Insurance companies. Fucking insurance companies. My mother asked me not to curse as I wrote this, but the fact of the matter is I feel like cursing when I refer to my fucking insurance company. After my final disconnect in February, I thought I would have the luxury of convalescing in peace, regaining my strength, and finding peace of mind in preparation for my final surgery. However, once again I find myself dealing with a financial institution representing itself as an insurance provider. I cried my last 500 mascara tears over their deceptive and incompetent services last week, and now I have some things to say about the way insurance companies are conducting business, and I think we all need to be screaming mad.
When Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas (BCBSTX) dropped my excellent individual PPO at the end of last year, I had many questions as they tried to sign me up for their “best” individual HMO plan, the most important regarding my continuation of care at MD Anderson since not a single retail marketplace HMO in Texas would now be contracting with them. At the time, I was assured that I would qualify for exemptions to have my ileostomy reversal and other necessary procedures performed at MDA, so reluctantly I signed up. I wrote previously about the debacle that ensued at the beginning of January when the new PCP they assigned me had actually switched to dermatology, my chemo was delayed for a few days, and I had to scramble, kick, and scream not to have further delays in my treatment. At the time I had a sense of impending doom regarding my future treatment by BCBSTX, but I HOPED that what I had been told in November was accurate and I would have access to my surgical oncologist. I, apparently, am a fool.
Two weeks before finishing my chemo, I was contacted by Dr. Skibber’s nurse at MDA with the dates for my ileostomy reversal. I promptly made an appointment with my PCP so that she could send the referral to BCBSTX. The referral was promptly denied because some smug general surgeon in Austin, who is in-network, agreed to take down my ileostomy. BCBSTX seemed to think this was a fine solution, and I think this is a fine time to dive into continuation of care and “network adequacy.” My surgeon at MD Anderson is one of the finest low rectal surgeons in the country, and it is all he does all day long. The primary reason I inconvenienced myself, my friends, and my family by pursuing treatment at MDA was that Austin, TX doesn’t have a single physician who is dedicated to low rectal or colorectal oncology, and most certainly not a specialized low rectal surgeon. Because my tumor was very low lying, the risks of my having a permanent colostomy were high, and to avoid this I sought the specialists, who just happened to be a short 2 1/2 hour drive to the east. Under their superlative care, not only did I experience an awe inspiring shrinking of my tumor after the summers chemoradiation, but I came out of surgery with a temporary ileostomy and superfine abdominal scar that doesn’t resemble a hatchet job. It would make sense, to anyone who indulges in logical thinking, that the specialist who performed the initial surgery would be the one to reverse it, that the man who cut me open so expertly the first time would do it the last time. Who in the world would consider it adequate care for a general surgeon who has NEVER met me or seen my internal organs to perform the take down of my ileostomy? We are talking about a lifetime of bowel function, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let some yahoo screw it up when I can easily continue my care with Dr. Skibber, low rectal surgeon extraordinaire.
When I called asking if MDA could submit the appeal, a member services representative firmly told me that my PCP had to submit the appeal, which I would receive in the mail within 10 business days. I was expressly told that I should fax my PCP the appeal immediately upon receipt so that they could pursue the referral. I did this, with a letter from Dr. Skibber encouraging continuation of care and stressing the complicated nature of the original surgery. A couple of days later I contacted my PCP’s office to make sure they had received all of these documents via fax, and was told by her referral coordinator that I, the patient, had to submit the appeal. I once again contacted BCBSTX member services and was informed that my PCP had to submit the appeal; 45 minutes and two transfers later, I spoke with someone who, in an “aha” moment, revealed that yes, it was my responsibility to submit the appeal. And I did. With my letter from Dr. Skibber, multiple medical records, and a concise, yet comprehensive, explanation of why continuation of care was medically necessary for the best outcome. A couple of days later as my chemo port removal was delayed by a week because the surgeon who originally placed it was now out-of-network, which was missed until a day prior to the removal, I learned some fascinating and painful new information. The referral coordinator from my PCP’s office informed me that she had been told by a medical director at BCBSTX that patients mid-chemo treatment and 3rd trimester pregnancy were NOT supposed to have their care interrupted. Like the gentleman told me as I was signing up for my sucky HMO, I should qualify for exemptions to continue at MDA. The following day I spent 3 hours on the phone with member services representatives at BCBS, working my way up the chain to a supervisor who eventually let me know that while this was historically true, on January 15, 2016, BCBS had issued a memo stating that no more continuation of care exemptions would be honored. For the first time in his experience, cancer patients and pregnant ladies were getting the shaft, and they had done nothing to inform me, as the consumer, that this was happening.
I wish I could describe what it feels like to get this far, and have to push more, fight more, and beg more. Why am I having to beg to have my surgeon continue with my care? Why does it matter that some general surgeon said he would do the surgery? Does that make him infinitely qualified? And all I can think about as I’m going through this daily round of phone calls, emails, and general ridiculousness, is that I have a Master’s, I’ve worked in healthcare, and I have a lot of assistance from my brilliant sister in navigating the system. How are people who don’t have these advantages supposed to fight for themselves? I want you to imagine your grandparents, your elderly parents, your lay person trying to work this all out. Think about someone with a full-time job and a family at home, even if they have the knowledge, where do they find the time? I think about it all day long. I try to figure out who else to call, who to ask for help, and what higher powers I need to appeal to. And guess what? Do you know what the most frustrating part is? The people who work at BCBSTX barely know what’s going on. Everyone has a different answer or no answer. The medical director who denied my initial referral was a pediatrician…not even an oncologist, let alone a surgeon, and they are considered qualified to make a decision that affects my life so completely? Uggghhhh!!!!!!! I understand why people just give in and let the system take over, why they go to generalists, and why they stop fighting altogether. I’m absolutely exhausted and want to give up everyday, but I can’t. It’s not in my DNA to let these bastards short change me on this one.
BCBSTX has my appeal, I have filed procedural complaints with their offices and with the Texas Department of Insurance, and if worst comes to worst, I will beg MDA to declare me medically indigent and treat this as charity care. BCBSTX is screwing me over because they have taken a scorched earth stance with MD Anderson. This isn’t about the patients for them, it’s about the fact that MDA wouldn’t come down to an unreasonable payment for their procedures so that the number one cancer treatment center in the United States can continue to offer amazing care and fund research that maybe, just maybe, will one day make someone else’s journey much easier and less painful than mine has been. It’s about shareholders, corporate bonuses, and money. Like I said before, fucking insurance companies.