Midweek update

Midweek update

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From the Omicron front, Live Science informs us about the so-called stealth Omicron variant.

A stealthy version of the omicron variant has been detected in the U.S., but so far, it makes up a very low proportion of the overall cases in the country.

This version of the variant, called BA.2, bears some genetic mutations not seen in the original omicron lineage, and some of these mutations lie in the spike protein, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Some preliminary data hint that BA.2 may be slightly more transmissible, but not more severe, than the original omicron, but it’s too early to interpret that data with any confidence.

In December, scientists reported that the original version of omicron had split into multiple sublineages, one of these being BA.2, Live Science previously reported. BA.2 bears a genetic quirk that makes it harder to track using PCR tests, so it’s been nicknamed “stealth omicron.” 

The New York Times tells us about a new study identifying four factors that may lead to “Long Covid“.

The researchers said they had found that there was an association between these factors and long Covid (which goes by the medical name post-acute sequelae of Covid-19, or PASC) whether the initial infection was serious or mild. They said that the findings might suggest ways to prevent or treat some cases of long Covid, including the possibility of giving people antiviral medications soon after an infection has been diagnosed. * * *

One of the four factors researchers identified is the level of coronavirus RNA in the blood early in the infection, an indicator of viral load. Another is the presence of certain autoantibodies — antibodies that mistakenly attack tissues in the body as they do in conditions like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. A third factor is the reactivation of Epstein-Barr virus, a virus that infects most people, often when they are young, and then usually becomes dormant.

The final factor is having Type 2 diabetes, although the researchers and other experts said that in studies involving larger numbers of patients, it might turn out that diabetes is only one of several medical conditions that increase the risk of long Covid.

From the Covid booster front

The COVID-19 booster drive in the U.S. is losing steam, worrying health experts who have pleaded with Americans to get an extra shot to shore up their protection against the highly contagious omicron variant.

Just 40% of fully vaccinated Americans have received a booster dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the average number of booster shots dispensed per day in the U.S. has plummeted from a peak of 1 million in early December to about 490,000 as of last week.

Also, a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that Americans are more likely to see the initial vaccinations — rather than a booster — as essential.

“It’s clear that the booster effort is falling short,” said Jason Schwartz, a vaccine policy expert at Yale University. * * *

As for why an estimated 86 million Americans who have been fully vaccinated and are eligible for a booster have not yet gotten one, Schwartz said public confusion is one important reason.

“I think the evidence is now overwhelming that the booster is not simply an optional supplement, but it is a foundational part of protection,” he said. “But clearly that message has been lost.”

The need for all Americans to get boosters initially was debated by scientists, and at first the government recommended only that certain groups of people, such as senior citizens, get additional doses. The arrival of omicron, and additional evidence about falling immunity, showed more clearly a widespread need for boosters.

But the message “has been lost in the sea of changing recommendations and guidance,” Schwartz said.

  • Speaking of confusion over boosters, Kaiser Health News reports that

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reached out to pharmacists Wednesday to reinforce the message that people with moderate to severe immune suppression are eligible for fourth covid shots.

The conference call came a day after KHN reported that immunocompromised people were being turned away by pharmacy employees unfamiliar with the latest CDC guidelines.

  • If you thought that the idea of mixing and matching Covid boosters was confusing, the National Institutes of Health reassureed us that

In adults who had previously received a full regimen of any of three COVID-19 vaccines granted Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, an additional booster dose of any of these vaccines was safe and prompted an immune response, according to preliminary clinical trial results reported in The New England Journal of Medicine. The findings served as the basis for recommendations by the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in late fall 2021 to permit mix-and-match COVID-19 booster vaccinations in the United States. Additional data from the ongoing Phase 1/2 trial, sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, are expected in the coming months.

From the Postal Service front, Govexec reports that

USPS, like the rest of the nation, has experienced a surge in COVID-19 cases from the omicron variant and thousands of workers are sick or quarantining each day. Still, the agency oversaw a largely successful holiday period and continues to ramp up its delivery of COVID-19 rapid tests on behalf of the administration. The Health and Human Services Department is reimbursing USPS for its costs, but the Postal Service has declined to disclose the terms of that arrangement. The mailing agency has kept on thousands of temporary staff to support the effort and is using its own facilities to stage the shipments. Tens of millions of tests have already gone out, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeff Zients said on Wednesday. 

Zients added the administration opted against using USPS to distribute 400 million N95 masks from the National Stockpile because its alternative approach—sending them to pharmacies and other locations to give to customers for free—is quicker. The masks have already reached many facilities and Americans are picking them up. 

From the hearing aid front, Roll Call reports on the state of the Food and Drug Administration’s efforts to craft a rule allowing hearing aids to be sold over the counter, a Biden Administration initiative. Suffice it to say that nothing is simple.

From the healthcare business front, Healthcare Dive tells us that

The fourth quarter results for Indianapolis-based Anthem were mixed, analysts said. The financial results released premarket Wednesday beat Wall Street expectations on earnings, but missed on operating revenue.

Higher-than-expected coronavirus-related costs driven by the omicron variant — most notably in December — were “more than offset” by lower utilization of non-COVID-19 care, CFO John Gallina told investors on a Wednesday morning call.

Anthem’s commercial business had the highest costs relative to baseline, driven by factors like children becoming eligible for COVID-19 vaccines and the omicron surge. Medicare was next in line, followed by Medicaid, which actually ended the quarter slightly below baseline, Gallina said. The CFO noted he expects that theme to continue in 2022.

The payer’s medical loss ratio, the percentage of premiums invested back into patient care, was 89.5% in the quarter, in line with analyst forecasts and up sequentially from the third quarter’s 87.7%, which was much lower than analysts had expected. The fourth quarter of the year typically has a higher MLR, even notwithstanding pandemic pressures.

What’s more Fierce Healthcare informs us that

The number of accountable care organizations participating in the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) modestly increased to 483 this year compared with 477 for 2021, sparking new worries from advocates over the future of the program.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services released new figures Wednesday that show the patient population being served by ACOs has slightly grown. The new data come as the Biden administration released a strategic refresh last year for its payment models with the intent of getting every Medicare beneficiary in an accountable care relationship by 2030. * * *

ACO advocates have been concerned about a decline in overall participation that has been occurring in the MSSP in recent years. There were 517 ACOs participating in 2020, which was up from the 519 that operated in 2019. However, that’s down significantly from the 561 that participated in 2018.

The National Association of ACOs (NAACOS) has previously called for CMS to make it easier for organizations to take on financial risk. The group criticized a Trump-era program called “Pathways to Success” that requires ACOs to take on financial risk much earlier in the process.

NAACOS has also called for greater predictability in ACO benchmarks that set the spending and quality targets ACOs must meet to qualify for shared savings as well as increases in such shared savings rates.

From the mental health parity front, Health Payer Intelligence digs into yesterday’s government report on health plan compliance with the federal mental health parity law.

EBSA conducted a review from April 16, 2021 to October 31, 2021 that assessed 156 payers on their non-quantitative treatment limitations, a parity compliance measure that often poses challenges to payers. * * *

Out of all of the comparative analyses that EBSA received, not a single payer provided all of the information that the review requested in the initial submission.

As a result, the administration sent out 80 letters to payers requesting more information. Twelve of the letters went to payers that had already received a letter from EBSA notifying them that they had submitted insufficient information and seeking the requested details.

EBSA still has not announced any final determinations. However, after this back and forth with payers, EBSA accrued enough information to find 30 health plans in non-compliance on a total of 46 NQTLs.

Three major issues stood out to EBSA as the administration assessed NQTL compliance.

