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.
The speakers also noted that labs must learn to work collaboratively with payers—perhaps through health information technology (HIT)—to establish best practices that improve reimbursements on claims for novel genetic tests.
“There will be an increased focus on getting information within the laboratory … for areas such as genomics and proteomics,” Morice told the keynote audience at the Executive War College on Wednesday.
“Wearable technology data is analyzed using machine learning. Clinical laboratories must participate in analyzing that spectrum of diagnostics,” said William Morice II, MD, PhD (above), CEO and President of Mayo Clinic Laboratories. Morice spoke during this week’s Executive War College.
Precision Medicine Efforts Include Genetic Testing and Wearable Devices
For laboratories new to genetic testing that want to move it in-house, Morice outlined effective first steps to take, including the following:
Determine and then analyze the volume of genetic testing that a lab is sending out.
Research and evaluate genetic sequencing platforms that are on the market, with an eye towards affordable cloud-based options.
Build a business case to conduct genetic tests in-house that focuses on the long-term value to patients and how that could also improve revenue.
A related area for clinical laboratories and pathology practices to explore is their role in how clinicians treat patients using wearable technology.
For example, according to Morice, Mayo Clinic has monitored 20,000 cardiac patients with wearable devices. The data from the wearable devices—which includes diagnostic information—is analyzed using machine learning, a subset of artificial intelligence.
In one study published in Scientific Reports, scientists from Mayo’s Departments of Neurology and Biomedical Engineering found “clear evidence that direct seizure forecasts are possible using wearable devices in the ambulatory setting for many patients with epilepsy.”
Clinical laboratories fit into this picture, Morice explained. For example, depending on what data it provides, a wearable device on a patient with worsening neurological symptoms could trigger a lab test for Alzheimer’s disease or other neurological disorders.
“This will change how labs think about access to care,” he noted.
For Payers, Navigating Genetic Testing Claims is Difficult
While there is promise in genetic testing and precision medicine, from an administrative viewpoint, these activities can be challenging for payers when it comes to verifying reimbursement claims.
“One of the biggest challenges we face is determining what test is being ordered. From the perspective of the reimbursement process, it’s not always clear,” said Cristi Radford, MS, CGC, Product Director at healthcare services provider Optum, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group, located in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Radford also presented a keynote at this year’s Executive War College.
Approximately 400 Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) codes are in place to represent the estimated 175,000 genetic tests on the market, Radford noted. That creates a dilemma for labs and payers in assigning codes to novel genetic tests.
During her keynote address, Radford showed the audience of laboratory executives a slide that charted how four labs submitted claims for the same high-risk breast cancer panel. CPT code choices varied greatly.
“Does the payer have any idea which test was ordered? No,” she said. “It was a genetic panel, but the information doesn’t give us the specificity payers need.”
In such situations, payers resort to prior authorization to halt these types of claims on the front end so that more diagnostic information can be provided.
[Editor’s note: Dark Daily offers a free webinar, “Learning from Payer Behavior to Increase Appeal Success,” that teaches labs how to better understand payer behavior. The webinar features recent trends in denials and appeals by payers that will help diagnostic organizations maximize their appeal success. Click here to stream this important webinar.]
Payers Struggle with ‘Explosion’ of Genetic Tests
In “UnitedHealth’s Optum to Offer Lab Test Management,” Dark Daily’s sister publication The Dark Report, covered Optum’s announcement that it had launched “a comprehensive laboratory benefit management solution designed to help health plans reduce unnecessary lab testing and ensure their members receive appropriate, high-quality tests.”
Optum sells this laboratory benefit management program to other health plans and self-insured employers. Genetic test management capabilities are part of that offering.
As part of its lab management benefit program, Optum is collaborating with Avalon on a new platform for genetic testing that will launch soon and focus on identifying test quality, streamlining prior authorization, and providing test payment accuracy in advance.
“Payers are struggling with the explosion in genetic testing,” Bush told Executive War College attendees. “They are truly not trying to hinder innovation.”
For clinical laboratory leaders reading this ebriefing, the takeaway is twofold: Genetic testing and resulting precision medicine efforts provide hope in more effectively treating patients. At the same time, the genetic test juggernaut has grown so large so quickly payers are finding it difficult to manage. Thus, it has become a source of continuous challenge for labs seeking reimbursements.
Heath information technology may help ease the situation. But, ultimately, stronger communication between labs and payers—including acknowledgement of what each side needs from a business perspective—is paramount.
Medical laboratory leaders need to take opportunities to stay abreast of government and payer activity, particularly as payer audits become tougher, say legal experts
Even compliant clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups are reporting tougher audits and closer scrutiny of the medical lab test claims they submit for payment. This is an unwelcome development at a time when falling lab test prices, narrowing networks, and more prior-authorization requirements are already making it tough for labs to get paid for the tests they perform.
Clinical laboratory leaders can expect continued scrutiny of
their labs’ operations and financials as government and commercial payers move
forward with invasive programs and policies designed to ferret out fraud and
Federal officials are focusing their investigations on healthcare providers who mismanage or inappropriately use Medicare and Medicaid programs, while commercial payers are closely scrutinizing areas such as genetic testing prior authorization, say healthcare attorneys with Cleveland Ohio-based McDonald Hopkins, LLC.
“The government is looking at fraud, waste, and abuse, and all the different ways they come into play,” said Elizabeth Sullivan, Esq., a Member and Co-Chair of the firm’s Healthcare Practice Group, in an exclusive interview with Dark Daily. “We anticipate there will be more enforcement [of fraud and abuse laws] centered around different issues—anything that can be a false claim.”
Specifically, government officials will key in on violations of the Stark Law, EKRA (the Eliminating Kickback in Recovery Act of 2018), and other anti-kickback statutes and laws, Sullivan said.
“And clinical laboratories, by virtue of the type of
services and service arrangements they offer, will continue to be a target,” she
Medical laboratory leaders also must prepare for aggressive tactics by insurance companies. “On the commercial side, payers are getting more aggressive and more willing to take things to ligation if they don’t get what they want and don’t see a settlement that satisfies their concerns over issues,” said Courtney Tito, Esq., also a Member with McDonald Hopkins, in the Dark Daily interview.
Current Investigations Likely to Impact Clinical
Sullivan and Tito advise clinical labs to be aware of the
following issues being fast-tracked by government and private payers:
EKRA (Eliminating Kickback in Recovery Act of 2018).
The TPE audits program, according to CMS, is focused on providers with high claim error rates or unusual billing practices. During a TPE, a Medicare administrative contractor (MAC) works with a provider to identify and correct errors.
“The TPE audits are real hot right now. We are seeing a lot
of clients go through this,” Tito said.
Feds Crack Down on Genetic Testing Fraud Schemes
Genetic testing is another “hot button” issue for
enforcement by government and private payers, Sullivan and Tito state.
CMS is taking action against testing companies and
practitioners who submitted more than $1.7 billion in claims to Medicare, the
The scheme involved medical laboratories conducting the genetic tests, McDonald Hopkins noted in an Alert about the DOJ investigation. The alert described how the scam operated:
Scam recruiters approached Medicare
beneficiaries at health fairs;
In exchange for a DNA sample (in the form of a
cheek swab) and a copy of the victim’s driver’s license, the “representative”
offered a free genetic test;
Representatives allegedly asked the seniors’
doctors to sign-off on test orders. If the seniors’ physicians refused, the
scammers offered kickbacks to doctors already in their group;
Clinical laboratories that performed the tests
were reimbursed from Medicare and, allegedly, shared the proceeds with the scammers.
“Although these opportunities may seem appealing as an
additional revenue source for providers, it is always important to review the
regulatory requirements as well as the potential anti-kickback statute and
Stark implications for any new arrangement,” Sullivan and Tito wrote in the McDonald
Hopkins Alert article.
Criminal Behavior in CMS Programs
Effective Nov. 4, 2019, CMS issued a final rule intended to stop fraud before it happens by keeping “unscrupulous providers” out of the federal healthcare programs in the first place, states a CMS news release.
Additionally, EKRA establishes “criminal penalties for unlawful payments for referrals to recovery homes and clinical treatment facilities,” Dark Daily recently reported. However, as the e-briefing points out, it is unclear whether EKRA applies to clinical laboratories.
Nevertheless, Sullivan points out that, “Even without EKRA,
the anti-kickback statute applies to any arrangement between individuals. And,
it is good to have an attorney look at those arrangements. What your sales reps
are doing in the field, how they are communicating, and their practices warrant
oversight. EKRA just makes it all the more important.”
Clinical Laboratories Need Compliance Plan, Focus on
With so many legal requirements and payer programs, Sullivan
advises medical labs and pathology group practices to work with resources they
trust and to have a compliance plan at the ready. “Have resources in place,
including but not limited to a compliance officer, a committee, and someone who
is spending time on these issues. Monitoring government enforcement and payer
activity is the most critical,” she said.
To assist labs in remaining fully informed on these critical
compliance topics, and the federal government’s latest legislation to combat
fraud, Dark Daily is offering a webinar on November 20th at 1pm Eastern
time. Sullivan and Tito will offer their insights and advice on how labs should
prepare for CMS’ battle to reign in fraud and commercial payers’ increased
scrutiny into prior authorizations.
Clinical laboratory leaders, compliance officers, and
finance staff will benefit greatly from this crucial resource.
College of American Pathologists and associations for family physicians and ob-gyns in Florida have asked UnitedHealthcare to discontinue implementation of BeaconLBS system
Medical laboratory testing is at the center of a contest of wills in Florida. On one side is a health insurer that wants to require physicians to obtain pre-notification or preauthorization for a list of clinical laboratory tests. On the other side are the physicians who question the clinical basis for these requirements and the time and resources required to comply with the health insurer’s program.