|THIS WEEK IN HEALTHCARE
What happened in healthcare this week—and what we think about it.
A new antiviral pill shows promise, as do vaccine mandates
Two pieces of hopeful news on the COVID front this week. First, pharmaceutical manufacturer Merck announced this morning that molnupiravir, the oral antiviral drug it developed along with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, reduced hospitalizations among newly diagnosed COVID patients by 50 percent. A five-day course of the drug was so successful in Merck’s clinical study that an independent monitoring group recommended halting the study and submitting the pill to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for emergency use authorization. Molnupiravir is activated by metabolism, and upon entering human cells, is converted into RNA-like building blocks, causing mutations in the COVID virus’s RNA genome and interfering with its replication. For that reason, the drug is unlikely to be prescribed during pregnancy, but otherwise the therapy seems to hold great promise in adding to the limited armamentarium available to fight the pandemic. One possible concern: the drug’s price tag. The federal government has agreed to purchase 1.7M courses of the drug at $700 per course, and with most insurance companies having returned to normal cost-sharing for COVID treatments, the drug may be out of reach for some patients. Still, a major clinical development to be celebrated, and more to come as Merck’s drug is vetted by the FDA.
At $20 to $40 per dose, with costs fully absorbed by the federal government, and remarkable effectiveness at preventing severe disease, hospitalizations, and deaths, vaccines remain far and away our best frontline weapon for fighting the COVID pandemic. Promising, then, that the much-debated vaccine mandates have begun to demonstrate success in increasing vaccination rates, even among those who have thus far resisted getting the shot. Despite concerns about massive staffing shortages among hospitals resulting from the implementation of its mandate, the state of New York found that 92 percent of healthcare workers had been vaccinated by Monday, when the mandate went into effect. That was a 10-percentage-point increase from a week earlier, holding promise that the Biden administration’s planned federal mandate for healthcare workers could have the desired effect. California’s mandate for healthcare workers went into effect yesterday, and was credited with boosting vaccination rates to 90 percent at many of the state’s health systems. Among private employers considering mandates, the experience of United Airlines may also be instructive: its employee mandate led to the vaccination of more than 99 percent of its workers, resulting in the termination of only 700 of its 67,000 employees. Of course, everyone prefers carrots to sticks, but sweepstakes and bonuses have only gotten so far in encouraging people to get vaccinated—now it appears mandates have a useful role to play as well. With 56 percent of the population fully vaccinated, the US now ranks 43rd among nations, just ahead of Saudi Arabia and far behind most of Europe. In the next few days we’ll reach the grim milestone of 700,000 COVID deaths in this country—anything that helps stop that number from growing further should be welcome news.
Setting the rules for settling “surprise bills”
On Thursday the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), along with other federal agencies, released the long-awaited second half of its proposed regulations implementing the No Surprises Act, passed by Congress at the end of last year, which bans “surprise billing” of patients who unsuspectingly receive care from out-of-network providers. The interim final rule, which will take effect on January 1st after a comment and review period, lays out a process for addressing disputed patient bills, first through a 30-day “open negotiation” between the patient’s insurer and the out-of-network provider, and then through a federally-managed arbitration process. Of most interest to insurers and providers who have lobbied fiercely for months to ensure a favorable interpretation of the law, the new regulation specifies that the outsider arbitrator, to be agreed upon by both parties, must begin with the presumption that the median in-network rate for services in the local market is the correct one. The arbitrator can then modify that price based on the specific circumstances of the case. That method was broadly favored by insurers, and AHIP strongly endorsed the proposed approach, saying in a press release that “this is the right approach to encourage hospitals, healthcare providers, and health insurance providers to work together and negotiate in good faith.” Predictably, the hospital lobby felt otherwise; the American Hospital Association reacted by calling the rule “a windfall for insurers”, saying that it “unfairly favors insurers to the detriment of hospitals and physicians who actually care for patients.” The ultimate winners here are patients, who will gain important new protections against the potentially crippling financial implications of surprise billing. We’d agree with HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, who told the New York Times that the new rule would “[take] patients out of the middle of the food fight,” and provide “a clear road map on how you can resolve that food fight between the provider and the insurer.” It’s about time. Still unresolved: the high cost of out-of-network ambulance services, left out of the No Surprises Act altogether. Let’s hope Congress circles back to address that issue soon.
Walmart partners with Epic for its health technology platform
This week, retail giant Walmart announced a partnership with Epic, the country’s most widely-used electronic health record (EHR) system, as the technology platform to support its health and wellness businesses. Epic will first be installed in four Walmart Health Center clinics slated to open in Florida early next year. The company currently operates 20 health centers in Georgia, Arkansas and the Chicago area, offering an expanded range of services including comprehensive primary care, behavioral health, dental, hearing and vision care, as well as labs and other diagnostics. Skeptics have noted that Walmart has fallen behind in its ambitious plans to broadly roll out the expanded clinics, the first of which opened in an Atlanta exurb in 2019. The partnership with Epic, which is used by more than 2,000 hospitals nationwide, signals that Walmart is serious about expanding its role as a healthcare provider—and sees opportunity in being able to share information and connect with health systems and doctors’ offices. However, the vision of a “unified health record across care settings, geographies and multiple sources of health data” outlined by Walmart’s EVP of health and wellness may be more difficult to achieve than expected, if the experience of health systems, who have been stymied by upgrades and version mismatches in their quest for a unified EHR, is any indication. Welcome, Walmart, to the wonderful world of EHRs—if you thought healthcare was complicated, just wait until you begin your first Epic install!