Midweek update

Midweek update

Thanks to Alexandr Hovhannisyan for sharing their work on Unsplash.

From the Omicron and siblings front —

The Wall Street Journal reports

The Biden administration has agreed to pay $3.2 billion for 105 million doses of Pfizer Inc.’s Covid-19 vaccine.

The deal would provide supplies for the federal government’s planned fall booster campaign, which administration officials are devising to blunt a potential wave in cases, possibly driven by variants of the Omicron strain now spreading across the U.S.

Under the deal, the federal government would have the option to buy 195 million additional doses, the Health and Human Services Department said Wednesday. Pfizer, which developed and makes the vaccine with partner BioNTech SE, would make whatever type of vaccine federal health regulators decide should be featured in the fall campaign.

The American Hospital Administration informs us

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response and Food and Drug Administration this week extended the shelf life for certain refrigerated lots of the COVID-19 combination monoclonal antibody therapies REGEN-COV and Evusheld. They extended the shelf life for REGEN-COV from 24 months to 30 months and the shelf life for Evusheld from 18 months to 24 months. FDA last year authorized the therapies for emergency use to prevent COVID-19 in certain adults and children. REGEN-COV is not currently authorized in any U.S. region because it is unlikely to be effective against the omicron variant and subvariants.

Health IT Analytics tells us “The National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) All of Us Research Program has announced that health data from 20,000 people who have had SARS-CoV-2 is now available to researchers in the US, expanding the program’s dataset to encourage the study of long COVID, social determinants of health (SDOH), and health disparities.”

Also, from the SDOH front, MedPage Today informs us

Maternal mortality rates substantially increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study using data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

After March 2020, maternal deaths increased by 33.3%, which was higher than the 22% overall excess death estimate expected to result from the pandemic, reported Marie Thoma, PhD, of the University of Maryland in College Park, and Eugene Declercq, PhD, of Boston University.

The rate of maternal deaths before the pandemic was 18.8 per 100,000 live births, which increased to 25.1 per 100,000 live births during the pandemic, the authors noted in a research letter published in JAMA Network Open. * * *

The largest increases were seen in Hispanic and Black women, which was in line with maternal mortality rates before the pandemic. Hispanic women saw a relative change of 74.2% (8.9 deaths per 100,000 live births), and Black women saw a 40.2% relative change (16.8 deaths per 100,000 live births), while white women saw a 17.2% relative change (2.9 deaths per 100,000 live births).

From the monkeypox front, the Department of Health and Human Services announced

an enhanced nationwide vaccination strategy to mitigate the spread of monkeypox.  The strategy will vaccinate and protect those at-risk of monkeypox, prioritize vaccines for areas with the highest numbers of cases, and provide guidance to state, territorial, tribal, and local health officials to aid their planning and response efforts.

Under the strategy, HHS is rapidly expanding access to hundreds of thousands of doses of the JYNNEOS vaccine for prophylactic use against monkeypox in areas with the highest transmission and need, using a tiered allocation system. Jurisdictions can also request shipments of the ACAM2000 vaccine, which is in much greater supply, but due to significant side effects is not recommended for everyone.  * * *

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices currently recommends vaccination for those at high risk following a confirmed monkeypox exposure. Given the large number of contacts and difficulty in identifying all contacts during the current outbreak, vaccine will now be provided to individuals with confirmed and presumed monkeypox exposures. This includes those who had close physical contact with someone diagnosed with monkeypox, those who know their sexual partner was diagnosed with monkeypox, and men who have sex with men who have recently had multiple sex partners in a venue where there was known to be monkeypox or in an area where monkeypox is spreading.

The American Hospital Association adds

CDC yesterday activated its Emergency Operations Center to monitor and coordinate the emergency response to monkeypox and mobilize additional CDC personnel and resources. The agency has expanded testing capacity for the virus since May 18, when the first U.S. case in the global outbreak was confirmed, to include up to 78 state public health laboratories and five commercial laboratory companies. As of June 28, 306 U.S. monkeypox cases have been reported

From the Dobbs case front

  • CNBC reports “CVS is removing its earlier purchase limit on emergency contraceptive pills. The chain said that ‘sales have since returned to normal and we’re in the process of removing the purchase limits.'”
  • HHS’s Office for Civil Rights announced “new guidance to help protect patients seeking reproductive health care, as well as their providers.”

In general, the guidance does two things:

1. addresses how federal law and regulations protect individuals’ private medical information (known as protected health information or PHI) relating to abortion and other sexual and reproductive health care – making it clear that providers are not required to disclose private medical information to third parties; and

2. addresses the extent to which private medical information is protected on personal cell phones and tablets, and provides tips for protecting individuals’ privacy when using period trackers and other health information apps.

According to recent reports, many patients are concerned that period trackers and other health information apps on smartphones may threaten their right to privacy by disclosing geolocation data which may be misused by those seeking to deny care. * * *

The guidance on the HIPAA Privacy Rule and Disclosures of Information Relating to Reproductive Health Care may be found at https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/privacy/guidance/phi-reproductive-health/index.html.

The guidance on Protecting the Privacy and Security of Your Health Information When Using Your Personal Cell Phone or Tablet may be found at https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/privacy/guidance/cell-phone-hipaa/index.html.

From the FDA front, BioPharma Dive identifies five FDA decisions to watch in the third quarter of 2022 which starts on Friday.

From the Affordable Care Act front, the Internal Revenue Service released a draft of the 2022 Form 1095-B which FEHB and other health plans offering minimum essential coverage must make available to their enrollees.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, MedPage Today reports on yesterday’s House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on the federal response to the drug overdose crisis. Both parties flogged the government agency witnesses. It’s worth reading. This epidemic merits more attention that Covid at this point in the FEHBlog’s view.

Nevertheless, from the Omnicron and siblings front

The Wall Street Journal reports

The easily spread Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants represent more than half of all U.S. Covid-19 cases, federal estimates showed, ramping up pressure as a spring surge stretches into summer. 

