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When You Can’t Buy Health Insurance, at Any Price

Monday, February 21st, 2011

As you might already know, I’m a staunch advocate for access to health care, and cheered when health care reform became the law last year. We need the opportunity to stay well and keep our families well, and we need to be able to afford medical care when things go wrong. As a mother and a physician, I’ve seen firsthand how imperative this is.

There are those who say we should repeal the recent landmark health care reforms that Congress passed last year. But that would mean that some people would be shut out of health care completely. Some seem to believe it’s just those who are too poor to afford health insurance, or who can afford it but choose not to buy it, who go without. Those are faulty assumptions, as this op ed by the co-founder of Palm Computer, who was denied insurance before the new law passed, shows:

It never occurred to me that we would be denied! Yes, we had listed a bunch of minor ailments, but nothing serious. No cancer, no chronic diseases like asthma or diabetes, no hospital stays.

Why were we denied? What were these pre-existing conditions that put us into high-risk categories? For me, it was a corn on my toe for which my podiatrist had recommended an in-office procedure. My daughter was denied because she takes regular medication for a common teenage issue. My husband was denied because his ophthalmologist had identified a slow-growing cataract. Basically, if there is any possible procedure in your future, insurers will deny you.

If a woman with $millions couldn’t get approved because of a corn on her toe, what would happen to the average woman, or a child, with a more serious issue if health care reform were repealed?

We need to keep ourselves informed about what’s really at stake. And, trust me, there’s a great deal at stake. If health care reform is repealed, we go back to the days when life-saving care is denied to people who can’t pay the costs—oftentimes, hundreds of thousands of dollars—out-of-pocket. We go back to seeing our kids kicked off our policies when they’re just out of high school and don’t yet have jobs that offer health insurance. We go back to denials for pre-existing conditions as tiny—and ludicrous—as a corn on the toe. Or acne. Or depression. Nevermind more serious illnesses.

We can’t go back. Look at how far we’ve come. Please, be as informed as possible about your new rights under health care reform. You can find most of the information you need at this website set up by the government to guide you through your options and your rights.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH

Think you don’t need health care reform if you’re covered by your employer? Wrong.

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

You may have heard that Anthem-Blue Cross proposed raising its rates for individual health insurance policies by as much as 39 percent in California. President Obama and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius have both decried this outrageous hike. A recent report from the Associated Press shows that similarly huge rate hikes are coming to individual policies in many states including Maine, Kansas, Oregon and Indiana.

“You’re going to see rate increases of 20, 25, 30 percent” for individual health policies in the near term, Sandy Praeger, chairwoman of the health insurance and managed care committee for the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, predicted Friday.

But you might think that this has nothing to do with you if you’re employed by a company that provides you with health insurance. Unfortunately, all of us are affected, no matter where we get our insurance.

The Anthem-Blue Cross increase is the harbinger of things to come in employer-provided policies as well.

Last week, I heard from someone whose employer had to switch from a comprehensive policy to bare bones insurance because the insurer raised the company’s group rate by about 30 percent. So now, instead of offering employees a policy that covers just about anything, from a broken ankle to a liver transplant, the company will offer its employees a policy with an annual cap of just $25,000.

That’s employer-provided insurance that’s in danger now. And that means that more Americans are at risk of having either no insurance or inadequate insurance when a medical emergency strikes.

As a doctor, I am well aware of the high cost of medical care and can assure you that a policy with a $25,000 annual cap won’t cover much if you need hospitalization. I’ve dealt with that reality, not just as a physician, but as a mother. As I wrote on this blog before, when my daughter had to be hospitalized a few years ago, we learned too late that her school-provided policy had a $25,000 annual cap. Lucky for Kimmie that her parents are both doctors and could afford to pay the tens of thousands of dollars in hospital and medical bills that her insurance didn’t cover.

What would you do if one of your loved ones needed medical care and your insurance was inadequate?

This is no longer an issue for the uninsured. It’s an issue for us all. Please tell your Senators and Congressional representatives that you support health care reform. The life of someone you know, maybe someone you love, maybe your own, may depend on what happens next in Washington, DC.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH

Why Health Care Reform Is Essential to You and Your Family – Even if You’re Insured

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Last night, President Obama, in his State of the Union address, reminded us why we need real health care reform.

First, I’ll quote a few of the points the president made and then I’ll explain why it matters to each of us, currently insured or not:

“The approach we’ve taken would protect every American from the worst practices of the insurance industry. It would give small businesses and uninsured Americans a chance to choose an affordable health care plan in a competitive market.  It would require every insurance plan to cover preventive care.

“… It would reduce costs and premiums for millions of families and businesses. And according to the Congressional Budget Office – the independent organization that both parties have cited as the official scorekeeper for Congress – our approach would bring down the deficit by as much as $1 trillion over the next two decades.”

When the president spoke of the insurance companies “worst practices” he didn’t elaborate. But it’s those practices that make us all, insured or not, vulnerable, and in need of reform. Too many Americans believe that they have great health insurance – right up to the moment when they get sick and find that their insurance won’t cover their medical bills.

