Weekend update

Weekend update

Photo by Dane Deaner on Unsplash

From Washington, DC —

  • The Wall Street Journal reports
    • “President Biden signed into law bipartisan legislation that suspends the $31.4 trillion debt ceiling, narrowly avoiding an unprecedented U.S. default that could have pushed the economy into a recession and touched off a financial crisis.
    • “The president signed the bill on Saturday afternoon, just two days before the government was set to run out of money to pay all of its bills, according to Treasury Department estimates.
    • “The legislation’s enactment caps weeks of tense negotiations between the White House and House Republicans that were spurred by GOP lawmakers’ demands to cut spending in exchange for raising the nation’s borrowing limit.
    • “The Fiscal Responsibility Act suspends the debt ceiling through Jan. 1, 2025, pushing the issue beyond the 2024 elections, in exchange for cuts in unspecified domestic programs and a 3% cap on increases for military spending in fiscal 2024.
    • “It provides $45 billion for a recently created program expanding coverage for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits, formally ends a three-year freeze on student-loan payments, expedites large-scale energy and infrastructure projects and raises to 54 the age at which able-bodied, low-income adults without dependents must work to receive food aid.”
  • The Supreme Court will continue to issue opinions from its October 2022 term. The Supreme Court now releases opinions on Thursdays, instead of Mondays.

From the miscellany front —

  • NPR Shots reports that “Vaccination and awareness could help keep mpox in check this summer.”
  • Health Payer Intelligence informs us
    • “After engaging in a free program provided by Capital Blue Cross (Capital), type 2 diabetes patients experienced a variety of health improvements along with noticeable financial benefits, according to a press release that HealthPayerIntelligence received by email.
    • “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 37 million people in the US have diabetes, accounting for 11 percent of the population. The CDC also noted that about 1 in 3 Americans will develop diabetes at some point during life.
    • “However, in 2021, Capital [which serves central Pennsylvania] began providing a program that aimed to lessen the effects of type 2 diabetes. Along with this, the insurer launched a program that aimed to lessen the risk of developing the disease, while helping those with the disease handle its effects.
    • “According to a Capital update released earlier this month, the program has led to various positive effects.”
  • HR Dive tells us
    • “Employees who take Family and Medical Leave Act leave in partial or intermittent increments during a week may not have holidays that fall during the same week counted against their FMLA leave, U.S. Department of Labor Principal Deputy Administrator Jessica Looman wrote in an opinion letter May 30. 
    • “On the other hand, if an employee uses a full workweek of FMLA leave during a week that includes a holiday, that holiday counts against their FMLA leave allotment, she said.
    • “This method of counting holidays is not a change from past provisions, Looman clarified, saying the department has used the same approach since the first publication of its FMLA regulations in 1995.”

Memorial Day Weekend update

Thanks to Justin Casey for sharing their work on Unsplash.

Congress is on a State / district work break this coming week. The Supreme Court has over thirty cases to decide, including the latest Affordable Care Act constitutionality case, before adjourning for the summer in late June / early July.

The federal employee news organizations have highlighted portions of the President’s fiscal year 2022 budget proposal which was released last Friday.

  • The Federal Times reports that “President Joe Biden’s fiscal year 2022 budget anticipates a more than 50,000 full-time-equivalent employee increase to the federal payrolls next year, as part of concerted efforts to attract young and expert workers to federal service. * * * ‘The Federal workforce continues to become older on average. Almost 30 percent (635,397) of employees are older than 55, while 8.1 percent (176,805) of employees are younger than 30. By comparison, in the private sector, 23 percent of the workforce is younger than 30. Every single agency has fewer employees younger than 30 today than they had in 2010,’ the budget proposal’s analytical perspectives state.
  • Govexec informs us that “President Biden on Friday formally proposed an average 2.7% pay increase for federal civilian employees in 2022 as part of his fiscal 2022 budget proposal. * * * It was unclear Friday how Biden’s proposal would be divvied up between an across-the-board boost to basic pay and increases in locality pay. In recent years, pay raise provisions have included a 0.5% average increase in locality pay, although it was frozen at 2020 levels this year. * * * The proposal also marks a return to the principle of pay parity between the civilian and military workforce, as service members would also receive a 2.7% pay raise in 2022. 