First, the administration found that many health plans and issuers were not prepared for compliance. * * *

Second, the initial comparative analyses perpetuated a historic trend of providing insufficient data due to five types of errors. * * * [For example] payers did not perform a comparative analysis before designing their NQTLs, so the NQTLs were unlikely to meet EBSA’s standards.  * * *

Finally, despite lack of preparation and a range of errors that led to a fragmentary picture of the NQTLs and their applications, EBSA found that some plans could receive an initial determination even for an incomplete analysis. Hence, 30 plans have already received initial determinations of non-compliance.

As EBSA continues the determinations, the administration recommended changes to Congress that would enhance enforcement of the mental health parity compliance law, promote access to coverage, and standardize compliance regulations.

The FEHBlog recommends reading the entire article. As the FEHBlog mentioned yesterday, the mental health parity law could be made simpler and more effective but that outcome is just not in the cards at least currently.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the Omicron front, the Wall Street Journal reports that

Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. have reached the highest level since early last year, eclipsing daily averages from the recent Delta-fueled surge, after the newer Omicron variant spread wildly through the country and caused record-shattering case counts.

The seven-day average for newly reported Covid-19 deaths reached 2,191 a day by Monday, up about 1,000 from daily death counts two months ago, before Omicron was first detected, data from Johns Hopkins University show. While emerging evidence shows Omicron is less likely to kill the people it infects, because the variant spreads with unmatched speed the avalanche of cases can overwhelm any mitigating factors, epidemiologists say.

“You can have a disease that is for any particular person less deadly than another, like Omicron, but if it is more infectious and reaches more people, then you’re more likely to have a lot of deaths,” said Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality-statistics branch at the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Bloomberg adds that

Covid-19’s deadly effects manifest long after some patients leave the hospital, according to a new study that points to the pandemic’s grave aftermath. 

Hospitalized patients who survived at least a week after being discharged were more than twice as likely to die or be admitted again within months, scientists from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Oxford found. The Covid survivors also had an almost five times greater risk of dying in the following 10 months than a sample taken from the general population.

The findings, published Tuesday in the journal PLOS Medicine, add to evidence that the pandemic’s effects on health and wellbeing extend well beyond an initial infection. A Dutch study on Monday showed that three-quarters of Covid patients treated in intensive care were still suffering fatigue, impaired fitness and other physical symptoms a year later, and one in four reported anxiety and other mental symptoms.

“Covid-19 isn’t just an acute respiratory viral illness — like a cold or some other inconsequential infection — that goes away in a few days or a few weeks,” said Ziyad Al-Aly, director of the clinical epidemiology center at the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System in Missouri, who has led similar studies in the U.S. “It carries serious long-term consequences, including higher risk of death.” * * *

Needless to stay these articles illustrate the importance of being vaccinated with a booster against Covid.

From the free COVID tests front, MedCity News reports that

In the days since the Biden Administration announced on January 15 that insurers would be required to cover eight over-the-counter Covid-19 tests per month for members, digital health company Truepill has been busy developing a platform to help health plans meet that mandate.

In May, the San Mateo, California-based startup, which provides pharmacy fulfillment and telehealth services for brands like Hims, Nurx and Lemonaid, added home testing. Co-founder and President Sid Viswanathan said in an earlier interview that the company had planned to also offer diagnostics from the beginning.

The Covid-19 test coverage platform will give clients a behind-the-scenes partner who can assist with everything from checking member eligibility for coverage of tests to delivering those tests to their homes and providing shipping updates en route.

“We found a lot of plans are having to react to this on very short timelines, and so we’re building out a white-labeled, e-commerce experience that a plan can utilize,” said Varun Boriah, senior vice president of diagnostics at Truepill, in a phone interview. “We can put any plan’s logo on that asset and manage their patient experience for them.”

Cool.

From the OSHA vaccinate or test mandate front, the Society for Human Resource Management informs us

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is withdrawing its emergency temporary standard (ETS) that would have required by Feb. 9 that large businesses ensure employees are vaccinated against the coronavirus or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing. Nonetheless, the agency is moving forward with its proposal to make the temporary directive a permanent standard. 

On Jan. 13, the U.S. Supreme Court halted the ETS while the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals considered the merits of the challenge against the vaccination-or-testing directive. OSHA announced on Jan. 25 that it will no longer seek to enforce the ETS, which will end the lawsuit, but the temporary directive served a dual purpose. The ETS also acts as a proposal for a permanent standard, which is separate from the litigation. “OSHA is not withdrawing the ETS to the extent that it serves as a proposed rule,” according to the agency.  * * *

OSHA said in a statement that it is prioritizing a proposal for a permanent COVID-19 safety standard for health care workers. 

“Notwithstanding the withdrawal of the [ETS], OSHA continues to strongly encourage the vaccination of workers against the continuing dangers posed by COVID-19 in the workplace,” the agency said.

The FEHBlog noticed that the Justice Department has asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit to dismiss the consolidated challenge to the OSHA ETS as moot citing this OSHA action.

From the mental health parity front, the Department of Health and Human Services announced the release of the government’s

2022 Report to Congress on the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 – PDF. The report includes information that suggests health plans and health insurance issuers are failing to deliver parity for mental health and substance-use disorder benefits to those they cover. The report also highlights the departments’ recent emphasis on greater MHPAEA enforcement in addition to guidance to correct those failures, and makes recommendations to strengthen MHPAEA’s consumer protections and enhance the departments’ enforcement abilities.

The FEHBlog is not surprised at allegations on non-compliance because this is a very complicated. The law requires carriers to build walls between physical and mental health benefits and then ensure parity in quantitative and nonquantitative treatment limits. Why not break down the wall and define general coverage rules to embrace mental and substance use disorder care? Simply put, establish one set of rules for both types of care.

From the healthcare business front, Bloomberg reports that

Change Healthcare Inc. is considering selling some assets to clear the way for its $8 billion acquisition by UnitedHealth Group Inc., according to people with knowledge of the matter. 

The company is working with advisers on a possible divestiture of its payment integrity business, ClaimsXten, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the information is private. ClaimsXten could fetch a value of more than $1 billion, the people said. The business generates $130 million to $150 million in annual earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, they said.

There’s no certainty a deal for ClaimsXten will be reached or that it will be enough to satisfy regulators, the people said.

A representative for Change Healthcare didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for UnitedHealth declined to comment.

UnitedHealth and Change Healthcare have been caught in a regulatory limbo over their proposed merger since the U.S. Justice Department opened an investigation into the deal in March, two months after it was announced.

Can’t blame Change for trying.

From the benefit design front, Govexec offers a helpful article about the advantage of enrolling in a high deductible plan which permits funding a health savings account. Contributions to an HSA are tax deductible when contributed; grow tax free, and tax exempt when withdrawn for healthcare purposes. You can’t beat that.

Drug Channels offers a January news roundup featuring an Insulin G2N Update; OptumRx “Data,” HDHPs, 340B Projections, and Fun with the CDC. What’s not to like?

Weekend Update

Both Houses of Congress will be engaged in Committee business and floor voting this week as we are now less than one month away from the expiration of the current continuing resolution funding the federal government. That resolution runs through February 18.

From the Omnicron front, the New York Times reports that ‘

New coronavirus cases have started to fall nationally, signaling that the Omicron-fueled spike that has infected tens of millions of Americans, packed hospitals and shattered records has finally begun to relent.

More and more states have passed a peak in new cases in recent days, as glimmers of progress have spread from a handful of eastern cities to much of the country. Through Friday, the country was averaging about 720,000 new cases a day, down from about 807,000 last week. New coronavirus hospital admissions have leveled off.

Even as hopeful data points emerge, the threat has by no means passed. The United States continues to identify far more infections a day than in any prior surge, and some states in the West, South and Great Plains are still seeing sharp increases. Many hospitals are full. And deaths continue to mount, with more than 2,100 announced most days.

