Fearing a ‘Twindemic,’ Health Experts Push Urgently for Flu Shots

Fearing a 'Twindemic,' Health Experts Push Urgently for Flu Shots ...

There’s no vaccine for Covid-19, but there’s one for influenza. With the season’s first doses now shipping, officials are struggling over how to get people to take it.

As public health officials look to fall and winter, the specter of a new surge of Covid-19 gives them chills. But there is a scenario they dread even more: a severe flu season, resulting in a “twindemic.”

Even a mild flu season could stagger hospitals already coping with Covid-19 cases. And though officials don’t know yet what degree of severity to anticipate this year, they are worried large numbers of people could forgo flu shots, increasing the risk of widespread outbreaks.

The concern about a twindemic is so great that officials around the world are pushing the flu shot even before it becomes available in clinics and doctors’ offices. Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been talking it up, urging corporate leaders to figure out ways to inoculate employees. The C.D.C. usually purchases 500,000 doses for uninsured adults but this year ordered an additional 9.3 million doses.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been imploring people to get the flu shot, “so that you could at least blunt the effect of one of those two potential respiratory infections.”

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been waging his own pro flu-shot campaign. Last month, he labeled people who oppose flu vaccines “nuts” and announced the country’s largest ever rollout of the shots. In April, one of the few reasons Australia allowed citizens to break the country’s strict lockdown was to venture out for their flu shots.

The flu vaccine is rarely mandated in the U.S. except by some health care facilities and nursery schools, but this month the statewide University of California system announced that because of the pandemic, it is requiring all 230,000 employees and 280,000 students to get the flu vaccine by November 1.

A life-threatening respiratory illness that crowds emergency rooms and intensive care units, flu shares symptoms with Covid-19: fever, headache, cough, sore throat, muscle aches and fatigue. Flu can leave patients vulnerable to a harsher attack of Covid-19, doctors believe, and that coming down with both viruses at once could be disastrous.

The 2019-20 flu season in the United States was mild, according to the C.D.C. But a mild flu season still takes a toll. In preliminary estimates, the C.D.C. says that cases ranged from 39 million to 56 million, resulting in up to 740,000 hospitalizations and from 24,000 to 62,000 flu-related deaths.

According to the C.D.C., flu season occurs in the fall and winter, peaking from December to February, and so was nearing its end as the pandemic began to flare in the United States in March.

But now, fighting flu proactively during the continuing pandemic presents significant challenges: not only how to administer the shot safely and readily, but also how to prompt people to get a shot that a majority of Americans have typically distrusted, dismissed and skipped.

With many places where the flu shot is administered en masse now inaccessible — including offices and plants that offered it free to employees on site and school health clinics — officials have been reaching out to local health departments, health care providers and corporations to arrange distribution. From now through Oct. 31, publicity campaigns will blast through social media, billboards, television and radio. Because the shot will be more difficult to access this year, people are being told to get it as soon as possible, although immunity does wane. There will be flu shot tents with heaters in parking lots and pop-up clinics in empty school buildings.

Because of the efforts, vaccine makers are projecting that a record 98 million flu shots will be given this year in the United States, about 15 percent more than doses ordered last year. The Kaiser Permanente health care system will be flooding more than 12 million of its members with flu shot reminders via postcard, email, text and phone calls.

Pharmacies and even supermarkets are expected to play a bigger role than they have in previous years. As of this week, Walgreens and CVS will have flu shots available. Walgreens will be hosting additional off-site flu vaccine clinics in community centers and churches. To reduce contact time, CVS is allowing patients to fill out paperwork digitally.

In New York City, which averages about 2,000 flu-related deaths a year, the health department has been reaching out to hundreds of independent pharmacies to administer the shots, because they are often located in outer-borough neighborhoods where the coronavirus has been rampaging. The health department has a detailed online flu vaccine locator.

“Access is a problem for all adult vaccines,” said L. J. Tan, chief strategy officer for the Immunization Action Coalition, a nonprofit group that works to increase vaccination rates, who was an early promoter of the term twindemic. “Adults may think, If I can get the flu shot easily, I might consider it.”

