To Treat or Not to Treat

Ah, the gift of late August heat in New England. After a week that felt more like September, I’m glad to be back in sandals, at least for the next few days.

I’m also grateful for warmer weather that helps my ulcers to heal. A week ago Sunday, I awoke with pain in my left thumb that I hoped was just an inflammation. The pad of this finger has an intransigent spot of abnormal skin that occasionally gets thick and painful and usually responds well to careful debridement. But not this time.

My thumb was achey as I commenced a six-hour round-trip drive to bring Emily home from her summer job at her college alma mater, and the discomfort was just barely manageable with over-the-counter painkillers that wouldn’t make me drowsy. I suspected an infection. But when I finally got home and took a closer look, I didn’t see any obvious symptoms. No foul odor. No oozing puss. No extreme redness. Maybe topical antibiotics, just to be safe, would do the trick overnight?

I hate starting oral antibiotics, even as I’m grateful always to have some available at home, thanks to a team of physicians who know me well enough to trust my judgment and my follow-up reporting. This is a privilege of living in a wealthy Western country with good health care (despite all the political wrangling). I am very much aware of the risks of unnecessarily treating with antibiotics—the evolution of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria—and that threat frightens me, since I’m so susceptible to infections.

So, I waited overnight to see if a more modest approach would work. It did not. Too early on Monday morning, I was roused by severe pain in my thumb. It had swollen just enough to feel trapped in too-snug skin. Basically, it felt like my thumb was stuck in a car door. That, or the stabbing sensation of an intermittent electric shock or an ice pick are the sure signs of a bacterial infection in one of my fingers.

Time to double-up on antibiotics—one pill for the morning, and one for the dose I should have taken the night before. Then I cut a Vicodin in half and swallowed that, too. I also hate, absolutely hate narcotic pain meds, because they make me feel like a space cadet, but sometimes there is just no other way to deal.

It took me a good 48 hours on the antibiotics to dispense with the Vicodin, and another day for the now obvious infection to begin to clear. Today, a week later, my thumb is healing well, along with my other three digital ulcers of the moment, which always clear up when I’m on oral antibiotics.

Thank goodness. But will it always be so?

In his 8-25-14 financial column in The New Yorker, James Surowiecki writes a clear and compelling analysis of why Big Pharma doesn’t invest in new drugs that don’t make a profit.

This is relevant in light of the Ebola crisis in West Africa—“Diseases that mostly affect poor people in poor countries aren’t a research priority, because it’s unlikely that those markets will ever produce a decent return” on R&D, writes Surowiecki—as well as the reason why there is so little research into new antibiotics to treat resistant strains of bacteria.

The reason for the lack of investment in discovering better antibiotics, Surowiecki explains, isn’t for lack of awareness of future need. It’s “the business model. If a drug company did invent a powerful new antibiotic, we wouldn’t want it to be widely prescribed, because the goal would be to delay resistance.” With the prospect of limited sales, Big Pharma doesn’t want to make the investment.

What’s the solution? Surowiecki floats the idea of prizes for new drugs that have a public health benefit. The idea isn’t new: government-funded incentives for innovative solutions have been used for centuries and have become common in recent decades. They are only awarded if the idea works. They help to correct market forces that work to the detriment of the public good.

So why haven’t we started down this path, already? Huge up-front costs. Surowiecki notes that “a recent report commissioned by the F.D.A. estimated that it would cost a billion dollars to get a great new antibiotic, factoring in tax credits.”

To put this in perspective, that’s equivalent to the cost of about 200 Predator Drones.

I hope and pray, before the inevitable crisis hits, that our government can stop the political infighting long enough to get its priorities straight and make a serious investment in the future of public health, both here and abroad.

God-willing, this will happen long before that bottle of antibiotics in my medicine drawer no longer provides relatively quick treatment and relief from an infection that could all too easily get out of hand.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

May I Have Your Attention?

If you spend any time on social media, watching TV or reading the newspaper, by now you’ve undoubtedly heard of the extraordinarily successful “Ice Bucket Challenge” that has raised record-breaking donations for ALS research.

