Filling opioid prescriptions akin to a Sisyphean task


Pain management is a huge part of how we in palliative care help patients – and most of the time, I think we do it well, but in the regulatory environment of the opioid epidemic, getting opioid prescriptions filled in a timely manner with the clinician’s drug of choice can feel like a Sisyphean task.

A patient – let’s call her Joan – calls me in distress. She is a 62-year-old woman with widespread metastatic breast cancer. Her pain is mainly due to bone metastases, but she also has discomfort due to the cancer’s invasion of the thin membranes that line her lungs and abdomen.

She was started on a combination opioid and acetaminophen tablet about 2 months ago by her oncologist, but is now requiring it around the clock, nearing the ceiling dose for this particular medication.

Given that her pain is escalating, Joan and I discuss starting a long-acting opioid to better manage the peak and trough effect of short-acting opioids, which can make a patient feel that the pain is relieved only for a few hours at a time, with sharp spikes throughout the day that mandate the next dose of short-acting opioid. This tethers the patient to the clock, having to take as many as six or eight doses of medication per day, and can be very disruptive to daily life.

Sarah F. D'Ambruoso, a nurse practitioner at Santa Monica (Calif.) Cancer Care in the UCLA Health System

Sarah F. D'Ambruoso

I send an e-prescription for the same opioid Joan’s currently taking, but in a long-acting format that will slow-release over 8-10 hours, relieving her of the need to take a medication every 3-4 hours. I have learned over the years that nearly every long-acting opioid automatically generates a prior authorization request from the patient’s insurance company and so I immediately email our prior authorization team to submit to Joan’s insurance right away to avoid this extra delay.

Our prior authorization team is exceptionally responsive and submits these requests with urgency every time – they understand that cancer pain is a serious problem and we can’t wait 5 business days for answers. They are typically able to obtain an approved prior authorization for nearly every long-acting opioid I write within 24-48 hours.

But here’s where things go sideways.

First, the insurance company denies the prior authorization request, demanding that I revise the prescription from the long-acting version of the opioid she is currently taking to a cheaper, older opioid that she’s never tried before. In other words, they won’t cover the drug I requested without Joan first trying a completely different drug and failing it. This only makes sense for the insurance company’s bottom line – it makes no clinical sense at all. Why would I try a novel compound that Joan’s never had and one to which I have no idea how she’ll respond when I could keep her on the same compound knowing that she tolerates it just fine?

Past experience tells me insurance companies rarely budge on this, and appealing the decision would just introduce even more delay of care, so I begrudgingly change the prescription and send it again to the pharmacy. I message Joan to let her know that her insurance won’t cover my drug of choice and that we have to try this older one first.

A few hours later, Joan sends me a message: “My pharmacy says it’s going to take A WEEK to get the long-acting medicine!”

In the meantime, Joan has been using her short-acting opioid faster than anticipated because of her escalating pain – so she’s now running low on that as well.

I write for more of her short-acting opioid and e-script it to her pharmacy.

Within a few hours, we get another automatic response from her insurance that we’re going to need a prior authorization for additional short-acting opioid because she’s exceeded “quantity limitations,” which as far as I can tell is a completely arbitrary number not based on clinical evidence.

The prior auth team jumps on it and submits to override the quantity limit – successfully – and sends the override code to her pharmacy to reprocess the prescription.

But now the pharmacist tells Joan that they won’t fill the Rx anyway because it’s “too early.” They tell her that “state laws” prevent them from filling the scrip.

Is this true? I have no idea. I’m not an expert on California pharmacy law. All I know is that my patient is in pain and something needs to happen quickly.

I write for a second short-acting opioid – again a completely different compound. Ironically, this Rx goes through instantly without need for prior authorization. But now Joan has to switch to another new drug for no good medical reason.

If you’re still with me this far into the weeds, I’m grateful. In all it took a combined 4 hours of work (between myself and the prior auth team) to get two opioid Rx’s filled – and these were completely different medications than the ones I originally wrote for. I also had to move her prescriptions to the hospital’s pharmacy (another inconvenience for Joan and her family) so that she could get the medications in a timely manner. All this work to ensure that a single patient had adequate and timely pain relief and to prevent her from having to make an unnecessary visit to the emergency department for pain crisis.


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