When Arijit Guha blasted Aetna on Twitter, it sparked a health care debate that got the insurer to cover all of his medical bills. Guha, 31, was first diagnosed with cancer following a trip to India in February 2011. After undergoing an emergency colostomy, he faced a mountain of medical debt that threatened to put him in bankruptcy.
Though he was insured under an Aetna Student Health plan, which cost $400 a month, Guha, a doctoral student at Arizona State University, “saw the writing on the wall well before that,” he wrote in an email. “Shortly after being diagnosed last year, I went through the full text of my policy and noticed the $300,000 cap, so I’d been keeping close tabs on how much each treatment, surgery, hospitalization, etc. cost.”
Once he maxed-out his policy, Guha turned to an Aetna case manager, contacted his school administration for help, then briefly considered public assistance. With nothing Aetna, ASU, or the state could do, “I knew I had no choice but to turn to charity and try to spread word about my case as far and wide as possible,” Guha said.
That meant tapping web designer friends to set up a store called PoopStrong.org, where Guha blogged about his current treatment and encouraged people to send in donations. The spoof on Lance Armstrong’s site worked, and soon Guha was fielding more T-shirt and baby onesie orders than he could ship. He also raised enough money to cover most of his treatment.
“In the face of a pretty scary diagnosis, I went into this the only way I knew how—to be slightly irreverent and laugh in the face of adversity,” he said. The Web also “helped me pull together and leverage various communities I’ve been a part of”—Columbus, Ohio, Clark University, ASU and Bengali-Americans—”and spread the word much quicker than it would have happened otherwise.”
The real social media coup came when Guha turned to Twitter. Using the handle @Poop_Strong on July 26, he fumed, “@Aetna has now denied $118k in claims (in just 5 mos) since kicking me to the curb. Gotta preserve that $2 billion annual profit somehow.”
Surprisingly, @AetnaHealth replied: “@Poop_Strong We care about our members. We want you to be empowered to be healthy and make informed decisions.”
Now it was on. “That’s so sweet you want me to be empowered,” said Guha, invoking Aetna chief exec Mark. T. Bertolini, “Does @mtbert care to empower me by paying my $118K and counting in bills?”
Turns out he did. Though Bertolini and Guha never spoke outside of Twitter, the two publicly agreed on the platform that the healthcare system is broken, and the insurer got in touch with Guha’s and promised to clear his outstanding debt.
“When I went to Twitter pointing out the $2 billion profit Aetna made last year alone, I was just trying to highlight the fact that there exists this trade-off between the competing values of profit-maximization and patient care,” Guha said.
But he achieved much more than that. Guha brought his story to “media outlets around the globe,” gave fellow cancer sufferers a voice and rallied students to his cause. What’s more, the funds raised from the PoopStrong campaign will go to Arizona and University of Arizona’s Cancer centre’s Patient Assistance Fund.
There is still more to be done, but Guha is hopeful the system can be fixed with a market-based approach like Obamacare, or a single-payer plan that’s similar to Medicare. Both options, he says, “could deliver services more efficiently and cheaply”—and remove private companies’ incentive to put profits before people.
“It’s unconscionable that we allow the sick to be forced to choose between bankruptcy and treatment,” Guha said, “or that people can be denied insurance coverage simply on the basis of being too expensive.”
His message should be heard loud and clear.