Federal News Network offers three brief stories on the U.S. Postal Service

The Postal Service sent its first reduction in force notices to non-union management employees Friday [no indication of how many notices were sent out], and is planning to set higher prices on its mail products well above the rate of inflation [first class stamp would increase by 5% from 55 cents to 58 cents].

The Senate, meanwhile, voted [by unanimous consent] to confirm [Anton Hajjar] President Joe Biden’s third nominee to serve on the USPS Board of Governors. The board is now fully staffed for the first time since 2010, and will help the agency get its 10-year reform plan off the ground.

Thus the Senate has confirmed all three of the President’s Postal Governor nominees who shared a confirmation hearing with OPM Director Kiran Ahuja while Ms. Ahuja waits for a confirmation vote.

In healthcare news —

  • Bloomberg tells us that “The U.S. reported the lowest level of infection since the early days of the pandemic and welcomed back sports fans to stadiums. The Indianapolis 500 was run before 135,000 fans, the largest crowd for a sporting event since the pandemic began [but 1/3 of capacity].  * * * The world needs the cooperation of the Chinese government to trace the origins of Covid-19 and prevent future pandemic threats, two leading U.S. disease experts said Sunday.
  • NPR reports that “For children in particular, the risk of serious consequences from COVID-19 is the same magnitude as the risk they face from the flu, she says. But many parents seem more worried about the new and less familiar disease. * * * [E]xperts urge parents to try not to worry too much.
  • Because many FEHB plans provide hypertensive members with at home blood pressure monitor, the FEHBlog wants to share the American Medical Association’s views on what doctors wish their patients knew about home blood pressure measurement.

Finally, the FEHBlog’s eyes were drawn to the weekend Wall Street Journal’s Heard on the Street column which discusses the efforts of Walmart and Amazon to enter the healthcare business.

Tuesday’s Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Govexec reports that “the Senate voted 81-13 on Tuesday to confirm Jason Miller to be deputy director for management for the Office of Management and Budget. Miller is a former Obama administration economic adviser and most recently a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and CEO of the Greater Washington Partnership, a nonprofit civic alliance.”

Julie Appleby of Kaiser Health News writes on the gradual rollback of COVID-19 treatment coverage with no member cost sharing in 2021.

Anthem, for example, stopped them at the end of January. UnitedHealth, another of the nation’s largest insurers, began rolling back waivers in the fall, finishing up by the end of March. Deductible-free inpatient treatment for covid through Aetna expired Feb. 28.

A few insurers continue to forgo patient cost-sharing in some types of policies. Humana, for example, has left the cost-sharing waiver in place for Medicare Advantage members, but dropped it on Jan. 1 for those in job-based group plans.

Not all are making the changes.

For example, Premera Blue Cross in Washington and Sharp Health Plan in California have extended treatment cost waivers through June. Kaiser Permanente said it is keeping its program in place for members diagnosed with covid and has not set an end date. Meanwhile, UPMC in Pittsburgh planned to continue to waive all copayments and deductibles for in-network treatment through April 20.

 Healthcare Dive reports

U.S. hospitals continue to struggle under the ongoing weight of the pandemic and its financial pressure, reporting a mixed performance in March, according to a new report from Kaufman Hall.

Volumes continued to decline, while revenues and expenses generally rose compared to the same time last year. Margins increased on both a year-to-date and year-over-year basis, but that’s largely due to measuring performance this year with last March, when hospitals were hit hard by the effects of state lockdowns and a pause in non-essential procedures, the consultancy said.

Researchers expect continued margin and revenue gains in the next few months, especially in comparison to record-poor performance in the first few months last year. Some gains are due to returning patient volumes, but the report warns the impacts of COVID-19 on providers are far from over.

Here is a link to today’s Centers for Disease Control’s “Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People.” The AP reports that “Some experts portrayed the relaxed guidance as a reward and a motivator for more people to get vaccinated — a message President Joe Biden sounded, too.” The FEHBlog honestly see the new guidance as too complicated and he will maintain his current mask wearing practices for a couple more months.