But following a month of extraordinary rates of case growth, blocklong lines at testing centers and military deployments to bolster understaffed I.C.U.s, the declining new-case tallies offered a sense of relief to virus-weary Americans, especially in the Northeast and parts of the Upper Midwest, where the trends were most encouraging. After another round of masking up or hunkering down, some were considering what life might look like if conditions continued to improve. 

Bloomberg adds

The omicron variant spreads so rapidly that sometimes it feels as if resistance is futile. It’s disheartening to hear of omicron infecting people who are up-to-date on their shots and wear an N95 mask every time they leave home. Even some well-known public-health experts are getting infected. But that doesn’t mean everyone is going to get it. 

What it does mean is that life is profoundly unfair. In some of us, the Covid-19 vaccines work quite robustly, even against omicron. In others, the vaccines’ effect is weaker. Chalk this up to the spectacular diversity of the human immune system, which is partly regulated by some of the most varied genes in the human body. 

A recent study led by Harvard and MIT showed that about 20% of people get much poorer protection from their vaccines against omicron. They’re still better off than completely unvaccinated people, but this variability could account for some of the fully vaccinated people who’ve been hospitalized in the omicron wave.

According to the American Medical Association (AMA), here’s what physicians want their patients to know about Omicron. “The AMA has developed frequently-asked-questions documents on COVID-19 vaccination covering safety, allocation and distribution, administration and more. There are two FAQs, one designed to answer patients’ questions (PDF), and another to address physicians’ COVID-19 vaccine questions (PDF).”

From the Rx coverage front, the New York Times offers an interview with CVS Health’s CEO Karen Lynch. For example,

What do you see as the most effective ways that we could reduce health care costs for everyday Americans? And what’s your company’s role in doing that?

There’s a couple of things. One is there’s the site of care. Our role is offering an alternative site of care, either in our retail locations, or in the home with virtual connections. We’re entering into the primary care space because we believe that primary care has real significant influence over the cost of health care.

And I’m pretty passionate about the fact that the head is attached to the body, and most people experience behavioral health issues when they are experiencing physical health issues. We only deal with the physical health. We don’t deal with the behavioral health part, and I think there’s more we can do.

Healthcare Dive provides us with industry perspective on last week’s launch of TEFCA which is intended to vastly improve interoperability by linking together regional health information exchanges.

The goal of TEFCA is to get rid of individual legal agreements between health information networks, health plans, providers and other entities by instituting one common agreement that qualified networks and their participants sign onto, paring back on administrative burden. The framework standardizes the operational side of data exchange, while raising the privacy and security bar for entities that want to be certified as qualified health information networks (QHINs), groups of organizations that agree to the same data-sharing infrastructure. * * *

Getting a nationwide network of groups of organizations that agree to the same data-sharing infrastructure could significantly streamline patient care across different geographies.

For example, if a patient from Virginia takes a vacation to California and ends up in an emergency room, doctors currently do the best they can to treat them without their medical record, which can contain valuable information about preexisting conditions, allergies and other health factors. But with a nationwide QHIN infrastructure, clinicians can query all participating networks for that patient’s data and use it to inform their clinical choices, Barrett said.

That budding future all centers on buy-in. * * *

Many, including ONC, are optimistic on TEFCA adoption, citing the competitive disadvantages to nonparticipation.

The hope is that the more networks use it, the more its value proposition will be proved. Patients will inquire why their provider doesn’t have their data from other facilities, and the provider will then wonder why the exchanges it’s a participant in aren’t qualified to work with other networks, Lee Barrett, CEO of EHR standards development organization EHNAC said.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the CDC’s Covid Data Tracker and using Thursday as the first day of the week, here is the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new Covid cases from the 27th week of 2021 through the third week of 2022:

My word, could that be a cresting of the Omicron surge as discussed in this week’s posts?

The FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new Covid deaths has bounced up and down after climbing to just over 10,000 weekly deaths during the Delta surge. .

Last but not least here is the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new Covid vaccinations distributed and administered from the 51st week of 2020 through the third week of 2022.

Here are links to the CDC’s Covid data tracker weekly review and its weekly Fluview.

In other COVID vaccination news —

  • The Wall Street Journal reports that

Vaccines and booster shots offer superior protection from the Delta and Omicron variants, according to three new studies released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The data back up earlier findings supporting booster shots and offer the first comprehensive insight into how vaccines fare against the Omicron variant. In one of the studies published Friday, a CDC analysis found that a third dose of either the vaccine from Pfizer Inc.and BioNTech SE or Moderna Inc. was at least 90% effective against preventing hospitalization from Covid-19 during both the Delta and Omicron periods.

The American Hospital Association adds

According to data from 25 state and local health departments, adults who were unvaccinated against COVID-19 as the omicron variant emerged in December had nearly three times higher risk of infection than adults fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and five times higher risk than adults who had received a booster, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported today. The highest impact of COVID-19 booster doses compared with full vaccination was recorded among persons aged 50 and older. Because of reporting lags, the influence of the omicron variant on COVID-19-associated deaths could not be evaluated by vaccination status in December, the authors note.

The FDA could authorize Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children under age 5 in the next month, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Wednesday.

“My hope is that it’s going to be within the next month or so and not much later than that, but I can’t guarantee that because I can’t out-guess the FDA,” he said during an interview with Blue Star Families, a nonprofit group that supports military families.

The younger age group will likely need three vaccine doses, he said, since two shots didn’t provide enough of an immune response during Pfizer’s clinical trials for kids ages 2-4.

In Covid vaccine mandate news, Govexec tells us

A federal court in Texas has issued an injunction against President Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for the federal workforce, pausing implementation of a requirement for more than 2 million civilian servants. 

The Biden administration has already had sweeping success with the mandate, as most agencies have seen virtually their entire workforces come into compliance. Still, federal offices across the country were just beginning to move forward with suspensions—which could eventually result in firings—for those who did not meet the requirements. Biden issued the mandate by executive order in September.    

Judge Jeffrey Brown, appointed by President Trump to the U.S. Court for the Southern District of Texas, said the case was not about whether individuals should be vaccinated or even about federal power generally. 

“It is instead about whether the president can, with the stroke of a pen and without the input of Congress, require millions of federal employees to undergo a medical procedure as a condition of their employment,” Brown wrote. “That, under the current state of the law as just recently expressed by the Supreme Court, is a bridge too far.” 

The Justice Department has appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The FEHBlog expects that the Fifth Circuit will lift the stay as soon as this weekend. The Society for Human Resource Management offers a helpful article for employers trying to keep track of the vaccine mandate decisions from the courts.

In other COVID vaccine mandate news, the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division announced today that

Employees [who are not exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act] must be paid for time spent going to, waiting for, and receiving medical attention required by the employer or on the employer’s premises during normal working hours. Therefore, if an employer requires an employee to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine dose, undergo a COVID-19 test, or engage in a COVID-19 related health screening or temperature check during the employee’s normal working hours, the time that the employee spends engaged in the activity is compensable. Employees must be paid for such time during normal working hours, regardless of where the activity occurs. This is true regardless of whether the employer is subject to the OSHA Vaccination and Testing ETS.

In Covid treatment news, the Food and Drug Administration announced today that the agency “took two actions to expand the use of the antiviral drug Veklury (remdesivir) to certain non-hospitalized adults and pediatric patients for the treatment of mild-to-moderate COVID-19 disease. This provides another treatment option to reduce the risk of hospitalization in high-risk patients. Previously, the use of Veklury was limited to patients requiring hospitalization.”

From the Covid OTC testing coverage mandate department, the Kaiser Family Foundation has surveyed the coverage approaches of 13 large health insurers. Don’t blame the insurers on this one because health insurers don’t typically cover OTC products and the government only allow four days to implement the mandate.

