Greedy Insurance Company Backs Down: The Little Guy Wins!

August 15, 2011
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A few months back, while we were on vacation in Washington, D.C., my 17-year-old son Noah sustained an injury at 1:00 a.m. I was asleep, but this is usually a few hours earlier than he typically retires. In our hotel room’s bathroom, he dropped a glass and then managed to step in the wrong place. A sharp shard sliced through the soft skin between his great and second toes. Blood was spurting wildly and he woke me up with a shout. He was spooked.

A few months back, while we were on vacation in Washington, D.C., my 17-year-old son Noah sustained an injury at 1:00 a.m. I was asleep, but this is usually a few hours earlier than he typically retires. In our hotel room’s bathroom, he dropped a glass and then managed to step in the wrong place. A sharp shard sliced through the soft skin between his great and second toes. Blood was spurting wildly and he woke me up with a shout. He was spooked.

We gastroenterologists are experienced at stanching bleeding, although I was uncertain how to do so without some kind of scope in my hand. I reflected on my ACLS training, which is a comprehensive 2 hour course that my partners and I take every 2 years. In between those sessions, I neither think about nor practice any advanced life saving procedures. It doesn’t seem rational that a community gastroenterologist should be schooled in temporary pacemakers, when most of us haven’t interpreted an EKG in decades.

I still remember the fundamentals of life support, the famed A, B, Cs, standing for airway, breathing and circulation. I decided to apply this to the hemorrhage at hand.

Airway: the windpipe was open and functioning

Breathing: the kid was breathing

Circulation: BINGO!

After going through this brief but critical checklist, I now knew where to focus. No need to intubate him. No need to call the front desk to rush a defibrillator to the room. No need for chest compressions, at least not yet. I considered tightening a tourniquet around his waist to clamp the aorta, but opted instead to apply direct pressure to the wound. Luckily, this high class hotel was equipped with just the medical apparatus I needed – a wash cloth. Once the bleeding slowed and I was able to visualize the wound, I realized that this was no Scotch tape fix. It was time for a field trip to the ER.

The hotel front desk advised me where to take him and 20 minutes later we were in Sibley Memorial Hospital. The care was excellent and the sutures were applied expertly by Gregory Cope, M.D. Two hours after our arrival, we were back in the hotel room. I decided not to rouse the kids at 9 a.m. for our intended trip to Ford’s theater, a site that has been deferred for a future trip.

Nothing is certain but death, taxes and emergency medical care bills. I reviewed the explanation of benefits form I received, which are never easy for me to unravel, even though I am somewhat of an insider of the medical profession. One of the 2 charges that I am responsible amounts to $391.50. I phoned my insurance company, always an opportunity for stress management, and reached a living breathing human being. Of course, I was first greeted by a mechanical voice who assured me that my call was important to them. Melanie, the insurance company customer service representative (Any reader agree with me that the phrase customer service is a euphemism?) explained that I had selected an out-of-service facility and was charged accordingly. After some research, she determined that there were in-network hospitals in the Washington, D.C. region. See what I mean about stress management?

“Melanie, let’s forget for a moment that I am a doctor and that you are an insurance company tool. It’s two o’clock in the morning. I am 500 miles away from home. My son’s foot is spewing blood. While you might regard me as irresponsible, I never contemplated whether the hospital was on the formulary. Should I have researched this issue then? How would I have done this at that hour? It’s challenging enough to reach a living insurance company soul during ordinary business hours. I wonder what my son would have thought if I told him we had to wait for authorization before we could leave the hotel. I’m sure this would have elevated his opinion of me as a doctor and a father.”

Melanie checked with a superior who agreed that under these circumstances they would reprocess the bill as an in-network charge. Victory! How much will I save? Probably, only a few bucks, but some victories are not measured in dollars. I ‘stuck it to the man’.

I have learned an important lesson from this experience. The next time I’m traveling with kids, I’m bringing paper cups.

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