Weekend update

Weekend update

Photo by Dane Deaner on Unsplash

Both Houses of Congress are in session this week for Committee business and floor voting. Roll Call reports that the House of Representatives is expected to hold a floor vote on a minibus appropriations bill including OPM appropriations during the week of July 26.

On the COVID-19 front —

  • Fierce Healthcare reports that “This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” said Rochelle Walensky, M.D., director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during a briefing Friday [July 16]. “We are seeing outbreaks of cases in parts of the country that have low vaccination coverage because unvaccinated people are at risk. Communities that are fully vaccinated are generally faring well.” On the brighter side, “States with the highest cases are starting to see their vaccination rates go up, [Jeff] Zients {the White House coronavirus response coordinator] said [at the same briefing]. ‘In the past week, the five states with the highest case rates had a higher rate of people getting newly vaccinated compared to the national average,’ he added.”
  • In Friday’s post the FEHBlog noted that the Food and Drug Administration has fast tracked the Pfizer – Biotech application for full FDA approval of its COVID-19 vaccine. Precision Vaccinations tells us that “The Prescription Drug User Fee Act goal date for a decision by the U.S. FDA is in January 2022.”
  • Looking ahead, the JAMA Network offers an interesting article on the search for a single vaccine against coronaviruses yet to come.

On the telehealth front, Becker’s Hospital Review discusses how Amazon, Walmart and seven others have been expanding their respective telehealth businesses in 2021.

On the fraud waste and abuse front, Kaiser Health News reports that

Tens of thousands of times a year, hospitals charge enormously expensive trauma alert fees for injuries so minor the patient is never admitted.

In Florida alone, where the number of trauma centers has exploded, hospitals charged such fees more than 13,000 times in 2019 even though the patient went home the same day, according to a KHN analysis of state data provided by Etienne Pracht, an economist at the University of South Florida. Those cases accounted for more than a quarter of all the state’s trauma team activations that year and were more than double the number of similar cases in 2014, according to an all-payer database of hospital claims kept by Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration.

While false alarms are to be expected, such frequent charges for little if any treatment suggest some hospitals see the alerts as much as a money spigot as a clinical emergency tool, claims consultants say.

“Some hospitals are using it as a revenue generator,” Tami Rockholt, a registered nurse and medical claims consultant who appeared as an expert witness in the Sutter Health car-accident trial, said in an interview. “It’s being taken advantage of” and such cases are “way more numerous” than a few years ago, she said.

Finally, the American Medical Association offers common sense views on what doctors wish their patients knew about healthy eating.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID-19 Data Tracker website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 14th week of 2020 through 28th week of this year (beginning April 2, 2020, and ending July 14, 2021; using Thursday as the first day of the week in order to facilitate this weekly update):

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

The FEHBlog has noticed that the new cases and deaths chart shows a flat line for new weekly deaths  because new cases materially exceed new deaths. Accordingly here is a chart of new COVID-19 deaths over the period (April 2, 2020, through July 14, 2021):

Finally here is a COVID-19 vaccinations chart over the period December 17, 2020, through July 14, 2021 which also uses Thursday as the first day of the week:

As of today, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 160.7 million Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, which figure represents 59.6% of the population eligible to be vaccinated (age 12 and up). 79.3% of the population over age 65 is fully vaccinated. That’s a key fact.

The American Hospital Association informs us that “Pfizer today said its COVID-19 vaccine will receive a priority review from the Food and Drug Administration, indicating that Pfizer has completed its rolling submission of its application for the vaccine’s full authorization. The company’s Biologics License Application, which is intended for individuals age 16 and older, is supported by clinical date from its phase 3 clinical trial.” That’s good news.

The Washington Post reports that “A federal advisory panel [the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices] is expected next week to consider whether health-care workers should be allowed to give additional coronavirus shots to patients with fragile immune systems, even as top U.S. health officials have said an additional dose of vaccine is not widely needed. * * * The advisory panel[on July 22] plans to focus on the 2 to 4 percent of U.S. adults who have suppressed immunity, a population that includes organ transplant recipients, people on cancer treatments and people living with rheumatologic conditions, HIV and leukemia.”

From the prescription drug front —

  • STAT News reports that “A prominent panel of medical experts [convened by the Institute of Clinical and Economic Review] unanimously voted that there is no evidence to suggest the recently approved Alzheimer’s drug offers patients any health benefits beyond the usual care. * * * After the voting, a roundtable discussion was held during which Mark McClellan, a former Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Administrator, said that access to Aduhelm “is going to be pretty limited at least until the nine-month period is over” and that we are “not going to see very big numbers in the near term.” This is likely because many payers will want to wait for Medicare to make its coverage decision in early 2022.”
  • Bloomberg reports that ” When a new obesity medication from the Danish drugmaker Novo Nordisk A/S began selling in the U.S. in June, it became the most effective weight loss drug on the market. Wegovyhelps patients lose an average of about 15% of their body weight, almost double the rates demonstrated by other prescription treatments, according to study results. That translates to a loss of about 20 to 70 pounds for eligible patients. Only costly and invasive bariatric surgery has shown the ability to eliminate more pounds. With more than 100 million people categorized as obese, the U.S. is a potentially huge market for Wegovy, which costs $1,350 for four weekly injections and is being pitched as a long-term therapy. * * * Insurance companies, pharmacy benefit managers, and employers determine whether health plans cover weight loss drugs, and which ones. Today only about half the clients of Cigna Corp.’s Express Scripts unit and Prime Therapeutics LLC, two major pharmacy benefit managers, reimburse for weight loss drugs. Express Scripts recently added Wegovy to its largest formulary, covering about 24 million people. Insurers Anthem Inc. and CVS Health Corp.’s Aetna don’t typically cover weight loss drugs, but both have indicated Wegovy will likely get some coverage. Others have yet to decide. Although “it’s not for everyone,” Wegovy has a role to play in treating obesity, says Amy Bricker, president of Express Scripts. She says she’s optimistic that treating obesity will lower costs for Express Scripts’ health plans.”