The two variants represented a combined 52% of cases for the week ended June 25, according to estimates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released on Tuesday. The variants were most prevalent—an estimated 60% of cases—in a five-state region that includes Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and New Mexico.

What’s more also per the Journal

Federal health authorities moved a step closer to authorizing modified Covid-19 booster shots that better target the Omicron variant and could be rolled out by the fall.

Vaccine advisers to the Food and Drug Administration, which includes doctors and public-health specialists, voted 19 to 2 to recommend updating Covid-19 vaccines to target the Omicron variant.

The recommendation, which the FDA doesn’t have to follow but often does, suggests the agency may go ahead and direct vaccine makers Pfizer Inc., its partner BioNTech SE and Moderna Inc. to proceed with plans to roll out modified boosters.

The vote didn’t specify whether the modified boosters should only target Omicron, or target both Omicron and the ancestral strain of the coronavirus, though several committee members said they preferred a dual-target approach. 

The vote also didn’t specify whether the modified shots should target more recent subvariants of Omicron now dominant in the U.S. * * *

Many members of the committee said they thought it should target the recent subvariants of Omicron, known as BA.4 and BA.5.

After the vote, Dr. Peter Marks, who heads the FDA’s vaccines division, said he took away from the meeting support for shots that target the ancestral strain as well as BA.4 and BA.5.

The options for a fall booster shot include sticking with current vaccines or using updated, Omicron-targeted vaccines that have shown promise in clinical studies. Another option: Use boosters that target more recent Omicron subvariants, including BA.4 and BA.5, but that haven’t been tested in people.

From the hospital systems front, the American Hospital Association informs us

U.S. hospitals and health systems continued to face difficult financial and operational headwinds in May, according to the latest report by Kaufman Hall, based on data from more than 900 hospitals.

“Nearly halfway through 2022, margins are cumulatively negative,” the report notes. “While some metrics have normalized, hospitals continue to perform below pre-pandemic levels, and there is an uncertain outlook for the rest of the year.”

Hospitals continue to see higher labor costs and fewer hours worked, “a sign of inflation and an indicator that long-standing labor shortages are likely worsened by increased turnover,” the authors said.

In addition, the Lown Institute has released its 2022 rankings of socially responsible hospital systems in the U.S. According to the Institute’s press release,

Sixty-six U.S. hospitals earned the distinction of “most socially responsible” by the Lown Institute, a think tank known for its evidence-based assessments of America’s healthcare providers. To achieve this designation, hospitals earned “A” grades across measures of health equity, value, and outcomes. 

Launched in 2020, the Lown Institute Hospitals Index for Social Responsibility draws attention to leading and lagging institutions nationwide, and provides benchmarks for hospitals to measure how well they serve their patients and communities. 

From the medical research front —

The National Institutes of Health announced

A Phase 1 clinical trial of a novel influenza vaccine has begun inoculating healthy adult volunteers at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. The placebo-controlled trial will test the safety of a candidate vaccine, BPL-1357, and its ability to prompt immune responses. The vaccine candidate was developed by researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The single-site trial can enroll up to 100 people aged 18 to 55 years and is led by NIAID investigator Matthew J. Memoli, M.D. * * *

“With the BPL-1357 vaccine, especially when given intranasally, we are attempting to induce a comprehensive immune response that closely mimics immunity gained following a natural influenza infection,” said Dr. Memoli. “This is very different than nearly all other vaccines for influenza or other respiratory viruses, which focus on inducing immunity to a single viral antigen and often do not induce mucosal immunity.”

“Our study will examine the safety of BPL-1357 and also will allow us to assess the importance of mucosal immunity against flu and whether a strategy of inducing both the cellular and antibody arms of the immune system can provide broader protection against the ever-changing influenza virus,” he added.

For additional information about the trial, visit clinicaltrials.gov and search on the trial identifier NCT05027932.

MedTech Dive tells us

If a knee talks, who’s listening? 

That’s the question facing orthopedic surgeons and rehab physicians as they learn to work with a new knee replacement that incorporates sensors and processors to send data about how the joint works from deep inside the patient’s body. 

It’s one of a growing number of devices sending data to physicians to help them monitor their patients, including continuous glucose monitors and wearables to monitor for heart arrhythmia. With this influx of information, medtech companies are still ironing out how to make the data useful for doctors. * * *

“The talking knee is a reality,” Indiana-based Zimmer Biomet announced at the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons’ conference last year. The company was presenting its new knee-implant extension with an embedded sensor just days after receiving de novo clearance from the Food and Drug Administration. 

Now, Zimmer, which developed the device along with California-based Canary Medical, Inc., a company that creates sensors for medical devices, has begun selling the smart knee implant, called Persona IQ. It can measure a patient’s range of motion, step count, stride length, and walking distance from inside the human body. Still, physicians don’t yet know how to use this data to help patients [due to lack of time currently]. * * *

Eventually, sensors will detect problems with implants, help patients adjust their gait or provide data to predict patient outcomes. Meanwhile, competitors are creating systems that use wearable sensors to track patient recovery and hinting at their own plans for sensor-embedded implants. 

Bill Hunter, Canary’s founder and chief executive, said in an interview that medical technology companies are already unleashing a wave of sensor-loaded devices in other sectors.

“Having this ability for the device to provide the clinician with actual feedback from inside the body has implications in most every major medical device,” he said. “So I do believe that you will see this showing up in all kinds of different ways.”

Time will tell but the FEHBlog’s money is on the sensor companies. Fascinating article.

Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, Federal News Network discusses the federal employee pay raise angles presented by the House financial service and general appropriations bill which cleared the House Appropriations Committee last Friday. Federal News Network indicates that the bill leaves the door open for the Senate to also accept the President’s proposed 2023 4.6% pay raise for federal employees and the military.

From the Dobbs case front, Govexec.com reports

President Joe Biden announced two actions immediately after the ruling: one directing the Department of Health and Human Services to safeguard access to contraception and medication abortion, and another protecting travel for medical appointments.

