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Data Points: CDC Numbers Show Fewer Americans Have Trouble Paying Medical Bills

CDC’s report, Problems Paying Medical Bills: Early Release of Estimates From the National Health Interview Survey, January 2011-June 2012, provides some encouraging news. The data show fewer Americans have trouble paying their medical bills.

Among adults between the ages of 18-64, the percentage of those in families that have problems paying medical bills decreased from 20.9 percent in the first half of 2011, to 19.7 percent in the first half of 2012. The news was also encouraging for teens and children 17 and younger living in families with problems paying medical bills. The percentage of these decreased from 23.7 percent to 21.8 percent for the same period.

While the report provides good news, far too many Americans still find it burdensome to access medical services.

This is why the Affordable Care Act was passed. The law helps Americans with their medical bills in several ways. It requires many insurers to cover certain preventive services at no out of pocket cost to patients. Because of the law, 71 million Americans are receiving expanded coverage of preventive services without co-pays or deductibles — including vaccines, blood pressure and cholesterol tests, mammograms, colonoscopies and screenings for osteoporosis.

The Affordable Care Act has also played a role in helping Americans access the health insurance they need. Since 2010, the law has allowed more than 3.1 million young people to stay on their parents’ health insurance policies until age 26.

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Side Effects May Include Financial Ruin

He winced in a way that made me feel his discomfort. It wasn’t overly dramatic; it was a response of a man trying to put on a brave face and hide his pain, but – as I gently laid my hands on his belly – failing against his best efforts. This man had real abdominal pain, the kind that is impossible not to immediately empathize with. I got concerned.

“How long has this been going on?” I asked, while my mind began to immediately tick through a differential diagnosis.

“Well it probably started a year ago, but got really bad about four months ago,” this otherwise healthy-appearing, thirty-something-year-old man said.

We were in a small curtained-off area in the hectic Emergency Department at San Francisco General Hospital (SFGH). I started to wonder what in the world would possibly cause somebody to wait many months with severe abdominal pain and rectal bleeding before coming to see a doctor.

I asked a few more questions, verifying that he was indeed having bright red blood with his bowel movements, had lost at least 10-pounds over the last few months and has dealt with nausea and debilitating abdominal pain ever since the end of last year.

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Anatomy of a Walletectomy

It all began when Dr. Renee Hsia of the University of California at San Francisco received a simple request from a good friend who had checked into a local hospital for an emergency appendectomy. The fairly routine procedure took place 19,368 times during 2009 in California.

After he returned home, he received a bill from the hospital for $19,000, his co-payment for the parts of the $54,000 operation that his insurance company didn’t cover. “He wanted to know if this was the usual and customary charge for a one-day stay in the hospital,” she recalled.

And thus began her research into pricing variability in the state, which was published this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The prices ranged from $1,529 to $182,955 with the median hospital charge of $33,611, the study showed.

The prices not only varied between hospitals, they varied within hospitals. The largest spread occurred at one hospital, which Hsia wouldn’t reveal, where the cheapest appendectomy went for $7,504 while the most expensive charged was $171,696. There were numerous hospitals where the spread was $100,000 or more.

“They had the same diagnosis, but different things could have been done,” she said. For instance, one patient could have had multiple imaging tests and robotic laparoscopy, while the other received no imaging and a regular laparoscopy. There’s no evidence to suggest one set of alternatives had better outcomes than the other.

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The Bottom Line

It’s cool. So cool, that President Obama used one. So cool, it’s been on the cover of Newsweek. It’s been in multiple television commercials, radio advertisements, highway billboards, and was even coined one of the top 14 medical breakthroughs of 2011 by Boston Magazine, a city teeming with medical innovation. Yet surgeons and health economists are unable to explain the fascinating rise of robotic-assisted surgery.

Currently, a single company manufactures and distributes the robot, a line of surgical equipment used to conduct robotic-assisted surgery. The robotic system consists of a surgeon’s console with 3-dimensional high definition vision and a patient-side cart featuring robotic arms with proprietary wristed instruments. The system translates the surgeon’s natural hand movements on instrument controls into corresponding movements of instruments inside the patient, giving the surgeon control, range of motion, and depth of vision similar to open surgery.

The sole manufacturer hopes to establish the robot as the standard for surgical procedures by encouraging surgeons and hospitals to adapt the technique while marketing aggressively to patients about the benefits of robotic surgery. As of June 2011, the manufacturer had installed 1,933 robotic systems. They estimate that 278,000 robotic-assisted surgical procedures were performed in 2010, up 35% from 2009, and aims to achieve one million annual procedures in the United States over the next few years (Invester Report 2011). To achieve this goal, the manufacturer strategically markets to smaller hospitals and surgeons who may not be skilled at conventional laparoscopy to give them an edge for attracting patients.

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Our Cancer Journey – Week 6

We’re halfway through the most challenging cycles of chemotherapy, Kathy has lost her hair,  and her fatigue is getting worse but her mood is still very positive.

On Friday January 20th, Kathy received Cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan) 1200 mg, Doxorubicin (Adriamycin)  120 mg and her pre-chemotherapy supportive medications Fosaprepitant 150 mg, Dexamethasone 12 mg and Ondansetron 8 mg.

She tolerated it well.

Her Complete Blood Count shows that her Granulocyte Count has dropped from 6690 to 3610 since the chemotherapy affects her fast multiplying white cells as a side effect of targeting the cancer.   Her hematocrit has fallen from 42 to 32.   She tires more easily but her appetite is good.   Small frequent meals enable her to overcome any GI symptoms.

We’ve been told that the Adriamycin/Cytoxan is the most difficult chemotherapy.  Only two more cycles to go.

The photograph above shows Kathy and me at age 21 in our Stanford graduation photo.  She’s always had long, luxuriant hair, even a waist length braid at one point.

On January 21st, her hair began falling out in clumps.   It was not exactly painful, but felt very odd, as if her hair had not been washed in months and just did not lie on her scalp properly.   In consultation with her cancer survivor friends, she decided to shave it off.    Her hairdresser gave her a “GI Jane” cut realizing that the small hairs left will fall out soon, but in a more manageable and comfortable way.    I seriously considered shaving my head in solidarity, but she asked me not to.

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