Tuesday’s Tidbits

Tuesday’s Tidbits

The Wall Street Journal reports today that “U.S. public-health authorities are reviewing recommendations for wearing face masks and a wave of European governments have ordered citizens to use them outside the home, signaling a shift among Western governments on a contentious issue in the coronavirus pandemic.” The social distancing requirement is intended to serve the same purpose as masking. The FEHBlog does not know where this change would lead.

FiercePharma discusses the ongoing COVID-19 vaccine studies. “In all, about 50 vaccines are in early development across the biopharma landscape, and researchers are exploring about 10 different vaccine approaches, said Jim Mayne, vice president of science and regulatory advocacy at PhRMA.” The FEHBlog is pleased to read that there are a lot of irons in this critically important fire.

The FEHBlog ran across this interesting U.S. Health Weather Map created by Kinsa and Oregon State University.

The U.S. Health Weather Map is a visualization of seasonal illness linked to fever – specifically influenza-like illness. The aggregate, anonymized data visualized here is a product of Kinsa’s network of Smart Thermometers and accompanying mobile applications, and Kinsa is providing this map and associated charts as a public service.

This appears to be the type of health surveillance tool that public health experts are encouraging.

CARES Act Update

The Hill reports that “[House of Representatives] Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday that the House will move quickly on Friday to approve the Senate’s massive, $2 trillion coronavirus relief package [the CARES Act, H.R. 748] through the lower chamber and on to President Trump, who has vowed to sign it immediately.” NPR has provided a link to the text of the bill that the Senate passed unanimously at 11:17 pm last night.

CARES Act Update

The President and the entire Senate leadership have agreed on a third COVID-19 relief bill known as the CARES Act (H.R. 748). Senator Charles Grassley, the Senate Finance Committee Chair, has released a summary of the bill’s taxation and unemployment insurance provisions and summary of its health provisions. The key health provisions affecting federal employees benefits are the following:

Sec. 3701. Health Savings Accounts for Telehealth Services
This section would allow a high-deductible health plan (HDHP) with a health savings account (HSA) to cover telehealth services prior to a patient reaching the deductible, increasing access for patients who may have the COVID-19 virus and protecting other patients from potential exposure.

Sec. 3702. Over-the-Counter Medical Products without Prescription
This section would allow patients to use funds in HSAs and Flexible Spending Accounts for the purchase of over-the-counter medical products, including those needed in quarantine and social distancing, without a prescription from a physician.

The FEHBlog mistakenly stated on Sunday that that the House of Representatives would be back on Capitol Hill yesterday. In fact, as the Wall Street Journal explains, House members remain on recess this week. Should the Senate as anticipated pass the CARES Act today, the House leadership is expected to seek approval by a unanimous consent motion. A single member of Congress can block such a motion so a lot rides on entire House leadership support for the bill. According to the Wall Street Journal, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants the unanimous consent to clear the House. This motion could be brought to the House floor on tomorrow or Friday. The Journal further reports that the President is ready to sign the bill into law.

The FEHBlog has found a link to a COVID-19 statistics site, The COVID-19 Tracking Project, that displays aggregated lab results from COVID-19 testing, U.S. state by state, where available.

Weekend Update

The House and the Senate will be in session this coming week working on a third COVID-19 relief bill. The House returns from a district work week on Tuesday while the Senate cancelled its state work week which had been scheduled for this week.

On the COVID-19 front —

  • OPM posted more COVID-19 emergency related guidance for federal agencies on Friday.
  • The Wall Street Journal explains the current lockdown rules in New York, California, Illinois, and several other states. The California rule cross references to this Department of Homeland Security guidance on essential critical infrastructure workforce. While the guidance is advisory, the FEHBlog finds it significant that the list of “workers who conduct a range of operations and services that are essential to continued critical infrastructure viability” includes “Workers that manage health plans, billing, and health information, who practically work remotely” and “Workers performing cybersecurity functions at healthcare and public health facilities, who cannot practically work remotely.”
  • On Saturday, the Food and Drug Administration issued the first emergency use authorization for a point-of-care COVID-19 diagnostic for the Cepheid Xpert Xpress SARS-CoV-2 test. ” “The test we’re authorizing today will be able to provide Americans with results within hours, rather than days like the existing tests, and the company plans to roll it out by March 30 [a week from today],” explained HHS Secretary Alex Azar. The COVID-19 diagnosis rate will increase more rapidly now that we continue to expand the availability of COVID-19 testing. The Vice President noted on Saturday that 195,000 Americans have been tested so far.
  • The Wall Street Journal informs us about how to avoid COVID-19 misinformation. It’s worth reading.

