What Does “Medically Necessary” Mean?

Let’s say one of my jail patients has a moderate-sized inguinal hernia.  I want to schedule surgery to have the hernia fixed, but to do so, I have to get authorization.  This is not unusual.  Just like the outside, before I can do medical procedures or order non-formulary drugs, I must get the approval of the entity that will pay the bill.  By contract, my jails house inmates from a variety of jurisdictions, such as the Federal Marshals, ICE, the State Department of Corrections and other counties.  This process of “Utilization Management” is very similar to getting pre-authorization from an insurance company or Medicaid in the free world, probably because Corrections simply copied the outside pre-authorization process.

Having done this process hundreds of times over the years, both in the free world and in Correctional Medicine, I am struck by a phrase that keeps coming up: “medically necessary.”  When authorization for a procedure is denied, the reason often given is that it is “not medically necessary.”  I then have to argue that what I am requesting is, indeed, medically necessary.  The problem is that there are many possible definitions of “medically necessary,” and I believe many disagreements arise because two parties understand “medical necessity” differently.

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Documenting Test Results the Ed and Midge Way

I have a ten-year-old Yorkie named Ed. Ed is experienced and knows the daily routine of our house. Last year, we got a Yorkie puppy named Midge. She initially knew nothing.  It has been entertaining to watch Ed educate Midge on what to do. Midge watches Ed closely and then does whatever Ed does. She is a true Ed Mini-Me. If Ed lays down, Midge lays down.  If Ed asks to go out, Midge wants to go out, too. If Ed begs for a treat, so does Midge.

Since Ed is a pretty good dog, most of what he has taught Midge have been good things, like ask to go outside when you need to potty and sit to say “please” when you want a treat.  But Ed also has some bad habits that he has imparted to Midge.  Ed still has the Yorkie propensity to yap at the door when the doorbell rings, and so Midge has also learned to also sound the alarm.

Medical education is like this. I remember being a young dog medical intern and watching my heroes, the senior residents. Not everything in medicine is taught in medical textbooks and didactic lectures!  Much of what we actually learn as medical practitioners is an imitation of our elders.  For example, I watched what the senior residents ate (junk), when they slept (rarely) and how they treated nurses (some good, some poorly), among other things. Like Ed, most of what my senior residents taught me by example was good. But there are a few sketchy practices handed down from medical resident to medical student that can become bad habits.

Ed: Do what I do. Midge: Ok!
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This Patient Needs to Be Seen by Mental Health, But When?

This morning, inmate Gibbs had a visit.  The nurse passing medications in the housing unit noticed that he was not ready when his name was called.  Unusual.  Mr. Gibbs is typically aware of his visits and is up and ready at least five minutes before it’s time to go.  The nurse asked Mr. Gibbs if he was feeling ok.  Mr. Gibbs just shrugged and left the unit for his visit.  Later that day, the nurse noticed that Mr. Gibbs was not out in the day room playing cards with others, like he usually is.  The nurse walked by Mr. Gibbs’ cell and noticed he was just lying on his bunk looking at the ceiling.  The nurse asked again if everything was ok and Mr. Gibbs stated, “Just not my day.  Things aren’t working out for me.  That’s the problem with hope, you always get disappointed.”  “Anything I can do?” the nurse asked.  “No, man.  Thanks.  Just gotta do what I gotta do.”

Every individual who works in a correctional setting has unique experiences with inmates.  Based on your role, your personality, your style of interaction and how others perceive you, you are likely to see and hear things that others do not see and hear.  In the above example, the nurse has a unique perspective on what’s happening with Mr. Gibbs. 

Do not underestimate the value and importance of what you see and hear.

When you notice things are out of the ordinary, ask questions.  If the answers leave you feeling unsure, make a referral. 

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Suicide – Don’t Be Afraid to Ask

It’s September, which is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.  Let’s start with awareness. According to the Centers for Disease Control, rates of death by suicide have increased in this country by 35% from 1999 to 2018.  More specifically, the rate has increased by 2% every year from 2006 to 2018.  The overall rate of death by suicide in 2018 was 14.2 people per 100,000.  For men, the rate is higher than the rate for women, with a suicide rate of 22.8 per 100,000 for men and 6.2 per 100,000 for women.  The rate for women, however, increased by 55% between 1999 and 2018.

According to the most recent data released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the rate of death by suicide in state prisons was 21 per 100,000 up from 14 per 100,000 in 2001.  In federal prisons the rate in 2016 was 12 per 100, 000 down from 13 per 100,000 in 2001.  In local jails, the rate of death by suicide in 2016 was 46 per 100,000 down from 48 per 100,000 in 2000.

These rates tell us despite our efforts in training, education and suicide prevention within our jails and prisons, people are still choosing to take their own lives.

Suicide is the intentional ending of one’s own life. Think about that.  Just sit and think about the fact that thousands of individual human beings, every year, decide that the life they have should end.  Many of these individuals experienced emotional and cognitive distress beyond what they believed they could handle and saw death as the best possible choice in the moment.  They likely felt alone, isolated, trapped and hopeless.  Like there was nowhere to turn. We can change that.

