Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Prior Authorizations Suck

"Suck" is a word I seldom use. It's a word I ask my children not to use.  However, in this case the word is appropriate. If as a patient, you have ever had a delay in getting a medication or a test your doctor ordered, it was probably due to a prior authorization.  A prior authorization is a bureaucratic hurdle (sometimes a phone call, sometimes a fax, sometimes a letter) that is required by your physician to get you the test or treatment he or she believes is right for you. A prior authorization is essentially a mechanism that insurance companies put in place to make ordering more expensive tests or medications more difficult for you to get. The decision maker on the insurance company's end who decides whether your doctor (regardless of specialty or years in practice) is justified in requesting the medication or test that your insurance company is obligated to provide for you is often a 20-something college grad with no clinical experience.  Prior authorizations are probably one of the most frustrating things about being a primary care physician. 

I am far from alone in this opinion.  My medical society, The Medical Society of the District of Columbia or MSDC actually did a survey of their members examining the impact of health insurance prior authorization protocols on patient care in Washington, D.C. The study reveals widespread concern among area physicians, with over 93% of respondents saying that insurance company requirements are having a negative impact on their ability to treat patients.

In their press release,  Dr. James Cobey, President of MSDC stated that “Doctors, not insurance companies, know best how to care for their patients, yet prior authorization and other insurer protocols are dictating how physicians provide treatment. Prior authorization requirements put D.C. patients at risk by causing unnecessary and potentially dangerous delays for medications and care while preventing doctors from providing the most appropriate forms of treatment.”

Specific findings of the MSDC survey include:  

  • 93.1%  of D.C. physicians surveyed said that insurance company requirements such as prior authorization, pre-certification, therapeutic switching, and step therapy are having a negative impact on their ability to treat patients;
  • Nearly 90% of those surveyed said that they have been forced to change the way they treated a patient, including changing prescription medications, due to restrictions imposed by an insurance company;
  • Over 76% of physicians also reported that they have switched treatments in order to avoid dealing with prior authorization requirements;
  • 94.8% of physicians surveyed said that insurance companies have delayed or denied treatments for their patients, such as prescription medications, diagnostic testing, or other services;
  • 84.6% of physicians said that is it difficult to determine which prescription drugs or medical procedures require prior authorization;
  • About half (47.2%) of MSDC members surveyed said that on average, prior authorization requests take several days or more to be resolved;
  • 89.7% of respondents confirmed that completing and clarifying insurance requirements imposes “hidden” costs—such as extra staff time for the additional paperwork and phone calls—that have a negative impact on their medical practice.

Folks at the MSDC are trying to get laws passed to implement a standardized system across the District, with uniform requirements for filing and processing prior authorization requests which would expedite this onerous process and allow doctors to finally focus on what really matters—treating patients. Every medical society should follow their lead. 

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