Weekend Update

Weekend Update

President James Monroe painted by Samuel Morse

Both Houses of Congress will be holding committee meetings and floor votes this week. A House Oversight and Reform subcommittee is holding a hearing on the Postal Service tomorrow, September 14. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will vote on whether to advance John Gibbs nomination to be OPM Director on Wednesday September 16. The FEHBlog will be on the lookout for more news on FY 2021 continuing resolution.

Negotiations between the White House and the pharmaceutical manufacturers have failed because the President signed and made public his most favored nation pricing executive order today. The order requires the Secretary of Health and Human Services to implement most favored nation pricing pilot programs for Medicare Parts B and D drugs. The HHS Secretary will select the drugs to be included in the pilots. Action on the Part B pilot must begin immediately. “The model[s] would test whether, for patients who require pharmaceutical treatment, paying no more than the most-favored-nation price would mitigate poor clinical outcomes and increased expenditures associated with high drug costs.” The Hill reports that “The pharmaceutical industry quickly blasted the surprise move and raised the idea of suing to stop it.”.

A friend of the FEHBlog shared this link to a Governing article on how President James Monroe prevented a yellow fever epidemic when he was governor of Virginia 200 years ago. Governing observes “Over the last few months, there have been countless news stories about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and the 1793 yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia. We know about these stories because the disease spread and thousands of lives were lost. But the outbreak of 1800 is the example we should remember [because of President Monroe’s actions].” Far be it from the FEHBlog who has read and discussed the Great Influenza to overlook President Monroe’s actions.

Midweek update

OPM Director Nominee John Gibbs (Senate video / Federal Times)

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a confirmation hearing for OPM Director nominee John Gibbs this afternoon. Here’s are links to Mr. Gibbs’ testimony and a Federal News Network article on the hearing. The Committee will vote on whether to advance Mr. Gibbs’ nomination to the full Senate at a business meeting scheduled for next Wednesday October 16.

The Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee heard testimony today from the NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins and the U.S. Surgeon General Vice Admiral Jerome Adams on the topic of vaccines. U.S. News and World Report highlights an important segment of Dr. Collins’s appearance before the Committee.

AstraZeneca announced on Tuesday that its late-stage [COVID-19] vaccine study was being put on hold due to a “potentially unexplained illness” in one of the participants.

“With an abundance of caution at a time like this, you put a clinical hold, you investigate carefully to see if anybody else who received that vaccine, or any other vaccines, might have had a similar finding of a spinal cord problem,” Collins said.

Those who are concerned about the safety of the approval process should be reassured by the development, Collins said. “If it turns out that that is a real consequence of this vaccine and can be shown to be cause and effect then all the doses that are currently being manufactured for that will be thrown away because we do not want to issue something that is not safe,” Collins said. He added that the U.S. is investing in six vaccine candidates “because of the expectation that they won’t all work, although it would be lovely if they did.”

AstraZeneca was one of the nine drugmakers to pledge on Tuesday to uphold standards for science and safety in their pursuit of a coronavirus vaccine.

Healthcare Finance reports on America’s Health Insurance Plan comments on how health insurers can aid the COVID-19 vaccine distribution process. For example,

Insurers can use their member data to help identify which people meet the criteria to be eligible for the vaccine, according to the best available evidence. Outreach efforts must adhere to patient privacy requirements, AHIP said.

Insurers can coordinate across partners such as public health officials for data sharing regarding their members’ vaccine status, encouraging data to be shared with state or regional databases (Immunization Information Systems).

“Health insurance providers play an important role ensuring that people receive the vaccines that are recommended for them, and have experience conducting outreach to their members to inform them of the vaccines that are recommended for them and how they can get them,” AHIP said. This may include reminders to ensure they receive multiple doses of a vaccine when needed.”

The Health Affairs Blog experts offer five recommendations on how to better integrate telehealth with primary care.

