In a perfect world with boundless resources, patients would always have access to every doctor’s prescription. But our world is not perfect and our nation is in deep debt. Consequently every day doctors across the country receive denials for medications and procedures that we have prescribed. We know our patients need these medical interventions yet our hard earned positions as practicing physicians (requiring decades of study) are no match for the far less qualified employees of insurance companies. Oftentimes our prescriptions are lifesaving. Yet we are told patients can’t have what we’ve ordered. What we have ordered is simply “too costly”. We are forced to choose something else, even if it is an inferior approach and leaves our patients – those people we have all sworn oaths to protect – relatively unprotected. So, with resources limited to such a degree that we have lost access to solutions we know to be beneficial, what are doctors and patients to do? Let’s look at a disorder deserving great attention and intervention; yet oftentimes remaining hidden in the shadows. The disease is called FH (Familial Hypercholesterolemia) and it occurs in about 1 out of every 200 people.
One of the disorder’s characteristics that makes it difficult to diagnose is the wide variation in how it manifests; some people have LDL cholesterol levels well over 200 (I’ve seen levels over 500) while others are not so badly impacted. Some patients have heart attacks in their teens while others never experience such premature disease. One of modern day medicine’s most well established “facts” is that the lower a person’s LDL, the less likely he or she is to have a heart attack or stroke. Now consider those individuals with FH in whom we simply cannot, no matter how hard we try, adequately reduce their LDL utilizing insurance approved modalities such as statins and dietary modifications. Such people may have already suffered heart attacks at very young ages. They are at extraordinary risk for a future heart attack or stroke. Yet, their insurance carriers still often create impenetrable barriers for access to additional medications as well as LDL apheresis, a method that was FDA approved in the 1990s, and lowers LDL by a whopping 70%. Carriers bemoan the costs of the medications or procedure and cite a lack of adequate “outcome data” as their reason for denial. Though doctors explain that it is now accepted as doctrine by lipid experts across the globe that lowering LDL by any means provides dramatic CVD risk reduction, they remain intransigent. We share our knowledge of Mendelian Randomization studies, which have proved beyond a shadow of a doubt (in the framework of present-day science) that lowering these patients’ LDL levels will vastly decrease their chance of suffering repeated heart attacks, strokes, stents, and bypasses. Still their ears and minds are shut. We, the doctors, are powerless. And our patients suffer the consequences. And, compounding the problem, there is currently active consideration among insurers to make it even more difficult for patients to receive LDL apheresis.
The New Year has just begun and my colleagues and I have already received a plethora of complaints from patients bemoaning the fact that their insurance carriers have increased their medication costs to such a degree that for many they can no longer afford to take them. What will happen to these patients? Will they develop unnecessary heart attacks or strokes? Will they need unwanted and otherwise preventable procedures like bypass surgery and stents? I do worry they will fare less well than had they been permitted to follow the care so cautiously outlined by their treating physicians. And medical evidence does support my concern. I believe an outcry from patients is needed. Doctors will continue to make our case, but until the voices of worried patients achieve adequate volume, I fear the status quo will reign.