From the government contracting front

  • Here is a link to the President’s executive order raising the minimum wage on federal contracts for services and construction to $15 per hour. FEHB contracts do not fall into these classifications in the FEHBlog’s opinion.
  • The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is revving up the EEO-1 reporting process. “The EEO-1 Component 1 report is a mandatory annual data collection that requires all private sector employers with 100 or more employees, and federal contractors with 50 or more employees meeting certain criteria, to submit demographic workforce data, including data by race/ethnicity, sex and job categories. * * * After delaying the opening of the 2019 EEO-1 Component 1 data collection because of the COVID-19 public health emergency, the EEOC has announced that the 2019 and 2020 EEO-1 Component 1 data collection is NOW OPEN.  Eligible employers have until Monday, July 19, 2021 to submit two years of data.”

OPM Director Hearing / End of the Carrier Conference / Thursday Miscellany

The virtual OPM AHIP FEHB Carrier Conference ended today. For a good chunk of the conference, Kiran Ahuja, the President’s nominee for OPM Director contemporaneously had her confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland and Government Security Committee. Here are the Federal Times, Govexec , and Federal News Network articles on that hearing which reportedly went smoothly for the nominee.

At the carrier conference today, the FEHBlog learned about the many things including the following:

  • The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association has released a strategy to help bring about healthcare equity. “The strategy is centered around improving racial health disparities in maternal health, behavioral health, diabetes, and cardiovascular conditions [by] “measuring racial health disparities, forming community and clinical partnerships, scaling effective programs, and influencing local and federal policy decisions.”
  • The American Pharmacists Association has produced a report on promising practices for pharmacist engagement in tobacco cessation interventions. 
  • OPM now has a list of documentation that enrollees must furnish to the employing office or the FEHB carrier to verify family member eligibility in FEHB.

Thanks OPM and AHIP for a great conference.

In Thursday Miscellany —

  • As promised here is a link to the Internal Revenue Service guidance making “tax credits [available to certain employers] for providing paid leave to employees who take time off related to COVID-19 vaccinations.
  • The AP reports on encouraging “new data reassuring for COVID-19 vaccination in pregnancy.”
  • The Secretary of Health and Human Services has extended the COVID-19 public health emergency for another 90 days from yesterday.
  • The American Hospital Association is touting Hospital-at-Home Innovation During COVID-19 and Beyond. “What was once a small but mighty contingent of health care systems providing “hospital-at-home” care before the pandemic has grown into a larger movement. With this model, hospitals across the country are “admitting” patients to their own homes for acute care with excellent results. As highlighted in AHA’s recent issue brief on hospital-at-home, patients receiving this care have a 20% reduction in mortality, were three times less likely to be admitted to an emergency department than usual care patients and have higher satisfaction with their care. And these results are achieved at a 25% lower cost of care.”
  • Fierce Healthcare reports that [Blue Cross licensee] Highmark Health and ChristianaCare are launching a new joint venture that aims to harness data to accelerate value-based, equitable care. The joint company, which has yet to be named, will take advantage of the strengths of both companies to drive toward more accessible and affordable care. Karen Hanlon, chief operating officer at Highmark Health, said on a call with reporters Wednesday that the venture aims to disrupt the traditional dynamic between payers and providers for greater collaboration.” Here’s hoping.
  • AHIMA reports that the ICD-10 coding authorities are considering releasing new codes for October 1, 2021 (as usual) and April 1, 2022 (special supplement.)

The Pause plus Tuesday Tidbits

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Here is a link to the joint Food and Drug Administration / Centers for Disease Control statement on the recommended pause in administration of the Johnson and Johnson single dose COVID-19 vaccine that the agencies issued this morning. Becker’s Hospital Review reports that pharmacies and State governments administering the vaccine have implemented this recommendation.

Next steps —

CDC will convene a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) on Wednesday to further review these cases and assess their potential significance. FDA will review that analysis as it also investigates these [six] cases. Until that process is complete, we are recommending a pause in the use of this vaccine out of an abundance of caution. This is important, in part, to ensure that the health care provider community is aware of the potential for these adverse events and can plan for proper recognition and management due to the unique treatment required with this type of blood clot.

STAT News adds

Experts applauded the decision as the right thing to do.

