It is with a sad heart I report the status of the healthcare system in America as broken and with no hope in sight. When the Affordable Care Act was passed into law (and survived numerous attempts to repeal or severely limit it), I was excited. Finally! Everyone now has the opportunity to have healthcare coverage. We are finally moving towards universal healthcare like EVERY OTHER DEVELOPED COUNTRY IN THE WORLD!!!
But I was wrong! I had been misled. It is possible to have health insurance and still not be able to afford to go to the doctor and/or afford testing ordered by your doctor. Sad, but true… With copays to see specialists usually set at $50 per visit, who can afford to go? And when a test is ordered, no one can give a definitive price for it. I know one woman who thought she was being smart by shopping around for a cheaper MRI. She went to a specific facility because they quoted her the best price under her insurance. Guess what? The final price billed to her insurance company and then to her was significantly higher that what she was quoted. Upon questioning the facility, they said there were other charges applicable on top of the simple price for an MRI. Of course, they failed to mention those extras when she was shopping around. There is no system of accountability when this happens. No other business in this country could get away with blatantly irresponsible behavior. There is no governing body responsible for ensuring that patients and health insurance companies are not being bilked by providers. There are serious consequences to this lack of oversight.
I briefly knew a woman I met through my advocacy efforts. We talked during monthly conference calls and on Facebook. This past May, I got the opportunity to meet her in person at the Caterpillar Walk in New York City to raise awareness and funds for fibromyalgia. For a few short months, this free-spirited woman suffered from debilitating nausea, vomiting, and other gastrointestinal problems (on top of her fibromyalgia and other chronic health issues). Because of the ACA, she was able to afford health insurance and was finally diagnosed with clostridium difficile colitis. WebMD defines this as:
bacteria that can cause swelling and irritation of the large intestine, or colon. This inflammation, known as colitis, can cause diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps.
It is a completely treatable illness. There is no morally acceptable reason for an insurance company to deny treatment coverage – but hers did. She could not afford the inpatient treatment that her doctors recommended without insurance. So she did the only logical thing she could think of – she switched insurance companies. Less than a week after switching health insurance companies and finally being admitted to the hospital for treatment, she died. Allow me to let that sink in… She died from a curable illness. She died in a country that prides itself on being THE BEST in everything (even when it is not). She died where help was only a breath away. She died…
Unfortunately, this story is not unique. It happens all too often.
May 12th is Fibromyalgia Awareness Day! This year I plan to attend a walk in New York City to raise money and awareness of this disabling disorder. It is called the Caterpillar Walk and will be held this Saturday. My wonderful son will be accompanying me. I think he is most excited to be going into the the city. He has never been even though we have driven by or stopped on the outskirts numerous times. I am also excited (er… nervous) – (1) I have never driven in NYC before, (2) with my brain fog, I am worried I will get hopelessly lost, (3) I will forget where I parked, (4) what if my feet and legs are in too much pain? (5) what if I am too fatigued to drive home? The worries are endless…
Raising awareness for any illness is important. It helps when we are advocating to legislatures about allocating funds for research and treatment options. It helps when we are raising money for advocacy and research. It helps when trying to explain our symptoms to family and friends, and even strangers.
So, for those of you who are not familiar with fibromyalgia, here is the 30-second elevator speech version:
Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain disorder with a variety of symptoms, the main ones being: fatigue, sleep problems (including insomnia, sleep apnea, non-restorative sleep), cognitive dysfunction (also know as brain fog or fibro fog), stiffness, tenderness. Other symptoms that can occur are depression (because who wouldn’t be depressed sitting around all day in pain?), anxiety, migraines, acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, irritable bladder, pelvic pain, temporomandibular joint disorder. Doctors do not know what causes this condition but research has shown it effects the central nervous system, immune system, and the sympathetic/autonomic nervous systems.
In a nutshell, it sucks. As a Guns & Roses songs states, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” It is like our bodies are out of sync and rebelling against us. This has a profound impact on our daily quality of life.
I have a challenge for all of you who do not have fibromyalgia. Place a clothespin on one of your fingers. Can you last ten minutes with it on? How about an hour? A day? That is only one of the symptoms people with fibromyalgia live with on a constant basis – only we never get to take the clothespin off.