Recently, one of the organizations advocating on behalf of health care reform shared the case histories of numerous people who, although insured, were unable to get their medical bills paid when they got sick. The following few cases are among dozens of similar stories. If we don’t think it can happen to you, you’re wrong. I speak from experience. Although I’m a doctor, when my daughter became ill, her insurance refused to cover all her medical costs and I had to pay tens of thousands out of pocket.

  • An AT&T worker from Arkansas was in a coma for three weeks after a 2004 horseback riding accident. She and her husband had to pay more than $200,000 in medical bills because UnitedHealthcare wouldn’t cover her emergency surgery.
  • A Realtor from Delaware, has a health care plan that forces her to pay for her cancer care “out of pocket.” She has turned to getting her chemotherapy medication from India in order to afford it.
  • A minister from Tennessee has almost $175,000 in medical debt due to his wife’s muscular disorder. The family had health insurance through his wife’s job as an insurance claims adjuster, but the health insurance would only cover 14 days of her 91 days in intensive care.

Don’t let anyone tell you that if you’re insured, you don’t need to support health care reform. As the above cases illustrate, this affects us all. While there is no longer any chance of passing a new bill through the United States Senate, the House can vote for the Senate bill that passed over Christmas eve now and make changes over time.  It may be our last chance for reform in a generation. Please call your Congressperson today and remind him or her what’s at stake.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH

The best Christmas present the Senate could give us: Health care for all

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

Despite months of bluster and disinformation from those who hope to maintain the status quo, 60 U.S. senators came together this Christmas Eve morning and voted to make health care available to virtually all Americans.

The House had passed its version of health care reform months earlier. Now the two legislative bodies will have to come together and agree to a blended version.

That blended version almost certainly won’t have a public option because it would require 60 votes in the senate to get one. But here’s what we can be assured of getting in any final combination of the two bills:

  • Insurance companies will have to cover everyone – you can no longer be turned down due to pre-existing conditions.
  • Insurance can’t be snatched away from you via “rescission” when you get sick, i.e., voiding the policy when you need it the most.
  • There will be limits on how much more insurers can charge you as you get older.
  • Your insurance won’t run out when you need it due to annual or lifetime caps.
  • Most lower and middle-income people will get subsidies to help pay for insurance.

For those who say the senate bill doesn’t do enough, remember that getting this passed was a Herculean task. This is just the start of reform. Over the years, our lawmakers can continue to improve the bill, just as they’ve done with Social Security and Medicare. This is a long overdue beginning to regulating the health insurance companies, which have been given carte blanche for so many years.

The Centers for Disease Control recently reported that 58.4 million Americans were uninsured for at least part of the year and almost 32 million had been uninsured for more than a year. The situation will only get worse if we do nothing. As President Obama is fond of saying, we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This is a good bill. And it’s the best present that the U.S. Senate could give us this holiday season.

Merry Christmas to all.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH

Drug Company Reverse “Payola” Costs Families $Billions

Monday, December 14th, 2009

When I was a little girl, just beginning to play the saxophone in the all-girl family band that would one day win acclaim as The Thornton Sisters, the big scandal in the music industry was payola. Radio disc jockeys took money under the table in exchange for playing certain records on the air. The practice, equivalent to bribery, was illegal.

I recently learned payola is alive and well – but with a reverse twist, and in a different industry. Major pharmaceutical companies have been paying off generic drug companies in order to keep the generics off the market. So, instead of “pay to play” we have “pay to not play.” Without generic competition, major pharmaceutical companies can – and often do – charge exorbitant prices. It’s estimated that pharmaceutical reverse payola costs us $3.5 billion per year.

Here’s how the scheme works.

Let’s say a major pharmaceutical company manufactures a cholesterol-lowering drug that many doctors prescribe. Because the drug is patented, and the company has spent billions of dollars in research and development for that drug, the pharmaceutical company is then given a “head start” to charge whatever the market will bear in an attempt to recoup its investment and time spent developing the new drug.  The downside is that people whose doctors prescribe the drug either must pay the price or go without.

But the effective life of the drug patents on a name brand medicine is from seven to twelve years.  After the pharmaceutical company’s patent expires, other drug companies are permitted to manufacture and market identical chemical versions of the drug and cheaper generic versions of the drug become available to those who need it. How much cheaper? At Costco Pharmacy, a month’s supply of the name brand version of a popular tranquilizer costs $146.22. The generic version – which must by law provide the identical medication in identical amounts – costs just $8.32 for a month’s supply.

Obviously, if a drug company can continue to get close to 20 times the money for the same product, it’s going to look for ways to keep out generic competition. Some pharmaceutical companies are paying manufacturers of generic drugs in exchange for the generic manufacturers’ agreement not to market generic versions. A bipartisan effort is underway in the United States senate to make the practice illegal.

Such “reverse payola” could be compromising the health of our families and loved ones. According to a survey of 2,004 adults, done earlier this year by Consumer Reports, because prescription drugs costs are so high, 28 percent did one or more of the following:

  • Failed to fill a prescription (16 percent).
  • Skipped a dose (16 percent).
  • Took an expired medication (11 percent).
  • Cut pills in half (10 percent).
  • Shared a prescription (4 percent).