It goes like this: You pour a bucket of ice water on your head while someone makes a video of your antics, upload it to social media, then challenge friends to do the same or make a $100 contribution to the ALS Foundation, which funds research to find a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS afflicts about 30,000 Americans, attacking the nerve cells and eventually causing total paralysis, most often within two to five years of diagnosis. It is debilitating, terrifying and, ultimately, fatal.

Though dismissed by some critics as “slacktivism”—an all too easy, narcissistic and short-lived way to feel good about yourself for giving to a good cause, with no lasting impact—the Ice Bucket Challenge, as of this writing, has attracted support from celebrities ranging from the New England Patriots to Jimmy Fallon and raised more than $15.6 million for ALS this August, compared to $1.8 million during the same period last year. You read that correctly—a more than seven-fold increase. And that, my friends, is nothing to sneer at.

I’m thrilled for the ALS Foundation that they’ve been so successful. I have known good souls who died of this scourge, and a friend’s husband was just recently diagnosed. I hope and pray that all this money may somehow buy him and others like him some time and better quality of life.

But, of course, now I wonder . . . what would it take to draw that kind of attention and donations to scleroderma research for a cure?

A few folks in the online scleroderma community have been wondering the same thing. Suggestions range from sticking your hand in a bucket of ice water for a few hours to simulate severe Raynaud’s, to wearing a scuba diving suit that’s a few sizes too small to sample tight skin.

What about something more playful—a Mummy Wrap Challenge—you know, that silly game where you wrap up your partner in rolls and rolls of toilet paper to look like a mummy? At least it might get people to laugh, even as they developed some glimmer of what it feels like to be trapped in your own skin with this rotten disease. Maybe Scott Brands could be a corporate sponsor. (I’m kidding. Really.)

All of this copycat daydreaming begs the broader questions: How do you break through the clamor of fundraising demands for so many good causes to build lasting awareness and a solid donor base for scleroderma research? And how do you do it in a way that doesn’t trivialize the cause itself?

I can just imagine, on the heels of the Ice Bucket Challenge’s success, that we’ll soon be inundated with all kinds of attempts to be clever and cash in on self-perpetuating viral social media campaigns for various diseases. As it is, every single organization trying to raise disease awareness has a walk of some kind, including for scleroderma. These walks are successful, up to a point, raising needed funds. But they have also become so ubiquitous that they begin to merge into the white noise of our over-programmed lives, attracting mostly those who already know about the disease in question.

There are just so many, many ways that our bodies can break down. And there is a limit to our attention spans and compassion for so many illnesses. Which, ultimately, is why there’s so little government funding, relative to the need, for research into the so-called “orphan diseases” that afflict smaller numbers, compared to, say, cancer or diabetes.

If all of the foundations devoted to finding cures for obscure auto-immune diseases, including scleroderma, banded together, would we have a better chance of raising awareness and donations for cures? Is there research that cuts across all auto-immune diseases that could benefit those who suffer from the all-too-many variants? Would there be more cooperation and knowledge sharing among medical scientists? Would we have more clout in Congress?

I wonder. One thing is certain, though. The Ice Bucket Challenge proves that there are plenty of people out there with good intentions and money to give to find cures for terrible diseases. It’s just a matter of getting their attention and holding it long enough to dump out a bucket of ice water on a hot summer’s day.

In the meantime, please consider supporting one of these fine organizations that are working toward a cure for scleroderma:

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Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Hidden Costs

Just over a month into our new health insurance policy, and, although it could be worse, the view is not pretty. When the hospital where Al works was bought out last year, I had misgivings. I am not paranoid.

Aside from a four-figure deductible, which, I understand, is becoming the industry standard, we are now dealing with much higher copays for prescription drugs. Much higher. As in double or quadruple what I was paying previously.

I have four medications that are classified as “Tier Three,” which means that the copay is $100. This past year, on a monthly basis, one cost $25, one cost $35, and two cost $50 each. The new system requires me to buy a 90-day supply of one of these drugs, for $200, which brings the monthly cost to about $67. The other three cannot be purchased in bulk, so it’s $100 every time I need a refill.

It all works out to about $5,000 annually for these four medications, none of which have generic substitutions, all of which I need to stay healthy. I even checked out pricing on Canadian drug websites, but because these are all brand name drugs, there is no savings to be found.

