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COVID vaccine update on its way • Abbott heart pump shows effectiveness

COVID VACCINE GETTING OMNICRON UPDATE SOON: COVID-19 boosters that have been reformulated to protect against the omicron variant may be ready in both Europe and the U.S. in September, ScienceInsider reports.

There is already a Moderna vaccine booster in production for the U.K. that’s built to protect against omicron subvariant BA.1, the article states.

Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said Tuesday the two mRNA vaccine manufacturers in the U.S. may get approval for an even more up-to-date update later this week.

Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech said last week they’ve submitted data to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration about boosters developed to target the two subvariants that are currently predominant, BA.4 and BA.5. President Joe Biden’s administration has already placed an order for 170 million doses.

ScienceInsider reports that, with limited data on the updated boosters, there will be numerous questions, including what the new boosters contain, how can updated boosters be approved without clinical trials and whether the updates be more successful in preventing infections, or serious consequences.

While Arwady said she expects to see the updated vaccines available very soon, she bemoaned the fact that there isn’t yet federal money to help public health officials roll out renewed vaccine booster campaigns.

NORTHWESTERN TO STUDY APPLE WATCH AS WEARABLE AFib MONITOR: With an eye toward getting atrial fibrillation (AFib) patients off lifelong, continuous blood-thinning medication, Northwestern University and Johns Hopkins University will study the effectiveness of using a heart rhythm app on an Apple Watch to tell patients when to use blood thinners temporarily.

Northwestern, as the lead study site, will share in a $37 million National Institutes of Health grant to conduct a seven-year trial of using a “pill-in-pocket” strategy to prevent stroke in AFib patients, a Northwestern statement said. Partnering institutions include Johns Hopkins, Stanford University and the University of California at San Francisco.

Using the app on Apple Watch and an accompanying app on iPhone, patients in the trial will be able to target blood-thinning medication use for a limited period of time and only in response to a prolonged episode of AFib, the statement said. Currently, most AFib patients use continuous doses of anti-coagulants to reduce the risk of stroke.

“If proven effective, this new treatment paradigm will fundamentally change the standard of care for the millions of Americans living with AFib,” principal investigator Dr. Rod Passman, director of the Center for Arrhythmia Research and a professor of medicine in the division of cardiology at Feinberg said in the statement. “Many of these patients are on blood thinners for the rest of their lives even if they have infrequent episodes of atrial fibrillation,” Passman said. “If we can show this strategy is equally protective against stroke and reduces bleeding, that could save lives, reduce cost and improve quality of life.”

The trial, called the Rhythm Evaluation for AntiCoagulaTion (REACT-AF) trial, is a collaboration between Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and the American Heart Association, with Apple providing Apple Watches to patients in the trial, the statement said.

Some patients with AFib have infrequent episodes of irregular heart rhythm, the statement said, and evidence suggests the risk of stroke increases in the weeks following an episode of AFib then returns to a baseline. That evidence of periods of increased risks raises the possibility of intermittent blood-thinner treatment, the statement said.

ABBOTT HEART PUMP MAY EXTEND HEART FAILURE PATIENTS’ LIVES BY 5 YEARS: Abbott said in a statement this week that data from a study show its HeartMate 3 heart pump extends the survival of advanced heart failure patients by at least five years.

The data from the Momentum 3 trial provides “a clear life-saving option for people battling later stage disease,” the statement said.

 The data came from the world’s largest randomized clinical trial to assess long-term outcomes in people receiving a left ventricular assist device, the statement said. The trial studied more than a thousand patients in a clinical trial setting, the statement said.

“The Momentum study proves that the HeartMate 3 heart pump has significantly moved the needle in terms of options for increasing life expectancy for our most advanced heart failure patients,” Dr. Divya Gupta, medical director of Advanced Heart Failure and Heart Transplantation at Emory Healthcare. “This research shows strong consideration should be given for this life-extending therapy for the thousands of people who are in advanced heart failure and meet the indications for the HeartMate 3.”

“Thousands of people with advanced heart failure die every year because they do not receive a heart pump, largely because their physicians are not aware of the option or its full benefits,” Keith Boettiger, vice president of Abbott’s heart failure business said in the statement. “There are too many patients who aren’t provided the opportunity to be evaluated for a heart pump, such as patients with obesity, diabetes, certain cancers and blood types or those from underserved communities across the United States. With broader awareness and improved access to a heart pump, we can give these patients a chance at a longer, fuller life.”

