Friday Stats and More

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.

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.

Cybersecurity Saturday

Cybersecurity Dive provides five takeaways from the RSA conference held in San Francisco from June 6 through 9.

From the cyber breach front, MeriTalk provides more details on the settlement of the lawsuit against OPM over the massive 2015 data breach.

The lead counsel in the class action said that individual victims are in line for minimum payments of $700 each under the terms of the settlement, which still needs to be finalized. * * *

The preliminary settlement agreement will be subject to further consideration at a fairness hearing set for Oct. 14.

From the cyber vulnerabilities front,

  • Here is a link to CISA’s known exploited vulnerabilities catalog. Bookmark that one.
  • Becker’s Hospital Review explains why “Cybersecurity experts say that the two biggest threats to healthcare cybersecurity are insider threats and ransomware.”
  • Security Week reports “Microsoft has fixed roughly 50 vulnerabilities with its June 2022 Patch Tuesday updates, including the actively exploited flaw known as Follina and CVE-2022-30190.”

From the ransomware front

  • Cybersecurity Dive discusses how ransomware groups are shifting tactics and objectives.
  • Here is a link to Bleeping Computer’s The Week in Ransomware.

From the cyber defense front

  • HHS’s Healthcare Cybersecurity Coordination Center (HC3) offers a presentation about strengthening cyber posture in the health sector.
  • TechRepublic reports that half of IT leaders want to implement more robust alternatives to passwords, and it describes options.
  • ISACA Journal offers an article on how businesses can reduce cybersecurity exposures to and from third parties.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the Omicron and siblings front, MedPage Today reports

A committee of independent vaccine experts recommended that the FDA grant an emergency use authorization (EUA) for the two-dose Moderna COVID-19 vaccine for kids ages 6 to 17 years.

The Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) voted 22-0, agreeing unanimously that the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks in two age groups: kids ages 6 to 11 years and teens ages 12 to 17. They recommended two 50-mcg doses for the younger kids and two 100-mcg doses for teens.

The Wall Street Journal adds

The FDA will consider the vote in making a final decision on whether to clear the vaccine for use in children 6 years and older. * * * An FDA authorization could come within days. It would open the use of Moderna’s vaccine to children for the first time in the U.S., and give anyone still intending to inoculate their children 6 years and older against Covid-19 a second option.

Medpage Today also informs us

Only a very small number of high-risk patients with COVID-19 experienced “rebound symptoms” after being treated with nirmatrelvir/ritonavir (Paxlovid), a retrospective study found.

Among nearly 500 patients, 93% of whom were fully vaccinated, two patients were hospitalized due to symptoms that were not directly related to “rebounding” within a month and required care in the intensive care unit (ICU), and four experienced rebound symptoms at a median of 9 days (interquartile range [IQR] 7-14.5), reported Nischal Ranganath, MD, PhD, of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and colleagues.

All rebound symptoms were resolved with symptom-directed treatment, and no deaths were reported in any patients after 30 days following their initial COVID-19 diagnosis, the group noted in Clinical Infectious Diseases.

“We found that rebound phenomenon was uncommon in this group of patients,” said co-author Aditya Shah, MBBS, also of the Mayo Clinic, in a statement. “The four individuals who experienced rebound represent only 0.8% of the group, and all of them recovered quickly without additional COVID-directed therapy.”

That’s certainly good news to read.

From the Rx coverage front, the Drug Channels blog tears apart a recent JAMA study concluding that the pricing of recently launched drugs has skyrocketed in recent years.

[T]he study’s headline conclusion is highly misleading. The authors obscure the real story with mathematical sleight-of-hand that misrepresents the underlying data and overlooks the true nature of today’s pharmaceutical innovations. 

Most notably, the authors discount the fact that the most expensive new drugs treat ultra-rare conditions affecting extraordinarily small patient populations. Their policy recommendations would therefore have a devastating impact on these patients and their hope for treatments and cures. 

As Nobel prize winner Ronald Coase observed: “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess to anything.”

And the Dr. Fein can back up his conclusion.

From general healthcare front, Kaiser Health News offers thought provoking articles about

The first article draws an important distinction between medical care and SDOH. Unfortunately, the second article reminds us that no good deed goes unpunished. If the government simply had relied on personal responsibility (outside of Medicaid), we would not find ourselves in this pickle.

Memorial Day Weekend Update

Photo of a Fallen or Missing Comrades Table
by Selena Morar on Unsplash

Today as we remember those who have fallen for our Country, let’s also note that today is the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial located on the Mall in Washington DC.

The Senate and the House of Representatives are holding a State / District work period this week. Insurance News Net adds that the House Oversight and Reform Committee has “requested information regarding insurers’ and PBMs’ compliance with the ACA and CMS guidance [on contraceptive coverage] by June 8, 2022.

From the Omicron and siblings front —

The Wall Street Journal reports

Pfizer’s antiviral drug, called Paxlovid, totaled more than 412,000 prescriptions through May 6, compared with about 110,000 prescriptions of molnupiravir, an antiviral from Merck & Co. and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP [called Lagevrio], according to drug-data firm Iqvia Holdings Inc. * * *

“Now that Paxlovid has become much easier to obtain, by and large relative to where it was before, Paxlovid is mine and the majority of my colleagues’ first choice,” said Ali Khan, chief medical officer of value-based strategy at Oak Street Health Inc., which has more than 140 primary-care clinics in 20 states across the U.S. * * *

“Doctors have become more comfortable with Paxlovid and more regularly prescribing the more effective drug,” said Zenobia Brown, medical director of health solutions at Northwell Health, a major New York healthcare provider.

Paxlovid, like Lagevrio, has been shown through lab studies to remain effective against Omicron and its subvariants. That has allowed doctors to prescribe it and reserve antibody treatments for other people who can’t take Paxlovid because of the potentially harmful drug interactions.

Federal News Network tells us

The White House earlier this month announced that households can now order a third round of free COVID-19 rapid tests on COVIDTest.gov.

Households can now receive eight new tests, double what households could order in the previous two rounds. USPS has delivered at least 380 million free tests through the program so far.

Bravo, USPS.

From the unusual viruses front —

  • STAT News updates us on monkeypox. “The ongoing monkeypox outbreak currently poses a moderate risk to global public health, the World Health Organization said Sunday in a statement that nevertheless raised the specter of the virus becoming entrenched as a pathogen that spreads from person to person. * * * To date most of the [257 confirmed] cases have been diagnosed in Europe and North America. The United States had detected 12 cases as of Friday. “Currently, the overall public health risk at [a] global level is assessed as moderate considering this is the first time that monkeyp ox cases and clusters are reported concurrently in widely disparate WHO geographical areas,” the global health agency said.”
  • The World Health Organization updates us on “Six hundred and fifty probable cases of acute hepatitis of unknown aetiology in children [that] have been reported to WHO from 33 countries in five WHO Regions between 5 April and 26 May 2022. The majority of reported cases (n=374; 58%) are from the WHO European Region (22 countries), with 222 (34%) cases from the United Kingdom of Great Britiain and Northern Ireland alone. Probable cases and cases pending classification have also been reported from the Region of the Americas (n=240, including 216 cases in the United States of America) * * *.

From the miscellany department

  • The American Medical Association offers an article about what doctors wish their patients knew about living with migraines.
  • MedPage Today informs us “Using artificial intelligence (AI) during screening colonoscopy could be a cost-savings strategy that also could boost the prevention of colorectal cancer (CRC) incidence and mortality, a researcher reported.”
  • MedPage also tells us “Physical therapy-based rehabilitation frequently leads to better outcomes using fewer resources for patients with MSK pain when compared to operative procedures. But physical therapy must be a part of the treatment conversation early on, while surgery should be positioned as a last resort with the patient made well aware of surgery’s risks and complications. This is currently not the case in many patient-provider interactions.”