But as difficult as getting the flu shot to people safely will be, perhaps harder still will be persuading them to actually get it. In the 2018-19 flu season in the United States, only 45.3 percent of adults over 18 got the vaccine, with rates for those ages 18 to 50 considerably lower.

Skepticism to this vaccine runs high, particularly in communities of color because of longstanding distrust and discrimination in public health.2017 study in the journal Vaccine noted that, compared with white people, “African Americans were more likely to report barriers to vaccination, were more hesitant about vaccines in general and the flu vaccine specifically, more likely to believe in conspiracy theories and use naturalism as an alternative to getting vaccinated.”

Across all demographic groups, perhaps the most striking reason given for avoiding the flu vaccine is that people do not see it as efficacious as, say, the measles vaccine.

Indeed, it is a good vaccine but not a great one. It must be repeated annually. Immunity takes up to two weeks to kick in. But its efficacy also depends on how accurately infectious disease centers worldwide forecast which strains are expected to circulate in the coming year. And then those strains can mutate.

Although the flu shot confers immunity at all ages over six months, it can be less complete in people over 65. Depending on many factors, the shot’s effectiveness in a given year can range from 40 to 60 percent.

“But a vaccine not given won’t protect anyone,” said Dr. Jane R. Zucker, assistant commissioner for the Bureau of Immunization at the New York City Health Department, which has been hosting webinars for providers about how to have conversations about the flu shot with hesitant patients.

As health officials note, should a vaccinated person contract the flu, the severity will almost certainly be reduced, hospitalization rarely necessary. Especially with Covid-19 raging, public officials reason, those odds look pretty good.

Another reason people give for not getting the shot is they think it makes them sick.

“People who say ‘I’ll never get it because it gives me the flu’ have not had the flu and don’t know what it is,” said Patsy Stinchfield, senior director of infection prevention at Children’s Minnesota.

“What you’re feeling is your body’s immune response to the virus’s antigens,” said Ms. Stinchfield, a member of the C.D.C.’s influenza work group. “You may feel flu-ish. And that’s a good thing. It’s your body’s way of saying, ‘I am ready for the flu, and I won’t get as sick if I get the real one.’”

Public campaigns will describe the shot as a critical weapon during the pandemic. “Hopefully people will say, ‘There’s no Covid vaccine so I can’t control that, but I do have access to the flu vaccine and I can get that,’” Ms. Stinchfield said. “It gives you a little power to protect yourself.”

Other campaigns will emphasize familial and community responsibility.

Usually, flu vaccine compliance rates among people ages 18 to 49 are low. Vermont’s, for example, is only about 27 percent.

Christine Finley, the state’s immunization program manager, believes that rates will improve because of the pandemic’s stay-at-home households. “People are more aware that the risks they take can negatively impact others,” she said. “They’re often taking care of young children and older parents.”

If any example could prove instructive about protective behavior and flu vaccines during the coronavirus epidemic, it could well be Australia.

Australia’s flu vaccine rate tends to be modest, but this year demand was high. The government’s rollout of the shot began earlier than usual for the June-through-August winter because the coronavirus pandemic was exploding. Though the government had also issued strict no-entry limits among many states and territories and bans on international travel, the flu shot was one of the few reasons people could emerge from lockdown.

The prevalent strain circulating in the country is Type A, the most common and virulent form of flu, said Dr. Kelly L. Moore, a public health expert at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

According to the C.D.C., Type A is the most likely to circulate globally. It mutates readily, particularly as it jumps between animals and humans.

“There are two strains of Type A influenza in the vaccine,” Dr. Moore said, “and so the very best way to protect yourself is to get the shot.”

Reported cases of flu in Australia have dropped 99 percent compared with 2019.

Australia’s milder-than-usual flu season is likely the result of a number of factors — strong flu vaccination uptake, social distancing, but also severely decreased movement of people,” said Dr. Jonathan Anderson, a spokesman for Seqirus, a supplier of flu vaccine.

