In a handful of cases, health insurers reversed denials after physicians or patients posted complaints on social media
Prior authorization requirements by health insurers have long been a thorn in the side of medical laboratories, as well as physicians. But now, doctors and patients are employing a new tactic against the practice—turning to social media to shame payers into reversing denials, according to KFF Health News (formerly Kaiser Health News).
Genetic testing lab companies are quite familiar with prior authorization problems. They see a significant number of their genetic test requests fail to obtain a prior authorization. Thus, if the lab performs the test, the payer will likely not reimburse, leaving the lab to bill the patient for 100% of the test price, commonly $1,000 to $5,000. Then, an irate patient typically calls the doctor to complain about the huge out-of-pocket cost.
“There are times when you simply must call out wrongdoings,” she wrote in an Instagram post, according to the outlet. “This is one of those times.”
In response, an “escalation specialist” from BCBSIL contacted her but was unable to help. Then, after KFF Health News reached out, Nix discovered on her own that $36,000 in outstanding claims were marked “paid.”
“No one from the company had contacted her to explain why or what had changed,” KFF reported. “[Nix] also said she was informed by her hospital that the insurer will no longer require her to obtain prior authorization before her infusions, which she restarted in July.”
“I think we’re on the precipice of really improving the environment for prior authorization,” said Todd Askew, Senior Vice President, Advocacy, for the American Medical Association, in an AMA Advocacy Update. If this was to happen, it would be welcome news for clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups. (Photo copyright: Nashville Medical News.)
Physicians Also Take to Social Media to Complain about Denials
Two weeks later, he reported that the treatment was approved soon after the tweet. “When did Twitter become the preferred pathway for drug approval?” he wrote.
Eunice Stallman, MD, a psychiatrist from Boise, Idaho, complained on X (formerly Twitter) about Blue Cross of Idaho’s prior authorization denial of a brain cancer treatment for her nine-month-old daughter. “This is my daughter that you tried to deny care for,” she posted. “When a team of expert [doctors] recommend a treatment, your PharmD reviewers don’t get to deny her life-saving care for your profits.”
However, in this case, she posted her account after Blue Cross Idaho reversed the denial. She said she did this in part to prevent the payer from denying coverage for the drug in the future. “The power of the social media has been huge,” she told KFF Health News. The story noted that she joined X for the first time so she could share her story.
Affordable Care Act Loophole?
“We’re not going to get rid of prior authorization. Nobody is saying we should get rid of it entirely, but it needs to be right sized, it needs to be simplified, it needs to be less friction between the patient and accessing their benefits. And I think we’re on really good track to make some significant improvements in government programs, as well as in the private sector,” said Todd Askew, Senior Vice President, Advocacy, for the American Medical Association, in an AMA Advocacy Update.
However, KFF HealthNews reported that Kaye Pestaina, JD, a Kaiser Family Foundation VP and Co-Director of the group’s Program on Patient and Consumer Protections, noted that some “patient advocates and health policy experts” have questioned whether payers’ use of prior authorization denials may be a way to get around the Affordable Care Act’s prohibition against denial of coverage for preexisting conditions.
“They take in premiums and don’t pay claims,” family physician and healthcare consultant Linda Peeno, MD, told KFF Health News. “That’s how they make money. They just delay and delay and delay until you die. And you’re absolutely helpless as a patient.” Peeno was a medical reviewer for Humana in the 1980s and then became a whistleblower.
The issue became top-of-mind for genetic testing labs in 2017, when Anthem (now Elevance) and UnitedHealthcare established programs in which physicians needed prior authorization before the insurers would agree to pay for genetic tests.
Dark Daily’s sister publication The Dark Report covered this in “Two Largest Payers Start Lab Test Pre-Authorization.” We noted then that it was reasonable to assume that other health insurers would follow suit and institute their own programs to manage how physicians utilize genetic tests.
At least one large payer has made a move to reduce prior authorization in some cases. Effective Sept. 1, UnitedHealthcare began a phased approach to remove prior authorization requirements for hundreds of procedures, including more than 200 genetic tests under some commercial insurance plans.
However, a source close to the payer industry noted to Dark Daily that UnitedHealthcare has balked at paying hundreds of millions’ worth of genetic claims going back 24 months. The source indicated that genetic test labs are engaging attorneys to push their claims forward with the payer.
Is Complaining on Social Media an Effective Tactic?
A story in Harvard Business Review cited research suggesting that companies should avoid responding publicly to customer complaints on social media. Though public engagement may appear to be a good idea, “when companies responded publicly to negative tweets, researchers found that those companies experienced a drop in stock price and a reduction in brand image,” the authors wrote.
