Conference Coverage

Study: Delays filling biologic prescriptions have consequences



Insurance and specialty pharmacy delays in authorizing new biologic prescriptions for severe allergies leave waiting patients at risk of asthma attacks, hospitalizations, emergency department visits and prednisone shots and their known side effects, according to a single-center study that was to have been presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Dr. Faoud Ishmael of Mount Nittany Medical Group, State College, PA

Dr. Faoud Ishmael

The AAAAI canceled their annual meeting and provided abstracts and access to presenters for press coverage.

The study of 80 patients in State College, Pa., found that they waited an average of 44 days from when their doctor submitted the preauthorization request to the insurance company until the practice received the shipment for dispensing to the patient, investigator Faoud Ishmael, MD, PhD, of Mount Nittany Medical Group said in an interview. “The implication here is that these are really the most severe patients who, you would argue, need their medications the quickest, and it’s taking longer to get them than it would an inhaler,” Dr. Ishmael said.

The study focused on patients with severe asthma (n = 60) or urticarial (n = 20) who received a new prescription of monoclonal antibody therapy from March 2014 to August 2019. For asthma treatments, the average time was 45.8 days; for urticaria, 40.6 days (P = .573), Dr. Ishmael said. The researchers divided the total amount of time into two components: insurance plan review and approval (P = .654, and specialty pharmacy review and dispensing of the medicine, each of which averaged 22.8 days (P = .384), he said.

He also noted wide disparity in the range of approval times. “The shortest approval time was 1 day, and the longest 97 days,” Dr. Ishmael said. “It’s interesting that we had this really broad spread.”

What’s more, the study found no trend for the delays among insurers and specialty pharmacies, Dr. Ishmael added. “When these prescriptions get submitted, it’s like a black box,” he said. “It really seems arbitrary why some of them take so long and some of them don’t.” The findings were independent of type of coverage, whether commercial or government, or even specific insurance plans. “It’s more the process that is flawed rather than one insurance company being the bad guy,” he said.

The study also looked at what happened to patients while they were waiting for their prescriptions to be delivered. “What we found is that over half of asthmatics had an exacerbation – 51% had at least one asthma attack where they needed prednisone,” Dr. Ishmael said (P = .0015), “and we had three patients admitted to the hospital over that time frame when they were waiting for the drugs.” One of those patients had been admitted twice, making four total hospitalizations. Preliminary data analysis showed that about 40% of the patients who had attacks went to the emergency department.

For asthmatics who needed prednisone, the average dose was 480 mg (P = .284) – “a pretty substantial number,” in Dr. Ishmael’s words. He noted that a large portion of the study patients were obese, with a mean body mass index of 33 kg/m2. Other comorbidities prevalent in the study population were hypertension and type 2 diabetes. “Prednisone is something that could worsen all of those conditions, so it’s not a trivial issue,” he said.

The study, however, didn’t evaluate costs of the interventions during the delay period vs. the costs of the medications themselves. Of the 80 prescriptions Dr. Ishmael and coauthors submitted, only one was rejected, that person being a smoker, he said. “I understand these are expensive medicines, but it’s counterproductive to delay them because in the long run the insurance company ends up paying for the hospitalization and the drug rather than just the drug,” he said.

Timothy Craig, DO, of Penn State Health Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology and professor of medicine and pediatrics at Penn State College of Medicine, both in Hershey, said he was surprised at the brevity of the delays reported in Dr. Ishmael’s study. “They do much better than we do with preauthorization,” he said, noting that, in his experience, these approvals take much longer. He added that his own research has found faulty insurance plan algorithms are at the heart of these delays. “We need more studies to clarify how much this is interfering with patient care and how much risk they’re putting patients in,” he said.

Dr. Timothy Craig, professor of medicine and pediatrics in the Department of Medicine, Section of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care

Dr. Timothy Craig

The COVID-19 pandemic poses a double-edged sword for physicians managing patients with severe asthma, Dr. Craig noted. “Their asthma care is important, especially if they do test for COVID-19,” he said. On the other hand, doctors and nurses attending to COVID-19 patients will have less time to haggle with payers to expedite coverage for biologics for their severe asthma patients, he said. “I hope the flexibility is there, especially at this time to allow people to get on the biologics and stay on them,” he said.

Dr. Ishmael said these findings have serious implications because biologics are getting prescribed ever more frequently for asthma and hives. Steps his practice has taken to streamline the process include following the payer’s approval guidelines as closely as possible. This sometimes can mean making sure a patient with severe asthma has been maximized on controller medications before submitting the biologic prescription, he said. Another step is to use drug company programs to remove barriers to coverage.

Nonetheless, the approval process can be daunting even when taking those steps, he said. “Those guidelines that constitute approval may vary a lot from one insurer to another; and sometimes those guidelines are different from the criteria that studies may have used when these drugs were being evaluated in clinical trials,” he said. It would be helpful, he said, if payers used the National Heart, Lung and Blood institute and the Global Initiative for Asthma guidelines for biologics.

One of the goals of the researchers is to present their findings to payers, “to let them know, here are some of the hang-ups and the real risks associated with delaying these medications,” Dr. Ishmael said.

“When specialists especially prescribe these therapies, there’s usually a valid reason,” he said. “We really need to do something about the current process – if there are ways to make it more transparent, faster.”

Dr. Ishmael has no relevant financial relationships to disclose.

SOURCE: Ishmael F et al. AAAAI 2020. Session 3609, Presentation 558.

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