Colon Cancer Patient's Tweets Shame Insurer Into Paying Medical Bills

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Courtesy of Arijit Guha
There's nothing new about using social media to battle big businesses: For years, the media has trumpeted stories of angry customers who voiced their gripes on social networks, often with great results. Recently, however, an Arizona cancer patient went to unusual lengths in his social media campaign, using Twitter and Facebook to engage the CEO of one of America's biggest insurance companies in a dialog about America's health care system -- and his own troubles within it.

In the end, he emerged victorious: His insurance company, which had previously denied him coverage for his expensive treatments, agreed to pay the bills.

Courtesy of Arijit GuhaIn February 2011, Arijit Guha, a 30-year-old graduate student at Arizona State University, returned from a trip to India with a recurring pain in his abdomen. Convinced that he had picked up "a stomach bug," he went to the hospital, where he underwent extensive tests. The ultimate diagnosis: Stage IV colon cancer, which had spread to his gall bladder, lymph nodes and abdominal lining.

A Brief Respite

Luckily, Guha was insured: When he enrolled at Arizona State, he signed up for the university's health insurance program, which was underwritten by Aetna (AET) -- in fact, he paid extra to sign his wife up for coverage, too. But less than a year into his battle with cancer, Aetna let him know that he was going to have to face his health problems alone: His insurance policy had a lifetime cap of $300,000. Between his chemotherapy and operations to remove part of his colon, his gallbladder and his abdominal lining, Guha quickly reached that limit.

Courtesy of Arijit GuhaGuha was ineligible for Medicaid, and could only sign up for federal programs for the uninsured if he had been without insurance for six months. Faced with the loss of benefits and a potentially devastating six-month lapse in coverage, Guha went to the Internet. He launched Poop Strong, a website where he blogged about his situation, solicited donations, and sold stickers, T-shirts and bracelets. Between the revenue from his site and negotiations with his health care providers, he was able to continue receiving chemotherapy. In the process, he accumulated an estimated $100,000 in medical bills.

While the $300,000 cap on Arizona State's student insurance plan seems low, it is comparable or better than the plans offered by most universities. Fortunately, the problems Guha faced will soon be consigned to the medical waste bin of history: The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act -- aka Obamacare -- will eliminate both spending caps and denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions on Jan. 1, 2014.

Taking It to Twitter

Early last week, Guha took his problem to Twitter, commenting on an Aetna report that its fourth quarter profits were up 73%. This generated an automatic response from the insurance company, which told him that "We care about our members. We want you to be empowered to be healthy and make informed decisions." Guha quickly answered: "That's so sweet you want me to be empowered. Does @mtbert [Aetna CEO Mark T. Bertolini] care to empower me by paying my $118k and counting in bills?"

Things progressed from there.

Before long, several of Guha's friends joined in the conversation, and representatives from Aetna called the graduate student to discuss his health problems. Soon thereafter, the company victoriously tweeted to Guha's supporters that "We connected with @Poop_Strong and will continue to support him through the start of the new plan year."

But Guha quickly burst their bubble, responding, "The thing is, I've needed you for the last 6 mos. Not for 'support' and to 'discuss concerns' but to pay my bills."

Aetna CEO Mark T. Bertolini (Getty Images)Talking to the Big Boss

By the end of the day, Bertolini had become involved, directly answering Guha's comments and those of his friends. Rather than defusing the situation, his tweets escalated it, with the CEO asking why Guha chose to buy such a limited insurance plan and Guha asking why Aetna chose to sell it. Before long, Bertolini, Guha and Guha's supporters were in a heated discussion about national health care, Bertolini's salary, Aetna's benefits, and Guta's predicament.

Poop_Strong, Twitter

The next day, Bertolini and Aetna worked out a deal with Arizona State to cover Guta's bills. The graduate student tweeted "Congrats, Twitter hordes! @Aetna just agreed to cover the full extent of my bills. Every last penny. Thanks, @mtbert, for listening."

