The Nation's Health + Mental Health

"Heart scans are experimental"

Let me warn you: This is a rant.

It is prompted by a 44-year old woman. She has a very serious lipoprotein disorder. Her family experiences heart attacks in their 40s and 50s. I asked for a heart scan. Her insurance companied denied it.

This is nothing new: heart scans, like mammograms, have not enjoyed reimbursement from most insurers despite the wealth of data and growing acceptance of this "mammogram" of the heart.

However, 10 minutes on the phone, and the "physician" (what well-meaning physician can do this kind of work for an insurance company is beyond me) advised me that, while CT heart scans for coronary calcium scoring are not covered, CT coronary angiograms are .

Now, I've been witnessing this trend ever since the big players in CT got involved in the game, namely Philips, Siemens, Toshiba, and GE. These are enormous companies with hundreds of billions of dollars in combined annual revenues. They, along with the lobbying power of cardiology organizations like the American College of Cardiology, have gotten behind CT coronary angiograms. This is most likely the explanation of why CT coronary angiograms have rather handily obtaining insurance reimbursement. Interestingly, the insurance company I was speaking to is known (notorious?) for very poor reimbursement practices.

A CT heart scan, when properly used, generates little revenue, a few hundred dollars to a scan center, barely enough to pay for a device that costs up to $2 million. However, CT coronary angiograms, in contrast, yield around $2000 per test. More importantly, they yield downstream revenues, since CT angiograms are performed as preludes to conventional heart catheterizations, angioplasty, stents, bypass surgery, etc. Now we're talking tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars revenue per test.

What puzzles me is that much of that increased cost comes out of the insurance company. Why would they support such tests if it exposes them to more costs? I'm not certain. It could be the greater pressures exerted by the big CT companies and powerful physician organizations. I seriously doubt that the insurance companies truly believe that heart scans for coronary calcium scoring are "experimental" while CT coronary angiograms are "proven." If all we did was compare the number of clinical studies that validate both tests, we'd find that the number of studies validating heart scans eclipses that of coronary angiograms several fold. Experimental? Hardly.

The smell of money by physicians eager to jump on the bandwagon of a new revenue-producing procedure is probably enough to have them lobby insurers successfully. In contrast, plain old heart scans just never garnered the kind of vigorous and vocal support, since nobody gets rich off of them.

If CT coronary angiograms are sufficiently revenue producing that my colleagues and the CT scanner manufacturers have managed to successfully lobby the health insurers, even one as financially "tight" as the one I spoke to today, well then I take that as testimony that money drives testing, as it does the behavior of hospitals, many of my colleagues, and can even force the hand of insurers.

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