Happy Thanksgiving 2022

Happy Thanksgiving 2022

Federal News Network is offering an Open Season interview with well known FEHB expert Walt Francis on YouTube.

From the Omicron and siblings front, STAT News reports

The updated Covid-19 boosters increase people’s protection against symptomatic infection from the coronavirus, according to some of the first estimates of how the shot is performing in the real world and in people, not just in lab experiments. What’s more, that protection was even stronger when people waited a longer period of time since their last dose of the original shot.

The findings, released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, do not, however, address the question of whether the bivalent shot offers greater protection than another shot of the original formulation would have.

The Wall Street Journal adds

The U.S. is heading into its third Covid-19 Thanksgiving in better shape than the last two, but holiday gatherings will provide a test of whether the nation can avoid another major winter surge, epidemiologists and virus experts say.

Thanksgiving once again comes at a precarious time, as new subvariants take over and the return of cold weather brings people back indoors, often in family gatherings where the virus can easily spread. The holiday last year coincided with the arrival of an early version of the Omicron variant that kicked off an explosive rise in cases and the second-deadliest Covid-19 wave. Only the prior winter, when vaccination efforts were just beginning, saw a higher peak in deaths.

This time around, some virus experts say the lack of a fresh surge triggered by newly ascendant Omicron subvariants is a hopeful sign that built-up immune protection from vaccines and prior infections is helping.

In the FEHBlog’s view, the key difference between last Thanksgiving when the original Omicron was gathering steam and this one is the availability of Pfizer’s Covid pill, Paxlovid.

In public health news

  • STAT News explains why we don’t have an at-home flu test, and the answer is not a lack of technology.
  • HealthDay discusses a large study concerning the impact of HDL cholesterol on developing heart disease, which makes significant conclusions. For example, “Blood levels of HDL, the famously “good” kind of cholesterol, may not make a big difference to heart health after all — particularly for Black people.”
  • The Director of HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research posted his observations on AHRQ’s “2022 National Healthcare Quality and Disparities Report: We Still Have Much Work to Do.”

From the Rx coverage front, the Food and Drug Administration announced approving

Hemgenix (etranacogene dezaparvovec), an adeno-associated virus vector-based gene therapy for the treatment of adults with Hemophilia B (congenital Factor IX deficiency) who currently use Factor IX prophylaxis therapy, or have current or historical life-threatening hemorrhage, or have repeated, serious spontaneous bleeding episodes.

“Gene therapy for hemophilia has been on the horizon for more than two decades. Despite advancements in the treatment of hemophilia, the prevention and treatment of bleeding episodes can adversely impact individuals’ quality of life,” said Peter Marks, M.D., Ph.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. “Today’s approval provides a new treatment option for patients with Hemophilia B and represents important progress in the development of innovative therapies for those experiencing a high burden of disease associated with this form of hemophilia.”

Most individuals who have Hemophilia B and experience symptoms are men. The prevalence of Hemophilia B in the population is about one in 40,000; Hemophilia B represents about 15% of patients with hemophilia. Many women carriers of the disease have no symptoms. However, an estimated 10-25% of women carriers have mild symptoms; in rare cases, women may have moderate or severe symptoms. 

Treatment typically involves replacing the missing or deficient clotting factor to improve the body’s ability to stop bleeding and promote healing. Patients with severe Hemophilia B typically require a routine treatment regimen of intravenous (IV) infusions of Factor IX replacement products to maintain sufficient levels of clotting factor to prevent bleeding episodes.

Hemgenix is a one-time gene therapy product given as a single dose by IV infusion. Hemgenix consists of a viral vector carrying a gene for clotting Factor IX. The gene is expressed in the liver to produce Factor IX protein, to increase blood levels of Factor IX and thereby limit bleeding episodes. 

Bloomberg adds that “CSL Behring’s hemophilia B gene therapy, a one-off infusion that frees patients from regular treatments, costs $3.5 million a dose, making it the most expensive medicine in the world.”

In preventive services news, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force proposed for public comment assigning a B grade to “screening for latent tuberculosis infection in populations at increased risk.” In 2016, the USPSTF recommended screening for LTBI in populations at increased risk (B grade recommendation). The current draft recommendation is consistent with the 2016 USPSTF recommendation. The public comment deadline is December 27, 2022.

The next FEHBlog post will be Cybersecurity Saturday, November 26. Happy Thanksgiving, all.

Friday Stats update

Heavens to Betsy! The Centers for Disease Control this week stopped posting daily updates of new Covid cases and death which were the basis for the FEHBlog’s Friday Covid charting. The FEHBlog’s work travel has not allowed him time to consider a new approach to his Covid charting.

Alternatively, there’s the CDC’s weekly interpretation of its Covid statistics. The interpretation notes

CDC is using multiple surveillance systems to monitor variants in the United States. Data from each system plays an important role in helping us understand the emergence of new variants, whether they’re entering the United States and spreading, and which variants are most prevalent within communities. On October 20, 2022, COVID Data Tracker added a new Variant Summary page, which summarizes three systems that are being used to monitor variants. For more information on these systems, see A Closer Look.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday Miscellany

From the FEHB front, the Federal Times discusses one of OPM’s 2023 FEHB initiatives, coverage of gender-affirming care.

OPM announced

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) migrated from the legacy application responsible for the financial management activities of over $1.1+ trillion-dollar trust fund assets to a modernized financial system platform that is managed and maintained by the Department of the Treasury, Bureau of the Fiscal Service’s Administrative Resource Center (ARC).

The partnership between OPM and ARC will result in millions of taxpayer dollars saved, and enable a modernized, secure financial management solution and re-engineered processes to support the administration of the earned benefits program which includes retirement, health, and life insurance. As a result, millions of federal employees, retirees, and their families should have increased confidence in the programs that ensure they can meet their retirement and healthcare and life insurance needs.

Here’s the related ARC press release. ARC is a federal government center of excellence. The FEHBlog is interested in reading more details on the benefits of this new system.

From the public policy front, here are links to AHIP’s press releases from this week on the ACA individual non-discrimination rule, Section 1557, and its favorable reaction to CMS’s idea to create a national provider directory.

Healthcare Dive tells us

A regulatory deadline kicked in Thursday requiring providers and other healthcare entities to be able to share a significantly larger scope of data with patients, despite major provider groups arguing they’re not ready to comply.

As of Thursday, information blocking regulations apply to all electronic health information in a record that qualifies as protected health information under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Previously, providers only had to make available data elements in a specific dataset called United States Core Data for Interoperability.

Time will tell us about the rule’s effect.