“The pause is a prudent step to take, because when very serious adverse events occur that are also very rare, what matters most is ‘very serious,’” said John Moore, an immunologist at Weill Cornell Medicine. “Not only are individual members of the public at some risk, but so is the wider confidence in the Covid-19 vaccines.”

“It’s a reasonable but unproven assumption that the J&J and AstraZeneca vaccine safety concerns are linked by being related to an immune response against an adenovirus component,” he said. “So, FDA and scientists need time to better understand what is going on, which means a pause is the right course of action.”

And now for the tidbits

  • Modern Healthcare reports that the House today joined the Senate in delaying otherwise required 2% cuts in Medicare payments for the remainder of 2021. The means that CMS will be giving the Medicare Administrative Contracts its approval to resume paying Medicare claims once the President signs the bill into law.
  • Healthcare Dive reports that “Salt Lake City-based Intermountain [which sponsors an FEHB HMO] is acquiring air ambulance company Classic Air Medical in a bid to better coordinate virtual and physical care for rural patients. Snapping up Classic, which operates aircraft in eight western states and has a significant overlap with Intermountain’s telehealth footprint, is meant to make it easier to transport high-need patients to the closest medical facility equipped for their needs, the nonprofit system said in a Monday statement.”
  • The Department of Health and Human Services “have published several new resources to help states, vaccination providers, and others leading COVID-19 response activities improve access to vaccines for people with disabilities and older adults. These resources clarify legal requirements, illustrate some of the barriers to vaccine access faced by people with disabilities and older people, and provide strategies – and examples of how the aging and disability network can help employ them – to ensure accessibility.”
  • FedSmith explains “the Difference Between Postponed and Deferred FERS Retirement While postponed and deferred retirement sound similar, there are big differences for FERS federal employees who retire early with these options.” You only receive lifetime FEHB coverage in retirement with a postponed FERS retirement.
  • The trade association of prescription drug manufacturers Phrma has launched a new public relations campaign about its patient centered agenda while the Campaign for Sustainable Rx Prices “launched [its own] campaign Tuesday encouraging policymakers to act on campaign promises to hold Big Pharma accountable and lower prescription drug prices.” And so it goes.

Weekend update

Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

The House of Representatives and the Senate will be engaged in committee and floor work this coming week. Fierce Healthcare reports on healthcare provisions found in the Senate passed American Rescue Plan bill.

Insurers will likely be happy with a temporary boost to income-based subsidies for customers on the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges for 2021 and 2022.

Under current law, anyone making 400% above the federal poverty level are not eligible for subsidies to pay down the cost of insurance.

However, under the legislation, anyone making 400% above the poverty level won’t have to pay more than 8.5% of their income on health insurance.

The bill would also ensure that low-income customers won’t have to pay anything for their coverage.

Currently, those making 150% above the poverty level pay no more than 4.3% of their income on healthcare. But the legislation would make their coverage fully subsidized.

The legislation would also offer premium assistance to cover up to 100% of COBRA costs for eligible individuals and families through the end of September.

Another change in the Senate version from the House concerns the removal of a cap on the Medicaid drug rebate, changing the removal of the cap to 2024 instead of 2023. The removal of the rebate cap, which kicks in at 100% of a drug’s average manufacturing price, will lead to higher rebates for Medicaid drugs.

The Wall Street Journal informs us that

The $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill returns to the House of Representatives this week, where lawmakers will gear up for a vote as soon as Tuesday on the package following narrow approval Saturday by the Senate that came only after concessions to moderate Democrats.

The Senate changes to the bill, which first passed the House Feb. 27 with more generous unemployment provisions, mean House Speaker Nancy Pelosi must hold together her slim majority caucus for a second House vote to send President Biden’s top legislative priority to his desk.

The House is expected to hold a procedural vote on the bill Monday night, with final passage slated for Tuesday. 

Speaking of the Affordable Care Act marketplace, Katie Keith updates on the successful first two weeks of the ongoing marketplace special enrollment period.

