The Impact of Prior Authorization on Patient Care: Insights from a New York Magazine Article

Asian woman filling in medical report papers with nurse


Healthcare is a complex and vital aspect of our lives, but it often involves bureaucratic processes that can have a significant impact on patient care. In a recent New York Magazine article titled "The Two Words That Can Make Health Care a Nightmare," the concept of prior authorization and its far-reaching consequences are explored in depth. This article delves into the challenges faced by both patients and medical practitioners due to the prior authorization process, shedding light on its impact and the ongoing efforts to reform it.

Table of Content

    The Real-Life Story of Dr. Dan Hurley: A Physician's Struggle

    In the gripping narrative presented in the New York Magazine article, we are introduced to Dr. Dan Hurley, an experienced ear, nose, and throat physician who found himself on the other side of the healthcare system when he was diagnosed with metastatic dedifferentiated chondrosarcoma in his pelvic bone. Dr. Hurley's journey exemplifies the challenges patients face when dealing with prior authorization processes.

    As a seasoned healthcare professional, Dr. Hurley was well aware of the bureaucratic hurdles he would encounter during his battle with cancer, especially with his insurance company, Blue Cross Blue Shield. Prior authorization, a contentious process used by insurance companies to determine the necessity of medical treatments before covering them, was a familiar and dreaded aspect of his journey. Dr. Hurley understood the administrative burdens it placed on healthcare providers, often requiring them to navigate complex paperwork, even for routine procedures and medications.

    However, the real concern lay in the potential life-or-death consequences of prior authorization delays. Dr. Hurley's fears materialized when his doctors ordered a PET scan to assess the progression of his aggressive cancer. Blue Cross initially denied the scan, prompting a strenuous appeals process. Multiple denials later, the approval came only a day before Dr. Hurley's scheduled chemotherapy, forcing him to choose between the scan's delay and potentially missing a crucial benchmark in his treatment.

    These experiences underscore how prior authorization, when it fails to function efficiently, can compromise patient care, even for medical professionals like Dr. Hurley. In the subsequent sections, we will explore the broader implications of this bureaucratic process on both patients and healthcare providers and delve into the calls for reform that have gained momentum in recent years.

    Understanding the Prior Authorization Process

    The prior authorization process, as discussed in the New York Magazine article, has evolved over the years and become an integral part of the healthcare landscape. Originally, it was implemented as a means for hospitals to review and determine the most cost-effective treatments for patients. Insurers subsequently developed their own standards to ensure consistency and control costs, primarily applying prior authorization to expensive care like certain cancer treatments or cutting-edge medications.

    However, in recent times, prior authorization has extended its reach and now encompasses a wide range of medical procedures and services, including routine ones like prescription refills and basic imaging. According to Jack Resneck, president of the American Medical Association, the system has expanded to the point where it now applies to "almost everything." Insurance companies maintain that the primary objective of prior authorization is to save money for patients and protect them by preventing unnecessary and costly treatments.

    In practice, though, the administrative burden placed on healthcare providers has significantly increased. The New York Magazine article highlights the results of an American Medical Association survey, where the typical physician is reported to submit 45 prior authorizations per week. The submission process itself varies from one insurance company to another but generally involves navigating a complex and often opaque set of rules.

    In the subsequent sections, we will explore the challenges physicians face as they navigate the prior authorization process and the impact it has on patient care. We will also delve into the ongoing efforts to reform this system and alleviate the burden on both healthcare providers and patients.

    The Administrative Burden on Medical Practitioners

    As outlined in the New York Magazine article, the administrative burden imposed on medical practitioners due to the prior authorization process is a significant and growing concern. The article presents findings from the American Medical Association's survey, revealing that the typical physician submits 45 prior authorizations per week. This substantial workload often necessitates additional staff to manage the administrative aspects of prior authorization.

    The process of obtaining prior authorization is far from straightforward. It involves filling out extensive paperwork, which may vary from one insurance company to another, and in many cases, the initial request is denied. Insurance companies may then suggest alternative, often less suitable, treatments or require a "peer-to-peer" discussion. During peer-to-peer conversations, physicians must justify their treatment plans to individuals from the insurance company who may lack relevant expertise, further delaying patient care.

