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Battling cancer -- and Blue Cross

April 23, 2006|Catherine Siepp | CATHERINE SEIPP writes a weekly column for National Review Online and blogs at www.cathyseipp.net.

Unlike THE TYPICAL Blue Cross "valued member," as the annual letter on rate and benefit changes always calls us, I wasn't upset to learn that my monthly premium would increase by $50, to $395 a month, for me and my daughter.

That's because I'm not really a Blue Cross valued member. I'm a Blue Cross problem member -- the kind who actually uses the valued benefits. So I don't really care about premiums; I was just relieved that my yearly out-of-pocket cap, which jumped from $5,000 to $7,500 in 2004, didn't go up yet another 50%.

Without me, Blue Cross' parent company, WellPoint, which reported a $2.5-billion profit last year, could have seen a profit of $2.5 billion plus about $50,000. I was diagnosed with advanced, inoperable lung cancer in 2002 and so now typically reach my $2,500 individual deductible by January and my out-of-pocket cap by February.

By law, insurance companies aren't allowed to adjust your monthly premiums just because you get sick. But they can raise the out-of-pocket cap for all of their members anytime they like, which amounts to the same thing because it affects only the unvalued sick members. (And, of course, getting sick means that even while one's medical costs go up, the ability to pay goes down -- earnings potential is curbed when life becomes a series of treatment appointments.)

Lucky you, if you don't know what your out-of-pocket cap is. And if you're like every single healthy person I've queried, you probably don't. But you should know, because the out-of-pocket cap is the most important part of your policy, meant to stave off financial disaster in case of catastrophic medical expenses.

The worried well, however, tend to be remarkably ignorant about medical insurance. Policy wonks keep arguing about market competition and consumer choice. But healthcare for the sick isn't a market because choice disappears. You can't shop around for generic drugs when you have cancer. Whatever chemical treatment the doctor suggests, it almost certainly will be a brand name costing several thousand dollars a month.

My out-of-pocket cap is $7,500, which means that after I reach $7,500 in co-payments, Blue Cross pays 100% of my medical expenses for the rest of that year -- except for the $30-per-brand-name prescription I have to pay the pharmacy after I reach my $500 annual deductible for drug coverage. According to the policy, it's supposed to be a $30 co-payment for a month's supply, but a new anti-nausea drug I was taking for weekly chemo costs $285 for just three pills, so Blue Cross made me go to the drugstore and fork over $30 every seven days.

Another thing working in insurance companies' favor is that cancer patients rarely have the energy to argue about such nickel-and-diming. I recently managed to spend a morning forcing my way through multiple disconnects and transfers on the Blue Cross 800 number, but I was eventually told that the company would probably reimburse me for the extra $90 a month I was paying for that weekly anti-nausea drug if I filled out the right forms. My far bigger worry is that out-of-pocket cap, which is essentially what insurance is for. To drastically raise it seems the definition of bad faith.

Or so I thought -- until I began getting letters from Blue Cross in February announcing that it was retroactively disallowing the anti-cancer drug Avastin treatments it had been paying for since October, at $5,000 a pop every other week. It seems Blue Cross decided this new and expensive targeted therapy is experimental. (It looks as if Blue Cross is not asking to be repaid for my relatively unexperimental chemo, which had been costing about $2,500 every single week, but who knows?)

Avastin, which is officially approved only for treatment of colon cancer, is often as effective for lung cancer. So, insurance often pays for it -- especially when patients are, as they say at the oncologist's office, running out of options. Therefore, I wasn't surprised Blue Cross had put up no argument for months -- particularly when two CT scans since October showed that the Avastin/chemo combination had produced some tumor shrinkage and then stable disease. (It stopped working in March, so I've since moved on to a truly experimental therapy, which is free because the company that makes the drug pays.) I know Blue Cross is aware of the scans because it also sent a letter demanding more information about why the January one was necessary.

To decide after a therapy has proved beneficial that it's merely "investigational" and therefore should not be covered -- that, actually, seems the definition of bad faith.

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