But though American public health authorities usually look to Australia’s flu season as a predictive, Australians say this year it’s not a reliable indicator.

“This situation is of no comfort as these measures do not apply to the United States where the populace has never been effectively physical distancing,” nor have the country’s entry restrictions been as onerous, said Dr. Paul Van Buynder, a public health professor at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia.

All that Americans can do is get vaccinated against flu, he added, because circulation of the coronavirus remains high.

“It is likely they will have a significant influenza season this northern winter,” he said.

 

 

 

 

 

Walgreens invests $1B in primary care clinics with VillageMD deal

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/walgreens-invests-1b-in-primary-care-clinics-with-villagemd-deal/581208/

Walgreens plans to open up to 700 primary care clinics as part of ...

Dive Brief:

  • Walgreens on Wednesday announced plans to open up to 700 primary care clinics across the country over the next five years in partnership with medical services provider VillageMD, and “hundreds more” after that.
  • As part of the agreement, Walgreens will invest $1 billion in equity and convertible debt in Chicago-based VillageMD over the next three years, including a $250 million equity investment Wednesday. VillageMD will use 80% of the funds to pay for opening the clinics, called Village Medical at Walgreens, and integrate digitally with Walgreens.
  • Walgreens, which saw its stock rise slightly in early morning trading on the news, anticipates owning 30% of VillageMD once the investment is done. More details on the partnership will be released in the first quarter next year.

Dive Insight:

Retail clinics, which can generate additional script-writing and drive front-of-store sales for their owners, have seen renewed interest in recent years from giants like pharmacy rival CVS Health and retail behemoth Walmart. But Walgreens is the first national pharmacy chain to work toward building out a primary care infrastructure in stores across the U.S.

The move represents a massive investment in the healthcare delivery space for the Illinois-based company, which began trialing the full-service doctor’s offices in its stores late last year with five clinics in Houston, Texas. The pilot was successful, Walgreens said, driving high patient satisfaction scores.

Additionally, the integrated pharmacy model is correlated with increased medication adherence and better patient outcomes, according to internal VillageMD data — important factors in managing chronic conditions, which drive roughly 85% of all U.S. healthcare spend.

As such, Walgreens plans to open 500 to 700 stores over the next five years, staffed by more than 3,600 primary care physicians recruited by VillageMD, along with nurses, social workers and therapists working alongside Walgreens’ pharmacists in 30 U.S. markets.

The two companies are still finalizing what those initial markets are going to be, but the very first will be in Texas and Arizona, Walgreens’ Director of Pharmacy and Healthcare Services Communications Kelli Teno told Healthcare Dive. More than half of the clinics will be located in government-designated medically underserved areas such as Houston, which have a large share of low-income populations, migrant workers and Medicaid beneficiaries.

The stores will accept a broad array of insurance options, according to the release. Many plans VillageMD works with have a zero dollar to $10 co-pay for primary care services, Teno said.

The clinics use a sliding scale payment model for patients who don’t have insurance to try to make care more affordable for the broad range of primary care services provided, like preventative visits, acute infection or minor trauma care or chronic condition management.

Telehealth will be available around the clock for consumers via Walgreens’ healthcare marketplace app, called Find Care, or via VillageMD’s internal capabilities. VillageMD doctors can also provide at-home doctor visits for vulnerable populations, such as senior citizens or the immunocompromised.

Walgreens already has 14 in-store primary care clinics operated by different partners like Partners in Primary Care, Southwest Medical — part of Optum’s physician group — and VillageMD. Late last year, Walgreens announced it was closing 160 of its internally staffed walk-in clinics, though it still has more than 400 clinics nationwide, most staffed or run by local health systems or physician groups.

Its outsourcing model flies against CVS, which built out its health-focused store network, called HealthHUBs, through acquisitions and builds. HealthHUBs designate at least a fifth of floor space to health and wellness focused products. CVS plans to have a chain of 1,500 locations by the end of 2021 as part of its enterprise growth strategy, adding to its almost 10,000 retail locations and more than 1,100 walk-in medical clinics.