When I got pregnant with my one and only child, I was an active and vibrant twenty-something year old. I had a great career that allowed me to travel all over the country. It challenged me at a level I wanted and, not to mention, it paid awesome. Those early years of parenting were difficult as a working parent but so worth it. I have to admit I felt like Supermom. Mom by night and worker bee by day. I thought I had it all. At some point, I switched careers so I wouldn’t travel anymore and could be home every night with my little one. But I still felt like Supermom. I am sure other working parents can relate.
Then IT happened…
I was about to turn 30. My husband and I were talking about having another child. I was comfortable in my new job. I was happy. But then I got a headache. I was never one prone to getting headaches – maybe one or two per year. But this headache was different. It didn’t go away for two weeks. And then it came back for a few more weeks. I knew something was wrong. I knew this was not normal. It took me several appointments with my family doctor and a neurologist who didn’t specialize in headaches or migraines before I realized they couldn’t help me. However, I am a researcher and did my due diligence. I found a top headache/migraine center not too far away in Philadelphia called the Jefferson Headache Center. It took two excruciating years of trial and error – plus a week-long stay in the hospital – to stop my now daily, chronic migraine. I felt like I was in a nightmare until the pain stopped. However, by then, my brain and central nervous system had been rewired to amplify any and all pain while decreasing the neurotransmitters that suppress pain. It was a formula for fibromyalgia that was eventually diagnosed a year later.
Meanwhile, I was still trying to be Supermom to my little toddler. He was only three-years-old and could not fathom what was going on. I put all my energy into hiding my illness from him while my husband and I frantically looked for answers for my health. For those few hours after work that I would spend with my son, I would try to be active and play with him only to crash as soon as he was in bed. It was a strain on all of us.
Despite my best attempts, my son knew something was wrong. The pain was written all over my face. It was programmed into the way I walked, the way I moved. I could not hide it from those close to me. One night I was crashed on the sofa while my son played with his blocks. He came over to me with his Jaffy (an orange, stuffed giraffe he got as an infant and could never be without until he was ten) and place the raggedy animal on my head. “Jaffey will make you feel better, Mommy,” he said. It was so cute and sweet that I wanted to cry. My illness was already impacted my son. I felt like a failure as a parent because I couldn’t protect him from seeing his mom hurting. It was my first lesson in parenting with a chronic illness.
I am in the middle of appealing Medicare’s decision to NOT pay for my annual wellness visit with my primary care physician. When I called my doctor’s office to find out if they had any idea what the problem was, I was told that there are numerous billing codes that can be used for an annual wellness visit, BUT Medicare only covers a pitiful few of them. What the heck is going on? Doesn’t Medicare realize that I am on disability due to several chronic illnesses (although none of them keep me from complaining online) and need periodic checkups to monitor my health? I take numerous medications that can negatively impact my liver and/or kidneys at any time. Without annual testing, a problem can go unnoticed until it is severe – or deadly. Doctors rely on blood and urine testing to make sure medications are not destroying their patients.
During the same wellness visit, I also complained about problems swallowing and severe heartburn – the type of heartburn that keeps a person from eating just to avoid the pain. I think THAT qualifies for a visit to the doctor. Don’t you? I saw my primary first to find out if I should see a specialist and to get recommendations. Isn’t that what my doctor is there for? If Medicare won’t pay for a visit to the doctor when I am sick, what will they pay for? Incidentally, they had no qualms about paying for my specialist bills. So what gives?
As I said in the beginning, I am in the process of appealing. My first appeal was denied so I am appealing the appeal now. I came to find out that Medicare requested my medical files from that visit for review a few weeks before the holidays, which was ignored by my doctor’s office because the person who sends the files is out until the middle of January. Seriously? No one in the doctor’s office could make simple photocopies and fax/mail them to Medicare? Apparently my doctor’s office doesn’t want to be paid – I keep ignoring their bills in the hope that Medicare will eventually come to their senses and pay for my $224 doctor’s bill. Come on, folks! I am on disability. Do I look like I am swimming in $100 bills? Anyone who collects Social Security (for retirement or disability) knows that every year our benefits cover less and less as inflation raises the prices around us. It is like being frozen at the salary you last made even if that was 10 or 20 or more years ago. Not the best of situations, I tell you.