From the Medicare front, Forbes offers a deep dive into 2023 adjustments to the Medicare Parts B and D beneficiary income premium adjustments known as IRMMA. IRMAA impacts many federal annuitants, which causes an ongoing material reduction in new federal annuitants signing in for Part B. The kick in the pants is that when an annuitant’s income declines below that IRMMA level which typically happens over time, the Part B premium is unaffordable due to the late enrollment penalty.

From the public health front —

The Centers for Disease Control is calling attention to its patient and provider education materials on sepsis.

The American Hospital Association informs us

More than 2.5 million students in grades 6-12 reported using electronic cigarettes in the past 30 days when surveyed this year, including 14% of high school students and 3% of middle school students, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported today. One in four students who used e-cigarettes used them daily, 8 in 10 used flavored e-cigarettes and over half used disposable e-cigarettes. Since 2014, U.S. youth have used e-cigarettes more than any other tobacco product.

“It’s critical that we work together to prevent youth from starting to use any tobacco product — including e-cigarettes — and help all youth who do use them, to quit,” said Deirdre Lawrence Kittner, director of CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health. 

For more information, see the CDC fact sheet for health care providers and tools to help teens quit.

From the Rx coverage front,

The New York Times informs us

A new medication for A.L.S., the devastating neurological disorder that causes paralysis and death, will have a list price of $158,000 a year, its manufacturer disclosed Friday.

The treatment, to be marketed as Relyvrio, is a combination of two existing drugs and will be available to patients in the United States in about four to six weeks, according to officials of the company, Amylyx Pharmaceuticals.

The Institute for Clinical and Economic Research has observed

Last week, the FDA approved Relyvrio, Amylyx Pharma’s therapy for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Even in the absence of definitive proof of efficacy, there are clear benefits to ensuring patients with a rapidly fatal disease have early access to a safe therapy. In a situation like this, we believe the manufacturer has an obligation to price responsibly. ICER concluded that an annual price of $9,100 to $30,700 would be reasonable if the therapy actually works. While awaiting proof, we believe that patients would benefit from a price closer to the price of production of Relyvrio.

Ruh roh.

Fierce Health reports

Beginning this month, the Pennsylvania-based plan and Mark Cuban’s drug company (MCCPDC) will begin to let members and community organizations know about their collaboration and how they can access low-cost drugs, according to a press release. In 2023, Capital Blue Cross members will be able to use their insurance cards at the company’s online pharmacy. 

The online pharmacy launched earlier this year, aiming to disrupt skyrocketing prescription drug prices in the U.S. It currently offers nearly 1,000 generic prescription drugs that it says reflect manufacturer prices plus a 15% fee.  * * *

While initially, MCCPDC was planning to launch its own pharmacy benefit manager, it then scrapped those plans, announcing its first PBM partnership last week. The PBM has no rebates and no spread pricing. Some experts have cautioned that while the company’s effort is effective, it isn’t tackling a more pressing problem—brand-name drug prices, given generic drugs are up to 85% less expensive. The company is hoping to offer brand-name drugs down the line, CNBC reports.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, the Wall Street Journal reports

Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va..) on Tuesday threw in the towel on including his contentious proposal to speed up permitting of energy projects in a must-pass funding bill, clearing the way for the Senate to advance the legislation needed to keep the government open

With the permitting language out, the Senate voted 72 to 23 to advance the stopgap bill, which would extend current government funding levels until Dec. 16 and prevent a partial shutdown this weekend, when the fiscal year ends. The bill now moves to final passage in the Senate and will also need approval in the House, which returns Wednesday, before heading to President Biden’s desk. * * *

The resolution would also reauthorize the Food and Drug Administration’s user-fee agreements for prescription drugs, generic drugs and medical devices, preserving their access to U.S. patients. The legislation has to pass by the end of September to avoid funding gaps for the FDA.

The resolution includes funding for assistance to Ukraine but not for Covid and monkeypox expenses, also requested by the White House.

From the monkeypox front, STAT News reports that responding to the disease is stretching thin the resources of public health clinics serving the LGBTQ+ communities.

Today was filled with surprises.

  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services beat OPM to the punch by announcing 2023 Medicare Part B premiums before OPM announced 2023 FEHB and FEDVIP premiums. “The standard monthly premium for Medicare Part B enrollees will be $164.90 for 2023, a decrease of $5.20 from $170.10 in 2022. The annual deductible for all Medicare Part B beneficiaries is $226 in 2023, a decrease of $7 from the annual deductible of $233 in 2022.”
  • BioPharma Dive reports “In a surprise result, Alzheimer’s drug from Eisai and Biogen shows benefit in a large trial; The drug, called lecanemab, met the study’s main and secondary goals, reducing clinical decline [by 27%] over 18 months compared to a placebo.” The announcement’s timing is exquisite because, for 2022, CMS jacked up the Medicare premiums in anticipation of massive costs from what turned out to be a failed Alzheimer’s drug, Aduhelm, also from Biogen. The popping of the Aduhelm balloon resulted in the Medicare Part B premium and deductible decreases for 2023. FEHB carriers need to keep an eye on this drug’s progress because FEHB plans have large cadres of annuitants with Part A but not Part B due to IRMAA.

From the No Surprises Act front, the American Hospital Association reports

The AHA, American Medical Association and Medical Group Management Association today urged the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services not to include a convening/co-provider framework when implementing the Advanced Explanation of Benefits and insured good faith estimate provisions under the No Surprises Act. The groups urged the agency to instead allow each billing provider to submit their own good faith estimate to the health plan to create an AEOB; and to leverage existing provider and health plan workflows, standards and technologies for claim submission and adjudication to support accurate AEOBs for patients.

“Our organizations appreciate the opportunity to work with CMS on the No Surprises Act’s price transparency provisions implementation, and we are committed to working closely with our members to ensure that they have the information and tools to successfully implement the new requirements,” the letter adds. “Additionally, we remain committed to ensuring that patients have access to complete and accurate out-of-pocket cost information for scheduled care and working with you to develop efficient methods of delivering this information.”

This sensible idea would align the GFI with regular EOBs, thereby facilitating the use of electronic claims technology.

From the benefit design front, Fierce Healthcare reports

Walmart, the largest employer in the U.S., is teaming up with fertility startup Kindbody to offer benefits under its insurance plan that will help its workers expand their families.

Walmart Associates and their dependents who are enrolled in a self-insured Walmart medical plan will now have access to Kindbody’s services including fertility assessments and education, fertility preservation, genetic testing, in vitro fertilization (IVF) and intrauterine insemination (IUI).

