I am a 57-year-old white American male infected with Hepatitis C. I am involved in a controlled medical research study by Roche Pharmaceuticals of an experimental Polymerase Inhibitor (RO5024048 also known as RG7128) drug therapy for the virus. This document is the story of my illness and the experience of treatment. My lovely and pretty damn wonderful wife will be contributing her take on the experience as well.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Health Care versus Health Insurance

When last I wrote, I was just about to institute a change from the good people at California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC) through Blue Shield insurance to the Kaiser Permanente Health Maintenance Organization. Our organization changed its insurance policies and the only affordable option was to go with the Kaiser HMO. From my first appointment with my new Primary Care Physician (PCP) it was clear that Kaiser’s approach is very different from standard insurance. It is the difference between a Health Care Organization and a Health Insurance Organization.

I made an appointment to see my new PCP - which appointment I was able to get for only two days after I called. I picked my new doctor from a roster of available doctors because she had been working in the Chinese community on some Hepatitis B projects and thus was already familiar with Hepatitis cases. When I went in to see my PCP, I brought along my lab reports and health summary updates from my doctors at CPMC. I gave her my data and she began asking questions and typing lots of information into my medical record via the computer in the examining room. My biggest single concern was making sure that my meds, which were running low, would be able to be continued and that I would not miss doses in my treatment regimen. She started entering in my various medication and doses, checking instantly to see if the same drugs were available and in stock at the pharmacy. On her own authority she was able to prescribe all my meds and send the prescriptions through to the pharmacy via computer. This included pegasys and ribavirin as well as the thyroid medicine, the antidepressant and the sleep aids. You could have knocked me over with a feather. She then forwarded my records over to the gastrointestinal department and told me that someone would be calling me that afternoon to go over my information and set up an appointment. She also made instant referrals to the psych department to set up a neuropsych evaluation as per Dr. Bzowej’s recommendation and to some various other departments to handle some other health issues unrelated to the Hep C. This all happened in a 40 minute appointment in which, despite her working at top speed – especially in data entry, never felt rushed. She then gave me her card with email and phone contact info and told me to call her with any further questions. I walked out of the appointment in shock.

Compare that to what Blue Cross (or Blue Shield, Healthnet, Aetna – I’ve had them all over the years) would have done. I would have seen my PCP. They would have had to write a referral to a Hepatologist. The referral would have to have been approved. I would have seen the Hepatologist. That doctor would have had to prescribe the meds I need for treatment. The prescriptions would have had to be approved by the insurance company. I would have had to go through a specialty pharmacy to get the meds. I have no idea how long that might have taken even if there was an attempt to expedite the process due to my ongoing condition.

It is all due to the difference in business model that each type of organization has. Kaiser’s model is that I pay a monthly fee for my health care. They make money (they are a non-profit corporation, but they need to at least break even for all this to work) through efficiency and by rationing care. If you are seriously ill they are on the job, if you have a sore throat you had better have had it for a long time before they are going to set you up with a doctor’s appointment. The whole implementation of computerized records and paperless referrals means that they save beaucoup bucks in paperwork costs. They also are proactive with immunizations and diagnostic tests because they are aware that early detection of disease means that treatment is easier and cheaper. They have their problems to be sure, but they offer good care.

The insurance company model is that you pay a monthly fee for insurance against illness. They make money by limiting your care. They do this by making referrals and authorizations for treatment difficult to get. They also are very careful in how much they pay to doctors and hospitals for treatment and frequently deny payment or portions of payment for treatment. They are less likely to emphasize preventive care because that costs money out of pocket and you might never get that particular illness while insured by them. On the other had they offer considerably more flexibility in whom you can see and where you can see them for care.

Going forward will be an interesting journey, but the first experience has been very good and at least I was able to continue uninterrupted treatment.

P.S. The gastroenterologist really did call me back that afternoon and he set up an appointment for only three days later…

1 comment:

  1. thank you for chronicling your story and all the detail you put into it. i'm about to start my treatments and really have no idea what to expect financially, physically or emotionally so it really helps. i could go through your blog for hours! my case is a little bit different because my viral load is actually quite low...i'm trying to decide if i should start them now or put them off but it's nice to have an idea of what to expect, so thank you