Groups Can Guide Confused Patients

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Many of the calls and letters that come to the medical desk at The Plain Dealer are from people desperate for help. They can’t understand confusing Medicare regulations, hospital bills or some other aspect of this mess we call health care.

It seems like no one’s looking out for the patient, they say.

Isn’t there someone who can help?

There is.

Recently, I’ve come across three organizations that are willing to take on the problems that befuddle every one of us who’s ever seen a doctor.

They’re the life rafts on the Titanic of medical mumbo-jumbo. Like those rafts, they’re aren’t enough of them. But we’ll take what we can get.

If you’ve got a medical problem you can’t seem to get resolved, get in touch with one of these groups. I can’t make any promises, but it’s better than stewing over your latest go-around with the medical world.

And please, if you’ve been helped by another group, give us a call — so we can share that organization’s name and number with everybody else.

These days we need every bit of help we can find to get well and stay that way.

Consumer Watchdog

The nonprofit organization, with offices in California and Washington, D.C., looks out for patients in a number of ways.

Its broad goal, the group says, is to remake a health-care system in which hospitals, doctors and insurance companies put profit before patients.

It also fights for laws that protect Americans from junk health-insurance policies — the kind that don’t cover you when you get sick. And one of its recent studies tracked the millions of dollars that health insurance companies and drug manufacturers have given to members of Congress, so the rest of us can know which lawmakers are indebted to the health-care industry.

In addition to that, the Consumer Complaints section of its Web site collects details on the problems every-day Americans are having with their medical care. If you’ve got a story to tell, go to: and type it in.

While Consumer Watchdog doesn’t have the staff to solve every one of your medical problems, you at least get the satisfaction of knowing your story could be shared with the news media, members of Congress and other policymakers. That means it might, someday, lead to laws that will fix what’s broken or save others from the headaches you’ve had to endure.

“It’s really critical that we hear from people around the country about the problems they’re having in the health-care system,” says Jerry Flanagan, Consumer Watchdog’s lead advocate on health-care reform.

“It’s the personal stories that give us the ammunition to fight back against insurance companies and drug companies that are trying to write laws that benefit them.”

As American health policy is being rewritten, he sees big corporations rolling into Washington to hand out fat campaign checks.

“Consumers don’t have that kind of buying power,” he says. “But what we do have is the power of the bully pulpit.”

Medical Billing Advocates of America

If you have private insurance, Medicare, or no insurance at all and have problems with a bill, you can contact Medical Billing Advocates of America. But know upfront that this is not a free service.

The fee is something you have to work out before you hire MBAA. Sometimes its advocates — it has 66 across the country; two in Ohio — charge a flat or hourly rate. And sometimes they charge a percentage of what they help you save, generally 20 percent to 35 percent.

“In that case, if there’s no savings, of course, there’s no fee,” says CEO Candy Butcher, whose mother founded Medical Billing Advocates.

The stories she and other advocates tell about the billing errors they’ve found will, sad to say, make you laugh — as long as you’re not the one stuck paying them.

There was the patient who was charged $57 for a fog elimination device — a 2-inch-by-2-inch piece of gauze used to wipe down surgical equipment. There was the man charged for labor and delivery. And there was the patient who was charged $1,004 for a toothbrush.

The two Ohio advocates are both in the Youngstown area, but geography doesn’t matter. They easily can help patients in Cleveland.

Both are listed on the Web site.

You also can find information there on all kinds of ways to save money on medical bills. Access to that service is $49.95 a year.

Medicare Rights Center

If you’re covered by Medicare and have questions about the government-funded health insurance for those 65 and older, contact the Medicare Rights Center.

The national, nonprofit consumer service organization provides easy-to-understand information about Medicare’s complicated rules at its Web site.

What I love about this Web site is its simple question-and-answer format.

The center also has a hot line — call 1-800-333-4114 — that helps people sort out problems.

The group focuses on helping people navigate two things: drug coverage under Medicare Part D and problems with Medicare HMOs or private plans, says Paul Precht, the center’s director of policy and communications.

“Generally speaking, we will try to help people understand the process and what they need to do to secure their rights,” Precht says. “Because of the volume of calls, we generally try to empower people to do it themselves.”

The key, he says, is to not allow yourself to be intimidated by the system.

“If you’re being hounded for bills or you’re being billed for something you don’t think you should have to pay, there’s a good chance that you’re right. And you should find out what your rights are and pursue them.”

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
Providing an effective voice for American consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Non-partisan.

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