Midweek update

Midweek update

On the COVID front —

  • Forbes reports on a new Centers for Disease Control analysis confirming that the disease has hit racial minority and ethnic groups, the elderly, and people with multiple chronic conditions harder than others. Also “Incidence was highest among people 80 and older (902 cases per 100,000), while it was lowest among children 9 and younger (51), but surprisingly people between the ages of 40 to 59 saw higher incidence (between 541 and 550) than people between 60 and 79 (478 and 464).”
  • The Department of Health and Human Services has posted a fact sheet on its Operation Warp Speed which “aims to deliver 300 million doses of a safe, effective vaccine for COVID-19 by January 2021, as part of a broader strategy to accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics (collectively known as countermeasures).”
  • The FEHBlog also ran across the Food and Drug Administration’s COVID-19 resources website. Check it out.

The Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee held a telehealth hearing today. Healthcare IT news reports on the hearing. “HELP Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., advocated for two particular policy changes to be made permanent: the originating site rule, allowing physicians to be reimbursed for telehealth appointments wherever a patient is located, including a patient’s home, and the expansion of Medicare- and Medicaid-reimbursable telehealth services.” Also Health Payer Intelligence identifies three telehealth challenges for payers one of which is on Sen. Alexander’s short list: “Discerning how to provide coverage for many different sites of care and for various types of telehealth technologies as well as complying with state and federal regulatory barriers can put a damper on the telehealth boom.”

Fierce Healthcare reports that two Northeastern Blue Cross licenses Highmark and HealthNow have announced a merger. “[upper New York State’s]”HealthNow will bring nearly 1 million additional members into the [central Pennsylvania based] Highmark fold and boasted $2.8 billion in revenue for 2019. It will join the fourth largest Blues organization in the country, building on Highmark’s 5.6 million members and $18 billion in operating revenue for 2019.” The affiliation agreement is subject to regulatory approval.

Monday Roundup

Health Payer Intelligence reports that “Major payers and payer organizations objected to the finalized HHS nondiscrimination rule—Affordable Care Act Section 1557—saying that the rule eliminates much of the specific language in the original rule, particularly relating to gender and sexual discrimination.” In that regard, this morning, per the Wall Street Journal, “The Supreme Court ruled that bedrock federal civil-rights law [Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] prohibits employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity, a decision that for the first time extends federal workplace protections to LGBT employees nationwide.”

The FEHBlog expects that this ground breaking Supreme Court decision will cause the Department of Health and Human Services to reconsider last Friday’s revised final Section 1557 rule either on its own initiative or upon a federal court order. That rule does not take effect until late August 2020.

In other news

  • The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans reports that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has created flexibilities to allow insurers to advance 2019 medical loss ratio rebates to individual policyholders. The 2019 medical loss ratio report normally would be due on June 30, 2020.
  • The American Hospital Association evaluates whether legislation or regulations can be used to extend various current telehealth flexibilities beyond the end of the COVID-19 emergency.
  • Govexec.com informs us that “Officials at the federal government’s 401(k)-style retirement savings program announced Monday that the Thrift Savings Plan has implemented provisions of the CARES Act coronavirus response package making it easier for participants impacted by the pandemic to access money in their accounts.” Here’s a link to this announcement.

Weekend Update

Happy Flag Day.

Both Houses of Congress will be conducting committee and floor business this week. The House had added floor voting days for Thursday and Friday next week as well as all of the following week (except for next Friday which is the work holiday associated with the Fourth of July.)

The Senate Health Eduction Labor and Pensions Committee is holding a committee hearing of relevance to the FEHBP — Telehealth: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic — on June 17 at 10 am.

The Supreme Court has nineteen more opinions to release before its summer break. This week the Court is releasing opinions tomorrow and Thursday, both days at 10 am ET.

