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Tag: Costs of Care

The Cost of One Wild Night

ticking clock
The clock read 9:30PM and in front of me was dozens of notes, PowerPoint slides, and practice exams to review before 8AM.

The all-too-familiar finals week all-nighter beckoned, and though I’ve had my fair share of experiences with studying until the sun rose, I decided to forgo the typical mug of coffee and take some over-the-counter caffeine pills instead.

My friend proclaimed that they would help more than any energy drink would. I laid out all my exam materials, popped in a couple caffeine pills, and strapped myself in for a wild night of allopatric speciation and coadaptation. A wild night did ensue, but there was no evolutionary biology involved.

Around 11:30PM, what could only be described as the worst headache of my life, detracted me from my desk and led me to the bathroom floor. I decided something needed to be done. Student services at the university health system were closed, so that only left me with the ER as an option.

An ER visit was outside the coverage of my standard student health insurance provided with tuition and I didn’t have a personal health insurance plan. I was wary of any costs that I might incur in the ER.

Instead of an ambulance, my best friend, Eric, drove me to the hospital.

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How Much Will It Cost to Let Me Die?

flying cadeuciiIt was probably the most awkward question I had been asked before, and I did not have an answer…

He was a middle-aged gentleman, neatly dressed—very simple and unassuming. He blended like a lifeless statue in the waiting area. What sparked my notice of him was his accompanying robust file, crammed with familiar pink discharge slips from the ED.

He was clearly what we call a “frequent flyer”, but this would be his first visit in our surgical clinic.

I escorted him into the assessment room, exchanging the usual salutations as he edged unto the exam table, wincing with discomfort. His chief complaint read, “acute abdominal pain and constipation x 1 week.”

Vying to understand more about his issue, I asked, “Sir, how long have you had this problem?” Embarrassed, he lowered his head.

Silence.

I retreated and instead remarked, “Ok. Let’s start from today. Where do you have the most pain?”

Tenderly, his frail digits unbuttoned his shirt, exposing a wasted torso, which hoisted an extraordinarily distended abdomen. It appeared rigid and tense. I reached out to gently palpate it to confirm the realism of my observations. He flinched.  His stoic affect instantly collapsed into an aching frown.

Tears welled in his eyes. Something terrible was going on inside. Cancer.

He needed to be admitted and surgery would be very likely, if not too late. I was aplomb in my explanation of his condition, feeling proud of my thoroughness and precision. Yet, seemingly unengaged, he politely interrupted and asked, “How much will it cost to let me die?”

I paused.  It was probably the most awkward question I had been asked before, and I did not have an answer. During my training, I was taught to order tests wisely, to avoid superfluous exams and to minimize inefficiency of resources; in spite of this, I had not ever stopped to think about cost in this context.

In my mind, it was my duty to provide the best, quality care to extend life, foremost. Yet, his concern was different. How much would it cost to die?

Nothing.

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N = 1 My Experience with the New Health Care System

“You look nice today. People don’t come to chemo in suits very often.”

The friendly and familiar receptionist mentioned as I was checking out, the always full jar of lemon flavored hard candy on the shelf between us. As I pocketed a few of the candies, I managed to swallow the nausea and metallic taste just enough to say, “Thanks. I have a job interview today.”

During my senior year in college, with medical school acceptance letter in hand, I was diagnosed with metastatic testicular cancer. Initially, life became planning surgery and meeting doctors, but early in my treatment course I received a letter that my health insurance had been exhausted and I would no longer receive any health benefits. This was after my first of four chemo cycles, with a major surgery still to come. Needless to say, this was a problem. My parents were both well educated, a lawyer and a chemist-turned-teacher, but this took everyone by surprise and presented a new crisis.

We responded by dividing up tasks. My parents quickly inventoried all the assets, including the family home, and my sister called around to all the hospitals to see what could be done.  She called the local and state governments asking for advice while I simply tried to eat food and get to class to graduate on time; I couldn’t have another tuition bill on top of my health expenses. I also started to look for a job, with a job came insurance – this much I knew.

I went to the interview, a job as a management trainee in a car rental agency, with hopes that this job would be something I could get, could do during treatment, and would provide the insurance that would save my family from financial ruin at my hands – my disease. I went to a Jesuit college and learned that truth and honesty are paramount.  So, I told the recruiter that I had cancer, I was in treatment, and that I would likely be done soon – all true.

I didn’t get the job. I still didn’t have insurance and my next chemo session, with its massive bill, was coming very quickly.
My sister learned that this would not be fun. One hospital said to her that they would treat me and then take us to court to get paid. Thankfully, I went to school in Massachusetts where a law was on the books that allowed me to enroll in health insurance without a pre-existing condition exclusion because my insurance being exhausted counted as a special qualifying event. I enrolled in an individual insurance plan, my care went uninterrupted, and I graduated on time. To this day, my sister and I remain grateful to Massachusetts for that single law, which is as much a part of my success as cisplatin and etoposide, the chemotherapy agents I received.