So we’re stuck. In addition to this discovery, we also have learned that because the new policy started in July, but the policy year starts in January, we will have to pay the full deductible once again, starting in 2015, before we get any benefits from the plan for medical expenses. This is on top of premiums taken out of Al’s paycheck. Originally we thought his premiums would be lower than last year, but that does not appear to be the case.

Oh, and did I mention? The prescription co-pays don’t count toward the deductible, and there is no cap.

When you add it all up, it appears that this new policy will cost us at least $10,000, probably more, each year—and that’s just for me.

But there’s another hidden cost to the plan—and that’s time. Al and I both have made numerous calls to the health plan and pharmacy plan, just trying to understand what is covered and what isn’t. Then there’s all the follow-up on medications. To give just one example:

I have one medication that I’ve been taking for several years, with no problem under our former plan, that now requires pre-authorization. Okay, fine. I’ve dealt with this before. But we found out about the problem when the prescription bounced back at the pharmacy. This required a follow-up call to the doctor, to be sure she received the FAX with the request to submit the pre-authorization. Then I called the pharmacy plan to find out how long it would take: 72 hours.

All right, but in the meantime, I was out of pills. I called my doc once again and asked if she might have samples. Fortunately, she was able to give me a month’s supply. Her office is at the hospital, so Al was able to pick them up while he was at work, saving me a trip.

I went out of town last week on business and asked Al to follow up with the pharmacy. When I got home, he told me that they had not filled the prescription, yet. So I called the pharmacy to find out what had happened. They said the scrip was still on hold because it required a pre-authorization. Once again, I called the doctor’s office. The nurse told me they had sent in the forms the day I requested them.

Then we checked the mail. There was a letter telling me the request had been declined, because this was a brand name drug and there were other, cheaper meds that could work just as well.

The only problem, and this is why I had been prescribed this particular medication in the first place, is that all the other related drugs cause dry mouth, and I have dry mouth aplenty already due to Sjögren’s syndrome. So I called the doc’s office once again, informed them of the letter and explained the situation about why I couldn’t take those other meds. The nurse checked the pre-authorization file, and, of course, it turned out that no-one had thought to include that fact in the paperwork. So they will resubmit.

That’s just one prescription.

And there is more time involved for determining what my BMC doc visits will cost (they are included in our plan, but there is a facilities fee charge because they all work in hospital settings, and we have to apply for a “gap exception,” which requires proving that there is no one nearby who can perform the same service).

And extra research involved anytime any of us needs to seek medical services away from home.

There’s more to this, but I’ll stop here. You get the idea. Suffice it to say that, although I know a private-pay plan would cost even more, from what self-insured friends have told me, the reality is that we are taking a significant pay cut in our family income with this policy. I’m hoping to make up the difference with additional clients, but there are no guarantees when you freelance. The fact that I work for myself makes it easier to make all the research phone calls, but that’s time spent not earning.

Anyone who thinks that private insurers are making our health care system more efficient, think again. They’re only passing along more costs to the consumer, regardless of ability to pay. And the more complicated your health issues, the more you have to spend, even if your medical condition reduces your earning power.

I won’t be eligible for Medicare for another six years. And by then, who knows what benefits will still be available? Bottom line: Neither of us will be retiring any time soon.

Photo Credit: Peter Gerdes via Compfight cc

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

One More Thing

As my family well knows, I have a bad habit of trying to squeeze in as many items on my to-do list as possible before I head out the door. I get a lot done, but all too often I run late—not horribly late, and I manage to make most appointments on time, but when the deadline is less rigid, I can slide five, ten minutes behind.

The problem is that everything usually works out fine, anyway, which just reinforces my obsession with getting that One More Thing done.

Except for Monday morning, when I had to catch a train to Boston to catch the bus to Logan for a flight to Kansas City on business. (Fortunately, this has a happy ending, but this once again reinforces my bad habit, as you’ll see.)

I was well organized for my trip when I got up, relatively on time (mornings are always hard, as my body is sluggish). My bag was 99 percent packed. Did my exercises. So far, so good. Stopped myself from catching up on news and Facebook, so I wouldn’t waste precious minutes.

