The Insurance Approval Process for Proton Radiation Therapy: A Significant Barrier to Patient Care

Ning, Matthew S.; Gomez, Daniel R.; Shah, Aashish K.; Kim, Charissa R.; Palmer, Matthew B.; Thaker, Nikhil G.; Grosshans, David R.; Liao, Zhongxing; Chapman, Bhavana V.; Brooks, Eric D.; Tang, Chad; Rosenthal, David I.; Garden, Adam S.; Frank, Steven J.; Gunn, G. Brandon
International Journal of Radiation Oncology Biology Physics

Purpose: Proton therapy is increasingly prescribed for cancer treatment, given its potential for improvements in clinical outcomes and toxicity reduction; however, insurance coverage continues to be a barrier to patient access. This study examined insurance approval and appeal outcomes at a large-volume proton therapy center to clarify the process and identify areas for improvement. Methods and Materials: In 2013 to 2016, 1753 patients with thoracic or head and neck cancer were considered for proton therapy; 903 (553 thoracic, 350 head and neck) entered the insurance process. Rates of and times to approval and successful appeal after initial denial were calculated. Clinical factors were evaluated for association with insurance outcomes via logistic regression. Results: Approval rates by Medicare (n = 538) and private insurance (n = 365) were 91% and 30% on initial request, at a median 3 days and 14 days from inquiry to determination. Of the 306 patients initially denied coverage, 276 appealed the decision, and denial was overturned for 189 patients (68%; median time, 21 days from initial inquiry). On multivariable analysis, Medicare (odds ratio [OR], 14.20; P < .001) was the strongest predictor of initial approval. Approval rates decreased from 2013 to 2014 versus 2015 to 2016 (OR 0.54; P = .001). For patients who appealed denial, multivariable analysis found no associations between approval and trial enrollment or tumor type. Submission of a comparison treatment plan (proton vs photon) indicating dosimetric advantage to normal tissues was associated with decreased likelihood of approval (OR 0.43; P = .006), as was a prescribed dose of ≥66 Gy (OR 0.48; P = .019). Conclusions: Despite an 87% ultimate approval rate for proton therapy, the insurance process is a resource-intensive barrier to patient access associated with significant time delays to cancer treatment. These findings, plus the lack of clinical correlates with insurance outcomes, highlight a need for increased efficiency, transparency, and collaboration among stakeholders to promote timely patient care and research.