The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has proposed new rules aimed at streamlining the prior approval process for most health plans in the U.S. Under the proposal, starting in 2026, insurers would be required to render a decision within seven days for a non-urgent service or item (compared to the current 14 days), and 72 hours if it is urgent. It would also require most group and individual health plans, Medicare Advantage, Medicaid managed care and state Medicaid agencies to implement electronic prior authorization systems by 2026 and streamline their processes for approving care. The rule is aimed at tackling one of the biggest headaches for patients and practitioners alike. Prior authorization can sometimes take time to receive, often delaying much-needed care. Waiting for approval can have serious consequences, with studies finding:
- It often leads to delays in care for serious conditions like cancer.
- It often leads to more people being hospitalized as their condition worsens as they wait for care or medicine to be approved.
Prior authorization rules can also be confusing, time-consuming and frustrating for both patients and doctors, with the latter often feeling as if the insurer is questioning their expertise.
Insurers use prior authorization as a cost-containment tool that requires providers to seek approval from them before referring a patient for certain services and prescribing some medications. Studies have found that the number of prior authorization requests has exploded in the last few years, straining the system and delaying care. The proposed rule The goal of the rule is to reduce the bureaucracy around prior authorizations and cut wait times for responses that some providers say sometimes take weeks to get approved. The proposed rule — a revised version of a similar one floated by the Trump administration that was withdrawn due to cost concerns — applies to all Affordable Care Act-qualified health plans, Medicare Advantage plans and state Medicaid programs. As mentioned above, the time insurers have to approve a prior authorization request would be reduced to seven days, and 72 hours if it is urgent. Additionally, if the insurer denies the request, it would be required to include a specific reason for doing so. Under the proposed rule, insurers will be required to build and maintain a system for electronically approving prior authorizations, known as a fast healthcare interoperability resources application programming interface (FHIR API).
The FHIR API must be able to ascertain whether a prior authorization request is required and “facilitate the exchange of prior authorization requests and decisions” from the provider’s electronic health records or practice management system. Some doctor’s groups have said the new rule doesn’t go far enough and that seven days is still too long.