Denied! Insurance rejects appeals for Home Phototherapy

I am getting tired and frustrated with my health insurance provider. Really.

On December 15, 2017 my dermatologist, Dr. Maverakis, prescribed a home narrowband Uphototherapy unit. This unit, costing about five-thousand dollars, would treat both my psoriasis and atopic dermatitis (eczema).

With changing medical providers on January 1, I waited until I could see my new dermatologist. After almost missing the appointment, she agreed to submit the application that Dr. Maverakis started a couple months prior.

Surprise! not too long after I received the response from Western Health Advantage, my church’s health insurance provider.

First Insurance Denial

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Here’s an excerpt from the letter:

“The requested service, Home UV Photo therapy booth is being denied by Western Health Advantage (WHA) because it is currently considered Experimental/Investigational for a diagnosis of Psoriasis/Atopic Neurodermatitis. . . . and not a covered benefit under your health insurance plan.”

I couldn’t believe that WHA called home phototherapy “Experimental/Investigational” when I had used it effectively for many years earlier in life. I felt pessimistic about winning an appeal given how their reasoning, and how onerous the appeal process feels.

I Appeal!

Nonetheless, Dr. Carroll and I both sent appeals to WHA. Below is a copy of my letter, which I certainly thought would change the minds of those making those hard decisions at the insurance company:

Dear WHA,

I am writing with regard to a denial letter I received dated February 23, 2018 for a Home UV Photo Therapy unit. I would like to appeal the denial of my dermatologist’s request for this unit to treat my psoriasis and atopic dermatitis.

With the careful supervision of my dermatologists, I have successfully and effectively used phototherapy at home for my skin conditions for many years. Starting in 1981 my father and I built a box with a design and prescription from UCSF Dermatology. I used that UVB unit design off and on for over 25 years until I moved back to California in 2006.  Thereafter I began using cyclosporine, which helped greatly. Now I need to stop using cyclosporine.

I have also utilized phototherapy at the clinic at various times over the past forty years, but do not feel at this time I can go to Sacramento from the Davis/Woodland area three times a week due to my work schedule demands and family needs. I thought a home unit would be perfect to augment my current psoriasis treatment.

Also, I feel it would help my atopic dermatitis. Since tapering down on cyclosporine treatment due to high blood pressure concerns, my atopic dermatitis has become more unpredictable and severe. I mainly use topical steroids for atopic dermatitis, which is not a good long-term solution given the widespread area it affects my skin. My dermatologist and I also considered using Dupixent, the new biologic for atopic dermatitis, but wanted to try the home phototherapy unit first.

While I understand the medical literature is conflicting as to the safety and efficacy of home phototherapy, each patient is an individual and unique case. In my case I need a combination of therapies to keep my immune mediated skin conditions under control.

I do hope that WHA reconsiders approving the phototherapy unit for me given my medical history of using a myriad of treatments over40 years, including home phototherapy.

Sincerely,

Howard H Chang

Second Insurance Denial

The appeals did not work. On March 21st my wife and I heard a package delivered to the front door. Insurance sure does spend a lot of money using FedEx to send denial letters overnight!

The argument now, in addition, is that a phototherapy unit is a convenience item, not unlike a television or radio. What? That’s really what they wrote.

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Excerpt from the letter:

“The following services and supplies are excluded or limited: ‘Personal comfort or convenience items and home or automobile modifications or improvements. This includes, but is not limited to, televisions, radios, chair lifts and purifiers.’ . . . Specifically, a Home UV Photo Therapy Booth is considered a convenience item and is not a coverered benefit.”

I understand that WHA does not want to pay for this unit. But calling it not medically necessary, and a convenience item flies in the face of current dermatologic medical practice. Or am I going crazy? I am going crazy.

I Give Up?

At this time I need to lick my wounds and discuss with my dermatolgist what to do next. At the National Psoriasis Foundation corporate roundtable in Chicago last summer someone mentioned to me that my dermatologist can request to talk to another dermatologist at the insurance. That might be the way to go as the physician who wrote the second letter is not a specialist.

I am also considering buying a scaled down unit directly from the manufacturer. Another option is to just get out in that beautiful California sunshine that should be arriving any day with the coming of spring. WHA can’t stop me from going to my backyard to get some naturaly UVB.

Whatever happens next I won’t give up, though I honestly don’t know how effective more appeals will be. The more I appeal, the more reasons they give to NOT cover the phototherapy booth. Still, at the end of the day, I am grateful for WHA covering my biologics and my family’s hospital stays. But the UVB unit would be nice too.

28 Weeks with Tremfya: Still Working? (Injection #5)

March 5th finally arrived–injection day. The time came for the fifth dose of Tremfya (guselkumab) twenty-eight weeks after starting this treatment journey with it in August.

