Thursday, July 21, 2011

Adventures in Alternative Medicine

Today I went to see my acupuncturist, who's also a western-trained MD, for the third time. The first time I saw him, he sternly advised me to get back on western stomach meds and then used his needles to work on my sinuses, which indeed felt better. The second time I saw him, I mentioned writer's block and frustration and he did a longer session, something called "detox acupuncture," which I'd ordinarily scoff at, except that it also made me feel better.

That was at the end of June, right before my state-employee health insurance crashed and burned on July 1. (Our family deductible has now gone up to $3,800, which means that if I'm lucky, I could get through the entire year without insurance covering anything.) "Next time," I told the good doc, "I'll have to pay your full fee, not just the $25 copay."

He pondered this. "I charge $130 for a private session. I really think you should have one more detox session, and then you can start coming to the clinics." He offers acupuncture clinics where he'll treat a group of people at once, for only $40 apiece. "But you have to decide what you can afford."

I talked to Gary about it; the treatment really had made me feel better, and Gary said, "If it's just once, and it helps, then pay the $130."

So I went back today. Before we got to the needles, I asked the good doc about adrenal fatigue, which I know is highly controversial in allopathic circles. Does he believe in it? He pondered this and offered a thoughtful and carefully nuanced version of "no." (That's why I love this guy: he really does combine the best of both worlds, and so far he's never made me feel like I'm asking a stupid question.)

So then we got to the needles. "Last time we detoxified the front of your body," he told me. "This time we'll be doing the back. The front works on internal dragons; the back works on external dragons."

"Mmmmph?" I said, already lying on my stomach on very comfy cushions, which meant I was talking into one of those donut pillows massage therapists use. "Dragons?"

"Chinese dragons," he said. "They're good dragons. They chase away evil. The internal dragons chase away internal evil; the external dragons chase away external evil."

"Ah," I said, and he inserted the needles and left me to "cook" for a few minutes, as he put it, and then came back to check on me.

"How you doing?"

"Fine," I said into the donut pillow.

"Remember the dragons."

"I'm trying to visualize them."

There was a short pause -- I'm sure he was pondering -- and then he said, "They have long mustaches, and they're slightly iridescent, and they like to drink tea and don't eat peanuts."

"Ah," I said.

"No peanuts," he said, and left the room again, leaving me to reflect on what has to be the strangest conversation I've ever had with a medical professional. But I was all comfy and feeling very nice, except that my hands kept falling asleep, and I still couldn't visualize the dragons, although I did have a vivid mental image of a sleek black panther lounging by the side of the massage table. (What the heck was in those needles? I hear you asking.)

When he came back in, I mentioned the circulation issue, and he removed the needles so I'd be able to move around again, and I told him about the panther, wondering if he'd laugh. He didn't bat an eye. "Well, the dragons are just a metaphor. Your dragon might be a panther. Someone else's might be an eagle." I suspect my panther had more to do with watching Crystal the were-panther on True Blood the other night than with anything else, but that's okay; I'm a champ at metaphor, after all, and I was all relaxed and happy-like, so I floated out the door to pay my $130.

I like this doctor a lot. I do not like his young front-office person one bit. I'm sure she's a lovely human being, adored by her family and friends, but every time I've been there she's struck me as supercilious, with a tendency to lecture, and with the uncanny ability to look down her nose at me even when she's sitting down and I'm standing up.

"That will be a $25 copay," she said.

"No, actually --"

"I need you to pay that," she snapped, as if I'd been planning to offer her my firstborn child or barter with a stick of Juicy Fruit instead.

"Actually, I need to pay more," I said, trying not to snap back. "It's after July 1. My insurance just changed. So I need to pay the $130."

She scowled. "You can't pay the $130 if you have insurance."

"No, my deductible's $3,800, so --"

She slid into lecture mode. "The $130 is for private-pay patients without insurance. I'll have to see what the bill will be with insurance." She got up, went into another room, came back with a sheaf of papers, typed on her computer for a bit, and then said, "If we bill your insurance company, that will be $289."

"Excuse me? Two hundred and eighty-nine dollars?"

She flashed me a phony smile. "At least you'll pay your deductible sooner!" Mentally, I was trying to sic panthers and dragons on her. I know it's not her fault, but couldn't she be just a little bit sympathetic and acknowledge the utter absurdity of the system?

"I came here prepared to pay $130. That's what my husband and I budgeted."

She resumed looking down her nose. "If you pay the $130, we won't bill your insurance and it won't count towards your deductible."

Reader, I paid the $130. If I go to any of the clinics, that $40 fee won't count towards insurance either. It seems absolutely insane to me that with insurance, the treatment costs more than twice as much as it would without: the extra money goes into administrative expenses, no doubt.

Dragons and panthers and bills, oh my.

Yeah. You know I couldn't resist that one. Anyway, I was feeling a bit less floaty when I left, thinking in annoyance that the dragons and panthers hadn't worked very effectively against the evil of the billing system. As we all know, though, American healthcare is one heckuva job even for the most potent metaphorical ninja-beasts. Or maybe somebody slipped the dragons some peanuts; as Gary observed, they're probably allergic.

A dragon in anaphylactic shock: now there's an image.

Right. I'm clearly punchy. Must go work on the book. With material like this, who needs to write SF/F?


  1. Real life is often harder to believe than fantasy. I think I like your doctor though.

  2. clairesmum6:12 PM

    do you submit your receipts for care purchased to show what you paid for care? it would seem you could submit the $130 and $40 receipts, as long as they show provider info, date of treatment, etc. I'd check those insurance details VERY carefully - even office staff who are billing specialists make mistakes, and this office staffer does not sound like a billing specialist!

  3. Berni6:14 PM

    My insurance also changed July 1 and works the same way. Bleah.

  4. Anonymous10:52 AM

    Insurance doesn't pay the $289. That is just the starting point in negotiations. I'll bet your ins. company paid less that $130 (their payment + your out of pocket co-pay).



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.