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Insurers Delay Bariatric Surgery for ‘Reprehensible’ Reason

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A delaying tactic used by some U.S. health insurers to limit coverage of bariatric surgery does not jibe with the clinical experience at one U.S. center with 461 patients who underwent primary or revisional bariatric surgery.

The tactic applies to patients with a baseline body mass index (BMI) of 35-39 kg/m2 who usually also need at least one comorbidity to qualify for insurance coverage for bariatric surgery, and specifically to the subgroup for whom hypertension is the qualifying comorbidity.

Some insurers limit surgery coverage to patients with hypertension who fail to reach their goal blood pressure on agents from three different drug classes, a policy that is “extremely frustrating and dangerous,” said Yannis Raftopoulos, MD, PhD, in his presentation at the annual meeting of the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery.

Using Number of Antihypertensive Drugs Is Not Correct

“Using the number of antihypertensive medications to justify surgery is not correct because blood pressure control is not [always] better when patients take two or three medications, compared with when they are taking one. This harms patients because the more severe their hypertension, the worse their control,” said Raftopoulos, director of the weight management program at Holyoke (Mass.) Medical Center.

He presented findings from a retrospective study of 461 patients who underwent either sleeve gastrectomy or laparoscopic Roux-en-Y gastric bypass at his center, including 213 (46%) diagnosed with hypertension at the time of their surgery. Within this group were 68 patients with a BMI of 35-39, which meant that they could get insurance coverage for bariatric surgery only if they also had a relevant comorbidity such as hypertension, diabetes, or severe sleep apnea.

Among these patients, 36 (17% of those with hypertension) had only hypertension as their relevant comorbidity and would not have qualified for bariatric surgery under the strictest criteria applied by some insurers that require patients to remain hypertensive despite treatment with at least three different antihypertensive medications. (These 36 patients underwent bariatric surgery because their insurance coverage did not have this restriction.)

The analyses Raftopoulos presented also documented the rate of hypertension resolution among patients in the series who had hypertension at baseline and 1-year follow-up results. Among 65 patients on one antihypertensive drug at baseline, 43 (66%) had complete resolution of their hypertension after 1 year, defined as blood pressure of less than 130/90 mm Hg while completely off antihypertensive treatment. In contrast, among 55 patients on two antihypertensive medications at baseline, 28 (51%) had complete resolution after 1 year, and among 24 patients on three or more antihypertensive medications at baseline, 3 (13%) had complete resolution 1 year after bariatric surgery, he reported.

“Patients who were treated with one oral antihypertensive medication preoperatively had a higher likelihood of postoperative hypertension resolution,” concluded Raftopoulos.

Restricting access to bariatric surgery to patients with a BMI of less than 40 based on the preoperative intensity of their antihypertensive treatment “is not supported by our data, and can be potentially harmful,” he declared.

“This study was the result of discussions about this problem with multiple insurers in my area,” he added. “This affects a good number of patients.”

Waiting for Hypertension to Become Less Treatable

The results Raftopoulos presented “are not surprising, because they confirm the hypothesis that earlier intervention in the course of a disease like hypertension is more likely to be successful,” commented Bruce D. Schirmer, MD, a professor of surgery at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, and designated discussant for the report.

The policy followed by some health insurers to delay coverage for bariatric surgery until patients fail three medications “forces patients with more treatable hypertension to wait until their disease worsens and becomes less treatable before they can receive appropriate treatment,” he said.

Schirmer attributed the motivation for this approach to a “despicable” and “reprehensible” reason: “Actuarial calculations that show paying for curative therapy is not cost effective in the short term. The duration of a patient’s policy may not be long enough to yield a positive financial outcome, so it becomes more appropriate to deny optimal care and have patients become sicker from their disease.”

“I applaud the authors for accumulating the data that point out this unfortunate rule of some insurance companies,” Schirmer added.

The practice is comparable with an insurer requiring that a patient’s cancer must be metastatic before allowing coverage for treatment, commented Ann M. Rogers, MD, professor and director of the Penn State University surgical weight loss program in Hershey, Penn., and a moderator of the session.

Raftopoulos, Schirmer, and Rogers had no disclosures.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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