In other healthcare news

  • Bloomberg reports on developing approaches to overcome COVID-19 hesitancy. “To do that, officials must make the process of getting shots easier, and fight misinformation about the vaccines, concerns about the speed of development and distrust of government and health-care institutions.” As of today, 23% of the eligible U.S population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. The FEHBlog noticed today that the Johnson & Johnson single dose vaccine is now being administered at the Maryland mass vaccination sites in Baltimore and Waldorf. It strikes the FEHBlog that the single dose vaccine will be more attractive to the hesitant.
  • NPR Shots offers a physician’s take on five types of medical visits that you should stop putting off. “Emerging evidence tells us that the health threats from postponing some tests and exams — including those for cancer and heart disease, but other crucial appointments too — outweigh the risk of running into the coronavirus at a doctor’s visit, even if the virus is prevalent in your community.”

Catchup Sunday

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend.

HHS issued several final rules on Thursday and Friday last week, none of which apply directly to the FEHBP:

  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS”) issued a final rule intended to streamline health plan prior authorization request to providers. America’s Health Insurance Plans, the health insurer trade association, was unimpressed. This rule applies to HHS’s own programs, e.g., Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, the Qualified Health Plans in the ACA marketplace.
  • CMS also a final Calendar Year (CY) 2022 Medicare Advantage and Part D Rate Announcement, finalizing Medicare Advantage (MA) and Part D payment methodologies for CY 2022. Here’s a link to the fact sheet.
  • HHS also issued part of the final CY 2022 Notice of Benefit and Payments Parameters required by the Affordable Care Act. Katie Keith outlines the notice on the Health Affairs blog, noting

On January 14, 2021, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released its final 2022 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters rule, joined in part by the Treasury Department. Historically, the “payment notice” adopts major changes for the next plan year in areas such as the exchanges and the risk adjustment program. Here, however, the final 2022 payment notice adopts only a subset of the policies considered in the proposed 2022 payment notice. This subset of policies includes the most controversial changes that had been included in the proposed rule. The final rule was accompanied by a fact sheet and a press release.

  • A friend of the FEHBlog called to his attention the fact that the Trump Administration HHS never published its proposed HIPAA privacy rule changes, announced December 10, 2020, in the Federal Register. (The HIPAA Privacy Rule does apply to the FEHBP.) What’s more the rule making cannot be found on the Federal Register’s latest public inspection list. The Biden Administration HHS will now have the opportunity to reconsider these “final actions” as well as what to do if anything with the proposed privacy rule changes.

The FEHBlog noticed that on January 7, 2021, the HHS Secretary extended the opioid crisis public health emergency another 90 days into April 2021.

Healthcare Dive informs us that

  • The Federal Trade Commission sent orders to six health insurance companies to obtain patient-level claims data for inpatient, outpatient, and physician services from 2015 to 2020, the agency said Thursday.
  • The FTC wants to figure out how hospitals’ acquisitions of physician practices has affected competition.  
  • The agency sent orders to some of the nation’s largest insurance companies, including UnitedHealthcare, Anthem, Aetna, Cigna, Florida Blue and Health Care Service Corporation.

Federal government personnel moves:

  • The Boston Globe reports that “President-elect Joe Biden on Friday nominated Eric Lander, a pioneer in the study of the human genome and the founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, to be his chief science adviser in a newly created Cabinet position. If confirmed by the Senate, Lander will be the first science adviser to serve in a presidential Cabinet * * *.
  • Medical Design and Resourcing reports that Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) “veteran Dr. Janet Woodcock has been tapped as interim FDA commissioner by the Biden administration, according to published reports.” Dr. Woodcock currently serves as the FDA’s Director of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.
  • Bloomberg Law reports that Dr. “Francis S. Collins will stay on as NIH director under the Biden administration, making him one of the few biomedical agency directors to span three presidents.”
  • Govexec.com reports that “President-elect Joe Biden has named Jason Miller as his government management czar, tapping a former Obama administration economic adviser for the key role in setting the president’s management and federal workforce agenda. * * * Should Miller be confirmed by the Senate, he would serve under OMB Director-designate Neera Tanden if she is confirmed and replace Michael Rigas, who is serving in the OMB management role—and that of Office of Personnel Management director—in an acting capacity. The last Senate-confirmed official to hold the management position was Margaret Weichert, a Trump nominee who served concurrently as acting OPM director. Biden has yet to name a head of OPM.”
  • The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service offer a Biden Administration political appointee tracker.

