by Danielle Ofri
New York Times op-ed
“Dear Doctor,” the letter from the insurance company began. “We are writing to inform you that a prior authorization is required for the medication you prescribed.”
That’s usually where I stop reading. Thousands of these letters arrive daily in doctors’ offices across the country. They are attempts by insurance companies to prod doctors away from more expensive treatments and toward less expensive alternatives. To use the pricier option, you need to provide a compelling clinical reason.
The letter in my hand concerned one of my patients, Mr. V., who suffers from stubborn hypertension. His chart is a veritable tome, documenting the years of effort it took to find the combination of four different blood-pressure medications that controls his hypertension without upsetting his diabetes, kidney disease and valvular heart disease or making his life miserable from side effects. We’ve been on stable ground for a few years now, a state neither of us takes for granted.
But Mr. V. had changed insurance companies, and now one of his medications required a prior authorization. The last thing I wanted was for him to be turned away at his pharmacy and have his blood pressure spiral out of control, so I called right away to sort things out.
Twenty minutes of phone tree later, I discovered that the problem was that I had exceeded a pill limit for one of his medications. Mr. V. needed to take 90 of those pills each month for the high dosage that his blood pressure required. I patiently explained this to the customer-care representative.
Equally patiently, she told me that 45 pills a month was the maximum allowed for this particular medication.
Three more phone trees and three more customer-care representatives later, my patience was flagging. Apparently a request for 90 pills was flummoxing the system. Representative No. 4 asked me to list all the blood-pressure medications that Mr. V. had been on in the past, including dates of initiation and relevant lab values, a request of epic proportions in his case.
’m all for controlling medical costs and trying to apply rational rules to our use of expensive medications and procedures. But in the current system, everything seems to be in service of the corporate side of medicine, not the patient. The clinical rationale and the actual patient — not to mention the doctors and nurses involved in the care — are at best secondary concerns.
In the end, we were able to keep Mr. V.’s blood pressure under control. My blood pressure, however, was a different story.