To prepare I carefully laid out the syringe, the instruction booklet, information sheet, a cotton ball, and alcohol wipe on my desk. As I waited for the medication to warm up for a few minutes my thoughts began to wander.

Would I take Tremfya if my insurance didn’t pay for the approximately ten thousand dollars per injection?

Is there any chance for even greater improvement as I go into the second half of a year taking it?

Will any long-term side effects eventually pop up if I take Tremfya over a long period?

As I grabbed the syringe I figured the answers are 1) no–it’s way too expensive, 2) probably not–I’ve probably seen what it can do already, and 3) I hope not–and that scares me to these three questions. I submitted to the fact that I can’t know everything I want to know about taking a new medication even after using it for over half a year.

Thankfully, the needle and medication went under my skin with no issues. Not even a tiny drop of blood emerged as the needle pulled out. Now it’s time to wait to see how effective this injection will be for weeks 28 to 36, and would it follow the pattern I’ve observed with the past couple injections.

The Pattern Continues

In 24 Weeks with Tremfya: A Pattern Emerges I discussed a pattern I observed with the eight week between injections. About two weeks before the next injection my psoriasis worsens. Then two weeks after the injection my psoriasis begins to improve again. I most enjoy the four weeks in between.

During the previous eight weeks I did have a nagging respiratory injection that seemed to worsen both my psoriasis and atopic dermatitis. While it’s possible the break out is due to the lingering effects of infection, I also see it as a potential confirmation of the pattern I described.

This picture I took earlier this week shows how my psoriasis broke out some on my lower back and upper arms. Continue reading →

An Almost Disastrous First Dermatology Visit

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The empty lobby at the dermatology clinic at lunch time left me feeling quite anxious after I missed my 11:30 a.m. appointment, which I thought was at 1:30 p.m.

Wednesday morning started out quietly enough. I took the morning to rest as I had to work on my Monday day off. I looked forward to my first dermatology appointment at 1:30 p.m. I drove into town around 12:30 to give myself plenty of time. Then it dawned on me.

My dermatology appointment was at 11:30 a.m., not 1:30 p.m.

After double checking my calendar I decided to drive straight to the clinic. Even though the door was unlocked, I only found an “out to lunch” sign on the counter. A call to the scheduling center confirmed I missed my appointment. I’d waited over two months for this visit. Now I found myself one hour late to it.

The scheduler on the phone told me I could take the next available appointment with the dermatologist on May 8th, or with her colleague on May 2nd. She also gave me the option to stay in the clinic office until the staff returned from lunch. I opted for the latter.

As I waited all I could think about is what a disaster the first visit is turning out to be. Being late meant possibly not seeing the new dermatologist for weeks. One little mistake could mushroom into huge consequences for all my treatments.

As I waited all I could think about is what a disaster the first visit is turning out to be. Being late meant possibly not seeing the new dermatologist for weeks.

Awkward Beginnings

Finally, someone returned to the office. I sheepishly asked if she had started working yet, and shared how I felt embarrassed about missing my 11:30 appointment. The receptionist said it was okay, and took my information down. She then asked me to wait until the medical staff returned.

Dr. C’s medical assistant returned and started looking into my situation. He said they could work me into her schedule, but I needed to wait there for up to two hours. Ironically, I ended up getting a 1:45 p.m. appointment, only 15 minutes later than what I first thought. Around 2:00 p.m. the medical assistant called me into the exam room.

I felt anxious changing to a new medical group and system. Right off I felt awkward when I tried to sit on the exam table and asked for a gown.

“On the first visit the doctor likes you to keep your clothes on and sit in the chair,” the assistant informed me. I thought it sounded like rules for a first date, but went with it.

I felt anxious changing to a new medical group and system. Right off I felt awkward when I tried to sit on the exam table and asked for a gown.

Next, he told me the doctor is using an exam recording device that transmits to the Dominican Republic. It apparently helps with documentation so the doctor doesn’t need to worry about writing notes later. I didn’t want to make a fuss on my first visit and told him it would be fine.

Dr. C. walked in a few minutes later. She told me right away that she didn’t have that much time for the visit since I was being squeezed into her schedule.

Having no time to waste, I quickly dove into all my dermatology concerns assuming she could keep up. Continue reading →

24 Weeks with Tremfya: A Pattern Emerges

Twenty-four weeks ago on Monday, August 21, 2017, I took my first injection of Tremfya (guselkumab) to treat my severe psoriasis. That day I witnessed a solar eclipse as I drove to the dermatology clinic in Sacramento. I recalled the day in grade school (February 26, 1979) when the last total solar eclipse occurred in the Northern Hemisphere. That’s around the time when the first psoriasis lesions emerged on my skin.

