Home > Business of Medicine > The insurance appeals process – Part 2: Winning your appeals

The insurance appeals process – Part 2: Winning your appeals

In a previous post I talked about how the insurance appeals process works.  In this post I’ll talk about the things every doctor can do to maximize the chance that insurance appeals will go in their favor.  But first, a quick review.

Coverage requests get rejected when the requested service does not fit within an insurance company’s initial guidelines for approval.  This happens for a number of reasons, but usually it comes down to poor documentation or inappropriate care, or in some cases care that is appropriate but can’t be supported in the literature.  When a denial occurs, the physician or patient has several opportunities to appeal this decision.  The first appeal is about proving that your case does meet the insurance guidelines and that it was incorrectly rejected.  The second appeal is about proving that the request should be accepted outside of the coverage guidelines.  Sometimes there is another level that looks at whether the care is experimental.

The job of the reviewer is to look at the data provided and determine if the case meets insurance guidelines, or if the review is outside of guidelines, to determine if the requested service is supported by peer reviewed medical literature.  The reviewer is a physician with a busy practice, and only has a certain amount of time that can be dedicated to the review (usually less than an hour.)  Anything you can do to make this job easier will help your appeal be successful, and anything you do to make this job harder may hurt your appeal.

The following are things you should do or not do when writing an appeal to maximize your chance of approval.  In fact, if you nail these things, every appeal will be accepted.

Write a summary letter – The reviewer is trying to look through your medical records and figure out what you are trying to do.   If they have to look through piles of semi-illegible notes and try to put it all together, they may come up with the wrong idea.  It behooves you to write a letter that summarizes the care of the patient, including presenting symptoms, workup performed so far, previous treatments done and response to those treatments, current diagnosis, and what is planned.  Do not make the reviewer put this all together on their own.

Answer the phone! – If a peer reviewer calls you, for god sakes please answer the phone.  Tell your staff that they should get you for these calls.  The person calling you is a doctor who is probably trying to call you between patients.  They have a limited amount of time to turn the review over, and if they need information and can’t get it, you are going to be rejected.  You must assume that if a reviewer is trying to call you, they didn’t have enough information in the provided records to approve the case.  If the call doesn’t happen, the appeal is going to get rejected.

Be a good documenter – It goes without saying that if your notes are crap, its very tough to win an appeal with them.  If you aren’t a good documenter and are losing appeals, this is probably why.   This doesn’t mean you have to write a novel.  It just means you have to include important information and justify what you want to do.  “Patient has heavy bleeding for two years and has fibroids. Plan: hysterectomy” NO!  “46 year old with menorraghia and anemia for 2 years, 16 week size fibroids uterus.  We discussed various therapies including medical and conservative surgical options, and she would like a hysterectomy” – YES!  That’s all you have to say.  It is this reviewer’s sadness that too many physicians don’t take the time to write even this much.  Corollary: if you are appealing and realize your notes are crap, write a really good letter, which makes the notes unimportant.

Practice Evidence Based Medicine – If you are trying to do something that can’t be supported in evidence, its going to be hard to win an appeal.  A good example is a subcutaneous terbutaline pump.  Its nearly impossible to win an appeal for this, because the reviewer can’t quote any literature that would support an approval, even if the reviewer thinks they work.  The corollary to this is that if you are doing something that is somewhat controversial and are appealing a rejection, it really behooves you address that controversy in your appeal letter, preferably with peer reviewed sources to justify your point of view.  If you make a good sourced argument, there is little to keep the reviewer from just using your argument and your sources to approve the case.  This may seem onerous, but in reality it is a good thing to be doing anyway for your own doctorhood.   If something is getting rejected, and you sit down and try to justify it and find that you can’t, perhaps what you are doing wasn’t right in the first place.

Limit what you send in – It is far better to send in the 20 pieces of paper that justify your case than 200 pieces of paper that mostly consists of irrelevant documentation.  Include your letter, your clinical notes _about the condition at hand_, labs, and path and imaging reports.


Don’t be a jerk – My god, how many doctors don’t get this!  Some doctors think that by berating the reviewer they are going to get approved.  Oppositeland, people.  If a reviewer calls you, its because your chart didn’t have enough information to approve the case, or they didn’t understand what you are doing.  If the you get on the phone and decide to unload on the reviewer about what you thinks of the insurance company / the reviewer / the patient / how medicine is going to hell…  it really hurts the case.  The reviewer is a doc that is probably trying to fit this call between patients.  They just want the facts, doc.  In my experience, being berated by a doc doesn’t really affect the review directly, but it really gets in the way of getting the information.  “DO YOU WANT TO SEE MY PATIENT AND TELL ME I’M WRONG!!! IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT!!! TELL IT TO MY FACE!!”.  Not productive.

