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Allison Case is a family medicine physician who is licensed to practice in both Indiana and New Mexico. Via telehealth appointments, she’s used her dual license in the past to help some women who have driven from Texas to New Mexico, where abortion is legal, to get their prescription for abortion medication. Then came Indiana’s abortion ban.

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Allison Case, a family medicine physician, spends much of her time working in a hospital where she delivers babies and provides reproductive health care services, including abortions.

Case lives and works in Indiana, where a ban on most abortions took effect for a week in late September until a judge temporarily halted the ban. The state has since appealed the judge’s order and asked the Indiana’s high court to take up the case. Meanwhile, Case is also licensed to practice in New Mexico, a state where abortion remains legal.

Before Indiana’s abortion ban took effect, Case would use her days off to provide reproductive health services, including abortion care, via telemedicine through a clinic that serves patients in New Mexico. Many of them travel from neighboring Texas, where abortion is banned.

Some travel solo, she says, and others have their children with them.

“Some people are [staying in] hotels, others might have family or friends they can stay with, some are just sleeping in their cars,” Case says. “It’s really awful.”

During a telemedicine appointment, doctors, nurses or other qualified health professionals review the medical history of the patient and ensure eligibility for a medication abortion. They give the patient information about how the two pills work, how to take them, what to look out for as the body expels the pregnancy, and when to seek medical attention in the rare instance of complications. The medications are then mailed to the patient, who must provide a mailing address in a state where abortion is legal.

In the U.S., more than a dozen states severely restrict access to abortion, and almost as many have such laws in the works. Across the country, since Roe v. Wade was overturned, clinics that do provide abortions have seen an increase in demand. Many clinics rely on help from physicians out of state, like Case, who are able to alleviate some of the pressure and keep wait times down by providing services via telemedicine.

But as more states move to restrict abortion, these providers are finding themselves navigating an increasingly complicated legal landscape.

Is abortion by telemedicine legal? Experts differ

Medication abortions work for most people who are under 11 weeks pregnant, and research suggests medication abortion via telemedicine is safe and effective. Yet many states have enacted legislation to ban or limit access to telehealth abortions.

But it’s not always clear what that means for doctors like Case who are physically located in a state with abortion restrictions but have a license that enables them to provide care via telehealth

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2 min read

Jeni Rae Peters and daughter embrace at their home in Rapid City, S.D. In 2020, Peters was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. After treatment, Peters estimates that her medical bills exceeded $30,000.

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Jeni Rae Peters and daughter embrace at their home in Rapid City, S.D. In 2020, Peters was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. After treatment, Peters estimates that her medical bills exceeded $30,000.

Dawnee LeBeau for NPR

RAPID CITY, S.D. ― Jeni Rae Peters would make promises to herself as she lay awake nights after being diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago.

“My kids had lost so much,” said Peters, a single mom and mental health counselor. She had just adopted two girls and was fostering four other children. “I swore I wouldn’t force them to have yet another parent.”

Multiple surgeries, radiation, and chemotherapy controlled the cancer. But, despite having insurance, Peters was left with more than $30,000 of debt, threats from bill collectors, and more anxious nights thinking of her kids.

“Do I pull them out of day care? Do I stop their schooling and tutoring? Do I not help them with college?” Peters asked herself. “My doctor saved my life, but my medical bills are stealing from my children’s lives.”

Cancer kills about 600,000 people in the U.S. every year, making it a leading cause of death. Many more survive it, because of breakthroughs in medicines and therapies.

But the high costs of modern-day care have left millions with a devastating financial burden. That’s forced patients and their families to make gut-wrenching sacrifices even as they confront a grave illness, according to a KHN-NPR investigation of America’s sprawling medical debt problem. The project shows few suffer more than those with cancer.

About two-thirds of adults with health care debt who’ve had cancer themselves or in their family have cut spending on food, clothing, or other household basics, a poll conducted by KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation) for this project found. About 1 in 4 have declared bankruptcy or lost their home to eviction or foreclosure.