Over the course of those almost four decades between total solar eclipses I’ve battled severe psoriasis. Sadly, few treatments helped to effectively relieve the inflammation over those years.

I survived messy and smelly coal tar formulations, phototherapy burns, painful side effects of soriatane/etretinate, liver biopsies with methotrexate, rising blood pressure with cyclosporine, and five biologic mediations with injections. Not to mention the strange diets, supplements (I need write about the snake skin powder), alternative Chinese medications, and other unmentionables I tried to “cure” my psoriasis.

Over the course of those almost four decades between total solar eclipses I’ve battled severe psoriasis. Sadly, few treatments helped relieve the inflammation over those years.

Would Tremfya finally be the treatment to eclipse the nagging psoriasis all over my skin?

High Hopes and Expectations for Tremfya

Going into the clinic for my first injection I felt both excited and nervous. All those hopes and dreams of wanting to find “the one” treatment rested in that syringe full of medical innovation. That’s a lot of pressure and expectation on one treatment.

I knew before long that Tremfya would not be the cure I desired, even though it never promised to be one. By week 6 I began to redefine my expectations:

So, I’m lowering my expectations for Tremfya. I do hope this awesome new medication can beat the lowered expectations.  But if it can’t quite climb to the top of that mountain, I’ll take something less. I’ll take less than clear skin. I’ll accept if it needs something other than cyclosporine, such as phototherapy, or stronger topical treatments, to work more effectively at suppressing psoriasis.

Of course, I still hope it clears my skin in a couple months. But if it doesn’t by week seven or eight, I won’t fret about it not doing its job . . . at least not quite yet.

Going into week 21 I’m not fretting about whether or not Tremfya will work or not. Instead, I’m observing a pattern emerge on how it works with my psoriasis. Continue reading →

16 Weeks with Tremfya: The Verdict?

August 9, 2017 Huntington Beach, CA. I took this photo just before starting Tremfya in August in one of my favorite spots in the world.

I started my Tremfya (guselkumab) journey on Monday, August 21, 2017. Sixteen weeks is an important point to evaluate as clinical trials use this time to evaluate new medications. On December 11, after three injections (week 0, 4, 12), I reached that interim endpoint.

The clinical trial data shows that more than 90% of patients showed greater or equal to 75% improvement at 16 weeks. When I took that first injection, I hoped my body would assimilate Tremfya safely, while effectively shutting down the psoriasis inflammation all over my skin.

Below I evaluate my experience with Tremfya at 16 weeks. The following “verdicts” reflect a moment in time, and certainly are not final. As a disclaimer, my observations are from my personal experience only, and should not be construed as making any claims or predictions for anyone else who might try Tremfya.

How well is Tremfya working for me?

Quite well! After a roller coaster few months with tapering off of cyclosporine, atopic dermatitis (eczema) flares, and super stressful stretches of work, I’m amazed at the level of psoriasis clearance. I’m still on a small, small dose of cyclosporine, but no other biologic gave me this much skin clearance working together with even higher doses of cyclosporine.

After a roller coaster few months, I’m amazed at the level of psoriasis clearance with Tremfya.

I have yet to see my dermatologist this month (that is another story altogether trying to get an appointment with him), so I can’t say what percentage improvement I’ve experienced. But my guess is at least the 75% clearance, and probably more.

I promised photos in my last update. The following photos from July, October, and and December don’t lie.

Continue reading →

14 Weeks with Tremfya: What’s Next?

20 Weeks with Tremfya: Read the Instructions! (4th Injection)

24 Weeks with Tremfya: A Pattern Emerges

I found this photo online that reflects how I feel–looking up for answers into the gray building and sky, not knowing what’s the next move.

For much of the last year I looked forward to taking Tremfya (guselkumab) to treat my severe chronic psoriasis. My dermatologist suggested I hold off on the new IL-17A inhibitors until it was FDA approved.

I continued with a combination of topical steroids, Enbrel (etanercept), and Neoral (cyclosporine). That regimen worked fairly well for some years. But it seemed Enbrel lost effectiveness over the years, and cyclosporine’s long-term side effects started to develop. A little over 14 weeks ago I finally started Tremfya.

Now almost three months into the new treatment I am asking a question I hoped not to need to ask: what’s next?

Skin Condition Update

I won’t make any final or definitive evaluation of Tremfya’s effectiveness quite yet. Week 16 is when the study trials report efficacy anyhow. Charts show the medication continuing to work for weeks after, even though the curve flattens. I can say that overall psoriasis is under better control than with Enbrel and higher dose cyclosporine. Continue reading →

Hitting My “Treat to Target” Goals After 6 Months?