For its part, Walgreens’ clinics will be between 3,300 and 9,000 square feet and use existing space within Walgreens’ locations. To make room, clinic-linked stores will offer fewer unhealthy front-end products like snacks and sodas. Tobacco products will not be sold in the first 200 Village Medical at Walgreens locations.

“Many of the stores that we’re initially looking at to build these clinics naturally sell more pharmacy and health and wellness products,” Teno said. “It will really depend on the needs of that local community.”

VillageMD, through its subsidiary Village Medical, includes more than 2,800 doctors across nine markets. The seven-year-old company, which competes with other primary care management companies like UnitedHealth-owned Optum has raised $216 million in total funding across three rounds from investors like Oak HC/FT and Town Hall Ventures, a firm founded by Andy Slavitt, former CMS administrator under President Barack Obama.

 

 

 

Walmart confirms a new avatar — it’s also a health insurance agency

https://medcitynews.com/2020/07/walmart-confirms-a-new-avatar-its-also-a-health-insurance-broker/?utm_campaign=MCN%20Daily%20Top%20Stories&utm_medium=email&_hsmi=90973681&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-81Jwk3CVNhJLTDzB0d_5dxRASKqJQULhnQYEg1uxEGxr-l_EbrHhNlSq7UcPZ103ku0wBylrpCk8Y0i1vrK7rRE5rJuA&utm_content=90973681&utm_source=hs_email

Should I buy health insurance from Walmart? - Castaline Insurance ...

Walmart quietly launched a new health insurance business. The company, called Walmart Insurance, was filed with the Arkansas Secretary of State last month.

Walmart is making clear what an executive declared in a virtual conference: that it is firmly in the healthcare business, not just in retail healthcare.

News emerged today that the company is planning to throw its weight around in another healthcare segment in need of an overhaul: insurance. A spokeswoman from the Bentonville, Arkansas retail behemoth confirmed that the company has created “Walmart Insurance Services LLC” to sell insurance policies. The business entity’s name was first filed with the Arkansas Secretary of State in late June.

“We currently offer access to insurance information in our Walmart Health locations, and we have a long-standing education program called Healthcare Begins Here to help people find the right insurance plan for them,” spokeswoman Marilee McInnis wrote in an email. “We’re expanding our current insurance services to now include the sale of insurance policies to our customers.”

A handful of job postings at a call center in the Dallas metro also match up with Walmart Insurance Services, as first pointed out by Talk Business & Politics. Walmart has listings for licensed insurance agents and Medicare sales supervisors.

“Yes, you read that right, Walmart now has an insurance agency,” the listings read.

It looks like the new subsidiary will be focused on selling Medicare Advantage plans, though the company was mum when asked for additional details. The spokeswoman’s statement about the “sale of insurance policies to our customers” also leaves open the possibility of Walmart expanding its services beyond senior shoppers in the future.

Medicare Advantage plans have been experiencing rapid growth in the past decade, with more than a third of all beneficiaries enrolled in a plan managed by a private insurer. That figure is expected to increase in the future.

 

Deeper into the pharmacy space

Separately, on Tuesday, Walmart announced that it had struck a partnership with  PBM startup Capital Rx, which provides health plans real-time information on prescription drug prices.

Walmart has been a big player in the pharmacy space for several years, and the company appears to be deepening that through this partnership

“‘Everyday low price’ has been a guiding principle at Walmart. We take pride in providing affordable prices to more than 160 million customers who shop Walmart each week,” Walmart Health and Wellness Vice President Luke Kleyn said in a news release. “Working with Capital Rx will allow us to do the same for prescription drugs,”

Capital Rx was founded just over two years ago by AJ Loiacono, a former insurance auditor, with the idea of providing drug prices as part of pharmacy benefit plans.

Loiacono started his career in the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry, where “everything that comes out of that plant has a price.”

When he moved over to the auditing and procurement side, working with payers and self-insured companies, he was shocked to find out that none of their contracts included drug prices. To solve this, the company uses Medicaid’s National Average Drug Acquisition Cost, rather than the average wholesale price, to calculate costs.

