Dollars and Senseless

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People in the US are used to this sort of thing but I wanted give everyone a peek into the way healthcare is billed:

The price charged to insurance for OR use and three days of babysitting for a ruptured appendix was $42,500.  No ICU. This does not include the surgeon’s fee or the anesthesiologist’s bill or the pathologist’s examinationof the removed offending organ.

The amount actually paid by insurance was $8,950 with an additional $680 of patient responsibility (what the patient has to pay). 

The other over $30,000 was “adjustment”, money that will never be paid by anyone. 

The games we play. 

After the birth of my child, I received a bill from the hospital for my care… over $2,000. There were also bills for the OB, anesthesia, pediatrician, the NICU stay, etc. 

I expected the bills to be high. My baby was worth any price but I still wanted to know what my money was paying for. Being on the physician side of medicine, I don’t often get to see the $ side from the standpoint of a patient so I decided to dig.

What I found most annoying was that the bill was not broken down into anything meaningful, so I requested an itemized bill so I could see the details.

When I reviewed the several pages of information that came a few weeks later, I found several charges for questionable lab tests as well as medications that I was fairly certain I had never received. Propofol, a sedation medication commonly used in ICU… the one that killed Micheal Jackson. Dopamine, a vasopressor that is used in the ICU to keep your blood pressure up. There were a couple of obscure infectious disease tests that there was no reason for me to be tested for. I called the billing number and listed my concerns to the woman who answered.

“So are you requesting a review of the charges?” She sounded astonished.

“Yes. Yes, I am.”

A week or two passed and I received a call that said that over $700 of the charges had been removed but there were still two items that I was disputing, the lab tests that should have never been done, that they were not going to budge on.

“Well, I would like to see proof that they were done and I would like to know why because they do not make any kind of sense.”

“I cannot provide that.”

“Then I would like to request a copy of my records.”

“Ma’am you are more than welcome to request a copy of your medical record. The charge is $4 per page.”

“How big is my record?” 

“I don’t know but I expect probably over 40 pages.”

(Was it really $4/page? Maybe it was less. Were there only 40 pages to the record? Probably there was more. Much more. It was a few years ago, and I don’t remember the details exactly but suffice it to say, the cost was going to be quite high.)

“Can I come by and just review my record?”

“Absolutely not.”

I did some quick math and figured that the disputed charges were less than the cost of the copy of my medical records and I ended up just paying the dang bill as it was.

Fun, huh?

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Biometrified

Stubborn
The tall, slim receptionist took my information and motioned for me to have a seat. “He’ll be with you in a moment,” she murmured sweetly. 

I settled myself into a nearby chair and pulled out my smart phone. Time to catch up on some blog reading. 

At one point I looked up from a post and saw the woman take a bite of a candy bar. She turned to a coworker standing next to her and whispered loudly, “My biometric screening appointment is in two weeks. I have to start my liquid diet tomorrow. I need that discount!” Her coworker mumbled something inaudibe in commiseration as she munched a largish chocolate chip cookie* then said, “There is no way I will ever have the right waist circumference. I just don’t even bother to try anymore.”

Is a liquid diet healthy when the rest of the year you eat like crap and don’t exercise? Apparently her employer thinks so. 

Many employers appear to think so.

I have serious issues with companies who discount insurance plans based on whether or not an employee falls within an assigned range on their blood sugar, cholesterol, BMI, and blood pressure. Does it really improve health? I am skeptical. 

High cholesterol effects, blood pressure issues, diabetes complications… generally are not going to cause an increase in health expenditures until much later, presumably when patients are retired or no longer employed. So why would their employer care now? Between the two of us, it smacks of a way to force employees to pay for more of their own insurance costs. I wonder how much that saves corporate America? 

So sorry, that’ll be an extra $600 in our pocket. Better luck next time!

