P for prior authorization

The letter P and my theme is happy things. But what comes to mind are these P words: prior authorization,  pharmaceutical, payer.

Prior authorizations are NOT a happy thing. The latest twist from insurance companies, three different ones in the last week, is that they are requiring prior authorization for old inexpensive medicines. I ordered a muscle relaxant for night time only on Thursday last week for a person with a flare of back pain. Friday I was dismayed to see that the insurance company was requiring a prior authorization. I have to prioritize the order of urgency of all the work: I did not have time. I called the patient who had paid cash for it. The insurance company wins. They didn’t have to pay for a covered medicine because they made it difficult to get. They keep the patient’s money.

Prior authorizations are on the rise very rapidly. With over 800 insurance companies, each with a different website, each with multiple insurance “products”, no one can keep up with it. It is a shell game, the ball under the cup, three cups moving, but the ball is the money and it’s already palmed by the insurance companies. I predict that this will continue to get worse. We do need a single payer system for the simple reason that physicians will not be able to hire enough staff to learn and navigate 800 different websites. I do most prior authorizations on the phone in the room with the patient: the other day we spent 35 minutes on the phone only to have the insurance company say that we had called the wrong number. Call another one. Not the one on the insurance card. We could complain to the state insurance commissioner, but my patient is afraid of losing their insurance. Time’s up. The prior authorization is not obtained, and we are five minutes into the next patient’s visit. People are finding that the medicine they have taken for 20 years suddenly requires prior authorization.

And remember: prior authorization is your insurance company making rules and extra paperwork for your physician. It is advertised as a way to save money, but it costs YOU money. Back in 2009, the estimate was that physicians in the US had to spend 90,000$ per year EACH on employees to do prior authorizations by computer or phone. And YOUR insurance dollars go to the employees at the insurance company refusing medicines and dreaming up new medicines to refuse. They change the contract. Every year and during the year. The law is now that 80 cents of each dollar must go to healthcare, not profit, but those computer and phone employees are counted as healthcare. Do we really think that is healthcare?

Take CT scans. Medicare does NOT require prior authorization. But most insurance companies do. Think about that. Is age the difference? CT scans increase cancer risk over time so physicians don’t order them by reflex.

And for pharmaceuticals, insurance companies often have an on line formulary. But it is different for every insurance “product” in individual companies. A patient and I were trying to sort out a less expensive medicine on a website and we were having difficulty figuring out which insurance she had. Multiple abbreviations and color coding and we could spend the entire clinic visit just figuring it out. Is that what medicine is in the United States? You can say that someone else in the office could do it, but the more employees your physician hires, the less time the physician will spend with you, because he or she has to pay all of those people.

If there was one set of rules, one website, I would learn it. Medicare for all, single payer, when will the United States people wake up and tell congress: if you want our vote, make it so.

P

But wait, where are the happy things? I am so happy that I still am in business in my small clinic, p for patients and patience and prayer and single payer, we will have medicare for all in my lifetime. Whether I am still a practicing physician in the US at that time is uncertain. If I can’t afford my own health insurance, my clinic will close. Wouldn’t that be ironic?

 

Vital signs II

Pain is not a vital sign anymore, as I described in yesterday’s post. I wrote this poem in 2006, about pain  being the fifth vital sign. I disagreed.

Vital signs II

Pain
Is now a vital sign
On a scale of 1:10
What is your pain?
The nurses document
Every shift

Why isn’t joy
a vital sign?

In the hospital
we do see joy

and pain

I want feeling cared for
to be a vital sign

My initial thought
is that it isn’t
because we can’t treat it

But that isn’t true

I have been brainwashed

We can’t treat it
with drugs

We measure pain
and are told to treat it
helpful pamphlets
sponsored by the pharmaceutical companies
have articles
from experts

Pain is under treated
by primary care
in the hospital
and there are all
these helpful medicines

I find
in my practice
that much of the pain
I see
cannot be treated
with narcotics
and responds better
to my ear

To have someone
really listen
and be curious
and be present
when the person
speaks

If feeling cared for
were a vital sign
imagine

Some people
I think
have almost never felt cared for
in their lives

They might say
I feel cared for 2 on a scale of 10

And what could the nurses do?

No pills to fix the problem

But perhaps
if that question
were followed by another

Is there anything we can do
to make you feel more cared for?

I wonder
if asking the question
is all we need

first draft 5/20/06

I took the photograph Friday afternoon from the beach: two fronts were meeting. What is that like in the sky? Do they fight or welcome each other?

fraud in medicine: cow thymus guinea pig

We are making a change in clinic. We ask all new patients to bring ALL the pills they take. Prescription, vitamin, supplement. Most of them don’t. So now we are telling patients that they need to bring all pills or they will be rescheduled.

I want to know what my patients are taking. My town is a delightful spectrum mix from very conservative to very liberal and some libertarians thrown in. But I look at the ingredients of the bottles.

With prescription medicines, people will say “I am on metoprolol.”

“What strength?” I say, “And is it the short acting, middle or long acting?”

Some patients: “Uh…. it’s blue. It’s a small blue round pill.”

Eye rolling would be unprofessional. I pick the lowest dose and type in “unsure dose”. “Bring it next time.”

I examine vitamin bottles. Some contain multiple herbs as well as vitamins. Most people don’t seem aware of this. Sometimes people have four different vitamins with vitamin A in them. “The fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K can build up in your tissues and people have managed to kill themselves. I would recommend you take less then you are taking.” And then there are the high dose vitamins: one with 3999% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A. Hello. Why is this being sold? I guess people have the right to take things that can kill them. But I wish they wouldn’t.

Supplements. I read the ingredients. One ingredient is cow thymus. “This has cow thymus in it.” I say. Medicine seems a bit vague on what the thymus does, though it is involved with myasthenia gravis: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/myasthenia-gravis/multimedia/thymus-gland/img-20007802

“Oh.” says my patient.

“I am very unenthusiastic about taking cow thymus.” I say. “Unless you are working with a naturopath who has prescribed it for a compelling reason. Who prescribed it?”

“Uh, it’s not prescribed. It’s made by a good company.”

Right. Like I trust corporations. Scamming thieves and liars. Sell anything that isn’t nailed down in pill form. Including cow thymus.

My medical philosophy is as few pills as possible. Prescription, vitamin or supplement. Eat food, exercise, make friends, work well, be kind to yourself and others and avoid pills unless necessary. We don’t know how cow thymus and metoprolol interact. The FDA considers supplements to be natural, like a carrot. A pill is not a carrot. It doesn’t grow on a tree or in the ground. It has to be made by people. The supplement companies do not have to do any testing for medical safety and efficacy and I frankly hate the pills with multiple herbs in them. They have to use ingredients that are “generally recognized as safe” which is pretty lukewarm: http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/GRAS/. Also, kidney failure is on the rise from too many pills. Everything is metabolized by either the kidneys or the liver and kidney failure is in the top ten causes of death in the US.

And I don’t want to be a guinea pig. I don’t want to be the personal home chemistry trial of cow thymus plus metoprolol. No way. And I will bet that you don’t want to be a personal home guinea pig either.

I took the photograph with a zoom lens looking down from the dock in Port Townsend Bay in 2014.