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Facing Pressure, Insurance Plans Loosen Rules For Covering Addiction Treatment

By Kaiser Health News  
   February 21, 2017

How does the problem manifest? Take Boston Medical Center, located in a region that's been particularly hard hit by opioid addiction. Doctors there wanted to launch an urgent care center focused on this patient population. Less than a year old, the program's treated thousands of people.

But prior authorization requirements have been intense, said Traci Green, an associate professor at Boston University's School of Medicine and deputy director of the hospital's injury prevention center. To help people get needed care ― before it was too late ― the center hired a staffer devoted specifically to filling out all the related insurance paperwork.

"It was like, 'This is insanity,'" Green said, adding that "navigating the insurance was a huge problem" for almost every patient.

But defenders of the requirement maintain that such controls have value. Insurance plans using prior authorization may view it as a safeguard when prescribing a potentially dangerous drug. "[It's] not a tool to limit access. It's a tool to ensure patients get the right care," said Susan Cantrell, CEO of the Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy, a trade group.

Other large insurance carriers ― such as United Healthcare and Humana ― list on their drug formularies a prior authorization requirement for at least some if not all versions of anti-addiction medication. A spokesperson from Humana said the practice is used "to ensure appropriate use."

Also, though, it is generally agreed that the practice is used to control the prescribing of expensive medications. Per dose, the cost of these drugs varies based on brand and precise formulation, but it can go as high as almost $500 for a 60-pack dose, which can last a month.

Kaiser Health News is a national health policy news service that is part of the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.


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