If you’re reading this post, there’s a good chance you’ve just been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). In Part 1 of the Guide to Living with Rheumatoid Arthritis, we went over the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. In Part 2 of the Guide to Living with Rheumatoid Arthritis, we went over expectations, how to break the news to your loved ones and your boss, as well as important topics like food, exercise, and lifestyle.
Now that you’re acquainted with RA, you may have realized that some of these medications are very expensive. In Part 3 of Guide to Living with Rheumatoid Arthritis I’ll be covering the way doctors prescribe medications, how health insurance pays for the cost of medications, and finally how they end up in your possession.
As we’ve discussed previously, to treat rheumatoid arthritis you need to fight fire with fire. In the case of RA, fire = a disease modifying anti-rheumatic drug or DMARD. This is a medication that puts the immune system back in-check and calms it down.
They’re are two kinds of DMARDs: conventional DMARDs and biologics. Conventional DMARDs like methotrexate are less complex and do not target a particular cytokine (type of inflammation). They tend to cost less and typically don’t need pre-approval from your insurance company. Fortunately, methotrexate is the gold standard for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.
Biologics are the second type of DMARDs. These medications are a lot more complex and they do target a specific cytokine. Biologics are typically used if there’s a good reason you can’t take a conventional DMARD or if they haven’t worked in the past. Sometimes a rheumatologist may use a biologic and a conventional DMARD at the same time because they work better together. Biologics come as self-injectable pens, prefilled syringes, and infusions (i.e., via an IV going into your veins).
Unlike conventional DMARDs, biologics are VERY expensive and do need pre-approval or prior authorization from your insurance company before starting the medication. This means your doctor needs to justify this medication to the insurance company.
You may have heard your doctor say, “I’m going to need to get a prior authorization”. A prior authorization is the process by which your doctor and his or her team will justify the use of the medication to your insurance company. It typically involves A LOT of paperwork and phone calls. Sometimes the process takes weeks to days, but sometimes it can take months. If this is your first biologic, it typically takes 2 – 3 weeks from the moment your doctor prescribes the medication to the moment you receive it. But again, every situation is different. This is just an average.
First, every single medical office does prior authorizations slightly differently. Let’s go through an example.
- Your doctor talks to you about the risks and benefits of a certain medication. If you consent to treatment, he or she will ask his assistant to start a prior authorization.
- The assistant then gathers all your medical insurance information and starts filling out forms. There’s a different form for every medication and for every different insurance company. The assistant then sends your doctor’s last progress note stating why you should receive this medication. The package is then sent to your health insurance plan.
- At this point, your health insurance plan will go over your case and decide whether they will approve the medication. The medical reviewers follow a strict set of guidelines set forth by the insurance plan.
- Let’s say they don’t approve the medication. In some cases, your doctor could appeal their decision by speaking to a medical director at the insurance company. At times, they want more information or a written letter with supporting scientific papers. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. If it does great! If it doesn’t your doctor may try to look into patient assistance programs if one is available or they may alter your treatment plan.
Now let’s say the medication gets approved! The insurance company will contact your doctor’s office and let them know. Because these medications are so expensive, your local pharmacy will not carry them. They may need to go to a specialty pharmacy who will mail them to your house.
- The assistant will alert your doctor and he/she will send the prescription to your pharmacy.
- The specialty pharmacy then prepares the script and sets a delivery date with you.
- The medication is then mailed to your house.
- The process is a little different when it comes to infusible biologics. In this case, the medication will NOT be mailed to your house. Instead, once your doctor’s office obtains the prior authorization, the infusion team at your doctor’s office will call to set up an appointment. Sometimes, you may need to go to an infusion clinic or a hospital for treatment.
Now you see why prior authorizations take a long time!
There are many types of biologic medications that work in all sorts of different ways, however, they are given in either of these forms:
If prescribed an infusion you will get the medicine at your doctor’s office, an infusion center, or a hospital. Treatment can range between 1-5 hours. The doctor’s office will give you the medication and bill your insurance.