HealthTech Magazine offers a useful article on integrating virtual care into a healthcare organization’s overall delivery strategy. During the NCQA / HL7 Digital Quality Measure conference this week more than one doctor remarked that no one has found the Goldilocks level for virtual care, but at least study appears underway.

Midweek update

At the top of FEHB news today is the release of the Congressional Budget Office’s report on the Postal Service Health Benefit (“PSHB”) Program provisions of the Postal Reform bill.

CBO expects that PSHB premiums would be lower than those for FEHB plans because Medicare would cover most of the health care costs for Medicare-eligible enrollees in PSHB plans. CBO estimates that USPS spending on health insurance premiums for active workers and their dependents would decrease by roughly $2.5 billion over the 2021-2031 period; those amounts are recorded as off-budget. CBO also estimates that federal spending for health insurance premiums for USPS annuitants and their dependents would decrease by $2.5 billion over that same period; those amounts are recorded as on-budget. * * *

FEHB premiums would rise slightly after those enrollees moved to the PSHB program, CBO expects. Over time, as USPS workers and annuitants enroll in a PSHB plan rather than in an FEHB plan, CBO expects that FEHB premiums would decrease because non-USPS enrollees in FEHB would have lower expected health care costs, on average, than enrollees joining the PSHB program. The federal government’s share of payments for health insurance premiums for non-USPS annuitants is recorded as on-budget direct spending. CBO estimates that spending for such annuitants would decrease by $61 million over the 2021-2031 period.

CBO also explains that the PSHB savings results from a cost shift to Medicare. Because FEHB and PSHB premiums are calculated for a combined risk pool of plan members, the Medicare savings will redound to the benefit of the Postal Service and all of the PSHB members. The lower premiums will encourage enrollment in the PSHB.

If OPM simply allowed all FEHB plans to integrate their prescription drug benefits with Medicare Part D (known as Part D EGWPs), then FEHB plan members and federal and postal employers, all of whom pay Medicare taxes, will receive lower premiums, thereby avoiding the unnecessary balkanization of the FEHB. The decision is OPM’s to make as Congress in 2003 expressly permitted FEHB plans to adopt Part D EGWPs.

In related new, CalPERS Board of Administration, which manages the the California state employees health benefit program, “approved health plan premiums for calendar year 2022, at an overall premium increase of 4.86%.” This suggests that we are in store for a sizable FEHB premium increase for 2022.

As the FEHBlog mentioned yesterday, he has been attending the NCQA’s virtual Digital Quality Summit which has been focusing on health equity, a worthy goal. During last year’s virtual DQS, the FEHBlog came up with the idea of adding the Census Bureau’s racial and ethnic identifiers to the ICD-10 code set which would allow health care providers to readily share that important data with health plans. Today the FEHBlog pushed the idea forward with the patient centered track. Time will tell.

Similarly, Govexec informs us that “Top diversity officials at four major agencies said on Tuesday that obtaining and using better data will be crucial to advancing diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in the federal workforce.”

In sad news, the Washington Post reports that

Deaths from drug overdoses soared to more than 93,000 last year, a staggering record that reflects the coronavirus pandemic’s toll on efforts to quell the crisis and the continued spread of the synthetic opioid fentanyl in the illegal narcotic supply, the government reported Wednesday. The death toll jumped by more than 21,000, or nearly 30 percent, from 2019, according to provisional data released by the National Center for Health Statistics, eclipsing the record set that year.

The Post adds

There are some signs that the Biden administration and Congress are preparing to renew efforts to address what was the nation’s most serious public health crisis before the pandemic. President Biden on Tuesday nominated former West Virginia public health official Rahul Gupta to be his drug czar. Gupta has cited the shift from in-person care during the pandemic as one of the contributors to increased addiction-related public health problems.

In prescription drug news

  • The Drug Channels blog discusses 2020 PBM drug trend reports. Top line: “[D]rug spending continues to grow more slowly than every other part of the U.S. healthcare system. Spending growth at CVS and Express Scripts was somewhat higher in 2020 compared to the 2019 figures, due primarily to faster utilization growth.”
  • The Boston Globe reports that “At least half-a-dozen private health insurers in some of the nation’s largest states are balking at covering Biogen’s controversial drug for Alzheimer’s disease, saying it is an experimental and unproven treatment despite being approved by the federal government one month ago. Six affiliates of Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Florida, New York, Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania indicated in policies posted online they will not cover the Cambridge biotech’s drug, Aduhelm, because they consider it ‘investigational’ or ‘experimental’ or because “a clinical benefit has not been established.” Aduhelm, which is priced at $56,000 a year, is intended to slow cognitive decline in patients with early Alzheimer’s symptoms, regardless of their age. * * * James Chambers, an associate professor of medicine at the Tufts Medical Center Institute for Clinical Research and Health Policy Studies, said that insurers have occasionally opted not to cover expensive specialty medicines for rare diseases, but that he’s never seen firms refuse to pay for an approved drug that could be prescribed to millions of people. ‘This is unprecedented,’ said Chambers, who has spent seven years studying how private insurers decide which drugs to cover. ‘Maybe it’s not entirely surprising given the controversy surrounding the drug’s approval, but it’s not something I’ve seen before.’” The FEHBlog expects that this is a prudent shot across the manufacturer’s bow. The FEHBlog is amazed that Biogen has not yet backed off on the $56,000 price annually per patient. In a STAT News interview, the acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock remarked “The accelerated approval was based on very solid grounds,” she said. “I do believe that will play out over time, as people see that was a very appropriate use of that authority and the right thing to do for patients.”
  • Bloomberg reports on a recent Senate hearing on drug prices. Topics included patent reform and pay for delay deals.