Monday Roundup

From the Omicron and siblings front —

  • Bloomberg observes “Covid hospitalitalization count makes vaccines seem less effective, Researchers say. The researchers point out that a patient who tests positive for Covid is a Covid hospitalization even if the patient is hospitalized for an unrelated reason.
  • In its recent review of Covid pills, the Institute for Clinical Review (ICER) gave a mildly favorable report on using an inexpensive anti-depressant fluvoxamine to treat Covid. This part of the ICER report was physician investigator-initiated. Those investigators sought FDA approval. Today, however, STAT News reports that “In an unusual two-page summary — the FDA does not generally disclose the reasoning behind rejections — regulators said that the doctors failed to provide adequate evidence of the effectiveness of the drug, called fluvoxamine.” The investigators indicated that more fluvoxamine trials are ongoing as well as trials of other repurposed drugs.
  • The National Institutes of Health announced today that a research team is successfully using deidentified electronic health record data to better identify characteristics of persons with long Covid. “One reason long COVID is difficult to identify is that many of its symptoms are similar to those of other diseases and conditions. A better characterization of long COVID could lead to improved diagnoses and new therapeutic approaches.”
  • Roll Call delves into the use of wastewater surveillance to track Covid trends. Urban areas are good — rural areas are not so good.
  • Medpage Today offers an epidemiologist’s perspective on the occasionally observed Omicron rebound from Paxlovid, the Pfizer Covid pill. Reuters adds, “Pfizer has said that from more than 300,000 patients it is monitoring who received the 5-day treatment, around 1-in-3,000 – about 0.03% – reported a relapse after taking the pills.”

In other FDA news, MarketWatch informs us

The Food and Drug Administration on Monday authorized a test developed by Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings LH, -0.92% that allows people in the U.S. to self-test for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a type of common cold, as well as the flu and COVID-19. The test does not require a prescription. People swab at home and send the test by mail to a Labcorp lab. Results are then made available in an online portal. Teens and children are also authorized to test with the support of adults. The test kit costs $169 and may be covered by insurance, according to a spokesperson. It is expected to be available within the next three weeks. 

That’s helpful.

From the SDOH front —

  • Health Day informs us that “a new study shows that telemedicine has closed the gap in access to primary care between Black and non-Black Americans.”
  • Beckers Payers Issues tells us “Despite little change before the pandemic, the number of adults with medical debt, issues paying medical bills and medical debt in collections have declined since the pandemic began. New policies will be needed to sustain the decrease, according to a May 11 report from the Urban Institute.” 

From the preventive care front, Healio reports

A decrease in cervical cancer rates in the United States, most notably among younger women, may be associated with HPV vaccination approval, according to a retrospective, cross-sectional study published in JAMA Network Open

Researchers added that an increase in oropharyngeal and anal/rectal cancers, particularly among men, highlights a need for vaccination uptake among both men and women.

From the interoperability front, the Sequoia Project “selected by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) as the Recognized Coordinating Entity (RCE) to support the implementation of the Trusted Exchange Framework and Common Agreement (TEFCA), today released additional details regarding the process and requirements for becoming a Qualified Health Information Network (QHIN). The Sequoia Project is requesting feedback on these items before the final documents are released.” The Sequoia Project’s comment deadline is June 15, 2022, and “drafts are available on the RCE website.”

From the healthcare business front, Healthcare Dive reports

Hospitals’ labor costs rose by more than a third from pre-pandemic levels by March 2022, according to a report out Wednesday from Kaufman Hall.

Heightened temporary and traveling labor costs were a main contributor, with contract labor accounting for 11% of hospitals’ total labor expenses in 2022 compared to 2% in 2019, the report found.

Contract nurses’ median hourly wages rose 106% over the period, from $64 an hour to $132 an hour, while employed nurse wages increased 11%, from $35 an hour to $39 an hour, the report found.

In other government news —

  • The Department of Health and Human Service is marking the 10th anniversary of the National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s Disease. “HHS is commemorating the Anniversary through a series of publications and presentations highlighting the Department’s accomplishments in addressing Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (ADRD), including those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Administration for Community Living (ACL), National Institutes of Health (NIH), Indian Health Service (IHS), and other HHS agencies. HHS will also sponsor a state policy roundtable to hear from state leaders about their work to address ADRD.  All events and materials will be shared on the 10th Anniversary HHS page.”
  • The Society for Human Resource Management relates that “An FAQ explains that the EEOC will permit employers to submit their EEO-1 Reports after the May 17 deadline, during what the agency is calling the “failure to file” phase. The EEOC stated, “All filers who have not submitted and certified their mandatory 2021 EEO-1 Component Report(s) by the Tuesday, May 17, 2022, published deadline will receive a notice of failure to file instructing them to submit and certify their data as soon as possible, and no later than Tuesday, June 21, 2022.”  All FEHB carriers must file this report.

Midweek update

Thanks to Alexandr Hovhannisyan for sharing their work on Unsplash.

From Capitol Hill, Roll Call reports

Third time’s a charm. Or so Democrats hope as they attempt to negotiate a third COVID-19 funding deal after their previous two bipartisan agreements — one for $15.6 billion in domestic and international aid, and a second for $10 billion in only domestic funds — stalled out. 

The House is taking the lead on the latest iteration. But it’s not yet clear whether they’ll hold out for a bipartisan, bicameral agreement or attempt to move a Democrat-led version that would provide more funding, closer to President Joe Biden’s original $22.5 billion request. 

“All the options are on the table,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said Wednesday. “But it’s critical to get it done. And the fastest way to get it done is have an agreement on the four corners.” 

From the No Surprises Act front, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has granted the federal government/appellant’s “unopposed motion to stay further proceedings in this court pending ongoing rulemaking proceedings involving provisions of the No Surprises Act, with a status report due every sixty (60) days.” It’s worth noting that the final independent dispute resolution rule has not yet appeared on the OMB’s Office of Regulatory Affairs reginfo.gov site.

From the Omicron and siblings front, Fierce Healthcare tells us

Reported cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations for the disease are on the rise across most of the U.S., with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently shifting many counties in the Northeast to medium or high levels of community risk. * * *

COVID-19 hospitalizations—which have become the CDC and other public health experts’ preferred metric for decisionmaking—have similarly begun to tick upward over the past month.

After reaching a seven-day average low of 1,426 daily admissions in early April, national admissions have continually increased and exceeded the seven-day average of 2,400 daily hospitalizations late last week. These new admissions represented an 11% increase over the previous week’s seven-day average, according to the agency, but were still nearly 90% below the January peak of more than 21,500 average daily admissions.

From the opioid epidemic front, the Wall Street Journal reports

Drug-overdose deaths in 2021 topped 100,000 for the first time in a calendar year, federal data showed, a record high fueled by the spread of illicit forms of fentanyl throughout the country.

More than 107,000 people in the U.S. died from drug overdoses last year, preliminary Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data released Wednesday showed, roughly a 15% increase from 2020. The proliferation of the potent synthetic opioid fentanyl has been compounded by the destabilizing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on users and people in recovery, according to health authorities and treatment providers. 

The U.S. has recorded more than one million overdose deaths since 2000, and more than half of those came in the past seven years. 

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality-statistics branch at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, regarding fentanyl’s impact on the numbers.

From the telehealth front, Healthcare Dive informs us

Telehealth visits for COVID-19 diagnoses fell in February, mirroring the sharp decline in new cases of the virus reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after January’s omicron-driven peak, according to Fair Health’s monthly telehealth claims tracker.

