Student Who Battled Insurance Company Over Cancer Coverage Dies

Poop Strong  Arijit Guha
Courtesy Arijit Guha
On Friday, 32-year old graduate student Arijit Guha died of colon cancer. Guha came to national attention in 2012 through "Poopstrong," his website and Twitter account, which documented his ongoing battle with cancer -- and with Aetna, his insurance company.

In 2011, Guha was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer and immediately began to undergo treatment. Unfortunately, his health insurance, which he purchased through his university, placed a $300,000 lifetime cap on his policy. When he reached that limit, Guha found himself caught in a life-or-death battle with Aetna -- and in a desperate struggle to raise the money he needed for treatment.

Through "Poopstrong," Guha told about his fight with Aetna. The story, which highlighted some of the flaws of the public health system, quickly drew attention. Eventually, following a face-to-face Twitter exchange, the company's CEO, Mark T. Bertolini, agreed to cover the student's bills. Within months, Guha's health had improved enough for him to go off chemotherapy. Last fall, however, his cancer returned and his health quickly deteriorated.

On January 1, 2014, Obamacare's spending cap and pre-existing conditions provisions will be enacted, effectively making it illegal for companies like Aetna to refuse coverage to patients like Guha.

Below is a reprint of our original story on 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.

In 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.

Courtesy of Arijit GuhaA 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.

Guha 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."

Poop_Strong, Twitter

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.

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, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

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Lee Mac

Its sad that people drop dead becuase of bowel cancer, there are home tests you can use that cost very little to check for yourself without the need for even having medical cover. take a look online if you are worried about bowel cancer, for example. Its sad to see he lost his fight, and the picture shows such a great big smile... now gone.

May 22 2013 at 1:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

If you think things are bad now jjust wait for Obamacare to kick in. Like her or not Sarah Palin will prove to be right about "death panels."

March 29 2013 at 7:20 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My mom has no health insurance because we do not have enough money and she cannot get disability, ssi, charity care, anything! because she was a stay at home mom and didn't have enough work points. With her condition, she can go in the hospital at any moment. She gets infections quite often - bad ones that put her into the hospital for weeks and months at a time. Infact, she just left from a week long stay at a nearby hospital. There is no way we can afford that hospital bill that we're about to receive. She's considered legally blind in one eye, has one leg... and that's just the start. My dad just beat colon cancer. NOW because they are telling us we have to save $2,000 for obamacare.. We don't even have $20 to spare, let alone $2,000.

March 29 2013 at 4:37 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I am sorry for this mans plight and empathetic to cancer victims but $300,000 on treatment for a terminal illness is one of the reasons healthcare costs are skyrocketing. To ban those limits will not decrease HC costs as has been promised. It is not unreasonable to use societies money to treat curable or manageable illnesses. Roughly 90% of an individuals lifetime HC costs are during the first and last 6 months of their lives. Largely ignored is the implementation of the so-called "death panels" that would have likely denied coverage as well. The utopian goal of the best healthcare for everyone is nothing more than a bill of goods being sold to our citizens.

March 28 2013 at 11:45 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Have paid BCBS payments through my employer over 100 dollars per week , for over 20 years, and never had to use it. Recently I went to the emergency room for a huge wooden splinter I n my palm. I was SHOCKED to discover that I had a bill 0f 600.00 that BCBS didnt cover. If I had banked 100 dollars per week for 20 years, I could pay cash for a HEAD TRANSPLANT!!!!!!!!!!!! Mob Racketeers go to jail for this kind of rip off!!!!!!!

March 28 2013 at 11:44 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Insurance companies are criminals. Overcharge the young , financially productive, and heal;thy,............Deny, Limit , and cancell , and decline coverage for the elderly, poor, and sick,.....and reap huge profits from the mountain of cash that aquires in the middle. Profane

March 28 2013 at 11:23 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to roguemale1000's comment

Insurance companies serve a useful purpose but they are businesses and unless they make a profit, they can't survive. Nobody holds a gun to your hear and makes you buy insurance.
To call insurance companies criminal is juvenile and false.

March 29 2013 at 7:12 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Dennis Faulkner

I don't have any faith in ObamaCare fixing this - Medicare/Medical let my brother's wifes brother die from lung cancer - he was in between jobs, and went in for a backache - Medicare/Medical let the tumor get too big to do anything about before they would okay the bill - they let him die. ObamaCare would be one government disaster replacing another government disaster -

March 28 2013 at 8:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

unfortunate to have cancer and unfortunately PEOPLE DIE FROM CANCER inspite all the suffering DUE TO the treatment on top of the disease etc-
was this individual denied care ?
and prior to all this crappola on INSURANCE,what did anyone DO ?
ooooooh the humanity...they sat down and made a payment plan WITH the surgeons,hospitals etc and PAID THEIR BILLS and didn't expect anyone else to pay THEIR bills.
been there.seen it and DONE IT when a relative had cancer metastisized from the kidney--operation1.removal of cancerous kidney......operation2 and 3 removal of brain tumours--so simply think the costs of preop workups,hospitalization,OR fees

March 27 2013 at 11:30 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to setanta995's comment

Well stated. Cancer is part of life. My wife is undergoing Chemo right now for breast cancer. I have saved my entire life for a situation just like this. It's time this country started taking care of itself and not blaming Insurance Companies for medical problems.

March 29 2013 at 7:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

and according to him--the system is broken,so why didn't he return to india for his care ?
just like aetna stated--he CHOOSE HIS PLAN ...and as for obummer care NOT HAVING caps or DENIALS---wake UP.
how many will be priced out of obummer care ?
oh yeah,you've already forgotten THE COSTS PER FAMILY and individual and how many are LEFT OUT.

this guy got his treatment and care and never went without it and if he went along with medicaid ALL BILLS FROM SIX MONTHS BACK would also be covered.
wake up.

Guha was ineligible for Medicaid, and could only sign up for federal programs for the uninsured if he had been without insurance for six months............


March 26 2013 at 9:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply