Requests Denied

In my mind I was debating whether the woman in front of me was my second-ever case of a brain abscess or if perhaps during one of her recent falls, she might have suffered an intracranial bleed. She was taking warfarin for atrial fibrillation and her frontal headaches and nausea with vomiting had been getting worse over a four week period. My own father almost died in his fifties from a chronic subdural hematoma. This woman looked like something between my brain abscess patient and my father just before he was diagnosed.

Gwen Garfield was congested and blamed her nausea and vomiting on her purulent post nasal drip. She was clearly not a complainer; she split her own firewood and walked with a severe limp from childhood polio. Her regular physician, Dr. Landry, is out this week, but his nurse has been helping Autumn out, and she told me that Gwen wasn’t her usual self at all. She had even asked a friend to drive her in because of how poorly she felt.

Both her maxillary sinuses were tender and she had nasal congestion and her forehead was wrinkled over lowered eyebrows in a static gesture of concern. Her neurological exam had no specific abnormalities, but she seemed just a little vague for a woman with her reputation. She fumbled with her keys and reading glasses and dropped them on the floor, but her finger-nose coordination was surprisingly normal.

I prescribed her some cefuroxime for her presumed sinusitis but also told her I felt she needed a CT scan of her brain before the three day weekend, especially since she lives alone far from town and “off the (electric power) grid”. “We have to rule out a bleed and an abscess”, I told her.

Because her insurance, Aetna, requires prior authorizations, I typed and clicked my office note and put the CT request in as quickly as possible and had Autumn call the referral coordinator to get the prior authorization request going.

I sent Gwen and her friend to the pharmacy and told them to check back with us in a little bit. By 1 pm we got word that her CT scan was denied. I felt concerned enough and it was already late enough in the day that I wasn’t going to risk wasting more time with an appeal with the long weekend coming up. Besides, I was the only doctor covering our whole clinic with an overbooked schedule and also responsible for the large nursing home in town; I know how long the insurance companies can keep you on the phone when you try to appeal a denial.

I told Gwen and her friend to drive down the road to the emergency room, because they don’t need prior authorizations for CT scans. Then I called Jim Anderson, the ER doctor on duty, and told him I hated to dump on him but my patient needed a scan that her insurance wouldn’t pay for.

“Well, they will pay for it now”, he said laconically after I painted my thumbnail sketch of Gwen’s history and exam.

Two hours later we got a fax saying that, after further review, Gwen’s CT scan was approved. By that time Autumn was able to get the results from the hospital computer – no bleed, no sign of an abscess. Jim added a steroid nasal spray to my antibiotic for her sinuses. Aetna ended up paying for my office visit, the CT scan and an emergency room visit I would have wanted to avoid.

The afternoon flew by. Everybody was patient with me for running behind. The nursing home did call a few times to make sure we had received the faxes they had sent us between 2 and 4 pm. As I worked my way through lab results and requests for decisions about coughs, fevers, urinary tract infections, hallucinations and other odds and ends, I gasped internally when I came to the last one.

It was actually a stack of pages, all about the same thing: A dying man had been prescribed subcutaneous injections of morphine and lorazepam placed under his tongue, two staple drugs of “comfort kits” used by hospitals, Hospice agencies and nursing homes all over the world to ease the discomfort of dying patients. The patient’s Medicare D plan, WellCare, had already denied coverage for these two generic drugs. Another provider doing rounds at the nursing home yesterday had filed an appeal, and this appeal, too, had been denied.

The nursing home asked me to write a note to WellCare to appeal.

I usually manage to retain a fair amount of what Sir William Osler referred to as aquanamitas, the seasoned physician’s unflappability, but at 4:30 this afternoon I had already had enough of arbitrary and insensitive insurance companies lacking common sense and human decency. I wrote:

“In my thirty years as a family physician, I have never seen such cruelty as denying a dying man the relief of his final agony with basic, generic drugs like morphine and lorazepam.”

I don’t know yet if that did any good. The nursing home has a supply of these drugs on hand, so for now the patient has been getting what he needs, but to me, this struck at the core of what we all have the right to expect our insurance companies to cover.

Osler, the father of modern medicine, said: “To prevent disease, relieve suffering and to heal the sick – this is our work.”

This is unfortunately not quite the work of the insurance companies.

3 Responses to “Requests Denied”


  1. 1 Christina October 11, 2014 at 5:06 am

    What, then, is the work of insurance companies?

    • 2 acountrydoctorwrites October 11, 2014 at 9:49 am

      A rhetorical question, to be sure, but:

      Aetna is a Fortune 100, publicly traded company with revenues in 2013 around $47 billion and net income just under $2 billion.

      WellCare, also a publicly traded company, has paid $35 million in a plea bargain with the government stemming from allegations of fraudulent billing in Florida, where the company was started in 1985, and still faces several lawsuits and whistleblower complaints.

  2. 3 Lisa October 11, 2014 at 5:57 pm

    I have Aetna and to my knowledge they have never refused to pay for a scan that a doctor felt I needed. I wonder how many hours of my doctors time they wasted with refusals and appeals.


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