I wrote this article for the National Psoriasis Foundation as an update to my Treat to Target experience earlier this year. The editor decided to take excerpts from below as a postscript and republish as An ongoing experiment with Treat to Target.  See the postscript below for a brief week 13 with Tremfya update.

Here is the full article:

Psoriasis treatment for me is a series of starts and stops, and then restarts. In the past, I focused on finding something that effectively calms down the inflammation in my body so I can at least function at my job. When a treatment stopped working, or a new treatment proved unhelpful, I moved on to the next one. I find treatment rarely follows a dependable straight-line path for the foreseeable future.

Earlier this year my approach to treatment changed after I read about the National Psoriasis Foundation’s Medical Board’s “Treat 2 Target” treatment strategy. They established the goal of 1 percent or less psoriasis on the body within three months of treatment. An alternate acceptable goal is to maintain 75 percent improvement of psoriasis skin involvement in three months. These treatment goals inspired me to not accept “good enough” and strive for better results.

Of course, treatment decisions are individual and meant to be worked out with medical providers. Knowing I needed to consider change to more effective medications, I talked to my dermatologist about setting goals at my first appointment of 2017.

When I wrote about my first Treat to Target experience earlier this year, I hoped to reach the treatment targets I set with my dermatologist, Dr. Maverakis within the three or six-month time frame. Unfortunately, circumstances did not work out as I wished. 

Hitting Targets Can Take Time

Many variables came into play as I strived for at least 75 percent psoriasis improvement. First, I ultimately decided not to do the treatment my dermatologist first prescribed for me. He wanted me to try Goeckerman therapy, a combination of coal tar and phototherapy. At first I went along, but over time I became less enthusiastic about the time consuming and messy nature of the treatment. Several poor experiences with phototherapy in the past proved difficult to overcome as well.

The next option we considered, the innovative biologic Tremfya (guselkumab), would not gain FDA approval until summer at the earliest. In the meantime, I asked if I could try a newer systemic medication. While my dermatologist agreed to prescribe it for me, my health insurance provider ultimately denied covering it. Eventually the drug manufacturer agreed to provide it for free after I applied to their patient assistance program. In the end, receiving the medication took almost six weeks.

The next twelve weeks became a roller coaster ride with the new systemic medication. I managed the ups and downs of challenging side effects and waited day after day to see improvement. My dermatologist and I decided to stop it due to lack of response. In fact, my psoriasis seemed worse.

Hitting those targets took much more effort and time than I expected. But setting the goals kept me focused on reaching them however many setbacks I faced.

Months into my Treat to Target experience I felt disappointed and at a loss what to do next. Hitting those targets took much more effort and time than I expected. But setting the goals kept me focused on reaching them however many setbacks I faced.

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Follow my Tremfya journey!

Tremfya (Guselkumab) Week One

3 Weeks with Tremfya: The Waiting Game

5 Weeks with Tremfya: Biggest Fear?

6 Weeks with Tremfya: Redefining Expectations

8 Weeks with Tremfya: It’s Working!

10 Weeks with Tremfya: One Step Back

12 Weeks with Tremfya: The Third Injection

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New Treatment, Renewed Hope

Around the time my dermatologist and I decided to stop the systemic medication, the FDA approved Tremfya. Dr. M. asked me to come to the clinic the next day at lunch time so he could see me without an appointment. A few weeks later I became the first patient to use the new biologic medication in the University of California, Davis Health System.

Once again, I feel hopeful that I can reach the treatment targets Dr. Maverakis and I set earlier in the year.  A few weeks into treatment psoriasis lesions on my arms and legs started to slowly fade, becoming flatter and less scaly. Although I experienced new outbreak in the next couple weeks, those lesions began to disappear soon after. I’m optimistic that clear skin is possible in a couple more months.

Once again, I feel hopeful that I can reach the treatment targets Dr. Maverakis and I set earlier in the year.

The path to clearer skin, however, might take a turn for the worse at the end of the year. I’m losing my dermatologist as his medical group will no longer participate in my health insurance provider’s network. I want my new healthcare providers to continue the goals and treatment I started this year, but I have no guarantees that they will.

I’m not too worried, though, about what comes next. My experience with Treat to Target so far tells me that obstacles and challenges to reach treatment goals come in many different forms and ways. Keeping the goals in mind, while adopting a flexible attitude, gives me the courage and persistence to overcome them one by one.

Postscript: At week 13 on Tremfya I’m seeing a bit more psoriasis breaking out all over, but especially on my trunk and stomach. I am remain optimistic that in the next few weeeks the injection I took last week will start working!