FIRST WEST NILE CASE IN ILLINOIS LEADS TO FIRST DEATH FROM VIRUS HERE: A person in their late 70s in Cook County contracted West Nile virus and subsequently died, with the virus being a contributing factor in the death, the Illinois Department of Public Health said Tuesday.

This year, the first mosquito batch to test positive for West Nile virus was collected on May 17 in Will County, the IDPH statement said. 

Last year, the first human case of the virus in Illinois was reported on Aug. 3, 2021 and there were 65 human cases, including five deaths, IDPH stated.

“This unfortunate first reported death of the year from West Nile virus in Illinois is a reminder that this disease poses a risk, especially to those who have weakened immune systems,” IDPH Director Dr. Sameer Vohra said in the statement. “While the weather is warm and mosquitos are breeding, we should all take precautions to protect ourselves from mosquitoes and the viruses they carry by wearing insect repellent and eliminating standing water around our homes where mosquitos breed.”

TWO CHICAGO OBSTETRICS PRACTICES ACQUIRED: North Shore Associates in Gynecology & Obstetrics and Northwestern Specialists for Women have been acquired by Grosse Pointe, Mich.-based management service organization Together Women’s Health.

The MSO now operates 14 locations for more than 60 providers in the two states. North Shore operates two offices in Wilmette and Glenview, while Northwestern is based in Chicago’s Near North Side with an affiliation with Northwestern Medicine Prentice Women’s Hospital.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but MSOs like TWH invest in a provider and run the business operations, where the practice’s doctors get equity stake in TWH and operate independently on the clinical side. The entire clinical staff then operates within a TWH medical group in each state. Clinicians are effectively employed and paid by the medical group and all profits are shared between the medical group and MSO, which manages all business operations and investments.

“As the health care landscape continues to evolve, maintaining the private practice model in obstetrics and gynecology is essential. We know patients feel the difference and prefer this as an option when they seek care,” said Bonnie Wise, doctor and partner at Northwestern Specialists and new chief medical director for Together Women’s Health. 

TWH CEO Anthony Ahee told Crain’s the organization has secured higher reimbursement rates from insurers in Michigan due to its size. READ MORE.

MEDICAL RESIDENTS MAY FIND RELIEF IN BIDEN’S LOAN FORGIVENESS, AMA SAYS: The executive order signed by President Joe Biden calling for student loan forgiveness won’t help many physicians who make in excess of the income-eligibility limits, but residents and fellows may find the loan-forgiveness language may apply to them, according to a post on the American Medical Association’s website.

Individual student loan borrowers who earn less than $125,000 annually and married couples with earnings under $250,000, are eligible for $10,000 in federal student-loan debt forgiveness under the executive order. What’s more, borrowers who qualified for the Pell Grant program, aimed at helping students from lower-income backgrounds, would be eligible for an additional $10,000 in loan forgiveness.

The AMA said that, according to “Medscape Physician Compensation Report 2022” data, physicians in every specialty earn well over the $125,000 per year individual income threshold. Some physicians with a spouse with very low or no income may be eligible under the $250,000 family earnings threshold, however.

And since average salaries for first-year residents were a bit less than $59,000 per year in an Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) report from 2020-2021, loan forgiveness is quite possible, the post said.

The AAMC data estimates that nearly three-quarters of physicians graduate with education-related debt, and the median debt is around $200,000. 

HOSPICE PROVIDER EXPANDS PEDIATRIC PROGRAM: Not-for-profit hospice and serious illness care provider Lightways is expanding its pediatric program to include eight new staff members and 80 seriously ill children who were previously served by the recently disbanded JourneyCare in Barrington.

“There’s no question that at-home hospice and palliative care improves the quality of life for seriously and terminally ill children and their families,” Mary Kay Sheehan, CEO of Joliet-based Lightways Hospice and Serious Illness Care. “These services reduce suffering and enhance the quality of time families are able to spend together.”

Lightways is now the only hospice and palliative care provider in northern Illinois to offer specialized pediatric care and adding JourneyCare’s youngest patients triples the size of its pediatric program, the statement said. 

JourneyCare was purchased by publicly-traded Addus HomeCare for $85 million earlier this year.

Lightways said that it has established a Little Lights Fund for donors interested in helping to ensure that children and families in need of hospice and palliative care can receive it. The fund will be used to cover an estimated $750,000 to $1,000,000 in nonreimbursed expenses associated with Lightways’ pediatric program, the statement said.

The program will receive some relief when state law begins to require private insurers and Medicaid plans to include a pediatric palliative care and hospice benefit. The mandate goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2023, for Medicaid, and Jan. 1, 2024, for private insurers. 

