Prior Authorizations, Insurance Denials, and Physician Burnout

Insurance denials and insurance prior authorizations are the bane of existence for any physician who practices in an outpatient setting. The are at best an annoyance but last Friday, I had an experience that nearly made my head explode. At issue was the denial of a high resolution chest CT that I had ordered several months ago for a patient with interstitial lung disease who had deteriorating pulmonary function tests despite treatment. I wanted to determine if his interstitial lung disease was worsening to decide if his treatment needed to be changed or if he needed to be referred for a lung transplant. I entered the order into our electronic medical record with ICD-10 code J84.9 (interstitial lung disease) and typed into the “reason for the test” box that he had interstitial lung disease of uncertain cause with worsening pulmonary function tests. The patient’s insurance company contracts with a radiology test benefits management company (which I am going to call “Roadblock, Inc” so that the real company does not blacklist me) to review orders for radiology tests and then approve or deny the tests based on whether or not the tests meet evidence-based indications for that particular test. Last week, shortly before the CT was scheduled to be performed, I got an email from our office staff that the insurance company had called to tell us that Roadblock, Inc had denied the CT and then left a case reference number and the phone number at Roadblock, Inc for me to call. Here is a summary of my subsequent phone call to Roadblock, Inc:

  • 2:00 PM – I call Roadblock, Inc and am on hold for 2 minutes
  • 2:02 PM – A Roadblock, Inc customer service representative answers the call and takes down all of the information about the patient and the test that was ordered
  • 2:04 PM – She transfers me to the clinical review department. I am again placed on hold for 1 minute
  • 2:05 PM – A second customer service representative answers and again asks for the case number, patient’s name and birth date as well as my name and contact information. She informs me that the reason for denial is that the only approved indication for a high resolution chest CT is interstitial lung disease or worsening pulmonary function tests. She asks me if I would like to be transferred to the physician appeals department. I answer yes and am placed on hold for 2 minutes
  • 2:08 PM – a third customer service representative answers and I am again asked for the case number, patient name, and date of birth as well as my name and contact information. She asks me if the previous customer service representative told me why the CT was denied and I answered yes. 
  • 2:10 PM – I explained that the original order had the correct ICD-10 code for interstitial lung disease and additionally had the typed clinical information that the patient had interstitial lung disease with worsening pulmonary function tests. I pulled up the original date-and-time-stamped order from a few months earlier to confirm this and offered to fax it to her. The customer service representative stated that when the order was processed by Roadblock, Inc, that the indication for the test was not completed. I explained that the information that we sent to Roadblock, Inc included the correct ICD-10 code and the correct written indication for the test.
  • 2:13 PM – I then ask to schedule a “peer-to-peer” phone call with one of their physician reviewers. The customer service representative tells me that a peer-to-peer is not permitted for a test denial. The customer service representative acknowledged that the information that I had entered into the order and sent to Roadblock, Inc was the correct indication for a high resolution chest CT but that on the Evicor computer system, that information had not been documented and therefore the test had been denied.  
  • 2:16 PM – I asked for an appeal since the error was on the part of the Roadblock, Inc’s employee who had recorded the information that our office had sent to them. The customer service representative tells me that she is sorry but that appeals are not permitted. 
  • 2:18 PM – I tell her that I would send in a new order for the CT scan. She tells me that I am not permitted to re-order a CT when the original order is denied. She tells me that Roadblock, Inc’s policy is that I cannot order a new CT scan for a 2 month period after a denial. 
  • 2:20 PM – I ask to speak with her supervisor. She tells me that I can call the insurance company to see if they will make an exception to the denial. 
  • 2:21 PM – My head explodes and I tell the customer service representative that her company has failed this patient.

This is not a unique experience. Prior authorizations and denial appeals take up an enormous amount of physician and office staff time. A recent survey of 1,000 physicians by the American Medical Association found that 91% reported that the prior authorization process had a negative impact on patient care; 28% reported that prior authorization had resulted in delays of care that resulted in hospitalization, death, or disability; 86% reported that the prior authorization process placed a high or extremely high burden on their practice; and 88% reported that the prior authorization process has gotten worse in the past 5 years.