Overall telehealth use also slowed, falling 9.3% in February across the country. Virtual visits were 4.9% of all medical claim lines, down from 5.4% in the prior month.

With declining COVID-19 cases generating fewer telehealth sessions, mental health conditions accounted for a greater share of all diagnoses conducted via virtual platforms, according to the Fair Health data released Monday. Mental health diagnoses rose to about 64% of telehealth claims, up from 60% in January.

The FEHBlog is happy that people are using telehealth for mental healthcare,e which strikes the FEHBlog as a good, productive fit.

From the healthcare business front, Healthcare Dive reports

Advocate Aurora Health and Atrium Health said Wednesday they plan to merge, creating one of the nation’s largest nonprofit health systems with $27 billion in combined revenues and 67 hospitals across six states.

Board members from both systems unanimously approved the agreement, which is subject to regulatory review. The combined entity will be led by both CEOs for the first 18 months, at which time Advocate’s CEO Jim Skogsbergh will retire, leaving Atrium’s CEO Eugene Woods as sole leader.

Advocate and Atrium will have an equal number of board seats. Atrium’s board chair Edward Brown will first serve as chair until the end of 2023, followed by a two-year term for Advocate’s chair Michele Richardson.

The health systems’ joint press release adds

The new organization will have a combined footprint across Illinois, Wisconsin, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. It will serve 5.5 million patients, operate more than 1,000 sites of care and 67 hospitals, employ more than 7,600 physicians and nearly 150,000 teammates, and have combined annual revenues of more than $27 billion.

That’s an interesting combination.

Health Payer Intelligence calls attention to

Six technology vendors [who] were highlighted for their abilities to address one of the six main points of friction between payers and providers that leading healthcare organizations strive to address, according to a KLAS report that is part of the KLAS Payer/Provider Initiative.

KLAS launched the Payer/Provider Initiative to identify points of friction between payers and providers and to highlight strong collaboration case studies.

The six payer-provider challenges that leading healthcare organizations tackled were prior authorization, value-based care, payer-provider interoperability, denials, credentialing, and patient billing.

From the OPM front, Federal News Network tells us

Agencies have to choose two out of four new focus areas to help improve their workforce over the next four years.

Deciding which options are most impactful gives agencies flexibility in how they approach new workforce objectives from the Office of Personnel Management.

Although OPM’s federal workforce priorities report, released on May 10, asks agencies to focus on only two of the four focus areas, implementing all four can help agencies resolve bigger workforce issues.

Among four primary priorities and four enabling priorities, OPM hopes agencies can implement proactive approaches to common issues, such as recruitment challenges.

From OPM’s federal workforce priorities report via Federal News Network

Cybersecurity Saturday

From the ransomware front, Cybersecurity Dive reports

The prevalence and scope of ransomware exploded in 2021, as two-thirds of mid-sized organizations worldwide were targets and average ransom payouts saw a five-fold increase, according to the State of Ransomware 2022 report from Sophos released Wednesday. 

Ransomware hit 66% of mid-sized organizations last year, up from 37% in 2020. Average ransom payments reached $812,000 during 2021, compared with $170,000 the prior year.  

Among organizations with encrypted data, 46% paid a ransom to adversaries. In addition, 26% of organizations who were able to restore data from backups, still decided to pay a ransom.

To make matters even worse, Security Week informs us

As part of a recent cyberattack, threat actors deployed ransomware less than four hours after compromising the victim’s environment, according to researchers with The DFIR Report.

The attack started with an IcedID payload being deployed on a user endpoint and led to the execution of Quantum ransomware only three hours and 44 minutes later. DFIR Report researchers described it as one of the fastest ransomware attacks they have observed to date.

In a Ryuk ransomware attack in October 2020, the threat actors started encrypting the victim’s data only 29 hours after the initial breach, but the median global dwell time for ransomware is roughly 5 days, according to Mandiant’s M-Trends 2022 report.

