We were sad to learn that Arijit Guha, the 32-year-old graduate student whose clever online campaign “Poopstrong” helped convince his health insurer to cover $118,000 worth of outstanding medical bills, recently died of colon cancer.
It’s a heartbreaking end to a story that still seemed hopeful just a few months ago. Guha fought for nearly a year to convince Aetna to loosen the $300,000 lifetime spending cap on his student health plan policy. In a fit of frustration, he tweeted the company’s CEO, Mark T. Bertolini, with a plea for help back in July.
It worked. Bertolini pulled some strings and agreed to cover the rest of his treatment. Guha’s health was on the mend. Unfortunately, the cancer came back in Fall 2012.
Guha didn’t make it in the end, but consumer activists are pointing toward a long-awaited stipulation under the Affordable Health Care Act that would prevent insurance companies from denying treatment for cases like Guha’s. It’s set to go into affect in Jan. 2014.
We spoke with Guha just a few weeks after his victory with Aetna in August.
“It’s unconscionable that we allow the sick to be forced to choose between bankruptcy and treatment,” Guha said at the time. “Or that people can be denied insurance coverage simply on the basis of being too expensive.”
Here’s the rest of his story, as we reported at the time.
Guha was 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.
He realised that his health plan through ASU, the Aetna Student Health plan, came with a major caveat: A lifetime cap of $300,000. In less than a year of treatment, he had maxed it out and Aetna refused to cover the rest of his expenses.
He went to Aenta and contacted his school administration for help. He briefly considered public assistance, but all three roads led him nowhere.
“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 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 CEO 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 health care 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.
–– Jill Krasny contributed to this report.
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