To those ends,

  • Govexec tells us that OPM today confirmed that its policy allowing federal employees to apply sick time to travel out of state remains in effect after the high court struck down Roe v. Wade, and
  • The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that a meeting was held today between Affordable Care Act regulators, including the HHS and Labor Department Secretaries, and health plan executives to emphasize the importance of full compliance with the ACA’s contraceptive coverage with no cost-sharing mandate when delivered in-network. The ACA regulators also issued a letter to health plans making the same point.

The FEHBlog ran across this NPR Shots article which explains that the Plan B or morning-after pill is considered a contraceptive and not an abortion drug. The Wall Street Journal informs us

Some of the nation’s biggest retailers are rationing over-the-counter emergency contraceptive pills as demand spikes following the Supreme Court ruling overturning a constitutional right to abortion.CVS Health Corp.,  Walmart Inc., and Rite Aid Corp. were limiting purchases of the pills, which were in short supply or out of stock Monday morning on major retailer websites. CVS and Rite Aid were limiting purchases to three. Walmart had some pills available without limits, but only in cases where they wouldn’t ship until next month. Pills available this week were limited to four or six.

From the Omicron and siblings and monkeypox front

  • Govexec reports on a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit decision order rehearing a federal employee vaccine mandate case which upheld the mandate on lack of plaintiffs’ standing to challenge the mandate. The mandate nevertheless has remained on hold while the case winds it way through the appellate court.
  • USA Today reports on when and how to access the monkeypox vaccine.

From the Medicare front, HHS announced

a new model aimed at improving cancer care for Medicare patients and lowering health care costs. CMS’ Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (Innovation Center) designed the Enhancing Oncology Model (EOM) to test how to improve health care providers’ ability to deliver care centered around patients, consider patients’ unique needs, and deliver cancer care in a way that will generate the best possible patient outcomes. The model will focus on supporting and learning from cancer patients, caregivers, and cancer survivors, while addressing inequities and providing patients with treatments that address their unique needs.

From the reports and studies department —

  • The next issue of Health Affairs offers a bevy of articles on Type 2 diabetes and pre-diabetes which are available at this link.
  • The Congressional Budget Office has made available examples of the work performed by its Health Analysis Division.
  • HealthDay reports “More than 18 million Americans have now survived cancer, a new report shows. The American Cancer Society (ACS) and the U.S. National Cancer Institute collaborated on the report to estimate cancer prevalence and help public health officials better serve survivors.”
  • mHealth Intelligence calls our attention to a telehealth-oriented  Healthcare Experience Report: 2022 released by Zocdoc. The FEHBlog was pleased to read “Mental health continues to hold a place of dominance in telehealth. In May of 2020, 2021, and 2022, the percentage of mental health visits that occurred virtually was 74 percent, 85 percent, and 87 percent, respectively.” Hub and spoke telehealth, e.g, Teladoc, brings mental health care in-network thereby lowering benefit costs while improving access to care.

Weekend update

Photo by Dane Deaner on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill —

The Senate is on a State work break for the next two weeks which encompasses Independence Day. The House of Representatives will be engaged in Committee business this week through Thursday. Then the House will be on District work break through the end of the following week.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee is holding a hearing tomorrow on an important topic: “Examining the 2022 National Drug Control Strategy and the Federal Response to the Overdose Crisis.”

On Friday, the House Appropriations Committee approved

the fiscal year 2023 Financial Services and General Government bill on a 31 to 22 vote. * * *

The following amendments to the bill were adopted by the full Committee:

Rep. Quigley – The manager’s amendment makes technical and noncontroversial changes to the bill and report. The amendment was adopted by voice vote.

Rep. Stewart #3 – This amendment prohibits the government’s use of cloud computing platforms unless they prevent child exploitation images. The amendment was adopted by voice vote.

A summary of the bill is here. The text of the draft bill is here. The bill report, before the adoption of amendments in full Committee, is here

This bill includes FEHB and OPM funding.

It occurred to the FEHBlog over the weekend that on Friday he did not explain how the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overruling Roe v. Wade impacts the FEHB Program. The short answer in the FEHBlog’s opinion is that it has no impact.

Under the Hyde Amendment whose requirements have been applied to the FEHB via annual appropriations bills for decades, FEHB Program coverage of abortions is limited to abortions in cases of rape, incest, or endangerment of the mother’s life. Federal courts of appeals uniformly have held that the Hyde Amendment preempts more restrictive State abortion limitations. E.g., Planned Parenthood Affiliates v. Engler, 73 F.3d 654 (6th Cir. 1996) (citing precedential authorities).

From the Omicron and siblings front —

Nature reports

The BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants are spiking globally because they can spread faster than other circulating variants — mostly BA.2, which caused a surge in cases at the beginning of the year. But so far, the latest Omicron variants seem to be causing fewer deaths and hospitalizations than their older cousins — a sign that growing population immunity is tempering the immediate consequences of COVID-19 surges.

Nature explores what the rise of BA.4 and BA.5 means for the pandemic.

The FEHB agrees that the complete Nature article is worth reading.

The Wall Street Journal informs us

Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE vaccines modified to target the Omicron variant produced a significantly larger immune response than the companies’ currently available vaccine in a study, they said.

A modified booster shot targeting Omicron specifically increased neutralizing antibody levels 13.5 to 19.6 times higher than the current shot in study volunteers a month after administration, depending on the dose, the companies said Saturday. * * *

The results, coming after Moderna Inc. also found its Omicron-targeting booster produced a stronger immune response, suggest possible benefit to modifying the shots to improve protection against an evolving virus.

The Journal adds that the Food and Drug Administration is considering whether to give emergency use authorization to the Omicron-oriented boosters for fall 2022. Based on the Nature article, it appears that Omicron will still be with us then.

Fortune identifies seven things doctors who treat long Covid want people to know.

