Financial counselors help Phoenix Children's Hospital patients

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By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver

PHOENIX -- When it comes to your family’s health, information is power.

And one Valley hospital is working to make sure you have more of both.

Mike Timmons is not a doctor, but at Phoenix Children's Hospital he has played a key part in helping Austin Lindenbaum battle cancer.

“He sat on the phone for two hours that day, stayed after closing, just to get everything figured out," said Austin's mom, Aubrey Lindenbaum.

What Timmons helped sort out was an insurance nightmare for Lindenbaum, who had just signed up for a new plan right before Austin's diagnosis.

“So he had his surgery, he was released from the hospital a week later, and on May 1 my new insurance kicked in," she said. "We had another appointment at PCH, and they said that they didn't take that insurance.“

It is something Laura Handy-Oldham says they are seeing more and more often at Phoenix Children's Hospital, as insurance companies look to control costs.

“One of the ways they did that was by narrowing choices within the plans that they offered," Handy-Oldham said.

She says plans with fewer choices and higher deductibles are becoming more common.

"So our high-deductible health plans have increased; they've doubled over the last five years," she said.

And the results can often leave families not just physically but emotionally sick.

“I was already in tears because I was trying to get a hold of Humana and trying to figure things out with them,“ Lindenbaum remembered.

Which is why PCH has refocused efforts on its financial counseling service, going beyond just explaining benefits.

“We really needed to provide more assistance to them," Handy-Oldham said.

That is where counselors like Timmons step in.

“The first thing they said was, 'We are not going to stop treatment. We are going to continue with treatment, but we want to get this figured out and we want to help you,' ” Lindenbaum recalled.

But Handy-Oldham says it is not all about crisis situations.

“We can also help them navigate their open enrollment. We can help them navigate even after open enrollment," she said.

And she has some tips for anyone looking for more control with insurance.

A key question to ask is, what are your health needs? This includes whether you have chronic conditions.

Also, look at your lifestyle. For example, if you travel a lot, would you be covered out of state?

And finally, think about your relationship with your providers. Would you be willing to change?

And Handy-Oldham says once you have chosen your insurance, you have the right to ask what is covered and ask the hospital to help explain your benefits.

She encourages patients to ask, “What options are available to me? Do you have discounts? ... Do you offer financial assistance?“

Lindenbaum says now she is armed with that knowledge, and the counselors to back her up. This is a battle she and Austin can take on.

"They have been amazing," Lindenbaum said.

By the way, Austin is hoping to finish treatment next month.

At PCH, they say the one thing families have told them time and time again is that they just want to know upfront what the charges are and what is covered. They don't want surprises down the road.