Power of Pain: Facing Insurance Challenges

By Barby Ingle, Columnist 

You may have heard about singer Avril Levine’s battle with Lyme disease, a tick-borne illness that left her bedridden for months with debilitating pain and fatigue.

It took a long time for Avril to be diagnosed correctly by doctors. She had to keep researching and advocating for herself before she was finally given proper treatment – a problem faced too often by people with chronic pain and illness.

Sometimes doctors cause these delays, but often insurance companies are responsible.

Americans receive their health care coverage from a variety of sources; through their employers, self-purchased policies, and public programs such as Medicare or the Affordable Care Act.

As the cost of healthcare rises, consumers have seen a significant hike in premiums and out-of-pocket expenses such as deductibles, copayments, and other cost sharing.

Insurance companies are also working to keep their costs down, through policies such as prior authorization, “step therapy” requirements, and specialty tier pricing on medications.

It can be a battle that is time consuming, frustrating, and depressing when an insurance company denies payments for a medication, procedure or medical device. Sometimes the issue is due to a provider entering the wrong code, but most often it is a cost savings issue. Insurance companies can make blanket denials and question whether a certain treatment is appropriate for you. 

What can be done to change this?

Step Therapy and Fail First

We need to abolish the unethical “Step Therapy” or “Fail First” practices by insurance companies – which require a patient to use a different (and usually cheaper) medication than the one prescribed by their physician.

There are patients from all over the United States reporting how they are being forced to switch from one drug to another. This has personally happened to me twice. Both times, I fought the ruling using my medical records and providers support, and the insurance company reversed the decision. However, others are not so lucky. In my case, I had already tried all of the medications that the insurance company was willing to pay for, and I had documented records stating my reaction to each of the medications.  

Usually, a patient can tell immediately whether a medication is working or not, and they should not be forced to stay on drugs that don’t relieve their symptoms. Applying step therapy protocols rigidly to a chronic care patient is not in their best interest and simply creates more challenges.

This practice is especially hard on pain patients who are women, minorities, and economically disadvantaged. Studies have shown these groups are most affected and are either disproportionately undertreated or untreated for pain. We must urge insurers to reduce health disparities in our communities.  

If you are faced with a step therapy situation, what can you do? I would suggest you appeal immediately. If you have already tried that medication, get copies of your providers’ records, and your journal entries, and submit them with your appeal.

You can use a journal to help the provider document how step therapy drugs fail to help or make things worse.  Note when complications and bad side effects occur, and report them to your doctor.

You should also have your provider fill out and submit a Medform 3500 to the Food and Drug Administration when you have a bad reaction to a medication or medical device. Send a copy to your insurance company. That documentation can increase the chances of a successful appeal  favorable to you.

Prior Authorization

There are many insurance plans that require prior authorization for expensive drugs or treatments and they may not provide coverage if you do not get prior approval. Once again, this tactic is used as a cost containment measure. Prior authorization covers the correctness, suitability, and coverage of a service or medication. 

The process differs with each plan, but is supposed to ensure that a patient will receive the appropriate level of care in the appropriate setting. This is actually a technique for minimizing costs, wherein benefits are only paid if the medical care has been pre-approved. It can delay care months to years, and can be life threatening and health deteriorating to the patient in many ways. 

Services that may require prior authorization include hospital admissions, back surgery, hysterectomies, maternity stays longer than 48 hours, observational stays, cosmetic procedures, experimental and investigational procedures, and some outpatient procedures.  

Specialty Tier

Insurance companies have divided medications and treatments into four main insurance tiers, based on type and price. The top and most expensive tier is known as the “specialty tier” or “tier 4 medications.”

Insurance companies classify the most innovative, expensive, and most essential to life medications as specialty tier.  These drugs can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars each month. Patients with chronic illnesses such as arthritis, Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, hemophilia, HIV/AIDS,  Crohn’s disease, Hepatitis C, multiple sclerosis, and many forms of cancer need these medications to help them function on a daily basis.  

According to the National Minority Quality Forum, 57 million Americans depend on specialty tier drugs that are often expensive and have no generic form yet available. 

With specialty tier pricing, a patient often pays a co-insurance instead of a co-pay, resulting in an out of pocket cost that can become astronomical. This often happens to patients who are  disabled, need catastrophic care, and have little or no income.

It is difficult to appeal specialty tier pricing decisions, as the medications are classified and a list is available to the insured at the time of coverage or when a medication is released to the market.

Many patients and providers give up when they get the first denial letter from an insurance company, but it’s important to keep fighting. An appeal can show a pattern that other patients with the same condition also need the same treatment. This can lead to an easier situation for other patients down the line, or if you need the procedure repeated.   

Barby Ingle suffers from Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the Power of Pain Foundation. She is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics.

More information about Barby can be found at her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.