Purpose: We evaluated our institutional experience to assess potential racial inequities in insurance coverage for proton therapy in patients with head and neck (HN) cancer.
Methods and materials: We examined the demographics of 1519 patients with HN cancer seen in consultation at our HN multidisciplinary clinic (HN MDC) and 805 patients for whom a proton insurance authorization was sought (PAS) from January 2020 to June 2022. The prospects for proton therapy insurance authorization were prospectively noted based on each patient's ICD-10 (International Classification of Diseases, 10th Revision) diagnosis code and their specific insurance plan. Proton-unfavorable (PU) insurance were those plans whose policy describes proton beam therapy as "experimental" or "not medically necessary" for the given diagnosis.
Results: For patients seen in our HN MDC, Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) were significantly more likely to have PU insurance than non-Hispanic White (NHW) patients (24.9% vs 18.4%, P = .005). In multivariable analysis including race, average income of residence ZIP code, and Medicare eligibility age, BIPOC patients had an odds ratio of 1.25 for PU insurance (P = .041). In the PAS cohort, while there was no difference in the percentage of patients receiving insurance approval for proton therapy between NHW and BIPOC populations (88% vs 88.2%, P = .80), for patients with PU insurance, the median time to determination was significantly longer (median, 15.5 days), and the median time to start any radiation of any modality was longer (46 vs 35 days, P = .08). Compared with NHW patients, the median time from consultation to start of radiation therapy was longer for BIPOC patients (37 vs 43 days, P = .01).
Conclusions: BIPOC patients were significantly more likely to have insurance plans unfavorable to proton therapy coverage. These PU insurance plans were associated with a longer median time to determination, a lower approval rate for proton therapy, and a longer time to start radiation of any modality.
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