KFF Health News reported that the federal government is proposing reforms that would require some health plans “to provide more transparency about denials and to speed up their response times.” The changes, which would take effect in 2026, would apply to Medicaid, Medicare Advantage, and federal Health Insurance Marketplace plans, “but not employer-sponsored health plans.”
KFF also noted that some insurers are voluntarily revising prior authorization rules. And the American Medical Association reported in March that 30 states, including Arkansas, California, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Washington, are considering their own legislation to reform the practice. Some are modeled on legislation drafted by the AMA.
Though the states and the federal government are proposing regulations to address prior authorization complaints, reform will likely take time. Given Harvard Business Review’s suggestion to resist replying to negative customer complaints in social media, clinical labs—indeed, all healthcare providers—should carefully consider the full consequences of going to social media to describe issues they are having with health insurers.
Clinical laboratory and pathologists generally acknowledge that RT-Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) tests remain the preferred method for detecting COVID-19 disease. However, according to Popular Science, rapid at-home antigen tests that accurately identify people carrying larger loads of the virus are becoming important tools in the fight against spread of the coronavirus.
DxTerity SARS-CoV-2: This saliva-based collection kit is available on Amazon and at Walmart for $110. Specimens must be sent via FedEx on the same day as collection. Results are available within 24 to 72 hours of the sample being received by the PCR testing lab.
Abbott BinaxNOW Antigen Self-Test. Results within 15 minutes and available for $23.99 at major pharmacies. Each box includes two nasal swab tests, with the second test taken within 36 hours of the first.
Many of the newest at-home tests not only have users collect their own swab or saliva samples, but some also provide results in less than an hour, which can be sent to the user’s smartphone. Conversely, home-based collection kits that are returned to clinical laboratories for testing can take 48 hours or longer for shipping and processing.
Among the issues cited were the potential for inadequate samples and improper handling to cause inaccurate results, as well as uncertainty whether at-home antigen tests will pick up on COVID-19 variants.
At-home tests also are less likely to be covered by insurance, MedPage Today reported.
How Do the Tests’ Accuracy Compare?
The Quest Direct and LabCorp Pixel tests—both of which are sent to company labs for PCR testing—scored highest on the two main statistical measures of performance sensitivity (positive percent agreement) and specificity (negative percent agreement). According to Popular Science, each of these tests’ sensitivities and specificities are close to 100%.
According to the websites of the other tests reviewed by Popular Science:
DxTerity test, which uses a saliva sample—97.2% sensitivity and a 92.5% specificity.
BinaxNOW test—84.6% sensitivity and 98.5% specificity.
Cue COVID-19 test—98.7% sensitivity and 97.6% specificity.
Lucira Check Its test—98% accuracy.
Ellume test—95% sensitivity and 97% specificity.
Rapid Antigen Tests Accurate and Easy to Use, says Popular Science
Popular Science found the tests generally easy to use and concluded they are a beneficial—if imperfect—tool in the fight against COVID-19.
“If you’re unvaccinated and symptomatic, they’re a great way to confirm a COVID-19 infection without risking a trip out of the house,” Popular Science stated in its article. “If you’re unvaccinated and have no symptoms, and just want to know whether you can safely attend a family dinner or soccer game, an at-home test remains an imperfect way of self-screening. Remember: If the test comes back negative, there’s still the chance the result is false, and you could accidentally expose others by being within six feet of them without a mask on.”
As the popularity of at-home COVID-19 tests increases, clinical laboratories that perform RT-PCR tests may want to keep a watchful eye on the demand for at-home rapid antigen testing, especially now that some tests are available without prescription.
Because air travel volumes are low, experts believe it is timely to develop COVID-19 testing systems and gain insight on which protocols are most effective
As the COVID-19 pandemic surges on, several international airlines now require customers to complete at-home COVID-19 testing before they can travel. This is triggering unusual business practices. For example, one airline allows its passengers to use frequent flier miles to purchase mail-in COVID-19 test kits.
Frequent Flyer Miles for COVID-19 Testing
Across the United States, Hawaii has one of the lowest rates of infection, partly thanks to the state’s strict quarantine regulations. In a state, however, that depends on tourism for its economic health, the pandemic has caused serious financial difficulties. In an effort to prevent spread of the coronavirus while also encouraging tourism, Hawaiian Airlines now offers “Pre-travel COVID-19 Test Options” on its website.
To be allowed to skip the state’s mandatory 14-day self-quarantine before arriving on the islands, flyers can take a pre-travel coronavirus test with the following conditions:
The test must be from a state-approved testing provider.
The test must be administered no more than 72 hours prior to the scheduled departure time of the final leg to Hawaii.
For trans-pacific travel, test results must be received prior to flight departure.
