Monday, August 6, 2012

Cancer Patient Wages Twitter War to Make Aetna Pay

Arijit Guha
photo courtesy poopstrong.org
Being a graduate student getting a PhD in sustainability is an admirable pursuit. Now imagine doing it at the same time you're battling stage IV colon cancer.

Upon returning from a trip to India with his new wife, 31-year old, Arizona State University student Arijit Guha began suffering from severe abdominal pain. When the school's health center couldn't figure out what was wrong with him, he sought help from a local gastroenterologist. A colonoscopy revealed a 6 cm tumor almost completely obstructing his colon. During surgery to remove it, doctors quickly discovered the situation was far worse: Guha had metastatic colorectal cancer.

With some chemotherapy treatments costing as much as $11,000 a pop, Guha quickly racked-up some hefty bills. When he reached his policy's lifetime limit of $300,000 his insurance carrier, Aetna, unceremoniously dropped him.

To help pay for the high cost of treatment, Guha founded poopstrong.org selling funny t-shirts and other goods and within three short days received donations of $20,000 from over 1,500 people. Still, Guha knew he had to take a more aggressive approach than what his friend called "the world's most important bakesale" if he was going to continue getting the proper care he needed.

Encouraged by the outpouring of support, Guha harnessed the power of the internet tweeting about his predicament and quickly found himself embroiled in a Twitter war with none other than Aetna CEO, Mark Bertolini. Guha not only was able to shame the healthcare provider into covering the cost of his care for the past year, over $118,000 worth of bills, but was also successful in having the powerful CEO come as close to a Mea Culpa as we've seen in the healthcare debate. In his final twitter message Bertolini wrote:
"The system is broken, and I am committed to fixing it.  I am glad we connected today and got this issue solved.  I appreciate the dialogue no matter how pointed.  I've got it and own it!"
Guha's battle with cancer is far from over but removing the very real possibility of having to declare medical bankruptcy allows him and his loved ones to concentrate on what's really important. He has updated his website to state that 100 percent of the proceeds from all items sold will be donated to charity while Aetna is picking-up the tab.

Guha's victory embodies the struggle that so many people with major illnesses face. The heated discourse that surrounds our current healthcare system is mostly debated amongst policy makers and big pharma who reduce thousands of individuals to statistics and potential causalities of the unlucky gene lottery.

President Obama's Affordable Care Act, which goes into effect in 2014, would no longer allow health insurance companies from imposing lifetime limits on coverage and is aimed exactly at preventing this kind of thing from ever happening again. Guha struck just the right chord to personalize the issue and hopefully marks a significant milestone in forcing those in power to see patients not as a number but rather as their friends, spouses, parents, and children and fix our broken healthcare system.

No one should have to incur a lifetime of debt to pay for necessary medical treatment.

Full disclosure:  My health insurance carrier is also Aetna and the EOB I received post-op totaled more than $88,000. While I opted for the highest level plan my employer offers, until I reach my deductible, coverage follows a 90/10 schedule (i.e. I am responsible for 10 percent of all costs.) There has been a steady stream of small bills for the past several months, which, while no where near what Mr. Guha has had to cover, make me wonder how exactly the policy's terms are decided. I have no idea what my current "lifetime" limit is, but I intend to find out.

And for anyone who still doesn't fully comprehend how effective social media can be, let this serve as a prime example.  For every frivolous thought tweeted into the ether, ordinary citizens such as Guha, are proof that one person's voice can actually be heard.

No comments:

Post a Comment