Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Managing managed care: PT

I've been covered by a local HMO for the past 4 1/2 years, and for the most part, I'm a satisfied customer. I've have been disappointed, though, with the HMO's physical therapy services. Since 1999 or so, I've encountered PT three times.

The first time, I went on the recommendation of my neurologist. This was shortly before I started to feel like MS had significantly affected my life. I went in for an evaluation, and got a workup that took a couple of hours to evaluate strength and balance, including a spin on a computerized gizmo that evaluated my balance. They prescribed some exercises for me, which I nibbled at for a few weeks and then forgot entirely.

The second time was with a PT who works for my current HMO. The PT, who has a Ph. D. and who I'm pretty sure is the head of their clinical PT department, spent maybe a half hour evaluating muscle strength and tone in my legs, then prescribed some exercises, including some stuff I could do in the pool that is conveniently located in the same building as the PT office. After the initial visit, I came back maybe a dozen times. In the subsequent visits, the PT would spend 15-20 minutes chatting with me while he did some things to stretch out my hamstrings, and then I'd go down to the pool and work out there for another 20-30 minutes. After a dozen visits or so, the HMO told me they wouldn't cover additional visits because they had determined I was only getting "maintenance therapy" (i.e., therapy that was intended to prevent further disability), which they don't cover. So I stopped going, and didn't think much about it.

Then, maybe a year and a half ago, both my MS neurologist and my pain clinic neurologist, started to talk during my visits about how I might benefit from additional PT. I told them that I'd had some PT from my HMO, but that I didn't think I'd gotten much out of it. Both of them suggested that I try to get my HMO to cover an evaluation with a PT affiliated with the local university hospital. They said they'd had some good experiences with patient getting PT from the university hospital folks, so I contacted my primary care doc, who said it seemed like a good idea, and put in a request for a referral.

The "care management" department at the HMO, though, refused to allow me to go to an outside PT, because they said they'd talked to the in-house PT folks, who said they they thought they would be able to provide appropriate care. So I told my pain clinic neurologist this, and he said, Well, you're entitled to get a second opinion on the program you got from the HMO PT, so we'll get you in to the university hospital PT clinic for a second opinion. After initially denying a visit to the university PT clinic, the HMO approved one visit for a second opinion.

Three weeks ago, I went to the university PT clinic. They spent an hour doing a careful evaluation of muscle strength and tone, and did some initial evaluation of my balance. Based on that initial evaluation, the university PT said she'd like me to come back for another visit to put me on the computerized balance-testing gizmo. She knew I'd only been approved for one visit, though, so she said she would contact my HMO, explain the situation, and obtain authorization to complete her evaluation.

A week ago, the university clinic PT called to say she'd spoken to the nurse who works in my HMO's care management department, but that the nurse had refused to authorize another visit. The PT explained that she thought the care management nurse had been unusually negative about a second visit, but suggested that I talk to my primary care doc.

So I called the primary care doc's nurse, explained the situation, and asked to have my doc call me back. My primary care doc called back the next day. She said she'd looked at the initial information from the university clinic PT, and gushed about how the PT had written an "awesome" 6-page note detailing her findings thus far and her intentions for further evaluation. My primary care doc told me she thought it made a lot of sense to send me back to the university clinic PT to finish what she'd started, especially because she was so impressed with her work so far.

Yesterday, my wife had an appointment with her primary care doc, who happens also to be my primary care doc. Our primary care doc reported that her request to send me back to the university PT had been denied, and that she was somewhat surprised by this decision.

So today, I'm trying to figure out what to do next. On one hand, I'm pretty sure I have the right to appeal the decision to deny additional visits, and I know that my two neurologists and my primary care doc would all support going back to complete the university clinic PT's evaluation. On the other hand, though, I'm pretty sure I'm only legally entitled to go outside the HMO for care if the HMO is unable to provide care that is medically appropriate, and the HMO seems pretty sure its PTs are just fine.

The way I see it, I have a few options. First, I could step up to the plate and challenge the denial, mustering whatever arguments I can come up with, and generally being a squeaky wheel. Second, I could go back to the HMO's PTs for a fresh evaluation and exercise program, and then ask for a second second opinion, which would permit me to go back to the university clinic folks one more visit and hopefully finish what we started. Or third, I could bide my time until this fall, when I'd have the opportunity to switch to an HMO that uses the services of the university clinic PTs.

The first option sounds like it could require a lot of energy--phone calls, letters, parsing the insurance contract--with an uncertain chance of success. The second option is probably the path of least resistance, though it galls me to let the care management nurse's opinion supersede the medical judgment of my posse of physicians. And the third option means a long wait, untold administrative hassles, and leaving behind a primary care doc that both my wife and I like a lot.

Any suggestions?

1 comment:

Stephen said...

fourth option is to run screaming into the hills. it just seems so counter-intuitive that the insurance companies back us into corners that, in the long run, will end up costing them more money. occam's razor : "All things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best one." best of luck to you - send us a message from the hills.