One of the most frustrating experiences as a patient is arriving at the pharmacy to pick up your medication and being told that a prior authorization is required. If you have never experienced this before the process can be especially confusing and aggravating. Unless you decide to pay cash for your medication or your doctor decides to change your therapy it can also involve a significant delay before you can actually get your medication.
Prior authorization is a process where the insurance provider wants more information from the doctor before they will pay for a medication. This process typically starts at the pharmacy when the staff there try to bill an insurance plan for a drug. The insurance will then send the pharmacy a rejection notifying them that a prior authorization needs to be completed. At this point the pharmacy will contact the doctor to let them know they must complete a prior authorization if they want the insurance company to cover the cost of the prescribed drug. The doctor must then answer some questions about the use of the prescribed medication and send those answers to the insurance provider. Finally, the insurance provider must review the doctor’s response and decide if they will pay for the medication or not. Thankfully this process is quicker than it used to be as many of these interactions are automated or electronic. Typically this process can take anywhere from a day to a week to complete, although times may vary. If a patient stays on their medication for an extended time it is likely that the prior authorization will need to be completed again at some point. Many plans require prior authorizations annually while some require them more often.
The main reason insurance plans institute prior authorization is cost savings. Plans want to review the use of high cost medications and make sure they are being utilized appropriately. A common way they do this is called step-therapy. Step therapy means that the insurance provider will require a trial of one or more lower cost medications before they will pay for a high cost drug. Many insurance providers require prior authorization for brand name drugs if a generic is available. Insurance plans often prefer a certain drug within a medication class due to cost and require providers to complete a prior authorization if they write a prescription for a different drug in the same class.
Prior authorization can be frustrating for both patients and healthcare workers. Despite that the practice isn’t going away anytime soon. If you want to be more informed about which drugs will require prior authorization on your health insurance you can request a copy of your insurance formulary which will show you which drugs your insurance plan prefers. Drugs on this list will be less likely to require a prior authorization.
PharmD candidate 2018