So we have the issue of "prior authorization". You used to get a prescription from your doctor, take it to the pharmacy, and get it filled. In the 1990s HMOs and MCOs decided they knew more than doctors and they would adopt some sweeping measures to "reform" prescribing practices. In some of the areas it made sense at the level of clinic or hospital based Pharmacy and Therapeutics (P&T) Committees. Certain drugs are so specialized (eg. chemotherapy agents) that only certain physicians should prescribe them. There has been a two decades long problem with antibiotic over prescribing and there are typically ongoing initiatives to deal with that problem. I have not been on a P&T Committee for over three years, but I can't imagine there is nothing currently being done to curb opioid painkiller overprescribing. There are definite reasons for intervening with prescribers on a scientific basis. But at some point prior authorization became much more than that and some of the assumptions (like all SSRIs are alike) are not valid. To make matters worse, the pharmacy arm of managed care companies (the PBMs) were now asking for prior authorizations on generic drugs. Or they were asking for repeat authorizations if the prescriber changed or the patient was hospitalized and the prescription stayed the same. These same PBMS found that the same rules did not apply to themselves. They could frequently make deals with hospital that would involve the bundling of one medication with the same medication form the same company and they could make money off that. PBMs had become a multibillion dollar business.
The hassle of filling out forms and making many phone calls in order to assure that a prescription is completed is more than an annoyance. It removes billions of dollars of resources from the provision of medical care. One study estimated that the cost for American physicians to deal with insurance companies was $82,975 per physician or about four times higher than their Canadian counterparts. That amounts to $27.6 billion nationwide. That is a lot of medical care and the time jumping through hoops is never reimbursed by MCOs or PBMs. An estimate of the losses to the treatment side for billing practices alone is about $7 billion.
The political aspects of this intrusion of business into medical practice is instructive. Physicians are notoriously inept when it comes to politics and there is no clearer example than drug prior authorization. What other business in the United States has to provide that level of free work in addition to the primary work in order to be reimbursed. Do other professionals like lawyers need to waste this amount of time? I sat through a meeting at one point where the debate was whether we could influence the length of a drug prior authorization form and get it down to two pages instead of five. The consensus at the time was that there were probably federal rules that would not allow the form to be "streamlined" to two pages!
So now we have the streamlined form with a 14 page federal statute affixed to it. Reading through the statute and figuring out what it means takes an attorney. But every doctor who sees this knows what it means. Don't rock the boat. Don't question this government backed, big business policy that is guaranteed to waste your time and put more money into the pocket of the insurance industry. And by the way, there is no guarantee that your patient will get the medication that you think they need, even if you jump through all of these hoops.
That is the state of health care in America today and it may be why you are standing in a pharmacy waiting to get your prescription filled. It also may be why your doctor looks exhausted.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
Morra D, Nicholson S, Levinson W, Gans DN, Hammons T, Casalino LP. US physician practices versus Canadians: spending nearly four times as much money interacting with payers. Health Aff (Millwood). 2011 Aug;30(8):1443-50. doi: 10.1377/hlthaff.2010.0893. Epub 2011 Aug 3. PubMed PMID: 21813866.