Midweek Update

The Office of Personnel Management issued a guidance letter to FEHB carriers on the COVID-19 virus today.

The Internal Revenue Service today issued a Notice 2020-15 which permits high deductible health plans used with health savings accounts (under Internal Revenue Code Section 223) to cover COVID-19 testing on a first dollar basis. To its credit, OPM references the IRS notice in the above linked carrier letter.

The U.S. Labor Department also issued FAQ guidance on COVID-19 or Other Public Health Emergencies and the Family and Medical Leave Act.

As noted on Monday, this is Patient Safety Awareness week. The patient safety organization ECRI Institute released a list of top 10 patient safety concerns. The Safety Week’s key sponsor HHS’s Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research issued

Making Healthcare Safer III, a comprehensive report whose pages are filled with practical information on how today’s clinicians can keep patients free from harm.

The report reviews roughly four dozen practices that target patient safety improvement across a variety of settings. If appropriately applied, many of these practices can dramatically reduce high-impact healthcare-related harms.

The 47 patient safety practices and evidence highlighted in the report include technological and staffing-related practices, a series of specific hygiene and disinfection interventions for reducing healthcare-associated infections, and several practices designed to prevent medication errors and reduce opioid misuse and overdoses.

Tuesday Tidbits

The FEHBlog listened to the federal government’s COVID 19 press conference on the drive home from work. The Surgeon General urged listeners to visit coronavirus.gov. When the FEHBlog arrived home, he checked out the website and it turns out to be another url for the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID-19 website that he takes a peak at daily. At least the FEHBlog hasn’t been misdirecting readers. Here is today’s COVID-19 scorecard:

Travel-related83
Person-to-person spread36
Under Investigation528
Total cases647

The FEHBlog learned late this afternoon that COVID-19 concerns have caused OPM and AHIP to cancel the annual FEHBP carrier conference which was scheduled to run from April 1 to April 3 in lovely Crystal City Virginia. The FEHBlog while disappointed understands the decision because the event jams hundreds of people together in one hotel ballroom.

Yesterday’s Health and Human Services rules on electronic health record (“EHR”) interoperability and data blocking gave a big boost to HL7’s FHIR specification. “FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources) Specification is a standard for exchanging healthcare information electronically.” The FEHBlog was excited to hear about the FHIR specification early last year because it appeared to be a solution to the nagging EHR interoperability problem. HHS appears to have jumped into the FHIR specification pool with both feet.

This morning the FEHBlog listened to a HIMSS webinar on FHIR accelerators. The four HL7-designated FHIR accelerators are leading the FHIR charge to solve interoperability problems in different spheres:

  • The DaVinci Project is focused using FHIR to fix healthcare business to business exchange issues.
  • The Carin Alliance is focused on using FHIR to fix healthcare business to consumer exchange issues.
  • CodeX is focused on using FHIR to share clinical trial appropriate data found in EHRs with researchers in an effort to find cancer cures.
  • The Gravity Project is focused on sharing social determinant of health data found in EHRs with healthcare businesses for care coordination and SDOH benefit purposes.

Good luck to them all.

Monday Musings

The FEHBlog got to work this morning around 8:30 am. Before he knew it, it was past 9:30 am, the time at which the Supreme Court releases online its orders from the latest conference of the Justices. He clicked on the Adobe Acrobat PDF link to the Court’s order list — no go. Bad PDF. He tried different browsers — same result. Twitter ho and there it was “blue State victory” the Supreme Court had agreed to review the Texas v. U.S. case holding the ACA’s individual mandate unconstitutional. The political comment did not make sense to the FEHBlog because only four Justices need to approve a petition for certiorari / review and there are four Democrat appointees on the Court. However, you need five Justices for a final victory. In any event by then the FEHBlog was able to open the Court’s order list and he found the following on page 3:

CERTIORARI GRANTED

19-840 CALIFORNIA, ET AL. V. TEXAS, ET AL.

19-1019 TEXAS, ET AL. V. CALIFORNIA, ET AL.
The motion of 33 State Hospital Associations for leave to file a brief as amici curiae in No. 19-840 is granted. The petitions for writs of certiorari are granted. The cases are consolidated, and a total of one hour is allotted for oral argument.