From the and more department

  • In telehealth news, mHealth Intelligence tells us that

Telehealth utilization peaked in the first half of 2020 and decreased as the year came to a close, with providers predicting that virtual care use would continue to decline in upcoming years, according to the 2021 Medical Group Telehealth Survey.

AMGA Consulting conducted the survey and gathered responses from 56 medical groups representing more than 38,000 healthcare providers.

The majority of the participants (86 percent) were part of multispecialty groups with primary care, while the remaining were either multispecialty without primary care, primary care, or single-specialty groups. * * *

The survey results suggest that although telehealth use skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual care may see the most success with patients who prefer the modality over in-person care or whose health concerns can be easily addressed virtually.

The FEHBlog remains a strong proponent of hub and spoke telehealth for mental health care because every televisit is in network.

  • The American Hospital Association informs us that “The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology seeks comments through March 25 to inform potential future rulemaking on how the ONC Health IT Certification Program could incorporate standards, implementation specifications and certification criteria to reduce the burden of prior authorization.”
  • The Congressional Budget Office released a report titled “The Prices That Commercial Health Insurers and Medicare Pay for Hospitals’ and Physicians’ Services.”

CBO examined potential explanations for why the prices paid by commercial insurers are higher and more variable than those paid by Medicare FFS. CBO’s analysis and literature review suggest the following conclusions:

— Greater market power among providers consistently leads to prices for commercial insurers that are higher than Medicare FFS’s prices and that vary more widely, both among and within areas. Hospitals and physicians’ groups may have market power because they have a dominant share of the market in an area or because an insurer sees them as essential to its network of providers.

— Some of the variation in the prices that commercial insurers pay for hospitals’ and physicians’ services is explained by differences in the prices of inputs needed to deliver those services.

— Higher hospital quality is associated with higher prices paid by commercial insurers, although whether there is a causal link between quality and prices, and the direction of any such link, is not clear.

— The share of providers’ patients who are covered by Medicare and Medicaid is not related to higher prices paid by commercial insurers. That finding suggests that providers do not raise the prices they negotiate with commercial insurers to offset lower prices paid by government programs (a concept known as cost-shifting).

IBM is selling the data and analytics assets of its Watson Health business to a private equity firm as it looks to refocus on its core cloud business.

The sale, which is expected to close in the second quarter this year has been anticipated for quite some time, and comes following the limited success of Watson Health, despite a spate of high-profile acquisitions of health information companies to bolster the enterprise.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

[F]ederal civilian employees in the U.S. will now be paid at least $15 per hour.

OPM issued a memorandum for heads of Executive departments and agencies that provides implementing guidance for how agencies should adjust pay rates for General Schedule (GS) and Federal Wage System (FWS) employees stationed in the U.S., and how to use administrative authority for other pay systems to lift the pay of federal employees who currently make less than $15 per hour. In total, these changes will impact 67,000 out of 2.2 million federal employees. The largest share of these workers, over 56,000 of them, currently work at the Department of Defense. OPM’s guidance directs agencies to implement these changes by January 30, 2022

  • To tide you over the weekend, here is a link to Healthcare Dive’s Deep Dive on four 2022 key trends for providers and payers.

Midweek update

Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

In this morning’s New York Times, columnist David Leonhardt writes

Omicron appears to be in retreat, even if the official national data doesn’t yet reflect that reality. Omicron also appears to be mild in a vast majority of cases, especially for the vaccinated. This combination means that the U.S. may be only a few weeks away from the most encouraging Covid situation since early last summer, before the Delta variant emerged.

If that happens — and there is no guarantee it will, as Katherine Wu of The Atlantic explains — it will be time to ask how society can move back toward normalcy and reduce the harsh toll that pandemic isolation has inflicted, particularly on children and disproportionately on low-income children.

When should schools resume all activities? When should offices reopen? When should masks come off? When should asymptomatic people stop interrupting their lives because of a Covid exposure? Above all, when does Covid prevention do more harm — to physical and mental health — than good?

These are tricky questions, and they could often sound inappropriate during the Omicron surge. Now, though, the surge is receding.

Yes, indeed. Helen Branswell, writing in STAT News, offers an array of expert opinions on what could be next on the COVID front.

John Moore, a virologist at Weill Cornell Medical College, said a post-Omicron decrease in transmission “is certainly a plausible scenario,” suggesting it might take until late February or early March for most of the country to get there. But equally possible, he suggested, is that another variant will emerge, with the transmissibility of Omicron but without its reticence to replicate in the deep lungs [like Alpha and Delta did].

“This is where it’s all so freaking difficult. There are scenarios. You don’t know what the future’s going to hold. All these people who say ‘This is what’s going to happen.’ Well, this is what they think might happen, if they’re being honest,” he said.

While the situation remains unsettling, the FEHBlog thinks that Mr. Leonhardt’s thinking is on the right track.

From the masking front, the Wall Street Journal reports that

The Biden administration on Wednesday announced plans to make 400 million N95 masks available for free at pharmacies and community health centers across the country.

The move comes as President Biden has stepped up the federal government’s response to a nationwide surge in Covid-19 cases triggered by the highly transmissible Omicron variant. Some scientists and doctors have said popular single-layer cloth masks may not be sufficient to protect against Omicron and called on the administration to expand access to high-filtration masks such as N95s.

The nonsurgical N95 masks will start to be available at pharmacies and community health centers late next week and the program will be fully up and running by early February, the White House official said. The masks will be sourced from the Strategic National Stockpile, the nation’s safety net of medical-equipment supplies. * * *

Three masks will be available per person, the official said, to ensure broad access. Most of the pharmacies that are part of the federal pharmacy vaccine program will distribute the masks, the official said.

Following up on yesterday’s post on distribution of the Pfizer and Merck Covid pills, the New York Times offers a reporter’s saga of tracking down the Pfizer treatment for her ailing mother.

The fact that the process was so hard for a journalist whose job it is to understand how Paxlovid gets delivered is not encouraging. I worry that many patients or their family would give up when told “no” as many times as I was.

I was also reminded that even a “free” treatment can come with significant costs.

The federal government has bought enough Paxlovid for 20 million Americans, at a cost of about $530 per person, to be distributed free of charge. But I spent $256.54 getting the pills for my mother. I paid $39 for the telemedicine visit with the provider who told my mother that she would need to visit in person. The rest was the Uber fare and tip. Many patients and their families can’t afford that.

President Biden recently called the Pfizer pills a “game changer.” My experience suggests it won’t be quite so simple.

FEHB and other health plans hopefully are looking into helping their members navigate this complicate process.

From the COVID vaccine mandate front, Fierce Healthcare reports

All 50 states are now subject to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ (CMS’) healthcare workforce mandate after a federal court tossed Texas’ lawsuit and preliminary injunction contesting the requirement.

Today’s dismissal comes less than a week after the Supreme Court removed a stay of the federal government’s industry-wide vaccine requirement in 24 states that opposed the policy. The Biden administration filed an appeal of Texas’ injunction the following day.

Although CMS’ requirement may now be enforced across the country, the agency has set varying compliance deadlines reflecting whether its initial interim final rule was enjoined in a particular state.

Healthcare Dive adds

Healthcare workers in the 24 states that legally challenged the requirement will now be on a different vaccine deadline than the rest of the nation. For these states, healthcare workers must be fully inoculated by March 15, CMS confirmed with Healthcare Dive.        

But for the healthcare workers in the other 25 states and D.C., which were not a part of the litigation, workers will need to be fully vaccinated by Feb. 28, per CMS.         

From the healthcare business front —

Healthcare Dive tells us that

UnitedHealth reiterated its 2022 enrollment targets for Medicare Advantage on Wednesday, easing recent concerns that rising competition could hamstring future growth in the fruitful market.

