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.
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.
I recently came to the realization, through the help of some well-informed friends, that there is no governing body in the world of medicine that officially endorses so-called Pain Specialists. Anyone can add that misnomer to their credentials after the most basic of training in the non-existent specialty. Since there is no American Board of Pain Management to oversee training and licensing, patients are left to the mercy of the individual doctor’s educational pursuits. There is no easy way for patients to evaluate the experience or training their doctors have received. There are no standards for pain management that patients can rely on during their appointments. If you have every been in pain, especially chronic pain, this is a very real and scary situation.
Only three specialty boards have a sub-specialty in Pain Management – Anesthesiology, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, and Psychiatry and Neurology. They all use the same certification material and test that was developed by the American Board of Anesthesiology dated 2010. However, it is safe to assume that they approach pain management from their own specialty’s perspective. Anesthesiologists will be the first to recommend epidurals while psychiatrist will recommend therapy or antidepressants, and specialists in physical medicine and rehabilitation will recommend exercises and hot/cold therapy. A lot of good research has been done on the different types of pain, pain management therapies, and specific pain-related diseases and disorders in the past four years. I find it disheartening that the educational material might not be keeping up with the progress being made. Also, what exactly are the other doctors learning about pain and pain management? The single chapter in their med school textbook? Every doctor will need to treat patients in pain. I can guarantee that. Pain management should be a required course for all medical students. They should also be required to do a rotation in a reputable pain clinic before graduating.
Now let us discuss pain clinics. They are not regulated. They are not required to have a licensed medical doctor on the premises. I have seen some where a nurse practitioner runs it. There is a growing trend among chiropractors to jump on the pain management bandwagon and call their practices pain clinics too. All too often, pain clinics focus on one single, solitary treatment for a patient’s pain – regardless of the causes. In my eyes, the designation of pain clinic should only apply to a practice that actually takes a multidisciplinary approach to pain management. That means they have a staff who specialize in a variety of pain management approaches – this can include massage therapy, spinal injections, different exercise options, stress management, medication management, trigger point injections, acupuncture, chiropractic manipulation. Pain is too common a condition for our healthcare system to ignore in this way.
The state of New Jersey still allows healthcare providers to override orders from doctors. Despite lacking a medical degree, insurance companies can dictate to doctors what medications to use on patients first. The insurance companies actually have lists of medications for certain medical conditions (which for some reason usually are chronic pain conditions). These lists are generated based on profits and losses. They are based on financial reasons. They are based on closed-door deals the insurance companies have with different pharmaceutical companies. The one thing that is NEVER take into consideration when generating these lists is what is best for the the individual patients.
You might be thinking what’s the big deal. So a patient tries one or two medications first. Maybe those will work; maybe they won’t. However, think about the current healthcare insurance environment. People are shopping around for the best deals. That means people can be switching plans and companies on a yearly basis. Patients would have to prove EVERY TIME THEY CHANGE PLANS that they have already tried their new healthcare insurance’s approved medications and failed to receive relief from them. We all know the red tape and bureaucracy that exist in large companies. It can take weeks or months to finally get approval to fill a prescription that the patient has had for years. If it is a medication taken daily, the risk of withdrawal is not only a potential side effect of Step Therapy ( also known as Fail First), it is a given. Who will care for a patient going threw withdrawal? The Emergency Rooms. It is far more expensive to go to an Emergency Room that to simply be allowed to take a medication the doctor has been prescribing for months or years.
The other problem with this system is that it supersedes the doctor’s medical opinion with the healthcare company’s financial opinion. The doctor supposedly has years of training and continuing education to back up his or her recommendations. What does the insurance company have? A handshake and price cut from their preferred supplier.
There is currently a bill winding its way through the New Jersey Legislature. It was introduced on June 18th, 2012. Where is it now? It is lounging out with the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. It has not even been mentioned since January 6th of this year. How long does it take to provide needed relief to thousands of New Jersey citizens?
I challenge the elected officials of New Jersey to dare to do something great.