So, Medicare, when are you going to get off your stingy butt and eliminate all this red tape regarding paying for annual wellness visits?
As the leader of my local support group South Jersey Connections, I take it upon myself to try to attend any free seminars on fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and chronic fatigue syndrome so I can share the information with my members (many of whom cannot attend due to their health). I have noticed that some brilliant (and I use the term loosely) person create a PowerPoint presentation on fibromyalgia that mainly focused on vitamin D deficiency and aluminum toxicity that can be cured by taking malic acid. This PowerPoint has been distributed so thoroughly into the healthcare community. I have seen it so many times I could recite it by heart.
Last Thursday night I attended yet another FM seminar with the same PowerPoint presentation. I was tempted to simply walkout when the chiropractor/nutritionist started his spiel but decided to NOT be rude and give the guy a chance. He obviously did not know how well-used the slides he was using were. As expected, the actual presentation was the same but, thankfully, the Q&A was more interesting. He really let his knowledge and experience shine through at that point and I was impressed. He had a completely different approach to improving one’s eating habits and dietary changes than the standard one-size-fits-all food pyramid that every nutritionist I have ever worked with uses. He focuses on your symptoms and blood work. He looks for signs of deficiencies in vitamins, hormones, and other areas. He looks to see if you are in an optimal range instead of the default ranges labs use (which are not the best ranges in most cases). He will treat borderline deficiencies through supplements and dietary changes. Having personally tried just about every approach out there (and having a diminished savings to prove it), I felt optimistic.
If you have ever attended one of these free seminars, you know the doctor or healthcare professional tends to offer a free consultation as reward for sitting through their presentation and also as a chance to get to know them better before deciding to be a patient. I usually pass on this offer because of its shear desperate sales technique. However, against my better judgement, I scheduled a free session with this man. He told me he would review any blood work results I brought with me to give example of how he could help me. I expected some basic information about increasing my vitamin D and eating less sugars to lower my blood glucose. I also expected him to try to sell me some of the supplements his clinic carries. Boy was I surprised – and not in a good way!
I show up for my free session and instead of the good chiropractor/nutritionist I met at the seminar, I meet a woman claiming to be a case manager. After quizzing her on her credentials, I find that she has none! She has five years experience working in that office as a case manager which I quickly came to realize was code for salesperson. After taking a thorough history of my symptoms, she explained the science-based nutrition program they use and then goes over the cost of said program. She spent a lot of time breaking down the costs for me with the various payment plans I could use. To do the full program would cost me $1,000 and insurance wouldn’t cover a single penny of it. Who wouldn’t jump on board for that? She was very thorough with the different payment plans and how I could spread the process out so I could raise money in between appointments.
I can’t express enough the disappointment I felt in not meeting with the chiropractor/nutritionist like promised and for having printed out all my blood work results over the past three years for nothing. I was so disheartened that I didn’t even have the energy to complain about the bait-and-switch they had pulled on me. I mean, what is the point? It won’t change how they treat me or any future potential patient, right? They obviously think this sales technique works. I am just so disappointed that healthcare clinics take advantage of sick people in this way. When you are sick, you can’t always think straight (can we say brain fog?). This technique blatantly takes advantage of us.
When I graduated from college, so long ago I can’t remember, I was all set to be an adult and build my career. I was lucky to get a dream job at a management consulting company. It was ideally suited for me. I was given projects to work on independently in my little office. I got to travel all over the country and even back to my home country of Canada. I spent some of the best years of my life there. I was making good money and having fun. Of course, this was all before chronic migraines and fibromyalgia and arthritis…
I was the breadwinner in the family. I earned more than my husband and we were okay with that. I had no intention of ever giving up working. I just couldn’t see myself staying home with the kids while my husband supported us. That simply wasn’t me. I was going to be one of those Super Moms who had a career and kids. I could handle it; I was good at multitasking. I had the world’s best daycare center taking care of my son. I knew he was in good hands so I focus on my work.