    Moreover, the New York Magazine article highlights that a third of physicians in the survey reported that prior authorization had led to a "serious adverse event" for a patient in their care. These delays in treatment can have severe consequences for patients, exacerbating their health conditions and reducing the chances of successful recovery.

    As we continue to explore the impact of prior authorization, we will delve into the emotional and physical toll it places on both patients and healthcare providers. Additionally, we will examine the broader implications of prior authorization on the healthcare system and the efforts to reform this complex and burdensome process.

    The Patient's Perspective: Life and Death on Hold

    Prior authorization delays can have dire consequences for patients, as illustrated by the tragic story of Nataline Sarkisyan, a 17-year-old girl with recurrent leukemia. In a desperate race against time, Nataline needed a liver transplant to survive, a procedure deemed medically necessary by her doctors. However, Cigna, her insurance provider, initially denied prior authorization, classifying the life-saving transplant as "experimental."

    The Sarkisyan family, along with healthcare advocates and the medical community, launched a fervent appeal to Cigna to reverse its decision. The case garnered widespread media attention, with public outcry condemning the insurance company's heartless bureaucracy. Under immense pressure, Cigna ultimately relented and approved the transplant, but it was tragically too late. Nataline Sarkisyan passed away mere hours after the approval.

    This heart-wrenching incident underscores the human toll of prior authorization delays. While Nataline's story received national attention, countless others face similar ordeals without the benefit of media exposure. It reveals the ethical complexities of a system that can prioritize cost containment over human life.

    Dr. Dan Hurley's journey and Nataline's story illuminate the urgency of addressing prior authorization's impact on patients. In the following sections, we will delve deeper into the ethical dilemmas posed by this bureaucratic process, its consequences for healthcare access, and the ongoing efforts to reform and improve patient care.

    The Profit Motive and Industry Impact

    The proliferation of prior authorization in the healthcare industry is closely tied to the profit motive of insurance companies, as explored in the New York Magazine article. Wendell Potter, a former health-insurance industry insider, provides valuable insights into the profit-driven cycle that characterizes many insurance companies. This cycle, he contends, has a profound impact on patient care.

    The managed-care revolution of the 1980s and 1990s saw insurance companies taking a more active role in healthcare management. While this was initially presented as a means to ensure quality care, it quickly became evident that these changes often prioritized financial interests. Instead of focusing on innovations that would enhance patient care and reduce costs, insurers introduced new layers of bureaucracy, such as prior authorization, to boost their revenues.

    Furthermore, the article highlights the emergence of an entire industry centered around prior authorization. Some insurers outsource this administrative work to separate companies, which actively promote their ability to deny treatments they deem clinically unnecessary. Patients, often unaware of these dynamics, end up indirectly supporting such companies through their insurance premiums.

    Additionally, some insurance giants, including Cigna, own their own prior-authorization entities, like eviCore, deeply embedded within their corporate structure. These intricate relationships between insurers and prior-authorization entities add complexity and potential conflicts of interest to the process.

    In the following sections, we will explore the ethical dimensions of profit-driven healthcare decisions, the conflicts of interest that arise, and the calls for reform to prioritize patient well-being over financial gains.

    The Push for Reform: Lobbying for Change

    Recognizing the pressing need for change, various healthcare stakeholders have launched efforts to reform the prior authorization system, as highlighted in the New York Magazine article. Physician groups and advocacy organizations are at the forefront of this push for reform, joined by patients who have experienced the burdens of prior authorization firsthand, including Dr. Dan Hurley.

    One significant development is the introduction of bipartisan legislation in both Congress and state legislatures aimed at addressing the issues surrounding prior authorization. These bills seek to streamline the process, reduce administrative burdens, and ensure that patients receive timely access to medically necessary treatments. In some states, there are discussions about implementing "gold-card programs" that exempt physicians with a proven track record of obtaining prior authorization for specific treatments from going through the process repeatedly.

