, community groups, and both public- and private-sector organizations to better treat those struggling with these conditions, and also to prevent at-risk individuals from developing them.

The AMA Opioid Task Force and our Pain Care Task Force work with lawmakers and policymakers to guide their decision-making, to shift the perspective from responding to overdoses to preventing them, and to develop clinical best practices to reverse and eventually end the epidemic of fatal overdoses that worsened once the pandemic began.

Additional AMA efforts target: (1) behavioral health integration and suicide prevention;(2)firearm safety; (3) reducing maternal mortality; (4) eliminating racial and ethnic disparities in health care; (5) ensuring that digital health technology improves patient care and health outcomes, and (6) transforming medical education to ensure physicians are prepared to meet patient needs today and tomorrow.