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Mental Health Screening – Set Up for Success

It was a holiday weekend in the middle of the night.  The booking area of the jail was a big, open, noisy pit with people sitting in plastic chairs, watching TV or on phones and the officers either behind desks or circling the perimeter. It was filling up.  A staff member was completing initial mental health screenings in a corner of the open room, up on a platform and behind a computer.  She had the electronic health record open to the mental health screening form and she was going through each “yes/no” question, reading from the computer screen and not looking at the recently arrested individual, a young man picked up on a possession charge.

“Are you currently taking any medications for mental health problems?”  “No.”

“Have you ever been hospitalized for mental health reasons?”  “No.”

“Are you currently thinking about hurting or killing yourself?”  Pause. Swallow.  “No.”

“Have you ever been treated for withdrawal from drugs or alcohol?” “No.”

She missed it.  She missed the pause; she missed the swallow.

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Beware the Bounce-Back!

I learned about Bounce-Backs back in my Emergency Medicine days.  A bounce-back is a patient who you saw in the ER and discharged but then returned within 48 hours with the same complaint.  A lot of time is spent in emergency medicine education talking about how to handle bounce-backs.  The basic message is “Beware! You may have missed an important diagnosis the first time!” 

Bounce-backs happen in correctional medicine, too. Bounce-backs can happen in jails, where we often deal with patients we do not know well. But bounce-backs also happen in prisons, when patients we do know well have a new complaint.  Just like in emergency medicine, a bounce-back in a jail or a prison is a patient who comes to the medical clinic with a new complaint, receives a diagnosis and treatment and then re-kites for the same complaint within a couple of days.  Here are a couple of examples.

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Introducing Sharen Barboza

I am pleased to be joined on JailMedicine by my colleague Dr. Sharen Barboza! Dr. Barboza has been providing correctional mental health care for more than 20 years. Her complete bio can be found in the About The Authors tab (here). Besides her broad experience, intelligence and common sense, Dr. Barboza is simply the best speaker I have heard at any correctional medicine conference. I am honored to have her as my co-editor at JailMedicine! Jeffrey Keller

Dr. Sharen Barboza

I am truly honored, grateful and humbled to join Dr. Keller on JailMedicine.com.  I think that now, more than any other time in the past, we are all realizing the impact that our mental health has on our ability to function in the world.  For so many of us, we take the “health” part of our “mental health” for granted.  We trust our thoughts to be based in reality; we rely on our emotions to adequately and appropriately meet the moment; and we have confidence in our ability to cope with what comes our way.  Most days. 

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Covid Fatigue and Leadership

When Covid-19 burst onto the scene three months ago, the jail administrators and the medical teams in my jails initiated several common sense practices to reduce the possibility of Covid infiltrating the jails.  These included screening and quarantining new inmates before allowing them into the dorms, screening jail employees daily, doing lots of Covid tests and, perhaps most importantly, having deputies wear masks at work.   The good news is that, so far, there have been no cases of Covid-19 in any of my jails (knock on wood here).

However, there seems to be growing evidence of “Covid Fatigue” in my community.  When I go out in public, I am one of the very few still wearing a mask.  And this is unfortunately spilling over to the correctional facilities.  I did a clinic at one of my smaller jails this week and was surprised and dismayed to see that the deputies were no longer wearing masks.  In the meantime, Community Covid cases are climbing, so the risk of transmitting Covid to the jail is actually greater than it was, say, a month ago.

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Using a Wrench Instead of a Hammer for Alcohol Withdrawal

I am seeing a 52-year-old male in my jail medical clinic who was booked yesterday on a felony DUI charge.  He says he drinks “a lot of beer” but denies having a drinking problem.  He is cranky and not really cooperative.  He does not want to be here.  However, the deputies tell me that he did not sleep much last night and did not eat breakfast.  I note that he has a mild hand tremor and a heart rate of 108.  According to the clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol–revised version (the most common tool used in the United States to assess the severity of alcohol withdrawal since 1989) my patient needs no treatment for alcohol withdrawal.  But this is wrong!  In actuality, my patient is experiencing moderate withdrawal and should be treated immediately and aggressively. 

 Using CIWA is like using a wrench to pound in a nail.  It can be done, but it is not really efficient or accurate.  A different tool (a hammer) could drive the nail much more quickly and effectively. CIWA is simply not the right tool to assess alcohol withdrawal.  We should be using something better.

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ACCP Position Paper on the Funding of Hepatitis C Treatment

I recently published the official position paper of the American College of Correctional Physicians (ACCP) on the treatment of Hepatitis C in incarcerated patients (found here). However, some state legislatures (and others who which authorize funds for inmate medical care), have been reluctant to fully fund Hepatitis C treatment. Because of this, ACCP has formally approved the following Position Paper to encourage full funding of HepC treatment among incarcerated inmates.

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