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.
Some healthcare experts point to an “immunity gap” tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, while others suggest alternative theories such as temporary immunodeficiency brought on by COVID-19. In most cases, RSV causes “mild, cold-like symptoms,” but the CDC states it also can cause serious illness, especially for infants, young children, and older adults, leading to emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and an increased demand for clinical laboratory testing.
Pulmonology Advisor reported that the disease typically peaks between December and February, but hospitalizations this season hit their peak in November with numbers far higher than in previous years. In addition to infants and older adults, children between five and 17 years of age were “being hospitalized far in excess of their numbers in previous seasons,” the publication reported.
“Age by itself is a risk factor for more severe disease, meaning that the younger babies are usually the ones that are sick-sick,” pediatrician Asuncion Mejias, MD, PhD (above), a principal investigator with the Center for Vaccines and Immunity at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, told MarketWatch. Now, she added, “we are also seeing older kids, probably because they were not exposed to RSV the previous season.” Clinical laboratories in hospitals caught the brunt of those RSV inpatient admissions. (Photo copyright: Nationwide Children’s Hospital.)
Did COVID-19 Cause Immunity Gap and Surge in Respiratory Diseases?
CDC data shows that hospitalization rates linked to RSV have steadily declined since hitting their peak of 5.2 per 100,000 people in mid-November. In contrast, hospitalizations linked to the flu peaked in late November and early December at 8.7 per 100,000. Hospitalizations linked to COVID 19—which still exceed those of the other respiratory diseases—reached a plateau of 9.7 per 100,000 in early December, then saw an uptick later that month before declining in the early part of January, 2023, according to the CDC’s Respiratory Virus Hospitalization Surveillance Network (RESP-NET) dashboard.
Respiratory diseases tend to hit hardest in winter months when people are more likely to gather indoors. Beyond that, some experts have cited social distancing and masking requirements imposed in 2020 and 2021 to limit the spread of COVID 19. These measures, along with school closures, had the side effect of reducing exposure to influenza and RSV.
“It’s what’s being referred to as this ‘immunity gap’ that people have experienced from not having been exposed to our typical respiratory viruses for the last couple of years, combined with reintroduction to indoor gatherings, indoor venues, indoor school, and day care without any of the mitigation measures that we had in place for the last couple of years,” infectious disease expert Kristin Moffitt, MD, of Boston Children’s Hospital told NPR.
Term ‘Immunity Debt’ Sparks Controversy
Other experts have pushed back against the notion that pandemic-related public health measures are largely to blame for the RSV upsurge. Many have objected to the term “immunity debt,” a term Forbes reported on in November.
“Immunity debt is a made-up term that did not exist until last year,” pediatrician Dave Stukus, MD, wrote on Twitter. Stukus is a Professor of Clinical Pediatrics in the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
An article published by Texas Public Radio (TPR) suggests further grounds for skepticism, stating that “the immunity debt theory doesn’t seem to hold up to scrutiny.”
“That was sort of the great unmasking, and everybody got viral illnesses,” she told TPR. “Now we’re past that. We’ve already been through that. We should have some immunity from that and we’re having it again.”
She added that “the hospital is filled with babies who are less than a year of age who have RSV infection. Those children weren’t locked down in 2020.”
The story also noted that not all Americans complied with social distancing or masking guidelines.
“We’re not seeing [less viral illness in] states in the United States that were less strict compared to states that were stricter during mask mandates and things like that. All the states are being impacted,” Barton told TPR.
Perfect Storm of Demand for Clinical Laboratory Testing
Experts speaking to The Boston Globe said that multiple factors are likely to blame for the severity and early arrival of the RSV outbreak. Pediatric hospitalist and infectious disease specialist Chadi El Saleeby, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital, said the severity of some cases might be tied to simultaneous infection with multiple viruses.
Clinical laboratories experienced a perfect storm of infectious disease testing demands during this tripledemic. Hopefully, with the arrival of spring and summer, that demand for lab tests will wane and allow for a return to a normal rate of traditional laboratory testing.
Protecting patient privacy is of critical importance, and yet researchers reidentified data using only a few additional data points, casting doubt on the effectiveness of existing federally required data security methods and sharing protocols
Therefore, recent coverage in The Guardian which reported on how easily so-called “deidentified data” can be reidentified with just a few additional data points should be of particular interest to clinical laboratory and health network managers and stakeholders.
