For a while now I’ve been on MassHealth. That’s the Massachusetts version of Medicaid. If you don’t live in the U.S., Medicaid is health insurance for the poor and the disabled. It’s partially funded by the federal government but it’s administered by the states. This means that the type of coverage you have, and if you’re even eligible, is based on where you live. Ridiculous, right? Thankfully, I live in Massachusetts, where I am eligible for MassHealth. In other states I wouldn’t have been able to get it.
Of course, that was before. Now I’ve won my long term disability appeal, so I’m getting my old health insurance reinstated. You’d think that was a good thing, right? Wrong!
Obviously my old insurance costs a lot more than MassHealth. I was on MassHealth not as someone with a disability (don’t get me started on that!) but as someone of low (in my case, nonexistent) income. So I didn’t pay premiums or copays, and I paid only tiny amounts for prescriptions. And my old insurance is used by more doctors, so in theory that’s good. But here’s the problem: referrals.
In Massachusetts, most health insurance plans are HMO. That stands for Health Maintenance Organization, but as far as I can tell their just trying to maintain their balance sheets, not our health. HMOs require that all doctor visits by approved by the patient’s primary care physician (PCP). If I want the insurance to cover any appointment with any specialist (except for eye care, for some reason) then I must get a “referral” from my PCP. This sounds good, until you consider the reality:
- Many PCPs want to discuss each situation, so that means time, effort, and money (yes, we pay to see PCPs aside from yearly checkups) for each discussion.
- The PCP can say no because they don’t think you need to see that specialist. That’s one of the reasons it took eleven years for me to be diagnosed.
- The PCP can say no because they’d rather you see another doctor. Usually they want you to see one within their own hospital network.
I did my research. I asked around. I figured out exactly who I should see. Sadly, they took my old insurance but not MassHealth. I waited many, many months. Then, finally, they started taking MassHealth! I got the first appointment I could, for this Thursday. You see, with MassHealth, specialist referrals aren’t necessary – I can see whoever I want as long as they take my insurance! What a novel idea!
But here’s the thing: I can only use MassHealth as long as I don’t have access to another health insurance. But now that I’ve won the disability insurance case and I’m getting my old health insurance back, I’m going to lose MassHealth. Sadly, the changeover is due to happen on Wednesday. Yes, just ONE DAY before my big appointment! So after waiting for about a year to see this doctor, it all comes down to needing a referral from my PCP.
I called my PCP’s office today. They said they’d run it by her, but told me she usually doesn’t refer to anyone outside of her hospital network. Now, I’m completely willing to leave her practice. In fact, I plan to leave it anyway. But there’s no way I’ll be set up with someone else by Wednesday. That just isn’t possible, especially because no PCP gives a referral before having a first meeting with a patient. So now I’m worried that I’ll miss out on my big appointment and that I’ll have to put it off even longer, all because my PCP may not give me the referral.
The inexcusable part? She wouldn’t withhold the referral because the doctor I want to see is the wrong specialist for my condition or because he has a bad reputation. She would withhold it only because she prefers to have her patients seen within her hospital network. There are advantages to that, of course. She knows the physicians, the medical records are all within the same system, etc. But it is also very limiting. I’ve researched those doctors and they don’t do the treatment I want. The treatment I want is less common, but by no means experimental or unconventional.
I should be confidently awaiting my big appointment, looking forward to new treatment possibilities. Instead, I feel stress that it may not happen. Is this the medical system we deserve? How have we let it deteriorate to this point. This is simply not acceptable.