From the Monkeypox front, Bloomberg Prognosis tells us

The World Health Organization opted against calling the recent monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.

The outbreak is “clearly an evolving threat,” the WHO said in a statement Saturday, though it doesn’t constitute an international public health emergency “at this moment.” An emergency committee convened on Thursday to discuss the outbreak.

“What makes the current outbreak especially concerning is the rapid, continuing spread into new countries and regions and the risk of further, sustained transmission into vulnerable populations including people that are immunocompromised, pregnant women and children,” according to the statement. “It requires our collective attention and coordinated action now to stop the further spread of monkeypox virus.”

NPR Shots expresses concern that U.S. testing program for this disease is inadequate.

For many of the [201] confirmed cases, health officials don’t know how the person caught the virus. Those infected haven’t traveled or come into contact with another infected person. That means the virus is spreading in some communities and cities, cryptically. 

“The fact that we can’t reconstruct the transmission chain means that we are likely missing a lot of links in that chain,” Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Brown University, says. “And that means that those infected people haven’t had the opportunity to receive medicines to help them recover faster and not develop severe symptoms. 

“But it also means that they’re possibly spreading the virus without knowledge of the fact that they’re infected,” she adds.

In other words: “We have no concept of the scale of the monkeypox outbreak in the U.S.,” says biologist Joseph Osmundson at New York University. “

NPR explains that the monkeypox testing process is much too cumbersome and the CDC hopes to have the process streamlined “sometime in July.”

Meanwhile, Precision Vaccines reports

New influenza vaccine effectiveness data presented at the U.S. CDC’s June 22, 2022 meeting of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) show flu shots worked better during 2021 – 2022 than initially reported.

Published on June 23, 2022, this ACIP data shows flu shots reduced the risk of influenza illness by about 35% among vaccinated people.

Data from October 4, 2021, through April 30, 2022, showed that flu vaccines reduced people’s risk of mild to moderate flu illness caused by H3N2 flu viruses—the most common flu viruses this season—by about one-third overall. * * *

Also, at the meeting, ACIP voted in favor of a preferential recommendation for certain flu vaccines over others for adults 65 years and older in the United States. 

The ACIP voted to preferentially recommend higher-dose flu vaccines (Fluzone High-Dose vaccine and Flublok recombinant vaccine) or adjuvanted flu vaccine (Fluad vaccine) over standard-dose unadjuvanted flu vaccines.

And if one of these vaccines is unavailable at the time of administration, people in this age group should get a standard-dose flu vaccine instead. 

From the health information technology front, Health Data Management calls out attention to the following

  • “In a [very sensible] letter to Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, several healthcare standards organizations are calling for streamlining and making more predictable the process for submitting attachments as well as modernizing existing rules to improve patient care and reduce burdens on clinicians.”
  • New legal requirements for providers to give an estimated cost of patients’ medical services will be difficult to meet, particularly when multiple organizations are involved in a patient’s care, according to WEDI, the Workgroup on Electronic Data Interchange. Meeting the requirements of the No Surprises Act, which was included as part of a Consolidated Appropriations Act passed late in 2020, will be challenging because there is no standardized process to enable the exchange of cost information among facilities, WEDI notes.”
  • While healthcare organizations see the prevailing trend of increasing patient consumerism, the ability to give patients opportunities to schedule their own appointments is lagging. Many organizations have adopted some capabilities for self-scheduling, according to new research from the Center for Connected Medicine (CCM), yet the use of these tools remains low [because] scheduling solutions lack the right algorithms and that organizations lack standardized scheduling templates across appointment types.”

In particular the second bullet strikes a chord with the FEHBlog as he has pointed out that Congress made a huge mistake by failing add the provider’s good faith estimate and the health plan’s advance explanation of benefits to the list of HIPAA standard transactions.

Friday Stats and More

Note — Unfortunately, Thursday’s post did not arrive on the E&S website until 9 am ET today, so it did not go out to subscribers this morning. Lo siento. Here is a link to yesterday’s post.

Onto today’s post —

Based on the CDC’s Covid Data Tracker and using Thursday as the first day of the week, here is the FEHBlog’s latest weekly chart of new Covid cases:

The CDC’s weekly review of its Covid statistics states “As of June 22, 2022, the current 7-day moving average of daily new cases (97,430) decreased 5.6% compared with the previous 7-day moving average (103,175).”

Here’s the CDC’s weekly chart of new Covid hospital admissions:

The CDC’s weekly review states “The current 7-day daily average for June 15–21, 2022, was 4,375. This is a 1.0% increase from the prior 7-day average (4,329) from June 8–14, 2022.”

Here is the FEHBlog’s latest weekly chart of new Covid deaths:

The CDC’s weekly review states “The current 7-day moving average of new deaths (255) has decreased 10.4% compared with the previous 7-day moving average (285).”

The CDC’s weekly review also reports

As of June 23, 2022, there are 391 (12.1%) counties, districts, or territories with a high COVID-19 Community Level, 996 (30.9%) counties with a medium Community Level, and 1,830 (56.8%) counties with a low Community Level. This represents an increase (+1.9 percentage points) in the number of high-level counties, a slight increase (+1.6 percentage points) in the number of medium-level counties, and a corresponding decrease (−3.6 percentage points) in the number of low-level counties. 51 jurisdictions had high- or medium-level counties this week. Rhode Island is the only jurisdiction to have all counties at low Community Level. 

To check your COVID-19 Community Level, visit COVID Data Tracker. To learn which prevention measures are recommended based on your COVID-19 Community Level, visit COVID-19 Community Level and COVID-19 Prevention.

The weekly statistics generally are stable and moving in the right direction.

The American Hospital Association adds

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last night endorsed Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 6-17, as its advisory committee recommended, creating an alternative to Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for this age group. The Food and Drug Administration authorized the Moderna vaccine for children and adolescents last week.

