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Going Digital Won’t Fully Fix Prior Auths, Say Medical Groups

Before working to create standards for electronic prior authorization, the entire process itself needs some work.

That was the message from groups representing physicians, medical practices, and hospitals in response to a request for input from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC). In January, ONC requested public feedback on how making the process for insurer approvals digital can “ease the burden of prior authorization tasks on patients, providers, and payers.”

According to a study conducted by America’s Health Insurance Plans, 71% of providers who implemented electronic prior authorization experienced “faster time to patient care.” The organization, which represents many of the nation’s health insurers, also reported that electronic prior authorization reduced the time it took to receive a decision by a health plan by 69%.

In its response to ONC, the American Association of Family Physicians (AAFP) called out prior authorization as a “leading cause of physician burden” and wrote that the organization is “strongly supportive of efforts to reform and streamline the prior authorization process.”

AAFP, which represents 127,600 family physicians, residents, and students, cited in its comments an AMA survey in which 88% of physicians said that prior authorization “generates high or extremely high administrative burden” for their practices. Practices are responsible for an average of 41 prior authorizations per physician each week, which can take almost 2 days of a physician’s time each week, according to AAFP.

Delayed care, increased confusion, reduced treatment adherence, and even discontinuation of treatment are some of the harms prior authorization causes patients, wrote AAFP board chair Ada D. Stewart, MD.

Electronic prior authorization is “just one step in addressing the flaws of utilization management practices and comprehensive reform is needed to reduce the volume of prior authorizations and ensure patients’ timely access to care,” wrote Stewart.

AHA: Most Common Prior Auth Means Are Phones, Fax

The American Hospital Association (AHA) highlighted the variety of prior authorization requests from different payers, writing, “While some plans accept electronic means, the most common method remains using fax machines and contacting call centers, with regular hold times of 20 to 30 minutes.”

AHA’s Senior Vice President Ashley Thompson wrote that the various prior authorization processes required by payers take up staff time and increase the chance of data entry errors.

To fix this, the AHA calls for an “end-to-end automated prior authorization process that integrates with clinicians’ EHR workflow.” According to AHA, this approach can help physicians have access to the required prior authorization information during treatment planning.

In response to the federal agency’s question about the functional capabilities for certified health IT modules to facilitate electronic prior authorization, AAFP wrote that the standards should include communicating to providers the expected timeline from a payer on a response, the ability to access payers’ reasoning for denials, and the creation of a process for appealing decisions.

ONC also asked for input on the use of three fast healthcare interoperability resources (FHIR)–based Da Vinci implementation guides in electronic prior authorization.

Developed by the Da Vinci Project in coordination with the HL7 Clinical Decision Support Workgroup, the FHIR-based implementation guides create a mechanism for reducing the burden on provider organizations and simplify processes by establishing electronic versions of administrative and clinical requirements that are a part of providers’ workflow.

In its response, AHA requested that prior authorization solutions “be fully developed and tested prior to wide scale industry rollout.”

AAFP largely agreed with AHA in its response, writing, “Only standards and [implementation guides] that have been proven effective and adoptable in real world testing should be candidates for mandatory certification and utilization, including the Da Vinci standards.”

The Medical Group Management Association (MGMA), which represents more than 60,000 medical practice administrators, executives, and leaders, supports the idea that electronic prior authorization “has the potential to decrease administrative burden through automation but only if implemented properly.”

In its comments, MGMA called for broader reform of prior authorization. One way to accomplish that goal is by aligning electronic prior authorization standards “with payment and quality reporting programs, as well as care delivery models, to minimize burden and overhead costs.”

Aine Cryts is a veteran health IT and healthcare writer based out of Boston.

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