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?

 

fraud in medicine: prior authorization I

Prior authorization is where, in the insane United States medical system, the doctor orders a test or medicine. The insurance requires “prior authorization”, that is, the doctor or their office have to call or go on line to fill out forms to get the prior authorization. Otherwise the test or therapy or medicine or even surgery will not be covered by the insurance and the patient eats the bill. Over 60% of bankruptcies in the US are now over medical bills*.

In most doctors’ offices, the prior authorization is done in the back rooms. Employees are on the computer or on the phone trying to obtain the permission, the code number, the magic words that will help the patient. This is a HUGE business and a scam as well. Physicians for a National Health Care Program estimated in 2011 that it costs at least $82,975 PER PHYSICIAN PER YEAR to have a person calling.* Now, there is a person on the other end receiving that call or going over the forms. That person is paid with your insurance premium. Is that health care? It seems more like a barrier to health care. Let’s look at an example.

I do my prior authorizations in the room with the patient. I only have a front desk person, no back room people, and anyhow, if I do it face to face with the patient, I can charge the insurance company for the call. It is face to face counseling and coordination of care. I don’t get paid well for this, but it’s worth it for the patient education.

Yesterday I called for a patient. The insurance company first has a recording that tells me it is recording this conversation. I am too, in the chart note. Then it reminds me I could do all this on line. Well, that is sort of true. I could, but every insurance company has a different website, they all require logins and passwords and it would take me hours to learn them all. Nope, not doing that. After the message it says: “Please enter the physicians NPI number.” I do. Then it leads me through choices: confirm the patient is insured, check the status of a prior authorization, appeal a prior authorization, initiate a prior authorization. That one.
At 3 minutes 50 seconds, I get a human. We are on speaker phone.
“This is Rex. You are calling for prior authorization?”
“Yes. This is Dr. Lizard. Mr. X is in the room.”
“Please spell the doctor’s name.” They are not used to doctors calling.
“Please give the NPI number.” (ok, we typed that in. But every time you are transferred, you have to give all of the information again. I am not kidding.)
“Please give your clinic address. Please give your clinic phone number. Please give your clinic tax ID number. Please give your clinic fax number.”
I do.
“Please give the patient id number. Please give the patient name. Please give the patient date of birth.”
Ok.
My patient is looking amazed. This is how insurance companies treat the doctors who call them? Yep.
“What medicine are you authorizing?”
“A compounded testosterone.”
“Please list the ingredients.”
Crap. didn’t think of that. “Ok, we want to authorize an fda approved one.”
That is entered. “What are the instructions for the patient?”
“What is the dose or strength?”
“What is the diagnosis?”
“He has a condition from birth with no testosterone.”
I have to spell the condition for Rex.
“What is the ICD 10 code?”
I give that.
“Have you measured a testosterone level?”
“Yes. It’s zero. His body doesn’t make testosterone. Since birth.”
My patient is rolling his eyes.
“The form will be sent for review and you should get a fax within 24-72 hours regarding the authorization. Here is a number for tracking.”
“Thank you, we are recording this phone call as face to face counseling and coordination of care in the chart.”
Phone call is 13 minutes and 50 seconds. That is a fast one, actually. Most are 25-30 minutes and I fought for an hour once when a patient’s prescription coverage was cancelled.

I wish that every doctor in the country would do one prior authorization on the phone once a week with the patient in the room. The doctors’ heads would blow off. They might finally see what the current system is doing and how the insurance companies throw more and more and more barriers up to refuse people care.

And how is it a scam? One way is that the patient calls the insurance. The insurance has people who only talk to patients. That person says, “Have your doctors office call for a prior authorization.” The patient calls the doctor’s office. The doctors office calls the insurance, but they are talking to a different branch of the insurance company. That branch tells the doctors office “We don’t cover that.” The doctors office calls the patient, who then thinks that the doctor’s office has screwed up the prior authorization.

How do I know that? With the person in the room, the insurance tells me “No.” I have had patients say, “Your company told me yesterday that all I needed was for the doctor to call!” The insurance person replied, “I only talk to doctors. It is another part of the company that talks to patients.” I have also had an insurance person say “Take me off speaker phone, I am only allowed to talk to physician’s offices, not to patients.” Riiiiiight. I took him off but put him right back on. My patients are outraged and furious: at the insurance, not me. The insurance companies are doing brilliant business plan triangulation and I hope whoever thought it up and whoever allows it as a business plan roasts in hell. No, instead I hope that they wake up and realize how many people they are hurting and I hope that they turn and work to heal a broken sick system.
*http://www.pnhp.org/new_bankruptcy_study/Bankruptcy-2009.pdf
http://www.pnhp.org/sites/default/files/docs/Bankruptcy_Fact_Sheet.pdf
**http://www.pnhp.org/news/2011/august/us-doctors-administrative-costs-4-times-higher-than-in-canada
http://www.pnhp.org/news/2014/august/adventures-in-prior-authorization

I took the photograph at Lake Matinenda in August 2015. It is of a storm. A storm is here in medicine: people versus the corporations who prey on us. We need to heal the system and heal the fear and greed.