Once the ransomware has been executed, however, the victim’s data may be encrypted within minutes. A recent report from Splunk shows that ransomware needs an average of 43 minutes to encrypt data, while the fastest encryption time is less than 6 minutes.

ZDNet describes how a single failure to patch a vulnerability opened the door to ransomware hackers. The article emphasizes the importantance of basic cybersecurity hygiene advice:

“The biggest lesson here is patch the network infrastructure – whatever is facing the internet, it’s always important for it to be fully patched,” said Daniel dos Santos, head of security research at Forescout

It’s also recommended that organisations monitor their networks for external access from known IP addresses or unusual patterns of behavior. In addition, businesses should backup their servers regularly. Then, if something happens, the network can be restored to a recent point without needing to pay a ransom. 

Perhaps then it is not surprising that a Security Week expert advises “it is important to increase an organization’s ransomware preparedness and assure that the tools needed for remediation, eradication, and recovery are not just in place but also functioning as expected. This is especially true for the recovery of endpoints, which represent an essential tool for remote workers to conduct their assigned business tasks in today’s work-from-anywhere environment.” 

As always and it may be every other week now, here is a link to Bleeping Computer’s The Week in Ransomware.

From the vulnerabilities front, HHS Cybersecurity Program released

  • a report on 2021’s top exploited vulnerabilities
  • a warning about BlackCat/ALPHV Ransomware Indicators of Compromise, and
  • an international joint cybersecurity advisory on Russian State-Sponsored and Criminal Cyber Threats to Critical Infrastructure.

CISA added “seven new vulnerabilities to its Known Exploited Vulnerabilities Catalog, based on evidence of active exploitation.”

Health IT Security notes

Mandiant Threat Intelligence observed a record number of zero-day exploits in 2021, its latest report revealed. The firm identified 80 exploited zero-days in 2021, compared to just 30 in 2020. Threat actors favored zero-days in Google, Microsoft, and Apple products most frequently, largely exhibiting the popularity of those vendors.

The term “zero-day” indicates that there is no time between when a vulnerability is discovered by developers and when it is exploited by bad actors.

From the cyberdefenses front —

  • Healthcare Dive discusses what cyber insurance companies expect from their policyholders.
  • Federal News Network provides insights into achieving zero trust requirements.
  • ISACA explains what you need to know about malicious cybertrends.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From the Omicron and siblings front —

The American Hospital Association informs us

The share of the U.S. population with antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2 virus in their bloodstream increased from 34% in December 2021 to 58% in February 2022, including 75% of children, according to a study released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study tested blood samples during the COVID-19 omicron period for antibodies produced in response to infection but not in response to COVID-19 vaccines. Children had the highest rates of infection-induced antibodies and adults 65 and older the lowest, with the greatest increases over the period in age groups with the lowest COVID-19 vaccination coverage. 

“Vaccination remains the safest strategy for preventing complications from SARS-CoV-2 infection, including hospitalization among children and adults,” the authors said. 

and

Starting this week, the Administration will allow all pharmacies in the federal pharmacy program to order free oral antiviral treatments directly from the federal government, the White House announced today. The Administration hopes to double the number of participating pharmacies to 40,000 in the coming weeks, and to launch new Test-to-Treat locations that offer the Pfizer and Merck pills, which the Food and Drug Administration authorized in December to treat COVID-19 in patients at risk of progressing to severe disease. Pharmacies also can continue to receive the pills through their state or territorial health department. The Administration said it is working to improve the Test-to-Treat patient experience, including through telehealth options; and to provide more guidance on COVID-19 treatments to prescribers and clinicians.

The New York Times adds more details to this AHA blurb. In short, “experts say that efforts to reach at-risk Americans remain complex and inefficient.”

Medscape adds “Contrary to popular belief, no association appeared between the number of intensive care unit beds and COVID-19 deaths, based on a review of data from all 50 states between March 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021.”