Other research shows that patients from minority communities are more likely to experience financial hardships caused by cancer than white patients, reinforcing racial disparities that shadow the U.S. health care system.

“It’s crippling,” said Dr. Veena Shankaran, a University of Washington oncologist who began studying the financial impact of cancer after seeing patients ruined by medical bills. “Even if someone survives the cancer, they often can’t shake the debt.”

Shankaran found that cancer patients were 71% more likely than Americans without the disease to have bills in collections, face tax liens and mortgage foreclosure, or experience other financial setbacks. Analyzing bankruptcy records and cancer registries in Washington state, Shankaran and other researchers also discovered that cancer patients were 2½ times more likely to declare bankruptcy than those without the disease.

And cancer patients who went bankrupt were more likely to die than those who did not.

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2 min read

The new rules will help people get upfront cost estimates for about 500 so-called “shoppable” services, meaning medical care they can schedule ahead of time.

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The new rules will help people get upfront cost estimates for about 500 so-called “shoppable” services, meaning medical care they can schedule ahead of time.

DNY59/Getty Images

Consumers, employers and just about everyone else interested in health care prices will soon get an unprecedented look at what insurers pay for care, perhaps helping answer a question that has long dogged those who buy insurance: Are we getting the best deal we can?

Starting July 1, health insurers and self-insured employers must post on websites just about every price they’ve negotiated with providers for health care services, item by item. About the only exclusion is the prices paid for prescription drugs, except those administered in hospitals or doctors’ offices.

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The federally required data release could affect future prices or even how employers contract for health care. Many will see for the first time how well their insurers are doing compared with others.

The new rules are far broader than those that went into effect last year requiring hospitals to post their negotiated rates for the public to see. Now insurers must post the amounts paid for “every physician in network, every hospital, every surgery center, every nursing facility,” said Jeffrey Leibach, a partner at the consulting firm Guidehouse.

“When you start doing the math, you’re talking trillions of records,” he said. The fines the federal government could impose for noncompliance are also heftier than the penalties that hospitals face.

Federal officials learned from the hospital experience and gave insurers more direction on what was expected, said Leibach. Insurers or self-insured employers could be fined as much as $100 a day for each violation and each affected enrollee if they fail to provide the data.

“Get your calculator out: All of a sudden you are in the millions pretty fast,” Leibach said.

Determined consumers, especially those with high-deductible health plans, may try to dig in right away and use the data to try comparing what they will have to pay at different hospitals, clinics, or doctor offices for specific services.

But each database’s enormous size may mean that most people “will find it very hard to use the data in a nuanced way,” said Katherine Baicker, dean of the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.

At least at first.

Entrepreneurs are expected to quickly translate the information into more user-friendly formats so it can be incorporated into new or existing services that estimate costs for patients. And starting Jan. 1, the rules require insurers to provide online tools that will help people get upfront cost estimates for about 500 so-called “shoppable” services, meaning medical care they can schedule ahead of time.

Once those things happen, “you’ll at least have the options in front of you,” said Chris Severn, CEO of Turquoise Health, an

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2 min read

How to get rid of medical debt — or avoid it in the first place

Patients and the consumer advocates say there are things people should do to try to avoid, or navigate, the medical debt trap. Financial assistance is available, but it all requires self-advocacy.

Lori Mangum was 32 when apple-sized tumors sprouted on her head. Now — six years and 10 surgeries later — the skin cancer is gone. But her pain lives on, in the form of medical debt.

Even with insurance, Mangum paid $36,000 out-of-pocket, charges that stemmed from the hospital, the surgeon, the anesthesiologist, the pharmacy, and follow-up care. And she still has about $7,000 more to pay.

While she was trying to manage her treatment and medical costs, Mangum remembers thinking, “I should be able to figure this out. I should be able to do this for myself.”

But medical billing and health insurance systems in the U.S. are complex, and many patients have difficulty navigating them.

“It’s incredibly humbling — and sometimes even to the point of humiliating — to feel like you have no idea what to do,” Mangum said.

If you’re worried about incurring debt during a health crisis or are struggling to deal with bills you already have, you’re not alone. Some 100 million people — including 41% of U.S. adults — have health care debt, according to a recent survey by KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation).