Before ACA FAQ 50 issued October 4, 2021, the period for covering COVID vaccines with no cost sharing began 15 days after the CDC’s action. The FEHBlog, who is not errorless, thought that FAQ 50 eliminated the 15 day waiting period, but upon further review, FAQ 50 requires immediate no cost sharing coverage of Covid vaccines filing the FDA’s approval, usually an emergency use authorization. The FEHBlog doesn’t think this makes any practical difference because the Covid vaccines aren’t distributed without CDC approval.

From the Capitol Hill, the American Hospital Association provide us with this encouraging news:

The House of Representative today voted 234-193 to pass and send to the President for his signature bipartisan legislation to help reduce gun violence in communities. Approved by the Senate last night, the AHA-supported package includes behavioral health provisions, including funding for school safety resources, school-based supportive services and expanded access to telehealth for mental and behavioral health services. 

From the Supreme Court, the Court decided today that the right to an abortion is a matter controlled by state law, not the U.S. Constitution. The Wall Street Journal sums it up as follows “In upholding a Mississippi law banning the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy, the court’s conservative majority said the Roe decision was egregiously wrong in recognizing a constitutional right to abortion.” In response

Reproductive health care, including access to birth control and safe and legal abortion care, is an essential part of your health and well-being. While Roe v. Wade was overturned, abortion remains legal in many states, and other reproductive health care services remain protected by law. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is committed to providing you with accurate and up-to-date information about access to and coverage of reproductive health care and resources. Our goal is to make sure you have appropriate information and support.

  • Health Payer Intelligence discusses health insurer reaction to the decision. “Payers and healthcare leaders are responding to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade, the case which protected abortion rights at the federal level, and while the repercussions remain uncertain many healthcare leaders are voicing their commitment to helping women navigate the impacts.”
  • The Wall Street Journal discusses employer reaction to the decision. “Businesses with health plans covering abortion now are weighing whether and how to pay for employees to travel to a state where the procedure is legal.”

From the OPM front

  • Federal News Network reports on OPM Director Karen Ahuja’s press conference held yesterday, the first anniversary of her swearing in as OPM Director.
  • FedWeek tells us that “OPM has said it is working to improve features for federal employees and annuitants to compare FEHB plans, although it does not project having those improvements in place until late next year—potentially in time for that year’s open season for selecting coverage in 2024.”

From the nicotine front, the Wall Street Journal reports

A federal appeals court on Friday granted Juul Labs Inc. a temporary stay of the Food and Drug Administration’s order for the vaping company to pull its e-cigarettes off the U.S. market.

A panel of judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on Friday afternoon granted Juul’s request to delay the FDA’s ban, according to court documents. The temporary stay gives the court time to hear arguments and wasn’t a ruling on the merits of the case, the judges wrote.

Finally, HR Dive brings us a roundup of happenings at this week’s Society for Human Resource Management conference.

OPM Director Ahuja Celebrates Her First Year

OPM Headquarters a/k/a the Theodore Roosevelt Building

U.S. Office of Personnel Management Director Kiran Ahuja celebrated her first year in office today. Here are links to an OPM press release and a Govexec account of Director Ahuja’s press conference.

The press release identifies her “major accomplishments with respect to the FEHB Program as

  • Providing health benefits that are responsive to employee needs 
  • All Federal Employee Health Benefits (FEHB) carriers provide telehealth services ensuring access to health providers during the pandemic and on an ongoing basis going forward. In a 2021 survey, 43% of FEHB enrollees report using telehealth benefits and use was greatest among those with mental health or behavioral health concerns. 
  • In accordance with EO 14035, which directed OPM to promote equitable healthcare coverage and services for enrolled LGBTQ+ employees and their covered family members through the FEHB Program, OPM prioritized and strongly encouraged FEHB Carriers to provide gender-affirming care benefits consistent with standards published by recognized medical experts. 

From the Omicron and siblings front

The Wall Street Journal reports

  • Advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (ACIP) backed use of Moderna Inc.’s Covid-19 vaccine in children ages 6 to 17 years.
  • Children in the age group already have access to Covid-19 vaccines made by Pfizer Inc. and its partner BioNTech SE. The advisers recommended on Thursday that Moderna’s shot should also be made available to that age range, in a pair of 15-0 votes. 
  • The advisers’ endorsement follows the Food and Drug Administration’s authorization of the shots last week. It is one of the last steps before the Moderna shot would be more broadly available in doctors’ offices, pharmacies and vaccine clinics.

Other news reports indicate that CDC Director Walensky is expected to endorse this recommendation late Thursday or Friday.

MedPage Today informs us

A fourth dose, or second booster, of Pfizer/BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine (Comirnaty) protected seniors living in long-term care from the most severe outcomes during the Omicron wave, despite showing a more limited effect against infection, according to prospective data from Israel.

Among over 40,000 residents, effectiveness of a fourth dose (versus a third given at least 4 months prior) was 64% and 67% against hospitalizations for either mild/moderate or severe illness, respectively, and 72% against COVID-19-related deaths, reported Khitam Muhsen, PhD, of Tel Aviv University in Israel.

From the conference front, Fierce Healthcare offers the following articles on this week’s AHIP conference:

  • SDOH — “As the healthcare industry grapples with health inequities and disparities across the country, health insurers are well-positioned to lead the charge, experts said Wednesday.”
  • Biosimilars — “[I]t is important to note that while the competition generated by these new launches can help lower payer costs—depending on pricing and available discounts—biosimilars may not necessarily be the lowest cost option in all therapeutic categories.”
  • Behavioral health — “As the team at Cigna’s Evernorth builds its strategy around behavioral health, it’s focusing on a key throughline: simplicity.”