In other news

  • The federal government’s principal healthcare fraud and abuse report for the last federal fiscal year was released. “During Fiscal Year (FY) 2020, the Federal Government won or negotiated more than $1.8 billion in health care fraud judgments and settlements,2 in addition to other health care administrative impositions. Because of these efforts, as well as those of preceding years, almost $3.1 billion was returned to the Federal Government or paid to private persons in FY 2020. * * * In FY 2020, the Department of Justice (DOJ) opened 1,148 new criminal health care fraud investigations. Federal prosecutors filed criminal charges in 412 cases involving 679 defendants. A total of 440 defendants were convicted of health care fraud related crimes during the year. Also, in FY 2020, DOJ opened 1,079 new civil health care fraud investigations and had 1,498 civil health care fraud matters pending at the end of the fiscal year. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigative efforts resulted in over 407 operational disruptions of criminal fraud organizations and the dismantlement of the criminal hierarchy of more than 101 health care fraud criminal enterprises.”
  • Becker’s Hospital Review tells us about the telehealth provisions of the CMS proposed 2022 Medicare Part B physician payment rule which would preserve the status quo through 2023.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From the COVID-19 vaccine front

  • The New York Times reports that “The Food and Drug Administration warned on Monday that Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine can lead to an increased risk of a rare neurological condition known as Guillain–Barré syndromeanother setback for a [one dose] vaccine that has largely been sidelined in the United States. Although regulators have found that the chances of developing the condition are low, they appear to be three to five times higher among recipients of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine than among the general population in the United States, according to people familiar with the decision. The warning was attached to fact sheets about the vaccine for providers and patients.”
  • USA Today offers a success story on AHIP’s Vaccine Community Connectors program. “Most important, this effort helped the industry home in on one specific strategy to accelerate health equity: better access to health care data that incorporates the social determinants of health.” Speaking SDOH data, Health IT Analytics informs us about the use of SDOH data in researching and managing Alzheimer’s Disease.
  • The American Hospital Association reminded folks today to keep its Vaccine Communications Resources website in mind.

Fierce Healthcare reports that

“The Biden administration has started to investigate whether Medicare should cover the extremely pricey Alzheimer’s drug aducanumab. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced Monday it is opening a National Coverage Determination (NCD) analysis on the drug that will cost patients $56,000 a year. Advocates and experts have called for the agency to move quickly to decide whether to cover the drug. “We want to consider Medicare coverage of new treatments very carefully in light of the evidence available,” said CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, in a statement Monday. “That’s why our process will include opportunities to hear from many stakeholders.”

Earlier press reports on Aduhelm, as well as common sense, indicate that commercial health plans likely will follow CMS’s lead on coverage of that drug.

Healthcare Dive tells us that “Telehealth use overall has stabilized at levels 38 times higher than before the COVID-19 pandemic, ranging from 13% to 17% of visits across all specialties, according to new data from McKinsey released roughly a year since the first major spike in COVID-19 cases.” * * * On the provider side, 58% of physicians continue to view virtual care more favorably than before the pandemic, though that’s down slightly from September, when 64% of physicians were in support. As of April this year, 84% of doctors were offering telehealth, and 57% said they’d prefer to continue offering it. However, that’s largely dependent on reimbursement: 54% of doctors said they wouldn’t provide virtual care if it was paid at a 15% discount to physical services.”

HR Dive discusses the President’s July 9 executive order provision “taking aim at” non-compete agreements.

Biden’s order leaves some questions unanswered. It does not ban or impact any existing employment agreement, Chris Marquardt, partner at Alston & Bird, told HR Dive in an email. “Employers will need to wait and see what the Federal Trade Commission does in response to the Executive Order before thinking about its potential impact,” he said.

Among other reasons, intellectual property and trade secrets have been cited as cause for use of non-competes. But the agreements have been the subject of criticism for potentially driving down wages in certain industries and geographic areas.

Govexec.com offers an interesting take on how the July 9 executive order seeks to use Federal procurement and regulations to promote competition 

Weekend update

This coming week, the House of Representatives resumes Committee business and the Senate resumes both Committee business and floor voting. The Wall Street Journal adds that “After a two-week recess, senators return to Washington this week to determine the fate of much of President Biden’s roughly $4 trillion agenda. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) told Senate Democrats in a letter on Friday that he expects that the chamber will take up both a roughly $1 trillion infrastructure agreement and a resolution setting the parameters of a bill encompassing other Democratic priorities in the coming weeks.”

Returning to the President’s July 9, 2021, executive order on competition the accompanying Fact Sheet explains that with regard to healthcare:

BEGIN QUOTE

In the Order, the President:

  • Directs the Food and Drug Administration to work with states and tribes to safely import prescription drugs from Canada, pursuant to the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003.
  • Directs the Health and Human Services Administration (HHS) to increase support for generic and biosimilar drugs, which provide low-cost options for patients.
  • Directs HHS to issue a comprehensive plan within 45 days to combat high prescription drug prices and price gouging
  • Encourages the FTC to ban “pay for delay” and similar agreements by rule.