Additionally, the airline accepts frequent flyer miles to pay for mail-in COVID-19 tests. In exchange for 14,000 HawaiianMiles, a passenger receives a test kit in the mail. The kit features a video call during which a healthcare professional guides the consumer on taking a saliva sample. The user then ships the sample to a qualified clinical laboratory. Results are returned electronically within 24 hours of the lab receiving the sample.
Hawaii’s COVID-19 portal states, “The state of Hawaii will ONLY accept Nucleic Acid Amplification Test (NAAT) from a certified Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendment (CLIA) lab test results from Trusted Testing and Travel Partners” that are participating in the state’s pre-travel testing program. Honolulu and Maui are the only two arrival airports allowed. A negative result must have come from a test performed within 72 hours prior to the final leg of the passenger’s trip to Hawaii, according to the portal.
“A negative pre-travel test is an alternative to two weeks in self-isolation for arrivals to the archipelago,” the UK’s Independent reported.
JetBlue and Vault Health Partner to Offer COVID Testing to Airline Passengers
In another instance of an airline getting involved in at-home testing, JetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU) is partnering with Vault Health to offer at-home testing. The process is similar to the Hawaiian Airlines program. However, rather than purchasing the test with frequent flyer miles, JetBlue offers polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests at a discount.
Business Travel News reported that passengers must provide a confirmation code while ordering the $119 test from Vault Health’s webpage. “Vault provides a kit for an at-home saliva test, and users administrate it while on a video chat supervised by Vault to ensure the test is done properly. The user sends it overnight to a clinical laboratory and the results are provided within 72 hours,” Business Travel News stated.
In addition to airlines such as Hawaii Airlines and JetBlue instituting programs for coronavirus testing, some airports are as well. Tampa International Airport, for example, test-piloted a voluntary testing program for all arriving and departing passengers from October 1st to October 31st. The airport partnered with BayCare, a 15-hospital Tampa area healthcare network, to provide both rapid antigen and PCR tests.
“Testing services will be offered on a walk-in basis … seven days a week from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. The pilot will be open to all ticketed passengers who are flying or have flown within three days and can show proof of travel. The PCR COVID-19 test costs $125 and the antigen test costs $57,” a press release stated.
Tampa Airport CEO Joe Lopano told the Washington Post, “This could be—especially if adopted by other airports—another way to instill confidence.”
COVID-19 Testing by Retailers Expanding as Well
Travelers aren’t the only people who need testing. Some employers also are requiring negative tests before employees can return to work.
As with all at-home kits, the consumer collects their own specimen and sends it off to a qualified clinical laboratory for processing. AZOVA, a telehealth company, supplies the kits to Costco for resale and provides a smartphone app where customers can check and display the test results.
P23 Labs’ TaqPath SARS-CoV-2 assay is the test being used, which, according to P23, “has a 98% sensitivity and 99% specificity,” Business Insider reported.
The researchers found that “All seven SARS-CoV-2 genomes were genetically identical, with the exception of a single mutation in one case, and all genomes had five signature mutations seen in only six other genomes from the >155,000 genomes sequenced globally. Four of these six related genome sequences were from Switzerland, the country of origin of the suspected index case.”
They added, “By combining information on disease progression, travel dynamics, and genomic analysis, we conclude that at least four in-flight transmission events of SARS-CoV-2 likely took place.”
At-home test kits for COVID-19 are here to stay. That large businesses in multiple industries are now partnering with COVID-19 test developers and clinical laboratory companies to accomplish testing of customers and employees means independent labs that process coronavirus testing can look forward to increasing COVID-19 testing business.
“We need to be using the time now, when [travel] volumes are relatively low, to test the systems and gain insight on which protocols are most effective,” Mara Aspinall, biomedical diagnostics professor at Arizona State University, President and CEO of the Health Catalysts Group, an investment and advisory firm, and former President/CEO of Ventana Medical Systems (now Roche Tissue Diagnostics), a billion-dollar division of Swiss pharmaceutical and diagnostics manufacturer Roche, told the Washington Post.
Clinical laboratories involved in genetic testing may find this welcomed news, after a pair of studies conducted in 2019 raised concerns about CRISPR base editing. The researchers of those studies observed that it “causes a high number of unpredictable mutations in mouse embryos and rice,” Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN) reported, adding, “Other groups have raised concerns about off-target mutations caused when the traditional CRISPR-Cas9 form of gene editing cuts DNA at a location that it wasn’t supposed to touch. The results of the new studies are surprising, however, because scientists have lauded base editors as one of the most precise forms of gene editing yet.”
Nevertheless, UC Berkeley’s latest breakthrough is expected to drive development of new and more accurate CRISPR-Cas genome-editing tools, which consist of base editors as well as nucleases, transposases, recombinases, and prime editors.
