The “death panels” are already here

Sorry, Sarah Palin -- rationing of care? Private companies are already doing it, with sometimes fatal results

Topics: Healthcare Reform, Barack Obama, Republican Party, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich,

The "death panels" are already here

The future of healthcare in America, according to Sarah Palin, might look something like this: A sick 17-year-old girl needs a liver transplant. Doctors find an available organ, and they’re ready to operate, but the bureaucracy — or as Palin would put it, the “death panel” – steps in and says it won’t pay for the surgery. Despite protests from the girl’s family and her doctors, the heartless hacks hold their ground for a critical 10 days. Eventually, under massive public pressure, they relent — but the patient dies before the operation can proceed.

It certainly sounds scary enough to make you want to go show up at a town hall meeting and yell about how misguided President Obama’s healthcare reform plans are. Except that’s not the future of healthcare — it’s the present. Long before anyone started talking about government “death panels” or warning that Obama would have the government ration care, 17-year-old Nataline Sarkisyan, a leukemia patient from Glendale, Calif., died in December 2007, after her parents battled their insurance company, Cigna, over the surgery. Cigna initially refused to pay for it because the company’s analysis showed Sarkisyan was already too sick from her leukemia; the liver transplant wouldn’t have saved her life.

That kind of utilitarian rationing, of course, is exactly what Palin and other opponents of the healthcare reform proposals pending before Congress say they want to protect the country from. “Such a system is downright evil,” Palin wrote, in the same message posted on Facebook where she raised the “death panel” specter. “Health care by definition involves life and death decisions.”

Coverage of Palin’s remarks, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s defense of them, over the weekend did point out that the idea that the reform plans would encourage government-sponsored euthanasia is one of a handful of deliberate falsehoods being peddled by opponents of the legislation. But the idea that only if reform passes would the government start setting up rationing and interfering with care goes beyond just the bogus euthanasia claim.



Opponents of reform often seem to skip right past any problems with the current system — but it’s rife with them. A study by the American Medical Association found the biggest insurance companies in the country denied between 2 and 5 percent of claims put in by doctors last year (though the AMA noted that not all the denials were improper). There is no national database of insurance claim denials, though, because private insurance companies aren’t required to disclose such stats. Meanwhile, a House Energy and Commerce Committee report in June found that just three insurance companies kicked at least 20,000 people off their rolls between 2003 and 2007 for such reasons as typos on their application paperwork, a preexisting condition or a family member’s medical history. People who buy insurance under individual policies, about 6 percent of adults, may be especially vulnerable, but the 63 percent of adults covered by employer-provided insurance aren’t immune to difficulty.

“You’re asking us to decide that the government is to be trusted,” Gingrich — who may, like Palin, be running for the GOP’s presidential nomination in 2012 — told ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” on Sunday. But as even a quick glance through news coverage of the last few years shows, private insurers are already doing what reform opponents say they want to save us from. (The insurance industry, pushing back against charges that they’re part of the problem, said last month that “healthcare reform is far too important to be dragged down by divisive political rhetoric.” The industry has long maintained that its decisions on what to cover are the result of careful investigations of each claim.) Here is a look at a handful of healthcare horror stories, brought to you by the current system. It took Salon staff less than an hour to round these up — which might indicate how many other such stories are out there.

– In June 2008, Robin Beaton, a retired nurse from Waxahachie, Texas, found out she had breast cancer and needed a double mastectomy. Two days before her surgery, her insurance company, Blue Cross, flagged her chart and told the hospital they wouldn’t allow the procedure to go forward until they finished an examination of five years of her medical history — which could take three months. It turned out that a month before the cancer diagnosis, Beaton had gone to a dermatologist for acne treatment, and Blue Cross incorrectly interpreted a word on her chart to mean that the acne was precancerous.

Not long into the investigation, the insurer canceled her policy. Beaton, they said, had listed her weight incorrectly when she bought it, and had also failed to disclose that she’d once taken medicine for a heart condition — which she hadn’t been taking at the time she filled out the application. By October, thanks to an intervention from her member of Congress, Blue Cross reinstated Beaton’s insurance coverage. But the tumor she had removed had grown 2 centimeters in the meantime, and she had to have her lymph nodes removed as well as her breasts amputated because of the delay.

– In October 2008, Michael Napientak, a doorman from Clarendon Hills, Ill., went to the hospital for surgery to relieve agonizing back pain. His wife’s employer’s insurance provider, a subsidiary of UnitedHealthCare, had issued a pre-authorization for the operation. The operation went well. But in April, the insurer started sending notices that it wouldn’t pay for the surgery, after all; the family, not the insurance provider, would be on the hook for the $148,000 the hospital charged for the procedure. Pre-authorization, the insurance company explained, didn’t necessarily guarantee payment on a claim would be forthcoming. The company offered shifting explanations for why it wouldn’t pay — first, demanding proof that Napientak had tried less expensive measures to relieve his pain, and then, when he provided it, insisting that it lacked documentation for why the surgery was medically necessary. Napientak’s wife, Sandie, asked her boss to help out, but with no luck. Fortunately for the Napientaks, they were able to attract the attention of a Chicago Tribune columnist before they had to figure out how to pay the six-figure bill — once the newspaper started asking questions, the insurer suddenly decided, “based on additional information submitted,” to cover the tab, after all.

David Denney was less than a year old when he was diagnosed in 1995 with glutaric acidemia Type 1, a rare blood disorder that left him severely brain damaged and unable to eat, walk or speak without assistance. For more than a decade, Blue Cross of California — his parents’ insurance company — paid the $1,200 weekly cost to have a nurse care for him, giving him exercise and administering anti-seizure medication.

But in March 2006, Blue Cross told the Denney family their claims had exceeded the annual cost limit for his care. When they wrote back, objecting and pointing out that their annual limit was higher, the company changed its mind — about the reason for the denial. The nurse’s services weren’t medically necessary, the insurers said. His family sued, and the case went to arbitration, as their policy allowed. California taxpayers, meanwhile, got stuck with the bill — after years of paying their own premiums, the Denney family went on Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid system.

– Patricia Reilling opened an art gallery in Louisville, Ky., in 1987, and three years later took out an insurance policy for herself and her employees. Her insurance provider, Anthem Health Plans of Kentucky, wrote to her this June, telling her it was canceling her coverage — a few days after it sent her a different letter detailing the rates to renew for another year and billing her for July.

Reilling thinks she knows the reason for the cutoff, though — she was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2008. That kicked off a year-long battle with Anthem. First the company refused to pay for an MRI to locate the tumors, saying her family medical history didn’t indicate she was likely to have cancer. Eventually, it approved the MRI, but only after she’d undergone an additional, painful biopsy. Her doctor removed both of her breasts in April 2008. In December, she went in for reconstructive plastic surgery — and contracted a case of MRSA, an invasive infection. In January of this year, Reilling underwent two more surgeries to deal with the MRSA infection, and she’s likely to require another operation to help fix all the damage. The monthly bill for her prescription medicines — which she says are mostly generics — is $2,000; the doctors treating her for the MRSA infection want $280 for each appointment, now that she’s lost her insurance coverage. When she appealed the decision to cancel her policy, asking if she could keep paying the premium and continue coverage until her current course of treatment ends, the insurers wrote back with yet another denial. But they did say they hoped her health improved.

– Additional reporting by Tim Bella 

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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