Experts advise clinical laboratories to prepare now for a marked increase in demand for RSV, COVID-19, and influenza testing
Are the COVID-19 lockdowns responsible for the increase in cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)? Some physicians believe that may be the case and it has hospitals, clinical laboratories, and pathology groups scrambling to prepare for a possible “tripledemic,” according to UC Davis Health.
The addition of RSV as we move into what is predicted to be a bad influenza (flu) season has prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to issue a Health Alert Network (HAN) advisory which states, “Co-circulation of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), influenza viruses, SARS-CoV-2, and others could place stress on healthcare systems this fall and winter.” This is especially true of clinical laboratories that still struggle to keep pace with demand for COVID-19 testing.
“COVID cases are expected to rise during the winter. This will be occurring at the same time we expect to see influenza rates increase while we are already seeing an early start to RSV season,” said Dean Blumberg, MD (above), chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children’s Hospital. “With all three viruses on the rise, we are worried about an increase in the rates of viral infection that may lead to an increase in hospitalizations.” Clinical laboratories should prepare for a marked increase in demand for RSV testing, as well as COVID-19 and influenza. (Photo copyright: UC Davis Health.)
Masking, Lockdowns, and Social Distancing Could be Responsible
Every winter in the United States, outbreaks of the flu and RSV occur. However, this year the RSV outbreak appears to be more serious. The CDC warns that “surveillance has shown an increase in RSV detections and RSV-associated emergency department visits and hospitalizations in multiple US regions, with some regions nearing seasonal peak levels.”
The current spread of RSV infections taking place in the US varies from prior outbreaks in notable ways:
Incidents are happening in the fall, whereas RSV outbreaks usually peak starting in late December.
Older children as well as infants are being hospitalized.
Current cases appear to be more severe.
Episodes are rising at a time when pediatric hospitalizations are already higher than usual due to other illnesses like COVID-19, influenza, and biennial enteroviruses.
Some experts believe that masking and social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a respite of RSV infections in 2020. However, cases intensified in 2021, most likely a result of fewer young children being exposed to RSV during the previous year.
Most children typically have had at least one RSV infection before the age of two and the illness becomes less troublesome as children get older.
“The theory is that everyone’s now back together and this is a rebound phenomenon,” Jeffrey Kline, MD, Associate Chair of Research, Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, told MarketWatch. “If we think about the relative increase—ninefold increase—that’s not nothing, especially in the pediatric [emergency departments]. Holy mackerel.”
Most RSV Infected Children Require Hospitalization
Kline is in charge of a surveillance network that aggregates information regarding incidents of viral infections from 70 US hospitals. The data shows that more children are being hospitalized with COVID-19 than with RSV, but that 5% of children are testing positive for both illnesses. About 60% of children in that group require hospitalization.
According to the CDC, individuals with RSV will typically begin to experience symptoms within four to six days after getting infected. Symptoms of RSV, which tend to appear in stages, include:
Decrease in appetite
“RSV causes a mild cold illness in most people. But it can be very dangerous for very young children and older adults. And young infants are usually the most at risk of hospitalizations in what physicians would call their first RSV season,” said Andrea Garcia, JD, Vice President, Medicine and Public Health, American Medical Association (AMA), in a November 2 AMA update on the current flu season.
“In a pre-pandemic year,” she added, “we would see 1% to 2% of babies younger than six months with an RSV infection maybe needing to be hospitalized. And virtually all children have gotten an RSV infection by the time they’re two-years-old.”
Infants are at a much higher risk of experiencing severe disease due to RSV because their immune systems are not fully developed, and those under six months old are unable to breathe through their mouths if they are congested.
Mejias is studying whether prior exposure to COVID-19 alters how a baby’s immune system reacts to RSV, and if it may lead to more severe illness in those babies.
“That is something to work on and understand,” she said.
Comorbidities and Compromised Immune Systems also a Factor
Older adults and adults with weakened immune systems are predisposed to RSV infections, but there are things people can do to mitigate their chances of becoming ill from RSV.
