When cancer isn’t covered…

SB1522(Steinberg), sponsored by Health Access California, is up for a full Senate vote this week.

The bill would standardize the individual insurance market, so that consumers have a better sense of the coverage they are buying, and allow for “apples-to-apples” comparisons between plans. It would create clear categories so that people would have a better sense of how comprehensive their plan was, and would set a minimum standard for benefits to include doctor, hospital, and preventative care, and have a overall cap on out-of-pocket costs. This would eliminate the “junk” insurance that leaves people to believe they are covered but finding out later they have significant financial exposure.

Below is the testimony of Susan Braig (pictured above, with Senator Darryl Steinberg, author of SB1522). With a limited income to pay premiums, she understood she was buying catastrophic coverage… but not that her “hospital only” plan wouldn’t cover the significant costs of being treated for breast cancer, because most of those treatments were not in a hospital.

This is a excerpt of her testimony in the Senate Health Committee earlier this year:

I am a self-employed grant writer, whose Stage 2 Breast Cancer has, thankfully, not metasticized, though my credit card debt has.

In 2001, after a year with no health insurance, my 50th birthday sent me comparison shopping, and I went to Blue Cross. I purchased what I considered to be a “catastrophic” policy, their lowest tier, their BASIC PPO 1000. I thought my out-of-pockets costs would be limited to $3,500, comprised of a $1,000 deductible, plus a $2500 co-payment requirement before full coverage kicks in.

Blue Cross made it clear up front, this plan did not cover doctor visits, tests or prescriptions; I rationalized that, since I was healthy and rarely needed a doctor, why sweat the “small stuff?”

The important thing was, Blue Cross said they would cover 80% the big stuff: surgeries, emergencies, and hospitalizations, and with the big stuff, I would quickly spend $3500, and then Blue Cross would pay 100% of my care for the rest of the year.

Prior to my 2004 diagnosis, I assumed fighting a catastrophic disease like cancer involved the big stuff.

* What I didn’t realize then, but I know now, is that during the next 11 years, most of my medical services I would need in my battle with cancer would involve things not covered—specialist exams, ultrasounds, an $8,000 MRI, lab tests, prescriptions.

Even my chemotherapy treatments were considered doctor visits, unless I had the identical treatments an hour from home in a hospital.

* I also didn’t realize that the way deductibles and co-pays are calculated meant they didn’t count any of these non-hospital expenses to meet my deductible, and I would almost never reach my annual $3500 cap, no matter how much I spent.

It’s true that after I met my deductible, Blue Cross did cover 80% of in-hospital services, such as my Lumpectomy and a 3-day emergency hospitalization in 2004… although by the time I paid off my $1000 deductible, my various 20% co-payments fell $30 short of the $2500 co-payment requirement to get full coverage.
* For a time, due to my low income, I got help with the costs that Blue Cross didn’t cover from the state’s Breast and Cervical Cancer Treatment program. That was a lifesaver—even though I was still paying premiums to Blue Cross.

* I still have significant follow-up treatments. In each of the last few years, I have paid out over $5,000 a year in out-of-pocket costs, on top of what I pay in premiums, yet my insurance pays nothing. I expect these treatments—and these costs–to go on for several more years. I already have over $40,000 in credit card debt, mostly stemming from my illness and medical care.

With the ongoing costs of follow-up care, I begin to wonder, “I’m paying insurance premiums for WHAT?”

When people seek coverage, they should know what their options are, and what they are getting. When they have coverage, they should have the confidence that it will actually provide protection against financial ruin and bankrtupcy. SB1522(Steinberg), if it passes the Senate floor this week, will take a major step in providing that clarity and security.

Health Access California promotes quality, affordable health care for all Californians.
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