RecommendationsRepresentative Open-Text Survey Responses
Harmonize the reimbursement criteria “Some insurance companies are paying less than in-person visits for telehealth visits from Day 1. Small practices, like usual, have been left to themselves for the most part.”“Primary care is extremely challenging with the constant change in protocols, the uncertainty and enormously confusing insurance schemes.”
Create billing codes or payment models for the additional work required to offer telehealth “Insurance companies not reimbursing telephone visits at a rate that supports the level of work done on a telephone visit.”“Elderly patients have no access or are unable to access virtual – more work, have to teach them how to take BP, some hard of hearing, etc.”“I am more stressed out doing telehealth, as we spend time to fix internet, video, and voice. There are calling issues, so it’s more time consuming.”
Provide coverage for at-home monitoring devices “I need blood pressure cuffs and glucometers covered by insurance for home monitoring.” “I will do tele health… provided patients have equipment.”“Patients lack thermometers, blood pressure cuffs, and pulse oximeters.”
Incentivize the development of and access to, patient- and provider-centered telehealth technology “Telehealth information technology platform is NOT user friendly.”“Difficult to properly diagnose with telehealth. Have been using photos from patients to supplement but still not really sufficient.”“Our patients are low-income with language barriers. Requiring third party interpreter by speaker phone takes extra time and reduces quality of care.”
Review, revise, and communicate telehealth malpractice policies  “I am not going to practice telehealth; it is not reliable and may increase malpractice cases.”“I’m very concerned about being sued for managing the patients over telehealth especially since many are requesting opioids.”“Malpractice premiums are a major barrier for telehealth.”

Source: Authors’ analyses of data from surveys administered to primary care providers in New York City from April to July 2020.

Happy Labor Day!

Photo by Karl Magnuson on Unsplash

The FEHBlog drove from New Haven, CT, to Bethesda, MD, today with a stop in Long Island. Traffic was quite cooperative. This trip allowed the FEHBlog to listen to this week’s Econtalk episode in which Econtalk host Russ Roberts interviewed leadership expert Margaret Heffernan about her new book “Uncharted — How to Navigate the Future.” “The central thesis of her book is that while the future may be unpredictable, that doesn’t mean you can’t prepare for it. And smart organizations and people can learn how to do it.” Here’s a valuable nub from the conversation:

I remember–oh, I don’t know, probably 2010 to 2012–having a number of arguments with my husband about when the next banking crash would be. And it suddenly struck me, this was just a stupid argument. Right? Because neither of us knew. No little economic fairy had sprinkled gold dust on us.

And, I said, ‘Okay, let’s ask a different question. Let’s ask the question: If there is another banking crash, or when there is another banking crash, what will we wish we had been doing right now?’ And, we thought through that in some pretty gritty detail about where we would want our investments to be, where we would want to be, what resources we would want to have. And so we slightly changed some of the things we were doing. We accelerated some things. We put other things on hold. And, what it did is it left us feeling, ‘Okay, we don’t know what the future is, but we think we’ve placed ourselves in a reasonably robust context.’ And actually that’s pretty much all we can do.

Accordingly, time would be better spent on thinking about how to restructure healthcare in the post pandemic world or how to better deal with a similar pandemic in the future and not on trying to figure out when this particular pandemic will end. Of course, everyone should work together toward the end of the current pandemic as it eventually will end.

The FEHBlog noticed for example that the benefit consulting firm Willis Towers Watson is holding a virtual conference later this month on resetting health and other employee benefits for the post-pandemic world. The conference website links to already available articles on this important topic.

What’s more with respect to getting current job done, the Wall Street Journal reports this weekend,

FDA [r]egulators authorized [last week] a new test developed by Fluidigm that uses saliva rather than a nasal swab. The clinical study associated with Fluidigm’s submission to the FDA demonstrated 100% agreement between the saliva results and paired nasopharyngeal samples. Fluidigm’s test returns results in several hours. Meanwhile, OraSure Technologies is developing a nasal-swab test that is potentially suitable for at-home use and could be ready this fall. * * * Thanks to health care innovation, a return to normalcy for the United States might just be in the cards in the months ahead.

Amen to that.

Weekend update

Photo by Dane Deaner on Unsplash

The FEHBlog hopes that all of his readers are enjoying the Labor Day Weekend. The FEHBlog whose home state Maryland was removed from the COVID-19 travel ban list for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut last month skedaddled up to the Nutmeg State to visit family and friends. He is headed back to his Bethesda hacienda inside the Capital Beltway tomorrow morning.