“We found that patients can be re-identified, without decryption, through a process of linking the unencrypted parts of the record with known information about the individual such as medical procedures and year of birth,” Culnane stated in a UM news release. “This shows the surprising ease with which de-identification can fail, highlighting the risky balance between data sharing and privacy.”
In a similar study published in Scientific Reports, Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, PhD, a computation private researcher, used location data on 1.5 million people from a mobile phone dataset collected over 15 months to identify 95% of the people in an anonymized dataset using four unique data points. With just two unique data points, he could identify 50% of the people in the dataset.
“Location data is a fingerprint. It’s a piece of information that’s likely to exist across a broad range of data sets and could potentially be used as a global identifier,” Montjoye told The Guardian.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that everything we do online these days generates data—much of it open to the public. “If you want to be a functioning member of society, you have no ability to restrict the amount of data that’s being vacuumed out of you to a meaningful level,” Chris Vickery, a security researcher and Director of Cyber Risk Research at UpGuard, told The Guardian.
This privacy vulnerability isn’t restricted to just users of the Internet and social media. In 2013, Latanya Sweeney, PhD, Professor and Director at Harvard’s Data Privacy Lab, performed similar analysis on approximately 579 participants in the Personal Genome Project who provided their zip code, date of birth, and gender to be included in the dataset. Of those analyzed, she named 42% of the individuals. Personal Genome Project later confirmed 97% of her submitted names according to Forbes.
In testimony before the Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Latanya Sweeney, PhD (above), Professor and Director at Harvard’s Data Privacy Lab stated, “One problem is that people don’t understand what makes data unique or identifiable. For example, in 1997 I was able to show how medical information that had all explicit identifiers, such as name, address and Social Security number removed could be reidentified using publicly available population registers (e.g., a voter list). In this particular example, I was able to show how the medical record of William Weld, the Governor of Massachusetts of the time, could be reidentified using only his date of birth, gender, and ZIP. In fact, 87% of the population of the United States is uniquely identified by date of birth (e.g., month, day, and year), gender, and their 5-digit ZIP codes. The point is that data that may look anonymous is not necessarily anonymous. Scientific assessment is needed.” (Photo copyright: US Department of Health and Human Services.)
“Open publication of deidentified records like health, census, tax or Centrelink data is bound to fail, as it is trying to achieve two inconsistent aims: the protection of individual privacy and publication of detailed individual records,” Dr. Teague noted in the UM news release. “We need a much more controlled release in a secure research environment, as well as the ability to provide patients greater control and visibility over their data.”
Should regulators and governments address the issue, clinical laboratories and healthcare providers could find more stringent regulations on the sharing of data—both identified and deidentified—and increased liability and responsibility regarding its governance and safekeeping.
Until then, any healthcare professional or researcher should consider the implications of deidentification—both to patients and businesses—should people use the data shared in unexpected and potentially malicious ways.
Clinical laboratory marketing experts are using social networking sites like these to push products and services and to interact with customers. These sites allow pathologists, clinical labs, in vitro diagnostics manufacturers, and other companies to promote themselves and to tout the performance of their services and products by connecting lab directors and pathologists to physician clients and consumers in ways that were not possible years ago.
Social networking services gain acceptance by healthcare organizations
Late last April, during the A/H1N1 influenza outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began using a social networking service called Twitter as a way to provide instant updates on H1N1 cases and developments. By the middle of May, more than 130,000 Twitter users were signed up to receive these updates!
If social networking is not on your clinical laboratory’s radar screen yet, it will soon be. The CDC’s use of Twitter as a valuable resource to instantly communicate news about the H1N1 influenza outbreak demonstrates how people, companies, and government agencies are rapidly finding useful ways to use social networking Web services.
Twitter is a simple concept. Wikipedia defines Twitter as a “free social networking and micro-blogging service that enables its users to send and read other users’ updates known as tweets. Tweets are text-based posts of up to 140 characters, displayed on the user’s profile page and delivered to other users who have subscribed to them (known as followers).” In the pathology profession, pathologist Bruce Friedman, M.D.—known for his blog Lab Soft News has been “tweeting” for over a year. @LabSoftNews & @Dark_Daily
Probably the best known social networking Web sites in the United States are Facebook and MySpace. For business, LinkedIn has become popular. Nexopia is big in Canada. In Europe, such sites as Bebo, Hi5, and Skyrock have high traffic. For South America, it is social networking Web sites such as Orkut and Hi5.