About 23 percent said they cut back on groceries in order to afford their prescriptions.

Although brand name medications often are better formulated with better bioavailability and, therefore, are often more effective than generic drugs, patients and physicians should have the option to choose which is the best under specific circumstances.  They must weigh the cost of the drug with the intended outcome.  However, the practice of “reverse payola” is unconscionable and violates the principles of good medical and pharmaceutical practice.

Generic drugs are far more likely to be affordable – and therefore available – than brand name versions. That’s where you and I come in. We need to contact our senators and congressional representatives and tell them to make such practices illegal. We need to contact our local newspapers, TV stations and other media, and ask why they aren’t covering this story. We must ensure that we and our loved ones can afford the medicines we need in order to stay well.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH

Is baby fat a “pre-existing condition? Really?

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

You may have read the news that a family in Colorado was told their 4-month-old son would be denied health insurance by Rocky Mountain Health Plans because of a pre-existing condition: he was too chubby.

The child in question, baby Alex Lange, weighs just 17 lbs and is 25 inches long. That puts him in the 99th percentile according to the CDC but his pediatrician says the baby is perfectly healthy.

Although the insurance company’s spokesperson, Dr. Douglas Speedie, agreed that a baby can be healthy at little Alex’s weight, he said that the line has to be drawn somewhere. “It’s a calculation based on height, weight, and a fudge factor.”  But he also said “We’d like to see health care reform so that these things go away.”

Just think of that for a minute. Why does a health insurer claim there is a pre-existing condition where none exists? And if an insurer acknowledges that this is a flawed decision-making process, why doesn’t it act on its own to make “these things go away”? Does this make sense to you?

Me neither.

And that illustrates why we need health care reform. Right now, insurers can claim people have “pre-existing conditions” that they don’t actually have, and make other arbitrary decisions to deny people care. That must change and insurance companies will not change on their own … well, except in cases where their decisions are so ridiculous that they make the nightly news.

In baby Alex Lange’s case, the negative publicity convinced the insurer to reverse its decision. But the reason that Alex’s story got so much attention is that his daddy works for the NBC TV affiliate in Colorado that broke the story.

Most other people just get stuck with the insurance company’s arbitrary decisions.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH

Only in America: insured – but bankrupted by medical bills

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

There was a story recently in The New York Times about a married couple in Austin, Texas, who thought they were covered by medical insurance. They discovered otherwise when one of them actually needed to use it:

“Too many other people already have coverage so meager that a medical crisis means financial calamity.

One of them is Lawrence Yurdin, a 64-year-old computer security specialist. Although the brochure on his Aetna policy seemed to indicate it covered up to $150,000 a year in hospital care, the fine print excluded nearly all of the treatment he received at an Austin, Tex., hospital.

He and his wife, Claire, filed for bankruptcy last December, as his unpaid medical bills approached $200,000.”

You might assume that, because both my husband and I are doctors, affiliated with two of New York’s most prominent hospitals, we’d never face the issue of inadequate insurance.

If so, you’d be wrong.

When my daughter was in graduate school, she became ill and needed to be hospitalized. She had health insurance through her school. Her hospitalization, CT scans, and other tests, were covered.

But the hospital discharged her before she was completely well and she continued to have severe pain. That’s when we learned that her medical expenses under her policy were capped at $25,000 – and she’d used up the maximum during her first hospital stay.

Because my husband and I had the resources to cover the staggering bills that resulted – physicians, another hospitalization, surgery, tests – our daughter was able to get the care she needed and not go into debt.

But what if we couldn’t be there for her?

It’s not unusual for people, even those who are insured, to lose everything once a major illness strikes. I know of one couple in Michigan. Both had good jobs and health insurance. Then, she got cancer and he needed a heart bypass. His treatments were only partly covered and they fell into debt. They lost their jobs and with it, their insurance. They went bankrupt, lost their home, and just about everything else.

I wish I could say this was unusual but it happens all the time. A recent study showed that 62 percent of bankruptcies in the U.S. in 2007 were due to medical costs. What’s more alarming is that, at the time those people became ill, 78 percent had health insurance. They either lost it when they lost their jobs due to illness or it was inadequate to cover their medical expenses.

And this should illustrate, as nothing else can, why this country desperately needs a public option in healthcare coverage, one that can’t be taken away if you’re too sick to work, one without the fine print that explains how the insurance company isn’t going to cover you when you most need it.

I know there are politicians in Washington, making all sorts of arguments about how, if we allow a public option, we’re on our way to socialized medicine or rationing or, who knows what the latest nonsense is. I’m here to tell you that that’s all it is: nonsense.

These guys rake in tons of money from the health insurance lobby and others who want to keep making huge profits by denying you care when you need it most. Don’t let them fool you as they’ve fooled the American people for so many years. Call your senators and tell them you’re mad as hell, and you’re not going to take it any more. Tell them that all you want from them is a public option so you can be certain help will there when you need it to keep your family well.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH