Low-Income, Low-Risk But DENIED: A Letter to Oregon’s Governor Kate Brown

Low-income low-risk women being denied insurance coverage in Oregon, why?

photo credit: www.flickr.com

The pregnant mom who contacted me last November, two weeks before Thanksgiving, was so upset she could barely speak.

She had just been told by the Oregon Health Authority that they would not provide coverage for her to have a home birth attended by midwives even though she had previously given birth at home with no complications.

Home birth is legal in Oregon. And low-income Oregonians who get their insurance through the Oregon Health Plan are eligible for home birth, as long as they do not have health factors that put them at risk of birth complications.

But this healthy low-risk second time mom was being denied insurance because she did not want to have an ultrasound.

Though most pregnant women opt to have ultrasounds, even the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists does not consider them necessary for medical reasons during pregnancy.

At the same time, there is scientific evidence linking ultrasound exposure to brain anomalies.

And many many other good reasons to forego ultrasound for a low-risk pregnancy.

Though ACOG has chosen to ignore it, one of the country’s top neurologists, Dr. Pasko Rakic, M.D./Ph.D. of Yale University, has conducted research on mice that shows that ultrasound exposure changes the fetal brain and told the medical community that they should be using the same caution with ultrasound as they do with X-rays (also once considered safe and routinely used on pregnant women) and eliminate medically unnecessary ultrasound exposure to the fetus.

But a bureaucrat in a dingy office in Salem arbitrarily decided that an ultrasound was necessary for this pregnant mom.

And now the mom’s plan was to have an unassisted home birth.

Pregnant, stressed out, and unsure what to do, she decided she couldn’t speak to the press about being denied insurance. (She has since given birth to a healthy baby at home. I do not have the details but I was told that the midwife who did her prenatal visits was never paid.)

After I was hired by Jefferson Public Radio to investigate what was going on, many other pregnant women and young moms came forward to tell their stories.

The result was this 3-part series on how the Oregon Health Authority is unfairly–and maybe illegally–denying low-risk women insurance coverage.

Highlights from the investigation:

checkmarkThe Oregon Health Authority estimates they denied Open Cards to 250 of the 1,000 Oregon women who applied in 2015, “due to inadequate documentation or assessed risk.”

checkmarkOne letter states that because the applicant previously delivered a breech baby at home without a midwife or doctor present, and the baby was large, she was not eligible for home birth. Yet no obstetrical guideline or Oregon rule indicates that a previous unassisted breech birth would make a subsequent midwife-assisted birth unsafe.

checkmarkSome midwives and other experts believe that these Oregon insurance denials violate federal Medicaid law that requires providers be paid for work done within their scope of practice.

checkmarkThe Oregon Health Authority refused repeated interview requests and has not been willing to talk to Jefferson Public Radio to explain their side of the story. They sent written answers to questions via email. In these answers, OHA confirmed that even if they grant a woman’s request for insurance, they can revoke coverage for an out-of-hospital birth at any time; during labor or even after the baby is born.

checkmarkMidwives believe that low-income Oregonians who do not want to give birth in the hospital are actually being coerced by the state denial of insurance to have unattended home births, which puts them and their babies at risk.

checkmarkOregon moms who have had previous cesarean births are now being told they may not birth at birth centers or at home, despite evidence that this is a safe and reasonable choice. We know that vaginal birth is safer and healthy than cesarean birth, for both the mother and the baby. At the same time, in smaller cities in Oregon, like Klamath Falls, doctors are refusing to allow women even a trial of labor for a vaginal birth, sometimes because of hospital policy, sometimes because of the doctor’s bias against VBAC. This means that the state is using a pre-existing condition–a previous surgical birth–to deny women insurance coverage, which may also be a violation of the Affordable Care Act.

There seems to be a systemic and unexplained bias at the Oregon Health Authority against women who want to have home births, even though these births are much less expensive for the state.

This letter from a member of the Health Licensing Office’s board that regulates direct-entry midwifery was sent to the Governor, the members of the Board, and some state legislators at the beginning of March. It is a public document, as is all correspondence with our public servants.

The letter has not yet received a response. In case you are skimming, I’ve highlighted the most relevant sections.

Leigha Perry of Williams, Oregon was denied coverage despite having no medical risk factors and having a healthy previous home birth attended by a midwife

Leigha Perry of Williams, Oregon was denied health insurance coverage by OHP despite having no medical risk factors and having a healthy previous home birth attended by a midwife. She was not given any medical reason for the denial.