Here are a couple of non-COVID-19 research items that caught the FEHBlog’s attention over the weekend:

  • Precision Vaccinations reports that “With a surprisingly simple approach in which cancer cells are first grown, ruptured and converted into nanoparticles, and then used as a vaccine, Vanderbilt University researchers say they have developed what appears to be a promising treatment for breast cancer metastasis. Metastasis is the last stage of cancer, responsible for about 90 percent of cancer-related deaths.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that

Scientists may be just a few years away from delivering new treatments for age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of irreversible vision loss in people more than 50 years old.

Over the past 15 years there has been only one class of successful AMD drugs, known as anti-VEGF agents, and they have worked for a minority of AMD sufferers. Now researchers are having success fighting AMD from new directions. They include an immune-system inhibitor and stem-cell therapy, which show promise for treating the dry form of AMD in its advanced stage, for which there is currently no treatment approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that we will have markedly improved treatments for both wet and dry AMD within two to three years,” says Joshua Dunaief, professor of ophthalmology at the Scheie Eye Institute at the University of Pennsylvania.

Weekend update

The Senate is engaged in legislative and committee business this week. Last week the Senate passed by unanimous consent a bill (S. 279) to amend the FEHB and FEGLI Acts for the purpose of extending coverage to employees of Indian tribal grant schools. This bill would close a gap created by the Affordable Care Act which generally extended coverage under these programs to Indian tribal employees. There are 128 tribal grant schools in the U.S.

The House of Representatives is engaged in committee business this week. That body is next scheduled to hold votes over the period June 30 through July 2.

The Supreme Court continues this week to release the remaining opinions from its October 2019 term. The Hill includes an article discussing the seven opinions that are expected to be politically controversial.

In other news Fierce Healthcare reports

  • “A top Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) official acknowledged [last week] that telehealth is here to stay after an explosion of use due to COVID-19 but hedged on whether new regulatory flexibility on reimbursement is going to stick around.” The permanent flexibility depends largely on Congress and state regulators, and
  • “OptumRx researchers are highlighting three more drug products that payers should be keeping an eye on in 2020″ — Roche’s Risdiplam, NS Pharma’s Viltolarsen, and Immunomedic’s Trodelvy.

Midweek update

NBC News reports that Wednesday evening, the Senate passed by unanimous consent a House passed bill to improve the Payment Protection Program that the CARES Act created to help small businesses with liquidity issues created by the great hunkering down.

UPI provides helpful context around the new Medicare program to control Medicare beneficiary out of pocket costs for insulin.

“Among commercially insured patients, high insulin prices do not necessarily translate to high out-of-pocket costs,” study co-author Dr. Amir Meiri, a research fellow with the Harvard Medical School Department of Population Medicine and a practicing internist, told UPI.

For these patients, “insulin out-of-pocket costs are generally lower than expected and declining, except among patients in high-deductible health plans with health savings accounts, who must pay for the full cost of medications — including insulin — until they reach their deductible,” Meiri said.

The time period for the study was 2007-16. Last year, the Internal Revenue Service pursuant to an executive order issued a ruling permitting coverage of insulin before the high deductible.

A friend of the FEHBlog called to his attention this 21st century, FDA approved digital stethoscope that could revolutionize care at home. Fierce Healthcare quotes Cambia Health’s chief medical officer who notes ““Telehealth as always been a benefit,” she said. “I think physicians now know that their patients want to use telehealth.”

Friday Stats and More

According to the CDC’s COVID-19 cases in the U.S. website, which the FEHBlog tracks, the number of COVID-19 deaths topped 100,000 this week. Due to greatly increased testing rate, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is now greatly outpacing the number of COVID-19 deaths. For example, over the past week the number of confirmed cases has increased by nearly 150,000 to 1,719,827 while the number of deaths increased by 7,561 to 101,711. The basic infection mortality rate (as calculated by the FEHBlog) has dropped over the past week. That is good news. Also check out Avik Roy’s Forbes column analyzing COVID-19 deaths.

