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Communication Breakdown – More Lessons Learned from My Wife’s Battle Against Lymphoma

By: Ron Peck, Esq.

For those who did not tune into the “Empowering Plans” podcast, wherein I revealed why I’ve been absent from other recent Phia Group podcasts and webinars, please do check it out.  In that recording, I describe my wife’s diagnosis (the specific type of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma she’s fighting), and early lessons learned through her diagnosis.  Key among them is the need for second (and even third opinions) to ensure the right diagnosis is ultimately achieved.  I implore plan sponsors to pay for – and advocate for – second (and third) opinions.  The funds expended on these opinions more than pay for themselves when we avoid unnecessary (and possibly dangerous) treatments for the wrong conditions.

The next lesson learned has been about and orbits around communication.  Communication is comprised of more than just what we say, but how we say it.  To effectively communicate, it’s necessary to put ourselves in the shoes of the ones with whom we’re communicating.  Empathy is the greatest Rosetta Stone.  With that in mind, my wife experienced a failure in communication not because the communicator was unclear, but rather, their focus, medium, and other elements missed the mark.

For instance, there were specific instructions she needed to follow to secure certain medications in accordance with rules set forth by the PBM.  Nothing was withheld, and the coverage is great – but only if the rules are obeyed.  The issue, however, was that the rules were communicated via US Mail (a/k/a “snail mail”).  I love my mail carrier as much as the next red blooded American, but – if we’re being empathetic – we need to accept that a cancer patient is likely falling behind on their mail, and are unlikely to rush to open a letter that doesn’t look like a bill.  To ensure the patient knows about the particulars of the program, we should notify them when the first dose is filled by notifying the pharmacist (so the message can be conveyed at the point of sale), and electronically (via phone call, text, e-mail, etc.). This is one silly little example of things we may not spot from the payer perspective, but as a patient, suddenly it’s clear.

Likewise, case management.  Again, the benefit plan attempts – in its estimation – to go above and beyond in its servicing of the patient, assigning a case manager to the patient’s case.  This person, the patient believes, is supposed to offer advice, act as a second set of eyes on proposed care, and generally look out for the patient’s best interest.  In our mind, that would include financial interests too, right?  Yet, when a conflict arose between the provider and plan representative, the case manager was quick to report to my wife – the patient – that the conflict was raging, claims would likely be denied, and she – the cancer patient – should encourage her oncologist (the person, the patient believes, that stands between her and certain death) to work with the plan.

Now, from the case manager’s perspective, they foresee the patient enduring financial hardship if the matter isn’t resolved, and they are trying to act preemptively to avoid it.  This is not a bad thing!  Yet, from the patient’s perspective, they are being dragged into matters of money – irrelevant and unimportant – compared to their own battle to survive.

Again, we need to step into the shoes of the patient and ask: “How would I feel if I received a call, threatening to deny my claims and saddle me with debt, unless I turn on my doctor and become their adversary on the plan’s behalf?”  We know this isn’t the purpose of the case manager’s efforts, but this is how the patient (and if we’re honest – even we) may interpret it during such a time of stress and grief.

Moreover, if the patient is enraged by this turn of events, they may take this “heads up” from the case manager to be a directive from the plan administrator – and suddenly the case manager is looking like a final, fiduciary decision maker.  I worry here, because we do not want this independent third party case manager to suddenly be a fiduciary, or impact the actual fiduciary, by “making decisions” on the plan’s behalf – without the plan’s authorization.

As my wife continues to battle cancer, my eyes continue to be opened as it relates to the patient perspective, and how they may interpret things we in the benefits industry often say without concern.  I look forward to continuing to share my observations with you.