If you have commercial health insurance or are one of the over half of Medicare enrollees who have a “Medicare Advantage” plan, decisions about your health care are not decided solely by you and your doctor(s). There is a third party in the room: your insurer, whose interests are financial rather than health.
As medicine became more complex and much more expensive, one response of health insurance companies was to try to decrease the use of expensive tests and treatments. They developed lists of tests, medications and procedures that could in some cases be substituted by older cheaper tests and treatments. When a doctor wished to order an expensive new approach, they had to justify why this was necessary.
If done properly, this was fair and reasonable. Every expensive new drug is not always better than a cheap old one. Every patient with back pain does not need a CT scan or MRI. The problem is that insurers went overboard.
The process works like this: your doctor sends a prescription to your pharmacy or asks their staff to schedule you for an imaging test. They then hear from the pharmacy or the radiology department that your insurance company requires “prior authorization.” The cost will not be paid until the insurance company agrees it is needed. The doctor’s office calls the insurer and are questioned by a clerk with no medical background using a checklist. Sometimes miracles happen, every box is checked and you get approval.
More often, your doctor is told that the request does not meet their criteria for necessity and will not be paid. There are now three choices: do it anyway and have you, the patient, pay the bill; forget about it and try a different approach; request an appeal of the decision.
For all but the very wealthy, paying out of pocket is very difficult. If there indeed is a good cheaper alternative the system has worked as intended. Most of the time the request is necessary for the best outcome and the doctor must appeal.
A survey found that the average doctor’s office devoted 14 person-hours a week to prior authorizations – time that costs the doctor money and takes away resources that could be better spent on care. Clearly the insurers hope that if they deny needed care, the doctor may sometimes decide it is not worth the time and effort to appeal.
Recent investigations by ProPublica and others have found that many insurance companies rely on biased algorithms to deny needed care. They have also documented that insurance company medical directors review 10,000 cases/year or more, and often make decisions without even looking at the patients’ charts. Moreover, many companies employ as medical directors doctors who have been driven out of practice by disciplinary action or numerous malpractice suits.
If your doctor’s suggestion is denied by your insurance company, what can you do? If you and your doctor agree that the denied service is truly best for you, insist on appealing. While the doctor’s office has to take the lead, you can add your voice to the process. Get the HR office at work to intercede on your behalf. Threaten to – and do if necessary – contact the state office of consumer affairs.
It is their money – but it is your life and health.
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