Hearing Aids: Hearing aids are so expensive that only 14% of the approximately 48 million Americans with hearing loss use them. On average, they cost more than $5,000 per pair, and those costs are often not covered by health insurance. A major driver of the expense is that consumers must get them from a doctor or a specialist, even though experts agree that medical evaluation is not necessary. Rather, this requirement serves only as red tape and a barrier to more companies selling hearing aids. The four largest hearing aid manufacturers now control 84% of the market. 
In 2017, Congress passed a bipartisan proposal to allow hearing aids to be sold over the counter. However, the Trump Administration Food and Drug Administration failed to issue the necessary rules that would actually allow hearing aids to be sold over the counter, leaving millions of Americans without low-cost options.

In the Order, the President:

  • Directs HHS to consider issuing proposed rules within 120 days for allowing hearing aids to be sold over the counter. 

Hospitals: Hospital consolidation has left many areas, especially rural communities, without good options for convenient and affordable healthcare service. Thanks to unchecked mergers, the ten largest healthcare systems now control a quarter of the market. Since 2010, 139 rural hospitals have shuttered, including a high of 19 last year, in the middle of a healthcare crisis. Research shows that hospitals in consolidated markets charge far higher prices than hospitals in markets with several competitors.

In the Order, the President:

  • Underscores that hospital mergers can be harmful to patients and encourages the Justice Department and FTC to review and revise their merger guidelines to ensure patients are not harmed by such mergers.
  • Directs HHS to support existing hospital price transparency rules and to finish implementing bipartisan federal legislation to address surprise hospital billing.

Health Insurance: Consolidation in the health insurance industry has meant that many consumers have little choice when it comes to selecting insurers. And even when there is some choice, comparison shopping is hard because plans offered on the exchanges are complicated—with different services covered or different deductibles.

In the Order, the President:

  • Directs HHS to standardize plan options in the National Health Insurance Marketplace so people can comparison shop more easily.

END QUOTE

Roll Call and Healthcare Dive relate industry reaction to the order. The FEHBlog is not happy with drug importation from Canada directive because our population exceeds Canada’s by ten times. It’s a gimmic. Also the FEHBlog disagrees with standardizing plan designs which by definition inhibits competition. Also the objections to hospital and health insurer consolidation overlooks the fact that the Affordable Care Act largely has driven the consolidation, in the FEHBlog’s opinion.

The Health Affairs Blog discusses Centers for Medicare Services efforts to keep its Medicare Part B schedule current. The article explains

Currently, physician services in the US are priced by Medicare every January 1 in relative value units (RVUs). Every physician service is assigned a Medicare-allowed price in RVUs based on its work “intensity” defined by time, effort, skill, and stress relative to all other services. RVUs are converted to dollars via the Medicare “conversion factor,” which CMS sets annually. Total Medicare allowed payment for each service also includes RVUs for practice expenses and malpractice risk, which are theoretically unrelated to physician compensation.

Commercial insurers generally use the same RVU fee schedule as the basis for physician payments. Value-based payment models use Medicare valuations for calculating costs and payments.

In recent decades, technological advances have substantially expanded the number of procedural services, which are generally priced far above evaluation and management (E/M) services. As procedures are increasingly completed safely in less time, the RVU generation potential of procedurally oriented physician work has also grown. In contrast, the analogous expansion of therapeutic choices and medications that are at the core of E/M services have not been reflected by increased valuations. This has contributed to widened income gaps between proceduralists and non-proceduralists, leading to the lack of incentives for trainees to enter lower-reimbursed specialties, including primary care, endocrinology, oncology, rheumatology, and infectious diseases.

Federal News Network reports that

After a slower January and February, federal retirement seems to be picking back up in the first half of 2021 compared to 2020. June stats from the Office of Personnel Management for newly filed claims showed last month was higher than a year ago, when the pandemic was in full effect.

OPM received 7,264 new retirement claims last month compared to 6,555 new claims in June 2020 — a 10.8% increase. March, April and May each saw year-over-year increases ranging from 15.6%- 47.2%.

Processing them all is a different matter, as last month saw 6,884 claims processed compared to 7,300 processed in June 2020 — a 5.7% decrease. After peaking in March, the claims backlog has been moving downward, but at 24,999 last month is still 30.3% higher than a year ago and 92.3% higher than the steady state goal of 13,000 claims — nearly double.

From the COVID-19 front, Bloomberg informs us that “In the U.S., 334 million doses have been given so far. In the last week, an average of 506,771 doses per day were administered.” According to the CDC, 159.3 million Americans are fully vaccinated. The Wall Street Journal adds that “[While] millions of Americans have rolled up their sleeves to get vaccinated against Covid-19, one group is well behind: young adults.

Their reluctance is a significant part of why the U.S. missed the Biden administration’s goal of getting 70% of the adult population a first dose by July 4, and it is impeding efforts to develop the communitywide immunity sought to move past the pandemic and fend off Delta and other variants.

Now government health authorities are dialing up efforts encouraging 18- to 29-year-olds to get vaccinated.

Turning to the telehealth front,

  • The American Medical Association provides tips on how physicians can being warmth to the virtual visit.
  • Healio informs us that “New research suggests a letter may be all that it takes to lower the number of telehealth no-shows among older patients, even during a pandemic. * * * ‘The letter was a very simple reminder, stating ‘You have an upcoming telehealth visit with your doctor’ and included the date and a range of time that the provider would call, typically a 30-minute period,’ [researcher / physician Sarah] King said in the interview. * * * Overall, the researchers said their intervention was associated with a 33.1% drop in the telehealth no-show rate and an 8% drop in the no-show rate for in-person visits.”

