This story was originally published by ProPublica.
When a stubborn pain in Nick van Terheyden’s bones would not subside, his doctor had a hunch what was wrong.
Without enough vitamin D in the blood, the body will pull that vital nutrient from the bones. Left untreated, a vitamin D deficiency can lead to osteoporosis.
A blood test in the fall of 2021 confirmed the doctor’s diagnosis, and van Terheyden expected his company’s insurance plan, managed by Cigna, to cover the cost of the bloodwork. Instead, Cigna sent van Terheyden a letter explaining that it would not pay for the $350 test because it was not “medically necessary.”
The letter was signed by one of Cigna’s medical directors, a doctor employed by the company to review insurance claims.
Something about the denial letter did not sit well with van Terheyden, a 58-year-old Maryland resident. “This was a clinical decision being second-guessed by someone with no knowledge of me,” said van Terheyden, a physician himself and a specialist who had worked in emergency care in the United Kingdom.
The vague wording made van Terheyden suspect that Dr. Cheryl Dopke, the medical director who signed it, had not taken much care with his case.
Van Terheyden was right to be suspicious. His claim was just one of roughly 60,000 that Dopke denied in a single month last year, according to internal Cigna records reviewed by ProPublica and The Capitol Forum.
The rejection of van Terheyden’s claim was typical for Cigna, one of the country’s largest insurers. The company has built a system that allows its doctors to instantly reject a claim on medical grounds without opening the patient file, leaving people with unexpected bills, according to corporate documents and interviews with former Cigna officials. Over a period of two months last year, Cigna doctors denied over 300,000 requests for payments using this method, spending an average of 1.2 seconds on each case, the documents show. The company has reported it covers or administers health care plans for 18 million people.
Before health insurers reject claims for medical reasons, company doctors must review them, according to insurance laws and regulations in many states. Medical directors are expected to examine patient records, review coverage policies and use their expertise to decide whether to approve or deny claims, regulators said. This process helps avoid unfair denials.
But the Cigna review system that blocked van Terheyden’s claim bypasses those steps. Medical directors do not see any patient records or put their medical judgment to use, said former company employees familiar with the system. Instead, a computer does the work. A Cigna algorithm flags mismatches between diagnoses and what the company considers acceptable tests and procedures for those ailments. Company doctors then sign off on the denials in batches, according to interviews with former employees who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“We literally click and submit,” one former Cigna doctor said. “It takes all of 10 seconds to do 50 at a time.”
Not all claims are processed through this review system. For those that are, it is unclear how many are approved and how many are funneled to doctors for automatic denial.
Insurance experts questioned Cigna’s review system.
Patients expect insurers to treat them fairly and meaningfully review each claim, said Dave Jones, California’s former insurance commissioner. Under California regulations,
insurers must consider patient claims using a “thorough, fair and objective investigation.”
“It’s hard to imagine that spending only seconds to review medical records complies with the California law,” said Jones. “At a minimum, I believe it warrants an investigation.” Continue Reading…