From the Rx coverage front —

  • The Senate Commerce Committee announced clearing for Senate floor consideration the Committee leadership’s PBM transparency bill (S 4293). The vote in favor of floor consideration was 19-9. Fierce Healthcare offers an article on the Committee’s action.
  • STAT News reports on a bipartisan Senate proposal to control insulin prices by locking in current manufacturer profits. “David Mitchell, founder of Patients for Affordable Drugs, a patient advocacy group that doesn’t accept funds from the pharmaceutical industry, called the bill “disappointing,” and said it would just shift costs to patients in other ways. ‘It’s pharma’s preferred solution to drug pricing,’ Mitchell said.”
  • STAT News also tells us that “In response to rising prices for medicines, public and private payers increasingly rely on assessments of cost-effectiveness to justify coverage. But a new examination finds that such studies sponsored by drug companies were often biased in favor of setting higher prices for their medicines.” The study was published in the BMJ.
  • The FDA released an “Action Plan for Rare Neurodegenerative Diseases, Including ALS “(also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

In other vaccine news, AHIP informs us that

ACIP additionally voted [today[ to recommend adults aged 65 and older preferentially receive any one of the following higher dose or adjuvanted influenza vaccines: quadrivalent high-dose inactivated influenza vaccine (HD-IIV4), quadrivalent recombinant influenza vaccine (RIV4), or quadrivalent adjuvanted inactivated influenza vaccine (aIIV4); however there is no preference between these three vaccines.

The Committee also recommended that pneumococcal vaccine PCV15 may be used as an option to PCV13 for children aged  under 19 years according to currently recommended PCV13 dosing and schedule. ACIP voted that Priorix (GSK) be used, as an option, to prevent measles, mumps, and rubella, in accordance with currently recommended schedules and off-label uses

MedPage Today reports good vaccination news

Overall rates of human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination among adolescents increased by nearly 20% over a 5-year period, according to survey data.

Among teens ages 13 to 17, overall HPV vaccine coverage increased from 56.1% in 2015 to 75.4% in 2020, and rates for those completing the full vaccine series jumped from 40.3% to 59.3%, respectively, reported Peng-jun Lu, MD, PhD, of the CDC in Atlanta, and colleagues

“CDC’s latest data show that HPV vaccination coverage among adolescents is increasing, which is important to prevent HPV infections that can lead to several cancers in both females and males,” Lu told MedPage Today.

The authors also noted that a doctor’s recommendation was correlated with greater willingness to receive the vaccine. Of those who were advised to get vaccinated, 80.7% received vaccination compared with 51.7% who were given no such advice. These findings mirrored another study, which found that provider recommendations boosted HPV vaccination rates among kids ages 11 to 12.

Well-child visits were also associated with higher rates of vaccination. Among kids ages 11 to 12, 80.3% who had a visit were vaccinated compared with 64.8% who did not have a visit.

From the nicotine front, the New York Times reports

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday ordered Juul to stop selling e-cigarettes on the U.S. market, a profoundly damaging blow to a once-popular company whose brand was blamed for the teenage vaping crisis. The order affects all of Juul’s products on the U.S. market, the overwhelming source of the company’s sales. 

Juul is considering its legal options.

Midweek Update

From the Omicron and siblings front —

The Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practice meets Thursday to vote on recommending the Moderna Covid vaccine for younger folks aged 6 through 17. This drug would be an alternative Pfizer’s Covid vaccine for that age group. Assuming the ACIP votes in favor of the Moderna vaccine, then CDC Director must approve their recommendation for the health plan coverage with no cost-sharing mandate to kick in.

Medical Economics informs us

Electronic messages and postcards with primary care physicians’ (PCP) names got Black and Latino patients in the door for their COVID-19 vaccines.

Although the effects were “relatively modest,” if applied on a larger scale, an additional 238,000 Black and Latino older adults may have been vaccinated across the United States, according to a new study.

Kaiser Permanente Northern California’s Division of Research examined the effectiveness of standard and culturally tailored electronic messages and mailings from patients’ own PCPs encouraging COVID-19 vaccines from March 29 to May 20, 2021. The results were published in an original investigation, “Effect of Electronic and Mail Outreach from Primary Care Physicians for COVID-19 Vaccination of Black and Latino Older Adults: A Randomized Clinical Trial,” in the journal JAMA Network Open.

The study involved 8,287 patients aged 65 years and older, around the California Central Valley, Fresno, South Sacramento and San Jose, divided into three groups.

This study again illustrates the value of health plans teaming with primary care providers.

From the nicotine front, the Wall Street Journal devined from the federal government’s Spring 2022 regulatory agenda, posted Tuesday, that

The Biden administration is moving forward on a plan to mandate the elimination of nearly all nicotine in cigarettes, a policy that would upend the $95 billion U.S. cigarette industry and, health officials say, prompt millions of people to quit smoking.

The plan, unveiled Tuesday as part of the administration’s agenda of regulatory actions, likely wouldn’t take effect for several years. The Food and Drug Administration plans to publish a proposed rule in May 2023, though the agency cautioned that date could change. Then the agency would invite public comments before publishing a final rule. Tobacco companies could then sue, which could further delay the policy’s implementation.

Also the Journal reports

The Food and Drug Administration is preparing to order Juul Labs Inc. to take its e-cigarettes off the U.S. market, according to people familiar with the matter.

The FDA could announce its decision as early as this week, the people said. The marketing denial order would follow a nearly two-year review of data presented by the vaping company, which sought authorization for its tobacco- and menthol-flavored products to stay on the U.S. market.

Uncertainty has clouded Juul since it landed in the FDA’s sights four years ago, when its fruity flavors and hip marketing were blamed for fueling a surge of underage vaping. The company since then has been trying to regain the trust of regulators and the public. It limited its marketing and in 2019 stopped selling sweet and fruity flavors.

The company’s legal actions likely are in development now.

From the Rx coverage front —

Fierce Healthcare calls to our attention expert opinions rendered on better controlling prescription drug costs at an AHIP conference. The experts agreed that all of the stakeholders need to be at the negotiating table.

Scott Gottlieb, M.D., former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, on a panel at AHIP’s 2022 conference * * * said the challenge for regulators looking to address drug prices is the fact that a one-size-fits-all solution will not work in this market. He said instead that policymakers should consider pharmaceuticals in three buckets: drugs that are in an active market with significant rebate activity; drugs that currently monopolize the market but will lose that monopoly in the near future; and drugs that are likely to monopolize a market in the long term.

