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.
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.
In the spring of 2005, the sinus infection returned. I awoke severely congested with a pounding forehead and pain around my eyes that grew worse when I bent to tie my shoes. The feeling was familiar. Two years earlier, I had similar symptoms, but was uninsured and endured a miserable week with nothing but over-the-counter medication. Now they were back.
Fortunately, when I started graduate school, my father insisted that I have health insurance. As a healthy 24 year old, I didn’t see the need, but he agreed to foot the bill for a high-deductible insurance policy to cover me in the event of catastrophic illness. Except for four physician office visits subject only to a $35 co-payment, my policy offered no benefits until I spent $3,000 out of my own pocket. With my sinuses throbbing, I knew I needed to use one of those visits. Overwhelmed by the list of “in-network” providers on the insurer’s website, I picked an internist based on convenience—his practice was located in a medical complex near my home.
Arriving for my appointment, I checked in and presented my insurance card to the receptionist. “Your visit today will be $35,” said the woman behind the desk. I was relieved to hear that my coverage was working as promised. A nurse ushered me to an exam room, where the physician promptly entered, half-heartedly listened to my complaint, and confidently asserted that I did not have a sinus infection because I had no fever. I wanted to say “Really? Mind handing me a tissue so that I can show you what’s been coming out of my head?” but resisted the urge. Instead, I clarified that fever or no, I didn’t feel well, and believed my sinuses were the culprit. At this, the internist lost patience. He ordered some lab work and a sinus CT scan to rule out infection, and said that I could have everything done downstairs.Continue reading…