Toe Saga Enters Health Insurance Maze

toes
toes (Photo credit: ribarnica)

The first bill of sorts came today for my young not-so-invincible son for his recent torn off big toe (previous post). The letter is in reference to a $17 radiology charge from the emergency department of the university-affiliated hospital where he was seen. I assume this charge was for flipping the switch to warm up the X-ray machine, but it doesn’t specify what it was for.

The letter came from his student health insurance company. They are requesting documentation that my son’s missing toe was not a preexisting condition. Their specific wording: “Has (dearest son of mine) received any medical care or medicine for diagnosis code 729.5–pain in limb (for the three months preceding the X-ray)?”  Like what, he’s been running around for the past three months with his
toe in the refrigerator just waiting for his health insurance to kick in
so he can have his toe reattached?

Do U.S. health insurance companies purposefully hire stupid people so they can spend even more on administrative overhead and pass those charges on to us, the mostly overwhelmed and confused health care consumers? At least 15% of our country’s total healthcare expenditures is spent on this sort of inept health insurance administration. That’s over $360 billion annually just for paper pushing. Medicare’s administrative costs are less than 2% of total Medicare expenditures. Meaning: that paper pushing can be done a lot more efficiently.

As Jeffrey Pfeffer wrote in his Bloomberg Business Week News article (4-10-13), “Because insurers are paid a fixed percentage of the claims they administer, they have no incentive to hold down costs. Worse than that, they have no incentives to do their jobs with even a modicum of competence.”

A good overview of the obstacles to reducing administrative costs within our healthcare system is included in this brief NEJM article. The authors point out that Obamacare/ACA has some provisions to address these problems. Here’s hoping.

Young Invincible Health Insurance Saga

IMG_1227Last night I had to take my ‘young invincible’ son to a local emergency department to have his toe sewn back onto his body. He had heeded my advice to get back to the gym to exercise, and somehow combined ballet with karate and lost a big toe in the process. His ED physician said he’d never seen anything like it in his 33 years of practice. Oh so reassuring. Also unsettling was this physician mug shot on the vending machine in the ED waiting room. He glared at me all night as I tried in vain to figure out what he was doing there, what his message was. Don’t you dare drink these sugary drinks? You’d better have good health insurance if you want to be seen here? I have some bad news: we somehow lost your son’s toe?

Fortuitously (or so I hope), my son listened to me and signed up for student health insurance–the day before his ballet/karate accident. As a mom and a nurse it was taking years off my life to have him ‘going bare’/uninsured. I now know some of what it feels like to live in fear of an accident, injury, or illness that could ruin my son (and by extension, me) financially. Even though he officially has health insurance to cover his expensive ED visit (X-rays, sutures, IV Vancomycin, physician quips) and ortho follow-up, I do not trust it. There are pages upon pages of exclusions to his health insurance plan, including bungee-jumping and intercollegiate sports–neither of which would seem to apply to losing a toe in ballet/karate. But I know how crafty and devious health insurance companies can be in trying to deny medical claims. I would hope that the university where I am employed and teach (and where my son is now a student) would have a decent health insurance plan option for its students. I guess I’m about to find out.

Superstorm, Super Nurses, Super Inequality

New York City (Manhattan) from Ganrty Park aft...
New York City (Manhattan) from Ganrty Park after Hurricane Sandy (Photo credit: TenSafeFrogs)

Living in the Pacific Northwest with the return of our perpetual grey days and rain, I do not hear the same level of weather complaints as I usually do. In the wake (literal/multiple meanings) of the devastation of Superstorm Sandy on the East Coast, most people here are grateful for our relatively benign weather.

On Monday, when the storm was hitting Virginia, I called to check in on my elderly father, who is now mostly homebound in hospice. High winds and local flooding were affecting his town in Central Virginia, but he had two nurses with him when I called. One was the visiting home hospice nurse who was checking his health status and making sure he had his medications. The other was his caregiver, a retired Emergency Department nurse. She is a no-nonsense person who walks with a cane and has been known to wave it my father’s way when he forgets to take his medicines. Clearly my father was in capable hands. I could get on with my job of grading student papers. I know firsthand what an important role home nurses play in the daily lives of elderly people and their families. And especially so in times of natural disaster.

I was pleased to see the NYT article “Enduring the storm for homebound patients” by John Leland (11-1-12). He highlights the essential work of the 5,000 nurses, aides, and social workers through the NYC Visiting Nurse Service who have been out providing services to patients around the city during the storm. He quotes nurse Allison Chisholm as saying, “…it’s something you have to do as a nurse. (…) I don’t see this as being a hero. I have a conscience. I have to sleep at night.” Mr. Leland quotes an elderly male patient exclaiming how he can’t get over the nursing service. His home nurse seems to have climbed fourteen floors in the dark to change the dressings on his leg wounds. And this patient adds that he can see how expensive the home nursing care must be. (Presumably covered by Medicare). But Mr. Leland follows with a quote from another elderly patient (a non-retired social work professor) who says, “This service saves a fortune because we don’t have to be in hospitals. They don’t pay these people enough.”