“I think we need to think about the market as those three segments and think about different policy solutions for each of them,” [and attention should be focused on the third category] Gottlieb said.

The FEHBlog agrees with the experts about the importance of engaging all of the stakeholders. There are no bad guys here at least in the FEHBlog’s view.

From the preventive services front, Medscape reports

There is not enough evidence to recommend for or against taking most vitamin and mineral supplements to prevent heart disease, stroke, and cancer, a new report by the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) concludes.

However, there are two vitamins — vitamin E and beta-carotene — that the task force recommends against for the prevention of heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Evidence shows that there is no benefit to taking vitamin E and that beta-carotene can increase the risk for lung cancer in people already at risk, such as smokers and those with occupational exposure to asbestos, it notes.

These are the main findings of the USPSTF’s final recommendation statement on vitamin, mineral, and multivitamin supplementation to prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The statement is published in the June 21 issue of JAMA, along with an evidence reporteditorial, and patient page.

Medscape adds that this USPSTF decision aligns with a 2014 recommendation on the same topic.

From the lab test coverage front, Fierce Healthcare reports

Optum is launching a new health plan solution that aims to reduce unnecessary testing and ensure that patients are receiving the screenings that are best for them.

The laboratory benefit management tool will assist insurers in aligning lab tests with clinical guidance and will automate large parts of lab benefit administration, Optum said in an announcement provided first to Fierce Healthcare.

The company estimates that insurers could save between $12 to $36 per member per year, or about $3 billion.

Tests that lack clinical indications can lead to unneeded sample collection form patients as well as a higher risk of false positive results, which can compound unnecessary healthcare costs. There is a dearth of industry standards and efficacy data around lab tests, making it common for results to be misinterpreted or tests to be misused.

Fierce Healthcare adds that Optum is selling this tool to all health plans.

From the U.S. healthcare front, U.S. News and World Report offers 2022 rankings on the healthiest counties in the U.S. The FEHBlog recently moved from Montgomery County Maryland to Hays County Texas. Both counties score about 55 out of 100 in the rankings.

Happy First Day of Summer 2022

Thanks to Aaron Burden for sharing their work on Unsplash.

From Capitol Hill, the Hill reports

The Senate voted 64 to 34 Tuesday evening to advance an 80-page gun safety bill to strengthen background check requirements for gun buyers under 21, provide funding to states to administer red flag laws and to provide billions of dollars in new federal funding for mental health services.  * * *

Senate Majority Leader Schumer (D-N.Y.) said a successful initial procedural vote would set the bill up to pass by the end of the week.  

Last week, a House Appropriations subcommittee approved the Fiscal Year 2023 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill, which funds OPM and the FEHB Program. The accompanying bill summary points out

  • Office of Personnel Management (OPM) – The bill includes $448 million, an increase of $75 million above the FY 2022 enacted level, for OPM to manage and provide guidance on Federal human resources and administer Federal retirement and health benefit programs.
  • Fosters equality for women and men: Eliminates provisions preventing the FEHBP from covering abortion services.

The House Appropriations Committee will mark up this bill at a meeting scheduled for Friday, June 24.

The U.S. Supreme Court today issued a 7-2 decision holding that the Medicare Secondary Payer law does not permit healthcare providers to make disparate impact claims against health plans. This decision protects ERISA and FEHB Program plans against costly litigation. Fierce Healthcare and Health Payer Intelligence also report on the decision.

From the Omnicron and siblings front —

MedPage Today informs us

Most people who have been infected with COVID-19 in the U.S. in the past couple of months likely had the BA.2 or BA.2.12.1 variant, both lineages of the original Omicron strain of SARS-CoV-2.

Now, BA.4 and BA.5 are here, and they’re starting to make up a larger proportion of U.S. cases.

So if someone was recently infected with a BA.2 lineage, are they mostly protected against reinfection with BA.4 or BA.5?

Probably not, infectious disease experts say.

“It’s expected that there’s probably not much cross-protection between them,” Amesh Adalja, MD, an infectious disease physician at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, told MedPage Today.

The American Hospital Association tells us

More than 1 million prescriptions for the COVID-19 antiviral pills Lagevrio and Paxlovid were dispensed between late December 2021 and May 2022, but dispensing rates were lowest in the most socially and economically disadvantaged communities, according to a study released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a separate study of electronic health records from Kaiser Permanente Southern California over the period, fewer than 1% of patients aged 12 and older who received Paxlovid to treat mild-to-moderate COVID-19 had a COVID-19-related hospitalization or emergency department visit in the next five to 15 days. CDC said the studies “highlight the importance of ensuring access to oral antiviral medicine in treating COVID-19, a key strategy in preventing hospitalization and death.”

Speaking of hospitals, Beckers Hospital Review reports

Healthgrades has recognized 399 hospitals as recipients of its 2022 Outstanding Patient Experience Award, the organization said June 21. This represents the top 15 percent of hospitals in the U.S. for patient experience.  * * * Healthgrades has recognized 399 hospitals as recipients of its 2022 Outstanding Patient Experience Award, the organization said June 21. This represents the top 15 percent of hospitals in the U.S. for patient experience.  * * * View the full list of recipients here

From the Rx coverage front —

  • The Food and Drug Administration released one of its news roundups today.
  • Per Stat News, a group of researchers writing in the Annals of Internal Pharmacy used Mark Cuban’s online pharmacy pricing to puncture Medicare Part D’s pricing on generic drugs.
  • Per Fierce Healthcare, CVS Health is expanding its Project Health program to Richmond, Virginia and Las Vegas. “The healthcare giant announced Tuesday that it will hold 72 events dedicated to seniors and children this year. It is also adding four new mobile units in 2022.”
  • Per Healthcare Dive, Walgreens “has partnered with managed care company Buckeye Health Plan in Ohio to open new Health Corner locations in five of the state’s northeast neighborhoods this summer. * * * About 2.3 million patients will have access to Health Corner services across 60 locations in Ohio, California and New Jersey by the summer’s end, Walgreens said on Tuesday. By the end of this year, Walgreens expects to increase the number of Health Corners from 55 to about 100, including the new Ohio locations.”

