[Skip to Content]
Sign In
Individual Sign In
Create an Account
Institutional Sign In
OpenAthens Shibboleth
Purchase Options:
[Skip to Content Landing]
Views 6,837
Citations 0
February 3, 2020

Changing the Game of Prior Authorization: The Patient Perspective

Author Affiliations
  • 1Center for Patient Partnerships, University of Wisconsin, Madison
  • 2University of Wisconsin Law School, Madison
  • 3Editorial Affairs, Institute for Healthcare Improvement, Boston, Massachusetts
JAMA. Published online February 3, 2020. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.0070

Securing approval for reimbursement of care in a medical care system affected by overuse and ineffective care seems logical and arguably protective of patients’ interests. However, the prior authorization process has now become a significant burden on clinicians, patients, and health care organizations. Even though some organizations are actively advocating to reduce the financial implications and time requirements caused by this process, the full effects and consequences of prior authorization on patients and their families (particularly reversals of authorization after the fact) remain enormous. Along with whatever protections against unnecessary care that it offers, prior authorization has created a minefield of financial risks for patients and their families.

It should be a simple matter for patients and those who care for patients to ask insurers in advance if they will pay for the proposed care and to get a firm answer: approval or denial. Yet even when clinicians or hospitals inform patients that “insurance has given an all clear,” sometimes insurers subsequently refuse to pay, and patients receive unexpected and expensive bills.

Although published data about the frequency and costs of retrospective denials are not available, incidents reported by patients, advocacy groups, and hospital billing offices suggest that these denials do occur. Examples include when insurers rethink the authorization and decide, after the care is billed, that the procedure was experimental or not medically necessary. Some denials are triggered when physicians or hospitals receive prior authorization for one procedure code but bill for a different one. Still other denials happen when agents of the insurer give erroneous information to members who, relying on what they have been told, seek care at an unauthorized facility.

Whether caused by insurer, hospital, or physician, the financial toll, emotional distress, and psychological effects on patients can be substantial and recourse can be limited. Patients and their families are daunted by the arcane procedures required to appeal insurance denials effectively and they often do not know exactly what caused the reversal. Many patients pay these bills whether or not they are actually liable for them. Many other patients simply cannot afford to pay, which is one reason medical debt has been estimated to be the primary cause of more than half of personal bankruptcies in the United States.1 Although there is significant national momentum to address surprise medical bills, legislative efforts are largely confined to bills related to out-of-network care that patients unknowingly received following receipt of care at in-network settings.

The ultimate financial responsibility of reversals rests squarely, but unfairly, on patients. Importantly, clinicians and organizations are not responsible for collecting payment from insurers (although they have a strong incentive to do so whenever possible because insurers have far greater resources than patients do). Hospitals and medical offices, with interests in being paid for their services, set up payment plans that they justify based on the patients’ prior signatures on a document agreeing to pay any uncovered costs. Patients must sign such documents (which are often explained at the time of signing as a mere formality “since your insurer has already preapproved the procedure”) before they can receive care. When hospitals cannot secure payment even for discounted amounts from patients via payment plans, hospitals may write these amounts off as “bad debt” and sell them to collection agencies. These agencies, in turn, use various means to try to collect, causing additional suffering for patients who cannot afford to pay.

How did this peril arise? Why does an affirmation of coverage given by the insurer prior to the medical procedure not count as a binding agreement to pay? How can patients be held liable for hospital, clinician, or insurer errors made during the prior authorization process?

Preapproval has logical roots. Beginning in the early 1980s, insurance companies, informed in part by research from the RAND Corporation on appropriateness of care,2 became increasingly skeptical of the need for many procedures commonly ordered by physicians. As a counterweight, insurers introduced more thorough reviews of medical procedures in advance of treatment to ensure that they were, in fact, medically necessary.