"I am glad we connected today and got this issue solved." Bertolini responded. "I appreciate the dialog no matter how pointed. I've got it and own it!...This chapter is another step in the journey. The system is broken, and I am committed to fixing it."

As for Guha, he can now use his Poop Strong profits to help others. As he tweeted after Bertolini's announcement, "Since I don't need the money to cover my bills (thanks again, @mtbert!), all the money we've raised will now go to charity...I hope the Wellness Community, @AZCancerCenter, and @CCAlliance won't mind getting some big checks from all the money I've raised."



Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

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70 Comments

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melly rhae

I think a lot of commenters are missing the point. The man bought the policy before he knew he'd have such an expensive disease. He hit the cap faster than anticipated...he's not stupid, he was just left with few options.

August 21 2012 at 10:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dtbdc

Why isn't the question, why does it cost a half million dollars to handle a health problem? It's not the insurer, it's the hospital mafia breaking the country. ObamaCare will do nothing to slow this behavior. It will only worsen.

August 21 2012 at 7:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Smith

I work my but off, and I still had to pay for the insurance that came in handy when my husband got stage IV throat cancer. We read the contract, paid a whole lot more than 25 dollars a month and knew that there wasn't a coverage limit. It's called PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY, and it seems like a lot of people don't think they should have to be responsible for themselves anymore. This wasn't Aetna's fault.

August 04 2012 at 6:55 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
SCottiKer

And why did the writier of the article not even care to ask or write about Arijit's current condition/prognosis?

August 04 2012 at 12:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dave

Health insurers make an average of three cents on the dollar in profits, according to the IRS, and medicare rejects claims at three times the rate of private insurers. This guy should have bought supplemental insurance, not blamed Aetna for the coverage limits on his $25 a month policy...

August 03 2012 at 9:01 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Dave

Yeah, it's the insurance company's fault the university bought a policy with coverage limits. My sympathies, but it's not Aetna's fault.

August 03 2012 at 8:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
STUART BRESLOW

Aetna were glad we met ya! Hah. All insurance companies are one step (maybe) above organized crime Families. What is the difference between extortion and insuranse? Absolutely not a damn bit. Obamacare won't help, only make matters more corrupt.

August 03 2012 at 5:29 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
demetlaw

oxford policy premium is going up 16% this year, on top of serial increases the last several years
payers making record profits; who is anyone kidding about what's wrong with healthcare in the us
and the social welfare for insurance corporations isnt going to change that;

August 03 2012 at 4:55 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
poconnell2

P.S. to Aryit Guha:
25 years ago, my dear brother had the same cancer (surgery and chemo)....and he is still worth every penny. Good luck to you.

August 03 2012 at 4:36 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
fred.9895

My daughter is in college. Her health policy has a cap of $200,000 It also is only about $25.00 per month in addition to tuition. Because of this cap I also pay $56.00 per month to give her an extended $2,000,000 cap. It costs money for coverage. If you are in college you should know how to read a contract. The reason insurances and colleges have such low caps is to provide SOME kind of care at an affordable price to students who 99% of the time don't need major medical beyond the cap. If all they had was an unlimited cap insurance coverage, it would be more than the average student could afford. The same works for car insurance. You can CHOOSE to have a basic policy that is required by law or PAY MORE for one that has better coverage. Get off the free band wagon. I am glad that he was able to, with treatment, to survive. However, somebody somewhere is going to have to pay for it. Higher premiums for everyone else. If you want to write a $3,000 check to the government for a policy that you have no choice in choosing, then support Obamacare. If you want to make the informed decision to choose the best policy for you and live a healthier life then keep your freedom and repeal Obamacare. I personally want the freedom of choice.

August 03 2012 at 4:25 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to fred.9895's comment
mnden99

So, Fred, would you still feel that way if you were working your butt off and couldn't afford better (or any) coverage? Just wondering.

August 03 2012 at 8:17 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
mnden99

Lucky for your daughter you can afford that extra $56 per month. Of course if you couldn't, that'd be totally OK, right?

August 03 2012 at 9:01 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply