The Home Phototherapy Unit Arrives!

A few weeks ago the narrowband ultraviolet B light (NUVB) panel finally arrived. My dermatologist and I decided to try home phototherapy after determining that Tremfya (guselkumab) alone would not adequately suppress my psoriasis or address my atopic dermatitis.

I gave up, though, after my health insurance denier provider rejected the initial prescription, the first appeal, and then the appeal to the denial. I know I shouldn’t stop fighting, but I figured I needed to choose my battles wisely. I lost this round and that was that.

A Gift Arrives Via Freight Truck

As the delivery truck pulled up to my driveway I thought about how a couple dozen people generously gave to the GoFundMe campaign started by a parishioner at church. The over four thousand dollars raised allowed me to order, and now take delivery, of a Daavlin Series 7 eight bulb NUVB panel with dosimetry timer.

The over two hundred thirty pound wooden box initially looked like a crudely constructed coffin. But inside contained another tool in the arsenal to combat inflammatory immune responses on my skin. Here I’m holding the protective grills that install over each pair of six foot light bulbs:

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Continue reading →

2nd Dermatology Visit: Waiting and Delaying Treatments

This time I made it on time for my dermatology appointment. After the first visit to my new dermatologist almost turned out a disaster, I made sure to double check the appointment time. Yes, I needed to make it to the clinic on Tuesday at 10:00 a.m. for this second visit.

You’d think that after four decades of seeing doctors I would feel comfortable at clinic appointments. But in those few minutes I spend with the dermatologist decisions will be made about my health that will impact my life for weeks to come.

With a new dermatologist and healthcare provider system I felt intense anxiety for that appointment. My elevated blood pressure told the same story: seeing the doctor is a stressful event for me. Even so, I overcame my anxieties to closely collaborate with Dr. Carroll on what’s next for my skin treatments.

Getting Acquainted

Thankfully, the doctor visit went much better than I expected. At the outset I spent a couple minutes getting acquainted with Dr. Carroll. I first shared my psoriasis column on Everyday Health, The Itch to Beat Psoriasis with her. I also talked about my volunteer work with the National Psoriasis Foundation. Dr. Carroll shared how she studied under a prominent psoriasis researcher and physician and supported the Foundation’s efforts. She explained her philosophy of putting patients first, even if they are late like I was last time.

I thought the exchange helped to break the ice and develop rapport. I hoped that by sharing some of my life with psoriasis she could trust I knew my skin conditions well enough to input on treatment decisions. I also felt more comfortable that, based on her training and experience, she could manage the challenging case that is my psoriasis and atopic dermatitis.

Besides getting to know a new healthcare system and my new dermatologist, I needed to consult with her on a couple issues looming for my health and skin care.

Tremfya Adjustment

I’m convinced now that the pattern I saw emerging with my psoriasis on Tremfya treatment at week 24 continues. The normal dosing schedule for Tremfya is one injection every eight weeks. By week six or so, however, my psoriasis tends to begin to worsen. It takes two or three weeks after the injection to get back to a more controlled state–if at all.

I would like to try taking it every 4 weeks, but that would double the injections to 13 annually. With a cost of ~$10,000 per injection you can do the math. Every 8 weeks is about 6.5 injections per year, with every 6 weeks about 9 injections. Continue reading →

One Way to Bypass Insurance Denials

Today I still do not have a home phototherapy unit. Almost five months ago my doctor prescribed one for me. Sadly, explanations and appeals made no inroads with my health insurance provider. I documented the insurance saga with Western Health Advantage (WHA) in a recent post. In sum, they denied coverage, my dermatologist and I appealed, and they denied the appeal of the denial. Simple.

The next step to procure a home phototherapy unit would need to bypass insurance coverage.

On the Lookout for Used Phototherapy Units

The dermatologist who originally prescribed the phototherapy unit suggests I search on Ebay or Craigslist for a used unit. Although I did not like the idea at first, I dutifully began looking online for deals. Nothing popped up that I felt I could trust. Besides, I still felt too frustrated about not getting the new unit I set my heart on that I searched half-heartedly.

Then a kind soul emailed me that they read my blog and wanted to offer me their used unit. I began to research the unit to see if it would be a good fit. After consulting my dermatologist it looked like it would need new bulbs that might not fit the older unit. I would need to do more investigating. [If you are interested in their unit please notify me.]

I resigned myself to dip into savings or ask my parents for the money needed for new narrowband ultraviolet bulbs (NUVB) for the used unit, or a stripped down new unit with four or six  bulbs. Even so, I still dreamed of the ten bulb unit with a center and side panels that cost around four thousand dollars after tax and shipping.

A “Go Fund Me” Surprise

A couple months back in the midst of processing a FedEx delivered rejection letter I joked with Lori that I would start a Go Fund Me campaign. I’d never started one, and had only heard about it. My upset did lead me to think of ways to purchase the phototherapy unit apart from insurance. But I did not feel comfortable asking others to give toward it. My pride didn’t let me really consider it.

At a dinner recently I shared my frustration regarding the insurance denials with a couple. I knew they cared about my struggles with psoriasis and didn’t mind listening. We enjoyed an evening out talking and catching up about recent life events. In passing, I joked about the Go Fund Me campaign.

That evening I received a surprise email asking me if it would be okay to send a Go Fund Me campaign to people we knew. They took my picture from social media and set it up. I only needed to give them the green light and check the information on the description before launching it.

If someone who cared about my condition wanted to help me raise money for a phototherapy unit I didn’t want to discourage them. They titled the Go Fund Me campaign “Medical Treatment Fundraiser for PH.” (At church they call me “PH” for Pastor Howard.) The gesture really touched my heart:

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So far the campaign has raised over 70% of the cost of the unit my doctor prescribed. I will soon purchase that unit after giving it a little more time.

Encouraging Support

I am still grateful for my health insurance provider. I will not forget the quarter of a million cost to them for my son’s three week hospital stay. Or for covering my biologics and specialist visits. But this situation with the home phototherapy unit taught me that I cannot expect insurance to cover everything I need for my medical care–even though I argue they have an obligation to.

Instead, I’m touched by the love and generosity of those who started the campaign on my behalf and others who reached out to me with words of support. I’m also grateful for the friends, church members, family, and others who gave in the first couple weeks of the campaign. Their gifts small or large encouraged me enormously when I felt down about my state of psoriasis activity and treatment.

I still need phototherapy treatment on top of topical ointments, biologic injections, and small doses of cyclosporine pills. It’s a lot of disease activity to address, and I know I can’t do it alone. The Go Fund Me campaign reminded me that I’m definitely not alone. People are praying for me, willing to support me generously, and care about my well being.

One way to bypass insurance denials for treatment? Have a friend invite a community of friends and family to pray and contribute as they feel led to.

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.

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 →

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

On Sunday evening I took the fourth Tremfya (guselkumab) injection out of the refrigerator. As I carefully opened the box the instructions fell out onto the desk. I thought, hey, I know how to inject a syringe subcutaneously, so I don’t need to look at it. But a seed of doubt entered my mind: have I really injected Tremfya correctly?

That question became more urgent as I looked over at the specialty pharmacy receipt. Thank God that my health insurance company pays for this expensive biologic. The receipt shows the cost of one injection at $9,500.65. I joked with my daugher I could just about pay her three-year car lease with one injection. I could pay for a lot of stuff.

I could not afford, though, to mess up this injection.

The First 30 Minutes

What I first noticed about the instructions is how to pronounce “Tremfya.” Next, I wish the cover told me how to say “guselkumab,” but I suppose that is for another day.

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The instructions unfolded in accordian style across my keyboard on my desk. I naturally jumped straight to the first step: “Prepare for your injection.” Basically this step says to take the Tremfya box out of the fridge and let it sit on a flat surface at room temperature for at least 30 minutes.

This is a step I should not be able to mess up. But when I took my first dose the nurse did not let it warm up for as long as instructed. I guess her impatience got the best of her. Or, she didn’t read the instructions. I’m glad I started to, and encourage anyone taking a new mediction to do the same.

Time to Inject Already?

Thirty minutes is plenty of time to scan the rest of the instructions and watch a bit of Netflix. Still, that half hour passed too quickly as I hate injections. Self-injections take that hate to another level. Self-injecting with a syringe, not the hit-a-button pen, takes a bit of skill on top of courage.

I hate injections. Self-injections take that hate to another level. Self-injecting with a syringe, not the hit-a-button pen, takes a bit of skill on top of courage.

After stalling for a few more minutes, I picked my injection site and cleaned it with an alcohol wipe. Then I pinched up a bit of tummy flab. In a “dart-like motion,” I finally inserted the needle at a 45 degree angle into my skin. The needle went in quickly and smoothly, although when it pulled out (it does so automatically when all the liquid is pushed in) a bit of blood welled up on the inject site. Applied pressure with a clean cotton ball stopped that nonsense.

After Injection Reaction

As with the other three injections, I felt a bit light headed after the injection. This time the injection site felt a bit itchy as well. I’ve noticed how my asthma perks up slightly with this medication. So, I took a precautionary puff of rescue inhaler beforehand like I do before exercising. I welcomed the fatigue I feel after the injection as I needed to sleep after a huge day at church.

My other reaction was emotional. Continue reading →

My Last Dermatology Visit: As Good as It Gets?

I couldn’t believe what I read in a letter dated November 21 from Western Health Advantage (WHA), my health insurance provided. They approved my continuation of care request for one more visit in December.

I’d already said goodbye to Dr. M and his team at the November appointment. With excitement, I called the Dermatology department to book my last dermatology visit at UC Davis Health. “I’m sorry Mr. Chang,” she flatly said, “Dr. Maverakis does not have any open appointments for the rest of the year.”

Getting that Elusive Last Appointment

What? After waiting weeks to hear back from WHA I now faced denial at the dermatology office? “You can call back as many times as you want to check for cancelled appointments,” the receptionist told me. They don’t keep a waiting list, but would be fine if I called ad infinitum.

So, I called back a few days later. No appointments still. Another call revealed that the university holidays on the last two weeks of the month hurt my chances of landing that coveted appointment. Then I called WHA about extending the continuation of care. Let’s just say that 45-minute phone call made me want to call back UC Davis to get an appointment in December.

Finally, the receptionist took pity on me. He said he would write my name and number down and give me any cancellations that arose. Sure enough, within a few hours, I booked a 9:15 a.m. on Friday morning, December 15th. Why couldn’t he do that from the start? Anyhow, I felt grateful to have the appointment no matter how I got it.

With this health care system, I’m guessing this is as good as it gets.

Assessing my Skin Concerns

Dr. M understandably wants me to taper completely off of cyclosporine. Tremfya (guselkumabis the key treatment we looked to replace it. This visit happened to coincide with my 17th week on the new biologic.

Check out the new Treatments Tried section with a list of Tremfya blogs.

How would he assess my psoriasis and eczema after using it for four months?

Continue reading →