Friday, December 17, 2010

Essay Contest Winners Announced!

On behalf of the Costs of Care team, Governor Michael Dukakis, Dr. Tim Johnson, Secretary Michael Leavitt, Dr. Atul Gawande, and Dean Jeffrey Flier, we are excited to announce the $1000 prize winners of the 2010 Costs of Care contest.

Tarcia Edmunds-Jehu, a nurse midwife from Boston, MA, beautifully captures how the current health system leaves some patients struggling desperately to pay bills - and providers feeling terrible that their well-meaning care is to blame.

Brad Wright, a graduate student from Durham, NC, articulately describes his experience as a savvy patient who did everything possible to avoid expensive and unnecessary care, but got saddled with a large bill anyway.

All of the finalist submissions have been published, including the stories of hardworking, responsible Americans falling through the cracks, getting a $11,000 bill for indigestion, a $10,000 bill for pre-approved surgery, a $1000 bill for birth control.

And the stories don't stop there. Starting January 1st, we will post a new incredible story here every week. Our hope is to shine a national spotlight on the lack of price transparency in our health care system, and illustrate importance of cost-awareness in medical decision-making.

Happy holidays and see you in the new year!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Cost-awareness anecdote: Between the Cracks (contest finalist)

The following story is from Kelly Cheramy, the wife of a man with a chronic illness from McFarland, WI

Between the cracks is a frightening place to be.

During the course of trying to improve our family’s financial stability, my husband and I were blind-sided by one hidden detail: We’d face $10,000 in costs to continue my husband’s serious medical treatment because we found ourselves unexpectedly without coverage for 30 days.

This was money we simply did not have. We had been prepared to foot the full bill for good health insurance, but that wasn’t even an option, thanks to the circumstances of our career transitions and my husband’s health.

I was leaving my job of 10 years to begin a satisfying new position that came with excellent health care coverage. It was a beneficial move that would offset my husband’s impending loss of insurance as his employer downsized and prepared to go out of business. We knew the end result, but we didn’t know the timing. It just so happened that his coverage ended the same month that I began my new job, leaving a gap of one month before my new coverage would begin.

With this routine employment-benefits formality before us, we knew we’d have to purchase coverage. We had hoped to buy a Cadillac COBRA plan, given the circumstances that require very expensive care. But we learned that an out-of-business employer is not obligated to offer COBRA, and our plan to continue the same level of coverage at our expense was not available.

I then checked with my previous employer, whom I had left just two weeks earlier, to weigh my options. I had none, because, at the time of my resignation, I hadn’t been enrolled in that employer’s plan. At my new job, I had already initiated my flex plan withholding so I was too late to set aside pre-tax dollars to help ease the burden.

Because of my husband’s serious pre-existing condition, we were almost certain we wouldn’t qualify for insurance anywhere, and if we did, the price would likely be out of this world. With billing statements in hand, we began to panic about the outrageous price of care and the irony of trying to improve our lives through better jobs—a situation that led to our falling through a nearly invisible crack in the health care system.

The decisions before us were scary: suspend treatment for one month, potentially jeopardizing my husband’s health and setting us back even further in the long run, or find a way to pay $10,000 for his medications, hormone injections, lab work and doctor visits. We chose the latter.

Luckily, our doctor knew of some possibilities that might help. One was to enroll in a medical study that would cover all expenses as part of the research. Unfortunately, an additional health condition made my husband ineligible to participate. The doctor also told us about our insurance company’s conversion plan, which guarantees coverage (albeit less of it, with no drug benefit). The company charges a higher premium in exchange for the forfeiture of underwriting. Though the coverage was greatly reduced, we decided to purchase this nominal safety net for my husband while I took the chance on my own health by not buying coverage for that one month. (As luck would have it, I then contracted pneumonia. A purposeful delay in diagnosis and treatment happened just as I was beginning my employer-provided coverage.)

Finally, the doctor knew of a pharmaceutical company’s program that provides free medication to those who cannot afford the treatment. We applied, slogged through the red tape, waited with wringing hands, and received word that we were accepted. That was a godsend. Today, my husband’s health is nearly perfect and we are back on track to providing everything our family needs, including health care coverage.

When we slipped through the cracks in the health care system, we were emotionally taxed at a time when we could scarcely handle any more stress in our lives. Of course, we’re grateful for the excellent care and the help we had to patch together a plan of action we could afford, but we were taken by complete surprise when we viewed the costs from deep inside the crack.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Cost-awareness anecdote: Sticker Shock (contest finalist)

The following story is from Dr. Grayson Wheatley, a cardiovascular surgeon from Phoenix, AZ

It was supposed to be a routine office visit for my patient. Unexpectedly, it turned into a real-world health economics lesson for me, the treating physician. The old adage “listen to your patients; they will always give you the answer” became exceedingly true in this case, even when it dealt with an issue beyond a medical diagnosis, such as lack of transparency regarding insurance coverage for medical procedures.