The forecast was released along with its fourth-quarter and full-year 2021 results. The Minnetonka, Minnesota-based healthcare behemoth also reported no serious change in utilization trends despite skyrocketing COVID-19 case counts due to the highly infectious omicron variant.

UnitedHealth beat Wall Street expectations on both earnings and revenue in the fourth quarter, with revenue of $73.7 billion, up 13% year over year, thanks in part to the outsized growth of its health services business Optum. Net earnings of $4.2 billion were almost double the $2.4 billion in profit brought in at the same time last year.

Healthcare Dive adds that

Antitrust regulators said Tuesday they are looking to modernize merger guidelines in an effort to crack down on tie-ups amid a flood of merger filings that has more than doubled in the past year.

Leaders of the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice are launching a review of the current guidelines that are used to detect and analyze potentially unlawful mergers. Those policing guidelines have not been updated in 12 years, potentially excluding realities of a modern economy, leaders said.

To bring the guidelines up to date, the FTC and DOJ are calling on the public to submit information and new evidence, about the potential effects of mergers so the agencies can ultimately beef up tools to block anticompetitive deals.

From the Rx coverage front —

  • Drug Channels offers five takeaways from the Big Three PBM’s exclusion lists.
  • The Congressional Budget Office released a report titled “Prescription Drugs: Spending, Use, and Prices.”

In general healthcare news —

  • The American Medical Association discusses what drives Black maternal health inquities in the U.S.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have spent years making sure that their meditation app, called the Healthy Minds Program, passes clinical muster and delivers positive outcomes. Designing studies to test the app’s efficacy led Simon Goldberg, an assistant professor at UW, to confront the mountain of thousands of studies of different mobile mental health tools, including apps, text-message based support, and other interventions.

Researchers had taken the time to synthesize some of the studies, but it was hard, even for someone steeped in the science like Goldberg, to draw definitive conclusions about what works and what doesn’t. So Goldberg teamed up with a few other researchers and took a step back to see if they could put order to the work collected in these meta-analyses — a kind of deep meditation on the existing research inspired by UW’s meditation app.

The meta-review, published on Tuesday in PLOS Digital Health, examined 14 meta-analyses that focused specifically on randomized control trials for mental health interventions, including treatments for depression, anxiety, and smoking cessation. In total, the review included 145 trials that enrolled nearly 50,000 patients. The review found universal shortcomings in study design, leading the researchers to write that they “failed to find convincing evidence in support of any mobile phone-based intervention on any outcome.”

Ruh roh.

Holiday weekend update

Happy King Day! Here is a link to the NPR website that includes a video and a transcript of his “I Have a Dream” speech given August 28, 1963. Dr. King proves that you don’t have to be President to lead the country. He accomplished so much in his tragically shortened life for which we all should be grateful.

From the Congress front, the House of Representatives remains in session this week for Committee business and floor voting while the Senate is on State work period. Govexec lets us know that last Thursday

Lawmakers sounded a rare note of optimism about reaching a spending agreement for the remainder of fiscal 2022 as they look to avoid yet another stopgap measure.  Leaders in both parties called a bicameral, bipartisan meeting “constructive,” saying they shared the goal of setting full-year appropriations by their Feb. 18 deadline. 

From the Omicron front, STAT News informs us that

As the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc, an expert panel at the World Economic Forum delivered a mix of good news and bad news on Monday: More variants will emerge, but vaccine production is accelerating and research is progressing toward a combined shot that may be able to attack these different variants.

On one hand, the world needs to prepare for newer strains that could be more vexing, or the “worst case scenario,” said Annelies Wilder-Smith, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “Omicron will not be the last variant. There’s a high probability we will have another variant coming up. The question is when and will it be less dangerous?”

Wall Street Journal columnist Alyssia Finley offers a column on the benefits of natural immunity created by Omicron breakthrough infections.

study last month by the Oregon Health and Science University found that vaccinated people who experienced breakthrough infections produced higher levels of antibodies that were up to 1,000% more effective than those generated two weeks after a second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. The researchers described this as superimmunity. 

“I think this speaks to an eventual end game,” said co-author Marcel Curlin. “It doesn’t mean we’re at the end of the pandemic, but it points to where we’re likely to land: Once you’re vaccinated and then exposed to the virus, you’re probably going to be reasonably well-protected from future variants.” Dr. Curlin added: “Our study implies that the long-term outcome is going to be a tapering off of the severity of the worldwide epidemic.” * * *

All of this suggests that infection with Omicron is likely to stimulate potent and durable protection against Covid-19—and potentially other coronaviruses—even if it mutates to become more virulent. As Omicron rapidly spreads, people who have been vaccinated or previously infected will develop superimmunity. Covid-19 will become a virus that causes cold- and sometimes flulike symptoms—annoying but rarely deadly or disruptive.

One caveat is that older people generate weaker T-cell responses and memories to infections and vaccines. They’re likely to need annual booster shots. Omicron will end the pandemic by making Covid-19 endemic.

The Journal also offers masking advice which help the FEHBlog finally understand the difference between N-95 and KN-95 masks. “If you can’t get an N95 [which is certified in the US], doctors suggest KN95, KF94 and FFP2 masks, which are certified in China, South Korea and Europe, respectively.”

The Journal also reports that

One year into her tenure as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky acknowledges that she should have communicated certain things better to the American public.

She says the pandemic threw curveballs that she should have anticipated. She thinks she should have made it clearer to the public that new rules and guidelines were subject to change if the nature of the fight against Covid-19 shifted again.

“I think what I have not conveyed is the uncertainty in a lot of these situations,” Dr. Walensky said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

Dr. Walensky deserves credit for making these remarks.

From the FEHB and TRICARE fronts, benefits consultant Tammy Flanagan discusses the merits of enrolling in Medicare Part B when you retire from federal employment at or over age 65.

From the healthcare business front, Revcycle Intelligence calls to our attention the fact that “2021 did not set any records for the number of hospital mergers and acquisitions, but data shows a shift to larger deals between well-established organizations”

The report identified eight “mega-mergers” in which the seller or smaller partner by revenue had over $1 billion in annual revenue. Out of all the announced transactions, that is the largest percentage of announced mega-mergers in the last six years at 16.3 percent. It was also nearly double the percentage of mega-mergers announced in 2020.

The average size of the smaller party in hospital merger and acquisition deals was also up significantly compared to previous years, according to the report. The average size by annual receive increased to $619 million from $388 million in 2020.

The data may point to a new trend in healthcare consolidation.

From the benefit design front, Health Payer Intelligence reports that

Although acupuncture utilization has grown in recent years, only half of acupuncture visits had any form of coverage in 2019, according to a research letter published in JAMA Network Open.

The researchers analyzed acupuncturist visits in Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS) data from 2010 to 2019. Their aim was to uncover the total cost of the visit, the annual out-of-pocket healthcare spending for these visits, the portion of these visits that were covered under the patients’ insurance plans, and the percent of out-of-pocket costs.

The majority of the participants were female and nearly six in ten were White individuals.

Finally MedPage Today gives us a community-oriented story written by “a physician [Avik Chatterjee, MD, MPH] in a shelter-based clinic in Boston, near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, where a large encampment of people experiencing homelessness has emerged. Injection drug use in this area has picked up recently, and overdoses are not uncommon. When people need help, outreach workers and shelter staff run in and call for us.” And clinic doctors and nurses respond to the calls.” His story concludes as follows:

The skills, knowledge, and compassion necessary to address the overdose crisis exist in the community of people who use drugs. Historically, this group of people has been particularly marginalized by healthcare institutions. But people who use drugs are finally starting to demand a seat at the table where decisions are made around research and treatment of substance use disorders. Researchers, clinicians, and policymakers need to come up with creative ways to partner with this community to meaningfully incorporate lived and living experience in designing research and clinical programs.