Indeed, that was something that was bugging me about the coverage of Sandy that I have been receiving: not enough attention to the consequences of extreme economic inequities being played out. (The residents of lower Manhattan being referred to as “The Dark People” for one thing.) I am sure that altruism and duty have been major motivators for the visiting nurses, aides and social workers who have provided essential services to people across the socio-economic spectrum. But they—and especially the home health aides who make minimum wage or just above—depend on the income from their jobs to feed, house, and clothe themselves and their families. They simply cannot afford the luxury of taking the day off.

David Rohde wrote an article on this for The Atlantic. In “The hideous inequality exposed by Hurricane Sandy” (10-31-12) he points out that income inequality in Manhattan rivals parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, and only Sierra Leon and Namibia have higher income gaps. I have walked the length of Manhattan many times, but until now had not realized how all of the major public hospitals are located in low-lying, flood-prone, power-outage areas.  The Manhattan skyline was forever changed with 9-11; the Manhattan skyline of light/dark, haves/have nots is perhaps forever burned into our national psyche. Now, to do something about it.

April Fool

April 16th is the fifth annual National Healthcare Decisions Day (NHDD). According to their website, the mission of NHDD is “to inspire, educate & empower the public & providers about the importance of advance care planning. National Healthcare Decisions Day is an initiative to encourage patients to express their wishes regarding healthcare and for providers and facilities to respect those wishes, whatever they may be.” Nathan Kottkamp, a lawyer who specializes in health care law is the founder and chair of NHDD. In an interview on AARP News, Mr. Kottkamp reports that he launched NHDD in Virginia in 2006 and expanded it nationally in 2008. He chose April 16th, the day after “tax day” because of Ben Franklin’s aphorism “Nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.”

Advance medical directives including living wills and health care proxy/agent/power of attorney (who a person wants to make health care decisions for them in case they are incapacitated), are important legal documents recognized (in differing degrees) in all 50 states. At least in theory, having an advance medical directive helps patients have more say in how they die—whether, like the emergency department physician Boris Veysman they want “Shock me, tube me, line me” (Health Affairs, Feb 2010, vol 29(2): 324-326), or like other people they do not want medical procedures that artificially prolong the dying process. And designating a health care proxy—again in theory—helps to avoid unnecessary confusion in health care communication, especially in emergency situations.

I applaud the work of Nathan Kottkamp and others like him to bring greater awareness to the general public about end of life decision making. But as I am currently experiencing, the health care system is not cooperating with sane implementation of the Advance Medical Directives.

Five blocks northeast of Nathan Kottkamp’s law office in Richmond, Virginia is the main hospital of the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) health System. My elderly father is now a patient there, after experiencing confusion and shortness of breath at home (from congestive heart failure) and calling the ambulance to take him to see his cardiologist at VCU. Less than two years ago I was with my father in the VCU hospital admission’s office when he was being admitted for possible cardiac surgery. My father had the original copy of his Virginia Advance Medical Directive/Living Will/Appointment of Health Care Agent. My father and I had gone over specific medical procedures—such as resuscitation, mechanical ventilation, and ‘tube’ feeding—with his wonderfully patient and competent primary care physician (who praised my father for having this important conversation and for doing his Living Will).  My father came to VCU hospital fully prepared. His Medical Directive five page document was witnessed/signed by two of the VCU Health Systems hospital admission’s office officials. They made photocopies to give to me and promised the legal document was now part of my father’s hospital medical record. My father named me as his health care agent.

Imagine my surprise yesterday when I was notified by my father’s neighbor that my father had been whisked away to VCU emergency department. But I was even more surprised when I called/talked with a clerk at the VCU ED and was told that to protect patient privacy the nurses/medical staff couldn’t tell me anything about my father—that she wasn’t even supposed to tell me if he was there or not. It did no good when I informed her I was his health care proxy—she said they had no proof of that. He was admitted to the cardiac floor and I was finally able to talk with his nurse (using a special secret HIPAA/patient privacy code—really? The lawyers interpreting HIPAA for hospitals are getting quite creative). She informed me that they had no record of my father’s Medical Directive so he was “full code.” When I told her I had a photocopy of the Medical Directive in front of me and that it was signed by their hospital admission’s department personnel she said, “That doesn’t matter. We get rid of all of that in the medical record and start all over again.” She said that my father should have brought a copy of his Medical Directive to the hospital with him—it was his fault he didn’t have it. I kept expecting her to exclaim “April Fools!” but she didn’t.

So, on April Fools’ Day, I’d like to amend Ben Franklin’s aphorism to proclaim: In this world there is nothing certain except death and taxes and the fact that our US health care system is one crazy-making system…..

(If you haven’t seen/read Atul Gawande’s terrific New Yorker Essay 8-2-10 on end of life decision making ,“Letting Go, What Should Medicine Do When It Can’t Save Your Life?” I highly recommend it. Also see the recent NYT Op-ed piece 3-30-12 “Taking Responsibility for Death” by Susan Jacoby).