Walmart’s employees will have access to more than 30 state-of-the-art Kindbody clinics across the U.S., including a new clinic and IVF lab in Rogers, Arkansas that will provide comprehensive virtual, at-home and in-clinic care. The new facility is expected to open later this year.

The expanded services build on Walmart’s Center of Excellence (COE) model, which provides benefit support and coverage for certain heart, spine and joint surgeries and cancer treatments.

“Providing access to high-quality health care is very important to us, and we’ve heard from our associates that improved access to fertility, surrogacy and adoption support is a priority for them and their families,” said Kim Lupo, senior vice president, Walmart Global Total Rewards in a statement. “Through Kindbody, Walmart associates in every corner of the country will have access to a variety of services to aid in their family-planning journey.

From the studies/research department

  • Beckers Payer Issues informs us, “Alabama, Hawaii, Florida, New York and New Jersey are the states with the highest incidences of low-value care, a new study published in Health Affairs found.”
  • The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced “a new program to better understand the function of every human gene and generate a catalog of the molecular and cellular consequences of inactivating each gene. The Molecular Phenotypes of Null Alleles in Cells (MorPhiC) program, managed by the National Human Genome Research Institute, aims to systematically investigate the function of each gene through multiple phases that will each build upon the work of the previous.” Wow.
  • NIH also tells us, “People with opioid use disorder who received telehealth services during the COVID-19 pandemic were more likely to stay on their medications and less likely to overdose. The findings support continuing the expanded telehealth access that began during the pandemic.”

From the tidbits department

  • The US Preventive Services Task Force today reaffirmed an A grade recommendation for screening for syphilis infection in asymptomatic, nonpregnant adolescents and adults who are at increased risk for infection. The initial recommendation for this screening was made in 2016.
  • Beckers Health IT explores the significant business benefits of United Healthcare’s recent antitrust litigation victory, which allows UHC’s acquisition of change healthcare to proceed.
  • Healthcare Dive reports

The American Hospital Association, along with a coalition of other healthcare organizations, wants the HHS to postpone an information blocking deadline slated to start Oct. 6, according to a Monday letter sent to Secretary Xavier Becerra.

By that date, providers, health IT developers and others must start sharing all electronic protected health information in a designated record,effectively prohibiting entities from information blocking.

The groups warn they’re not prepared to meet the deadline and are struggling to interpret a clear definition of electronic health information or technical infrastructure to support secure exchanges, according to the release.

 

Friday Stats and More

Based on the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) Covid Data Tracker and using Thursday as the first day of the week, here is the FEHBlog’s 2022 weekly chart of new Covid cases:

The bulge on the left is the first strain of Omicron.

The CDC’s weekly interpretative summary adds,

As of September 14, 2022, the current 7-day moving average of daily new cases (59,856) decreased 15.9% compared with the previous 7-day moving average (71,190). 

CDC Nowcast projections* for the week ending September 17, 2022, estimate that the combined national proportion of lineages designated as Omicron will continue to be 100%. There are five lineages designated as Omicron: BA.5, BA.4.6, BA.4, BF.7, and BA.2.75. UPDATE: BF.7 has been separated from BA.5 and BA.2.75 sublineage is separated from BA.2 due to their positive growth rate. Until last week, these were aggregated with BA.5 and BA.2, respectively. The predominant Omicron lineage is BA.5, projected at 84.8% (95% PI 83.2-86.3%).

Here is the CDC’s chart of daily trends in new Covid hospitalizations:

The CDC’s weekly interpretative summary adds “The current 7-day daily average for September 7–12, 2022, was 4,371. This is a 6.1% decrease from the prior 7-day average (4,657) from August 31–September 6, 2022.”

Here’s the FEHBlog 2022 weekly chart of new Covid deaths

The CDC’s weekly interpretative summary adds, “The current 7-day moving average of new deaths (358) increased 3.9% compared with the previous 7-day moving average (344).”

The American Hospital Association points out that

In-hospital mortality among patients hospitalized primarily for COVID-19 fell from 15.1% during the delta period to 4.9% this April through June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this week. 

“In-hospital mortality risk was substantially lower during the later Omicron period overall and for older adults, persons with disabilities, and persons with multiple underlying medical conditions, who accounted for a larger proportion of hospitalizations in this period than they did during previous periods and remained at highest risk for death,” the authors said.

Here’s the FEHBlog’s chart of Covid vaccinations distributed and administered from the beginning of the Covid vaccination era in December 2020 through the 37th week of 2022. In the 37th week of this year, you will note a noticeable jump in distributions and administrations due to the release of bivalent mRNA booster.

The CDC’s weekly interpretative summary adds,

As of September 14, 2022, 612.8 million vaccine doses have been administered in the United States. Overall, about 263.4 million people, or 79.3% of the total U.S. population, have received at least one dose of vaccine. About 224.6 million people, or 67.7% of the total U.S. population, have been fully vaccinated.

Of those fully vaccinated, about 109.2 million people have received a booster dose,* but 50.0% of the total booster-eligible population has not yet received a booster dose. Booster dose eligibility varies by age and health condition. Learn more about who is eligible.

The CDC’s Communities Levels experienced “Compared with last week, * * * a moderate decrease (−3.9 percentage points) in the number of high-level counties, a moderate decrease (-3.8 percentage points) in the number of medium-level counties, and a large increase (+7.4 percentage points) in the number of low-level counties.”

From the unusual viruses front —

  • The AP reports that the CDC warns providers against giving the only monkeypox treatment Tpoxx “to otherwise healthy adults who are not suffering severe symptoms. ‘For most patients with healthy immune systems, supportive care and pain control may be enough,’ agency officials said in a statement.”
  • The New York Times offers information on what parents should know about “the Latest Enterovirus Spike; The C.D.C. has issued an alert [to providers] about enterovirus D68, which has been linked to rare, polio-like paralysis.” In addition, the Times article advises soap and water handwashing and respiratory etiquette.

From the U.S. healthcare business front, we have two articles from Healthcare Dive.

  • “Hospitals are likely to lose “billions of dollars” due to continued depressed margins and heightened labor costs, according to a report Thursday prepared for the American Hospital Association by Kaufman Hall. Even in the report’s optimistic model, more than half of all hospitals could end the year with negative margins, driven by an expected $135 billion increase in expenses this year and an $86 billion rise in labor costs alone.” Here’s a link to the article.

From the medical research front, we have two articles from STAT News:

  • “CAR-T therapy isn’t exclusive to oncology: A half-dozen people with severe lupus, an autoimmune condition, have gone into remission after receiving an infusion of CAR-T cells, STAT’s Isabella Cueto reports. In lupus, B cells create antibodies against a person’s body, resulting in a vicious cycle of inflammation and immune attacks that lead to pain, fatigue, and organ damage. * * * Although the treatment has only been tested in six patients thus far, experts agree it is tantalizing.”
  • “There hasn’t been much in the pharmaceutical arsenal to help people who abuse methamphetamines. But STAT’s Lev Facher reports that researchers are now studying a new monoclonal antibody, which binds to meth molecules and helps prevent them from entering the brain. The antibody is showing early promise in the smattering of emergency rooms involved in the study. One Phase 2 study is testing if the monoclonal antibody can treat meth overdose, and another is measuring its efficacy in helping long-term recovery. Ideally, the drug could be used for both purposes. The drug’s development is overseen by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the biotech InterveXion.”

From the miscellany front

  • WTW released a study on how large employers are “doubling down on controlling healthcare costs and enhancing affordability.
  • The National Committee for Quality Assurance released its Measurement Year 2021 health plan ratings.
  • RevCycle Intelligence offers an interesting angle on a Health Affairs study of the efficacy of State No Surprise Billing laws in controlling out-of-network spending.

Labor Day Weekend Update

Photo by Jim Stapleton on Unsplash

Happy Labor Day!

The Senate returns to Capitol Hill for committee business and floor voting tomorrow. The Wall Street Journal adds “Between now and Election Day, senators are scheduled to be back in Washington for four weeks, then gone a week, and then back for two weeks in October.” The House of Representatives will be engaged in committee business but not floor voting this week. The House resumes floor voting next week.

The Wall Street Journal informs us

The White House is asking Congress for $47.1 billion in emergency funding for Covid-19 and monkeypox and to back Ukraine in its war with Russia, as well as spending for natural disasters, according to administration officials.

Congress must vote on a spending bill by the end of September to avoid a partial government shutdown. Lawmakers are expected to use a stopgap funding measure that will maintain funding levels for the short term.

The White House is asking Congress to add the emergency funding on top of that, with about $22.4 billion for Covid-19 vaccines, testing programs, clinical trials and research; $4.5 billion to bolster efforts to fight monkeypox; and $6.5 billion to help areas of the country prepare for and recover from natural disasters. * * *

The emergency funds wouldn’t be paid for with new or shifted revenue, and would be new money that hasn’t been previously appropriated.

[As of last Friday, September 2] Senate Republican leadership didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the White House’s request for emergency funding. Spending bills require 60 votes, and in the 50-50 Senate at least 10 Republicans would need to back any bill that contained the administration’s request.

Govexec notes

[President] Biden intends to nominate Richard Revesz, the AnBryce Professor of Law and Dean Emeritus at the New York University School of Law, to be administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which is housed within the White House Office of Management and Budget. Biden has not had a permanent OIRA head since taking office.

From the U.S. healthcare business front, the Wall Street Journal reports this afternoon that CVS Health has struck a deal to purchase Signify Health:

The drugstore giant’s deal to acquire home-healthcare company Signify Health Inc., announced Monday, will add 10,000 contracted doctors and clinicians and give CVS a hand in coordinating medical care for millions of Americans.

CVS, the nation’s biggest healthcare company by revenue, said that it agreed to acquire Signify for $30.50 per share in an all-cash deal, confirming earlier Wall Street Journal reports. CVS said it expects the deal, finalized over the weekend after a sales process that drew interest from companies from Amazon.com Inc. to UnitedHealth Group Inc., to close in the first half of 2023.

CVS for years has worked to transform itself from a pharmacy chain to an integrated provider of medical services, with the biggest step being its 2018 acquisition of insurer Aetna. Initially, CVS envisioned a model centered on pharmacists, in-store clinics and a giant insurance business.

But Karen Lynch, who took over as CVS CEO last year, determined that the company needs doctors on its payroll to fulfill those ambitions. She also set out to expand CVS’s presence in home healthcare, demand for which has been rising as the U.S. population has aged.

Signify’s model is based on an analytics-and-technology platform, used by doctors that go into homes equipped with connected iPads, that allows the clinicians to assess patient needs and connect them with follow-up services.

The clinicians “operate much like Uber drivers,” said Kyle Armbrester, Signify Health chief executive. “We’re in a gig economy and this is a flexible model.”

The deal is the latest for a home-health company. Rival Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. last week finalized a deal to purchase a majority stake in CareCentrix, Inc., another home-healthcare platform.

This spring, UnitedHealth agreed to buy LHC Group Inc., one of the country’s largest home-health firms, for about $5.4 billion. Last year, Humana Inc. agreed to take full control of home-health provider Kindred at Home. Both LHC and Kindred provide continuous home-healthcare services.

Signify has grown to serving more than 2.5 million homes from around 300,000 five years ago, said Mr. Armbrester, who is set to remain CEO of Signify Health after the acquisition.

From the public health front, NPR Shots discusses the new Covid boosters and Precision Vaccinations discusses flu shots. The FEHBlog checked chain pharmacies in his locality in Dripping Springs, TX. Flu shots are already available, and the new Covid boosters will be available mid-week.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From the Omicron and siblings’ front,

The New York Times reports

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention loosened Covid-19 guidelines on Thursday, freeing schools and businesses from the onus of requiring unvaccinated people exposed to the virus to quarantine at home.

The changes are a sharp move away from measures such as social distancing requirements and quarantining, which had polarized much of the country, and effectively acknowledge the way many Americans have been navigating the pandemic for some time. The agency’s action comes as children across the country return to school and many offices have reopened.

“We know that Covid-19 is here to stay,” Greta Massetti, a C.D.C. epidemiologist, said at a news briefing on Thursday. “High levels of population immunity due to vaccination and previous infection, and the many tools that we have available to protect people from severe illness and death, have put us in a different place.” * * *

Instead of focusing on slowing transmission of the virus, the recommendations prioritize preventing severe illness. They emphasize the importance of vaccination and other prevention measures, including antiviral treatments and ventilation.

Here is a link to the new CDC guidance.

The Wall Street Journal looks into why Omicron continues to become more contagious over time, and MedPage Today discusses what the future holds for Covid vaccines.

From the unusual viruses front, Beckers Hospital Review tells us

“The manufacturer of the Jynneos monkeypox vaccine, Bavarian Nordic, voiced concerns to federal health officials about efforts to expand vaccine supplies by allowing the administration of fractional doses, The Washington Post reported Aug. 10.