Case No. 19-1019??!! The FEHBlog was aware of the unmentioned Case No. 19-841 which is the House of Representative’s cert. petition. But what is Case No. 19-1019? It turns out that on Valentine’s Day the red states had filed a cross motion for review / cert with the Supreme Court. So it appears that both sides won at the first stage of the Supreme Court proceedings.

The Supreme Court will hear oral argument in the cases early in its next Term which begins on the first Monday in October 2020. There is no way the Court will decide the case before the Presidential election day on November 3. Hopefully, to avoid a political kerfuffle at the oral argument, the Court will schedule the argument for later in November.

Meanwhile the federal district court for the Northern District of Texas will hold off reconsidering the unconstitutional individual mandate’s proper degree of severance from the remainder of the massive law. The Fifth Circuit in its December order vacated the lower court’s initial decision that the remainder of the law was inseparable and therefore equally unconstitutional. The FEHBlog’s guess is that the Supreme Court took the case in order to short circuit that remand. But time will tell.

In another surprise, the FEHBlog learned along with the healthcare world today that President Trump will speak on the issue of electronic health record interoperability at the next Monday’s opening day of the monstrous HIMSS conference in Orlando, Florida. Health IT News reports that while former Presidents Clinton and Bush 43 have spoken at this conference, President Trump’s appearance will be the first by a sitting President.

Trump’s speech will touch on various aspects of interoperability, innovation and digital health. If past HIMSS conferences are any indication, his appearance may also be timed with the long-awaited final rules on information blocking and patient access from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT.

Another probable topic of discussion will be an update on the Trump Administration’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.

Again time will tell.

Medicare provides coverage for Americans under age 65 with end stage renal / kidney disease for Americans. However,

Medicare is the secondary payer to group health plans (GHPs) [including FEHB plan] for individuals entitled to Medicare based on ESRD for a coordination period of 30 months regardless of the number of employees and whether the coverage is based on current employment status.  Medicare is secondary to GHP coverage provided through the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), or a retirement plan.

Given the FEHBP’s role in the early stages of this serious disease, the FEHBlog wanted to point out this Centers for Disease Control page on understanding chronic kidney disease. End stage renal disease is a later stage of chronic kidney disease. The CDC explains that

The two main causes of CKD are diabetes and high blood pressure. About 1 in 3 adults with diabetes and 1 in 5 adults with high blood pressure have CKD.

People may not feel sick or notice any symptoms until CKD is advanced. The only way people find out if they have CKD is through simple blood and urine tests. The blood test checks for creatinine (a waste product) in the blood to see how well the kidneys work. The urine test checks for protein in the urine (an early sign of kidney damage).

Here’s another reason why annual physical exams are important.

Monday Musings

Today’s U.S. Supreme Court order list from its February 21 conference made no mention of the Texas v. U.S. cases (Nos. 19-840 and 19-841) concerning the Affordable Care Act’s constitutionality, one way or the other. This means that the Court will take up (or continue consideration of) the cases at a later conference. At this stage the Court is deciding whether to review the Fifth Circuit’s decision now or wait for further proceedings in the lower courts. The Court’s docket sheet states that the cases have been re-distributed for the February 28, 2020, conference.

The Federal Employees Dental and Vision Programs’ (“FEDVIP”) laws requires OPM to bid out all of the FEDVIP contracts every seven years. Currently OPM has contracted for 10 FEDVIP dental plans and four FEDVIP vision plans. Last week, OPM released its request for proposals for the next seven year FEDVIP contract cycle which begins on January 1, 2021. OPM states in the RFP document that it has capped the upper limit of dental plans at 12 and vision plans at 5. The deadline for submission of proposals is March 23, 2020. OPM expects to announce the successful contractors in May.

The Washington Post reports that the focal point of the national drug overdose crisis has shifted to the California and other western states. The drugs causing overdose deaths are principally two illicit drugs — fentanyl and methamphetamine.

In California, fatal drug overdoses over the previous 12 months increased 13.4 percent between July 2018 and July 2019, the last month for which the CDC has compiled provisional data — an additional 728 deaths.

Fentanyl delivers an immediate, powerful high but can also render the user unconscious and unbreathing almost instantly. * * * [San Francisco based harm reduction worker Kristen Marshall] noted that thousands of overdoses have been reversed by peers on the street who were supplied with naloxone as part of harm reduction efforts. For many years, San Francisco saw a growing population of drug users but had a strikingly low rate of fatal overdoses. But that was before fentanyl showed up.