The Wall Street Journal further reports

Pfizer Inc. and partner BioNTech SE asked U.S. health regulators to authorize a booster dose of its Covid-19 vaccine for children 5 to 11 years old.

The request Tuesday to the Food and Drug Administration comes after the companies said earlier this month that a third shot safely generated a strong immune response in the youngsters, including significantly increased antibody levels against the Omicron variant. 

A thumbs-up from the FDA would expand eligibility of boosters to the roughly 28 million children in the U.S. Booster doses are now available for people as young as 12 years old in the U.S., and regulators recently greenlighted second boosters for people who are 50 years old and up or who have weakened immune systems

In FEHB news, OPM issued a paper describing the 2021 highlights of OPM’s FEHB Plan Performance Assessment system. In the FEHBlog’s view, OPM’s PPA system could be improved by (1) seeking plan input on all PPA changes, including, for example, the benchmark change to ALOB and (2) implementing changes for the first measurement year following the change, not the year in which the change is made. Both of these changes are consistent with federal administrative law, in the FEHBlog’s opinion. Also, OPM should use the carrot incentive more than the stick.

In healthcare business news,

Healthcare Dive tells us

Hospitals are experiencing a “massive surge” in expenses for items such as labor, drugs and supplies amid rising inflation, the American Hospital Association said in a report on Monday.

Labor is a particular stressor, making up more than half of hospitals’ total expenses. Overall, hospital labor expenses per patient increased almost 20% from 2019 to 2021, the AHA said. 

The powerful hospital lobby urged Congress to help address these headwinds by adding money to the provider relief fund and creating flexibility on advanced Medicare repayments, among other items.

Medpage Today informs us

Nearly three-fourths of U.S. physicians opted for employment with hospitals, health systems, or other corporate entities, such as private equity firms and health insurers in the pandemic era, according to a new report.

In 2021, 73.9% of physicians were hospital- or corporate-employed, up from 69.3% at the start of 2021, 64.5% at the start of 2020, and 62.2% at the start of 2019, according to the nonprofit Physicians Advocacy Institute (PAI) and consulting firm Avalere. That equates to 484,100 employed physicians, up from 423,800, 391,000, and 375,400 at the start of 2021, 2020, and 2019, respectively.

Perhaps these two trends are related? On the one hand, more physician employees create more hospital expenses. On the other, a hospital receives additional health plan payments for services provided by physician employees. In all likelihood, the revenue exceeds the expense in this case.

From tidbits department,

  • AHRQ reports on “Geographic Variation in Inpatient Stays for Five Leading Mental Disorders, 2016–2018.”

CAQH CORE, the author of national operating rules for the HIPAA-covered administrative transactions, recently released new operating rules to enhance information exchange and healthcare operations related to benefits coverage and supplemental documentation. * * *

The new CAQH CORE Attachments Operating Rule aims to improve the exchange of attachments, a long-standing industry issue. The guidelines will establish key infrastructure and data content requirements, helping providers send electronic health plans documentation to support a claim or prior authorization in a uniform format, the press release stated.

Reassociation or linking the attachment with the original prior authorization request or claim submission is one of the most significant pain points in the attachment workflow, CAQH CORE added.

The new guidelines also offer updates to enhance the exchange of critical eligibility and benefit information related to telemedicine, prior authorization, remaining coverage benefits, procedure-level information, and tiered benefits between health plans and providers.

The second newly released rule, the CAQH CORE Eligibility & Benefits Data Content Rule, intends to enhance provider knowledge regarding their patients’ coverage, leading to more timely care and accurate billing.

Finally, CAQH CORE revised its rules for infrastructure, which now calls for greater health plan system availability and less frequent periods of downtime.

  • Health Payer Intelligence notes “Applying an out-of-pocket spending cap to Medicare Part D could be a tool for promoting health equity, according to an insight from Avalere.”

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 are the FEHBlog’s latest weekly charts of new Covid cases and deaths.