It isn’t just that I hate taking the time to fill out the forms for patients, though they are tedious. It feels like a terrible invasion of privacy. Why does an employer need to know if your blood sugar is under 100? What difference does a 102 make to whether or not you can do your job? What does a 102 mean for absenteeism, productivity, customer satisfaction, or anything else they want to measure?

“My employer seems to really care about my health. They gave me a free pedometer!”

“Has that made you walk more?”

“Well, no…”

Each program, it seems, has its own unique set of thresholds… some want a blood pressure under 140/90. Some want a blood pressure of 130/70 or less. Some want a BMI of 25 or less. Others want a BMI of under 30 or even 35. Some don’t care about where you fall, they just want you to submit the numbers. Others want you to enroll in an online health class or two. I have never had a patient come in, however, and tell me that they saw the light after one of those classes and have decided to change their ways.

Many companies require employees to go to a screening at HR rather than heading to their own physician. They have a lay person interpreting those results and giving suspect advice to my patients that can take several office visits to undo. Worse, many patients then believe they then don’t need to do a physical with their primary care physician. I lose my one opportunity each year to catch patients up on their PAPs and mammos and colonoscopies, my one opportunity to screen for depression and to talk about healthy lifestyle.

Here’s another thing, though. There are people who have “high” cholesterol who are in great physical condition otherwise and yet, because their LDL is above a certain point, have to pay considerably more for their health insurance. What difference does an LDL of 148 make when the HDL is terrific and there are no other risk factors for cardiovascular disease? I wouldn’t be putting a healthy 24 year old patient on a statin drug because their LDL is 130 simply to get them below 120 for a better insurance rate. And then there is the issue of diabetes. It is a false perception that diabetes is only about diet and lifestyle. It is a genetic predisposition. Is it fair to punish you because your diabetic parents decided to have children? Ultimately it is a form of genetic profiling and I am surprised no one has made a bigger issue of this. 

We have a version of this for employees of the healthcare system I work for. There are tons of invasive questions about my daily habits and diet and exercise routines that I am required to answer and then I have to submit my screening numbers and measurements electronically to HR in order to receive the discount. We don’t have to meet certain criteria on those numbers… yet. I choose to opt out. I have the financial luxury of being able to do that, paying more for my health insurance. Many people, though, don’t have that ability.

So what are your thoughts?

*Please note, I am not saying here that chocolate OR cookies are inherently evil. In fact, they can be part of a healthy diet.

Needled 

Door of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City

“Your mammogram shows an area the radiologist is recommending that we biopsy. I am going to put in a referral for you to see a breast specialist to get that done.”

“Um. I already have the biopsy scheduled. The radiologist said they could do it. It has been approved by my insurance and everything.”

I glanced at the time stamp on the mammogram report. She’d had the mammogram done just that morning. The report summary said “suspicious calcifications concerning for malignancy….”

“I would really rather we get you hooked up with a breast specialist to do this.” 

Silence.

Who do they think they are, scheduling my patients for procedures that I have not even authorized yet?

“I’d rather just get it done. It’s already scheduled for next week.”

“Look, I can get you in with the specialist in just a few days. This is not going to delay care in any way.”

Suspicion began to creep into her voice. “I really don’t want to,” she said firmly. What exactly had they said to her? 

How do you say, “I think you might have cancer,” without causing panic? How do you remain professional when you are seething inside?

If it were me, if it were my mother, I would want to have the biopsy done by a breast specialist, not a radiologist. They have surgical training but more importantly, they know what to do if god-forbid-it-turns-out-to-be-cancer. Instead of waiting to see someone that can take the next step, I would be already plugged in. I have seen it too often. The panic, fear… the rage… 

My patients deserve the same care I would get, the same care I would demand for my loved ones.

I knew how it was going to go, though:

“If you don’t stop doing this, I am going to stop sending my patients there for mammograms.”

The manager laughed at me through the phone. “You have to send patients to our facilities. We are in the same system. You know they track that sort of thing.” 

And she’s right….

The suit squinted at me from across the table.