The Council for Affordable Quality Healthcare found that prior authorizations increased 27% between 2016 and 2019. Currently, the average physician has to do 34 prior authorizations per week and the total time cost to the physician and office staff is 14.9 hours per week devoted just to prior authorizations.

About 25 years ago, our pulmonary practice group held an all-day coding and billing session for all of the physicians. We hired a coding specialist from one of the major health insurance companies to come to teach us how to best document and code for the services we were billing with the thought that the best person to teach us about correct documentation and coding was a person from an insurance company coding department. She told us that the staff in her department were told to deny every 10th claim. If the physician appealed the denial, then they would simply approve the claim and move on. But the insurance company had found that most physicians do not bother to appeal claim denials and just write them off. By randomly denying claims, the insurance company was able to save an enormous amount of money.

Medication denials are a particular problem. Many drugs are members of a class of medications that are all relatively interchangeable for most patients. For example, statins used for high cholesterol, ACE inhibitors used for high blood pressure, and inhalers used for asthma. The insurance company will negotiate with the drug manufacturers to get the lowest price for one of the drugs in a class of medications. These drugs are then placed on the insurance company’s “formulary” of approved medications; if a patient is prescribed a drug that is not on the approved formulary, then the patient has to pay retail price for that drug out of pocket. I deal with dozens of different insurance formularies. Some insurance companies permit a computer interface with physicians’ electronic medical record so that physicians can tell right away if a medication that they are prescribing is on that insurance company’s formulary and then pick another drug from that same class if it isn’t. But many insurance companies do not permit an interface with the physician EMR. Although the physician can go to the internet and look up a formulary, most of these on-line formularies are not very user friendly and often require the physician to scroll through pages and pages of a PDF file to hunt for a drug that would be covered – this can take the physician 5-10 minutes to determine which drug is or is not covered. If a non-formulary drug is prescribed, the physician will usually get a letter in the mail that the prescribed drug is not on the insurance company’s formulary. The problem is that those letters do not tell the physician what drug in the same class is covered so the physician either has to spend time on the internet trying to determine what is covered or continue to randomly prescribe medications in that drug category until they hit on one that is covered. Furthermore, the insurance companies change their drug formularies every January and a drug that is covered one year will often not be covered the next year resulting in a flurry of denial letters being sent to physician offices all over the country every January.

Prior authorizations and denials are a great business model for insurance companies, radiology benefit management companies, and pharmacy benefit management companies. By creating a barrier to approving expensive tests such as CT scans and MRIs, they can reduce the number of these expensive tests that are actually done. By denying medications that are not on their insurance formulary, they can reduce the number of prescriptions that are filled.

The sad part of prior authorizations and denials is that most of the time, the physician can eventually successfully appeal the denial of a test or a prescribed medication, as long as the physician is persistent and dedicates the time necessary for the appeal. The net result is that these denials and prior authorizations create an enormous cost to physician practices with no real benefit to the patient. As a consequence, the American prior insurance authorization and denial system is a major contributor to the U.S. having the most expensive healthcare in the world but still lagging other countries in quality of healthcare.

A 2018 report from Harvard concluded “Physician burnout is a public health crisis that urgently demands action by health care institutions, governing bodies, and regulatory authorities. If left unaddressed, the worsening crisis threatens to undermine the very provision of care, as well as eroding the mental health of physicians across the country.” Some of the primary drivers of burnout is burdensome administrative requirements, excessive bureaucratic requirements, and consequences of electronic medical records. Insurance denials and prior authorizations fit squarely into these drivers of burnout.

Ironically, the payers that generally pose the least denials and prior authorizations are Medicare and Medicaid. I am generally a strong proponent of free market economic systems but in this case, the American health insurance free market has resulted in a broken system that is increasing healthcare costs to Americans and contributing to physician burnout.

January 25, 2020