Nov 2006

Managing Chronic Conditions in Uninsured Patients, Commentary 1

Saul J. Weiner, MD
Virtual Mentor. 2006;8(11):709-713. doi: 10.1001/virtualmentor.2006.8.11.ccas1-0611.

Case

Mr. Rangston is a substitute janitor at a junior high school in Gary, Indiana. Because he is only employed part time, he is not eligible for insurance benefits. He does not qualify for Medicaid or, at 53 years old, for Medicare. He comes into a student-run free health clinic on Chicago’s West side after a long commute from Gary. A year earlier, he had been referred to the clinic by a county public hospital. He had been diagnosed and treated for chronic recurrent prostatitis on multiple previous visits to the free health clinic, and on the current visit he reports having pain in his pelvic region and upon urination. He is sexually active but refrains from sex with his girlfriend when his symptoms flair up for fear of transmiting an infection.

During a recent visit to the clinic, Mr. Rangston tested negative for sexually transmitted infections, had a negative urine dip, no glucose in his urine, normal prostate specific antigen (PSA) levels and an enlarged prostate but no nodules. He has traveled to the clinic almost monthly during the past year and has kept all scheduled appointments but one. His health literacy appears high according to a triage volunteer who read his medical history, and he is conscientious about choosing healthy behaviors.

Usually, the physician or fourth-year medical student at the clinic recommends a course of antibiotics for Mr. Rangston, which helps relieve his symptoms during the treatment course. Some antibiotics have seemed to work while others have not. A few days or a few weeks after each antibiotic regimen his symptoms return. He has been experiencing this pattern for almost two years and takes Flomax regularly to help relieve his enlarged prostate. During his last visit, the physician recommended Levaquin, which the patient said worked best for him in the past. For some undocumented reason, the physician noted offering it to Mr. Rangston on this visit only if he could pay for a prescription. If not, the physician recommended doxycycline.

Blake, a fourth-year medical student, having just reviewed Mr. Rangston’s chart and test results before walking into his room, felt the status quo needed to change starting with this visit. He was frustrated with the lack of continuity of care for Mr. Rangston and the often incomplete or inadequate documentation in Mr. Rangston’s chart. Blake noted that no referral had been suggested for Mr. Rangston. He thought he knew why since the average wait period for an urologist at Cook County hospital for the uninsured was at least five months. Mr. Rangston was becoming increasingly frustrated, as he all too kindly let Blake know.

Blake researched chronic prostatitis quickly and determined that there were additional imaging services and procedural tests that might help diagnose Mr. Rangston’s disease and treat it more effectively than the perpetual and often ineffective antibiotic treatments. None of these had been discussed with Mr. Rangston. Blake explained that the clinic did not provide these services and recommended that Mr. Rangston approach Cook County hospital or a federally qualified health care center for more affordable, out-of-pocket testing if he did not feel he can wait the year or so it may take to eventually get the tests through Cook County.

The tests would be expensive, and Mr. Rangston expresses his concerns over his ability to pay for them. Blake thinks Mr. Rangston should get tested sooner rather than later due to the recurring symptoms, and he ponders how he might be able to “hurry the system” along. It is apparent to Blake that Mr. Rangston is not receiving the standard of care, given his symptoms. He does not know what other alternatives he can recommend to Mr. Rangston. Should he refer him to a private physician where he would accrue debt but at least receive more timely and comprehensive care? Should he just continue the status quo and prescribe yet another antibiotic? Should Blake just accept the unfortunate aspects of the system for his patient?

Commentary 1

While we think of health insurance as a prerequisite to expensive high-tech medicine, it is important to recognize that the uninsured are often disproportionately deprived of another resource perhaps more valuable: access to a long-term therapeutic relationship with a primary care physician. The clinic that Mr. Rangston attends has fallen short in its care for him, not because it lacks subspecialty services but because of inadequate continuity and adherence to evidence-based primary care. Supporting and educating patients so that they have the best chance to adapt to a chronic condition requires an ongoing relationship and a foundation of interpersonal trust—it does not happen “on the fly.”

Mr. Rangston has a condition that is now referred to as chronic prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome, or CP/CPPS, based on a classification approach supported by the National Institutes of Health to categorize prostate syndromes [1]. It has also been called abacterial prostatitis or prostatodynia. CP/CPPS is defined by symptoms of chronic pelvic pain for at least three months in the absence of other identifiable causes [2]. Although it is a diagnosis of exclusion, it can be made in the primary care setting based on a patient’s history, physical exam and basic lab tests. Mr. Rangston’s characteristic symptoms, negative urine analysis and culture are sufficient to make the diagnosis.

There is no strong evidence that a specialized urological evaluation for this condition improves patient care, although some guidelines recommend referral nevertheless [3]. Unfortunately, there is also a lack of evidence for any effective therapy [4]. The repeated use of antibiotics for recurrent CP/CPPS is considered inappropriate; studies show no additional benefit from antibiotics when compared with placebo [4]. Patients should be educated about their situation, which, while debilitating, is neither contagious nor associated with any malignancy or other progressive condition. That said, it is important to acknowledge and address the suffering the patient may be experiencing.

Instead of being educated about the often chronic, waxing and waning course of his condition, it appears that Mr. Rangston has been left wondering whether he is victim of a missed diagnosis and an easy cure. Furthermore, there is no mention that he has been reassured that it is safe to continue to have sexual relations with his girlfriend when his symptoms flair—there is no risk of her acquiring an infection [5].