HOSPITAL FINANCIAL PERFORMANCE SPUTTERS: The latest National Hospital Flash Report from Chicago-based Kaufman Hall shows U.S. hospitals are experiencing some of the worst margins since the beginning of the pandemic.

The poor financial performance is not ameliorated by federal CARES Act or other stimulus funding, Kaufman Hall points out.

The median Kaufman Hall year-to-date operating margin index was -0.98%, for a seventh straight month of negative actual operating margins, the statement said. The median percent change in operating margin in July was -63.9% from June 2022 and -73.6% from July 2021, it said.

“July was a disappointing month for hospitals and put 2022 on pace to be the worst financial year hospitals have experienced in a long time,” Erik Swanson, a senior vice president of Data and Analytics with Kaufman Hall said in the statement. “Over the past few years, hospitals and health systems have been able to offset some financial hardship with federal support, but those funding sources have dried up, and hospitals’ bottom lines remain in the red.”
 
COMMERCE DEPARTMENT SUPPORTS CHICAGO TOURISM FOR THE DISABLED: The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration is awarding a $716,004 grant to Strategy for Access Foundation NFP in Chicago to boost tourism and increase accessibility and equity within the city’s tourism industry for people who have disabilities, according to a statement from the administration.

“Chicago is one of the best cities in the world for tourists to experience, and with more and more facilities becoming ADA-accessible, it’s important for visitors to know all the sites available to them,” U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said in the statement. “With this federal support, we can showcase some of Chicago’s many accessible attractions while supporting jobs in the area’s tourism sector. I’ll continue to push for a future where Americans of all ability statuses are able to enjoy our nation’s attractions.”

SURPRISE BILLING ARBITRATION OFF TO A ROCKY START: Insurers are accusing providers of submitting every possible claim to arbitration through the federal No Surprises Act, even when they know some cases are not eligible for mediation. Providers allege insurers are holding up the federal dispute process by delaying submissions of clear and complete information, Crain’s sister publication Modern Healthcare reports.

The recently published final rule on the process from the Health & Human Services, Labor and Treasury departments likely will not resolve all these problems.

“I’m a generally optimistic person. But I’m not so optimistic,” said Dr. Lisa Maurer, a physician at Emergency Medicine Specialists in Milwaukee and chief medical officer for medical management services organization ConsensioHealth.

The No Surprises Act, which took effect Jan. 1, requires insurers and providers that fail to agree on rates for out-of-network care to engage in independent dispute resolutions overseen by arbiters. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services unveiled the federal mediation portal in April.

Mediators decided just 1,200 out of 46,000 disputes submitted to the portal as of Aug. 11, according to the most recent federal data. CMS received “substantially more” cases to review than initially expected, the agency reported this month. Three of the 11 independent dispute resolution entities are no longer accepting new cases, according to CMS. 

PEOPLE ON THE MOVE

• Alethia Jackson has been named Walgreens Boots Alliance’s senior vice president of environmental, social and governance and chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer for the U.S., the Deerfield-based company said in a statement.

Jackson most recently served as vice president of federal government relations and will assume the new role on Oct. 1, the statement said. She will report to Holly May, executive vice president and global chief human resources officer for Walgreens.

“As evidenced by her leadership in developing our COVID-19 vaccine equity initiatives, Alethia understands the urgency behind health equity, as well as the impact carbon emission reductions, product sustainability and recycling can have on our planet as well as our overall health,” May said in the statement.

Jackson joined Walgreens in 2011 as a member of the government relations team.

• Dr. Vikram Bakhru has been named the new chief executive officer at Oak Brook-based physicians services company Innovista Health Solutions.

Bakhru, a practicing physician, most recently served as chief health officer for a managed Medicaid insurance company, the Innovista statement said. Bakhru’s LinkedIn profile states he previously served as industry lead, health and equity advisory council for Minneapolis-based Bright Health Group.

Bakhru is also the founder and chairman of the board of directors of the Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children, the statement said.

• Michelle Spellerberg has been named chief marketing officer and member of Millennium Trust Company’s executive leadership team.

Spellerberg joins the Oak Brook-based after more than eight years with Alliant, a nationwide digital credit union, where she held the position of vice president and chief marketing officer, according to a Millennium Trust statement.

This new hire comes on the heels of Millennium Trust’s acquisition of PayFlex, a leading provider of health savings accounts and other consumer-directed benefits solutions, from CVS, the statement said. 

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