Insurance Company Agrees to Pay Student’s Medical Bills, but What About Everyone Else?

A Twitter exchange between patient and exec ends happily, but some question the implications.

A cancer patient with mounting medical bills got a reprieve from his insurance company, but what about others who aren't so lucky? (Photo: Michael Philip O'Malley/Getty Images)

Aug 3, 2012
Jeannine Stein, a California native, wrote about health for the Los Angeles Times. In her pursuit of a healthy lifestyle she has taken countless fitness classes, hiked in Nepal and got in a boxing ring.

A sometimes prickly Twitter conversation between a cancer patient and his insurance company ended happily this week, with the company offering to pick up the man’s leftover whopping medical bills.

But the Kumbaya moment may be short-lived, as the scenario and its outcome has brought out insurance company haters in droves.

Here’s the scenario: Arizona State University doctoral student Arijit Guha, 31, was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer and maxed out his insurance plan’s $300,000 lifetime cap, the Arizona Republic reported.

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With no way to cover the extra bills that were mounting, the newspaper said Guha and his allies took to the Twitterverse this week, involving Aetna CEO Mark T. Bertolini in a lively back-and-forth that resulted in the executive agreeing to pay Guha’s bills.

“The system is broken, and I am committed to fixing it,” Bertolini said on Friday via Twitter. “I am glad we connected today and got this issue solved. I appreciate the dialogue no matter how pointed. I've got it and own it!”

In the meantime, Guha established a website,, and the Republic reported he was able to raise more than $100,000. Now that Aetna is ponying up money for his bills, the money is being donated to cancer-related charities.

But the feel-good moment hasn’t exactly placated everyone. Sure, the Affordable Care Act erases insurance company-imposed lifetime coverage limits. But that hasn’t stopped people from weighing in on various websites about how much they loathe insurance companies, pointing out that not everyone with overwhelming medical bills is treated so compassionately. Some applauded Aetna’s move, but others were not so gracious.

“When there are individual cases that get attention, insurance companies sometimes do the right thing only as a result of an uproar,” said one commenter on the Republic story, “as was the case years ago when United told a Chandler school teacher that her little girl who had leukemia had maxed out her lifetime cap. But what about all the not so cute, middle-aged cancer patients who don’t even have the strength to argue with a CEO? They just die.”

MORE: Healthcare Act: Voices of the Uninsured

Said another, “Aetna only stepped up to the plate because they were getting bashed. Business as usual would be to end Mr. Guha’s coverage at $300,000 and leave him swinging in the wind.”

A comment on a New York Times blog about the situation said, “So, social media actually does have application for social justice. Sweet. Let’s hope Aetna’s shaming into decency will spread to other insurers as quickly as colon cancer can.”

Do you think the insurance company’s decision was well intentioned, or a savvy PR move? Let us know in the comments.

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