“So, in analyzing the data from your mammogram referrals we see that you are sending about 52% of your patients to outside facilities. Care to elaborate on why that is?”

“Is it required that I send patients to only system facilities?”

“Oh, no. No. It’s not required.” 

That would be illegal.

“So why are you here talking to me about this again?” I could feel the pricks of anger rising under my skin.

“We can’t require you to do that but in the interest of managing costs for patients…” He trailed off. 

In the interest of keeping more money in the system…

I held back a laugh. 

It was an interesting thing, how much more frequently my patients getting mammos at system facilities seemed to end up getting biopsies compared to those facilities outside the system that did not do biopsies as part of their services. Did they track that, I wondered? Was my perception about this correct or merely a projection, tainted by the animosity I felt? I resolved to start keeping a tally.

“While we are on the subject, your referrals to system specialists is below the system average for primary care. Why?”

“The why depends on the patient. Some prefer to stay in the area. Driving downtown is a hardship for a lot of them, not to mention the cost of parking. Some need a physician with a certain set of skills or a certain personality. Some have experience with a physician through a family member or have been seeing this specialist for years and need a referral each year because of their insurance.” 

Why am I justifying this to you?

A month ago they added a button on external referral orders that requires me to provide an excuse so they can better track such things. If there was a “bite me” option on the choice list, I would use that. 

Previously they had only loaded the contact info for physicians within the system. If they were not a system specialist they had to be loaded manually by filling out a form that went to the practice manager then to a practice administrator and then to a VP and then to someone to add them in. It took weeks.

Provide us with a list of the specialists you would like to use and we will contact them to try to get them to join the system.”

“I’m not doing that. I’m not letting you use my name to convince them to join anything. If they want to join, they can look you up. Meanwhile, I will continue to refer in a way that keeps the best interests of my patients as a priority.”

Technically they could pull those names from electronic health record. Maybe they already had.

“Oh, we always want you to keep the interests of your patients as a priority. We would never ask you to do otherwise.”

Except that is not how it feels…

Helping Yourself

Angel at the Met in NYC

“We are going to bring meals for the next week or two if that is OK. People really want to help out in some way.”

I sat staring at the email and struggled with an answer. 

Asking for help is hard. 

Receiving unsolicited help gracefully is even harder. 

Why?

I don’t need help. I don’t want help. No, that’s not true. I don’t want to need help. I feel guilty needing help. I feel guilty receiving help. 

What will other people think? I’m a doctor. I could just order stuff, right? I have a money cushion that a lot of others don’t have. Will I be judged for accepting help? Moooching. Weak. Will I then owe people favors that they will call in later? I don’t want to OWE anyone anything.

To accept a meal, you have to be decently dressed and willing to socialize for a few minutes. Are we going to look sick enough? Needy enough?

The first meal was a chicken pot pie, caesar salad, and lemonade pie. It was amazing. It was helpful. I needed it. I was grateful. We subsisted on left overs for a few days.

“We will be dropping off some restaurant gift cards…”

You know what else I needed help with? Buying groceries. It wasn’t about the money. It was about the TIME. How to get time to shop for the family while running back and forth between the hospital, home, school, job. Someone even volunteered to help with that.

Laundry. OMG, the laundry.

The house was a mess. 

Please don’t ask to come in. I don’t want anyone to see us living like this.

Sometimes others NEED to help. Not for me. For them. That was how I justified it to myself, but standing now on the other side I can finally admit that I needed it. I needed the help to keep my kids fed. To survive.

It took a lot of pride swallowing. Humility. Grace. Pushy people. Help. 

But we survived.

Could I have done it by myself? Maybe. But it was a helluva lot easier this way.

I think about those who don’t have that kind of support. Someone who is alone and ends up in the hospital and they don’t even know who will feed their dog or water their plants. I ache for those people now, in a way I have not before because now I understand. 

Not everyone has someone. 

