Victim of a “heartless” insurance giant

January 11, 2008

Elizabeth Lalasz reports that the cause of Nataline Sarkisyan's death was health care industry neglect.

NATALINE SARKISYAN, a 17-year-old from Northbridge, Calif., died five days before Christmas after her parents' health insurance company denied her a life-saving liver transplant.

Philadelphia-based CIGNA HealthCare claimed the surgery was an experimental procedure not covered under the benefit plan of her father Krikor, who is a Mercedez-Benz auto technician. The story gained national attention through news stories and an Internet campaign, prompting hundreds of phone calls to CIGNA and a series of protests.

On December 20, the Sarkisyan family, along with members of the local Armenian community and the California Nurses Association/National Nurse Organizing Committee (CNA/NNOC), held a protest of nearly 150 people outside CIGNA's offices in Glendale, Calif.

In a surprise move, CIGNA contacted Hilda Sarkisyan during the protest and told her the company would approve the transplant. The company released a statement announcing it had "decided to make an exception in this rare and unusual case, and we will provide coverage should she proceed with the requested liver transplant."

What else to read

For more information on Nataline and the struggle for her--including a YouTube video of the December 20 protest in front of CIGNA offices in Glendale--and on further action you can take, see the CNA/NNOC Web site.

Activists in Chicago, including CNA/NNOC members, will rally January 15 at 4:30 p.m. at CIGNA Illinois, 525 W. Monroe, to highlight the insurance company's role in Nataline Sarkisyan's death and to demand a single-payer system.

Celebration soon gave way to disappointment when hospital staff also called--to say that Nataline's health had taken a turn for the worse. The family made the decision to take Nataline off life support, and she died later that day. According to the Sarkisyan family, Nataline had a 65 percent chance of surviving if she had gotten the transplant in time.

Nataline, who was battling leukemia, had received a bone marrow transplant in mid-November from her brother, but she later developed a complication that caused her liver to fail. Doctors put her on the transplant list December 6, and a match was found within days. But the operation never took place because of CIGNA.

On December 11, four leading physicians, including the surgical director of the Pediatric Liver Transplant Program at UCLA, wrote to CIGNA, urging the company to reverse its denial.

The physicians said Nataline "currently meets criteria to be listed as Status 1A" for a transplant. They also challenged CIGNA's denial on the grounds that the Sarkisyan's plan "does not cover experimental, investigational and unproven services." The doctors replied, "Nataline's case is, in fact, none of the above."

HILDA SARKISYAN accused the company of trying to save money. "They just like to collect," she said. "They don't want to deliver."

Mark Geragos, an attorney representing the Sarkisyans, said CIGNA "maliciously killed" Nataline because it didn't want to bear the medical expense of the procedure and aftercare. The family is filing a lawsuit against the company.

More than 800 people packed Nataline's memorial service at St. Mary's Armenian Apostolic Church in Glendale, remembering her energy for life and calling for a fundamental reform of the current health care system.

"We're here because of an insurance failure, not being able to get a patient in time," said Berdj Kasbarian, president of the Hye Riders Motorcycle Club, among two dozen Armenian bikers attending the service. "We should change the health care system to a European system where everybody is covered."

A few days earlier, CNA/NNOC members held a vigil in Encino, Calif., to pay tribute to Nataline and offer condolences to her family. "The incredible outpouring of support from Americans across the country for Nataline's family and condemnation of CIGNA's heartless behavior is inspiring--and an indication of the overwhelming public disgust with insurance companies and their restrictions on care," said Geri Jenkins, a nurse and a member of the CNA/NNOC Council of Presidents, who works in a transplant unit at the University of California-San Diego Medical Center.

Nataline's preventable death focuses a spotlight on the crisis of the U.S. health care system--especially a point underlined in director Michael Moore's film Sicko that necessary medical procedures are denied to those with insurance.

Unfortunately, Nataline's isn't the only case of death by denial--it's merely one that received national attention, due to protests and determined organizing. Grassroots activity from the bottom up is what will bring about a fundamental change in our health care system--to a single-payer system that takes control away from the insurance giants and puts it in the hands of the doctors, health care workers, patients and their families.

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