In the face of one of the biggest health crises of our generation, it’s time to realize that “we’re all family here.”

And the post comes full circle.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID Data Tracker and using Thursday as the first day of the week here is FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new COVID cases from the 27th week of 2021 through the second week of this year:

Four million new cases of COVID in a week. Wow. The Delta surge is the long hill that starts at the left of the chart. Omicron is Mount Everest by comparison.

Here’s the FEHBlog’s weekly chart of new COVID deaths for the same time span.

Weekly COVID deaths haven’t crossed 10,000 since the Delta surge peaked. Of course deaths are a lagging indicator.

The FEHBlog does think based on his reading that we are close to turning another corner but it’s not showing in these charts yet. We remain in the soup.

Here’s the FEHBlog’s chart of weekly Covid vaccinations distributed and administered since COVID shots were made available to the public in December 2020.

For the first time since before the holidays the number of administered vaccines, including boosters, exceeded 10 million last week. We are closing on 75% of the U.S. population aged 18 and older being fully vaccinated and over 65% of the U.S. population aged 65 and older being boostered.

Here are links the the CDC’s interpretation of its recent Covid and Flu statistics. The American Hospital Association informs us that

As urged by the AHA, the Department of Health and Human Services today renewed the COVID-19 public health emergency declaration for another 90 days effective Jan. 16. The extension will help hospitals and health systems combat COVID-19 in their communities.

In the wake of the Supreme Court lifting the stay on the CMS healthcare worker stay mandate, the American Hospital Association explains

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services today released updated interpretive guidance on its Omnibus COVID-19 Health Care Staff Vaccination Interim Final Rule for states affected by yesterday’s Supreme Court’s decision  on the rule. The guidance does not apply to Texas, where the Interim Final Rule is still subject to a preliminary injunction in a separate legal action that was not before the Supreme Court. Under the guidance, the first dose compliance date for those states is Feb. 14, 2022, with full compliance expected from providers by March 15, 2022. For states not impacted by the Supreme Court decision, the previously announced compliance dates of Jan. 28 and Feb. 27 remain in effect. For both groups, the underlying interpretive guidance released on Dec. 28 applies and all members can still refer to the previously released Frequently Asked Questions for additional information. 

Tomorrow is the implementation date for the President’s mandate that health plans cover over-the-counter COVID tests. It’s worth noting that health plans generally don’t cover any products sold over-the-counter so needless to say plans needed many more than the four days that federal govenment gave them to implement. The New York Times delves into the details.

The Wall Street Journal reports that

The U.S. public can begin ordering free at-home rapid Covid-19 tests through a new government website on Jan. 19, senior Biden administration officials said.

Initially, orders will be limited to four tests per residential address. Tests will ship via mail within 7-12 days of ordering, the officials said. The administration expects that timeline to shorten as the program ramps up, one of the officials said.

The public will be able to order tests at covidtests.gov. Those without access to the internet can place orders via phone, and the administration will work with community groups to help people request tests, the officials said. The government will give priority to orders from areas that have been hard-hit by the pandemic and low-income parts of the country.

Here’s a link to the White House’s fact sheet on these programs. Govexec discusses the Postal Service’s important role in distributing the tests ordered over the government website.

From the masking front, STAT News reports that

U.S. health officials on Friday encouraged more Americans to wear the kind of N95 or KN95 masks used by health-care workers to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Those kinds of masks are considered better at filtering the air. But they were in short supply previously, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials had said they should be prioritized for health care workers.Related: Comparing the Covid-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson

In updated guidance posted late Friday afternoon, CDC officials removed concerns related to supply shortages and more clearly said that properly fitted N95 and KN95 masks offer the most protection.

However, agency officials noted some masks are harder to tolerate than others, and urged people to choose good-fitting masks that they will wear consistently.

“Our main message continues to be that any mask is better than no mask,” Kristen Nordlund, a CDC spokeswoman, said in a statement.

In other news —

  • Regulatory News informs us that “The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee on Thursday voted 13-8 to advance the nomination of Robert Califf for a second stint as commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).”

Researchers at Weill Cornell Medicine and the University of Oxford announced on January 10, 2022, their new study shows that common vaccines could help reduce the health burden of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A peer-reviewed study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences crystallizes decades of evidence suggesting that the generalized immune-boosting properties of many vaccines can cross-protect people against multiple pathogens.

While these researchers did not specify particular vaccines, they chose values for cross-protection consistent with data from earlier studies on measles, influenza, tuberculosis, and other immunizations.

  • Fierce Healthcare tells us that “A top Medicare advisory board [MEDPAC] did not recommend any new payment hikes for acute care hospitals or doctors for 2023, stating that targeted relief funding has helped blunt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.” We shall see.

Thursday Miscellany

In yesterday’s post, the FEHBlog accurately predicted that the Supreme Court would decide today whether to stay the OSHA ETS vaccination screening program and end the partial stay on the CMS healthcare worker vaccination mandate.

This afternoon, the Supreme Court issued its decision reinstating the nationwide stay of the OSHA ETS and its companion decision ending all stays on the CMS mandate. The decisions came down as many, many pundits predicted.

The Secretary of Labor who oversees OSHA commented that

“We urge all employers to require workers to get vaccinated or tested weekly to most effectively fight this deadly virus in the workplace. Employers are responsible for the safety of their workers on the job, and OSHA has comprehensive COVID-19 guidance to help them uphold their obligation. 

“Regardless of the ultimate outcome of these proceedings, OSHA will do everything in its existing authority to hold businesses accountable for protecting workers, including under the Covid-19 National Emphasis Program and General Duty Clause.”

In the OSHA ETS decision, the Supreme Court expressed the key point of administrative law on which the two cases turned:

Administrative agencies are creatures of statute. They accordingly possess only the authority that Congress has provided.

The Court reasoned that Congress had granted CMS the necessary authority to issue its broad mandate but had not granted OSHA the same level of authority.

The cases now return to the courts of appeal for a decision on the merits — 6th Circuit for the OSHA ETS case and 5th Circuit for the CMS mandate case. In the meantime the Court’s decisions on the stays will remain in place.

Given how the Court handled these stay decisions, we have a pretty good idea where the Supreme Court will land should either of those merits decisions return to the Court.Such a return likely only will happen if either appellate court disagrees with the Court’s administrative law conclusion on the merits.

In that regard, Bloomberg Law reports that

The Justice Department will appeal a Louisiana federal court’s ruling that blocked President Joe Biden‘s order for government-contractor workers to get the Covid-19 vaccine. 

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit will be the third federal appeals court to consider a challenge to the measure. A coalition of three states—Louisiana, Mississippi, and Indiana—sought to block the mandate for companies that do business with the federal government. U.S. District Court Judge Dee Drell of the Western District of Louisiana granted a preliminary injunction in December. 

The federal contractor mandate—which won’t be enforced while litigation proceeds—would apply to roughly a quarter of the U.S. workforce, and affect businesses including Lockheed Martin Corp., Microsoft Corp., Alphabet Inc.‘s Google, and General Motors Co.

Appeals are ongoing in the Eleventh and Sixth circuits, respectively, over a nationwide injunction against the measure from a Georgia federal court and a narrower one from a Kentucky federal judge for a coalition that includes Ohio and Tennessee. A Missouri federal court also blocked the executive order, but that ruling has yet to be appealed.

From the Omicron front, David Leonhardt writing in today’s New York Times cautiously senses that the Omicron surge is cresting in our country following Europe’s and South Africa’s leads. “To be clear, the current emergency is not on the verge of ending. Cases appear to be peaking only in places where Omicron arrived early, mostly in the Northeast. In much of the country, cases are still soaring.”

