When Paula Chestnut needed hip replacement surgery last year, a pre-operative X-ray found irregularities in her chest.
As a smoker for 40 years, Chestnut was at high risk for lung cancer. A specialist in Los Angeles recommended the 67-year-old undergo an MRI, a high-resolution image that could help spot the disease.
But her MRI appointment kept getting canceled, Chestnut's son, Jaron Roux, told KHN. First, it was scheduled at the wrong hospital. Next, the provider wasn't available. The ultimate roadblock she faced, Roux said, arrived when Chestnut's health insurer deemed the MRI medically unnecessary and would not authorize the visit.
"On at least four or five occasions, she called me up, hysterical," Roux said.
Months later, Chestnut, struggling to breathe, was rushed to the emergency room. A tumor in her chest had become so large that it was pressing against her windpipe. Doctors started a regimen of chemotherapy, but it was too late. Despite treatment, she died in the hospital within six weeks of being admitted.
Though Roux doesn't fully blame the health insurer for his mother's death, "it was a contributing factor," he said. "It limited her options."
Few things about the American health care system infuriate patients and doctors more than prior authorization, a common tool whose use by insurers has exploded in recent years.
Prior authorization, or pre-certification, was designed decades ago to prevent doctors from ordering expensive tests or procedures that are not indicated or needed, with the aim of delivering cost-effective care.
Originally focused on the costliest types of care, such as cancer treatment, insurers now commonly require prior authorization for many mundane medical encounters, including basic imaging and prescription refills. In a 2021 survey conducted by the American Medical Association, 40% of physicians said they have staffers who work exclusively on prior authorization.
So today, instead of providing a guardrail against useless, expensive treatment, pre-authorization prevents patients from getting the vital care they need, researchers and doctors say.
"The prior authorization system should be completely done away with in physicians' offices," said Dr. Shikha Jain, a Chicago hematologist-oncologist. "It's really devastating, these unnecessary delays."
In December, the federal government proposed several changes that would force health plans, including Medicaid, Medicare Advantage, and federal Affordable Care Act marketplace plans, to speed up prior authorization decisions and provide more information about the reasons for denials. Starting in 2026, it would require plans to respond to a standard prior authorization request within seven days, typically, instead of the current 14, and within 72 hours for urgent requests. The proposed rule was scheduled to be open for public comment through March 13.
Although groups like AHIP, an industry trade group formerly called America's Health Insurance Plans, and the American Medical Association, which represents more than 250,000 physicians in the United States, have expressed support for the proposed changes, some doctors feel they don't go far enough.
"Seven days is still way too long," said Dr. Julie Kanter, a hematologist in Birmingham, Alabama, whose sickle cell patients can't delay care when they arrive at the hospital showing signs of stroke. "We need to move very quickly. We have to make decisions."
Meanwhile, some states have passed their own laws governing the process. In Oregon, for example, health insurers must respond to nonemergency prior authorization requests within two business days. In Michigan, insurers must report annual prior authorization data, including the number of requests denied and appeals received. Other states have adopted or are