As a standalone company, Capital Rx was able to provide price information for retail drugs, but they weren’t able to do the same for mail and specialty drugs. The partnership with Walmart will “complete the model,” with Walmart providing mail and specialty drug fulfillment.

With the partnership, Capital Rx was able to quickly sign on some payers, though it hasn’t yet disclosed which ones.

“Walmart is a diversified company. We liked the fact that they were independent. They’re not part of a PBM or a health system today,” Loiacono said. “The other part of it is, they have scale.”

Loiacono also pointed to similar goals in price transparency — something Walmart emphasized when it shared the cash pay prices for its new health clinics.

“This is what we’re seeing a little bit more of as the future in the roadmap,” Loiacono said. “They’re making a serious investment in healthcare.”

 

 

 

 

CVS Reaches Goal To Open 1,000 Coronavirus Test Sites

https://www.forbes.com/sites/brucejapsen/2020/05/28/cvs-hits-goal-to-open-1000–coronavirus-test-sites/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=news&utm_campaign=news&cdlcid=#529f289841b4

CVS Reaches Goal To Open 1,000 Coronavirus Test Sites

CVS Health Thursday said it is delivering as promised to open 1,000 testing locations for the Coronavirus strain Covid-19.

The scale of the openings comes more than two months after CVS, Walgreens Boots Alliance, Rite Aid, Walmart and other retailers pledged in White House meetings to use their thousands of locations, including parking lots to expand U.S. testing for COVID-19. In CVS Health’s case, the sites that will all be open Friday will use “self-swab tests” as part of a newer phase of testing by the giant drugstore chain.

“It’s no small feat to operationalize 1,000 test sites in weeks under trying circumstances, which is a credit to our employees and their unwavering commitment to being part of the solution,” CVS Health president and chief executive Larry Merlo said. “Our testing strategy will continue to evolve and make the most effective use of our resources as we work to help safely re-open the economy.”

CVS is hoping to dramatically ramp up testing by processing up to 1.5 million tests every month. Currently, CVS processes about 30,000 tests for COVID-19 a week in five states as part of a rollout that began several weeks ago with a focus on front-line healthcare workers and first responders.

“Since first offering COVID-19 testing at a pilot site outside a CVS Pharmacy in Shrewsbury, Mass., in mid-March, the company has performed nearly 200,000 tests nationwide,” the company said in a statement released Thursday.

CVS Health’s announcement should be welcome news for the Trump administration, which announced the participation of the retailers in March and has been vowing to provide access to COVID-19 testing to all Americans, but has been dogged by criticism.

Patients can register at CVS’ web site to get tested.

 

 

CVS long-term care pharmacy sued by DOJ over fraudulent prescribing practices

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/cvs-long-term-pharmacy-sued-by-doj-over-fraudulent-prescribing-practices/569268/

Dive Brief:

  • CVS Health and its Omnicare business are being sued by the Department of Justice over alleged fraudulent billing of Medicare and other government programs for outdated prescriptions for elderly and disabled people.
  • The DOJ suit, filed Tuesday in New York, joins whistleblower ligitation accusing Omnicare of billing federal healthcare programs for hundreds of thousands of drugs based on out-of-date prescriptions for individuals in assisted living facilities, group homes, independent living communities and other long-term care facilities between 2010 and 2018. The lawsuit seeks civil penalties and other damages.
  • “We do not believe there is merit to these claims and we intend to vigorously defend the matter in court,” CVS spokesperson Joe Goode told Healthcare Dive. “We are confident that Omnicare’s dispensing practices will be found to be consistent with state requirements and industry-accepted practices.”

Dive Insight:

The suit alleges Omnicare, the nation’s largest long-term care pharmacy, kept dispensing antipsychotics, anticonvulsants, antidepressants and other drugs based off invalid prescriptions for months, and sometimes years, without obtaining fresh scripts from patients’ doctors.

Managers at the long-term care business allegedly ignored prescription refill limitations and expiration dates and forced staff to fill prescriptions quickly, pressuring some facilities to process and dispense thousands of orders daily. When prescriptions expired, Omnicare “rolled over” the scripts, assigning them a new number, allowing the pharmacy to dispense the drug indefinitely without need for doctor involvement.

This practice allowed Omnicare to continually dispenses drugs for seniors and disabled occupants in more than 3,000 residential long-term care facilities, at an ongoing risk to their health, according to DOJ. Many of the prescription drugs were meant to treat serious conditions like dementia, depression or heart disease and have side effects when not closely monitored by a physician — particularly when taken in tandem with other medications.

The pharmacy then submitted knowingly false claims to Medicare, Medicaid and TRICARE, which serves military personnel, for the illegally dispensed drugs over an eight-year period; and lied to the government about the status of the prescriptions. CVS Health senior management was also aware of the scheme, according to DOJ.

“A pharmacy’s fundamental obligation is to ensure that drugs are dispensed only under the supervision of treating doctors who monitor patients’ drug therapies,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said in a statement. “Omnicare blatantly ignored this obligation in favor drugs out the door as quickly as possible to make more money.”

The government joined the lawsuit originally brought by Uri Bassan, an Albuquerque, New Mexico pharmacist for Omnicare, filed in June 2015. The original whistleblower suit said Omnicare’s compliance department was aware of the “rolling over” process, but did nothing to stop it.

This is by no means the first time the CVS subsidiary, established in 1981 and acquired in 2015 for about $12.7 billion, has been under the federal microscope for fraud.

Omnicare has a history of friction with the DOJ
  • 2006Omnicare pays almost $50 million over improper Medicaid claims

  • 2009Omnicare shells out $98 million to settle kickback allegations

  • 2012Omnicare enters into a $50 million settlement following a DOJ investigation finding its pharmacies dispensed drugs to long-term care facility residents without valid prescriptions

  • Feb. 2014Omnicare pays the government more than $4 million to settle kickback allegations

In the May 16, 2017 suit, the government accused Omnicare of designing an automated label verification system that purposefully inflated profits by submitting claims for generic drugs different than those given to patients. CVS said that all happened before it acquired Omnicare.

​Omnicare provides pharmacy benefits for post-acute care and senior living care, including in skilled nursing facilities, hospitals and health systems and assisted living communities.

Despite the lucrative market in an aging U.S. population with complicated drug needs, Omnicare is an underperforming business in otherwise healthy times for CVS. The unit triggered a $2.2 billion goodwill impairment charge following a late 2018 test, according to CVS’ fourth quarter filing last year.

Omnicare operates 160 pharmacies in 47 states. During the eight years under investigation, Omnicare submitted more than 35 million claims for drugs dispensed to Medicare beneficiaries in assisted living facilities alone, DOJ says.

 

 

 

 

1,250 healthcare deals have been announced, completed this year

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/hospital-transactions-and-valuation/1-250-healthcare-deals-have-been-announced-completed-this-year.html?origin=cfoe&utm_source=cfoe

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The healthcare industry saw 1,250 deals announced or completed through October of this year, according to Bloomberg Law. 

The healthcare deal volume in 2019 is significantly higher than the same period last year, which had 900 deals announced or closed.

Merger and acquisition activity for long-term care, physician services, health IT and pharmaceutical companies are on pace to exceed the deal volume hit in 2018.

Walgreens is one company that is driving deal activity in the healthcare sector. The retail pharmacy giant recently announced it would close 157 in-store healthcare clinics it operated by the end of the year.

TriHealth announced it would buy seven of the Walgreens clinics in the Cincinnati area, and the deal is likely to be replicated elsewhere, Gary Herschman, a member of law firm Epstein Becker Green, told Bloomberg Law. 

However, the hospital and health system sector will likely end 2019 with fewer deals than in 2018, according to the report.

There were only 12 transactions in the hospital and health system sector in October, according to Nicholas Davis, a senior analyst at healthcare consultancy ECG Management Partners.