“[RSV] is spread through contact with droplets from the nose and throat of infected people when they cough or sneeze. It can also be spread through respiratory secretions on surfaces,” said Garcia in the AMA update. “So, it’s a really good idea to clean and disinfect surfaces, especially in areas where young children are constantly touching things. Handwashing is always important. And if you are sick, please stay home.”
She added, “Premature infants, children with certain medical conditions, are also eligible to take a monthly monoclonal antibody treatment during RSV season, and that can help them stay out of the hospital.”
Most RSV infections typically go away on their own within a week or two. But such infections can lead to more severe illnesses, such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia. The more serious cases may require hospitalization with additional oxygen, IV fluids, and even intubation with mechanical ventilation. In most cases, hospitalization only lasts a few days, according to the CDC.
Be Prepared for a Tripledemic
“Health officials are concerned that this could be a sign of what’s to come,” stated Garcia in the AMA update. “A difficult winter, with multiple respiratory viruses circulating.”
For clinical laboratory managers, the early arrival of RSV cases at the front end of this influenza season provides an opportunity to position their labs to better meet the demand for RSV testing. They should also advise their client physicians that there may be a surge of respiratory illnesses during this flu season.
Medical laboratories and anatomic pathologists may need to squeeze into narrow networks to be paid under value-based schemes, especially where Medicare Advantage is concerned
Pathologists have likely heard the arguments in favor of value-based payment versus fee-for-service (FFS) reimbursement models: FFS encourages providers to order medically unnecessary procedures and lab tests. FFS removes incentives for providers to order patient services more carefully. Fraudsters can generate huge volumes of FFS claims that take payers months/years to recognize and stop.
Studies that favor value-based payment schemes support these claims. But do hospitals and other healthcare providers also accept them? And how is value-based reimbursement really doing?
To find out, Chicago-based thought leadership and advisory company 4Sight Health culled data from various organizations’ reports that suggest value-based reimbursement shows signs of growth as well as signs of stagnation.
“Physician compensation continues to emphasize volume more than value.
“Availability and use of data-driven tools to support physicians in practicing value-based care continue to lag.
“Existing care models do not support value-based care.”
Deloitte analysts wrote, “Physicians increasingly recognize their role in improving the affordability of care. We repeated a question we asked six years ago and saw a large increase in the proportion of physicians who say they have a prominent role in limiting the use of unnecessary treatments and tests: 76% in 2020 vs. 57% in 2014.
“Physicians also recognize that today’s care models are not geared toward value,” Deloitte continued. “They see many untapped opportunities for improving quality and efficiency. They estimate that even today, sizable portions of their work can be performed by nonphysicians (30%) in nontraditional settings (30%) and/or can be automated (18%), creating opportunities for multidisciplinary care teams and clinicians to work at the top of their license.”
Hospital CFOs Also See Opportunities for Value-based Care
This could be problematic for clinical laboratories, according to Robert Michel, Editor-in-Chief of Dark Daily and our sister publication The Dark Report. According to Guidehouse, “Nearly 60% of health systems plan to advance into risk-based Medicare Advantage models in 2022.”
Medicare Advantage (MA) enrollments have escalated over 10 years: 26.4 million people of the 62.7 million eligible for Medicare chose MA in 2021, noted a Kaiser Family Foundation brief that also noted MA enrollment in 2021 was up by 2.4 million beneficiaries or 10% over 2020.
“The shift from Medicare Part B—where any lab can bill Medicare on behalf of patients for doctor visits and outpatient care, including lab tests—to Medicare Advantage is a serious financial threat for smaller and regional labs that do a lot of Medicare Part B testing. The Medicare Advantage plans often have networks that exclude all but a handful of clinical laboratories as contracted providers,” Michel cautioned. “Moving into the future, it’s incumbent on regional and smaller clinical laboratories to develop value-added services that solve health plans’ pain points and encourage insurers to include local labs in their networks.”