But you can inform and protect yourself. NPR and KHN spoke with patients, consumer advocates, and researchers to glean their hard-won insights on how to avoid or manage medical debt.

“It shouldn’t be on the patients who are experiencing the medical issues to navigate this complicated system,” said Nicolas Cordova, a health care lawyer with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. But consumers who inform themselves have a better chance of avoiding debt traps.

That means knowing the ins and outs of various policies — whether it’s your insurance coverage, or a hospital’s financial assistance program, or a state’s consumer protection laws. Ask a lot of questions and persist. “Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” said Cordova, “because sometimes you might get a ‘yes’.”

Even people with health insurance can land in debt; indeed, one of the biggest problems, consumer advocates said, is that so many people are underinsured, which means they can get hit with huge out-of-pocket costs from coinsurance and high deductibles.

Here is some practical advice about facing down medical debt, at every stage of care and after.

Before You Get Care

Get familiar with your insurance coverage and out-of-pocket costs

Get the best insurance coverage you can afford — even when you’re healthy. Make sure you know what the copays, coinsurance, and deductibles will be. Don’t hesitate to call the insurer and ask someone to walk you through all the potential out-of-pocket costs. Keep in mind that you cannot make changes to your policy except during certain windows of time, such as open enrollment (typically in the fall or early winter) or after a major life event.

Sign up for public insurance if you qualify

If you’re uninsured but need health care, you might qualify for

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3 min read

Some medical tests, such as MRIs done early for uncomplicated low back pain and routine vitamin D tests “just to be thorough,” are considered “low-value care” and can lead to further testing that can cost patients thousands of dollars.

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Some medical tests, such as MRIs done early for uncomplicated low back pain and routine vitamin D tests “just to be thorough,” are considered “low-value care” and can lead to further testing that can cost patients thousands of dollars.

ER Productions Limited/Getty Images

Dr. Meredith Niess saw her patient was scared. He’d come to the Veterans Affairs clinic in Denver with a painful hernia near his stomach. Niess, a primary care resident, knew he needed surgery right away. But another doctor had already ordered a chest X-ray instead.

The test results revealed a mass in the man’s lung.

“This guy is sweating in his seat, [and] he’s not thinking about his hernia,” Niess said. “He’s thinking he’s got cancer.”

It was 2012, and Niess was upset. Though ordering a chest X-ray in a case like this was considered routine medical practice, Niess understood something her patient didn’t. Decades of evidence showed the chest X-ray was unnecessary and the “mass” was probably a shadow or a cluster of blood vessels. These non-finding findings are so common that doctors have dubbed them “incidentalomas.”

Niess also knew the initial X-ray would trigger more tests and delay the man’s surgery further.

In fact, a follow-up CT scan showed a clean lung but picked up another suspicious “something” in the patient’s adrenal gland.

“My heart just sank,” Niess said. “This doesn’t feel like medicine.”

A second CT scan finally cleared her patient for surgery — six months after he’d come for help.

Niess wrote about the case in JAMA Internal Medicine as an example of what researchers call a “cascade of care” — a seemingly unstoppable series of medical tests or procedures.

Cascades can begin when a test done for a good reason finds something unexpected. After all, good medicine often requires some sleuthing.

“Low-value care”

The most troubling cascades, though, start like Niess’ patient’s, with an unnecessary test — what Ishani Ganguli, a primary care physician who is an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard University, and other researchers, call “low-value services” or “low-value care.”

“A low-value service is a service for which there is little to no benefit in that clinical scenario, and potential for harm,” Ganguli said.

Over the past 30 years, doctors and researchers like Ganguli have flagged more than 600 procedures, treatments and services that are unlikely to help patients: Tests like MRIs done early for uncomplicated low back pain, prostate cancer screenings for men over 80 and routine vitamin D tests.

Research suggests low-value care is costly, with one study estimating that the U.S. health care system spends $75 billion to $100 billion annually on these services. Ganguli published a paper in 2019 that found the federal government

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