When ‘Prior Authorization’ Becomes a Medical Roadblock

Slowly but steadily, Marlene Nathanson was recovering. She had suffered a stroke in November 2022 at her home in Minneapolis and spent a week in a hospital; afterward, when she arrived at Episcopal Homes in St. Paul for rehabilitation, she couldn’t walk. Weakness in her right arm and hand left her unable to feed herself, and her speech remained somewhat garbled.

But over three weeks of physical, occupational and speech therapy, “she was making good progress,” her husband, Iric Nathanson, said. “Her therapists were very encouraging.” Ms. Nathanson, then 85, had begun to get around using a walker. Her arm was growing stronger and her speech had nearly returned to normal.

Then, on a Wednesday afternoon, one of her therapists told the Nathansons that their Medicare Advantage plan had refused a request to cover further treatment. “She has to leave our facility by Friday,” the therapist said, apologetically.

Mr. Nathanson, then 82, felt anxious and angry. He didn’t see how he could arrange for home care aides and equipment in 48 hours. Besides, he said, “it didn’t seem right that the therapists and professionals couldn’t determine the course of her care” and had to yield to an insurance company’s dictates. “But apparently it happens a lot.”

It does. Traditional Medicare rarely requires so-called prior authorization for services. But virtually all Medicare Advantage plans invoke it before agreeing to cover certain services, particularly those carrying high price tags, such as chemotherapy, hospital stays, nursing home care and home health.

“Most people come across this at some point if they stay in a Medicare Advantage plan,” said Jeannie Fuglesten Biniek, associate director of the program on Medicare policy at KFF, the nonprofit health policy research organization. After years of steep growth, more than half of Medicare beneficiaries are now enrolled in Advantage plans, which are administered by private insurance companies.

Related Articles

Back to top button