As this is the FEHBlog, it is worth noting that Federal News Network has reported on the OPM’s Inspector General’s report on the impact of COVID-19 on the FEHBP. The OIG’s analysis was found in its September 2020 semi-annual report to Congress. Federal News Network queries “What about 2022, or future years for that matter, when FEHB enrollees flock back to their doctor’s offices again for those checkups and preventative procedures they’ve been putting off?”

Bear in mind that all health U.S. plans including FEHB plans experienced a V shaped drop in claims at the height of the great hunkering down last Spring. Many preventive tests are not required annually. The FEHBlog got his routine physical last summer by a combination of a holding a televisit with the doctor and giving blood etc. at the doctor’s office. Furthermore, prescription drug claims have held steady throughout the pandemic and flu cases remain “unusually low” during this winter. We will get through this together. When we reach the new normal, the healthcare sky will not fall in, at least in the FEHBlog’s view.

Friday Stats and More

Based on the CDC’s Cases in the U.Swebsite, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 20th through 50th weeks of this year (beginning May 14 and ending December 16; 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:

The FEHBlog has noted that the new cases and deaths chart shows a flat line for new weekly deaths  because new cases greatly exceed new deaths. Accordingly here is a chart of new COVID-19 deaths over the period (April 2 through December 9). The FEHBlog extended this chart from April 2 to May 14 in order to display the previous high for this sad metric.

The CDC’s current Fluview report continues to state “Seasonal influenza activity in the United States remains lower than usual for this time of year.” So Americans must be doing something right.

The CDC issued a health advisory yesterday reporting

1) substantial increases in drug overdose deaths across the United States, primarily driven by rapid increases in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids excluding methadone (hereafter referred to as synthetic opioids), likely illicitly manufactured fentanyl;
(2) a concerning acceleration of the increase in drug overdose deaths, with the largest increase recorded from March 2020 to May 2020,coinciding with the implementation of widespread mitigation measures for the COVID-19 pandemic;
(3) the changing geographic distribution of overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids, with the largest percentage increases occurring in states in the western United States;
(4) significant increases in overdose deaths involving psychostimulants with abuse potential (hereafter referred to as psychostimulants) such as methamphetamine; and

That’s the twin pandemic that the CDC feared.

The Wall Street Journal reports that

The House [of Representatives] passed a two-day spending bill Friday evening, sending it over to the Senate in a bid to prevent a partial government shutdown after midnight, as congressional leaders struggled to wrap up negotiations on a coronavirus relief package. 

In the Covid-19 talks, negotiators were still wrestling Friday to close differences on the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending powers among other final snags. Leaders have aimed to pair the passage of the Covid-19 aid bill with a broader spending bill.

The FEHBlog expected a little bit longer extension but a two day extension suggests that the compromise on the COVID-19 relief bill is near. The FEHBlog cannot believe that with the Georgia Senate primary approaching on January 5 that either party would risk a government shutdown or not COVID-19 relief. But we shall see.

In that regard, the FEHBlog read on the American Hospital Association’s daily report about this health system letter to Congress, delivered today, suggesting that there is some crazy language in that bipartisan surprise billing proposal. Again, we shall see.

HHS’s Office for Civil Rights issued “guidance on how the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) permits covered entities and their business associates to use health information exchanges to disclose protected health information (PHI) for the public health activities of a public health authority. The guidance provides examples relevant to the COVID-19 public health emergency on how HIPAA permits covered entities and their business associates to disclose PHI to an HIE for reporting to a PHA that is engaged in public health activities.”

Friday Stats and More

Based on the CDC’s COVID Data Trackers website, here is the FEHBlog’s chart of new weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths over the 20th through 49th weeks of this year (beginning May 14 and ending December 9; 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’s interesting that the weekly rate dropped two weeks in a row. Typically the chart would show a one week drop which the FEHBlog discounted.

The FEHBlog has noted that the new cases and deaths chart shows a flat line for new weekly deaths  because new cases greatly exceed new deaths. Accordingly here is a chart of new COVID-19 deaths over the same period (May 14 through December 9):

The FEHBlog’s record high for weekly deaths remains 13,504 for the week ended April 22 which we now are approaching.

