Accounting for a life

By Michael Phillis

You don’t usually expect to see a picture of your ex-girlfriend from high school on the front page of the paper; you really don’t expect the headline next to her photo to read, “Is $300K the price tag of a 21-year-old?”

Through the article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, I found out that University of Massachusetts senior Hannah Coler is suffering from a “potentially deadly autoimmune disease.”

The problem is that her insurance does not cover the stem cell treatment that is covered by some other insurance companies.  She is covered under the company UniCare.  The treatment is estimated to cost $300,000.

Her father now has to try to figure out how to gain enough media attention to get the treatment for his daughter.  He has reached the point where he is asking for donations to raise the money for the procedure himself.  According to the Gazette, he is thinking about suing UniCare but, with the possibility of litigation being drawn out, he is worried there won’t be enough time.

Hannah’s disease is described as progressing rapidly and she has a fifty-fifty chance of surviving the next five years.  The disease, called diffuse scleroderma, makes the skin harder and then moves its way to the internal organs, hardening them as well.

The Gazette mentioned the attorney who is helping the Coler family, David Becker, who had the same disease and was helped by the same treatment that could be provided to Hannah if the insurance company would pay for it.

In the end, this is what the health care debate comes down to.  People like Hannah fighting to get care and being undercut by a deeply flawed system.

The insurance company made a decision that was based on the bottom line.  Hannah’s disease effects a small portion of one-percent of the population and I can only assume the company decided that her treatment could be exempted, therefore saving them $300,000.

This is exactly what a death panel looks like.  The company made a decision based on profits, the result of which could kill a UMass student.

The trial that Hannah was recommended for, “Scleroderma: Cyclophosphamide or Transplantation” (SCOT) received praise from Becker, “I think they should be providing coverage because this is medically necessary and potentially life changing.”  According to the article in the Gazette, when Becker needed the procedure done, his insurance paid for what he called a “medically necessary” procedure.

The insurance company replied to Hannah’s request for coverage by saying in essence that the coverage was still experimental and not medically necessary.

Congress has been talking for months now and the public seems to be tiring of the debate.  It is, however, important to keep in mind that this debate is not simply about policy but instead it is meant to alter an incredibly important and personal aspect of someone’s life.

There are some good proposals embedded in the thousands of pages of legislation.  No longer should you be able to be denied coverage because of a preexisting condition; drug prices should be negotiable.  Most importantly, insurance companies desperately need regulation because they are dealing with people’s lives directly.

Think the system is okay like it is now?  Then there needs to be explanations for situations like the one in which Hannah is in.  Right now, her disease is in the beginning stages: it’s harder for her to move around the house, it is more difficult for her to play an instrument and she feels tired more often.  In all likelihood, life will only get more difficult for her as time progresses.

Whatever your opinion on health care, it is all too easy to forget that it deals with real people in life or death situations.  Altering the debate in order to achieve political gain is intolerable, saying government wants to kill people because they are going to discuss end of life care with patients is unfounded and making people believe that the other side is directly working against freedom is laughable – if people weren’t so frequently making these kinds of charges allowing the uniformed to believe its misinformation.

Until some of this legislation is passed and people like Hannah are able to get the treatment of which there is much evidence could save their life, people will suffer and that suffering could be in the form of a 21-year-old UMass student living with a drastically shorter life expectancy than she could have had if she had been born with an extra $300,000.

In an email, Hannah said, “It’s enough that we have to deal with these terrible diseases, but on top of that, we have to fight for treatment that could either relieve some symptoms or even halt the disease?! It’s just ridiculous. I need to focus on my health, not on anything else.”

Hannah had to receive news that most of us could not imagine having to live with.  Adding to her situation is the fact that the bottom-line of an insurance company might mean the difference between whether she lives past five years or not.

Whatever your beliefs, people like Hannah should never be in the situation she must now face.  In America, we take care of each other better than this.

Michael Phillis is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].