Arizona Student Turns To Twitter, Fundraisers To Pay Medical Bills After Student Insurance Plan Falls Short

Arijit Guha, a 31-year-old doctoral student at Arizona State University, hit his lifetime limit of $300,000 on his student insurance plan very quickly while fighting Stage 4 colon cancer. To pay for the remaining $118,000 in medical bills from his chemotherapy treatments, Guha started selling items on his website, Poop Strong, in February. He said a friend called his fundraiser “the world’s most important bake sale,” and he told Wonkblog’s Sarah Kliff that it “feels like this weird joke, that I’m selling T-shirts to pay for chemotherapy.”

In late July, Guha tried a faster way to address the unpaid bills: Twitter. He used the social media site to call out his insurance carrier, Aetna:

He sent a tweet to his insurance carrier, Aetna: “@Aetna’s 4th qtr profit up 73%: ‘it continued to benefit from low use of health care.’ Helps they can ensure low use.”

After he engaged in a back-and-forth with chief executive Mark Bertolini, the insurance company moved quickly to work out a solution. Within 24 hours, Guha’s 23-word tweet had done more than six straight months of fundraising ever could: It persuaded Aetna to cover all his outstanding medical bills, showcasing the power of social media to catalyze swift action from a major company. […]

“Although he reached the limits of his plan, Aetna care managers have continued to provide support and we have worked to develop a solution,” the company said in a statement. […]

Guha has come away with a similar conclusion. He was ecstatic about the result. But he also considers himself as an exception to the rule: Not every American struggling with medical debt gets into a Twitter exchange with a health insurance CEO and catches a lucky break.

Thanks to Obamacare, insurance providers will have to eliminate lifetime limits on health care plans. This regulation kicked in for student insurance plans in July 2012, so Guha will not have to worry about the $300,000 limit he passed long ago the next time he renews his insurance plan. And students who sign up for insurance plans through their universities will be guaranteed more comprehensive coverage.

As ThinkProgress reported in June, the plans some schools offer are mini-med plans that provide almost no protection when students actually get sick or injured. Upping the standards will lead to much better coverage for more students, and it is possible to avoid rising costs while improving benefits. In Massachusetts, for example, a number of schools joined together to buy coverage collectively for 12,000 students without dramatically increasing premiums.

According to the Government Accountability Office, 600,000 students — 7 percent of 18 to 23-year-olds in college — bought insurance through their school’s plans. By providing more comprehensive plans, like removing lifetime limits, future students faced with the same situation as Guha hopefully will not have to turn to T-shirt sales and Twitter to cover their cancer treatments.