In contrast, Illinois’ fatal drug deaths were down 8 percent, Pennsylvania’s down 10 percent, Michigan’s down 13 percent and Maine’s down 20 percent.

Weekend update

Congress is back at work on Capitol Hill this week. The FEHBlog did find an easy to read list of upcoming Congressional hearings on Congress.gov. The FEHBlog did not find any hearing relevant to the FEHBP coming up.

The FEHBlog is following news about the COVID-19 epidemic. The Wall Street Journal reports that the number of cases outside China is growing particularly in South Korea (602 cases) and Italy (155 cases). There are 34 cases in the U.S. In a Centers for Disease Control conference with the press last Friday, Dr. Nancy Messonnier explained that

We are making our case counts in two tables.  One only tracks people who were repatriated by the state department, and the second tracks all other cases picked up through U.S. public health network.  CDC will continue to update these numbers every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  We are keeping track of cases resulting from repatriation efforts separately because we don’t believe those numbers accurately represent the picture of what is happening in the community in the united states at this time.  As of this morning, when you break things up this way, we have 13 U.S. cases versus 21 cases among people who were repatriated [here].  The repatriated cases include 18 passengers from the “diamond princess” and three from the Wuhan [China] repatriation flights

The Wall Street Journal confirms the growing trend of large health insurers to offer their own primary care delivery services to their health plan members [previously documented by the FEHBlog].

“It’s very worrisome for hospitals,” said Chas Roades, a health-care consultant. “Suddenly, the plan you’re relying on for payment is also competing with you at the front end of the delivery system.”

Hospitals’ biggest concern may be the power that primary-care doctors have over where their patients go for care such as imaging scans and specialist procedures. Hospitals rely on doctors to direct patients to them for such services—one reason they have bought up physician practices. Insurer-owned clinics might refer patients away from certain hospital systems, cutting off important revenue. 

The FEHBlog in contrast is delighted with this trend which will hold down costs while improving health care quality. Competition itself is healthy. “’Health care has got to be more seamless and more integrated,” said Rob Falkenberg, chief executive of UnitedHealthcare’s California operation.” Agreed.

Fierce Healthcare reports that Oscar Health has creating a $3 per prescription formulary of about 100 popular prescription drugs and insulin. The formulary went into effect on January 1, 2020 for about half of Oscar’s health plan members. The other half if covered by Medicare or live in certain states like New York which have not approved the formulary. The article explains that

Oscar was able to price the drugs so low through plan design.“The price we pay to acquire the drug for our members has not changed,” [Oscar spokesperson Jackie] Kahn said. “Instead, we chose to have our members pay $3 and we are covering the rest.”

Midweek Update

Thanks to a Govexec.com article, the FEHBlog ran across the joint General Services Administration / Office of Personnel Management Fiscal Year 2021 budget justification for the benefit of our Congress. OPM’s FEHBP discussion may be found on pages 69-70 and its FEHBA legislative proposals may be found on 30 of the OPM section of the document. The OPM Inspector General budget discussion begins on page IG-24 of the document. The FEHBlog is waiting for OPM to release the revised FEHBA language for its FEHBA legislative proposal, which is a retread from the FY 2020 budget proposal. (No such detailed language was released last year.)

Federal News Network reports that “an estimated 200,000 military family members and retirees would lose their ability to get health care through military hospitals and clinics under a ‘rightsizing’ plan the Defense Department sent to Congress on Wednesday.” The details may be found in this plan document. This proposal if implemented would impact the FEHB because many military retirees are active federal employees / FEHB enrollees. Thank you veterans for your double service to our Country. The FEHBlog will keep an eye on this one too.

Finally, Healthcare Dive calls attention to a new trend:

  • Private equity firms acquired 355 physician practices from 2013 to 2016, accounting for a total of 1,426 sites of care and more than 5,700 physicians, according to the latest research in JAMA.
  • Acquisitions accelerated each year over that time period, from just 59 acquisitions in 2013 to 136 in 2016.
  • Off the 355 acquisitions, the most targeted area was anesthesiology with 69 practices acquired, followed by emergency physicians at 43, the report published Tuesday showed.

As noted in the article, these investors in turn are pressing for surprise billing proposals that would keep out of network practices profitable.

Our firm is closely monitoring the impacts of COVID-19. Effective 3/16/20, Ermer & Suter has implemented telework for all of our staff to encourage social distancing and help contain the virus. We remain fully operational and are readily available from our telework locations with no change in telephone numbers or email addresses.