In last Monday’s post, the FEHBlog gently ribbed OPM for not extending the 2021 benefit and rate submission deadline from Sunday May 31 to Monday June 1. To the delight of the FEHBlog and those FEHB carriers bumping up against the May 31 deadline, the FEHBlog learned today that OPM has granted this grace period. Muchos gracias.

Here’s a link to an interesting Healio report on patient deferral of wellness and chronic care visits to their primary care doctors during the great hunkering down. It is easy to register for Healio.

Results of a survey conducted by the Primary Care Collaborative and the Larry A. Green Center showed that 81% of 736 primary care clinicians reported that they have limited their wellness and chronic care visits, and 70% reported that the patients themselves postponed these visits.

The survey also revealed that preventive services are down among primary care practices, with just 5% reporting cancer screenings, 10% reporting adult vaccinations, 12% monitoring cancer survivors, 14% reporting childhood vaccinations and 25% screening for violence and neglect.

On a related note Healthcare Dive reports

  • Virtual care use grew 1.6 times since the summer of 2019, according to the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association’s COVID-19 National Pulse Survey. More than half of that growth has occurred since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Generation Z (35%) uses telemedicine the most, with millennials (30%), Gen Xers (21%) and baby boomers (15%) behind them.
  • The pandemic has changed several behaviors, the survey found. Alcohol consumption is up 23%, and smoking, vaping and non-medical drug use rose by 19%, 15% and 13%, respectively.

Finally, Becker’s Hospital Review brings us up to date on a, HL7 / FHIR healthcare data sharing collaborative known as the Gravity Project “that aims to standardize medical data used to identify social determinants of health.” Cool.

Tuesday Tidbits

While the FEHBlog has been discussing the progress of convalescent plasma to treat COVID-19, its time to turn to the Gilead drug remdesivir Fierce Pharma discusses today a recently released peer reviewed study that shows that the drug works well with patients suffering from moderate severity COVID-19.

The 1,063-patient study showed remdesivir’s benefits appear greatest for hospitalized patients in the middle of the disease-severity spectrum. For those who required oxygen supplementation but were not mechanically ventilated, remdesivir cut the time to recovery by 47% compared with placebo. But remdesivir didn’t much help patients with mild or moderate disease, and outcomes for patients on invasive ventilation or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation were nearly the same in both arms of the study.

According to the article, studies are continuing on the efficacy of the drug for patients with mild severity COVID-19.

The Wall Street Journal reports today that physicians are concerned over fact that anti-anxiety and anti-depression prescriptions have spiked during the great hunkering down. “Many physicians have a low threshold for prescribing them. It’s very problematic,” says Bruce J. Schwartz, deputy chair and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. “Many people do develop a dependency on these medications.” The article offers alternate approaches, and FEHB plans now usually offer coaching services to help with the problems.

Speaking of healthcare coaching programs, CNBC reports that the great hunkering down has been good for companies that provide coaching or telehealth / digital health programs.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that their 2021 pilot program to lower insulin costs for Medicare beneficiaries is bearing fruit.

Based on CMS’s estimates, beneficiaries who use insulin and join a plan participating in the model could see average out-of-pocket savings of $446, or 66 percent, for their insulins, funded in part by manufacturers paying an estimated additional $250 million of discounts over the five years of the model. With a robust voluntary response from Part D sponsors, CMS anticipates beneficiaries will have Part D plan options in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, through either a standalone prescription drug plan (PDP) or a Medicare Advantage plan with prescription drug coverage. Beneficiaries will be able to enroll during Medicare open enrollment, which is from October 15, 2020 through December 7, 2020, for Part D coverage that begins on January 1, 2021.

Well done. Hopefully the Medicare approach will be translatable to employer sponsored coverage like the FEHBP.

Our firm is closely monitoring the impacts of COVID-19. Effective 6/08/20, Ermer & Suter has reopened its physical offices for business, however for the continued safety of our staff, in-office capacity will not exceed 40%. We remain fully operational and are readily available from both our office and telework locations.