From the Covid vaccine front, the AP reports that

Distrust, misinformation and delays because of the holidays and bad weather have combined to produce what authorities say are alarmingly low COVID-19 vaccination rates in U.S. children ages 5 to 11.

As of Tuesday, just over 17% were fully vaccinated, more than two months after shots became available to the age group. While Vermont is at 48%, California is just shy of 19% and Mississippi is at only 5%.

Vaccinations among the elementary school set surged after the shots were introduced in the fall, but the numbers have crept up slowly since then, and omicron’s explosive spread appears to have had little effect.

The low rates are “very disturbing,” said Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director for the Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “It’s just amazing.”

Parents who hesitate “are taking an enormous risk and continuing to fuel the pandemic,” Murphy said.

From the telehealth front, STAT News informs us that

A handful of virtual care companies are inking new types of contracts that reward them for keeping patients’ cost low and penalize them for overspending — a model known as risk-sharing. It’s a departure from the traditional “fee-for-service” billing process, and a move  companies hope could help them get paid for the services they offer in addition to virtual doctors’ appointments, like in-app messaging, medication reminders, and digital health coaching. They’re also betting that embracing risk could endear them to the health plans and employers they depend on for contracts.

Execs from companies like Heartbeat Health and Teladoc say they’re in the very early stages of cementing these contracts. While there’s no clear roadmap for how to structure them, whether they take hold could clarify how virtual care will fit into the brick-and-mortar healthcare system and incentivize those companies to work with traditional providers on prevention, said Jennifer Goldsack, CEO of the Digital Medicine Society. “There is an opportunity to reimagine what health care looks like when it is around the patient,” she told Mohana. Read the full story

From the healthcare cost front, STAT News tells us that

— Medical cost growth trailed that of other industries in 2021, though rising pressure from the omicron variant could fuel future increases in healthcare costs.

— Prices for goods and services skyrocketed at the fastest pace in four decades, rising 7% between December 2020 and December 2021, according to new data released Wednesday from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

— By comparison, prices for healthcare services rose roughly 2.5% last year, while the cost of medical care goods rose just 0.4%. However, that slow rate of growth could accelerate as COVID-19 cases persist in 2022 and beyond.

From the miscellany department —

  • The Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research’s Acting Director Dr. David Meyers looks back at 2021.
  • Biopharma Dive considers five questions facing gene therapy in 2022.
  • Fierce Healthcare notes that

As the healthcare system faces significant labor challenges, a new report suggests pharmacists are well positioned to fill some of the critical gaps.

The analysis, conducted by Express Scripts and the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, found that a majority of pharmacists see their roles transitioning to more direct patient care responsibilities over the next decade.

  • AARP’s Public Policy Institute examines the importance of medication literacy in the medication decision-making of older adults.

While health literacy is widely understood as a quality measure of health care decision making, another related measure calls for increased attention, particularly regarding older adults: medication literacy. Medication literacy is the degree to which individuals can obtain, comprehend, communicate, calculate, and process patient-specific information about their medications to make informed medication and health decisions in order to safely and effectively use their medications, regardless of the mode by which the content by which the content is delivered (i.e., written, oral, or visual).

  • Money offers a comprehensive update on the President’s mandate that health plans cover over the counter COVID tests effective on Saturday January 15.

Midweek update

From the Omicron front, Roll Call reports that

The White House COVID-19 Response Team stopped short of announcing major changes to anticipated guidance surrounding masks and instead focused on changes to testing strategy on Wednesday.

Experts have been calling for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to update its mask guidance to recommend high-filtration masks such as N95s and KN95s in light of the surge of the omicron variant. * * *

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky also echoed that an update to the CDC’s mask guidance was coming to “best reflect the options that are available to people, as you note, and the different levels of protection different masks provide.”

But she also doubled down on refusing to endorse a certain type of mask, instead repeating that the “best” masks are those that individuals will wear continuously in indoor settings.

“We are updating information on our mask website to provide information to the public,” she said. “We will provide information on improved filtration that occurs with other masks, such as N95s, and information that the public needs about how to make a choice of which mask is the right one for them. But most importantly, we want to highlight the best mask for you is the one that you can wear comfortably.”

For context, Bloomberg tells us that

The omicron variant represents about 98% of cases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday. That number is based on data for the week ending Jan. 8 and is a significant increase from just two weeks prior, when omicron accounted for 71.3% of cases. 

Omicron’s heightened transmissibility coupled with the immunity some have built to combat the delta through vaccination and exposure, have made conditions favor the “more mild” variant, said David Wohl, a professor at the Institute of Global Health and Infectious Diseases at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. But experts warn that for those who remain unvaccinated or who suffer from other health concerns, infection from any Covid-19 variant is a major concern. 

For even additional context, Bloomberg informs us that

Switzerland joined Spain and the U.K. in suggesting that the coronavirus pandemic may be shifting to an endemic phase. 

From the COVID vaccine front, Bloomberg reports that

Almost all teenagers who needed intensive care for Covid-19 were unvaccinated, according to a study published by the New England Journal of Medicine, bolstering the case for using the Pfizer-BioNTech shot in youths.

The vaccine prevented 98% of ICU visits and 94% of Covid-related hospitalizations in the real-world study of more than 1,000 adolescents ages 12 to 18 in 23 states. The research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a network of 31 hospitals is one is one of the most detailed yet showing that vaccines can prevent severe Covid complications in teenagers.

Following up on yesterday’s proposed national Medicare coverage determination on Aduhelm, Healthcare Finance News provides stakeholder perspectives on that decision. STAT News points out that because the CMS decision, if finalized would apply to all drugs under development to treat Alzheimers Disease that fall into the same drug class as Aduhelm — monoclonal antibody, the proposed decision is bad news for several of Biogen’s competitors too.

Both Eli Lilly and Roche have such treatments in the works, and Biogen has still two more, developed in partnership with Eisai, as well. All of those drug makers now have a big incentive to pressure Medicare to loosen the restrictions in the final version of its policy, which is due out this April.

“While so much of the focus has been on what this means for [the Biogen drug], this recommendation impacts an entire class of drug and is likely to result in a more aligned effort by stakeholders as they try to influence the final version,” said a consultant for different drug makers, including Biogen.

“All of the other companies have to start over,” said George Vradenburg, the founder of the advocacy group UsAgainstAlzheimer’s. “This now applies to three drugs that, in fact, might be better.”

In other healthcare news —

  • Fierce Healthcare reports on the third day of the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference.
  • Health Affairs discusses how to create a stronger Medicare.
  • The director of NIH’s Heal Inititiative which focuses on substance use disorders / overdose deaths offers her ideas on the new year.
  • Forbes reports that “Walgreens Boots Alliance will have more than 160 of its doctor-staffed Village Medical clinics open next to drugstores by the end of this year.”

In Postal Service news, Govexec reports that

The U.S. Postal Service on Wednesday elected a new Republican chairman of its governing board, elevating one of President Trump’s appointees over President Biden’s picks.  

Roman Martinez, who joined the USPS board of governors in 2019, will serve as the panel’s 25th chairman. Anton Hajjar, a former American Postal Workers Union official nominated to his post by Biden, will serve as vice chairman. The board members voted unanimously for the leadership positions at a meeting on Wednesday. * * *

The new chairman has been an ally of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, defending his controversial decisions, endorsing his 10-year plan to improve postal finances through, among other things, service cuts and price hikes, and calling him the right leader for the Postal Service. Hajjar, meanwhile, has voiced a lukewarm response to DeJoy’s tenure. The new vice chairman has said, however, that there was “a lot to like” in DeJoy’s plan, despite having reservations over some provisions.  * * *

DeJoy said on Wednesday he has “benefited from Martinez’s broad experience and wise counsel throughout my tenure as postmaster general and especially during the development of the Delivering for America plan.”