Then came the fateful decision to do One More Thing. I had a family project I wanted to finish before leaving the house, which I needed to complete online from our secure network, that I felt couldn’t wait until my return from my business trip later this week. It took about 15 minutes. I had just barely enough time to eat breakfast, finish packing, get dressed and race out the door with Al to get to the train station.

Challenging under even the best of circumstances. But I was also upset with myself, because in the midst of finishing my One More Thing project, I thought I’d messed up the online form because I was rushing and couldn’t backtrack. As I finished shoving the last few items into my suitcase, my hands started shaking. This always happens when I hurry and get stressed. Totally involuntary and very frustrating—my coordination just gets worse.

So I ranted to Al all the way to the train. Fortunately, he is very calm when I freak out. As we drove up to the station, I could see the train waiting at the platform. I jumped out of the car, Al grabbed my bag from the trunk, we said a quick goodbye, and I ran as best I could toward the platform . . . only to watch the train pull away. As one of the conductors, standing on a coach staircase, slid by me, he shook his head and shrugged. Just another late, would-be passenger.

At this point, I started crying. There are many things in this world worth crying about, and this wasn’t one of them, but I was just so frustrated with myself. Al to the rescue (fortunately, he had waited to be sure I got on) with a big hug. Rather than go home and come back in two hours to catch the next train, which would have risked a tight rush to the airport, he drove me in to Logan.

Now, here’s where my One More Thing habit gets reinforced. The ride into town had the advantage of saving my hands from dragging my carry-on from train through South Station to bus to airport. We said a real good-bye when Al dropped me off. I made it through security in 10 minutes, bought a bagel and found a table where I could write before every space was taken later in the morning. And, to top it off, I found out through an email exchange about my One More Thing project that I’d completed the online form correctly, after all. No problem!

Next time I miss a train because I’m trying to do too much, I still hope my loving husband will take pity on me once again and save the day. But I honestly don’t want to cut it so close to the wire, for myself (too much stress) or for him. (Hear that, Al? Thanks again! Love you!)

It’s comforting to know that life usually works out, even when you think you’ve messed up. But it’s also good to remember that One More Thing can usually wait. (Hear that, me?)

Photo Credit: Éole via Compfight cc

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

“You must do the thing you think you cannot do”

At the FDR Museum and Library in Hyde Park, N.Y., there is a wooden box with a metal handle. You can pull up on the handle to lift the hidden weight inside. The weight is as heavy as the steel braces worn by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to support his body while standing and walking, after his legs were paralyzed by polio when he was 39. The handle is very hard to move.

Freedom from Fear Hyde Park 7-27-14Whatever your politics (the arguments that raged 80 years ago during FDR’s presidency about the role of government in our daily lives versus unfettered free market capitalism could be cut and pasted into today’s news reports), Roosevelt’s struggle to overcome polio is one of the most inspiring stories I’ve encountered about facing down a chronic illness.

We visited Hyde Park on Sunday, the last stop in our week of day trips that included beaches, dinosaur tracks, the Nathan Hale Homestead, country roads and villages, a woodland hike and Shakespeare al fresco. Though I was familiar with some of FDR’s history and had visited the Roosevelt family home when I was very young (to our daughter Emily’s amusement, I kept remarking that it all looked much smaller than I recalled, undoubtedly because I was about three at the time), I had never understood the full implications of FDR’s illness.

In the summer of 1921, Roosevelt, then a rising star in the Democratic Party who had already served two terms in the New York State Senate, three years as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson, and had been nominated for Vice President on the 1920 Democratic ticket with James Cox, went to visit a New York Boy Scout camp prior to his vacation on Campobello Island, Canada. While sharing food and water with the campers, he was probably exposed to the polio virus.

Not long after, as he was sailing on the Bay of Fundy, FDR lost his balance and fell into the icy waters. The next day, he began to complain of back pain. Within hours of going for a swim, his legs weakened. Three days later, he could no longer stand. He was diagnosed with infantile paralysis, known as polio, on August 25.

The diagnosis was devastating to FDR and his family. He decided to remove himself from politics that fall in order to focus fully on his recovery, but it took another seven years—seven years—for him to regain enough strength and stamina to reenter the political arena. He filled those years with a rigorous regimen of exercise to strengthen his upper body, hot springs treatments and swimming.

