fbpx

Prior Authorization Compromises Patient Care

Mark Lopatin, MD: Prior authorization by insurance companies compromises patient care in a number of ways. Insurance companies must be held accountable for the medical decisions they make, just as physicians are accountable for the medical decisions we make.

My patient was upset as she informed me that she could not get her medicine.

Her insurance company had denied it again, because it needed prior authorization.

No big deal.  This happens a lot.

Except that this was a medicine she had been on for the last 6 years with good results, and this was the 4th time that she had to go without it, while waiting for her insurer’s approval.

I would have to write another letter of medical necessity to justify why she needed this medication, even though it had already been explained to the insurer three times previously.

So the question I pose, is why I have to spend so much time justifying the necessity for my patients care.

 

I would have to write another letter of medical necessity to justify why she needed this medication, even though it had already been explained to the insurer three times previously. Click To Tweet

 

The corporate takeover of medicine has compromised the medical care that patients receive in many ways.

Insurance companies have a general distrust of physicians and often undermine their ability to make decisions as to what is appropriate care.  This goes along with the insurer’s desire to cut insurance expenditures.

One of the results of this distrust is prior authorization, a process whereby the insurer must approve an order for a diagnostic test or treatment before the patient can receive it.

This approval process often results in a delay or even denial of necessary treatment, and is determined by an insurer who has never examined or even spoken with the patient.

 

The prior authorization process starts with the physician’s office staff submitting information to the patient’s insurer regarding the recommended test or treatment.

If care is denied, the physician must then write a “letter of medical necessity” justifying the rationale.

This is often followed by a “peer-to-peer” phone call, where the prescribing physician must convince an insurance doctor that the care prescribed is appropriate.

Most of the time, the “peer” is not a physician in the same specialty and often has no personal knowledge or experience of the issue at hand.

Instead, they typically follow “guidelines” that may apply to most people but may not apply to the individual patient.

 

Most of the time, the “peer” is not a physician in the same specialty and often has no personal knowledge or experience of the issue at hand. Instead, they typically follow “guidelines” that may apply to most people but may not apply to… Click To Tweet

 

It is classic cookie cutter, one size fits all health care.

Can you imagine going into Baskin Robbins and finding out they had gotten rid of 30 of their flavors because most people like vanilla.

This is where we are headed, to a place where population medicine rules and the individual patients’ needs are thrust aside.

 

Prior authorization can compromise care in many ways.

As an example, consider the case of my patient who presented with ankle pain.

Previous X-rays were negative, and I ordered an MRI to define the anatomy of the joint.

 

Can you imagine going into Baskin Robbins and finding out they had gotten rid of 30 of their flavors because most people like vanilla.  

 

The MRI request was denied, so the next step was a peer to peer (with someone who was not a rheumatologist).

The insurance doctor told that my patient needed to do physical therapy before he could have an MRI.

 

When I asked her why, the peer told me, “Because some people get better with PT.”

I was incredulous.

I informed the “peer” that she was asking me to commit malpractice, and I was proven right when the MRI revealed an occult fracture.

The patient was placed in a cast and did well.  What would have happened if the insurance “guideline” had been followed?

 

Prior authorization not only detracts from care for the patient who needs it, but it also diverts physician care from other patients.

Time spent writing letters or engaging in a peer to peer is time that other patients in the office are kept waiting.

As it is, primary care physicians spend almost twice as much time on documentation as they do in direct clinical face time with patients, not to mention the extra 1-2 hours spent at home on documentation.

 

As it is, primary care physicians spend almost twice as much time on documentation as they do in direct clinical face time with patients, not to mention the extra 1-2 hours spent at home on documentation. Click To Tweet

 

Insurers may also mandate needless preliminary tests that provide no useful information. Examples include plain films of the spine, when the concern is a herniated disk, or plain films of a knee when the concern is torn cartilage.

These unnecessary tests result in delay of diagnosis and treatment for the patient, and wasted money for the third party payer.

 

Another way which prior authorization can harm patients is via step therapy.

Step therapy typically dictates that patients must try a preferred (less expensive?) drug first, even if the treating physician feels that the drug is less effective or not appropriate in the particular case.

If an insurer’s formulary changes, patients may be denied medicine they have taken successfully for years, in exchange for a new medicine that they have never taken.

 

A 2019 survey by the AMA of 1000 practicing physicians revealed the following notable findings:

  • Physicians complete, on average, 33 prior authorization requests a week, requiring 14.4 hours to complete.
  • 86% of physicians report the burden of prior authorization as being high or extremely high.
  • 86% feel that the burden has increased over the last five years.
  • 43% cite this increase as being significant.
  • 91% report that prior authorizations result in delays in patient care.
  • 48% describe these delays as occurring often or always.
  • 74% of doctors note that patients may actually abandon care because of prior authorization.
  • 24% report that prior authorization has led to a serious adverse event in their patients with 16% reporting that prior authorization has resulted in hospitalizations.
  • 90% of physicians feel that prior authorization negatively impacts patient care.

 

Interestingly, this issue made headlines in 2018, when a former medical director for Aetna in California admitted under oath that he never looked at patients’ records when deciding whether to approve or deny care.

 

It is one thing if insurance companies make decisions care based strictly on financial considerations.

If they determine that a medicine is too expensive and they will not cover it under any circumstances, that is their right.

However, as soon as the medical facts of the case become part of the decision making, the insurer is then practicing medicine, even though they have never evaluated the patient themselves.

 

As soon as the medical facts of the case become part of the decision making, the insurer is then practicing medicine, even though they have never evaluated the patient themselves. Click To Tweet

 

There needs to be a better system for peer to peer discussion/ insurance “approval”.   I have suggested the following to any legislator who will listen.

  1. Insurance guidelines must not be mandates, to be blindly followed regardless of circumstances.
  2. Peer to peer discussions should always involve a physician in the same specialty.
  3. Denials must have specific rationales. Tests or treatments should not be denied simply because, “That is what the guidelines say”.
  4. The insurer should offer appropriate alternatives when care is denied.

 

Most importantly:

5. Insurance companies must be held accountable for the clinical judgments they make.

Decisions made by insurance companies based on clinical data such as a peer to peer discussion, are medical decisions, and should be held to the same scrutiny as medical decisions that practicing physicians make every day.

Share

Tweet this:

Earn CME credit:

This learning experience is powered by CMEfy - a platform that brings relevant CMEs to busy clinicians, at the right place and right time. Using short learning nudges, clinicians can reflect and unlock AMA PRA Category 1 Credit.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Get updates and learn from the best

I Have to Wait How Long?!?!

I Have to Wait How Long?!?!

David Epstein, MD, MS, FAAP discusses why it takes time to be seen for an acute illness and what makes up a medical visit.

What if Twitter Went Kaput?

Dana Corriel, MD explains how professionals should ideally regard EVERY social media platform, and use it to their benefit.

Susan J. Baumgaertel, MD FACP

Navigating Your Health (with Dr. Susan Baumgaertel)

Dr. Baumgaertel draws upon her 30 years of experience as a physician in primary care internal medicine, and uses her personal story-telling style to communicate with you as if you are sitting right across from her. Pull up a chair and enjoy.

My DPC Story

Their DPC Stories

Physicians are increasingly looking to different practice models, as burnout rates continue to climb. This series explores the DPC model.

Support A Platform that Celebrates Real Doctors

For just $10 a month, you can help keep this openly accessible site available to all & help us sposnor in more doctors.

I acknowledge that this site is not to be used for medical advice.

Play Video
Our Founder Answers Your BURNING Question

SoMeDocs

“Why should I become a member of SoMeDocs if I already have my own space online?”