It has been four weeks since I swallowed my last pill of Relpax – a triptan medication that works great at knocking out my moderate to severe migraines. I tolerate it well with few side effects. I have so many symptoms with my migraines that it is hard to tell if this medication causes any side effects. It is my most reliable medication for migraines. Sometimes, I am able to treat my migraines with over-the-counter meds targeted for headaches. But the Relpax is my safety net. However, the severe migraines need something stronger like DHE (dihydroergotamine). It is a painful medication that causes a shitload of side effects. Firstly, it needs to be injected into my thigh or stomach. Secondly, it burns like acid. It hurts so much I often have to give myself a pep talk before injecting myself with the poison, because that is what it is – a poison. The side effects are numerous and I need to take other medications with it to counter the more severe one (like nausea and vomiting). I avoid taking this med. I hate it but at least it works 99% of the time. It also keeps me out of the Emergency Room. Before I was prescribed this medication, I would go to the ER so often that I should have gotten frequent flyer miles.
It has been four weeks since I ran out of Relpax and I am not down to one dose of DHE left in my medicine cabinet. Thanks to Step Therapy (a.k.a., fail-first therapy), I have to prove to the insurance company that I have tried their recommended triptan medications first before they will pay for my lifesaving Relpax. I have been there, done that, and have the t-shirt to prove it. Unfortunately, my insurance company has changed every year since going on Medicare three years ago. That means that every spring I have to play the insurance company’s game which often delays receiving my medication for two or more weeks.
It has been four weeks since my Relpax was used up. I am saving my DHE for the God-awful, kill-me-now migraines that I occasionally get. I am too scared to take it because I will be left with few choices when it is gone. I have left numerous voicemail messages at my doctor’s office, my pharmacy has faxed over numerous requests and still I have not received prior authorization yet. The only meds I have are either the worthless OTC drugs or the my last-ditch medication that literally puts me in a coma for two days. My husband insists that someone be home to keep an eye on me during these two days because I have hurt myself in the past by falling down. This is not a situation anyone should be in.
It has been four weeks and I do not know why it is taking so long. What I do know is that there has been a bill introduced in my state legislature that would eliminate this offensive hurdle I must jump every year. The bill has been languishing for over a year now. I cannot even express the joy the passing of this bill would give me.
It has been four weeks and I am scared. I am scared of getting a monster headache that won’t go away, that will entrench itself and require going to the hospital. I once had a migraine for two years. That scares me…
I try very hard to give doctors the benefit of the doubt. I know they are trying their best between keeping up with new research, seeing an astronomical amount of patients per day in such narrow time limits, navigating the ever changing healthcare insurance market. It is not easy and I do not envy their job. However, with that said, I do have a bone to pick with them. When I went to my primary care doctor and then a specialist regarding pain in the joints of my hands and feet this past summer, I was surprised that none of them actually looked at my hands and feet. I even pointed out how my toes are getting so stiff that I cannot even straighten one of my toes. It is permanently curled under. Can anyone explain to me why neither of these doctors examined my toe? I was sent for x-rays of my hands and feet. Unfortunately, neither the view from above my feet nor the view from the side of my feet actually shows the curl in my toe. So, was I surprised when the radiologist’s report on my feet x-rays showed no anomalies? No. I also am concerned about possibly having a connective tissue disorder. Some of the diagnostic criteria require the doctor to actually exam patients’ nail beds. Research shows that blood tests are not conclusive with only 70% of cases showing positive blood results. I find it quite disturbing that doctors are so rushed that they skip over this. On another doctor’s visit, I was experiencing excruciating, stabbing pain in my side. Because I was at the gynecologist, she only examined my reproductive organs. She did not probe the area in pain at all. She declared my reproductive organs healthy.
What has happened to our healthcare system when doctors wear blinders and do not realize they are doing more harm by neglecting patients? They do not even realize the harm they are doing. Both doctors I saw only wanted to give me prescriptions for opioid painkillers without trying to first figure out what was wrong. This is very disturbing.