Keeping DeJoy in charge and one of his allies in charge of the board raises the prospect for sweeping postal reform legislation to make its way through Congress, with a House bill so far earning only tepid Republican support. 

It’s worth noting too that at 10 am ET tomorrow the U.S. Supreme Court will release decisions in pending cases which could include a stay of the OSHA ETS as OSHA began the enforcement clock on that measure last Monday.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced its proposed national coverage decision for Biogen’s Alzheimers Disease FDA-approved treatment, Aduhelm, today.

The proposed National Coverage Determination would cover Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved monoclonal antibodies that target amyloid for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease through coverage with evidence development (CED) – which means that FDA-approved drugs in this class would be covered for people with Medicare only if they are enrolled in qualifying clinical trials. The proposed National Coverage Determination is open to public comment for 30 days.

STAT News sums it up as follows:

Normally, Medicare covers drugs if the FDA approves them. Aduhelm has been different because the agency approved the treatment without a guarantee that patients actually will see slower cognitive decline. The process that led to the drug’s approval is the subject of multiple investigations, following STAT’s reporting that Biogen had an extensive back-channel relationship with the FDA. * * *

Medicare officials don’t require participation in clinical studies for beneficiaries very often — there are only about two dozen other health care products with a similar designation, called a Coverage with Evidence Development (CED), listed on Medicare’s website. Most are for medical devices or diagnostic imaging, and are less restrictive than the policy Medicare announced Tuesday. * * *

Sean Tunis, a principal at Rubix Health who helped develop the CED process during his tenure at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the proposal is almost as restrictive as if Medicare had decided not to cover the drug at all. Medicare, he estimated, would pay for drug costs for perhaps a few thousand patients that enroll in randomized trials over the next three to five years.

The CMS national coverage decision if finalized would help the FEHB Program dodge a bullet because it has many annuitant enrollees without Medicare Part B and for whom the FEHB plan would be the primary Aduhelm payer.

Following up on yesterday’s post about Affordable Care Act FAQ 51 implementing the President’s mandate on health plans to cover over the counter COVID tests, the FEHBlog noticed the fourth FAQ in this section of FAQ 51 which reads as follows:

Q4: When providing coverage of OTC COVID-19 tests, are plans and issuers permitted to address suspected fraud and abuse?

Yes. As stated in FAQs Part 44, Q2, although the FFCRA prohibits medical management of coverage of COVID-19 diagnostic testing, plans and issuers may act to prevent, detect, and address fraud and abuse. Examples of permissible activities include the following:

  • A plan or issuer may take reasonable steps to ensure that an OTC COVID-19 test for which a covered individual seeks coverage under the plan or coverage was purchased for the individual’s own personal use (or use by another participant, beneficiary, or enrollee who is covered under the plan or coverage as a member of the individual’s family), provided that such steps do not create significant barriers for participants, beneficiaries, and enrollees to obtain these tests. For example, a plan or issuer could require an attestation, such as a signature on a brief attestation document, that the OTC COVID-19 test was purchased by the participant, beneficiary, or enrollee for personal use, not for employment purposes, has not been (and will not be) reimbursed by another source, and is not for resale. In contrast, the Departments are of the view that fraud and abuse programs that require an individual to submit multiple documents or involve numerous steps that unduly delay a participant’s, beneficiary’s, or enrollee’s access to, or reimbursement for, OTC COVID-19 tests are not reasonable.
  • A plan or issuer may require reasonable documentation of proof of purchase with a claim for reimbursement for the cost of an OTC COVID-19 test. Examples of such documentation could include the UPC code for the OTC COVID-19 test to verify that the item is one for which coverage is required under section 6001 of FFCRA, and/or a receipt from the seller of the test, documenting the date of purchase and the price of the OTC COVID-19 test.

It occurred to the FEHBlog that FSAFeds the flexible spending account program for federal employees must be reimbursing participants for OTC Covid test kits. In fact the FSAFeds does offer reimbursement for OTC test kits on the condition that the participant furnishes a detailed receipt. For OTC products, FSAFeds generally requires a receipt including Vendor name, Date of purchase, Product name, and Cost. This should be a reasonable documentation standard for FEHB plans to adopt.

Also from the testing front, the Wall Street Journal looks into the reliability of rapid antigen COVID tests sold OTC.

Rapid antigen tests are a useful tool if we are smart about how we use them.

Because the data suggest that rapid tests may be yielding more false negatives at the beginning of an Omicron infection, you’ll have a better chance of getting an accurate result if you wait a day or two after developing symptoms to test, says Katelyn Jetelina, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. If your test is negative, take a second test a day or two later, or get a PCR test if you can. (Easier said than done these days.)

Understand the limitations of rapid tests if you’re considering using them to screen people before gatherings. Rapid tests before a wedding or other large indoor gathering could miss early infections that could be contagious, Dr. [Blythe] Adamson says.

If you have a positive rapid test, you almost definitely have Covid-19, Dr. [Gigi] Gronvall says. False positives are rare, especially when case rates are as high as they are now. You likely don’t need to confirm a positive rapid-test result with a follow-up PCR test, unless an employer or other institution requires it.

In other Omicron news —

  • The Journal also tells us that “U.S. officials on Tuesday ordered 600,000 doses of Covid-19 treatment sotrovimab, the only monoclonal antibody therapy thought to work against the Omicron variant, as a record number of cases puts hospitals under increasing pressure in parts of the U.S. and Europe.  Sotrovimab, made by GlaxoSmithKline PLC and Vir Biotechnology Inc., is now the only Covid-19 monoclonal antibody available for patients in the U.S.”

ACA FAQ 51 also includes reminders to health plans about the wide scope of the ACA’s contraceptive mandate.

From the federal employee COVID vaccination front Federal News Network reports that

The first update by the Safer Federal Workforce task force in more than a month is addressing the challenge of testing employees and contractors who work on-site or with the public on a regular basis for COVID-19, the types of tests that are permitted and who is responsible for paying for said tests.

The crux of the updated and new frequently ask questions is agencies have until Feb. 15 to set up a testing program “for employees who are not fully vaccinated, including due to a pending or approved request for exception or extension from the COVID-19 vaccination requirement for federal employees.”

The task force said the testing program is only for employees who work on-site or interact with the public like safety inspectors, and not for those who work remotely.

Fedweek adds that “A period of waiting is continuing on two major federal workplace issues on which action was expected around now—enforcement of the Coronavirus vaccine mandate and the “reentry” from telework to regular worksites by more employees and for more often.”

From the preventive services department, the Department of Health and Human Services announced today that

Today, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) announced that the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) has updated comprehensive preventive care and screening guidelines for women and for infants, children, and adolescents. Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), certain group health plans and insurance issuers must provide coverage with no out-of-pocket cost for preventive health services within these HRSA-supported comprehensive guidelines. Among a number of updates, for the first time the guidelines will require such group health plans and insurance plans to provide coverage without a co-pay or deductible for double electric breast pumps.

Fierce Healthcare reports news from the second day of the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference.

From the tidbits department —

  • Last week, the Office of National Coordinator for Health Information Technology announced “the release of the Project US@ (“Project USA”) Technical Specification Final Version 1.0 and thereby completed our one year goal to coordinate the creation of a health care specification that could be used across the industry for representing patient addresses (mailing, physical, billing, etc.). This new “tech spec” will advance the health care industry’s proficiency in recording and managing accurate and consistently formatted patient addresses and support more efficient patient matching and record linkage. As a reminder, among the many data elements that are used in patient matching, research has shown patient address to be one of the most sensitive to standardization and therefore impactful on patient matching, especially at scale. However, patient addresses change frequently, are often entered incorrectly or imprecisely.”