Truthfully, I have always been someone who would say, “Let me know if you need anything,” and just left it at that. It’s what you are supposed to say, isn’t it? Secretly I would hope they didn’t need anything. 

Where would I find the time to help? Surely there are others who will step up. It doesn’t need to be me, does it?

From now on I will be one of the pushy people. I will offer to grocery shop or do laundry or provide a meal… something specific. 

And I will be one of the pushy ones.

Proximity

Pizza shop in New York City

“I need to do a six month physician supervised weight loss program before I can get the gastric sleeve covered by my insurance.” She wasn’t even that heavy to start off with, her BMI was 32. She wasn’t diabetic and did not have high blood pressure. 

“You are going to be married to a fistful of vitamin supplements for the rest of your life.”

“I don’t care. I am tired of being fat, of having people judge me.” I understood. People can be so cruel. “My friends have all had it done and they look great,” she said hopefully. “But I can’t loose too much weight right now or I won’t qualify anymore…”

We both knew she had no intention of really trying. 

Sure enough she demonstrated a nice weight gain at each visit and steadfastly refused to count her calories or exercise or do anything except to say, “I’m cutting back, Doc. Really I am. I don’t know why I keep gaining this weight!” 

I don’t know why that sort of thing qualifies someone for surgery. A barbaric surgery with lifelong consequences. Sometimes I wonder about the ethics of the surgeons doing these things and why there isn’t better after care for people undergoing the knife. Cut them up and then cut them off seems to be the plan across the board. 

She had her surgery. 

Three years later her weight was back where it started from and then some and she wanted a referral for a surgery revision. 

I wanted to say, “I told you so.” And then I wanted to call her surgeon up and give him a piece of my mind.

But I didn’t….

A few weeks ago I was at one of those giant outdoor malls. There were easily 20-30 restaurants clustered around. Right there in the midst of it all there was a weight loss clinic. 

Having just eaten at the Melting Pot myself I was so stuffed it was hard to breathe. Way too much food to be healthy but then why didn’t I just stop eating? I was too focused on not wasting anything. Getting my money’s worth. I blame my upbringing. I blame past poverty. I blame portion sizes. 

I blame myself.

Where does that come from, anyway?

At first I was offended that this clinic placed itself where it did. Then I realized it was a brilliant marketing strategy. This is what we have become, isn’t it?

Binge. Purge. Binge. Purge.

Binge.

“How’s your daughter?”

He smiled and pulled out his smart phone, flipping through pictures of a grinning, curly haired toddler. They’d had so much trouble having a baby. 

“Oh, she’s beautiful!” 

He nodded, beaming.

“How is your wife?”

His face changed in a instant. He looked stricken. “You knew she had the gastric sleeve done?”

“Yes, I had heard.”

“Well, she developed Korsakoff Syndrome.” Oh. Wow. “She got confused, couldn’t remember things. Couldn’t walk straight.”

Thiamine deficiency.

“When she said she wanted to get the surgery, I didn’t say anything. I just wanted her to be happy. She suffered so much emotional turmoil over her weight. We had no idea something like this could happen, though. If I could go back in time I would tell her she didn’t need to do it. That I loved her just the way she was. Now she is not the same person. She has to carry a book with her to write everything down since she has so much trouble remembering things and she uses a cane to get around.” 

“Mommy, I’m thirsty!”

It was swelteringly hot. I stood in line to get our fifth soda refill of the day in the $15 red amusement park drinking bottle I had purchased earlier that morning.

*Free* refills on Coca-Cola products all day!

I don’t need Coke products. My kids don’t need Coke products. Water would do just fine to keep us hydrated. But STILL…. I paid $15 for that stupid cup since I could not bring anything into the amusement park. I want to get my money’s worth, dang it. A small bottle of water costs $4.50 a pop multiplied by at least five times per person per day… but soda pop in the big red drinking bottle? Yeah. What is anyone going to pick?

So here we are.

Making money by making people fat. Making money to make people skinny again. Making money getting them fat again. Making money to get them skinny again.

And so on.

It does not ever stop.

How do we make it stop?

Emergencies 

Sunset reflected in a road puddle
“I want a wart removed this Friday”

“The doctor does not have any openings for a procedure this week. We are short staffed and she is completely booked. We can get you in on Monday if you like.”

“I am going on vacation next week. The doctor always accomodates me! You tell her I want to have this removed on Friday.”

I do try hard to get people in when they need it. But sometimes…

Honestly, it has been a rough week. 

With one of my partners out, our nurse practitioner out, AND it being the week before school starts back for many kids in the area… the clinic has been crazy. Finding time to blog/breathe/pee has been hard to come by.

“Fine! You tell her I am finding another doctor.”

It is like this every year. 

Next week it will be a ghost town around here but for now those emergency wart removals are killing us. 

Split 

Room in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC

Shadows watched from the corners of the room… ever present, ever vigilant. 

She waited.

Footsteps in the hallway. Raucous laughter. 

The door flung open and he stumbled in, drunk, clinging to the arm of a woman.

Who was it this time? 

It was hard to see clearly in the dim light. 

Her.

Their eyes met for a long moment. Silent words passing between them. Then she turned her attention back to him, allowing him to undress her. He fumbled. The process took much longer than it should have. 

Naked.

She glanced at the mirror again, seeing the other woman once more, the one who looked like her but was more charming, the one whose laughter came more easily. She was the one who was not ashamed of being naked, the one who demanded love and attention from everyone.

The drugs made her beautiful and charismatic. She knew the flame could not burn this high for very long. It would go out soon, extinguishing her in the process.

But it was worth it. 

Every day was worth the price to avoid the loneliness again.

Shopping Around

Macy's in New York City

“She doesn’t have physical exam coverage and her insurance only allows three office visits per year. No lab coverage. No preventive care coverage. She needs her blood pressure and diabetes meds refilled but she cannot come in for a physical.”

I’ve seen this a lot lately.

“No problem. Tell her to come in for a regular office visit so we can at least check her blood pressure. I will code a 99214 and she may get a 30% discount off that as a cash pay patient. I can send her to a discount laboratory for labs that will save her hundreds of dollars. In October she can get a $99 mammogram at one of the local imaging centers. Her flu vaccination she can get cheap at the health department. We will just have to postpone her PAP another year.”

So she came in….

Crying.

“I pay over $700 a month for this insurance.  I work for myself and with my diabetes no one will cover me otherwise. I can’t afford anything else. They told me that all of my doctors were covered and my meds were covered. They lied.”

She did not read the fine print. Not that she really had any other options available to her… 

It used to be like this ten years ago. People with expensive but essentially useless policies. Here we go again. Now, at least, I have access to a discount laboratory. 

A Supporting Role

Bridge in NYC

“She just won’t eat healthy stuff! If I give her a cupcake and some broccoli she always eats the cupcake.”

“Think back to when you were eleven. If you have a cupcake and some broccoli in front of you, what do you pick?”

He shrugged. “The cupcake.”

“Right? Me, too. We’re not idiots. We pick what tastes best to us. As kids that’s the sugar. So you cannot put them both in front of her and expect her to pick the broccoli. That’s just cruel. She’s eleven. YOU have to make that decision for her until she is able to make it on her own and that is not going to be for a great many years. Get the cupcakes and junk out of the house. She is beautiful no matter what size she is but you and mom both have diabetes so she is at higher risk herself. Be the parent. Don’t sabotage her. Help her learn healthy habits that will last the rest of her life.”

We had this conversation every summer for five years running. Each year the same thing, like it was her fault. But this time? This time, somehow, was different….

This time he listened.

What made the difference? I don’t know.

It gets discouraging, saying the same things over and over again. There are days when I open my mouth to say, “Stop smoking!” for the millionth time and wonder if there really is any point. You never know, though, when the seeds you sow will fall on fertile ground and take hold.