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Breast reconstruction lawsuit - Can we afford Cadillac's for all?

Posted Jun 18 2009 1:03am

There's an interesting philosophic debate being played out in a lawsuit in New Jersey over an insurance companies refusal to pay for a patients breast reconstruction surgery. You can read the news wire story here.


Short Version: Patient has double mastectomies with saline implant reconstruction almost 15 years ago. One of her implants deflates, and her insurance company is refusing to now pay for a conversion to a reconstructive procedure using her own tissue.

Replacement of her implants with either saline or silicone implants (which they would agree to cover) would be able to be performed quickly and done as an outpatient surgery with little morbidity. The type of surgery she wishes to have covered, a DIEP flap (deep inferior epigastric artery perforator ) is a complex microsurgical procedure (where tissue from her abdomen is transferred to her chest wall) which would involve a long, expensive operation and a number of days in the hospital.

Last fall I profiled a case in People magazine where such a DIEP flap was performed on identical twin sisters, with onetwin's abdominal tissue transferred to the other's breast. You can see that story here " Breast Reconstruction Using Your Twin."

What are the issues involved with this as I see it:


1. Should breast reconstruction after mastectomy be covered?
Well that issue was settled a number of years ago via federal legislation, the Women's Health and Cancer Act ( WHCA ) of 1998, ensuring that reconstruction was a mandatory obligation of insurers.

2. Should all types of reconstructive surgery be covered?
Again, that's part and parcel of the WHCA, which includes reconstruction after mastectomy for benign disease, usually done for painful cystic breast tissue.

3. In a scenario like the one involved here, should someone have the right to demand complex and expensive surgery when less expensive options are available?
I'm conflicted here. It does not seem completely outrageous to me for this company to deny this request or at least ask the patient to pay part of the balance difference given the particulars as I understand them. She had an acceptable reconstruction with implants, and needs a quick & relatively inexpensive surgery to maintain her result.
In other countries with state-funded ("universal") health care programs, I suspect there's no way in hell this would be approved. In an era of cost-containment, all health care costs are going to be scrutinized and there will be hard choices to make. Luxuries like exotic breast reconstruction almost two decades after the initial surgery seem hard to justify in that context.
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