Insurance companies may not consider proton therapy a “medical necessity,” but a growing body of medical evidence and doctors opinions disagrees.
In a cover column featured in The American Journal of Managed Care, Dr. Steven Frank, medical director of the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center, makes the case that it’s past time for insurance companies to include protons as an accepted, and covered, treatment for a variety of cancers.
Citing the many patients who are denied proton therapy by companies who deem it not “medically necessary” and “experimental”—or simply dismiss the claim without explanation—Frank argues that the term, “medical necessity” should be standardized rather than left to the subjective whims of business-oriented institutions.
“Why should insurance companies—whose financial incentives direct them toward cost savings—be dictating what is medically necessary for cancer treatment?” he writes. “Physicians have experienced inconsistency in the labeling of ‘medically necessary procedures for years. … In a study recently published in the International Journal of Particle Therapy, we found that insurance coverage of proton beam therapy in the State of Texas varied not only among payers, but also for the type of cancer.
“Even more concerning, a previous decision to cover proton therapy for prostate cancer was reversed and proton therapy was determined to be “not medically necessary” after the removal of key published references from the payer’s updated medical policy.”
Research is also showing that proton therapy can actually result in decreased overall medical costs for cancer patients, Frank writes.
“The episodic cost of care can be reduced when proton therapy decreases the amount of radiation to parts of the body that are not affected by the cancer by eliminating or reducing the severity of treatment-induced acute and long-term side effects and by reducing the risk of secondary cancers.
“One such study showed that hospital stays were longer for patients with esophageal cancer treated with older techniques (mean length of stay 13.2 days after conventional 3-dimensional radiation therapy, 11.6 days for intensity-modulated radiation therapy, and 9.3 days for proton therapy). Using advanced radiation therapy technologies like proton therapy can reduce postoperative complications and shorten hospital stays, which reduces healthcare costs.”
There are steps being taken toward broader insurance coverage for proton therapy. University of Texas System’s employees are participating in a one-year pilot program with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas (HCSC) and MD Anderson allowing proton therapy coverage for cancers of the head & neck, esophagus, breast, and lung as well as patients participating in proton therapy clinical trials. Information will be collected and shared about proton therapy and its costs, which will help to make the case that broader coverage should be extended to other states and healthcare systems.
“We need insurers across the country to think innovatively and provide leadership similar to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas by partnering with employers and providers to find ways to provide broader coverage for patients that will benefit from proton therapy, “ says Scott Warwick, Chairman of the National Association for Proton Therapy.
Proton therapy has been proven an effective and, in many cases, cost effective treatment option. It’s time for all of those involved in providing patient care acknowledge that reality, Frank concludes.
“Cancer touches thousands of lives each year in a truly indiscriminate way. However, we should not be arbitrary in the way we combat the disease and define medical necessity. If we wish to defeat cancer once and for all, all parties—both doctors and insurers—must finally unite in support of best practices such as proton therapy. Let’s start now and be advocates for all patients with cancer.”