Monday, January 30, 2012

Treating Heart Failure on a $100 Budget

The following anecdote is written by Molly Kantor, a medical student from Boston who was among the winners of the 2011 Costs of Care Essay Contest.

As a third year medical student, I spent one afternoon each week at a health clinic at a community hospital affiliated with my medical school. This health clinic was focused on primary care for patients with HIV, and many of our patients were poor, homeless, immigrants, or uninsured. Many were also living with their diagnosis in secrecy and had to hide their medications and medical bills from family members.

One of my patients, who I will call Clara, was a 65 year old Haitian immigrant who diabetes, heart failure, and depression, along with HIV. Due to her medical conditions, she was unable to work. She had two grown children, but they did not live nearby and did not know about her medical problems, especially her HIV. Her husband, unfortunately, was very ill and lived in a nursing home. Clara somehow managed on her own, but her lack of insurance, poor medical literacy, and limited English proficiency made it difficult for her to stay healthy, and she was constantly coming to clinic for help.

At one visit, Clara seemed unusually tired and revealed that she had been feeling short of breath at home. In my mind, this raised many questions—Could this be a heart attack? Worsening heart failure? A blood clot in her lungs? Pneumonia? I took a history and did a physical exam, and my top concern was that this was an episode of worsening heart failure, what we call a heart failure exacerbation, and this typically occurs because the body accumulates too much fluid that the heart has trouble pumping it all so it backs up into the lungs.

Usually, this is a patient who you would send to the Emergency Room (ER) and have them admitted to the hospital so that they could get diuretics (water pills) and slowly lose the extra water—all while being carefully monitored in the hospital. However, Clara refused to go to the ER. “Too expensive,” she stated firmly. “I can’t go into the hospital again.”

We realized the burden this would have on her and her family, so we worked around the problem by getting an EKG done right in the office and getting a chest x-ray. When her EKG and chest x-ray supported our diagnosis, we decided to give her the diuretics as an outpatient and to have her come back for a second office visit in a few days. When she returned, she felt that breathing was much easier, and her physical exam supported the improvement.

Instead of this heart failure exacerbation costing thousands of dollars for an ER visit and hospitalization, this cost only a few pills (furosemide 80mg PO costs about $0.29 per pill, and she was prescribed this once daily in addition to her normal medications) plus an extra primary care doctor visit, which runs about $100.

Monday, January 23, 2012

An Expensive Pain in the Neck

The following anecdote is by Renee Lux, a patient from Connecticut who was among the winners of the 2011 Costs of Care Essay Contest.

One morning this May, I woke up with a stiff neck. I applied hot and cold therapy all day and took an Advil before bed. By the end of that week, I was unable to comfortably move my head and I was feeling numbness down my left arm to my fingertips. I saw my doctor within 24 hours of calling his office. After a brief exam, he was sure of my diagnosis, but he scheduled me for a CT-scan at the hospital the next day, “Just to be certain.”

A day after the CT-scan he diagnosed me with Radiculitus Cervicalgia- inflammation leading to nerve root impingement. I was prescribed a 10-day regimen of prednisone. By the end of my prescription, the pain was gone and my total out of pocket expense was $55 in co-pays. The unintended result of this diagnosis will cost me $2,220 a year in increased health insurance premiums for the foreseeable future.

Stress and anxiety was likely the root cause of my radiculitus. Stress and anxiety brought on by my search for affordable private health insurance. My husband had been out of work for over a year and our COBRA, with the government’s Premium Assistance Rate (ARRA), was about to run out.

I contacted a health insurance broker and explained that I needed an affordable, high-deductible plan for a family of four with no pre-existing conditions. We are all healthy, all average weight and height, non-smokers, none of us are on medication and we have no issues with cholesterol or allergies and no plans for more children.

The broker found us an affordable plan and sent over an application for underwriting which I carefully filled out. Within hours of emailing it back to her I received a frantic phone call. “You said you had no pre-existing conditions!” she bellowed down the line.

She explained that having had a CT-scan and prescription medication within 30-days of my application made me practically uninsurable. She was adamant that the CT-scan alone would trigger an automatic denial. The broker suggested a high-risk plan, which is very expensive. If I couldn’t afford it, I could apply for Connecticut’s High Risk Insurance Pool, but I would have to be un-insured for 6 months in order to qualify.

“High risk?” I thought meekly. I don’t have diabetes, cancer or HIV. I don’t even have high blood pressure. How can I be high risk when my diagnosis was resolved with $5 worth of prescription drugs?

Now I was frantic! I called my doctor. He was incredulous, insisting that my radiculitus was resolved. He offered to write a letter on my behalf. I contacted a friend of a friend, a medical underwriter in another state. All she would say was that my diagnosis within a month of my application throws up red flags for insurance companies.

I took a deep breath and started over with a new broker- we talked over the phone. When I told him about my recent CT-scan I could hear him sucking in his cheeks. There was a long silence.

Finally, he suggested we apply to three insurance companies at once, in the hope that one would accept me. The underwriting process requires me to state if I have ever been declined health insurance. A denial by one company would trigger automatic denials by other insurance companies.

I filled out three applications and agreed to phone interviews with underwriters for two insurance companies.

Eventually, one company offered to cover my family, but denied coverage to me. One company offered us coverage with an exclusion: “This policy does not cover any loss incurred by Renee Lux resulting from any injury to, disease, or disorder of the cervical spinal column, including the vertebrae, intervertebral discs, surrounding ligaments and muscles, treatment or operation therefor and complications therefrom.”

The third and final insurance company approved my coverage with a premium increase to cover my medical condition, “Cervicalgia/Inflammation of the neck.”

Had I known what the repercussions of that doctor visit were, I would have asked my doctor if the CT-scan was absolutely necessary for my diagnosis. Perhaps even the prescription could have been replaced with a higher dose of over the counter anti-inflammatory. The long-term affect of my “pain in the neck” is an additional $189 a month for the foreseeable future.