My patient had recently undergone an interventional procedure to treat severe peripheral vascular disease in order to improve his leg circulation. Usually, patients like him don’t seek treatment for vascular insufficiency until the discomfort associated with activity, or claudication, is severe enough to interfere with their regular rounds of golf. That is the real motivator for these patients. The procedure was a success and a few days following the procedure he was back to his normal activities and was pleased that his leg no longer bothered him as he motored around the golf course.

My patient calmly waited until after I checked his pulses, reviewed his medications and gave him a plan for follow-up before he expressed his real concern, and it certainly wasn’t about whether he could now get an extra 20 yards on his tee shot as a result of the new strength in his leg. Despite my office obtaining all the necessary private insurance pre-authorizations for the interventional procedure, he still had received a bill for approximately $10,000 related to out-of-network charges. I was baffled and my patient was disgruntled about this mix-up. After reviewing with him in the examination room the numerous sheets of paper he had received from his insurance company, it became clear what had happened.

A magical alignment of stars needs to occur for an elective procedure to be pre-approved. Emergency services are covered through a separate and more straightforward mechanism. First, the provider, or surgeon in this case, needs to be within the patient’s insurance network. Appropriate professional credentialing and outcome data are submitted to the insurance company, and if acceptable, the provider can participate in the company’s insurance plan. This tedious process needs to be repeated for every insurance plan in which the physician wants to participate. Second, appropriate medical record documentation needs to be submitted to the insurance company demonstrating medical necessity for the procedure. Third, the intended hospital where the procedure is being performed needs to be in-network, which is completely independent of the provider’s status.

Pre-authorizations in this patient’s case were obtained for both the surgeon’s fee and hospital charges. The particular anesthesiologist utilized for this patient’s procedure – a member of the medical team for which insurance companies don’t require pre-authorization – was out-of-network. It is not customary to obtain pre-authorization for anesthesiologists since almost always the anesthesiologist is in the same network as the physician and hospital. We assume, incorrectly, that if an anesthesiologist is working in an in-network hospital and with an in-network surgeon, that they also have in-network status.

The challenge in this process is the lack of transparency surrounding patient choice regarding anesthesiologist assignment, which is often made by the operating room staff moments before the procedure. Despite the anesthesiologist meeting the patient in the holding area before the procedure, no one informed the patient about his upcoming out-of-network charge related to anesthesia services or gave the patient an option to choose another anesthesiologist who was within his insurance’s network.

Fortunately, the out-of-network anesthesiologist worked with my patient to drastically reduce the cost of his services and they agreed upon a much more reasonable charge and associated payment plan. Subsequently, my office has modified the process to ensure that the anesthesiologist assigned to a patient’s procedure is pre-authorized.

This patient’s case was an eye-opening experience for me and helped me better understand the complex maze of healthcare reimbursement. It also enabled me to see things more clearly from my patient’s perspective. I am thankful that this patient took the time to speak-up and share his financial situation with me. How many other patients have I operated on were put in this situation and suffered financially in silence? I have always prided myself on making sure my patients have a thorough understanding of their disease and upcoming procedure. Now, I take the time to make sure they also have a clear understanding of the reimbursement process. As a physician, it is not enough to relieve the physical pain of a medical problem, it is also our responsibility to help patients avoid preventable financial jeopardy.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Cost-awareness anecdote: $978 American Dollars (contest finalist)

The following story is from Jessa Hartford, a social worker and substitute teacher from Sacramento, CA

On 4/29/10 I received a Mirena IUD. I thought about this a lot; I read forums and articles on the device and its side-effects. I decided that because I already have a beautiful son who is 2 years old with my wonderful boyfriend of 7 years and we do not need any more children at this point in our lives, that it would be a good idea. You see, we both have been unemployed for a little over a year now. And while on Unemployment we made too much to receive Medi-Cal for any members of our family. So, while on Unemployment I was paying about $300/month out-of-pocket in premiums for medical insurance for my son and myself. (My boyfriend thinks his body can heal itself.) Anyway, after paying $75 for the visit and only being in the appointment for about 30 minutes, and another $75 for a mandated follow-up appointment, I received a bill on 8/18/10 for $978. (That is 978 American dollars, just to clarify.)

