Saturday, April 12, 2014

25 minutes is 25 minutes - The Prior Authorization Rip Off Continues

I can still recall when I was referred to my first web site for a prior authorization of a prescription medication.  My first thought was: "Great - I am going to have to open up an account somewhere so that I can work as an uncompensated employee of a PBM."  It wasn't quite that bad but it wasn't good either.  Online prior authorization request are often hyped as the solution to the ongoing physician harassment by PBMs.  They claim to be faster that the usual fax or telephone methods.  From the scenario I recently posted it is hard to believe that they could be any slower.

In this case I had to be the data entry person and enter data from a fax from the pharmacy and the demographic section of my EHR onto two computer screens.  After establishing that all of the correct releases were in place, that involves going between these screens and supplying data that physicians typically don't ever use and therefore do not care about.  In this case it was health insurance data - the group number and name of the policy.  Remind me why I went to medical school again.  Luckily I work with an excellent staff, but it meant getting up and finding the right person to get me this information.  I can imagine that there are a number of settings where it might not be listed.  In that case you cannot complete the form.  It just locks up there in cyberspace and does not allow you to complete and submit it.  The form is actually a request for prior authorization and you have to do it even if the patient has been taking the medication for some time.

In the previous post I pointed out that some members of my state psychiatric society had developed a form that included data on previous medications from the class in question that were either not tolerated or failed.  Of all of the people I have seen, there are very few people who can provide that level of detail over any 10-20 year span of medication trials for disorders than can affect memory and motivation.  I usually provide a checklist to prompt people as shown below.  In many cases there are surprisingly few responses until I show them the checklist.  Medication names are basically medical jargon at its best, and people outside of any field who are unfamiliar with the jargon are less likely to recall these terms.  Filling in the past medications for a prior authorization is problematic for that reason.  Filling it in is also problematic if the patient has been seen for years.  Somebody still needs to go in and search for the medications.  Most EHRs have poor search capability for classes of medications and even if there is one table somewhere it will not say whether the medication failed or was not tolerated.  Without that information the form cannot be completed.

With the wonders of the Internet and computers, prior authorization remains a waste of time.  The forms are not designed for physicians to complete and the human factors involved still require a lot of time.  No physician I know has 20 - 25 minutes to waste on form completion for every moderately priced prescription that they write.  No physician I know has that kind of time to waste irrespective of the cost of the drug.  The phenomenon has been studied to some degree (1) and the actual costs are very high.  One study showed that physicians spend at least 35 minutes a day on this activity and required 0.67 FTE non-clinical staff  per FTE physician.  The total annual cost of the physician and non-clinical staff time was $85,276.  That is nearly 4 times as much as Canadian physicians (2) and I am guessing that most of that is due to prior authorization.  That translates to an annual figure of $23 to $31 billion dollars annually (3) to medical practices in the US.  When I say that I have done a lot of free work for managed care companies and PBMs I am not kidding.

There has been some additional data available about prescription drugs used for psychiatric indications in a report from SAMHSA (4).

I think that it is apparent from the graph that the growth in medication spending is more likely to be due to patent protection of name brand medications than excessive prescribing of expensive drugs and the pricing structure of specific pharmaceutical companies.  For a graphic showing some of these patent expirations check out this link.  I can recall the clozapine prior authorization procedure in this state when it first became available in the 1990s.  Clozapine prescribing was limited to registered psychiatrists and for every prescription you had to call a PharmD in the Department of Human Services and recite the diagnosis and white blood cell parameters.  It did not take long to realize that the expense of the drug and the associated monitoring was not a determining factor in the prescription of this medication.  The argument has been made by some that clozapine was not used when it might have been useful because of the barriers to prescribing it.  Those barriers have been widely recognized by psychiatrists and the prior authorization was not a determining factor.  It was discontinued in about 2 years and most of the companies who currently handle it have an expedited enrollment in their registry that is faster than most medication prior authorizations.

If PBMs want to reject pharmacy claims they can do it easily on business grounds rather than involving physicians.  They can also just charge a high copay.  This is clearly a high cost problem to physicians, clinics and hospitals.  Eliminating it would result in more saving than the mythical electronic health record dividend.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

1: Sakowski JA, Kahn JG, Kronick RG, Newman JM, Luft HS. Peering into the black box: billing and insurance activities in a medical group. Health Aff (Millwood). 2009 Jul-Aug;28(4):w544-54. doi: 10.1377/hlthaff.28.4.w544. Epub 2009 May 14. PubMed PMID: 19443478.

2: 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.

3: Casalino LP, Nicholson S, Gans DN, Hammons T, Morra D, Karrison T, Levinson W. What does it cost physician practices to interact with health insurance plans? Health Aff (Millwood). 2009 Jul-Aug;28(4):w533-43. doi: 10.1377/hlthaff.28.4.w533. Epub 2009 May 14. PubMed PMID: 19443477.

4: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. National Expenditures for Mental Health Services and Substance Abuse Treatment, 1986–2009. HHS Publication No. SMA-13-4740. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2013.

Supplementary 1: I received a prior authorization fax today about two weeks after the original post.  It contained a number of checkboxes that were very crude approximations of the decision making process for prescribing the drug.  Since the strategy itself serves no useful purpose, I continue to conclude that this is a process designed to slow down and possible thwart the prescription process for an FDA approved drug, simply because of high cost.  Any delay involved makes it less likely that the patient will pick up the prescription and increases the likelihood that the fax will get lost in the process.  


  1. This med list is great: I went to the technical blog and downloaded them. I am really appreciative. It is always hard when you ask folks about prior med trials and they simply can't remember. So thank you! And I totally agree with your sentiments above. I have just left a large system where prior auth was pretty easy and now have entered the private practice world where it is much more challenging.

    1. I agree with you about recall and any research based on recall without independent verification is suspect. Having worked in a large system I am guessing that you have probably have had the experience that many people cannot recall significant medical events including hospitalizations. The other implication for me is that research based on structured interviews (DIS, SADS, etc) that are typically used for epidemiological information are also suspect without verification. I recall a paper that suggested that using the SADS could be used to correct "misdiagnoses" in psychiatric practice. The memory factors would suggest otherwise.

      Thanks for pointing our the downloadable forms. That why I put them there. I usually present them to the patient when I ask them if it would be easier to recall medications if I showed them a list. I have never had a person that it would not.

      Any suggestion to add medications to the list can be posted at that same site: