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.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

More Dread – Heath Insurance Woes

Insurance Plan Change Forces Change Of Doctors

The new year continues its run of good news as I found out that none of the health care options (the ones I can remotely afford anyway) that are available to me under our organization’s new health insurance plans, allow me to continue with the team that has been currently treating my Hepatitis C.

As several of the recent posts have detailed, our organization changed its health insurance broker and plans for the upcoming year. In order to save money (and I can’t really argue with this as the insurance costs for the organization have risen 40% for this year), they subscribed to Blue Cross “Select” and Heathnet “Silver” insurance plans in addition to the standard Kaiser Permanente plans that have been offered for years. While initial and even follow-up research indicated that my doctors were contracted with both Blue Cross and Healthnet the final determination that came through the brokers was that, while they are contracted to both Blue Cross and Healthnet, they are not contracted with the two stripped-down plans that our organization subscribes to. I could subscribe to a PPO that includes my doctors, but the monthly cost would total more that $4,000 per year, plus the $4,800 in yearly drug co-payments, plus very high deductibles on any medical procedures and hospitalizations that might occur and I just can’t afford to pay those kinds of fees on my income here in one of the most expensive cities in America.

On the positive side, I still have health insurance. It will be through Kaiser Permanente and will be funded by my employer. Kaiser does good work and has good doctors. Even the treatment nurse who has been handling my care at California Pacific Medical Center, was hired away by Kaiser and he is top-notch. The only problem is whether I can manage the transfer of my treatment to Kaiser during the relatively small window of time until my prescriptions run out. I have to get a primary care doctor, have him refer me to a hepatologist, have my records transferred and have my meds continued during a time period of about 20 days. I get to find out how much stress and complication I can handle with a Swiss cheese brain and a 30-day supply of anti-depressants. But that’s the modern world we all have to cope with, so the best thing to do is buckle down and dive in, to mix up some metaphors.

There are lots of people in much worse shape than I am. There are folks with the disease and no health insurance who depend on the largesse of drug companies or aid programs. There are people on waiting lists for liver transplants that are watching their window of opportunity close on them. There are people even with health insurance who are paying huge chunks of their income or going into debt to get access to treatment. I am in none of those positions and I appreciate that more than I can say. I would just like to get some good news at the start of the year. Maybe the Giants will trade for a right-handed bat, the Niners will sign a quarterback, or the Warriors will make the play-offs. I can feel my immune system recharging already.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Creeping Sense of Dread

Holiday Stress Equals Erratic Meds

I’ve been in treatment for 57 weeks and have been negative since the end of September, but I am approaching my upcoming viral load test with a great deal of trepidation. The month since the last test has been very difficult. The holidays were not a happy time for my wife and I as there were job problems, family problems and the general high stress levels that the holidays can bring.

The combination of all the stress with my growing inability to concentrate and remember resulted in my missing 3 afternoon doses of my meds during the 10 day period following Christmas. This makes me very edgy as it was the combination of skipped interferon and lowered Ribavirin doses that led to the viral breakthrough that bounced me out of the RO5024048, RG7128 study last June.

In this case, I did not miss any interferon doses, but I did miss 3 partial doses of Ribavirin in a relatively short period of time. This was effectively similar to the lowered Ribavirin doses of late May before the breakthrough. Ribavirin by itself does not seem to have a strong direct antiviral effect on the Hep C virus, but it does contribute a great deal to continuing to hold the virus in check once the interferon has pounded it into undetectability. Therefore reducing the dose, whether deliberately or through simply forgetting to take the drug, can have a significant negative effect on continuing to be undetectable.

The strange thing is that I cannot remember forgetting to take two of the doses (I realize how silly that sounds given the state of my brain by this point but nonetheless…). I can only remember the sick feeling of getting up the next morning, going to take my meds and finding the closed container labeled Monday p.m. that still contained my previous evenings dose. It was bad enough the first time, but two days later on Thursday, exactly the same thing happened. I thought I had done my duty, got up the next morning and found the container with the dose on the table. I knew that it was serious, that I had to stay on schedule and yet I had forgotten again. The thing that knots your stomach is the knowledge that you have screwed up and you can’t go back and make it right. The opportunity to stay on the schedule is gone and the best you can hope for is that it hasn’t compromised your treatment.

Several days later, I missed the third evening dose. This time I figured out what happened and decided that yet another behavior modification was necessary. I went to take my evening dose, sat down and opened the container with the meds in it and then my cell phone rang. It was someone to whom I rent space in my studio so I took the call. It took a while to figure out the problem and by that time I had forgotten to take the dose. However, since I had specifically gone into the room to TAKE the dose, when I thought about it later that evening, I confabulated the memory of actually taking the meds. Again, the increasingly sick feeling in the morning when I found the open but full container on the table. I decided at that point that I would immediately take my doses the moment I thought of them from that point on and it has worked excellently since then. It doesn’t matter if the phone rings, my wife is talking to me or I have to run to the bathroom; when the thought of my evening dose crosses my mind, I get up right then and go take it.

I cannot stress enough the importance of keeping your dosing schedule (your doctors, nurses and everyone else all stress the same thing, so I know I am preaching to the choir). If you have to put signs all over your home, rubber bands on your wrist or tattoo it to your forehead; do whatever it takes to stay on your schedule and not miss a dose.

I hope it doesn’t screw me up, but it was a bad end to last year and a tough start to this one, so I am looking at this test the same way you look at the door into the dark basement in the horror movie – don’t go down there and don’t split up.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Heprat’s Coverage Is In The Health Insurance Twilight Zone

The following story is sadly not unique to my situation.

The phone call came from the HR director of our organization. He told me that our health insurance broker had called him with the information that my primary care physician (PCP) only had a contract with Anthem Blue Cross (world’s scariest health insurance company) as a specialist, not as a primary care physician. Therefore I would have to find a new PCP. I had been going to my PCP for 12 years through 4 insurance carrier changes. For the entire time he had been affiliated with a physician group that has contracts with every major health insurance company. Something did not smell right about this ruling.

My PCP had written all my referrals to specialists for my Hep C treatment. He had written several of the prescriptions for the drugs to manage my Hep C side effects. If I had to find a new one, the new doctor would have to get up to speed on my condition, reinstitute all my referrals and prescriptions and do it all by the 10th of January when my supply of Ribavirin would start to run out.

Heprat, man of panic and desperation, sprang into action. I called my PCP’s office. They told me in no uncertain terms that they had a PCP contract with Blue Cross as many of their patients had Blue Cross insurance. I went to the Anthem Blue Cross website, searched for PCP physicians within 2 miles of my home and my doctor appeared on their list of Primary Care Physicians. Not only that, but the doctor code for his PCP status was listed and it said that he had an open practice and was currently accepting patients. Armed with this information, I called the insurance broker for our organization. I explained my situation and they repeated that according to the website of the insurance broker they used, my doctor was only contracted as a specialist; they even went online and checked it while we talked. I told them that I was looking at the Blue Cross website and on that site it clearly stated he was a contracted PCP. I reminded them that the broker website they used for their information had been wrong about the Blue Cross drug formulary and wrongly stated that my hepatologist was not a Blue Cross doctor. They grudgingly admitted that the Blue Cross website might be more accurate than their broker website and agreed to resubmit the paperwork with the codes I provided them from Blue Cross. Now we wait on Blue Cross to process the paperwork.

The Ribavirin runs out on the 10th of January. The interferon runs out on the 14th of January. My thyroid medication runs out on the 9th of January. The Celexa runs out on the 17th of January.

I suspect my neighbors think I am either insane or being brutally beaten as I have spent several minutes the past few afternoons walking around the house and screaming. It sounds terrible but it really does help relieve the stress. For all of you out there in this same situation, I recommend screaming. It lets out your feelings and leaves you so damned tired that you don’t have enough energy for an anxiety attack.