According to statistics recently released by the Center of Disease Control, the number of middle-aged women successfully committing suicide has TRIPLED in the past decade. TRIPLED! How could this happen? My opinion is that women are using more irreversible means than they used to. Men have always had a higher suicide rate than us mere women because they are more likely to use a violent means to their end. Men are more likely to shoot themselves, use illicit drugs for overdose, or use moving vehicles (cars, trains) to do the deed. Women, stereotypically the more passive, tend to slit their wrists (which is really not an effective form of suicide after all) or swallowing pills. The vast variety of medications now available is staggering. We can take our pick and simply overdose on them. Does that mean these drugs should be more restricted or taken off the market completely? NO! It means doctors need to pay more attention to the mental health of their patients. A patient who runs out in tears is a definite warning sign. A patient who leaves the Emergency Room is as much pain as when they walked in is another omen of bad things to come. The most vulnerable time for patients is when they fail to receive adequate care for their severe symptoms (especially chronic pain).
I doubt these patients leave the ER or the doctor’s office thinking, “Hey! Why don’t I show this doctor I mean business and kill myself.” It is not that simple. The CDC estimates that up to 70% of all overdoses are accidental. How could someone possibly kill themselves by accident, right? Image coming home after a frustrating doctor’s appointment. The doctor listens to you complain about the migraine you have had for the past week and gives you a prescription for a new abortive medicine. You are so thrilled you immediately get it filled. But when you take the medicine, you are still in pain a hour later. So you take another pill. You eventually start taking every pill you doctor has ever prescribed you in the hopes that this mother-of-all migraines would simply leave you in peace. By this time, you are groggy and brain fog has set in. You no longer remember what you have taken and how much. What do you think happens next?
In another case, you leave the doctor’s appointment with a script for physical therapy but your back hurts you now. You can’t wait for weeks of PT to help you gradually improve. You want relief now! So you go home and taken a few Tylenol or Aleve. You are still in pain later so you take more. You start off taking 2 or 3 pills at a time. By the end, you are taking a handful at a time but you are in too much pain to monitor what you are doing.
That, my readers, is how someone can accidentally kill themselves without even realizing it until they pass out. It is not a pretty picture.
On January 25th, 2013, the FDA’s Drug Safety and Risk Management Advisory Committee voted to recommend that the agency move the pain medication hydrocodone from Schedule III to Schedule II. The FDA usually accepts the recommendations committees like this one makes. This change is intended to hinder access to a medication that has a high incidence of abuse and addiction. What could possibly be wrong with more control over a substance that contributes to thousands of deaths and rehab visits per year? However, this seemingly innocent decision does not take into consideration several key issues.
First, millions of Americans take prescription pain medications every year. The majority of them DO NOT abuse these medications. They take them to manage their acute and/or chronic pain. We should not lose sight of this distinction. Why should they be penalized because a few abuse them?
Second, medications on Schedule II are not allowed to have refills. Patients can only get a one-month prescription at a time with up to three separate scripts allowed to be written per visit to the doctor. Patients will need to see their doctors more frequently, which can have financial consequences. Medicare and Medicaid patients are less likely to be able to afford more visits to their doctors, and may even have less access to covered doctors.
Third, medications on Schedule II can only be prescribed by physicians (and dentists, as long as it is related to dental care). Sounds like a good idea, right? But what if the patient lives in a rural area or inner city where there is a shortage of doctors? What if the patient only has access to a Nurse Practitioner? Each state makes their own rules regarding if Nurse Practitioners can write prescriptions for controlled substances. I know that in my area of New Jersey, there was only one pain management doctor accepting Medicaid patients as of a few months ago. One pain specialist for thousands of Medicare patients. Really? What is wrong with this picture?
In my opinion, more states should create and maintain a database containing information on who is receiving medications and how frequently they are filled. This will enable doctors and pharmacies to red flag patients who go from doctor to doctor getting multiple prescriptions for the same medication, who fill their prescriptions too early without a legitimate reason (going on vacation and need refill sooner; lost script). These databases should also allow access across states so addicts and abusers do not simply cross state lines to avoid detection. I know many states are doing this – my home state of New Jersey started one last year. Access to the databases should be limited in order to satisfy HIPPA regulations. For instance, all users must be registered by the state and can only access the information for approved reasons – or face legal ramifications.
Is this the cure-all for abuse and addiction to prescription medications in our country? Hell, no! But we must start somewhere and limiting access to pain medication to patients in pain is not the answer.