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

From the COVID-19 front

  • Fierce Healthcare reports that “The quick rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. saved an estimated 279,000 lives and prevented 1.25 million hospitalizations, a new study finds. The study, released Wednesday, warns, however, that surges of new cases due to the highly transmissible delta variant could reverse these gains. “Until a greater majority of Americans are vaccinated, many more people could still die from this virus,” said Alison Galvani, Ph.D., director of the Yale Center for Infectious Disease Modeling and Analysis, which conducted the study alongside the Commonwealth Fund.”
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that “Children are at extremely slim risk of dying from Covid-19, according to some of the most comprehensive studies to date, which indicate the threat might be even lower than previously thought. Some 99.995% of the 469,982 children in England who were infected during the year examined by researchers survived, one study found. In fact, there were fewer deaths among children due to the virus than initially suspected. Among the 61 child deaths linked to a positive Covid-19 test in England, 25 were actually caused by the illness, the study found.”
  • The Journal also informs us that “Pfizer Inc. will seek clearance from U.S. regulators in coming weeks to distribute a booster shot of its Covid-19 vaccine to heighten protection against infections as new virus strains rise.  The company said also it plans to start clinical trials in August of an updated version of its vaccine that would better protect against the Delta variant.” While the FEHBlog looks forward to lining up for the booster, Axios reports that “People who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus do not need a booster shot at this time, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a joint statement released Thursday evening.” Axios adds

One dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine “barely” protects against the Delta variant of the virus, because of mutations the variant has developed, a new study published in the journal Nature Thursday found. 

But two doses of those vaccines generated a neutralizing response to the variant in 95% of people, highlighting the importance of full vaccination against COVID-19, Axios’ Jacob Knutson writes

  • Bloomberg discusses the idea of offering COVID-19 vaccines at Dollar General stores. “The researchers found that in the most vulnerable decile, the number of retail pharmacies that are eligible to provide vaccines through the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program is the lowest. But these vulnerable regions are also where Dollar General and other discount stores like it tend to cluster.” It’s worth a shot?

The National Institutes of Health released its annual joint report on cancer mortality. “The report shows a decrease in death rates for 11 of the 19 most common cancers among men, and for 14 of the 20 most common cancers among women, over the most recent period (2014-2018). Although declining trends in death rates accelerated for lung cancer and melanoma over this period, previous declining trends for colorectal and female breast cancer death rates slowed and those for prostate cancer leveled off. Death rates increased for a few cancers like brain and other nervous system and pancreas in both sexes, oral cavity and pharynx in males, and liver and uterus in females.” STAT News points out

Accelerating declines in lung cancer deaths may account for much of the overall progress seen in recent years, the authors of the report said. Over the past two decades, the death rate for lung cancer has declined even faster than the rate at which patients are diagnosed with the disease. And while part of the early success in preventing lung cancer can be attributed to the massive drop in smoking rates, the authors note the most recent downward trends seem to correspond with the approval of new treatments for non-small cell lung cancer that improved the likelihood of survival.

Death rates from melanoma also saw an accelerated decline in the past decade, despite a growing number of diagnoses. Like in lung cancer, authors point to the introduction of novel treatments around the same time as the turnaround on the death rate. New targeted and immune checkpoint inhibitors were approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2011, one year before major declines in death rates were seen in women and two years before they were seen in men.

On the prescription drug front

  • The New York Times reports that “Under fire for approving a questionable drug for all Alzheimer’s patients, the Food and Drug Administration on Thursday greatly narrowed its previous recommendation and is now suggesting that only those with mild memory or thinking problems should receive it. The reversal, highly unusual for a drug that has been available for only a few weeks, is likely to reduce the approximate number of Americans who are eligible for the treatment to 1.5 million from six million.”
  • GoodRX points out and discusses the fifteen most addictive prescription drugs and resource available to help the addicted. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has an outreach website for teenagers, for example.

In other healthcare news

Health Affairs blog bangs the drum for Congress to fund a universal patient identifier. For the reasons explained in the article, this step called for in the HIPAA statute of 1996 is long overdue.

Healthcare Dive reports that “Telehealth claim lines as a percentage of all medical claims dropped 13% in April, marking the third straight month of declines, according to new data from nonprofit Fair Health. The dip was greater than the drop of 5.1% in March, but not as large as the decrease of almost 16% in February. However, overall utilization remains significantly higher than pre-COVID-19 levels. The decline appears to be driven by a rebound in in-person services, researchers said. Mental health conditions bucked the trend, however, as the percentage of telehealth claim lines associated with mental conditions — the No. 1 telehealth diagnosis — continued to rise nationally and in every U.S. region.” The FEHBlog considers that to be good news because telehealth at least currently is best suited for mental health care and out of schedule healthcare situations.

In closing, the FEHBlog wants to emphasize an important aspect of last Thursday’s No Surprise Billing rule. As explained in the government’s model consumer notice for use by health plans,

When you get services from an in-network hospital or ambulatory surgical center, certain providers there may be out-of-network. In these cases, the most those providers may bill you is your plan’s in-network cost-sharing amount. This applies to emergency medicine, anesthesia, pathology, radiology, laboratory, neonatology, assistant surgeon, hospitalist, or intensivist services. These providers can’t balance bill you and may not ask you to give up your protections not to be balance billed.

If you get other services at these in-network facilities, out-of-network providers can’t balance bill you, unless you give written consent and give up your protections.”

The vast majority of surprise bills stem from out-of-network service provided by emergency rooms, air ambulance, and the types of providers listed above, all of whom are locked into using negotiation and baseball arbitration with the health plan. The only doctors who can approach the patient for a balancing billing waiver are the surgeon or oncologist in a non-emergency setting who meets with the patient well before the surgery. That makes sense.