While suboptimal care can occur in any office-based practice setting, it may be more common in the clinic setting described here, with a revolving door of volunteer providers, each with varying degrees of training and experience, little oversight or investment in quality and spotty record keeping. Hence, while Mr. Rangston may not need high-tech medicine, his lack of access to health insurance has deprived him of a good health care environment for the management of a chronic condition.

Paying for Private Care

Mr. Rangston may, in fact, have first sought care in a private setting. The majority of uninsured patients are actually cared for not in free clinics or public hospitals but in regular office-based practices [6]. Receiving care outside of the “safety net” when one is uninsured, however, creates its own set of challenges for both patients and providers [7]. While some patients receive all needed services regardless of their inability to pay, often they and their physicians factor in costs when creating treatment plans.

When considering the impact of nonpayment on both patients and those who care for them, it is useful to make a distinction between two kinds of uncompensated care: “Charity care” occurs when the physician, hospital or clinic opts not to charge for all or a portion of a service, so that the patient can receive that service for free or at a reduced fee. By contrast, “bad debt care” occurs when the physician charges the going rate but is never paid. Although precise figures are not available, it appears that about 80 percent of uncompensated care is bad debt care [8]. That means that in most cases physicians and hospitals generally attempt to collect payment, often with severe consequences for their patients. Unpaid medical bills are now the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in America [9].

Because of these financial tensions, indigent patients and their physicians often face three dilemmas when creating a treatment plan [10]: (1) whether to forgo appropriate tests and therapies because of cost, (2) whether to negotiate a reduced fee, or (3) whether to attempt to locate the necessary services elsewhere at a lower cost. It would not be surprising if Mr. Rangston had originally sought care at a local practice and declined basic laboratory tests, such as urinalysis and culture, which on a substitute janitor’s salary can rapidly eat up a month’s rent. It is also possible that a local physician might have offered to reduce his professional fee, but would most likely not have been able to waive other expenses since most laboratory tests are outsourced. And finally, although we not are told how Mr. Rangston decided to travel all the way from Gary, Indiana, it would not be surprising if he had been referred to the free clinic.

Lack of insurance is a proven risk factor not only for worse outcomes from treatable conditions but also for higher incidence of a number of preventable illnesses [11]. For instance, because Mr. Rangston is a 53-year-old man, he should be screened for colon cancer according the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force [12]. At a cost of about $800, it seems unlikely that colonoscopy will be offered to him or that he could afford it given his current financial situation.

I wonder if the desire of private physicians to send patients like Mr. Rangston “somewhere else” is motivated, however, not only by concerns about profit and loss or even access to care but also by the discomfort of having to confront financial hardship in one’s patients, particularly when one may be contributing to it. Perhaps the greatest service we can provide for individuals who are struggling to receive care without coverage is to continue to care for them, offering expert counsel regarding their medical needs, eliciting their preferences regarding trade-offs between cost and quality (and documenting those preferences particularly for medicolegal protection), reducing fees when we can arrange to do so and picking up the phone to enlist the generosity of our colleagues during times of greatest need. Last but not least, let us not forget that we are dealing with an issue of social justice and have a responsibility as healers to advocate publicly for reforms that will broaden access to medical care and services for all.

References

  1. Krieger JN, Nyberg L Jr, Nickel JC. NIH consensus definition and classification of prostatitis. JAMA. 1999;282(3):236-237.
  2. Nickel JC, Nyberg LM, Hennenfent M. Research guidelines for chronic prostatitis: consensus report from the first National Institutes of Health International Prostatitis Collaborative Network. Urology. 1999;54(2):229-233.
  3. Prodigy Guidance. Prostatitis: extended information. Available at: http://www.prodigy.nhs.uk/prostatitis/extended_information/management_issues. Accessed October 4, 2006.

  4. Dimitrakov JD, Kaplan SA, Kroenke K, Jackson JL, Freeman MR. Management of chronic prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome: an evidence-based approach. Urology. 2006;67(5):881-888.
  5. Mehik A, Hellstrom P, Sarpola A, Lukkarinen O, Jarvelin MR. Fears, sexual disturbances and personality features in men with prostatitis: a population-based cross-sectional study in Finland. BJU Int. 2001;88(1):35-38.
  6. Lewin ME, Altman S, eds. America’s Health Care Safety Net: Intact but Endangered. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, Institute of Medicine; 2000.

  7. Mann JM, Melnick GA, Bamezai A, Zwanziger J. A profile of uncompensated hospital care, 1983-1995. Health Aff. 1997;16(4):223-232.
  8. Weissman J. Uncompensated hospital care. Will it be there if we need it? JAMA. 1996;276(10):823-828.

  9. Himmelstein DU, Warren E, Thorne D, Woolhandler S. Illness and injury as contributors to bankruptcy. Health Aff. Available at: http://content.healthaffairs.org/cgi/reprint/hlthaff.w5.63v1. Accessed September 29, 2006.

  10. Weiner S. “I can’t afford that!”: dilemmas in the care for the uninsured and underinsured. J Gen Intern Med. 2001;16(6):412-418.
  11. Ayanian JZ, Weissman JS, Schneider EC, Ginsburg JA, Zaslavsky AM. Unmet health needs of uninsured adults in the United States. JAMA. 2000;284(16):2061-2069.
  12. US Preventive Services Task Force. Screening for colorectal cancer. Available at: www.ahrq.gov/clinic/uspstf/uspscolo.htm. Accessed September 29, 2006.

Citation

Virtual Mentor. 2006;8(11): 709-713.

DOI

10.1001/virtualmentor.2006.8.11.ccas1-0611.

The people and events in this case are fictional. Resemblance to real events or to names of people, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. The viewpoints expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the AMA.