Dear Governor Kate Brown:

I am the public member of the Health Licensing Office’s Board of Direct-Entry Midwifery. I am the senior-most member and serve as Vice-chair, having served two full terms, and am holding over pending the approval of a new public member. Though in my years on the board we have re-written the regulations for the profession, and dealt with a mountain of disciplinary actions, this is the first time I have had a concern I wish to bring to the attention of the governor and her staff.

My lookout on the Board is the interests of the consumer, both in terms of their safety as well as other interests of the consumer, such as the ability to make safe health choices without hindrance or coercion.

The concern that prompted me to write is of the latter type: the way the HERC guidelines have been implemented has made it impossible for most OHP members to choose a home birth, regardless of risk status. I was a member of the Board when we completely re-wrote the regulations for the profession, and we took pains to base each parameter on the best data available. This caused us to narrow the scope of practice, and during the same period licensure was made mandatory. Thus I know, in some detail, that the scope of practice we permitted should preclude high-risk pregnancies unsuited to trial of labor at home.

I understand that pregnant women with any of the gamut of risk factors may initially consider home birth, and that many women have a strong desire for a natural birth inconsistent with their circumstances, and so might wish to make choices that fall outside the low-risk category. This is where regulatory oversight and review of services can be appropriate. Unfortunately, the implementation of coverage has been severely diverted in practice. The reimbursement for midwifery care, hopefully leading to trial of labor at home, is being broadly denied even in very low-risk circumstances. This is effectively using money to coerce low-risk, lower-income women into hospital birth against their wishes.

I do not see financial coercion of medical choices as compatible with the public consumer’s interests, nor indeed with basic human rights.

The claims are being routed through a bottleneck at an office where staffers’ personal bias against trial of labor at home is being used to reject open-card claims, diverting the original goals and scope of the HERC guidelines and OHP reimbursement. As this falls under the executive branch, I wished to bring it to the attention of the governor. These claim rejections came before the board by the dozens and I was able to see them first-hand, because the office considering open-card OHP claims initially made dozens of complaints against licensed Direct-Entry Midwives merely for serving clients within their regulated scope of practice. That inappropriate reporting has been stopped, but is indicative of the personal attitude being pursued. It is an egregious vendetta by one or two state employees to bend the healthcare practices in the state to their personal preference, defeating the purpose of the HERC rollout.

As a result, most consumers on OHP are unable to choose midwifery care and trial of labor at home, even when they are not high-risk. Their coverage is denied, and while they are free to choose to pay for their care out-of-pocket, OHP beneficiaries do not have money to spare. As the member representing the interests of the consumer, this is very troubling to me.

For healthy, low-risk pregnancies, midwifery care and home birth costs a small fraction of the cost of hospital birth. In terms of economics, the situation is clear: state reimbursement saves enormously for every woman who chooses home birth. In The Netherlands, for pregnancies considered healthy and low-risk, the state pays only for home birth, and if a mom without a compelling medical reason wishes to birth in hospital she must pay out of pocket for the extra expense. In Oregon, even when a transfer of care becomes necessary after trial of labor at home, the total expense is unlikely to go beyond the same birth in hospital. So the argument that paying for births with direct-entry midwives is more costly is absurd.

I hope that, in respect of my years of volunteer service for the state assuring the safety of home birth with direct-entry midwives, the governor and staff will take seriously my concern on this matter, and act diligently to bring the situation back into balance.

 

Denied

 

Since the JPR investigation aired on the radio, I’ve been told that Washington State midwives and pregnant women faced a similar situation years ago. Washington ended up reimbursing every woman who had been forced to pay out of pocket for their home birth.

If you are a pregnant woman who feels you were unfairly denied health insurance, you can write, call or e-mail all of the following people with your concerns:

Governor’s Hotline 503-945-6904

Kim Wentz, DMAP Medical Director

kim.r.wentz@state.or.us; 503-945-5770

Trevor Douglass, Manager of Provider Clinical Support Unit

trevor.douglass@state.or.us; 503-947-2315

Cate Wilcox, Maternal and Child Health Section Manager for the State of Oregon

cate.s.wilcox@state.or.us (971)673-0252

Jeremy Vandehey, Governor’s Health Policy Advisor

jeremy.vandehey@state.or.us

Jefferson Public Radio reviewed more than half a dozen denial letters from the Oregon Health Authority. The majority were signed by Barbara Fahey-Ries, RN: Barbara.ries@dhsoha.state.or.us. Her phone number is 503-945-5800.

I hope the state of Oregon stops these unfair, unethical, and likely illegal denials. In the meantime, I predict a lawyer well versed in the Affordable Care Act is going to have a lot of fun with this case.