This approach, however, will promote use of the independent dispute resolution system which the tri-agencies will unveil October 1. Three months is more than ample time for the FEHBlog’s fellow lawyer to prepare for this new business opportunity. Health plans should make sure that their out of network pricing negotiators are adequately staffed.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

In today’s Morning Rounds email, the American Medical Association informs us that

The New York Times (6/28, Mandavilli) reports a new study published in Nature has found the COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna “set off a persistent immune reaction in the body that may protect against the coronavirus for years, scientists reported on Monday.” Researchers gathered samples from the lymph nodes of 14 recruits at five different points following the first dose, finding “the number of memory cells that recognized the coronavirus had not declined” 15 weeks later. The Times adds, “The results suggest that a vast majority of vaccinated people will be protected over the long term.”

In a separate article, the New York Times (6/28, Mandavilli, Zimmer, Robbins) says the study adds to other research suggesting that “widely used vaccines will continue to protect people against the coronavirus for long periods, possibly for years, and can be adapted to fortify the immune system still further if needed.”

The Federal Times reports that GEHA, the second largest FEHB plan carrier, has launched a COVID-19 vaccination reward program for its members. Here is a link to GEHA’s website on this program.

As of today just about two thirds of Americans over age 18 have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccination. Most importantly, approaching 90% of Americans over age 65, the cadre that suffered the most COVID-19 fatalities, has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 78% of that cadre are fully vaccinated. However, Bloomberg warns that

The gap between the most vaccinated and least vaccinated places in the U.S. has exploded in the past three months, and continues to widen despite efforts to convince more Americans to get a Covid shot. * * * In the least vaccinated group of counties, many of which are in the South and Central regions of the U.S., less than half as many people have gotten at least one Covid vaccine dose as in the most vaccinated counties in the cities and on the coasts. Those less vaccinated places are not catching up, either. The gap between more- and less-vaccinated counties is expanding, and the trailing counties are far below levels needed to halt future waves of infection

As the FEHBlog has pointed out previously, such herd immunity is built on both natural immunity and vaccination-created immunity. The FEHBlog encourages COVID-19 vaccination which has been miraculous. Nevertheless you cannot predict Delta variant devastation in certain areas of our country without considering natural immunity and the fact that most of elderly cadre is vaccinated. The FEHBlog also has confidence in the federal, state and county authorities as well as the Nation’s physicians to complete the vaccination campaign.

And now for Tuesday’s tidbits

  • The FEHBlog nearly fell off his chair when he read in Healthcare Dive that Nearly 70% of U.S. physicians are now employed by a hospital or a corporate entity, according to the latest report by Avalere for the Physicians Advocacy Institute, a coalition of state doctors’ groups. This is the first time the report included ownership by corporate entities outside of just hospitals. Hospitals and corporate entities, which include insurers or private equity groups, own nearly half of the physician practices in this country, according to the report released Tuesday that examines the two-year period from 2019 through 2020.  This longtime trend [really since the Affordable Care Act became law in 2010] was exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the report, which shows 48,400 physicians left private practice during the study period across all regions of the country.” The FEHBlog does not see this course reversing itself.
  • Buck consultants reminds FEHB plan carriers that the PCORI fee is due on August 2 this year because July 31 falls on a Saturday.
  • Medscape reports that “In the U.S. House [of Representatives], 20 Democrats and 10 Republicans have signed on as co-sponsors to the Protecting Seniors Through Immunization Act of 2021 (HR 1978), introduced in March by Rep. Ann Kuster (D-NH). The companion Senate measure (S 912) has the backing of two Democrats and two Republicans. This legislation would end copays in Medicare Part D plans for vaccines recommended for adults by the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.” The FEHBlog, who is on Medicare, got hit for $400 in copayments to obtain two doses of the new ACIP recommended Shingles vaccine last year. Why it is taking over a decade for Medicare to align with the ACA on this point is beyond the FEHBlog’s understanding.
  • AHRQ’s Director Dr. David Meyers offers his perspective on getting telehealth properly integrated into our health care system.
  • The showstopper of this week will be the first interim final rule on implementation of the No Surprises Act which has a statutory deadline of Thursday July 1. The rule is expected to principally pertain to calculating the initial payments in the NSA scenarios. Hopefully the rule will provide more guidance than that. The rule has been pending approval from the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs since June 8. Since then OIRA has sponsored seven listening sessions with interested organizations. The last such listening session will be held tomorrow at 1 pm ET. Once the listening session is completed, a list of attendees and the meeting materials are posted on OIRA’s online calendar.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID-19 Data Tracker website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 14th week of 2020 through 25th week of this year (beginning April 2, 2020, and ending June 23, 2021; using Thursday as the first day of the week in order to facilitate this weekly update):

According to the Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”),

The current 7-day moving average of daily new cases (11,343) decreased 4.4% compared with the previous 7-day moving average (11,867). Compared with the highest peak on January 10, 2021 (252,166), the current 7-day average decreased 95.5%. A total of 33,409,895 COVID-19 cases have been reported as of June 23.

Here is the CDC’s latest overall weekly hospitalization rate chart for COVID-19 which also has been steadily decreasing:

The FEHBlog has noticed that the new cases and deaths chart shows a flat line for new weekly deaths  because new cases significantly exceed new deaths. Accordingly here is a chart of new COVID-19 deaths over the period (April 2, 2020, through June 23, 2021):

Finally here is a COVID-19 vaccinations chart over the period December 17, 2020, through June 23, 2021, which also uses Thursday as the first day of the week:

As of today, according to the Centers for Disease Control, over 150 million Americans are fully vaccinated. The vaccination campaign has lead to the low levels of new cases and deaths in our country. The Associated Press observes:

Nearly all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. now are in people who weren’t vaccinated, a staggering demonstration of how effective the shots have been and an indication that deaths per day — now down to under 300 — could be practically zero if everyone eligible got the vaccine.