    Even major health insurers, who have traditionally defended prior authorization as a tool to save money and protect patients, have acknowledged the existing problems and pledged to contribute to solutions. However, skepticism remains among patients who wonder if these companies can genuinely reform a system that has, in part, served their financial interests.

    Recent regulatory changes, such as the requirement that prior-authorization determinations be reviewed by professionals with relevant expertise, reflect growing recognition of the need for reform at the federal level. These changes aim to enhance the transparency and fairness of the prior authorization process.

    In subsequent sections, we will explore the potential impact of these reform efforts on patients, healthcare providers, and the broader healthcare landscape. We will also address the challenges and concerns surrounding the implementation of these changes.

    The Future of Prior Authorization: Challenges and Hopes

    While there is growing momentum for prior authorization reform, numerous challenges and concerns persist, as detailed in the New York Magazine article. Efforts to streamline the prior authorization process face several obstacles, including resistance from some sectors of the healthcare industry.

    One challenge lies in striking the right balance between simplifying the process and maintaining safeguards to ensure that medically necessary treatments are not overlooked or denied. Critics argue that in the quest for efficiency, there should be mechanisms in place to prevent insurance companies from undermining the quality of care or cutting corners to save costs.

    Additionally, some insurance companies, as seen in the case of UnitedHealthcare, have attempted to expand prior authorization requirements even as they promise to reduce them elsewhere. This highlights the ongoing struggle to monitor and hold insurance companies accountable for their practices.

    Despite these challenges, the hopes for reform are substantial. Physicians, patients, and advocates continue to push for change, advocating for a healthcare system that prioritizes timely and appropriate access to care over bureaucratic hurdles.

    As we conclude this exploration of the impact of prior authorization on patient care, we underscore the importance of staying informed and engaged in ongoing reform efforts. The future of healthcare should prioritize the well-being of patients and the ability of medical practitioners to deliver timely and effective treatments.


    (200-250 words):

    The prior authorization process in healthcare is a complex and often contentious issue, as highlighted in the New York Magazine article. It represents a bureaucratic hurdle that impacts both patients and healthcare providers, raising ethical questions about the balance between cost containment and patient care.

    Dr. Dan Hurley's personal battle with cancer and the tragic story of Nataline Sarkisyan serve as poignant reminders of the real-life consequences of prior authorization delays. These stories underscore the urgent need for reform and a system that prioritizes the health and well-being of individuals over administrative red tape.

    The historical evolution of prior authorization reveals its expansion from a limited practice to a ubiquitous requirement for a wide range of medical procedures. Insurance companies have cited cost savings and patient safety as reasons for its implementation, but the administrative burden it places on medical practitioners and the potential for adverse patient outcomes have come under scrutiny.

    Efforts to reform the prior authorization process are underway at both the state and federal levels. Physician groups, patients, and advocates are actively lobbying for change, seeking to simplify the process, reduce administrative burdens, and ensure timely access to necessary treatments. Recent regulatory changes aim to enhance fairness and transparency in the prior authorization process.

    As we conclude this examination of prior authorization's impact on healthcare, we encourage readers to remain engaged in the ongoing reform efforts. The future of healthcare should prioritize patient care above all else, ensuring that individuals receive the timely and appropriate treatments they deserve.

    For more in-depth information and insights on this critical issue, please visit the original New York Magazine article.

    It's worth noting that navigating the complexities of insurance, including the prior authorization process, can be significantly eased by having a professional medical billing company as a valuable ally in your medical practice. These experts specialize in managing the administrative aspects of healthcare, including billing, coding, and insurance claims. They are well-versed in the intricacies of dealing with insurance companies, which can be particularly advantageous when it comes to prior authorization. By partnering with a skilled medical billing company, medical practitioners can streamline their administrative tasks, ensure accurate documentation, and increase the likelihood of obtaining timely prior authorizations. This support not only reduces the administrative burden on healthcare providers but also enhances their ability to focus on what truly matters: delivering high-quality care to patients.

    If you would like further information or advice, don't hesitate to call us at (800) 853-8110 or email us at any time!