States move to curb insurers’ prior authorization requirements as federal reforms lag


Amid growing criticism of health insurers’ onerous prior authorization practices, lawmakers in 30 states have introduced bills this year that aim to rein in insurer gatekeeping and improve patient care.

“This is something that goes on in every doctor’s office every day; the frustrations, the delays, and the use of office staff time are just unbelievable,” said Steven Orland, MD, a board-certified urologist and president of the Medical Society of New Jersey.

The bills, which cover private health plans and insurers that states regulate, may provide some relief for physicians as federal efforts to streamline prior authorization for some Medicare patients have lagged.

Last year, Congress failed to pass the Improving Seniors’ Timely Access to Care Act of 2021, despite 326 co-sponsors. The bill would have compelled insurers covering Medicare Advantage enrollees to speed up prior authorizations, make the process more transparent, and remove obstacles such as requiring fax machine submissions.

Last month, however, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services issued a final rule that will improve some aspects of prior authorizations in Medicare Advantage insurance plans and ensure that enrollees have the same access to necessary care as traditional Medicare enrollees.

The insurance industry has long defended prior authorization requirements and opposed legislation that would limit them.

America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association said in a 2019 letter to a congressional committee when the federal legislation was first introduced, “Prior authorizations enforce best practices and guidelines for care management and help physicians identify and avoid care techniques that would harm patient outcomes, such as designating prescriptions that could feed into an opioid addiction.” AHIP didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.

But some major insurers now appear willing to compromise and voluntarily reduce the volume of prior authorizations they require. Days before the federal final rule was released, three major insurers – United HealthCare, Cigna, and Aetna CVS Health – announced they plan to drop some prior authorization requirements and automate processes.

United HealthCare said it will eliminate almost 20% of its prior authorizations for some nonurgent surgeries and procedures starting this summer. It also will create a national Gold Card program in 2024 for physicians who meet its eligibility requirements, which would eliminate prior authorization requirements for most procedures. Both initiatives will apply to commercial, Medicare Advantage, and Medicaid businesses, said the insurer in a statement.

However, United HealthCare also announced that in June it will start requiring prior authorization for diagnostic (not screening) gastrointestinal endoscopies for its nearly 27 million privately insured patients, citing data it says shows potentially harmful overuse of scopes. Physician groups have publicly criticized the move, saying it could delay lifesaving treatment, and have asked the insurer to reconsider.

Cigna and Aetna also have moved to pare back prior authorization processes. Scott Josephs, national medical officer for Cigna, told Healthcare Dive that Cigna has removed prior authorization reviews from nearly 500 services since 2020.

An Aetna spokesperson told Healthcare Dive that the CVS-owned payer has implemented a gold card program and rolled back prior authorization requirements on cataract surgeries, video EEGs, and home infusion for some drugs, according to Healthcare Dive.

Cigna has faced increased scrutiny from some state regulators since a ProPublica/The Capitol Forum article revealed in March that its doctors were denying claims without opening patients’ files, contrary to what insurance laws and regulations require in many states.

Over a period of 2 months last year, Cigna doctors denied over 300,000 requests for payments using this method, spending an average of 1.2 seconds on each case, the investigation found. In a written response, Cigna said the reporting by ProPublica and The Capitol Forum was “biased and incomplete.”


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