The House of Representatives and the Senate have full committee schedules in the week ahead. The Senate will also engage in floor business this week while the House will not resume floor votes until next week.

The FEHBlog was pleased to read this Wall Street Journal report that

Several drug makers developing Covid-19 vaccines plan to issue a public pledge not to seek government approval until the shots have proven to be safe and effective, an unusual joint move among rivals that comes as they work to address concerns over a rush to mass vaccination.

A draft of the joint statement, still being finalized by companies including Pfizer Inc., PFE -0.11% Johnson & Johnson JNJ -0.64% and Moderna Inc. MRNA -3.45% and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, commits to making the safety and well-being of vaccinated people the companies’ priority. The vaccine makers would also pledge to adhere to high scientific and ethical standards in the conduct of clinical studies and in the manufacturing processes.

As President Reagan would say trust but verify.

Health Payer Intelligence provides a 2020 perspective on health plan network centers of excellence. Centers of excellence generally are payer designated facilities that have worthy track records in costly surgeries like transplants. The article explains how payers have branched out this approach to other medical specialties:

Payers can boost their quality of care by working with a COE with particular specialty care providers. For example, Premera Blue Cross recently expanded its own COE strategy in order to improve its quality of care for radiology. Previously, radiology was not part of Premera Blue Cross’s COE strategy, but the payer recognized the need for better quality of care around this service.

“Establishing COEs around the highest quality radiology practices ensures patients are on the most direct treatment path back to health and reduces the high costs associated with misdiagnoses, which are surprisingly common,” explained the press release. At least a third of MRIs and CT scans produce erroneous diagnoses, the release stated.

Healthcare Dive reports that MEDPAC, a nonpartisan legislative branch agency that provides the U.S. Congress with analysis and policy advice on the Medicare program, has concluded that COVID-19 cash from the federal government saved most hospitals from the bleakest financial forecasts made last April. MEDPAC “Commissioners at Thursday’s meeting commended the administration for the speed of getting loans and grants out the door to providers, but said it was time for an in-depth review to make sure the money went to where it was needed most.”

Federal News Network provides an update on the Administration’s plan on the President’s payroll tax deferral program.

All active-duty military members as well as federal civilian employees will be subject to the president’s upcoming payroll tax deferral, a senior administration official told Federal News Network Friday evening.

The president’s payroll tax deferral, which the administration said all payroll providers will launch in unison later this month, has left federal employees, their unions and members of Congress scrambling this week for more details about the policy and its impact on the workforce.

The changes in payroll tax deductions are temporary, and federal employees will have to pay back deferred taxes starting in January. They’ll have until April to do so before penalties and interest may accrue, the IRS has said.

The FEHBlog congratulates OPM’s “Human Resources Solutions because its “USA Staffing® Onboarding platform is the winner of the 2020 Igniting Innovation Awards, hosted by the American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council (ACT-IAC). The awards recognize groundbreaking technologies that enhance services for citizens and government operations. USA Staffing Onboarding won with 68% of the vote. * * * Designed to efficiently onboard new hires in ordinary times, this fully online, automated solution proved instrumental in helping Federal agencies adapt to COVID-19.”

Friday Stats and More

Based on the CDC’s Cases in the U.S. website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 20th through 34th weeks of this year (beginning May 14 and ending August 26; using Thursday as the first day of the week in order to facilitate this weekly update):

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

Note that today, the CDC revamped its COVID-19 websites. Sharp eyed readers will notice the CDC changed the scale on this hospitalization chart since last Friday. In any event, both charts continue to move in the preferred downward direction.

The CDC added a webpage on how regular folks should select, wear and clean their protective masks. It should be helpful for health plans to share this CDC webpage on their own sites.

Also, Medpage Today interviewed Dr. Anthony Fauci about the ongoing development of monoclonal antibodies to treat COVID-19.