An Associated Press analysis of available government data from May shows that “breakthrough” infections in fully vaccinated people accounted for fewer than 1,200 of more than 853,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations. That’s about 0.1%.

And only about 150 of the more than 18,000 COVID-19 deaths in May were in fully vaccinated people. That translates to about 0.8%, or five deaths per day on average.

The CDC also reminds us that

Currently, several variants are found around the world, including in the United States. On June 15, 2021, the B.1.617.2 (Delta)* variant was classified as a VOC because it spreads from person to person more easily than other variants and may cause more severe disease. B.1.617.2 has been reported in 77 countries and in the United Kingdom has become the main variant in COVID-19 cases. In the United States, the proportion** of B.1.617.2 for the 2-week period ending June 19, 2021, is predicted to increase to 20.6% nationally and be higher in regions 2, 6, 7, 8, and 9.

The more a virus circulates in a population, the more opportunities it has to transform itself and can reduce the effectiveness of our vaccines. Recent studies have shown that the vaccines available in the United States are effective against variants currently circulating, including B.1.617.2. Vaccines interrupt the ability of the virus that causes COVID-19 to move between people and mutate, so it is important for everyone to get vaccinated as soon as they’re eligible. If you have questions or concerns about vaccines, please contact your healthcare professional, state or local health department, or local pharmacist or visit the CDC website. To find a place in your community to get a vaccine, visit Vaccines.gov or your local public health department website.

In the More department

  • The American Managed Care Journal reports that AHIP hosted a small group of U.S. Senators at a recent conference where the Senators offered their thoughts on future federal healthcare legislation.
  • Tammy Flanagan in Govexec discusses NARFE’s legislative conference on pending legislation in Congress affecting federal employees, annuitants and their benefit programs, including the Postal Reform Act.
  • Healthcare Dive informs us that “The Biden administration’s top health policy official on Thursday [June 24] reiterated his support for expanded telehealth access after the COVID-19 national emergency expires, as Congress considers a slate of bills that would permanently nix regulatory barriers to virtual care. “We are absolutely supportive of efforts to give us the authority to utilize telehealth in greater ways,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said at a virtual event on digital health hosted by The Washington Post. Becerra also stressed that, though affordable telehealth should be available to all, HHS would be doubling down in making sure there’s accountability for quality of care. “We’re going to be doing a lot of bird-dogging, a lot of oversight,” he said.”
  • Fierce Healthcare reports on the winners of the IBM XPrize competition to create artificial intelligence tools to tackle global problems. For example, “An Israeli startup that uses artificial intelligence and other tech tools to wipe out malaria took the top prize in IBM Watson’s AI competition, nabbing $3 million to expand its operations. ZzappMalaria, a subsidiary of Sight Diagnostics, developed an AI-powered mobile app and dashboard to tackle malaria on the eradication level, specifically in developing countries.” Very 21st Century.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Today is the deadline for submission of 2022 FEHB benefit and rate proposals to OPM. Also on the federal employment front, Federal News Network reports that

Agencies have until July 19 to submit employee and contractor reentry plans to the Office of Management and Budget, the Biden administration said Tuesday.

Agencies must finalize their plans for both reopening offices and setting post-reentry procedures and policies by that date, the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force, in collaboration with OMB, the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration, said in an email.

Those final plans will build on draft reentry plans, which agencies are supposed to submit to OMB by June 18.

Agencies can, in phases, bring more employees and contractors back to their work sites after completing their final reentry plans, satisfying collective bargaining obligations and giving the workforce advanced notice, the task force said.

According to the CDC, over 50% of the total U.S. population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Also from the COVID-19 vaccination front

  • Moderna announced today that “it has initiated the rolling submission process with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a Biologics License Application (BLA) for the licensure of its mRNA COVID-19 Vaccine to prevent COVID-19 in individuals 18 years of age and older.” Pfizer took the same FDA approval step with its mRNA COVID-19 vaccine a few weeks ago. This FDA approval process likely will take several months.
  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released an informational bulletin on COVID-19 vaccinations for adolescents. While directed at the Medicaid program, the bulletin is filled with useful information for everyone. What’s more, the American Medical Association offers its view on what doctors wish parents knew about these vaccines.
  • The National Institutes of Health Director, Dr. Francis Collins, explains on this blog that “Studies confirm COVID-19 mRNA vaccines [are] safe, effective for pregnant women.” “Overall, both studies show that COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are safe and effective in pregnancy, with the potential to benefit both mother and baby. Pregnant women also are more likely than women who aren’t pregnant to become severely ill should they become infected with this devastating coronavirus. While pregnant women are urged to consult with their obstetrician about vaccination, growing evidence suggests that the best way for women during pregnancy or while breastfeeding to protect themselves and their families against COVID-19 is to roll up their sleeves and get either one of the mRNA vaccines now authorized for emergency use.”

MedPage Today in an op-ed adds that “policymakers should include natural immunity as determined by an accurate and reliable antibody test or the documentation of prior infection (previous positive PCR or antigen test), as evidence of immunity equal to that of vaccination. That immunity should be given the same societal status as vaccine-inducted immunity.” (FEHBlog supplement — At least at this early stage when it’s not clear whether a booster is required.) The CDC should give more attention to this cadre.