Medical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups need to be aware of this trend. Michel says value-based care programs call on clinical laboratories to collaborate with healthcare partners toward goals of closing care gaps.
“Physicians and hospitals in a value-based environment need a different level of service and professional consultation from the lab and pathology group because they are being incented to detect disease earlier and be active in managing patients with chronic conditions to keep them healthy and out of the hospital,” he added.
Value-based reimbursement may eventually replace fee-for-service contracts. The change, however, is slow and clinical laboratories should monitor for opportunities and potential pitfalls the new payment arrangements might bring.
The No Surprises Act, passed as part of the COVID-19 relief package, ensures patients do not receive surprise bills after out-of-network care, including hospital-based physicians such as pathologists
Consumer demand for price transparency in healthcare has been gaining support in Congress after several high-profile cases involving surprise medical billing received widespread reporting. Dark Daily covered many of these cases over the years.
Now, after initial opposition and months of legislative wrangling, organizations representing medical laboratories and clinical pathologists have expressed support for new federal legislation that aims to protect patients from surprise medical bills, including for clinical pathology and anatomic pathology services.
The new law Congress passed is known as the No Surprises Act (H.R.3630) and is part of the $900 billion COVID relief and government funding package signed by President Trump on December 27.
The law addresses the practice of “balance billing,” in which patients receive surprise bills for out-of-network medical services even when they use in-network providers. An ASCP policy statement noted that “a patient (consumer) may receive a bill for an episode of care or service they believed to be in-network and therefore covered by their insurance, but was in fact out-of-network.” This, according to the ASCP, “occurs most often in emergency situations, but specialties like pathology, radiology, and anesthesiology are affected as well.”
Most portions of the No Surprises Act take effect on January 1, 2022. The law prohibits balance billing for emergency care, air ambulance transport, or, in most cases, non-emergency care from in-network providers. Instead, if a patient unknowingly receives services from an out-of-network provider, they are liable only for co-pays and deductibles they would have paid for in-network care.
New Law Bars Pathologists from Balance Billing without Advance Patient Consent
The law permits balance billing under some circumstances, but only if the patient gives advance consent. And some specialties, including pathologists, are barred entirely from balance billing.
The law also establishes a process for determining how healthcare providers are reimbursed when a patient receives out-of-network care. The specifics of that process proved to be a major sticking point for providers. In states that have their own surprise-billing protections, payment will generally be determined by state law. Otherwise, payers and providers have 30 days to negotiate payment. If they can’t agree, payment is determined by an arbiter as part of an independent dispute resolution (IDR) process.
Early Proposal Drew Opposition
An early proposal to prohibit surprise billing drew opposition from a wide range of medical societies, including the ASCP, CAP, and the American Medical Association (AMA).
All were signatories to a July 29, 2020, letter sent to leaders of the US Senate and House of Representatives urging them to hold off from enacting surprise billing protections as part of COVID relief legislation. Though the groups agreed in principle with the need to protect patients from surprise billing, they contended that the proposed legislation leaned too heavily in favor of insurers, an ASCP news release noted.
“Legislative proposals that would dictate a set payment rate for unanticipated out-of-network care are neither market-based nor equitable, and do not account for the myriad inputs that factor into payment negotiations between insurers and providers,” the letter stated. “These proposals will only incentivize insurers to further narrow their provider networks and would also result in a massive financial windfall for insurers. As such, we oppose the setting of a payment rate in statute and are particularly concerned by proposals that would undermine hospitals and front-line caregivers during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
However, in a letter sent to the committee chairs and ranking members, the AHA asked for changes in the dispute-resolution provisions, including a prohibition on considering Medicare or Medicaid rates during arbitration. “We are concerned that the IDR process may be skewed if the arbiter is able to consider public payer reimbursement rates, which are well known to be below the cost of providing care,” the association stated. However, legislators agreed to the change after last-minute negotiations.