As I stated, while I got this device I was paying out-of-pocket for my insurance premiums because I could not be approved for Medi-Cal. A couple months after getting the IUD both of our Unemployment checks stopped coming. We had no income. Zero dollars a month coming into our home. So I instantly went down to the DHA and applied for pretty much anything I could. I started receiving Medi-Cal for all 3 of us. (This was all before I got the bill, or knew how much it was going to be.) When I went to Kaiser’s Customer Relations Department they informed me that Medi-Cal would take care of whatever cost the IUD would be, but now that I have gotten this bill and spoken to them again, they are saying that they were mistaken when they told me that because I was not receiving Medi-Cal during the time I got the IUD.

After receiving the bill I decided I would just return it for a full-refund. Apparently there is a no-refund policy for IUD’s, but they did not state this at any point during the appointment or have any postings on the walls. I even asked if I could possibly return the IUD for some sort of hospital-credit or gift card maybe for a surgery later in life, but they would just not work with me.

In all seriousness, I do not know how I am going to pay for this bill. My boyfriend and I are now getting Unemployment checks again, which you would think would be a good thing. But, this means that when we have to report how much money we got in the last quarter, in the next week or so, I am fairly certain that our Medi-Cal will be discontinued, since we will again be making too much. That means that I will be stuck once again, with out-of-pocket monthly medical insurance premiums, on top of this $978 bill.

I appreciate any help in this matter, even if it’s just information about how I can get help paying for this. I am trying to find work substitute teaching, and am really just trying to make it work for my family. We thought we were being responsible adults and citizens by looking at our place in life and deciding that adding another number to our household would not be good idea, but this is the cost (quite literally) of making that decision. You would think the government would want to help keep the Unemployed from pro-creating – I’m just saying.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Cost-awareness anecdote: Three Ultrasounds (contest finalist)

The following story is from Tarcia Edmunds-Jehu, a nurse-midwife from Boston, MA

Sitting in an exam room I am watching my patient struggling to ask a difficult question that she clearly does not want to ask. After several attempts at starting and a few half finished sentences she finally manages to mumble a request for help with obtaining food for herself and her two daughters. She is a 41-year-old woman, 32 weeks pregnant with her third child, and working a full time job as a CNA in a local nursing home. Her husband is also working full time as a janitor. At her initial visit she denied any issues obtaining food for herself and her family, and declined any referral to social services.

“Has the work situation changed for you or your husband?” No. “Have you always had difficulty getting food and did not want to ask?” No. “Is there some reason you need more food than you needed before?” No.

“Is there some new expense that is taking money that you used to be spending on food?”
Tears begin to flow and she starts to talk. She tells me that she had been in this country for 5 years and never had public assistance of any kind. She talks about her long hours working 2 and sometimes 3 jobs in order to have enough money to keep her family afloat. She talks about putting herself through school to become a CNA while still working to pay her bills. Until last year she was doing this alone, making not only money to provide for her family, but also the money needed to bring her husband here. She had never asked for help or let her children go without. But now she is unable to pay her bills and buy food. What is the tipping point for her ability to provide for her family?

Three ultrasound bills from this pregnancy.

She is 41 and had opted for an early screening test at 12 weeks that combines ultrasound and blood tests to give an estimated risk for Down Syndrome. She made this decision after a visit with a genetic counselor and had the test despite the fact that the results would have no effect on the outcome of her pregnancy.

At 18 weeks she had a fetal survey ultrasound that patients have routinely to check the anatomy of the baby and rule out anomalies.

At 30 weeks she had an ultrasound to check the growth of her baby because she was over age 40. This is following hospital protocol; despite the fact that there was no clinical indication her baby was anything but well grown.

This patient had private insurance through her job. Very few of my patients have private insurance, and at that time I worried less about a patient with a full time job who had private insurance meeting her needs than I did about a patient on welfare with state insurance. It didn't occur to me to ask a patient if her medical bills were paid in full, or if she was responsible for paying a percentage or had a deductible.

The patient had insurance that would pay 80% of procedures, including ultrasound. Her insurance had deemed her 18-week fetal survey as necessary and were paying 80%, the other 2 ultrasounds were not considered necessary. She had a bill for close to $1400 that she had been paying off weekly for three months.

It could just have easily ended up that I would never have known about these bills, and in fact that may have been the case in the past with other patients.

We almost never think about what a test costs or whether it is paid for. Trying to find out the cost of a test is sometimes almost impossible. We almost never stop to think if a test is really indicated, or if the results will change the course of their treatment.

As providers we order tests because they are there, or because it’s easy, or because everyone gets them, or because we are scared if we don’t we’ll be sued, or because of arbitrary protocols. Sometimes we order tests because it’s the best thing for a patient.

No one orders tests thinking we might be taking food out of the mouths of our patients and their families, but sometimes that is exactly what we are doing.