“Confirmed U.S. [monkey pox] cases have surpassed 10,000, according to CDC data updated Aug. 10. About a month ago, there were less than 1,000 reported cases nationwide,” and

The CDC may offer some New Yorkers an extra dose of the polio vaccine amid concerns that the virus is silently spreading through a community where the nation’s first polio case in nearly a decade was detected July 21, CNN reported.  * * * “We’re looking into all aspects of how to deal with this. At this point, we don’t have a definitive answer,” José Romero, MD, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told CNN.  The case, which was identified in an unvaccinated man, may be “just the very, very tip of the iceberg” and a sign that there “must be several hundred cases in the community circulating,” Dr. Romero said.

From the pricing transparency front, Fierce Healthcare brings us up to date on hospital compliance with its federal pricing transparency law and a new Colorado law that will hit the pocketbooks of non-compliant hospitals in that State.

From the judicial front, Healthcare Dive reports

A New York federal judge on Wednesday dismissed a surgeon’s legal challenge that sought to roll back key pieces of a federal law that protects patients from surprise out-of-network bills.

Judge Ann Donnelly ruled against the surgeon, finding that the law is constitutional, and dismissed the case for lack of standing and dismissed the surgeon’s request for a preliminary injunction.

Katie Keith, a lawyer and health policy expert at Georgetown University who tracks surprise billing litigation, called the ruling good news for consumers.

The lawsuit threatened to once again expose millions of patients to surprise out-of-network bills, Keith previously said in a Health Affairs report on the litigation.

The FEHBlog heartily agrees with Prof. Keith.

From the U.S. healthcare business front, Fierce Healthcare tells us

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan will roll out a new family building and maternity support program head of open enrollment.

The insurer said Wednesday that the platform, launched in partnership with Maven Clinic, will allow members to access a personalized app that guides them through the family planning process, including pregnancy, postpartum and pediatrics. Users can follow multiple paths to parenthood based on their needs.

From the miscellany department

  • Today, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the American Society of Nephrology (ASN) announced a new prize competition from the Kidney Innovation Accelerator (KidneyX) that seeks to further the development of a fully functional bioartificial kidney. * * * Up to $10.5 million in funding will be split among up to nine (9) prize winners, including up to three (3) winners from Track One each receiving $1.5 million and up to six (6) winners from Track Two each receiving $1 million. For the full rules and eligibility requirements, as well as a list of resources available to applicants, visit kidneyx.org/akp.”
  • MedPage Today reports “Colorectal cancer (CRC) screening was cost-effective in obese individuals as well as in those of normal weight and might even have a leg up at younger ages for obese men, a modeling study found. Having a colonoscopy every 10 years starting at age 45 or a fecal immunochemical test (FIT) at age 40 was cost-effective at a $100,000/quality-adjusted life-years (QALY) gained threshold across sexes and BMI ranges. As BMI increased, the cost-effectiveness of having colonoscopy every 10 years starting at age 45 versus 50 became even more favorable, reported Uri Ladabaum, MD, MS, of Stanford University School of Medicine in Redwood City, California; and co-authors in a paper in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology.”
  • Healio informs us that “Salt substitutes consistently improved blood pressure and lowered risk for mortality, cardiovascular mortality and CV events, according to a meta-analysis published in Heart. ‘These findings are unlikely to reflect the play of chance and support the adoption of salt substitutes in clinical practice and public health policy as a strategy to reduce dietary sodium intake, increase dietary potassium intake, lower blood pressure and prevent major cardiovascular events,’ the researchers wrote.” Consumer Reports advises discussing salt substitutes with your PCP before starting to use them

Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Roll Call reports from Capitol Hill

More than 3.5 million veterans who were exposed to toxic substances on overseas deployments will gain easier access to health and disability benefits under a bill that cleared the Senate Tuesday.

President Joe Biden is certain to sign the bill into law in the coming days.

The bill would make servicemembers who contracted any of 23 conditions — from brain cancer to hypertension — after being deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and other combat zones automatically eligible for VA benefits. The measure is expected to cost nearly $280 billion over a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

This law should save the FEHB Program money as the federal workforce has a large cadre of veterans who use veterans’ healthcare. VA facilities charge the FEHB and private sector plans for non-service connected health care. This law confirms that toxic substances treatment to service-connected care for which the VA is liable.

Govexec adds

The [VA] bill [also] authorizes leases for 31 new medical facilities at VA to help accommodate the expected surge in patients, which is expected to cost nearly $1 billion. The Congressional Budget Office found the slew of pay and other human resources changes would come with a $5.7 billion price tag over the next decade.

The bill will authorize the department to buy out the contract of health care professionals to recruit them to VA, so long as they make a four-year commitment to the department. VA will have $40 million per year for the buyouts. VA’s health care employees will be eligible for pay boosts worth 50% of their base salaries, up from the current cap of 30%. Overall pay would be capped at level two of the Executive Service pay scale, which is currently $203,000 per year. McDonough has called lifting the pay caps essential for VA’s recruiting and retention efforts and has aggressively pushed Congress to pass the reform.

With regard to the Schumer-Manchin reconciliation bill, the Hill reports that Senators Manchin and Simema are exchanging text on the bill.

From the Omicron and siblings front,

McKinsey and Company offer their assessment of when the Covid pandemic will end.

In this update, we discuss the outlook, the current and potential future use of boosters and therapeutics, and the shifts in response strategies to the COVID-19 crisis around the world. We also introduce the McKinsey COVID-19 Immunity Index—a tool for understanding a community’s current level of risk from the disease.

A group of physicians provides their observations in MedPage Today on how best to investigate the Paxolovid rebound issue.

The debate about “COVID-19 rebound” after nirmatrelvir/ritonavir (Paxlovid) treatment is one of these timely areas warranting further investigation. Continuing down the current path of uncertainty has consequences for how and by whom this antiviral should be used. However, by applying lessons learned from the early days of the pandemic — including acknowledging the importance of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) — we can avoid repeating the same mistakes. To do this, it is necessary to start by defining the question, identifying current knowledge gaps, and only then can one propose scientific solutions to bring a rapid resolution to the COVID-19 rebound controversy.

Paxlovid consists of two drugs: nirmatrelvir, which inhibits a SARS-CoV-2 protease inhibiting viral replication, and ritonavir, which slows the inactivation and breakdown of nirmatrelvir. Per a CDC health advisory released in May, COVID-19 rebound is defined as a return of symptoms or a “new positive viral test after having tested negative” occurring “2 to 8 days after initial recovery.” We just saw this over the weekend in the case of President Biden.

This definition of rebound is challenging and prone to inflating the incidence of rebound. It is possible some individuals identified as having “Paxlovid rebound” may have been experiencing a waxing and waning of COVID-19 symptoms while some unknown number of other reported rebound cases could be due to the known limitations of COVID-19 testing.

Precision Vaccinations tells us that in the near future the federal government will make the Omicron antibody based treatment known as Evusheld available through local pharmacies including “Albertsons, Acme, Jewel-Osco, Pavilions, Randalls, Safeway, Star Market, Vons, CPESN, Amber Specialty Pharmacy, Managed Healthcare Associates, and Thrifty White.”

Hugh Montgomery, Professor of Intensive Care Medicine at University College London, UK, and TACKLE principal investigator, commented in a press release, “Despite the success of vaccines, many individuals such as older adults, individuals with co-morbidities, and those who are immunocompromised, remain at risk for poor outcomes from severe COVID-19.”

“Additional options are needed to prevent disease progression and reduce the burden on healthcare systems, especially with the continued emergence of new variants.”

“The TACKLE (study) results show that one intramuscular dose of Evusheld can prevent these individuals from progressing to severe COVID-19, with earlier treatment leading to even better results.”

From the moneypox front, Fierce Healthcare reports

The White House has named Robert Fenton to serve as the response coordinator for the monkeypox outbreak, as calls for a larger federal role intensify. 

Fenton previously helped to coordinate COVID-19 vaccine distribution while working at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He will work alongside Demetre Daskalakis, M.D., who will be the deputy coordinator. 

The coordinators will lead the administration’s efforts on “strategy and operations to combat the current monkeypox outbreak, including equitably increasing the availability of tests, vaccinations and treatments.” 

From the Affordable Care Act front, the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans informs us

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has issued Revenue Procedure 2022-34 providing the indexing adjustment for the required contribution percentage. For plan years beginning in 2023, the required contribution percentage is 9.12%, down from 9.61% in 2022. 

The affordability calculation can determine whether an individual can afford employer-sponsored health coverage and affect whether the individual would be eligible for a premium tax credit on the health insurance exchanges. This could affect employers that do not use a safe harbor method to determine whether the coverage they offer is affordable to employees.

For plan years beginning in 2023, employer-provided coverage is considered affordable for an employee if the employee required contribution is no more than 9.12% of that employee’s household income. Because applicable large employers generally do not know their employees’ household incomes, there are three safe harbor methods for calculating affordability.

In the FEHB Program, OPM must assure itself that the lowest premium nationwide FEHB plan premium for the self only option does not cost more than 9.12% of the lowest paygrade federal employee eligible to participate in FEHBP.

From the FEHB front, Fedweek columnist Reg Jones wraps up his series of federal employee and annuitant survivor benefits.

From the Medicare front, Healthcare Dive reports on provider reaction to yesterday’s final CMS rule on Medicare Part A payments to inpatient hospitals beginning October 1, 2022.

Providers remained largely unhappy early this week despite a final ruling issued by the CMS on Monday that increases inpatient payments to hospitals by more than was initially proposed.

Organizations like The American Hospital Association said it was “pleased” by the payment update, a 4.3% bump up from the proposed 3.2%, but added it “still falls short of what hospitals and health systems need to continue to overcome the many challenges that threaten their ability to care for patients and provide essential services for their communities.”

Group purchasing organization Premier agreed, saying the payment update “falls woefully short” of what is needed for health systems. “Coupled with record high inflation, this inadequate payment bump will only exacerbate the intense financial pressure on American hospitals,” SVP of Government Affairs Soumi Saha said in a statement.

Beckers Hospital review offers six takeaways from the final rule.

From the U.S. healthcare business front

Healthcare Dive reports

High operating expenses took their toll on hospitals and physician groups in June, producing negative year-over-year margins for a sixth consecutive month, a new report from Kaufman Hall found. Month-to-month increases in patient volumes were not enough to offset the growing cost of care, the advisory firm said Monday.

Compared with May, operating margins improved, contract labor costs fell as demand slowed, and expenses cooled slightly in the latest month. But the industry has yet to turn the corner on an “enormously difficult year,” the report said.

“Although hospitals are seeing improved volumes and reduced expenses month-over-month, they will likely end up with historically low margins for the remainder of the year,” Kaufman Hall predicted.

and

Louisiana-based Ochsner Health has officially merged with Rush Health Systems, giving the merged system seven hospitals and more than 30 clinics in the east Mississippi and west Alabama region, according to a Monday release.

New names and branding are being rolled out at regional hospitals under the new brand, Ochsner Rush Health, the release said. Ochsner Rush Health will have 250 staff and contracted physicians and 95 advanced practice providers.

Ochsner Rush Health is also boosting its minimum wage to $12 an hour, impacting more than 400 employees and representing a $1.5 million investment, according to the release.

From the public health front,

  • Healio offers a bleak outlook for chronic disease in the US over the next forty years “likely stressing an already burdened health care system.”
  • The Center for Disease Control points to its revamped diabetes website “for people with diabetes or who are at risk for diabetes, and their families and friends.”

From the judicial front,

STAT News tells us

In a significant victory for AbbVie, a U.S. appeals court panel declined to revive a lawsuit that accused the company of using a so-called patent thicket to forestall competition for its Humira medication, a franchise product that generates billions of dollars in sales each year.

The opinion shot down arguments by unions, insurers, and the city of Baltimore, which alleged that AbbVie “abused the patent system” and “erected significant barriers to entry to block biosimilar competition” by filing dozens of patents for the drug. Some of the 132 U.S. patents that the company holds on its medicine extend to 2034, although the basic patent expired in 2016.

The case has been closely tracked over concerns that the use of numerous patents — some of which may offer only marginal improvements or changes to a medicine — are exploited by pharmaceutical companies to protect monopolies at the expense of consumers. This has prompted the Food and Drug Administration and Patent and Trademark Office to jointly examine the issue.

Congress can change the patent system applicable to prescription drugs.

The American Hospital Association reports

The Department of Justice today filed a lawsuit challenging an Idaho law restricting abortion. The complaint seeks a declaratory judgment that the law conflicts with and is preempted by the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act in situations where an abortion is necessary stabilizing treatment for an emergency medical condition. It also seeks an order permanently enjoining the law to the extent it conflicts with EMTALA, which requires hospitals that receive federal Medicare funds to provide necessary stabilizing treatment to patients who arrive at their emergency departments while experiencing a medical emergency.

The FEHBlog hopes that the federal court hearing the case seeks a decision from the Idaho Supreme Court on the scope of Idaho’s abortion law before proceeding with the case. The FEHBlog finds it hard to believe that any U.S. court would interpret its state’s abortion law as overriding obligations created by EMTALA and for that matter the Hippocratic Oath.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From Capitol Hill, the Wall Street Journal reports that the Senate majority’s leadership is rallying the caucus to pass the Schumer – Manchin compromise reconciliation bill that would address climate and healthcare concerns while raising taxes. The goal is for the Senate to pass the bill next week which immediately precedes the Senate’s August recess.

The Hill adds that

A day after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) stunned Washington by endorsing hundreds of billions of dollars for President Biden’s domestic agenda, House Democrats are rallying behind the nascent package as a crucial — if incomplete — strategy for tackling the climate crisis and easing working class economic strains.

Both articles discuss the flies remain in the reconciliation ointment.

Govexec informs us

The odds that Congress would increase the average 4.6% pay raise planned for federal employees in 2023 got a little longer Thursday, after Senate appropriators revealed that they would effectively endorse President Biden’s pay increase proposal.” The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday revealed all of their initial versions of fiscal 2023 spending bills, including the package governing financial services and general government, which is the vehicle by which Congress weighs in on federal employee compensation. That bill makes no mention of changes to career federal employees’ pay, effectively endorsing the pay raise plan offered by Biden in his fiscal 2023 budget proposal.

Here is a link to the Senate Appropriations Committee’s press release unveiling those bills. What caught the FEHBlog’s eye is the statement in the press release that the Senate appropriations bills, like the House appropriations bills, do not include the Hyde amendments limiting federal funding of abortions to cases of rape, incest, or endangerment of the mother’s life. That tectonic change would draw the FEHBP into the post-Dobbs controversy.

From the Affordable Care Act front, Prof. Katie Keith does her usual outstanding job breaking down the proposed ACA Section 1557 individual non-discrimination rule in Health Affairs Forefront. In the FEHBlog’s view, the rule is unnecessarily complicated. It is the FEHBlog’s understanding that this HHS rule would not apply to FEHBP and that HHS would refer Section 1557 complaints involving FEHB plans to OPM. As the preamble points out, Section 1557 is a law that doesn’t need an implementing rule. Nevertheless, HHS recommends that other agencies with programs covered by Section 1557 adopt their own implementing rule using the HHS rule as a template.

The ACA regulators issued a 13-page long ACA FAQ 54 describing in detail the ACA rule requirements under which health plans must cover contraceptive drugs and services for women without cost sharing.

On a related note, Healthcare Dive tells us

Melanie Fontes Rainer is now acting director of HHS’ Office of Civil Rights. Fontes Rainer will replace Lisa Pino, who oversaw rulemaking related to patient safety, reproductive rights and other healthcare issues and issued policy regarding health equity, long COVID and firearm injury and death prevention, the agency said in an emailed statement.

From the federal employee benefits front, Fedweek explains the circumstances under which survivors of federal employees (as opposed to federal annuitants) are eligible for federal survivor benefits.

If you are an employee who was married when you die and you had at least 18 months of creditable civilian service, your spouse will be entitled to a survivor annuity.  * * * f you were enrolled in either the self plus one or self and family options of the Federal Employees Health Benefits program when you died, the person(s) on your enrollment could continue that coverage. If you weren’t enrolled in the program (or were enrolled but in the self only option), any otherwise eligible survivors would be out of luck.

From the Omicron and siblings front, the American Medical Association offers a helpful Q&A on Covid boosters.

From the monkeypox front, Reuters makes two reports

  • The United States has the capacity to conduct 60,000-80,000 tests for monkeypox virus per week, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said on Thursday. When the monkeypox outbreak began, the U.S. was able to conduct only 6,000 tests per week, Becerra told reporters during a telephone briefing.
  • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Wednesday it plans to make the rapidly spreading monkeypox disease a nationally notifiable condition. The designation, which is set to take effect on Aug. 1, updates criteria for reporting of data on cases by states to the agency and would allow the agency to monitor and respond to monkeypox even after the current outbreak recedes, the CDC said.

From the U.S. healthcare business front —

The American Hospital Association issued a report attacking the commercial health insurance industry, which in the FEHBlog’s view is akin to strangling the golden goose.

Healthcare Dive reports

Teladoc beat Wall Street expectations for revenue in the second quarter, with a topline of $592 million, up 18% year over year. Chronic care membership came in higher than analysts expected, while member utilization improved year over year.

But “all eyes” are on the vendor’s guidance for the rest of the year, which implies a third-quarter miss and a steep ramp-up for earnings in the fourth quarter, SVB Securities analyst Stephanie Davis wrote in a note on the results.

STAT News chimes in

Telehealth giant Teladoc is bracing for disappointing earnings this year as it faces headwinds that could also thwart competitors struggling to turn a profit — including increasingly frugal employers delaying or dropping contracts for virtual care.

“The challenge that we’re seeing is in these times of economic uncertainty, all purchases are just getting a significantly higher level of scrutiny,” CEO Jason Gorevic said in an earnings call Wednesday.

Gorevic also noted that declining yield on advertising suggests that individual patients may start spending less on direct-to-consumer services like BetterHelp, the company’s mental health care offering. Those hurdles aren’t unique to Teladoc. Competitors like Amwell and Talkspace could also have to grapple with cutbacks.

Healthcare Dive also delves into Amazon’s planned acquisition of One Medical. “The deal fast-tracks Amazon’s ambitions in healthcare, while giving One Medical a cushion in today’s tricky economic environment.”

Yesterday, the FEHB wrote about the hospitals receiving five stars from Medicare. Today Becker’s Hospital Review lists the 192 hospitals receiving a single start from that program.

Finally STAT News lists the 41 best books and podcasts on health and science to check out this Summer.

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From the Omicron and siblings’ front —

MedPage Today reports “Second COVID booster shot boosted antibodies in Seniors — but small Israeli study did not determine how quickly response will wane.”

Becker’s Hospital Reviews tells us

At least 18 cases of the newest omicron subvariant BA.2.75 have been confirmed in seven U.S. states as of July 20, early disease surveillance data shows. 

Globally, researchers have identified 201 cases in more than a dozen countries as of July 12, according to data from outbreak.info, a platform that tracks data on coronavirus variants and is supported by the CDC and other national research groups. 

The subvariant has a large number of mutations that may make it more adept than BA.5 — the nation’s current dominant strain — at spreading quickly and evading immune protection. Experts say it’s still unclear whether BA.2.75 will compete against BA.5 or cause more severe illness, according to CNN.

This leads us to the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board comments

The President’s [Omicron] infection [disclosed today] demonstrates how hard it is to avoid the new and highly transmissible Covid variants. The White House has gone to great lengths to protect Mr. Biden, but there’s only so much staff can do if the President is going to do his job. 

Despite continuing pleas from the White House and public-health elite, vaccination by now provides little protection against transmission. * * * The evidence is that the vaccines do reduce the chances of getting serious Covid and being hospitalized, though many elderly patients who have been vaccinated are still dying from the virus.

While this quote is an opinion, not a news report, it struck a chord with the FEHBlog. The FEHBlog wishes the President a speedy recovery.

From the unusual viruses front, the Department of Health and Human Services offers a fact sheet on its response to the monkeypox outbreak.

In mergers and acquisitions news, Healthcare Dive informs us

Amazon has agreed to acquire primary care network One Medical for $18 a share, valuing the company at $3.9 billion.

The all-cash deal for San Francisco-based One Medical comes after months of speculation about a potential acquisition, reportedly drawing interest from companies including CVS Health, according to Bloomberg.

Analysts said a potential buyout for One Medical, which has grown rapidly since it was founded in 2007, could come at a significant premium. Amazon’s price of $18 a share represents a premium of 43% over its closing price of $10.18 a share on Wednesday.

STAT News explains why Amazon pursued adding One Medical to its healthcare portfolio.

With One Medical, Amazon is also tapping deeper into the vein of health care’s payment system. One Medical gets paid through two main avenues: commercial health insurers and Medicare. The Medicare side came from Iora, which One Medical bought for $1.4 billion last year.

Commercially insured patients, or those who get coverage through their jobs, are by far the most profitable within health care and overlap with a large chunk of Amazon’s subscription base. Even though One Medical focuses on less expensive primary care, there’s evidence One Medical charges some of the highest rates for those routine office visits and services, and that’s largely assisted by One Medical’s hospital partners.

Hospitals pay fixed sums to One Medical to care for patients, but they also “extend their health insurance contracts” to One Medical, the company said when it went public in 2020. The result: Hospitals that ink deals with One Medical get the most profitable patients in their market referred to them for more intensive services, and One Medical gets to piggyback off the lucrative payments that those dominant hospitals wring out of insurers.

STAT News concludes

Amazon’s success — and how disruptive it might prove to be to telehealth competitors — will depend in part on how well it integrates One Medical into its existing in-person and virtual offerings through Amazon Care. Analysts said that will become clear over the next year.

Whether it does draw patients away from traditional health care providers depends on their partnership with payers and their fees, said Aaron Neinstein, vice president of digital health for UCSF Health. “There’s no question that the One Medical annual fee is out of reach for most people in the U.S. Might Amazon change that or bundle it with Prime? Who knows.”F

Health Leaders Media reports that, notwithstanding the Federal Trade Commission’s nascent efforts,

Hospital and health system mergers and acquisitions in Q2 of 2022 have returned to trendlines that Kaufman Hall has been following since the beginning of the pandemic, the consulting firm said in its recently released M&A quarterly report.

During the second quarter of 2022, there were 13 hospital and health system M&A transactions, on-trend and only one transaction less than the 14 transactions reached in Q2 of 2021 and 2020. However, the total transacted revenue in the second quarter reached a “historic high” of $19.2 billion, more than doubling the $8.5 billion transacted revenue in the same quarter in 2021.

From the reports department and via Axios, the FEHBlog ran across this comprehensive McKinsey and Company report on the future of U.S. healthcare: what’s next for the industry post-Covid. Check it out.

From the Rx coverage front, DrugChannels calls our attention to this Amgen preview of 2022 trends in the biosimilars market. Adam Fein observes

As I predicted two years ago, the biosimilar boom is finally here. Prices are dropping while adoption accelerates. Prices are now declining by 9% to 22% annually. For therapeutic areas with biosimilars launched in the last three years, biosimilars’ market share averages 74%.  See Amgen slides 8 and 9.

Before the boom began, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former FDA commissioner, argued that we shouldn’t give up on biosimilars and prematurely regulate prices. As we can now see, Dr. Gottlieb was right. #NoTowel

From the SDOH front, Health Payer Intelligence explains

Race and ethnicity data collection is complex, but there are steps that health insurers—and the healthcare industry at large—can take to improve the process, according to a report from Urban Institute funded by Elevance Health (formerly Anthem).

From the miscellany department

  • Fierce Healthcare discusses a recent Fitch report on non-profit hospitals.

Labor, supply and capital cost increases have been rampant across the industry this year thanks to broader inflation pressures and other pandemic factors, the ratings agency wrote.

Reversing the margin trends will likely require nonprofit hospitals to take on a combination of rate hikes in the short term, “relentless” cost-cutting and productivity initiatives for the medium term and “transformational changes to the business model” for the long term, Fitch wrote.

Fortunately for those hospitals, many organizations already have the means to weather the storm as they overhaul their operations.

“The vast majority of our rated credits have strong balance sheets that will offset lower margins for a period of time and allow for operational improvements,” Fitch wrote. “Without more substantial changes to the current business model, or with additional coronavirus surges this fall or winter, this balance sheet cushion could eventually erode.”

Rate negotiations with payers will likely be an upward battle, the group wrote.

  • Healthcare Forefront points out the value of underutilized fentanyl test strips

Fentanyl test strips (FTS) are a simple, inexpensive, and evidence-based method of averting drug overdose. FTS are small strips of paper that can detect the presence of fentanyl in any drug batch—pills, powder, or injectables. This tool might be lifesaving for the teenager experimenting for the first time, the individual in the throes of a severe opioid use disorder, the concert-goer looking for a trip, the person using a preferred substance obtained from a new source, or the individual years into recovery. FTS also support the dignity and well-being of people who use drugs (PWUD), enabling them to make educated decisions about their safety.

And yet after years of press and discussions of the strips’ utility, FTS aren’t as widely available as one would expect them to be. It is time to take a more critical look at the importance of destigmatizing this tool and increasing its distribution and availability, while highlighting the grave risks in not doing so.

  • HealthDay gives us some good news.

U.S. hospitals became much safer places for patients over the past decade, with medical errors and adverse events declining significantly across the nation, federal government data show.

Between 2010 and 2019, patient safety dramatically improved among the four types of conditions for which people are most often hospitalized: heart attacks, heart failure, pneumonia and major surgical procedures.

“There has been a precipitous, very important drop in the number of these events, which to me validates the idea that these were preventable,” said senior researcher Dr. Harlan Krumholz, director of the Yale New Haven Hospital Center for Outcomes Research and Education in New Haven, Conn. “The status quo wasn’t written in stone. We have been able to actually make hospitals safer for those conditions.”

The new study relied on data gathered by the Medicare Patient Safety Monitoring Program, an effort created in the wake of a landmark 1999 Institute of Medicine report that drew national attention to patient safety in hospitals, the study authors said in background notes.

  • Fedweek reviews the steps that federal employees should take to position themselves for retirement.