From the flu vaccine front, the National Institutes for Health announced that “A first-in-human, Phase 1 trial assessing the safety and immunogenicity of an investigational nanoparticle influenza vaccine designed to provide long-lasting protection against multiple flu virus strains has begun at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.” Wild.

In other good news, Health Payer Intelligence reports that “Member satisfaction has improved significantly among commercial health plans, JD Power’s 2021 commercial member health plan study found. “The past year has proven without a doubt that effective use of digital channels has the power to increase customer engagement, build trust and promote brand advocacy,” said James Beem, managing director of global healthcare intelligence at J.D. Power.“While many plans are showing tremendous progress by delivering for their members during a highly volatile and stressful period, they still have a long way to go when it comes to delivering consistently strong levels of customer engagement across all segments of their member populations.”

Regarding the President’s Fiscal Year 2022 Budget proposal

  • Govexec informs us that “President Biden ends trend of [federal employee] benefit-cutting budgets, but new Federal Workforce Initiatives are still being developed. Most of the workforce provisions outlined in the president’s first budget submission are vague references to policies that will be part of the forthcoming president’s management agenda.”
  • Becker’s Hospital Review offers seven takeaways on the budget proposal for healthcare executives.
  • Forbes Magazine predicts that President “Biden’s answer to the [looming] Medicare Trust Fund Insolvency is hidden In his Budget Proposal.” The answer, by the way, is to pay Medicare Part A from the general treasury like the other parts.

In other crystal ball articles

  • The Journal of AHIMA discusses how this health informatics organization is preparing for the post-pandemic world.
  • Healio predicts how primary care providers will use telehealth in the new normal. The answer is quite a bit. “Thirty-five percent of adults in the United States who were surveyed said they would consider leaving their primary care physician for qualified physicians providing on-demand telehealth services. This percentage was even higher — 50% — among Generation Z and millennials, according to the data. Older adults also expressed interest in telehealth services, with 48% of respondents aged 65 years and older reporting that they will likely continue to use telehealth after the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Friday Stats and More

Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID-19 Data Tracker website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 14th week of 2020 through 20th week of this year (beginning April 2, 2020, and ending May 19, 2021; using Thursday as the first day of the week in order to facilitate this weekly update):

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

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

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

With respect to COVID-19 vaccinations, Medscape reports that

The COVID-19 vaccines authorized for use in the United States and Europe offer protection against the four main coronavirus variants known to exist, a World Health Organization official says. “All COVID-19 virus variants that have emerged so far do respond to the available approved vaccines,” WHO European Regional Director Hans Kluge said Thursday at a news conference.

In sum, from the COVID-19 stats front, the Centers for Disease Control states

COVID-19 caseshospitalizations, and deaths are going down, and the number of people vaccinated continues to go up, providing a sense of optimism as summer approaches. As of May 20, 48.4% of the U.S. population ages 18 years and older is fully vaccinated, and 60.5% have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Additionally, as of last week, millions more are now eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. These trends and new CDC evidence-based guidance on masking provide encouragement that we are making progress toward returning to a sense of normalcy.

As you look ahead to summer, consider how COVID-19 is spreading in your community when choosing activities. Outdoor activities and visits are safer than those indoors, but fully vaccinated people can participate in most indoor activities without much risk. If you are not yet vaccinated, you should continue to practice prevention strategies such as wearing a well-fitted mask, practicing physical distancing, avoiding crowds, and washing your hands. 

In the “and more” category

Health Affairs discusses five keys to realizing health equity in U.S. health plans. To wit

“The five major priorities (and the achievements that will result from these priorities) for health equity leadership in health plans are:

  • Prioritizing Prevention and Wellness: Benefits and care delivery redesign
  • Prioritizing Communities: Engagement and investments
  • Prioritizing Innovation: Population and digital health
  • Prioritizing Education, Research, and Workforce Development: Academic-community collaborations
  • Prioritizing Action and Accountability: Data-driven improvement.”

mHealth Intelligence reports that “GAO tells Congress to wait on expanding telehealth coverage past the pandemic.
A new report and testimony from the Government Accountability Office says the full effect of CMS waivers on telehealth coverage during the pandemic isn’t yet known, and more study is needed. That conclusion won’t make the American Medical Association happy.

Reuters informs us that “CVS Health Corp., best known for its national chain of drugstores, said on Thursday it had started offering clinical trial services to support drug developers with tasks like patient enrollment. CVS said it had already collaborated with drug developers to help facilitate clinical trials for investigational COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, which the new business will now expand.”

Speaking of clinical investigations, Medscape reports that

The novel Galleri blood test (GRAIL, Inc.), which claims to detect up to 50 different cancers from single blood draw, is about to make its clinical debut in the United States. However, an expert cautions that this test should be considered as being under clinical investigation. Providence Health System, based in Renton, Washington, will be the first health system in the US to offer access to the Galleri test, where it will be available as a complement to recommended single-cancer screening tests.

On its website, GRAIL notes that the Galleri blood test is recommended for use in adults with an elevated risk for cancer, such as those aged 50 or older. It is intended to detect cancer signals and to predict where in the body the cancer signal is located. However, it does not detect all cancers and should be used in addition to routine cancer screening tests recommended by a healthcare provider. It is “intended to be used in addition to, and not replace, other cancer screening tests,” [GRAIL’s Leslie] Strope emphasized.

The FEHBlog strongly recommends this week’s episode of the Econtalk podcast (three strong weekly episodes in a row) in which

Podcaster and author Julia Galef talks about her book The Scout Mindset with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Galef urges us to be more rational–to be open-minded about what we might discover about the world–rather than simply defend what we already believe, which she calls the soldier mindset. The conversation is a wide-ranging discussion of our biases and the challenges of viewing the world objectively.