From the interoperability and telehealth fronts

  • Epic, the largest purveyor of electronic health record systems in the U.S., announced “its plan to join a new health information exchange framework to improve health data interoperability across the country. The Trusted Exchange Framework and Common Agreement (TEFCA) will bring information networks together to help ensure that all people benefit from complete, longitudinal health records wherever they receive care. In the future, TEFCA will expand to support use cases beyond clinical care, such as public health.” That’s a big boost for TEFCA, which will serve as the backbone for the nation’s EHR systems.
  • AHRQ offers research on telehealth for women’s preventive healthcare services.

Finally, STAT News reports

President Biden will soon nominate Arati Prabhakar, a physicist and former DARPA director, to serve as his next top science adviser, the White House announced on Tuesday.

If confirmed by the Senate, Prabhakar would replace the genomics researcher Eric Lander, who resigned as the head of the White House science office in February amid a workplace-bullying scandal.

The new post would be Prabhakar’s third tour as head of a federal science office. She ran DARPA, the high-stakes military research agency, from 2012 to early 2017, and served as director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the 1990s.

Holiday Monday Roundup

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

Happy Juneteenth (observed)! Here are a few items that came to the FEHBlog’s attention today

From the Omicron and siblings front —

The New York Times informs us that “Despite Another Covid Surge, Deaths Stay Near Lows. Most Americans now carry some immune protection, experts said, whether from vaccines, infection or both.” Amen to that.

While the Food and Drug Administration has given emergency use authorization to Moderna’s vaccine for ages 6 to 17, the Centers for Disease Control has not yet ratified that decision so Pfizer’s vaccine remains the only vaccine available to that age group for now.

From the unusual viruses front, STAT News reports

When previously healthy little kids started showing up in hospitals with failing livers last fall and this spring, startled doctors and public health authorities didn’t know what was behind what they were seeing. They also didn’t know if what they were seeing was new. * * *

Now scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have come up with some estimates for the normal rate of this condition, at least in the United States. Their findings, published earlier this week in the online journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, may come as a surprise.

Their research suggests there has not been an increase in cases of pediatric hepatitis of unknown origin, at least in the United States. Nor has there been a rise in the number of pediatric liver transplants, which a portion of these children have needed. Likewise, the rate of detections of infections caused by adenovirus 41 — a stomach bug virus that has been implicated as a potential trigger of these hepatitis cases — has not changed over time, the CDC scientists reported. * * *

With rates unchanged since before the Covid-19 pandemic, a theory espoused by scientists from Israel — that this is some sort of post-Covid condition — becomes harder to argue.

“It doesn’t mean that Covid still can’t have some collateral role with all of this. But I think these kind of data helps support that that’s probably not the cause,” explained veteran epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, who was not involved in the CDC work.

That’s encouraging news.

The Society for Human Resource Management tells us about its 2022 Employee Benefits Survey.

“Employer rankings of the importance of benefits shifted drastically in 2020 as they made pandemic-inspired adjustments, but these rankings have returned to an order like that seen pre-pandemic as businesses regain a semblance of normal operations,” said Daniel Stunes, senior researcher at SHRM.

Significantly, however, “all benefit types were rated by employers as more important to offer today than before the COVID-19 pandemic,” Stunes said, reflecting an increased appreciation for the role benefits play in fostering employee well-being and in attracting and keeping talent in a tight labor market.

Weekend update

Thanks to Alexandr Hovhannisyan for sharing their work on Unsplash.

Happy Juneteenth and Fathers’ Day!

Following the observance of Juneteenth tomorrow, the Senate and the House of Representatives will be in session for floor voting and Committee business this week.

The Washington Post reports “A congressional deal for billions of dollars in additional coronavirus funding appeared all but dead Thursday [June 16] after Senate Republicans accused the White House of being dishonest about the nation’s pandemic funding needs.” The FEHBlog expects we have not heard the end of this issue.

From the Omnicron and siblings front —

The Wall Street Journal reports

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that children as young as 6 months receive newly authorized Covid-19 shots, the final step to making the vaccines available.

The CDC said Saturday that the young children should receive either the two-dose series from Moderna Inc. or the three-dose series made by Pfizer Inc. and partner BioNTech SE.

As soon as Monday, children under 5 years, who haven’t been able to get vaccinated during the pandemic, could start getting inoculated.

The Journal also offers articles about what parents with younger kids should know about the new Covid vaccines and — what everybody wants to know — whether researchers can develop a Covid vaccine that “lasts.” On the latter point, “New variants have weakened the protection of the current shots, which require unpopular boosters. Scientists and the White House are exploring options for more durable protection, but success could take years.”

On a related note, Precision Vaccinations tells us

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported today the number of pneumonia-related fatalities continues to outpace both COVID-19 and Influenza. * * *

In the USA, common causes of viral pneumonia are influenza, respiratory syncytial virus, and SARS-CoV-2 viruses. A common cause of bacterial pneumonia is Streptococcus pneumoniae.

The good news is pneumonia is a vaccine-preventable disease, and the U.S. FDA has approved two types of pneumococcal vaccines, PCV13, and PPSV23. * * *

Unfortunately, the CDC’s data shows that in 2020, the percentage of adults who received a pneumococcal vaccination was just 25.5%.

FEHB plans may want to focus on this issue given the Program’s demographics.

From the U.S. healthcare front, the American Medical Association provides background on its freshly inaugurated President, Dr. Jack Resneck, Jr., and gives an account of Dr. Resneck’s inaugural address. Good luck, Dr. Resneck.