June 28, 2016
Dear Mr. Hemsley (CEO of United Health Care),
My name is Grace Lombardo and I am a 36 year old mother, daughter, sister, wife & friend. In April of 2016, I was diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma and widespread DCIS- breast cancer. You should know that outside of this recent diagnosis, I am very healthy and take care of myself. I exercise, eat reasonably well. I have never smoked, or abused alcohol or drugs.
I feel very lucky that in our current muddled up healthcare system, I have always had health insurance through either my employer or my husband’s employer. As an American, I understand that this country sees health care as more of a ‘luxury’ than a right. I understand that I should feel lucky to be insured.
Today I called the 800 phone number on the back of my United Health Care card to ask a question I hoped I would never have to ask. After multiple prompts, I was patched through to a representative who sounded very kind and ready to help me. Even though I knew exactly why I was calling, when she asked me what she could help me with, I froze. I couldn’t figure out how to get the words out of my mouth.
“I was wondering, um, if you could help me figure out, if under my plan, I am covered for a cranial prosthesis…?”
The kind woman on the other end of the line’s voice changed. She had my personal information in front of her. She knew I was 36. She knew I had cancer. She knew she was about to tell me that, no, I was not covered to get a wig.
She was sad for me. She was embarrassed to tell me that her employer, my insurer, does not consider my hair a part of my body. That losing my hair, making me bald and immediately recognizable as a person with a disease was not something of any value.
She knew this was a dead end, but she, as a empathetic and caring human, told me she wanted to research the issue further and asked if I could hold for 4-7 minutes.
She comes back onto the line sounding slightly more upbeat. “Mrs. Lombardo, I did find that there is a ‘Women’s Health Care Act’ from 1998 that states that no woman should be denied a cranial prosthesis, but the verbiage around how we interpret that is unclear so I am going to have to give you a case manager to advance the issue.”
I felt so badly for her. She wanted to help me. She suggested that I ask my oncologist to contact the insurance company asking for a ‘benefit exemption’ or a ‘predetermination.’ I scribbled these terms down on a napkin and promptly contacted my oncologist’s office to have them send the inquiry. Below is the email I got back from the nurse not even 2 hours later.
Mr. Hemsley, I can afford a wig. I can actually afford a couple of wigs if I wanted to. Cost is not the issue here. The issue is that a corporation is telling me what is a part of my body and what isn’t. What appendages I was born with hold value, and which don’t.
I needed a mastectomy to live, and I am so grateful that your company paid for that without hesitation. I do not need my hair to live. I will survive with or without a wig from you or anyone else, but how long is appropriate for you to deny me an appendage that I will lose as cancer is poisoned out of my body? How many days of me feeling and looking ill without a stitch of hair on my head as a giant, flashing, neon sign alerting the world that I am fighting a deadly disease, will translate to your firm as a net-gain in profits?
I ask you this, Mr. Hemsley: what would it cost you to walk through a crowded mall with your wife/daughter/sister/mother, bald as a bat, being stared at and pitied by every other passerby? Would you be comfortable with the fact that the absence of hair is her scarlet letter? Has she not suffered enough indignity at the hands of a disease that has already taken a small piece of her soul, something you cannot replace?
Your move, United Health Care.