Then I was laid off and found a new job. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do but that didn’t keep me from trying to excel because that is just the way I am. Even with a crappy job, I wanted to do the best job I could. But then I got sick. I started missing work. I used the FMLA to get a reduced work schedule because my migraines were so disabling. However, I remained the breadwinner up until I had to quit because of my health. I could no longer manage to work. It was a devastating blow to my ego. Being part of the rat race was a huge chunk of my identity. Without it, I felt lost. Being a mom is great but I wanted, and still want, so much more. I spent so much money and time on getting an education. I didn’t do it so I could stay home babying my fragile health. I was proud of being able to take care of my family financially. Being out on disability was not my dream – let me tell you it sucks.
To combat my identity crises, I started working with nonprofit groups. I took over the local support group for fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. I joined Leaders Against Pain (a part of the National Fibromyalgia & Chronic Pain Association). I am becoming an advocate for those too sick to do it on their own. I am giving back to the community in a positive way. But I still miss working. I still miss the joy everyone has on Pay Day. I am still young enough to have hope of jumping back in.
Today is Fibromyalgia Awareness Day. Due to my involvement in the National Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Association, I was urged to send a request to my governor – the infamous Chris Christie – requesting he sign a proclamation declaring today Fibromyalgia Awareness Day for the entire state of New Jersey. To my delighted surprise, he signed it.
Fibromyalgia is a disabling illness that affects about 2-5% of the population in the U.S. and around the world. It is a central nervous system disorder that causes sensitivity to pain, central sensitization, chronic fatigue, sleep disturbance, stiffness, cognitive dysfunction, bladder and bowel problems, migraines, and more. Fibromyalgia rarely occurs in a vacuum; the vast majority of patients will eventually develop other health issues – e.g., lupus, POTS, arthritis, spinal problems, EDS, connective tissue disorders, RSD, etc. I consider fibromyalgia to be an opportunistic disorder. It will heighten the symptoms from any and all of the other health problems we have. It will make the pain worse; it will make the brain fog more pronounced. That is why it is important for patients to get all of their health issues under control.
No one chooses to have fibromyalgia. It is not something to aspire to. It irrevocably changes your life. You have to cater to its needs constantly by pacing yourself during normal activities. You have to take more frequent breaks in order to avoid a flare up. Things you once took for granted now have to be planned well in advance. You want to go food shopping? Then you have to avoid all strenuous activity for the entire day. You have to plan it around other people’s schedules so they can go with you because you can no longer lift heavy or awkward items. Some days you will need to use a cane just to be able to walk the aisles in the store. Some days you will have to swallow your pride and use one of the electric carts provided by the store. You will have to endure the stares from other customers as they see a relatively young person who does not appear sick using the electric carts that are usually used by the elderly. Some customers might even come up to you and scold you for it. It is not easy looking healthy on the outside while your body is a mess on the inside. If I wore my illness like a dress for all to see, I am convinced people would look away in disgust.
For all those suffering from Fibromyalgia, this is your day. Awareness is key to managing this illness. We need doctors to understand us and we need the public to not shame us.
On March 26th, 2014, after yet another snow storm, the FDA held a public hearing for patients, their advocates, and others with interest in the treatment of fibromyalgia. For four hours the doctors who work in the Division of Anesthesia, Analgesia and Addiction Products. They were attentive and asked pointed questions. The discussion focused on the multitude of symptoms patients experience, how well (or not well) medications have helped patients, the non-drug treatment options (including holistic and alternative treatments), the side effects and withdrawal symptoms of medications, and what an ideal medication would look like.
Attendees came from all over the country and even from other countries, like Mexico. Patients opened up their souls to the FDA panel, hoping that our desperation for treatments that actually help will be developed. I heard such heartbreaking stories. We all appear to be in the same boat – even though we can manage our symptoms to a certain degree, it does not mean we are living at a higher quality of life. We are treading water and getting nowhere. Fibromyalgia patients have to change their entire lifestyle in order to cope with the limitations of this illness, and that does not even include all the co-morbid conditions we have. The only people I know who do not have another chronic illness with fibromyalgia are those that doctors simply have not diagnosed yet. Fibromyalgia is an opportunistic illness.
In a few months (after additional comments have been submitted), the FDA will release its report on fibromyalgia based on everyone’s comments and concerns. I have high hopes for this document. It can help doctors understand the illness better. It can help pharmaceutical firms fine tune their research. It can help university researchers conducting their smaller research. It can help medical students learn about this illness. It can help politicians understand the illness so they can pass effective bills. It has the potential to improve the status quo like nothing before it.