Fauci explained how the mechanism of monoclonal antibodies “is really one of a direct antiviral.” “It’s like getting a neutralizing antibody that’s highly, highly concentrated and highly, highly specific. So, the mechanism involved is blocking of the virus from essentially entering its target cell in the body and essentially interrupting the course of infection,” he said. While Fauci noted the success of monoclonal antibodies to treat Ebola, he added that they are not practical for other viruses that only last a day or two, where the virus may already be cleared once the patient receives the treatment. “If you have a disease that’s serious enough and prolonged enough, such as what we saw with Ebola, and what we are currently seeing with COVID-19, then you have enough opportunities to get the monoclonal antibody to actually work,” he added.

The article notes that work also is underway to develop these antibodies as an HIV treatment.

Managed Healthcare Executive News reports on issues that providers are encountering with electronic prior authorization and efforts to resolve those issues. For example,

[Rose] Moore says one of the obstacles to a more streamlined approach to prior authorizations is the lack of uniformity. “There must be greater collaboration between payers and providers to set universal guidelines on requirements, starting with the high-volume, low-complexity procedure types that consume the greatest administrative cost across the healthcare continuum,” says Moore.

That should be resolvable.

Finally, Govexec.com reports that “The government will begin deferring withholding payroll taxes for federal employees [beginning September 1] to fulfill a memorandum President Trump issued earlier this month, according to a notice from one of its payroll processors.” Because the executive order cannot and does not waive these taxes permanently, this action will get Congressional attention.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the CDC’s Cases in the U.S. website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 20th through 32nd weeks of this year (beginning May 14 and ending August 19; using Thursday as the first day of the week in order to facilitate this weekly update):

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

It looks like we are on another downswing of COVID-19 cases and hopefully we all understand now the importance of social distancing, mask wearing, avoiding super spreader events so that the number of cases continues to trend down (in contrast to June and July).

The Salt Lake City Tribune reports that “Doctors from University of Utah Health and ARUP Laboratories announced Thursday that they will offer saliva testing for COVID-19 by September — after completing a study that found the spit test detected the virus as well as the traditional, and famously uncomfortable, nasal swab.”

Bill Phillips, founder of Spectrum Solutions, a company in Draper that manufactures saliva test kits, said the U.-ARUP study is in line with other research that shows the effectiveness of the spit test for detecting COVID-19. Such research, Phillips said, should promote broader acceptance of the saliva test over the nasopharyngal swab, both in and out of the medical community. Spectrum Solutions manufactures 100,000 saliva test kits a day in its Draper plant, Phillips said. The company is ramping up to produce 500,000 kits a day, using contractors in Wisconsin, North Carolina and California. Phillips’ company boasts a client list that includes the U.S. Senate, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard team, the Olympics, and several sports leagues. Last week, Spectrum Solutions became the test-kit supplier to Major League Baseball, with plans to produce 275,000 kits for the pandemic-shortened season.


On the flip side, the Centers for Disease Control released a survey disclosing that during late June 2020 40% of Americans were struggling with mental illness or substance abuse due in large part to the great hunkering down.

No bueno.

The Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker has issued a report on how insured health plans are covering COVID-19 treatment during this public health emergency.

Yesterday, the FEHBlog wrote about Uber Health. Today, he points out a Fierce Healthcare story about its mega-competitor Lyft Health.

In a new study released Wednesday, Lyft offers a look at the performance of its partnership with AmeriHealth Caritas DC, which was facilitated by Access2Care. Lyft rides were made available to 11,400 for routine visits and urgent care, and between April 2018 and April 2019 emergency department visits dropped by 40% and ambulance utilization decreased by 12%. Amerigroup Tennessee, an Anthem company, similarly signed on with Lyft, launching a pilot in 2019 in Memphis. To date, it has seen a 44% increase in primary care visits and a 50% decrease in primary care gaps.

Finally Federal News Network reports on the Postmaster General’s testimony today before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The House is scheduled to consider a Postal Service bill (HR 8015) tomorrow. Here’s the version of the bill which the House Rules Committee approved today. The bill seeks to maintain the status quo in Postal Service operations retroactive to January 1, 2020 and provide the Postal Service with $25 billion. $15 million of this sum will go to the Postal Service Inspector General. House passage of this bill may lead to a compromise COVID-19 relief measure.