During the preapproval process, insurers verify the identity and insurance status of the patient and confirm coverage for the prescribed procedure at the intended health care facility. When additional scrutiny is warranted, insurers engage in the prior authorization process to further verify that the prescribed drug or procedure is medically necessary or appropriate for this condition in this patient, and that it is not experimental. When preapproval and, when necessary, prior authorization are completed, the insurer affirms its approval to the clinician or organization and care proceeds.

Logically that is where the process should end. But it often does not. Strangely, a favorable decision is not binding on the insurer. At the end of virtually every preapproval call or document, insurers always add the caveat, “Of course, this is not a guarantee of payment,” as a form of protection in any subsequent decision to deny coverage. This short, unassuming sentence acts as a semantic loophole, allowing insurers to leave clinicians, organizations, and ultimately patients responsible for costly medical bills.3

Why is prior authorization not a guarantee of payment? In the absence of a billing error, clear fraud, or material misrepresentation, which are already effectively addressed in laws that protect insurers, there is no apparent reason that such advance approvals should not bind the insurer and the clinician or organization for the costs of care. In any event, whatever the reason, these disagreements should be resolved between the hospital or clinic and the insurer. The patient has no capacity to prevent uncovered care from occurring.

National efforts to reform prior authorization are ongoing; however, addressing the issue of appropriate patient liability has lagged. In 2017, the American Medical Association (AMA) and a multistakeholder group of physicians, hospitals, pharmacists, and patients developed utilization management reform principles aimed at reducing the burden of current prior authorization requirements on physicians and patients. These included specific provisions to ensure the reliability of prior authorization as a commitment to coverage, protecting patients from liability for the costs of care.4

In 2018, the AMA joined with groups representing pharmacists, medical groups, hospitals, and health plans in a consensus statement. Notably, the patient financial liability protection principles were not included.5

In August 2019, the AMA revised its 2014 model legislation entitled Ensuring Transparency in Authorization Act.6 Although the model legislation addresses important concerns, it stops short of explicitly holding patients harmless for costs they did not knowingly incur when prior authorization has been given. Although it is extremely heartening to see model legislation, broad and meaningful reform is unlikely so long as payers and insurers stand in opposition.

There are 2 ways to introduce “hold harmless” provisions into the insurance system: legislative and contractual. A legislative approach (which could be added to the protections in the proposed model legislation) would prohibit both insurers and hospitals and other health care organizations from holding patients accountable for care that has been approved for coverage.

A contractual approach would be a private agreement between insurers and those who provide care under which the insurer guarantees to pay once care is preapproved, unless the caregiver bills for a different procedure. Such provisions are currently encumbered by a restriction (typical in insurance policies) that allows only the beneficiary and not the clinician or hospital to appeal a denial of insurance coverage. This may be about to change. There are indications that courts are beginning to allow clinicians and health care organizations to appeal denials directly with insurers, which would be a significant move forward in the effort to protect patients from the pitfalls of reversed preapprovals.7

In a recent case (in 2015), the Third Circuit held that when a patient executes an Assignment of Benefits form, the provider gains standing to sue for that payment under §502(a) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). The Court reasoned that “this outcome will help ensure that beneficiaries of employee sponsored plans will have increased access to care and will allow providers to make direct claims against payers rather than requiring a patient to bring suit, and avoid suits against or demands for payment from the beneficiary.”8

It is time for new legislation and new contractual rules that make insurers’ prior authorization decisions binding and to hold clinicians and health care organizations responsible for their errors in prior authorization and billing processes. Patients should be protected against financial responsibility for choices they did not make according to rules they cannot affect.

Back to top
Article Information

Corresponding Author: Martha E. Gaines, JD, LLM, Center for Patient Partnerships, University of Wisconsin, 975 Bascom Mall, Madison, WI 53706 (meg.gaines@wisc.edu).

Published Online: February 3, 2020. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.0070

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.