Dispute Resolution for Pathologists
The CAP also expressed support for the final bill. In a statement, CAP noted that “As the legislation evolved during the 116th Congress, CAP members met with their federal lawmakers to discuss the CAP’s policy priorities.
“Through the CAP’s engagement and collaboration with other physician associations, the legislation improved drastically,” the CAP stated. “Specifically, the CAP lobbied Congress to hold patients harmless, establish a fair reimbursement formula for services provided, deny insurers the ability to dictate payment, create an independent dispute resolution (IDR) process that pathologists can participate in, and require network adequacy standards for health insurers.”
As laboratory testing was identified by thousands of respondents to the University of Chicago survey as the top surprise bill, it is likely that billing and transparency in charges for clinical pathologist and anatomic pathologist will continue to be scrutinized by law makers and healthcare associations.
What is not clear is how Aetna might engage independent clinical laboratories as in-network providers for this health insurance plan
For years, Dark Daily and its sister publication The Dark Report have regularly predicted that the traditional fee-for-service reimbursement model of indemnity health insurance that requires beneficiaries to pay a co-pay is on the way out. What is not known is how the nation’s biggest health insurers plan to reinvent themselves, as value-based reimbursement for providers becomes more common.
That may be clearer now, at least for one insurance giant. Aetna recently announced it was incorporating CVS Health services provided at CVS-owned pharmacies and retail clinics into a healthcare plan for individuals in the greater Kansas City, Mo., area.
The Aetna Connected Plan “combines CVS Health services—including free one to two-day prescription delivery and 20% discounts on thousands of health-related items—with Aetna’s cost-saving I-35 Performance Network to deliver a more convenient and connected member experience, along with up to 20% premium savings compared to comparable PPO products in the market,” states a CVS Health press release.
Members can schedule appointments at CVS Health MinuteClinics, request consultations at CVS HealthHUBs for no copay, and access other services, including telehealth visits, through CVS pharmacies. Essentially, Aetna made network providers for this range of CVS-owned health services.
CVS Health services, according to the press release, include:
$0 copay at local HealthHUB and MinuteClinic locations,
Free one to two-day prescription delivery,
20% discounts on thousands of health-related items in-store and online,
The Aetna health plan will be made available next year to employers with 101 or more workers in three counties in Missouri (Clay, Jackson, and Platte) and two counties in Kansas (Johnson and Wyandotte). Aetna claims the premiums for their new plan are 20% less expensive than other similar plans for the region, MedCity News reported.
AMA Expressed Concerns over CVS Purchase of Aetna
CVS acquired Aetna for $70 billion in late 2018 and the two companies have been working to integrate their businesses ever since.
There are currently more than 1,000 CVS MinuteClinics located throughout 33 states and the District of Columbia. CVS began opening HealthHUB clinics in the Houston area last year and plans to open more than 1,500 HealthHUBs by the end of 2021, the Houston Chronicle reported.
Critics of the 2018 purchase of Aetna by CVS were concerned that CVS would somehow use Aetna’s 40 million members to drive revenue for its stores. Many groups, including the American Medical Association (AMA), Consumers Union, and pharmacy organizations were opposed to the merger due to anticompetitive concerns.
The AMA felt the merger would reduce competition in some pharmaceutical markets, which could lead to higher premiums and lower the quality of some insurance products. The organization also believed that the merger “faced enormous implementation challenges and was unlikely to realize efficiencies that benefit patients,” the AMA noted in a statement.
“We are very concerned about the consolidation in healthcare because we know that as healthcare systems consolidate, prices tend to go up,” AMA President Barbara McAneny, MD said in the statement. “And we are very concerned that with the CVS purchase of Aetna that drug prices will continue to rise and that is a major pain point of patients all across the country.”
The AMA also stressed concerns regarding how the lack of competition could have negative impacts on the pharmaceutical industry.
“It’s also causing harm to a lot of the parts of the industry,” McAneny added. “Independent pharmacies are going out of business and this consolidation makes them (CVS) just such a stronger player in that market that competition is really difficult.”