“While base editors are now widely used to introduce precise changes in organisms ranging from bacteria to plants to primates, no one has previously observed the three-dimensional molecular structure of a base editor,” he said in a UC Berkeley news release. “This collaborative project reveals the beautiful molecular structure of a state-of-the-art highly-active base editor—ABE8e—caught in the act of engaging a target DNA site.”
CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing allows scientists to permanently edit the genetic information of any organism, including human cells, and has been used in agriculture as well as medicine. A base editor is a tool that manipulates a gene by binding to DNA and replacing one nucleotide with another.
According to the recent UC Berkeley news release, the research team used a “high-powered imaging technique called cryo-electron microscopy” to reveal the base editor’s 3D shape.
Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News notes that, “The high-resolution structure is of ABE8e bound to DNA, in which the target adenine is replaced with an analog designed to trap the catalytic conformation. The structure, together with kinetic data comparing ABE8e to earlier ABEs [adenine base editors], explains how ABE8e edits DNA bases and could inform future base-editor design.”
Knowing the Cas9 fusion protein’s 3D structure may help eliminate unintended off-target effects on RNA, extending beyond the targeted DNA. However, until now, scientists have been hampered by their inability to understand the base editor’s structure.
“If you really want to design truly specific fusion protein, you have to find a way to make the catalytic domain more a part of Cas9, so that it would sense when Cas9 is on the correct target and only then get activated, instead of being active all the time,” study co-first author Audrone Lapinaite, PhD, said in the news release. At the time of the study, Lapinaite was a postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley. She is now an assistant professor at Arizona State University.
“As a structural biologist, I really want to look at a molecule and think about ways to rationally improve it. This structure and accompanying biochemistry really give us that power,” added UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Gavin Knott, PhD, another study co-author. “We can now make rational predications for how this system will behave in a cell, because we can see it and predict how it’s going to break or predict ways to make it better.”
Clinical laboratory leaders and pathologists will want to monitor these new advances in CRISPR technology. Each breakthrough has the power to fuel development of cost-effective, rapid point-of-care diagnostics.
As the public gains awareness of the role clinical laboratories play in modern healthcare, increased engagement and understanding of the technology underlying many of these advances could create risk for labs without transparent reporting protocols to both patients and the public
In recent years, consumers have continually raised the bar in their expectation of quality when they interact with the healthcare system. Not only do patients expect providers—including clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups—to improve regularly over time, but the public has even less tolerance for medical errors of any type. Thus, a recent NPR story is one more warning to the medical laboratory profession that it should be devoting resources and effort to improving quality.
Today’s healthcare consumers and patients are more educated about and involved in the care process than ever before. While the exact science and skills may not interest the general public, the technologies underpinning much of the shift toward personalized medicine (AKA, precision medicine) are the same technologies that created the always-connected, digital lifestyles seen around the world.
With this, comes a level of scrutiny and questioning from the public that clinical laboratories or anatomic pathology groups would not have experienced even just a decade ago.
Mounting Scrutiny of Medical Laboratories and Healthcare Professionals
A recent segment on NPR’s “All Things Considered” highlighted this trend and questioned the quality control standards behind many of the procedures powering current testing. The segment also questioned the impact quality control has on the quality of biobanks used to research and create future technologies and tests.
When data and previous research powers much of the innovation taking place across the modern healthcare landscape, the accuracy of said data would seem critical. Yet, without standards in place, there’s not always safeties by which to verify sample integrity and other critical concerns.
Late last year, Dark Daily reported on a study published in PLOS ONE from Radboud University in the Netherlands questioning the accuracy of more than 30,000 published scientific studies that contained misidentified or contaminated cell lines. Guidelines, such as those created for IHR and FISH HER2 testing, provide standards intended to prevent such issues from occurring or detecting them when they do occur.
Quality versus Quantity: A Gamble Worth Taking?
Apart from challenges with healthcare reform and the regulatory landscape surrounding precision medicine, medical laboratories also must struggle with the challenges of gleaning and maintaining useful, accurate information from an ever-growing trove of data produced by analyzers and assays.
Yet, these mediocre datasets include the results of tests that carried a potentially significant impact on patient lives. In the first two weeks of February alone, both the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Telegraph published stories related to erroneous testing related to cancer and the potential impact on the clinical laboratories involved and the patients tested.
Increased coverage shows that the world is watching what goes on in medical laboratories, hospitals, and data centers as healthcare continues to evolve. Clinical laboratories must move forward with this in mind or risk pushback and questioning from the public. Transparency regarding standards, and reporting information to patients surrounding testing or concerns, might effectively address this rising trend.
That quality control issues in anatomic pathology are considered newsworthy by no less than NPR is a sign of increased public attention to the quality of lab testing. The story was written to educate the public about the gap that exists in the quality control of anatomic pathology testing. All of this is consistent with the trend for providers to be transparent and report their quality metrics to the public, including patients.