Another free 28 minutes of work for corporate America on their prior authorization procedure. I won't type out the dialogue and arbitrary holds along the way. This time I was referred by the pharmacy to one of the major Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs) and after negotiating their queue and listening to about 15 minutes of pure nonsense (privacy notifications for veterans, Medicare programs, etc) I reached a human being. At that point he advised me that the PBM was not responsible for this particular prescription and I had to contact their insurance company. He gave me the number and connected me, but of course it involved a queue that had similar recorded messages and then had a difficult time understanding my voice saying: "I am a provider." I eventually spoke with a human being who had to look up the circumstances that would allow her to approve the prior authorization. She had no apparent medical training and the criteria that she was reading out of a book could have been applied as easily on the front end by a pharmacist to save me from 28 minutes of free work for a PBM. And keep in mind this was one prescription that the patient had already been taking.
There is really no excuse at all for this ongoing charade. At the same time professional groups like the AMA are not able to take any action that would alleviate this burden. Managed care companies have institutionalized these rules in most states for decades at this point. It was shocking when I first discovered that. Look at the state statues and realize that rules stacked against you and your patients are the law. The law mandates that you need to do all of this work for free for a managed care company.
Today, I came up with a new idea. Attorney Generals in the State of Minnesota have a record of activism against health care companies and unfair practices. I decided to send a letter of my most recent experience with a PBM to the Attorney General's Office along with a copy of a letter I wrote as an opinion piece the Minnesota Medicine a few months ago. That letter details how these practices disproportionately affect psychiatrists and patients with mental illnesses. The proposed solution to the problem is a very simple one. Instead of expecting physicians or their surrogates to endure a 28 minute telephone gauntlet in order to speak to a non professional who is unsteadily reading approval instructions out of manual - give that manual directly to the retail pharmacist. The 28 minute call would evaporate into a 2 minute call or less. Better yet, take the physician out of the loop entirely. There is no way that a physician should collude with a business decision to make money for a managed care company. If the company refuses the physician order, it should clearly be documented and the next choice should be made (if possible) and designated as not the optimal choice by the physician.
That brings me to the all important issue of conflict of interest. You can read blogs all over the internet that discuss the issue of pharmaceutical company influence ad nauseum. The Pharmascolds remain preoccupied with this issue and are apparently unable to see that businesses run according to business ethics (whatever that might be), clinical trials of practically all drugs are imperfect and no matter how many repeat studies the Cochrane Collaboration wants that basic fact will not change, and that the FDA is a flawed politically biased agency rather than the guarantor of drug safety. These are some of the common fallacies that I see played out each day across a number of settings. At any rate, just based on the frequency of enraged posts any casual reader would think that this is a daily crisis. The only significant variant is that physicians and psychiatrists in particular are blamed for the ethical shortcomings of both American businesses and government.
But when you get right down to it - what is conflict of interest? It is probably useful to use existing definitions rather than my direct observations for the purpose of this post. There is no more respected body than the Institute of Medicine. They routinely publish books on health care policy that are widely quoted and their definitions carry some weight. I don't like their entire conflict of interest policy because they equate the appearance of conflict of interest with conflict of interest. Congress would probably also have an issue with that definition. Their basic introductory definition from the reference at the bottom of this page is included in the table below:
To keep it simple let's consider the primary interest in this case to be the welfare of patients. The secondary interests in this case are defined as: ".... financial gain but also the desire for professional advancement, recognition for personal achievement and favors to friends and family or to students and colleagues.." (p. 47). They qualify this by saying that financial gain is not necessarily bad and that policies reasonably focus on financial gains but: "When a secondary interest has inappropriate weight in a decision and distorts the pursuit of a primary interest, it is exerting undue influence." They go on to define the conflict as any set of circumstances that arises that does not necessarily compromise the primary interest of patient welfare but that merely creates a risk for doing so.
How does this apply to prior authorization? Prior authorization certainly sets up a secondary interest. In this case the interest is the financial well being of the managed care company or PBM and in the case of publicly held companies - their shareholders. From the perspective of the physician the secondary interest is maintaining employment which is the worst case scenario of "professional advancement." Most employers and insurance companies stipulate that in order to stay employed you have to actively participate in all managed care prior authorizations and utilization review. I am sure that astute politicians will claim that these surrogates are necessary to control runaway health care costs. That does not explain how one could come up with a new sets of businesses worth tens of billions of dollars that make their money strictly from rationing pharmaceuticals. These are companies that arise out of thin air based on the questionable theories of politicians and business people. It does not explain why they are currently in the business of rationing very inexpensive generic drugs. It certainly does not explain how there is a direct correlation between managed care rationing and an over 300% increase in health care administrators in the industry. And most importantly it does not explain the complete failure of the managed care industry to contain health care costs. In short, anyone espousing the need for expensive administrator heavy systems to control runaway prescribing does not have a leg to stand on. The secondary interest in this case is clear. Prior authorization is there to make money for companies and make a lot of it and physicians are forced to participate.
The second issue here is an interesting and important one. Physicians don't have to be convinced by flashy ads, salespeople, free samples, or financial inducements. They are simply coerced. When their patients are standing in a Walgreens or CVS, they don't have the luxury of saying no or even putting it off until the next day. A patient who they have seen and assessed needs a medication and something has to be done. They have to jump through a managed care hoop in order to get the medication that they have already prescribed - paid for. The only question is: "How high is that hoop?"
When people talk to me about all of the pharmaceutical company influence and evil marketing practices I don't even blink an eye. I would like to know how the systematic coercion of the professional judgment of physicians by for profit companies on a national scale is not a far bigger problem than trinkets and pizza from the pharmaceutical industry? There is no risk of compromising the primary interest of patient welfare. Patient welfare is always secondary to financial interest of the company involved. The only case where it is not is if the company agrees with the prescriber, but even then they have created strong disincentives (the gauntlet-like telephone queue) to the accomplishment of the primary goal of prescribing what the physicians considers the best possible medication.
I would like to know how the Institute of Medicine can ignore this?
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
IOM (Institute of Medicine). Conflict of Interest in Medical Research, Education, and Practice. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; 2009.
Supplementary 1: I consider the quotes from the IOM reference to be fair use under the US Copyright Law.