Himmelstein  DU, Lawless  RM, Thorne  D, Foohey  P, Woolhandler  S.  Medical bankruptcy: still common despite the Affordable Care Act.  Am J Public Health. 2019;109(3):431-433. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2018.304901PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
Brook  RH.  Assessing the appropriateness of care—its time has come.  JAMA. 2009;302(9):997-998. doi:10.1001/jama.2009.1279PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
Patient Advocate Foundation. What does an approved pre-authorization mean? https://www.patientadvocate.org/cardio-it-matters-sheets/what-does-an-approved-pre-authorization-mean/. Accessed January 16, 2020.
American Medical Association. Prior authorization and utilization management reform principles. https://www.ama-assn.org/system/files/2019-06/principles-with-signatory-page-for-slsc.pdf. Accessed January 16, 2020.
American Medical Association. Consensus statement on improving the prior authorization process. https://www.ama-assn.org/sites/ama-assn.org/files/corp/media-browser/public/arc-public/prior-authorization-consensus-statement.pdf. Accessed January 16, 2020.
American Medical Association. Ensuring Transparency in Prior Authorization Act. https://www.ama-assn.org/system/files/2019-08/model-bill-ensuring-transparency-in-prior-authorization.pdf. Accessed January 16, 2020.
American Bar Association. Assignments of benefits: protecting a provider’s right to benefits under ERISA. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/health_law/publications/aba_health_esource/2015-2016/july/undererisa/. Accessed January 16, 2020.
North Jersey Brain and Spine Center v Aetna Inc, 801 F3d 369, 372 (3d Cir 2015).
Limit 200 characters
Limit 25 characters
Conflicts of Interest Disclosure

Identify all potential conflicts of interest that might be relevant to your comment.

Conflicts of interest comprise financial interests, activities, and relationships within the past 3 years including but not limited to employment, affiliation, grants or funding, consultancies, honoraria or payment, speaker's bureaus, stock ownership or options, expert testimony, royalties, donation of medical equipment, or patents planned, pending, or issued.

Err on the side of full disclosure.

If you have no conflicts of interest, check "No potential conflicts of interest" in the box below. The information will be posted with your response.

Not all submitted comments are published. Please see our commenting policy for details.

Limit 140 characters
Limit 3600 characters or approximately 600 words
    2 Comments for this article
    Preauthorization Disclosure
    Gretta Gribble, AN, BSN | None
    There are many reasons for issuing a preauthorization disclosure ("this is not a guarantee of benefits") but most of them have nothing to do with determining if a treatment/procedure/medication meets the insurance contract requirements.  I have never seen a preauthorization not honored for clinical reasons, assuming that the record supports any verbal statements.  The reason for reading this has to do with contract details - for instance, the patients' employer or the insured is not paying the insurance company and the contract is cancelled at the same time the preauthorization is in process.  You would be surprised how many patients do not understand this circumstance ("but you said it would be covered").  Other reasons for denial generally would be related to the contract, not the medical indication.
    Doctors and Patients - Not Insurance Companies - Should Determine the Course of Patient Diagnostics and Treatment.
    Richard Fleming, PhD, MD, JD | FHHI-OmnificImaging-Camelot
    The practice of medicine has changed from taking care of patients, to determining what testing, drugs and hospitals may be available to the patient based upon their insurance policy. Nowhere during the time I was in Medical School was the emphasis placed upon the insurance company. Rather it was placed upon the patient and what was needed to correctly diagnose and treat them. We were after all being trained to take care of patients - not insurance companies, CMS or BigPharma.

    When I was in Residency and Fellowship, we learned that the fastest way to get approval for patient
    admission to the hospital was to ask for the name of the person - working for the insurance company - after we were denied permission to admit the patient. The conversation followed that we needed the name of the person for the medical record, so if the patient had complications resulting from the failure to admit them, the record would reflect who the attorneys should contact. It's amazing how those working for the insurance company suddenly find a reason to admit the patient.

    I agree with the need to hold the insurance companies accountable for their decisions about testing and treatment options - but more importantly, I think it is time the control of medical care of the patient return to the doctor and patient.
    CONFLICT OF INTEREST: Patent for Nuclear Imaging Protocol