Despite the opposition, the CVS and Aetna merger received final approved from regulators last year. Before the merger was approved, the two companies had to convince state attorneys general, antitrust regulators, and Congress that the consolidation would not result in anticompetitive practices and impair independent drugstores and other national chains.
Will Aetna Engage Independent Clinical Laboratories?
Aetna’s new health plan is another example of how the nation’s biggest health insurers are adapting away from fee-for-service and to value-based reimbursement for healthcare providers. Clinical laboratory managers will want to watch how CVS and Aetna do or do not work with independent laboratory companies to collect lab specimens at the pharmacies and provide testing.
In their letter, the Representatives wrote, “As you are aware, the recently enacted Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act (PPPHCE Act) invests $25 billion in the [Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund (PHSSEF)], including $11 billion for states, localities, territories, and tribes, to enhance all aspects of COVID-19 testing capacity. This funding is in addition to the funds already appropriated to the PHSSEF under the CARES Act.
“While laboratories are eligible, along with other providers, for these funds,” they continued, “there have been no federal funds specifically designated for the laboratories that have stepped up in this public health crisis and have made significant investments to expand access to COVID-19 testing despite 40-60 percent reductions in regular commercial volume due to the economic lockdowns.
“As laboratories work to maintain their investments in critical resources for testing platforms, reagents, swabs, and PPE, as well as hiring, training, and overtime pay for the laboratory workforce, we urge HHS to direct a portion of funding that has not already been allocated towards these efforts. These funds will ensure that labs can continue to rapidly scale up diagnostic and antibody testing, particularly for healthcare workers, first responders, and other Americans on the frontlines of this pandemic,” concluded the Representatives.
ACLA President Made Similar Plea for Direct Funding to Clinical Laboratories
“In order to deliver accurate, reliable results for patients at a national scale, we must allocate funding to support [clinical laboratories’] expanded efforts,” she said in a statement following an April 27 meeting at the White House.
In her letter, Khani wrote, “It is essential that HHS allocate $10 billion from the fund to support labs’ further expansion of testing capacity to fulfill the testing needs of all of the states and to protect the lives and livelihood of all Americans.
“Further,” she continued, “HHS should note that investing in the nation’s laboratories will not only enhance testing capacity in the short-term, but it also will allow the country to benefit from a robust testing infrastructure for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.”
President Trump signed H.R.266 into law on April 24. It includes $25 billion earmarked for research, development, validation, manufacturing, purchasing, administering, and expanding capacity for COVID-19 testing. According to the language of H.R.266, that includes, “tests for both active infection and prior exposure, including molecular, antigen, and serological tests, the manufacturing, procurement and distribution of tests, testing equipment and testing supplies, including personal protective equipment needed for administering tests, the development and validation of rapid, molecular point-of-care tests, and other tests, support for workforce, epidemiology, to scale up academic, commercial, public health, and hospital laboratories, to conduct surveillance and contact tracing, support development of COVID-19 testing plans, and other related activities related to COVID-19 testing.”
Financial Struggles for Hospitals and Clinical Laboratories
This new round of stimulus funding comes at a time when many providers and clinical laboratories are struggling financially, despite the influx of COVID-19 patients.
“Across the country, laboratories have made significant investments to expand capacity, including purchasing new platforms, retraining staff, and managing the skyrocketing cost of supplies. To continue to make these investments and expand patient access to high-quality testing in every community, laboratories will need designated resources. Without sustainable funding, we cannot achieve sustainable testing,” said Khani in an ACLA statement.
As the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic evolves, federal regulations, as well as emergency funding for COVID-19 testing that is provided by federal legislation, will evolve in unexpected ways. For that reason, clinical laboratory leaders will want to closely track announcements by such federal agencies as the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Federal Emergency Management Administration as decisions are made about how to assign the $25 billion authorized in H.R.266 for “testing.”