 

Low-income women in Oregon are being unfairly denied home births by the Oregon Health Authority,

A typical denial letter. No medical reason given. This mom was denied for the “convenience of the provider of treatment.”

 

JenniferLookingSideJennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning investigative journalist, book author, and Fulbright grantee. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and on the cover of Smithsonian Magazine. Her new book, The Vaccine-Friendly Plan, co-authored with Dr. Paul Thomas, M.D., will be published in August by Ballantine. Find her on Facebook and Pinterest. Follow her on Twitter.

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Categories: pregnancy and childbirth.

Comments

  1. I just had an amazing conversation with the ONE and ONLY person who has total power to deny a mom a home birth in Oregon, and I was stunned at the things she said. She believes that midwives are horrible people and claims that she has had “death threats”. She flatly refused to help solve a problem for a client, or even admit that the new rules were not published until after this mom’s baby was already born, so do not even apply to her case….it was so bad that by the end of the phone call I could easily understand why she could have made someone so justifiably angry that they would say something that she perceived as a threat. It was astonishing, disappointing….and completely unacceptable. And just what are her credentials to be deciding whether someone is low risk or not? I am very disturbed by this whole situation, because moms are being denied their choice of provider….why? If I was a pregnant mom in Oregon, I would be freaking out over this.

  2. Jesica D

    This denial doesn’t even list the correct request! This was a request for a pregnancy exemption, NOT a continuity of care request. Those are different OARs.

    Sadly, these incompetent denials are the norm, not the rarity. I know – my clients have received them also! Mine were only approved after hours of stressful work fighting them, and unneeded stress on my clients who didn’t know whether they would ultimately be approved on not, often right up into the window of time that they could go into labor.

    Thank you for this article, and for fighting this injustice!

  3. Abby

    Thank you for writing this. In Australia I was denied access to low-risk birthing options such as state funded homebirth with a registered midwife and birth at a birthing centre because I chose not to have ultrasound scans. This was despite being low-risk and having healthy pregnancies. The powerlessness and injustice I felt was overwhelming. I was not in a state to fight for my rights, with two little ones at home amongst other reasons. We were able to afford a private midwife and I had the baby at home, however it always stayed in the back of my mind, what would have happened to any other woman in the same situation who couldn’t afford a private midwife. Anyway, I appreciate your work and your time and am always enthusiastic when I see you have written a new post. Thank you.

  4. What about a woman’s right to choose when and where she wants to deliver. Many women early on before midwives choose NEVER to go to doctors because the c-section rates were so high.
    As Oregon is an initiative state, women could start a petition to have a graphic presentation of their own situation, and of what the medical statistics show, and what OHP will cover and why.
    OHP would be mandated to cover the “bell curve of statistical success” and not some arbitrary set of rules.
    NO ONE PERSON has the right to decide for a woman. CHOICE for the pregnant mother, SCIENCE for how OHP decides.

  5. Rachel

    I was dropped from OHA/OHP 5 months pregnant but my children were renewed my PCP’s office was shocked and she noted that the income guidelines for a family of 4 to qualify children was less then that of a family of 4 and a pregnant woman. She said I should appeal but I have since picked up other insurance (at a high cost and lost any motivation to deal with OHP further) and saw that OHP did not cover home birth as an option so I then decided it was a sign and I quickly chose a team of midwives to birth my baby at home. With in the week of all of this my midwives office asst. called me to let me know that my newly purchased plan does not cover midwifery unless in a hospital. So now I will be paying out of pocket for a home birth at $4500 (prenatal, delivery, 6 weeks post for myself and baby) I was quoted upwards of 17k for a “normal vaginal delivery” at my local hospital in Bend, OR.My out of pocket cost was guaranteed to max out at $6500.00. I am now paying for insurance and a home birth out of pocket all the while my primary care physician believes I should be covered by OHP so I guess my point is per what Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oregon stated is Oregon and Washington are the 2 states who have “weird” insurance coverage policies regarding home birth and midwives. I am beside myself on how to pursue this and have recently found out that the same Midwife office/birth center has a patient with the same insurance who got blue cross to cover her homebirth as out of network in writing prior to deliver (something is better than nothing) but they flat out would not even entertain that idea. I can appeal once the baby is born but it is very specifically written that a LDM (licensed direct entry midwife) is not covered. I am not sure how this works out for insurance 17k vs. 4k hmmmm…this is why insurance is not affordable we are forced into unnecessary medial costs.

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