acupuncture 0120I have been wasting money in our health care system, and I am not happy about it. For the privilege of having health insurance, I get to pay more than I would had I been a “private pay” patient.

Our hospital, which is a rather amoeba-like construction vacuuming up all the health care options in the valley, from senior care and assorted medical specialists to medical clinics to so-far unrealized promises for urgent care, has also, sort of, embraced “integrative therapies.” This is a rather homeless clinic, housed in a closet-sized space inside the confines of our sprawling hospital, which is long on hallways and vertical space and short on functional space. Services include ortho-bionomy, massage and Chinese medicine, featuring acupuncture.

The first acupuncturist I ever saw was a veterinarian, and it was on behalf of my dog Reprieve rather than myself. Acupuncture, while an ancient art, was then a new concept here in Gunnison, and the vet, Dr. Tim Holt, was convinced the only reason locals were buying into his service was because he worked on a woman’s horse, and then the woman and her horse won a high-stakes barrel race.

But I could see the results for myself: I would lift an aging, arthritic Reprieve, who played way too hard in her youth and was now paying for it, down out of my car; we would sit outside with Tim for her session; and then she would leap into the car on her own to go home. Reprieve had knee surgery done by her regular vet, who kept telling me “Western medicine good,” and Tim did his first surgical follow-up acupuncture on her. Both vets were astounded at how quickly she healed.

After my own sinus surgery, I went to an acupuncturist who is also our contractor’s wife. It got the same result: my very western-medicine surgeon attributed it to his own prowess, but he was amazed at how quickly I healed.

Then I read that Brazilians, conducting a study with American government money, found that acupuncture could improve sleep apnea, so I wanted to go back to Jessica. However, she had just had a baby, and instead of posting any sort of notice that she was cutting back on her practice, she didn’t bother to return phone messages or e-mails.

So I tried a second acupuncturist, one who seems quite popular here in Gunnison, but that didn’t go well. I took her the abstract of the medical study, but she ignored both that and my request to focus on sleep apnea, deciding that my back needed more work instead. And her needles really hurt.

At the health fair two or three years ago, a young woman was at a booth touting the hospital’s acupuncture services, and I talked to her about it, but didn’t follow up. Until this fall, after my wellness check with my physician’s assistant, who doesn’t seem to share the hang-ups of so many of so many of her colleagues. I kind of think she didn’t necessarily expect it to help, but there was a chance, so why not.

Now, Katie, the acupuncturist, also has her own private office, in addition to her work with the hospital, but for some reason the PA said I would be better off going through the hospital. (Maybe because that’s where her salary comes from, but I don’t think that was really the reason — I think she honestly thought having insurance would make that a better choice.)

And, trying to be an informed consumer, which is next to impossible in the world o’ medicine, the first question I asked Katie was how much each session would cost. That was my mistake, though: in a hospital setting, never ask the provider. That’s my main lesson to impart to you today. Have them stick to what they know, and walk yourself over to the finance department.

Katie told me it would cost $60, versus the $65 she charges at her private office. So when I got my first “This is Not a Bill” statement from the hospital showing $82, I took it back. Again, to Katie, not the finance office. Katie assured me that was just hospital-speak, and it would work out to $60.

So, feeling like an informed consumer, I saw Katie on a weekly basis for two and a half months. And then the “This is a bill” stack arrived, all on the same day, all in individual envelopes with individual postage. (I would like to say that the “not a bills” also come with a return envelope so that we can waste as much paper as possible.) Thanks to my insurance, which paid — this may take your breath away —  four dollars and 10 cents per visit, my $60 appointments only cost $77.90 each.

So yesterday, on what I think was my 11th, and for now at least, final visit, I learned from Katie that if I were doing private pay, the visits would have been $60. That would have been good to know $200 ago.

Finally I did go to the finance department. The December bills are still outstanding, but since they’ve already gone to insurance they are also going to cost $77.90 (or more: even though I am always out of my appointment before an hour is up, I get charged for extra 15 minutes here and there). I will get billed private pay for yesterday’s visit, and the finance person said she was putting a note on my account to do private pay for Integrative Therapies going forward.

But I don’t know if I’ll be going forward. Of the three for-human acupuncturists I’ve seen, I like Katie the best. She seemed very holistic in her approach, and quite knowledgeable. Her touch was deft, and she actually listened when I was talking. And for awhile I felt like I did have a modicum more of energy in the evenings. But I don’t feel like anything has improved $1,000 worth, which is about where this experiment is likely to end up.

And I’m feeling even more bitter than I already do toward the idiocy that passes for a health care system in this country. It’s like airplane seats and hotel rooms: the price is whatever someone feels like making it on any given day, only with an added layer of insurance bureaucracy tossed in. Just to make it as incomprehensible as possible.

So maybe the acupuncture didn’t work the way I’d hoped, but I still feel plenty skewered.

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