On the brighter side, the Wall Street Journal reports that

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it was finalizing the work needed to clear a Covid-19 vaccine developed byPfizer Inc. and German partner BioNTech SE, after the injection was endorsed by an expert panel.  “We could see people getting vaccinated Monday, Tuesday of next week,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Fierce Healthcare reports that “CVS [Health] is planning to begin administering COVID-19 vaccines in nursing homes beginning on Dec. 21, a top executive told Reuters.”

Govexec.com reports that “Civilian federal personnel are likely to begin receiving COVID-19 vaccinations as soon as Monday, officials said on Friday, though only [healthcare] employees at certain offices will receive the doses directly from their agencies.  Govexec.com offered the most details on the Defense Department’s plans which provide a helpful perspective

The Defense Department also anticipates vaccinating 44,000 employees next week, officials said on Wednesday, the vast majority of whom will be health care staff. The Pentagon plans to provide vaccines to both military and civilian staff, though it has not committed to vaccinating to its entire civil service workforce. 

“The eligibility we defined in terms of dependents, select contractors, civilian employees, and it’s going to be then how do they match up in terms of the prioritization tiers,” said Tom McCaffery, the assistant secretary of Defense for Health Affairs. 

In the initial phase, Defense will target health care workers who are closest to patients, early emergency responders and public security staff. Defense will distribute vaccines to 16 sites in that phase, 13 of which are located within the United States. McCaffery said the department recently held a “virtual tabletop exercise” to go through the first phase “in great detail to ensure seamless distribution and dissemination” of the vaccine. Defense will ultimately be responsible for vaccinating millions of individuals, including active duty personnel, civilian workers, at-risk dependents and some contractors. 

All told, Defense maintains 83 sites that have ultra-cold storage, including all 13 of those in the initial distribution.

HHS announced that the federal government

will purchase an additional 100 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine candidate, called mRNA-1273, from Moderna.

If authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use as outlined in agency guidance, doses of the vaccine will begin shipping immediately. The vaccine would be provided at no cost to Americans. Vaccine administration costs for private-sector administration partners will be covered by healthcare payers: private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid, and an HHS program to cover COVID-19 costs for the uninsured which is reimbursing the provider at Medicare rates from the provider relief fund.

Under the agreement, Moderna will leverage its U.S.-based manufacturing capacity to fill, finish and ship vials of mRNA-1273 as the bulk material is produced. The additional doses ordered today provide for continuous delivery through the end of June 2021. This strategy will help meet the anticipated demand for mRNA-1273 and safely accelerate the delivery schedule for all 200 million doses the U.S. government is purchasing.

“Securing another 100 million doses from Moderna by June 2021 further expands our supply of doses across the Operation Warp Speed portfolio of vaccines,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar. “This new federal purchase can give Americans even greater confidence we will have enough supply to vaccinate all Americans who want it by the second quarter of 2021.”

In other news,

  • Congress approved the one week long extension of the continuing resolution funding the federal government. The new deadline is December 18 and Federal News Network reports that “Negotiators on a $1.4 trillion catchall spending bill appeared to be moving in a positive direction, said the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.. This bill would serve as a vehicle to carry any year-end virus assistance.” Negotiations over that COVID-19 relief bill continue.
  • The HHS, the Labor Department, and the Treasury Department (a/k/a the tri-agencies) “announced a final rule that amends the [Affordable Care Act] requirements for grandfathered group health plans and grandfathered group health insurance coverage to preserve their grandfather status.”
  • The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rejected an ERISA preemption challenge to an Arkansas state law regulating prescription benefit manager pricing of drugs. Here is Healthcare Dive’s report. This decision will raise healthcare prices in the FEHBlog’s opinion.
  • Govexec.com reports that President Trump is giving a half day off to federal employees on Christmas Eve.

The FEHBlog’s link to the HHS fact sheet on the proposed HIPAA Privacy Rule changes (posted yesterday) was inoperable until the FEHBlog fixed it tonight. Here’s a link. Have a good weekend.

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.