Last week, I had what may have been my first adult bout with the flu (come to think of it, I’m not really sure whether I ever had the “real” flu as a kid…in those days, people very loosely referred to almost any virus as the flu, even if it wasn’t). There is roughly a 36-hour period missing in my life, which, it appears I filled largely with moaning and whining, an appropriate American male response to illness (much to the chagrin and occasional amusement of American women, who know that daily life continues, even with a 103+ fever).
On Wednesday morning, off to the doctor I went. “Looks like a virus.” Right. Is it flu? “Could be. One symptom you’re having is unusual in regular flu, but is typical of H1N1. Let’s get a lab test.”
What followed was a series of phone calls to a number of labs, most notably my lab of choice, LabCorp, but also the local community hospital’s lab. Guess what? They won’t do the nasal swab needed to run a flu test…that has to be done by the doctor in his office. Even the doctor’s office is astounded: Apparently labs can stick you to draw blood and can collect your urine, but sticking what is basically a modified q-tip in your nose is beyond what they can do.
OK, we gotta get this sample. Doctor does it. The rest is easy, right? Wrong! I take it to South Nassau Communities Hospital. My experience with the hospital has always been great, whether it was the ER for a weekend throat culture or having kids’ various injuries x-rayed. I come to the lab, and am greeted by a friendly woman who is clearly in charge. She takes the tube that contains evidence in the war against swine flu. I am then sent to the cashier, who looks at my insurance card and says,
“United Health? No, we don’t accept that.”
“Wait, I’ve been here many times with my United Health/Oxford insurance.”
“Maybe the hospital does but this lab department doesn’t.”
Back to the lab I go. Just by looking at my face, she knows what’s going on. “Don’t tell me they don’t accept your insurance.”
“Well you can sign a waiver saying that you’re responsible for the expense. Otherwise, you will have to take the specimen elsewhere.”
“OK, look, I’m running a high fever. If I can get it done here, it’s worth it. What expense am I looking at?
“Hmmmm….flu test is not on my list. Let me call upstairs.”
30 minutes later, she receives a phone call from “upstairs.” It seems they they, too, have no list of charges for flu testing.
OK, they’re not getting my boogers. I call my doctor back. “Try Mercy Medical Lab. They’re an outpatient lab near Mercy Hospital. Not listed on the door as a LabCorp office, but they are a LabCorp pickup for specimens that they draw or that are dropped off.
Great plan. So, I drop my tube with the nice people at Mercy Medical. “How long will it take to get results back?” “One to three days”.
This is great news. It’s Wednesday, after all, and this means that before the weekend, my family will know if I’ve had swine flu and whether it might be wise for any of them to begin taking Tamiflu, just in case.
Thursday, I call my doctor’s office. They call LabCorp, who tells them the results are “pending”.
Friday, I call my doctor’s office. No results back yet.
Friday afternoon, I decide to take matters into my hands, and call LabCorp myself. The patient service lady take my name and birthdate and announces that LabCorp has no record of any tests being processed by them. OK, try the pick up location. “No,” she tells me. There is no such pick up location. She insists that I am clearly mistaken and that my boogers must be at another lab.
By the end of the day Friday, not only do I not know whether I have had the H1N1 flu, but I don’t even know whether the people at LabCorp ever got my sample, or whether boogers are such a big deal that they are routinely stolen from labs and sold on EBay. Perhaps I should check to see whether mine are listed there. Oh, and to my knowledge, South Nassau has still not determined the cost of the flu test.
Here’s the good news: This is a minor inconvenience. It would have been nice to know what I had and what needed to be done to keep my family from being infected. Instead, I am going through the weekend not knowing whether I had swine flu, and delaying the start of any medication for those who suffered at my side this past week.
But what if it had been a more severe illness? Are these small disasters magnified to become larger disasters when the stakes are higher? And if this is what someone goes through with a relatively decent insurance plan, what about those without insurance at all?
As one of my Facebook buddies posted, in reading my story, “People who don’t think our healthcare system needs reform have never tried to get treated for an illness.”