The bills still mounted, but were manageable. I survived, personally and financially. I pushed off medical school for a few years to get my life back in order, and moved on. I had many scary moments during my treatment, from the plastic surgeon telling me my arm might need amputation to my neutropenic fever to being discharged just in time for my college graduation.  However, what bothers me the most was, and stillis, the sense of abandonment from my society when my insurance ended.

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Bringing Nurses Into the Cost Containment Discussion

Why are nurses not usually integrated into the cost containment discussion? Why have we not been invited to the table? Likely, it is because we don’t have the power to order (or discontinue) tests, labs, or medications, all of which are major factors in the rising costs of care. Even so, a nursing perspective can be important and should be considered when doctors make treatment decisions.

For example, I recently treated a patient who had undergone abdominal surgery. Despite uncomplicated post-operative days 1 and 2, on day 3, he developed nausea, vomiting, and an increasingly distended abdomen. I administered intravenous anti-nausea medications, along with back rubs and cool cloths on his forehead. None of the treatments worked. While waiting for the doctor, I sat with the patient and spoke to him about the possibility of receiving a nasogastric tube to alleviate his symptoms. Given an understanding of the process, the patient agreed to this possibility and I paged the doctor once again. The doctor eventually placed the nasogastric tube, the tube was connected to suction, and out came a liter of gastric contents.

I then noticed that the doctor had put in an order for an abdominal x-ray to “check nasogastric tube placement.” Seeing this, I initiated a conversation with the doctor to discuss the patient’s symptomatic improvement as well as his current state of exhaustion. I assured the doctor that nurses would be at the patient’s bedside to monitor for signs and symptoms of tube malfunction. As a result, the doctor cancelled the x-ray, which not only eliminated an unnecessary test for the patient, but also reduced the cost associated with his care.
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Health Insurance is Wasted on the Young

There has never been a time in my life when I’ve owed a lot of money. That certainly has changed these past two years as my husband and myself find ourselves with medical debt that we may never pay off . As you can guess, we have no health insurance – we can’t afford it and even if we did have an extra $650 a month we couldn’t obtain it due to our pre-existing conditions.

Briefly, I had emergency surgery to remove a cyst on my ovary in 2010, a diagnosis of an auto-immune disease in 2011 and two bladder cancer surgeries in 2012. My husband has had high blood pressure for over 25 years due to a heart defect discovered in his 30’s.

My husband and I live very simple lives and have little debt. For the past 18 years we’ve been self-employed, owning a retail music store, and for many of those years I worked for other companies. Some offered medical coverage, some did not. And for some of those years I was able to offer medical coverage for our few employees which also covered my husband and myself. The group coverage was minimal and started out being affordable but with increases it was impossible to afford for long. I tried catastrophic coverage but that was almost as expensive as regular coverage but with a higher deductible. Of course, neither my husband nor I needed the coverage when we had it! They say youth is wasted on the young. I say health insurance is wasted on the young!

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The Most Important Thing (code: e.280.11) I didn’t Learn in Med School (code: 780.92)

Mrs. B was washing dishes in the kitchen when she heard a thump where her twelve-month-old son was asleep. She ran to him and found her son had fallen from a chair (code: e884.2). He was crying (code: 780.92) and visibly shaken, but did not have overt signs of bleeding, bruising, or trauma. She picked him up and immediately brought him to the emergency room. There, he was triaged by the nurse (nursing report #1) and vitals were taken (nursing report #2). Shortly after the mother and son pair settled into the pediatric emergency room, he vomited once (code 787.03).

The emergency medicine residents came by an hour later to conduct a focused interview, and performed a comprehensive physical exam (code: 89.03). He took care to ask at least four elements of the history of present illness that included location, quality severity, duration, timing, context, or associated symptoms from the event. He performed a complete review of at least 10 organ systems and surveyed the patient’s social history (code: 99223). It was decided that the boy was to be observed in the ED for the next few hours for signs of brain injury or concussion.

No labs or imaging studies were ordered. The nurses were instructed to check for vital signs every hour (nursing reports #3,4,5,6). During the observation period, the boy was found to be active, interacting well with mom, hungry, without signs of lethargy or focal neurologic deficits. When the attending physician came by to evaluate and assess the patient, he agreed with the resident’s report and signed the discharge note. The mother was given discharge paperwork and instructions for returning to the hospital if she noticed any new, alarming symptoms.

This is what Kelly, an emergency department medical coder, gathers while reading an ED admission note.  She turns to me and explains that the few lines of attending attestation are the only way the patient can get billed. Kelly types in “959.01” into her software because she memorized the diagnosis code for “head injury, unspecified.” She has been doing this for the last 18 years.

As I listened, she explained that a head injury in a twelve-month-old infant is automatically a level three, so long as the resident documents a review of ten systems, past medical history, and a physical exam. These levels indicate the complexity and severity of the patient’s disease/injury. “It’s all about the documentation,” she says. “If just 9 organ systems instead of 10 are documented,  even a critically ill patient could be down-coded to a level 4.”

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