Issues & Insights

Descent Into Health Care Madness, Revisited

Open season for switching government healthcare programs begins Oct. 15, not a moment too soon for this contributor, who again finds himself plummeting into the health care abyss.

When we last visited this correspondent’s Kafkaesque interactions with the health care system, he had learned his insurance plan had been cancelled mere hours before open season ended (cross-reference Politifact’s “Lie of the Year”), his provider claimed he’d missed the deadline to acquire Marketplace coverage (nope), and he faced fines for something the government wouldn’t let him do (sign up for his selected plan).

Fast forward to 2021, and this correspondent’s joyous enrollment in an Aetna Medicare HMO plan. Freed from $20,000+ annual Obamacare premiums plus $13,000+ deductibles. Providers in-network. “Free” generic prescriptions. All was right with the medical world.

Until it wasn’t.

Until prompt replacement surgery was needed when a waning pacemaker battery caused the device to speed up as an alert – basically inducing perpetual, tiring a-fib. And commencing insurance whack-a-mole.

The recommended surgeon? Not in-network, advised the primary care physician’s (PCP’s) office, required to request an authorization. In-network, asserted the surgeon’s office, which had heard from his cardiologist and scheduled an appointment two weeks hence, as the pacemaker pounded uncomfortably away.

Not in-network, Aetna customer service averred, prompting calls to alternative in-network surgeons – none nearby, most with no openings for months.

In-network, sputtered a frustrated insurance specialist in the recommended surgeon’s office, calling to ask about the appointment’s cancellation.

Not in-network, confirmed another Aetna rep – until sensing near-apoplectic exasperation, she checked a mysterious second list. Oops. Yes, in-network. The surgery ultimately occurred nearly a month after the pacemaker’s first discomforting warning signals.

Things settled down for a few weeks until a disquieting health situation suggested itself from tests and a confirmatory gastro scan was ordered – for two-and-a-half unsettling months later. 

Then a shocking call the following month: a referral could not be completed for a long-scheduled annual urology screening, as the PCP was dropping the Aetna plan mid-year – with no prior notice!

Can they “strand” longtime patients like that in the middle of a plan year?? You betcha: happens all the time.

With referrals needed within weeks for the screening and string of other appointments, it was full scramble mode for a satisfactory in-network replacement, settling on HCA JFK Primary Care Physicians, and their intriguing approach of residents under the supervision of respected teaching physicians. (Cue foreboding foreshadowing music.)

Following thereupon: literally 90-minute waits on HCA JFK’s phone trees to work on referrals. Sorry, requires an introductory visit. And since your correspondent was on an extended sojourn to out-of-town family, that necessitated a time-wasting round-trip flight home. Referrals ordered, in plenty of time to be processed.

Until on the drive home, suspicions led to calls to providers. None had referrals. Call to Aetna customer service. No referrals requested. Call (another long wait) to the HCA JFK practice. Yes, the referrals had been dispatched. Call to Aetna. No new referrals requested, only previous gastro referrals, so at least you’re good there. Call (more waits) to HCA JFK. Referrals must be cleared by Aetna, can’t speed up that process, no, you can’t talk to the referrals specialist, leave us alone.

Frantic call to the surgeon. Come in anyway, we think you’re covered under the prior authorization. Then a day before the urology screening, a call: no referral, appointment cancelled. Frantic call to Aetna. Let us call HCA JFK and see what’s going on. Representative returns after talking to referrals person to whom this scribe had been denied access: apparently referrals were sent to specialists, never to Aetna.

Three days later, headed to the long-awaited gastro scan, another call: no authorization, appointment canceled. Say what? Aetna confirmed referrals for four visits. This procedure requires an authorization, not a referral. Frantic call to Aetna: referrals should cover it. Call to main gastro office: yes, authorization is needed, someone here dropped the ball, transfer to person handling scheduling and authorizations.

Leave voicemail message, no response. The next week another voicemail, no response. A busy month goes by. Another voicemail. Now a response: we can reschedule – earliest Dec. 30, eight months after the initial scan was ordered for a concerning health condition. And we don’t do authorizations – talk to your PCP.

Meanwhile, payment denied for a prescription and a test – because they were ordered by residents and not the PCP-of-record overseeing them. Appeal pending.

Returning to the 2015 piece’s conclusion and the point of this recitation: This is what happens when the government inserts itself between willing contracting parties. Frustrating bureaucracy with conflicting and often wrong answers, and roadblocks to and delay and denial of care. Fed-up doctors and workers quitting. All leading to horrific customer service. 

At this point, this contributor is done with HCA JFK and Aetna. During open season, he’ll seek another plan enabling a return to his old PCP and liberation from referral hell, regardless of cost. And reschedule all appointments for after Jan. 1.

Will that release him from this abyss? Ha. We’re talking Medicare. New bureaucratic nightmares unquestionably await.

The moral: Abandon all hope, ye who enter government health care. And that’s now all of us.

Bob Maistros is a messaging and communications strategist, crisis specialist and former political speechwriter. He can be reached at

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  • The health insurance industry is nothing but a con to get money out of you. Every paycheck money is taken out for health care but you go to the doctors and you have to pay a copay. Why? Becsuse the board needs another mansion, a trip to Europe?

  • You think you’ve got problems, Cousins?
    Over this side of the Pond we’ve got the 100% UK Government run “Envy of the World” National Health Service…

  • Bob Maistros piece re healthcare snafus is so on-target!! My husband and I have just finished going on safaris from hell – each of us – at the same time. Wendell Potter is a leader in trying to change the way healthcare insurance works. Haven’t kept up with his latest efforts, he has a website. I read his first book, “Deadly Spin.” Perhaps we all ought to jump aboard his efforts before we have apoplexy.

  • Whatever you call today’s medical system, it certainly has NOTHING to do with health care. It’s about big pharma’s medical tyranny where they want drugs to be the only option. If you can, avoid the modern stone age medical mafia at all costs.

  • All those needless bureaucrats boost USA health care costs 10-fold, make it world’s most expensive. A decade or two ago, the Washington Post had an article about DC’s top heart surgeon (serving the power elite) returning to his native India to setup a clinic. Same heart operations, but with airfare and a Taj Mahal visit thrown in, for $40,000 instead of the $400,000 it cost in USA from the same surgeon. Or maybe it was $4,000 instead of $40,000 back then. Now they call it medical tourism. Not recommending it as a mass solution. Just pointing out the massive (10-fold) overhead costs added to USA medicine. Also, made me think that I should go directly with a bag of cash or credit card to the doctor or lab for what I needed. The cash-on-the-barrelhead approach de Tocqueville observed on his 1800s’ USA trip.

    I had a lot of angst arranging an eye operation that way in 2016, but after reading Maistros’s article, I feel lucky. Lab for blood tests did not know what to do, had not had someone pay directly in 2 years. Took them a long time to figure out what to charge me, but being pro-Trump immigrants from Russia/Ukraine were very helpful. Eye doc had his own facility before new doc-owned hospitals were outlawed by Obamacare. Doc hated waiting months for medicare and insurance to pay, showed me the numbers. Just pay him his fee and skip all the overhead he usually billed. He said, if I had to think about it for more than two seconds I was crazy. He was of course right. I had to lie and say I had insurance to get the original appointment. When you figured co-pays and premiums, I came out better. Most people do not figure in premiums, and get cowed by Medical cost scare stories (hospitals typically settle for 33% of what they bill, something I learned from handling paperwork for my mom). It felt like a lot of angst at the time, but less than 10% Maistros’s angst. Too many layers of bureaucracy, what they call fat that should be cut.

  • Medicare Advantage HMO plans are a nightmare. Get a Medigap N or G. Less paperwork–no networks. K

  • i have old medicare parts A,B, and D, my total premium costs are about $300 per month and I can go to any doctor anywhere I want in the US.

    Six months after retirement I was diagnosed de novo with stage 4 cancer. I have had the best of care, quick appointment turnarounds, second opinions, and expensive cancer medications and have paid approximately $1,000 in out-of-pocket expenses in 2+ years of treatment.

    Medicare advantage plans are 100% government money ripoff. Don’t do it no matter what they promise; they won’t deliver.

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