Airway, breathing, call your insurance company?

The action steps, in any health emergency, are: ABC. Airway, breathing, circulation. The airway has to be open, the patient has to be making an effort to breathe, and the heart has to pump blood. In any emergency, health care people are trained to address these, one by one, in order. Fix what you can before moving on, and concentrate on what’s going to kill the child first. Then, arrange transport for definitive care. That’s the core of life support, and how health care people are trained to respond to an emergency.

But in today’s enlightened times, health care isn’t run by people trained in health care. It’s run by bean-counting administrative flunkies who care only about saving costs.

Here’s this week’s true story: A child presented to my office in severe respiratory distress. He was not breathing well. In fact, he was barely breathing at all. We gave oxygen and supportive care, but he still needed more help—so we called an ambulance to transport him to the hospital. There, he was admitted to the ICU and received expert, life-saving care. He’s now doing fine.

Except his family now has to deal with a second nightmare. To get an ambulance to transport him, we called 911, and the county 911 service did what 911 services are supposed to do — they sent an ambulance over right away, with oxygen and trained people to get him quickly where he needed to be. But that specific ambulance company was “out-of-network” — that’s not the ambulance company that the family’s health insurance company wanted him to use. So the ambulance trip goes to “out-of-network” benefits, at a lower coverage rate with a separate deductible. And the family owes $1,900 they can’t afford.

Bean-counting administrative flunky: Hello, sorry for the 30 minute wait, can I help you?

Mom: My child is blue and dying. Which ambulance company should I call for in-network benefits? Money is tight.

Bean-counting administrative flunky: Please enter your 15 digit member ID number, or say the numbers out loud.

(Etc., etc. After another 45 minutes Mom gets a straight answer to call Bob’s Ambulance Company. Bob and ambulance arrive 30 minutes later. The child is dead.)

Seriously: Even if mom knew the name of the ambulance company that was “in-network”, she doesn’t get to choose what ambulance comes when she calls 911. They send whoever’s closest, whoever can help — that’s what a health provider is supposed to do. Help the patient. Unlike, obviously, the insurance company.

Bean-counting administrative flunky: Hello, sorry for the 30 minute wait, can I help you?

Mom: My child is dead. Which mortuary should I call for in-network benefits?

Bean-counting administrative flunky: Please enter your 15 digit member ID number, or say the numbers out loud.

The Affordable Care Act has helped many more people get health insurance. But the insurers are still in the business of making money, not in the business of providing health care or paying for health care. They don’t make their money by paying bills. They make their money by doing whatever they can not to pay the bills. If you want to get them to actually pay for your health care, you’ve got to know the ins and outs of the contract, and you’ve got to steer services to “in-network” providers — that includes hospitals, docs, pharmacies, and even ambulance companies.

Child dying? Forget the ABCs of airway, breathing, and circulation — your first call, now, is to your insurance company*. Do a crossword while waiting on hold. And maybe give your child a little oxygen, while he waits — just don’t expect the insurance company to pay for it.

 *Though this post was 100% true, the advice in the last paragraph was snark, for comedic effect and narrative impact. If your child is very sick and you need an ambulance, call 911 right away. Do not call your insurance company. Later, you may have to straighten out some bills — but take care of your child, first, always.

Roy Benaroch is a pediatrician who blogs at The Pediatric Insider. He is also the author of A Guide to Getting the Best Health Care for Your Child and the creator of The Great Courses’ Medical School for Everyone: Grand Rounds Cases.

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