Weekend update

Because Congress is out of town until after Labor Day. let’s lead with the story that caused the FEHBlog to levitate out of his easy chair yesterday. The Yale News headline says it all — “Quick and affordable saliva-based COVID-19 test developed by Yale scientists receives FDA Emergency Use Authorization.”

A couple weeks ago the FEHBlog mentioned a USA Today story about an Xprize competition to find a quick and inexpensive COVID-19 test that would facilitate going back to work, school, etc. The Xprize competition’s first round closes next week and we already have one winner.

Check this out:

Wide-spread testing is critical for our control efforts. We simplified the test so that it only costs a couple of dollars for reagents, and we expect that labs will only charge about $10 per sample. If cheap alternatives like SalivaDirect can be implemented across the country, we may finally get a handle on this pandemic, even before a vaccine,” said [Yale Assistant Professor of Public Health Nathan] Grubaugh.

One of the team’s goals was to eliminate the expensive saliva collection tubes that other companies use to preserve the virus for detection. In a separate study led by Wyllie and the team at the Yale School of Public Health, and recently published on medRxiv, they found that SARS-CoV-2 is stable in saliva for prolonged periods at warm temperatures, and that preservatives or specialized tubes are not necessary for collection of saliva.

The Yale researchers validated their test with the cooperation of the National Basketball Association. It was interesting to watch this season’s opening Hard Knocks show on HBO which showed how NFL teams similarly are focused both on the team’s schedule and COVID-19.

In litigation news —

  • Last Friday, as Healthcare Dive reports, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit handed health insurers participating in the ACA’s marketplace another win against the federal government. This time the unpaid amounts involve reimbursable cost sharing reductions for low income marketplace participants.
  • On Tuesday, August 18, the Health and Human Services Department’s revised rule on the ACA’s individual non-discrimination provision, Section 1557, takes effect. The federal government, as requested by the Court, filed a sur-reply on the standing issue last Monday, and one of the plaintiff’s advised the Court on Wednesday that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has revived the dormant Franciscan Alliance case which is the granddaddy of challenges to the 1557 rule (although it was filed in an effort to challenge the Obama Administration’s versions of the rule.)

In other news, Health Payer Intelligence reports that

Payers can play a significant role in decreasing the expense and complexity of serious illness care for patients through whole person care and palliative care, a study from America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) found.

“Recognizing the difficulties of serious illness, health insurance providers have set out to help, support, and ease the journey for patients, caregivers and loved ones,” the AHIP study stated.

“Ensuring access to tools, education, and services for patients and their loved ones during a difficult time can provide the opportunity to plan, allow patients to maintain their dignity and choice, and support loved ones to know their role and how best they can help.”

Check it out.

Finally, the Federal News Network informs us that the General Services Administration made no changes to the current standard per diem rates for hotels, meals, and incidental expenses of federal employee business travel within the contiguous United States effective for the next federal fiscal year beginning October 1, 2020. What’s more,

There are, however 319 non-standard areas (NSAs), which have higher per diem rates than the standard CONUS allowance. GSA added one area, Albuquerque, New Mexico, as a new NSA location this year. Four locations came off the NSA list from 2020 and will now receive the standard per diem rate: Gainesville, FL; Atlantic City, NJ; College Station, NJ, and Abingdon, VA.

These rates also apply to government contracts such as experience rated FEHB carriers that are subject to the Federal Acquisition Regulation’s Cost Principle. The GSA assumes, of course, that business travel will resume next year, and in view of the low cost saliva test, it just might.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the CDC’s Cases in the U.S. website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 20th through 32nd weeks of this year (beginning May 14 and ending August 12; using Thursday as the first day of the week in order to facilitate this weekly update):

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

Beckers Hospital Review reports that

The U.S. government is working with commercial health insurers to make future COVID-19 vaccines free of charge with no copay, an HHS official told The Wall Street Journal.

Paul Mango, deputy chief of staff for policy at HHS, said government health insurance programs such as Medicare and Medicaid will cover the cost of administering COVID-19 vaccines, and a federal fund created by the CARES Act will provide the shots free for uninsured people.

A collaboration between the federal government and the healthcare industry will handle the distribution of the vaccines, and the government will announce distributor contracts soon, Mr. Mango told the Journal.

Indeed, the Wall Street Journal reports this afternoon that

McKesson Corp., MCK 4.26% one of the world’s largest drug wholesalers and the biggest vaccine middleman in the U.S., will be a main distributor of Covid-19 vaccines nationwide should the shots prove to work safely, federal health officials said. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is exercising an option in an existing 2016 contract with McKesson for the distribution of a vaccine in the event of a pandemic, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department said Friday.

A friend of the FEHBlog shared this link to an interesting Harvard Business Review article from July 24 discussing the following three scenarios in which the COVID-19 emergency may play out.

1.A dream case in which everything goes as well as could reasonably be expected.
2.A catastrophic case in which everything goes badly.
3.A middle case in which some things go well, but others don’t.

It strikes that FEHBlog that we have been in the midst of scenario three since March. The FEHBlog does not think it can get worse, while he thinks that it may get better.

The FEHBlog was pleased to run across these DOL Office of Federal Contractor Compliance Program’s FAQs on its recent final rule exempting TRICARE but not FEHBP providers from its affirmative action rules.

If my company participates in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP), are we covered under the amended regulations?

OFCCP did not adopt any regulatory changes related to FEHBP providers. OFCCP plans to issue sub-regulatory guidance to address concerns regarding FEHBP providers.

That’s a clearer update than what the FEHBlog noticed in the preamble to the final rule. The TRICARE exemption likely will not be useful to providers unless the FEHBP also is exempted, in the FEHBlog’s opinion.

The Congressional Research Service has updated its helpful report on Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). CRS reports that for tax year 2017 the IRS processed 11 million tax returns showing employer or employee contributions to HSAs.

Weekend update

The House and Senate are on State / district work breaks until after Labor Day which is September 7 this year. On Friday the President issued three executive memoranda on 1) Student loan payment relief, (2) assistance to renters and homeowners, (3) deferring payroll tax obligations and one executive order on additional unemployment assistance. All of the actions are related to the COVID-19 emergency. The Wall Street Journal discusses what’s in and not in these executive actions. Legal beagle details on the actions can be found at the Volokh Conspiracy blog. Congress can change these actions at its discretion by enacting a law.

The Wall Street Journal article explains that

Mr. Trump directed the Treasury Department to defer the 6.2% Social Security tax on wages for employees making less than about $100,000 a year. That suspension would last from Sept. 1 through Dec. 31.  If employers stop withholding those taxes, the move would deliver an increase in take-home pay just as Mr. Trump is running for re-election but also create a looming liability in 2021 because the taxes would still be due eventually. Mr. Trump said he would press Congress to turn the deferral into an actual tax cut.

The FEHBlog was wrong about Congress and the White House reaching a compromise on a new COVID-19 relief bill before the August recess. He was also wrong in expecting the Senate to approve the OPM Inspector General nomination before the August recess. Consequently, at this time, the FEHBlog does not plan to bet real dollars “on the come” against future Congressional action approving the tax cut. Let Congress act first.

It is worth noting that this is the traditional week in which FEHB benefit and rate negotiations conclude. Historically (by which the FEHBlog means a long time ago), OPM would announce the next year’s government contribution change shortly after Labor Day. For the past decade, that announcement has not been made until much later in September. But things are moving along.

Federal News Network offers its perspective on OPM’s interim final paid parental leave regulation. The public comment deadline is September 9, 2020.

If you have a spare hour, listen to this past week’s EconTalk episode in which “John Kay and Mervyn King talk about their book, Radical Uncertainty, with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. This is a wide-ranging discussion based on the book looking at rationality, decision-making under uncertainty, and the economists’ view of the world.” The three economists have useful perspectives on the application of statistical modeling to the COVID-19 emergency. (If you have a spare 15 minutes you can read the transcript (lower right hand side of the website, and in fairness although I read a lot of the books that are discussed on EconTalk, I won’t read this one because I don’t have a Ph.D in economics. If you want a fascinating book to read check out A.J. Baime’s recent book on the 1948 U.S. Presidential election. The FEHBlog by the way is a big admirer of Harry Truman.)

Midweek Update

FCW.com reports that “The Senior Executives Association, which represents members of the Senior Executive Service and other federal mangers, is looking for sweeping change to the government’s human resources organization and practice.” Here’s a link to a the SEA’s report titled “Transforming the Governance of Federal Human Capital Management.” Of note, check out their recommendation for the OPM group that manages our beloved FEHBP:

The Healthcare and Insurance enrollment function should be assessed to determine if there would be benefits to reengineering and/or outsourcing. The federal government already does this with its vision and dental program (FEDVIP), which is administered by BENEFEDS. Reengineering should, as needed, focus on customer service and cost savings through efficiency. The nation’s largest employers, such as Walmart, outsource their benefits administration, as do most private-sector organizations. Once reengineering is complete, service level agreement and transactional cost ratios should be established. OPM could then explore if it is an appropriate candidate for outsourcing. If it is determined that outsourcing is more effective, OPM should maintain policy oversight and HC data ownership and control.

It’s not the first time that the FEHBlog has heard this recommendation made.

On the innovation front —

  • The FEHBlog was wondering today what was going on with his preferred candidate for COVID-19 treatment, convalescent plasma. Wonder and you shall receive for the Wall Street Journal advises tonight that

The Food and Drug Administration is nearing a decision to authorize emergency use of antibody-rich blood plasma from recovered Covid-19 patients for treating people infected with the coronavirus, people familiar with the matter said. The authorization could come as soon as next week, according to the people, though the agency could also decide to delay a decision. The designation could open the way for faster and wider access to one of the most promising treatments for Covid-19 patients. Only a Gilead Sciences Inc. antiviral drug known as remdesivir [currently] carries the designation.

  • Employee Benefit News informs us that

CVS Health is expanding their voluntary benefits to tackle mental health and anxiety treatment with a new digital offering.

The company added Daylight, an app that uses cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to combat anxiety, to its Point Solutions Management lineup. Both employer clients and CVS employees will have access to the app.

CVS looked to one of its existing partners — Big Health, the makers of the digital sleep benefit, Sleepio — for its newest offering. Daylight uses AI to make personalized recommendations on therapy exercises for users experiencing anxiety and stress.

On the Medicare front —

  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced today that “The average basic Medicare Part D premium will be $30.50 in 2021. The 2021 and 2020 average basic premiums are the second lowest and lowest, respectively, average basic premiums in Part D since 2013. This trend of lower Part D premiums, which have decreased by 12 percent since 2017.” Of course, Medicare Part D covers outpatient prescription drugs.
  • Forbes reports that

Americans who depend on Medicare Part B are accustomed to a yearly cost increase for their coverage. The Senate Republican proposals for a second stimulus package would freeze 2021 Medicare Part B premiums at 2020 levels. Negotiations between Republican and Democratic leaders continue in Congress, with multiple potential provisions for a second stimulus package on the table. Both sides have indicated they would like to pass a new stimulus bill before Congress departs for a month-long break on Aug 7.

In other news —

  • The Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) released today the HHS Secretary’s Report on Addressing Surprise Billing. Here’s Healthcare Dive’s take on the report. “HHS on Wednesday prodded Congress to pass legislation that bans surprise medical billing but did not take on stance on the best method to do so or endorse any particular bill.”
  • HHS also released “a new report showing the dramatic utilization trends of telehealth services for primary care delivery in Fee-for-Service (FFS) Medicare in the early days of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. The report analyzes claims data from January through early June.” Here’s is Healthcare Dive’s take on that report. “Almost half — 43.5% — of all Medicare primary care visits were being conducted through telehealth in April. That’s up from just 0.1% in February.” Wow.
  • Finally, Federal News Network informs us that

Four months after Congress approved a $10 billion loan for the Postal Service under the CARES Act, the Treasury Department and USPS leadership have struck a deal on the terms of that loan. According to the terms of the loan, released by top Democrats in the House and Senate, USPS has agreed to give Treasury access to its biggest negotiated service agreements with industry partners. The Postal Service will have access to the loan to fund operating expenses until March 27, 2022, but Treasury won’t advance any of the funds if USPS has a cash balance of more than $8 billion. In addition, USPS has agreed to give Treasury monthly reports on its cash flow and year-over-year changes in volume for its major lines of business, as well as changes in revenue and expenses.