The Hard Truth

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When you’re a little kid, you don’t have that much to be proud of for yourself, so you mostly brag about your parents’ stuff.  Your mom’s chocolate cake, the family’s new car, your dad’s job.

Our dad was an engineer, so the Lundquist kids walked with a certain swagger. Everyone knew that an engineer drives a train and when you’re five years old, that ranks right up there with a fireman or an astronaut.  We reveled in this illusion for I don’t know how long until one day our mother was driving us somewhere in our red and white Ford station wagon.  We had a friend in the car and as we approached the railroad tracks, the signal began to flash back and forth and the bell clanged as the long wooden arm of the guard fell across the road.  A train was coming!

The engineer’s elbow was cocked out of the locomotive’s window and we all waved exuberantly to him.  He waved back. “Our dad’s an engineer,” I said to our friend.  Oh, we were proud. We were beaming. We were downright smug.

“He’s not that kind of engineer,” my mother said. She took a puff of her cigarette and tapped the ashes into the ashtray that was built into the metal dashboard of the car. There were two kinds of engineers, she told us in her matter of fact voice. Our father was the kind that sketched out plans for factories.  He calculated angles, designed instrumentation.

Shoulders slumped, we waited in silence for the train to pass, its gleaming Allied Chemical tanker cars heading for the very plant where my father worked— not driving trains, but doing math problems.

The caboose clacked past, and with hands as heavy as our hearts, we waved little half-hearted waves.  The bell stopped clanging, and the guard arm floated back up.  Our mother put the car in gear and we crossed the tracks into a less shiny world.

Trouble Getting that Insurance Claim Paid?

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When the phone rang with the news, Kevin and I were sitting on our back porch eating dinner. Three hundred miles away, our son had gone up for a header in a college soccer game. Now he sat in the Emergency Room in Wilmington, NC with a concussion, a cracked orbital socket and a large dent in his brow bone.

“It looks like he’s been hit in the head with a ballpeen hammer,” his teammate said over the phone. My heart pounded. “But he’s OK,” he went on to reassure me. “He’s going back to Greensboro on the bus with us.”

Bram had to have surgery to pull the bone fragments out of the dent in his skull. Two titanium plates would be screwed in place across the hole. To accomplish this, the surgeon would slice his head from ear to ear and then peel his face down below his brow.

“Once the plates are in place,” the surgeon explained, “we’ll press his face back on, then staple his scalp back together.”

Our experience with the insurance company began smoothly enough. Aetna pre-authorized the entire procedure. Two days and 120 staples later, Bram was on the mend.

All went well except for the anesthesiology bill. It was more than $5,000, and Aetna declined to pay it. Since the company had pre-approved this, I knew there had to be some mistake. I phoned them.

“That doesn’t make sense,” the Aetna representative agreed. “We’ll run it back through.”

Another rejection letter followed. Reason: Bram was not a full-time student.

But he was. I obtained a letter from the registrar and mailed it to Aetna. “We’ll run it back through,” the rep said on the phone.

Another rejection letter. Reason: Bram was older than 23.

But he wasn’t. I sent Aetna a copy of Bram’s birth certificate. “We’ll run it back through.

Another rejection letter. Reason: Treatment not appropriate to the procedure.

“This is an anesthesia bill,” I said to the representative. “They had to peel his face down and screw plates in his skull, then staple his scalp back together from ear to ear—don’t you think that should require a little numbing?”

“We’ll run it back through,” came the response.

Another rejection letter. Reason: Incorrect code.

I put a call into the anesthesiologist’s insurance specialist. “That’s not right,” she told me, but I’ll look into it and try again.”

Another rejection letter. Incorrect code.

To avoid being whipsawed between the Aetna and the doctor, I organized a conference call between Aetna and the anesthesiologist. They appeared to have figured it out and the claim was resubmitted.

Rejection letter. “You can appeal this,” said the Aetna representative.

I put all my information together and wrote an official appeal letter.

Appeal denied.

I phoned Aetna to talk with yet another representative. “Why?” I asked. “You pre-authorized all of this.”

“That doesn’t mean a thing,” the rep told me, as he looked through the backlog of communications. “I don’t know why we’re not paying this,” he said. “But we’re not.”

60 days had gone by. I received a notice from a collection agency on behalf of the anesthesiologist. Now I was pissed. To Aetna, I was but a drop of water in a sea of claims. And each time I called, I got a different person. I wasn’t just being double-teamed; I was being kicked around endlessly from one Aetna team member to another.

What shocked me was that they were treating me not like a team member, but like an opponent. My employer had this great health care benefit, and still I was paying more than $600 per month to insure my family. Yet here I was, on the phone, on company time, trying to duke it out with the so-called provider. There were hundreds of them and just one of me.

I needed to make this a bigger problem for the company.  But how?

I went on line and looked up Aetna’s board of directors. An impressive group for sure, but with no contact information. But wait. Two of them were professors at major universities, one at Princeton and the other at Harvard. I went to the school websites and pulled their faculty email addresses.

Then I phoned Aetna again. “How many I help you?” asked the rep.

“I’d like to speak with your supervisor,” I said.

“But I may be able to assist you,” they said.

“No thank you.”

“Please hold.”

“How many I help you?” they asked.

“May I have your direct line? ” I asked.

“I don’t have one,” they replied.

“Then I’d like to speak with your supervisor,” I responded.

I did this until I got someone at Aetna that had a direct line. I was put into their voice mail.   No response.

I called the next day.   A man answered.

I explained my situation.

“How did you get my number?” he asked. He sounded suspicious. I explained the entire saga.

“So from now on, Dan,” I said, “until this is worked out, I’m coming straight to you.” . “And each time I talk to you,” I continued, “two of Aetna’s board of directors are getting an email from me, telling them what you are doing—or not doing— to help me.”

The problem was resolved in 24 hours.

It shouldn’t be this hard. I went through all the right steps. Did all the right things. But these companies do this routinely, in hopes that in the end, you’ll give up and just pay the bill yourself. And frankly, if our bill had been hundreds of dollars rather than thousands, I might have thrown in the towel.

My job at the time afforded me the luxury to sit at my desk, on hold for up to an hour, while I responded to my business emails and reviewed documents. What does a factory worker do? Or a schoolteacher?

This is just one illustration of why health care in America is broken. And as usual, the ones in need of the service are on the short end of the stick.

I believe the Affordable Care Act is a step in the right direction. I hope it’s the first step in many to come.