Violence at Work

ER (TV series)
Image via Wikipedia

This past week our local public radio station, KUOW, ran a series on workplace safety in Washington state. For those of you not familiar with Pacific NW-specific high-risk jobs, these include loggers and commercial fishermen, including scuba-diver harvesters of geoducks (world’s largest clams/highly priced aphrodisiac in China and Japan—when you see a photograph of one you’ll understand why). Then there are the non region-specific high-risk jobs of police officers, corrections officers and security guards.

But the highest risk job category of all in Washington state is that of nurses’s aid, followed closely by RN. The highest risk place to work is Western State Hospital. Nurse’s aids, nurses, and other frontline workers at Western State Hospital are assaulted on the job 60 times more than the average worker in Washington state. Western State is the largest psychiatric facility west of the Mississippi and houses criminal defendants when they are found mentally incompetent to stand trial.  So it is in effect a combination correctional and psychiatric facility with highly volatile and violence-prone patients.

Nationwide, nurses working in Emergency Departments (EDs) are at high risk for workplace violence, generally in the form of physical violence from patients, family members or other visitors. EDs and urgent care centers are where people go for violence-related injuries stemming from domestic violence or gang violence. EDs and urgent care centers are where people go who are intoxicated or having acute psychiatric emergencies—usually accompanied by police. Waiting room overcrowding, long wait times to be seen by a provider, lack of visible security systems, lack of staff training on de-escalation techniques, and understaffing, all contribute to increased risk of violence. Reports from around the country indicate a steady increase in ED violence, most likely stemming from weakening primary care safety net services, forcing more desperate and frustrated patients into EDs for basic health care needs.

The KUOW episode “Violence in the ER” and the accompanying Seattle Times article “Most violent job in Washington? Nurse’s Aid” highlight ED workplace violence in Tacoma General Hospital in Tacoma, and Harborview Hospital in Seattle—the state’s two biggest hospital EDs. Tacoma General Hospital ED uses a metal detector at all times to screen patients and visitors. Harborview Hospital only uses a metal detector in the ED at night, and at other times security guards use a hand-held metal detector on patients and visitors they deem high risk.  Harborview Hospital administrators, like many for hospitals across the country, have chosen not to install permanent metal detectors for fear of slowing down emergency care. According to the KUOW report, on a recent Saturday night a man got into the Harborview ED with a backpack containing a large knife, two cans of pepper spray, a cap gun, and bullets.

Third behind ED and psychiatric hospital settings for workplace violence for nurses is home care/home hospice. Work in these settings is usually done solo, with possible exposure to domestic violence or drug activity.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency charged with ensuring safe and healthful working environments for US workers, has failed to issue federal standards on workplace violence in health care settings. So far, they have only published voluntary guidelines on this topic. California, Washington, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Nevada have passed state laws requiring further protection for health care workers. For instance, in Washington state, all health care settings are required to develop and implement plans to protect employees from violence. State law now makes it a felony for anyone to attack a health care provider—including verbal threat of assault. Washington state law requires all health care settings to keep records of any violent act (including verbal threats) against an employee, patient or visitor.

According to Jeaux Rinehardt, president of the Washington State Emergency Nurses Association, the felony assault charge is mainly enforced for attacks on doctors—rarely for attacks on nurses or other health care providers. He also echoes many nurses around the country in stating that nurses are actively discouraged from reporting and documenting workplace violence by managers or hospital administrators. (KUOW News: Violence in the ER, 7-13-11)

I worked in home health in Richmond and Baltimore for seven years during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic of the late 1980’s/early 1990’s. I worked in a large downtown Baltimore hospital urgent care center for six years. If you have watched any episodes of “The Wire” that’s what it was like to work and live in Baltimore at that time. The worst thing that happened to me during those years was that an intoxicated patient peed on me during a pelvic examination right when we had a power outage. She got scared she said, so it’s not like she meant any harm. The urgent care center I worked for was well staffed, had excellent relations with the community it served, and had a visible, well-functioning security system. We had panic buttons we carried in our pockets at all times, but I never had to use it. All staff received regular training in violence prevention techniques.

By contrast, working at various community health centers in and around Seattle for 15 years, there were at least ten times when patients seeking narcotics verbally or physically threatened me. These clinics were usually poorly staffed, served large numbers of impoverished people, had no security systems in place, and did not have clear protocols or “pain contracts” for use of narcotics. I remember front desk staff calling for police in several of the cases, but I think in only one case was I encouraged to complete an Incident Report.

An aspect of workplace violence in health care settings I had not even thought of appeared as a spin-off of a KevinMD.com guest blog. In 2007 Patricia Allen, RN wrote “Violence in the Emergency Department and how to promote ER safety.” It is a short blog post, mainly advertising her book. What I found more interesting was a reader’s comment. Steve Parker, MD: “Here in Arizona, hospitals are gun-free zones. Most physician and healthcare providers will not carry their guns into the hospital. Risk of getting caught is too high.” I had to read his comment twice before I understood it, because it never occurred to me that health care providers would carry concealed weapons to work. I thought that was confined to really bad TV shows.