If you’re prescribed a medication that is self-injected, the medication will be mailed directly to you. This may seem very daunting, however, many clinics have a team in place to help you through this process. In my clinic, we have a dedicated team that will help you inject the medication for the first time in a supervised setting. During that visit you can ask questions that you may have about the medication: how to store it, how to dispose of the syringes and/or pens, what to do when traveling with biologics, side effect, etc.
If you’re prescribed an oral biologic medication, then the medication will be mailed directly to your house and you would take it just like you would take any other pill, i.e., follow your doctor’s written instructions.
What if your insurance company does not want to cover the full cost of your medication or if you have a high deductible plan?
You should rest assured that there are several financial assistance options available if your insurance will not cover the full cost of the medication or if you have a high deductible plan. Mind you, this does not guarantee that you will qualify but you won’t know unless you try.
For Commercial Insurance Plans (Group, Individual, Exchange) not Medicare
Some commercial insurance companies let their customers use a copay assistance card issued by the pharmaceutical company to help with the cost of the drug. Call me old-fashioned, but in my experience, talking to an actual human being is much faster and effective than email or using a contact form. For more information call the appropriate phone number listed below. If your plan allows the use of a copay card, the drug can often be obtained at a much smaller charge.
For Medicare Plans
The same medication options and medication administration options are available if you have Medicare or a Medicare Supplemental Plan, except you CANNOT use a copay assistance card.
Depending on the type of Medicare/supplemental plan that you have, the coverage of in-office infusions or self-administered shots widely vary. They may cover the entire cost or only a portion of the medication. For example, if your doctor prescribed you rituximab, your insurance company may cover 80% of the cost of the medication, leaving you with 20% of the total bill. When a medication costs about $22,000, 20% is a lot!
It’s always advisable to contact the doctor’s office or Medicare to find the out-of-pocket costs before receiving any treatment to fully understand the potential costs.
Regardless if you have a Medicare, commercial health insurance plan or if you do not have any health insurance at all, you may still qualify for financial assistance if you cannot afford treatment. Pharmaceutical companies and other non-profit organizations have many options that can even cover the full cost of treatment.
If you have concerns or questions about the costs of your treatment, please speak to your doctor or the patient advocate in your doctor’s office.
I hope this guide to living with rheumatoid arthritis has been informative and that you learned some valuable information about your diagnosis. Here are a few final thoughts:
- Please follow your rheumatologist’s management plan. If you have any concerns, about your symptoms or your medications, it’s always important to keep an open line of communication.
- It’s important to tell all your different doctors about your new diagnosis and any new medications that you are taking.
- Always carry an updated list of you medications in your wallet. You never know when someone may ask for it. The doctor in the emergency room may not have access to your doctor’s records at 2 AM.
- Make sure that you regularly follow-up with your rheumatologist in clinic. Your doctor may need to adjust your medications and watch for any side effects or complications.
- If you cannot make a follow-up appointment, please contact your doctor’s office at least 48 hours in advance and re-schedule.
- Learn as much as you can about your condition.
- Talk to your friends and your family about your condition. You’re not alone.
- Stay positive, keep active, and keep smiling!
Please leave your comments or questions below.
Co-written by Jessica Chapman, MD and Ilene Leveston, Patient advocate
Edited by Jessica Farrell, PharmD
Patient assistance programs for non-Medicare patients
1 (866) 952 – 7968
1 (888) 4ENBREL or 1 (888) 436 – 2735
1 (800) 4HUMIRA or 1 (800) 448 – 6472
1 (877) MYSIMPONI or 1 (877) 697 – 4676
1 (855) 493 – 5526
1 (800) ORENCIA or 1 (800) 673 – 6242
1 (800)-ACTEMRA or 1 (800) 228-3672
1 (844) 538 – 9272
Note: Rules, regulations, and contact information are subject to change.
This information is offered to educate the general public. The information posted on this website does not replace professional medical advice, but for general information purposes only. There is no Doctor – Patient relationship established. We strongly advised you to speak with your medical professional if you have questions concerning your symptoms, diagnosis and treatment.