By the spring of 1922, he had learned to use the heavy steel braces that stabilized both legs from hip to ankle, locking his knees so they wouldn’t buckle, and was able to walk with assistance. He devised a nimble wheelchair using a dining chair with bicycle-like wheels, a vast improvement over the cumbersome wheelchairs of the day. In the family Springwood estate in Hyde Park, he designed a wheelchair lift worked with hand-pulled ropes, like a large dumbwaiter, that he manipulated to hoist himself between floors. He invited friends and family to keep him company, laugh and joke as he did his exercises, to lift his spirits and normalize the experience for his children.

Two years later, FDR tested the political waters and the public’s reaction to his disability by introducing New York Governor Al Smith as candidate for president at the 1924 Democratic Convention. Walking to the podium with the aid of crutches, he was met with a three-minute ovation—a remarkable outburst of support at a time when people with disabilities were all too often treated as weak and mentally defective, marginalized by their families and isolated by society.

In 1928, FDR ran for governor of New York and won the first of two terms in office, during which he pushed a progressive agenda to aid individuals who suffered in the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash—policies that helped him to win the presidency in 1932 as the Great Depression deepened.

While his political acumen was key to his political success, FDR’s battle with polio is also considered by historians to be one of the most critical factors in his ability to connect with average Americans struggling to survive during that dark period. His wife, Eleanor, often called his disability a “blessing in disguise”—a deep lesson in patience and persistence, qualities so essential for a President who led the country out of the Depression and through most of World War II.

In FDR’s own words: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ . . . You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

For more about FDR’s battle with polio, see this excellent article from the FDR Library.

Image: “BreakFree,” by Edwina Sandys, granddaughter of Winston Churchill, carved from segments of the Berlin Wall, outside the FDR Library in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

State of Mind

It’s finally here, a week when Al and I kick back and take advantage of all that New England has to offer in the summer, beautiful and fascinating places that other people travel miles and miles to visit, but just happen to be within a few hours’ drive of our home.

We got into summer day-tripping a few years ago to economize, and now it’s become a highlight of the year. We started off on Sunday with an afternoon in Boston’s South End, browsing stores and artist lofts and outdoor booths filled with all kinds of crafts, a massive indoor vintage market (read, upscale term for flea market), plus a farmer’s market.

Strawberry Banke 7-21-14On Monday, we drove up to Portsmouth, N.H., to Strawbery Banke, a living history museum covering four centuries of life in one of that city’s oldest communities. Period homes are surrounded by heritage gardens, including one with a children’s tea party set amidst fanciful fairy houses.

I wouldn’t mind living there for a while. In the fairy garden, I mean.

Even as I’m enjoying the break from routine, the glorious weather so far and discovering regional treasures, I’m having some trouble separating out from what else is going on in the world. When you leave your home for a period of days or weeks, it’s easier to take a complete mental break. This is essential to recharging and relaxing, so critical to maintaining health and well-being.

But I can’t seem to tear myself away from following news in the Middle East. Trying to set a limit, but I feel compelled to keep up, even as I find the developments so stressful. Too much is at stake.

So I was grateful to find an oasis of peace right here in our hometown Sunday night. A few years ago, Al and I decided to initiate an interfaith dialogue between our synagogue and a local mosque. Since that time, members of both our communities have studied texts together, broken bread and come to understand how much our faith traditions have in common.

Weeks before the most recent hostilities broke out between Israel and Hamas, our friends at the mosque had invited us to join them for a Ramadan break-fast. And so, this past Sunday evening, a group of our congregants and our rabbi went to the mosque and shared in a study session about the meaning of the Ramadan fast. We explained fasting in our Jewish tradition. We asked questions. And we learned, once again, how much we have in common.

What made the deepest impression on me, as I listened, was how both Ramadan and Yom Kippur are intended for introspection, self-improvement, mending relationships, bringing goodness into the world and drawing closer to God. Both faith traditions are deeply committed to peace.

I will carry that awareness with me as I follow the news and pray that the best in both sides will prevail. And I’ll try to create my own inner space of peace, appreciating what is good and beautiful all around me, as I take a break from headlines, deadlines and most of my responsibilities for a week. The alternative is to wear myself out, and that won’t do anyone any good, especially me.

After all, vacation, no matter where you are or how you do it, is really only a state of mind.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

And I Didn’t Get Sick

Sitting in St. Louis’s Lambert Airport on Monday morning as I type on my laptop, watching fellow passengers gather at my gate. Surprisingly, some people are actually sitting and talking with their neighbors, rather than burying their noses in cell phones or tablets. One woman is reading a book. As in, the kind made out of paper.

photo-1But plenty of others are typing on laptops, like me, or talking business on smartphones (loudly—don’t they know others are listening?) or texting or checking emails or playing games on tablets. There are comfy armchairs next to electrical outlets to accommodate all our gizmos. I have managed to get everything into my carry-on and purse, so no worries ahead about losing luggage. I’m getting better at air travel since my trip here last year, when my return flight connected through JFK and my checked bag disappeared for 24 hours.

Despite Midwest heat and humidity, the sky is robin’s egg blue with puffy cumulous clouds. A pleasant end to a lovely weekend with my older sister and family, including a visit to the exquisite St.Louis Art Museum, great meals featuring my brother-in-law’s home-grown vegetables, an al fresco Italian dinner, Shabbat services at a local congregation that felt just like home, sharing the Cardinal’s ups and downs against the Pirates and the Brewers, a Sunday brunch with friends, the World Cup finale, and a drizzly performance of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess at the outdoor Muny Opera (one hour rain delay halfway through Act 1, and the show was cancelled before the last three songs due to approaching thunderstorms, but even so, the music and acting were terrific).

The highlight of our weekend together was hearing my sister, a talented flutist, perform wonderful music with her woodwind quintet at a local bistro. That, and sharing old family stories. “Are you making that up?” she asked me, laughing, since I can always remember more about the past than she, even as we’re both getting a bit fuzzy about recent events. Ah, the power of longterm memory.

Travel remains a challenge—inevitably, the bandages on my finger ulcers get messy and loose, and I need to manage my energy and joints. Getting through security is exhausting, with all the lifting and sorting, organizing purse, shoes, laptop in gray rectangular buckets and then reorganizing everything quickly so as not hold up the person behind me. But fellow travelers have been very helpful, especially with hoisting my bag into the overhead storage bin and retrieving it. And so far, no one’s been too pushy or impatient.

I also decided to pay extra to fly direct this time, to save wear and tear on my body. Definitely the way to go, when possible. So much less stressful, all around.

Best of all (though perhaps I’m tempting fate, here), I have not gotten sick on this trip as on previous ventures in the recent past. No infected ulcers. No cellulitis. No cold virus. No eye infection. No rotten tooth. My worst physical ailment has been reduced hearing and stuffy ears for about 12 hours after landing. All good, and encouraging.

Travel doesn’t always have to mean setting myself back. It can just mean having a great visit with my Big Sis.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

For Better or Worse

A week ago, July 1, our health insurance policy changed. I don’t know if it’s for better or worse, but it’s certainly going to be more expensive. The hospital where Al serves as a social worker changed corporate owners, and belt-tightening is their M.O. So now we have somewhat lower monthly premiums, but much higher out-of-pocket expenses.

As in a four-figure “deductible”—read, you have to pay this total for your health care appointments and treatments before the plan’s coverage kicks in. Then, once you hit that threshold, you pay a set percentage of the allowable cost (defined by the insurance company, as opposed to the medical provider) of care. But you have to pay close attention to who’s in the approved network, or your share goes from 20 percent of allowable cost to a whopping 75 percent.

Are you following me?

I have been reading through the online summaries, at least five pages of dense tables, that explain what you owe for which kind of service—regular appointments, preventive care, emergency care, in-hospital, out-patient procedures, on and on. But I’m going to have to call Member Services before my next appointment to be sure I understand what I’m supposed to do and not incur unnecessary expenses because I forgot to get pre-authorization or picked the wrong place to have a test.

Basically, I’ve concluded, we’ll be paying a lot up front within a few months, because I have a lot of expensive appointments. It may be fall or winter, even, before we begin to see the benefits of the insurance coverage. And that also depends on when the deductible year starts. Is it in July, when our new coverage began? Or is it in January, as the online tables states? In which case, we’ll be, basically, screwed.

And how do we cover that, I wonder? Work harder? Get more contracts? Al’s salary is fixed for the year. So it’s up to me to find additional income to pay for this up-front expense. Or we’ll have to borrow from our equity line. Or something.

I understand the drive to create incentives for medical consumers (i.e., patients) to choose doctors wisely and to be sure that any procedures are necessary and cost-effective. That’s good business and good medicine. I get it.

But it would be nice if the new, more expensive health insurance plan that is saving the employer plenty of dough would also be accompanied by some significant financial assistance for employees and their families to make the transition. Plans with large up-front deductibles penalize individuals like me, with complex, chronic medical conditions not of our own making or choosing, who may or may not have the ability to earn enough extra income to fill the gap.

I realize that I’m still fortunate to have comprehensive medical insurance through Al’s employer. I have not checked the Massachusetts health care exchange to see how much it would cost for my coverage if he didn’t have access to a good plan. I’m hoping and praying he has the energy and good health to keep working (not to mention, a good job) until I’m eligible for Medicare in a few years.

A friend who is an expert in health insurance, whom I consulted when we first learned about our options, tells me this kind of medical reimbursement insurance plan is just the latest trend. We’re catching up here in Massachusetts to what the rest of the country’s employers are already offering.

But it’s going to get more complicated, she says: Next up, narrow networks. That means, regardless of who your docs are, your health insurance carrier will limit the physicians they will reimburse to ones that they deem are providing the highest quality care for the least cost, based on a raft of comparative data. Again, from a global perspective, this makes sense. But if the physician you know and trust doesn’t make the cut, you’ll have some difficult choices to make.

For me, right now, no choice but to stay informed, ask a lot of questions ahead of time and keep close track of those invoices. One way or another, we’ll make this work. I just wish it were simpler to understand—and that I didn’t feel treated like it’s somehow my fault that I have this expensive-to-manage disease and have to shell out, regardless of ability to pay.

Photo Credit: Images_of_Money via Compfight cc

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

 

Long Shadows

At last. Sitting on the beach, in the sun, watching the waves roll in. I’m wearing shorts and a tank top, lots of SPF 50 sunscreen to avoid getting a rash on my photo-sensitive skin. I won’t be swimming, because the Atlantic is far too cold this early in the season, and the waters off Block Island, R.I., are chilly, and I have ulcers on my fingers that I can’t risk immersing.

But it feels good to be here. Even if the breeze is stiff and I have to pull on extra layers as Sunday afternoon deepens. Even if I can’t swim like I used to as a kid, jumping over the waves and body surfing until I turned blue and my teeth wouldn’t stop chattering.

So I sit in my beach chair and read a novel, do a little of the Sunday New York Times crossword, watch Al swim and dive in the surf. I take a nap and work on my tan (have to be careful with this, not overdo, given skin sensitivity). I wonder why the people next to us on the beach, with very loud voices, don’t realize that everyone within 20 feet, at least, can hear every word of their conversation, including how one of the men and two of his friends each won $500 at a craps table in Montreal and other fascinating details (for them, not for the rest of us).

Fortunately, I’m able to screen out their conversation when I read. And no one really seems to mind. On the beach, on a sunny Sunday, it’s live and let live.

As shadows elongate, we walk up the shore, collecting pebbles and even a few bits of sea glass—unusual for this beach, which is usually picked clean. I sit on a large rock as Al explores farther, my arms wrapped around knees to stay warm in the cool breeze, and watch a dad and his three daughters, all in wet suits, play catch with a pink-and-yellow rubber ball in the surf.

On our walk back, we pass a black-and-white mutt worrying a piece of driftwood, barking at its owners as they play in the water, then barking at the driftwood, then shoving the driftwood around with its nose and barking at it again. Someone has made a terraced sandcastle with smooth, rectangular walls; another has created a castle of sand globs and drizzles.

We eat dinner al fresco, across the road from sand dunes, deep turquoise ocean just visible beyond. We stop for an ice cream cone for Al and poke around the little shops. I find a scarf the color of sunset. We check on the Red Sox v Yankees score as the ferry pulls away from the dock for the hour-long trip back to shore. Our boys are ahead.

The day is a welcome escape from work and responsibility and so much sad and disturbing news in the world. On Monday afternoon, headlines announce the tragic murder of the three Israeli teens who were kidnapped more than two weeks ago, hitching home from school, and I sit at my computer screen and cannot concentrate on my writing. Our sunny, relaxing beach trip seems far away. I grieve for the parents and pray that cooler heads prevail, on both sides of this intractable conflict that could erupt at any moment. No good will come of more bloodshed. I pray that my eldest, Mindi, stays safe as she spends the remainder of her vacation in Tel Aviv.

If only we could all just go to the beach and, together, enjoy the waves, and the sun and a long, relaxing stroll as shadows grow long. Naive, I know. If only.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Violet Thread

Just three bandaged fingers. That’s all. Pretty good for June, before the weather gets really hot. And only one fingertip has a persistent ulcer that’s taken months to begin closing. The other two, my thumbs, need extra protection for sensitive skin that I hope will heal as temperatures finally rise here in New England.

I’m sure I’ll be griping along with the rest of my neighbors when we hit the inevitable mid-summer muggy heat wave. But for now, the prospect of 80 degree temps this week sounds grand.

My gums are also healing from last month’s emergency tooth extraction, the tissues filling in over the bone graft where my resorbing, sore molar once resided. In a couple more months, it will be time for the implant. By Thanksgiving, I hope to have all my teeth again. And, hopefully, sometime between now and then, our dental insurance plan will find the paperwork from the periodontist’s office that justifies the bone graft as preparation for an implant, instead of informing us that it was not “dentally necessary” and refusing to send a reimbursement.

I’ve been sewing, too, mending clothes for my eldest, Mindi, before she left last week for Israel. I patched a favorite pair of jeans, even found matching fabric from a similar pair that belonged to her sister, after Em trimmed hers for summer cut-offs. With a few daubs of superglue, I mended a broken purse-strap. Next on the list: restitching a waistband. I just need to pick up the right shade of violet thread, which gives me a good excuse to go to the fabric store and peruse the sewing catalogues.

As I write on Sunday morning, Al is out back, clearing brush, weeding, puttering in the yard. I spoke to our arborist on Friday about tree maintenance, and we now have a pruning estimate for the overgrown Bradford pear, Japanese maple, Norway maple and yews, plus an environmentally friendly solution for the plant bugs (yup, that’s what they’re called) that have infested our boxwood hedges.

Halfway across the world, as Mindi co-leads a group on a whirlwind Israel tour, things are not as calm. A few days before she left, three Israeli teens were kidnapped by terrorists while hiking in the West Bank; tensions are mounting as Israeli forces search for the missing boys, arresting hundreds of Palestinian suspects. The leader of the Palestinian Authority has condemned the kidnappings and vowed cooperation. But retaliatory rockets were fired from Gaza into southern Israel over the weekend, not far from where her tour group was supposed to spend Shabbat, and intercepted. A few Palestinians have died; the IDF asserts self-defense. This will get worse before it gets resolved.

Mindi comes back to the States in early July. Meanwhile, Iraq is erupting in bloody sectarian civil war. I asked a friend who is a veteran of Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam for his assessment. The Iraqi government is totally corrupt, he says. Not even their own troops want to fight for them. I watch news reports and feel sorrow for the innocent citizens trapped in the middle and grateful that our country, for all its serious problems, is relatively peaceful and secure.

I am trying not to let all of this news make me crazy while Mindi is so near the action. We’ve been through tense times before when she lived in Tel Aviv during the rocket attacks in 2012. Life is never without risks. I remind myself that the odds of serious injury or worse are greater whenever I drive on the Mass Pike than when my adventurous daughter travels abroad.

And so, I focus on repairing what’s within my control. I tend my finger ulcers. I follow my periodontist’s directions to care for my healing gums. I plan a pruning schedule for overgrown trees. And I pull out my sewing machine and go to the fabric store for violet thread.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.