Because David Leonhardt in the New York Times recommends keeping an eye on Covid hospital admissions here is the CDC’s latest chart

The weekly new cases and death chart start in the middle of 2021 when we hit all time lows in new cases. Although our new cases total for the past week was 3 times week 27 in 2021, the new hospitalizations level is lower. That’s good news.

The CDC’s weekly review of its Covid stats adds

Currently, there are 39 (1.21%) counties, districts, or territories with a high COVID-19 Community Level, 231 (7.17%) counties with a medium Community Level, and 2,954 (91.63%) counties with a low Community Level. This represents a slight (0.78%) increase in the number of high-level counties, a small (+1.67%) increase in the number of medium-level counties, and a corresponding (−2.45%) decrease in the number of low-level counties. Twenty-five (44.64%) of 56 jurisdictions had no high- or medium-level counties this week.

To check your COVID-19 community level, visit COVID Data Tracker.

Here’s the FEHBlog’s latest weekly chart of Covid vaccinations distributed and administer from the beginning of the COVID vaccination era to the 16th week of 2022.

New vaccinations remain above 2 million per week.

From the Medicare front, the Centers for Medicare Services announced today a proposed rule that would create five new special Medicare enrollment periods.

  • An SEP for Individuals Impacted by an Emergency or Disaster that would allow CMS to provide relief to those beneficiaries who missed an enrollment opportunity because they were impacted by a disaster or other emergency as declared by a Federal, state, or local government entity.
  • An SEP for Health Plan or Employer Error that would provide relief in instances where an individual can demonstrate that their employer or health plan materially misrepresented information related to enrolling in Medicare timely. 
  • An SEP for Formerly Incarcerated Individuals that would allow individuals to enroll following their release from correctional facilities. 
  • An SEP to Coordinate with Termination of Medicaid Coverage that would allow individuals to enroll after termination of Medicaid eligibility.
  • An SEP for Other Exceptional Conditions that would, on a case-by-case basis, grant an enrollment period to an individual when circumstances beyond the individual’s control prevented them from enrolling during the IEP, GEP or other SEPs. 

These “SEPs that would provide individuals who meet certain exceptional conditions and who missed a Medicare enrollment period an opportunity to enroll without having to wait for the GEP and without being subject to a [Part B] late enrollment penalty.”

From the healthcare business front —

Beckers Payer Issues tells us

UnitedHealth Group subsidiary Optum has quietly acquired at least two independent primary care groups in Oregon, according to The Lund Report.

Optum has purchased Eugene-based Oregon Medical Group and Portland-based GreenField Health. Combined, the two systems have about 120 doctors and clinicians at 11 facilities. 

GreenField Health was purchased last year and Oregon Medical Group in late 2020, according to the Lund Report.

Nationwide, UnitedHealth Group has purchased about 1,500 primary care and specialty facilities, totaling 60,000 physicians.

Fierce Healthcare informs us

Humana will divest its majority stake in Kindred at Home’s hospice business to investment firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice.

As part of the deal, which was announced Thursday, Humana will sell off a 60% stake in KAH Hospice for $2.8 billion in cash, which reflects an enterprise valuation of $3.4 billion and twelve times the division’s forecasted earnings before interest, income taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) for this year.

Humana said a year ago when it bought out the majority stake in Kindred at Home that it planned to divest the hospice arm. The insurer believes that it can deliver strong patient outcomes in hospice care without owning KAH Hospice outright, Chief Financial Officer Susan Diamond said in a statement.

From the medical research front, STAT News interviews Helmy Eltoukhy and AmirAli Talasaz, Guardant Health’s founders and co-CEOs.

Bay Area biotech Guardant Health is closer than ever to its ultimate goal — developing and deploying a simple, blood-based test that you could get during an annual doctor’s visit to spot cancer early enough that it might be treated more successfully. And 2022 is shaping up to be a big year for the company’s ambitions.

That’s good news for all of us.