Check your ego at the door – And by this I mean, don’t assume that medical necessity is defined strictly by what you think is medically necessary.   I read so many appeal letters that say “Jill needs X because it is medically necessary for her condition.”   This is worthless.  The appeal is not a note from the doctor getting Jane out of work for the day.  If the fact that there exists a doctor that thinks that X is medically necessary were sufficient, nothing would ever get rejected and there would be no need for an appeals system.  Maybe some doctors would like this, but it is a recipe for a bankrupt medical system.

Insurance companies ration care.  Its what they do (see part 1.)  They do not assume that just because you think it is necessary that it actually is, and perhaps more imporant to understand, they do they allow reviewers to make arguments on that basis.  Your appeal letter must describe and defend your case.   Don’t take it personally, its just the way the appeals process works.

Don’t write illegibly – And if you do, type or dictate your notes.  A pile of illegible papers does not a good appeal make.

Don’t quit after one appeal – If you get rejected once but you really believe in the issue, appeal again.  Remember, its not until a second appeal that the case gets considered outside of insurance guidelines, or when something that could be considered experimental might get approved.  If you always quit after one attempt, lots of things that might get approved don’t.  Is this system designed to approve fewer things?  Maybe.   But if you want to win, you have to do it twice.    If you write a good appeal letter the first time, there is no reason you can’t just send in the same appeal again.  If what you want to do is a little grey, your justification of what you want to do may not even get considered until the second appeal, because the first review is just about guidelines.  A good example would be using a novel chemotherapeutic for recurrent ovarian cancer. If it doesn’t fit the guidelines (which are still pretty good documents – see part 1), it probably won’t go through on the first appeal.

Don’t have your patients write appeals – While patients write passionate appeal letters, they almost never have useful information in them.   The kinds of things that patients write have almost nothing to do with the appeals process.  The fact that they paid their premiums for years and are super pissed that X was not paid for is completely irrelevant.  The only thing a patient can do that is helpful is to describe the case better than it was described in the medical records.  If your records are good, this shouldn’t be an issue, and usually patients have a hard time describing the case in an objective way.  A patient can almost never actually defend the medical care, which is usually what is needed, because they don’t have the background to do it.

And if you really want to be a master of winning appeals, become a peer reviewer.  In the four years that I have been doing this, not only have I made extra money, but I have learned this system inside and out.  It has given me a better understanding of what it takes to really justify what one is doing, and in doing so has made me a better doctor.  I have a much better idea of what will go through and what will be scrutinized, and can explain those things to patients in a way that makes sense.  It has also forced me to keep up on the literature in my field, even in areas that I might not typically read in.

When good doctors become peer reviewers, they help the system work the way it should.  Maybe you should do it too!

Categories: Business of Medicine
  1. October 10, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    Thanks, Nick. Great post.


  2. October 26, 2010 at 1:40 pm

    I’m not a doctor, but both this and part one were fascinating and educational for me. Thank you!


  3. Mary
    October 2, 2014 at 8:11 am

    I was especially interested in”The insurance appeals process – Part 2: Winning your appeals”. I. a layman, found myself with in just such a position in the beginning of 2014. My PCP elected not to get involved, which left me on my own. She, also, would not release relevent records as a law, in my state, requires them to come from the attending physician who was not my PCP, but a specialist. I had, wisely, insisted on copies of all tests from this provider and had all the proof I needed that this was a medically necessary test. I followed the appeals process to the letter. I had a cover letter with the Care Core guidlines that fit my condition and need for the test. I included labled medical documentation, referred to in the cover letter, that coinsided with the Care Core guidelines. I won the appeal and gave my PCP the cover letter so when it comes time for a referral for this test again, she knows the criteria that fits my particular circumstances.

    I found your column, on this topic liberating. i did the right things even though I have no medical background. Thank you for informing not only the medical community, in this important matter, but the lay community, as well.


    • Joe
      April 9, 2016 at 2:21 pm

      Brava Mary! Bravo Dr. Fogelson!


      • Mary
        April 11, 2016 at 8:00 am

        I thank you for your kind words, Joe. Knowledge is power and, in this day and age, one had best be their own advocate. No one else will do it for you. I sometimes feel that managing mine and my husband’s health care is a full time job!


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