Terminally-ill BSO deputy fighting for her life, is denied chemo treatment by insurance company
Terminally-ill BSO deputy fighting for her life, is denied chemo treatment by insurance company
“My veterinarian has shown more compassion for my dogs over the last 20 years than Coventry has shown me, a terminal cancer patient, during the past 24 months.” — Connie Bell
By K. Chandler
It all started three days before Thanksgiving in Nov. of 2009. Connie Bell, 50, a 26 year veteran of the Broward Sheriff’s Office (BSO), felt absolutely dreadful.
Unable to get out of bed, she attributed her current illness to the fact that she had recently begun working a 12-hour road patrol shift which had completely thrown off her bio- rhythms. As a result, she believed that she had contracted an acute respiratory virus, compounded by stress-related insomnia.
Thanksgiving came and went but Bell didn’t feel any better. Her mother urged her to go to the doctor if she didn’t start to improve by Friday.
By the time Saturday rolled around her symptoms were so severe she went to the E.R. instead, undergoing a series of lab tests. The following Monday she went to see her physician.
That doctor’s visit marked the beginning of a life-altering journey that Connie Bell continues to this very day.
Hospital lab tests revealed that Bell’s respiratory problems were far more serious than she initially thought. As it turned out, Bell was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer which had metastasized, or spread to other parts of her body.
According to Bell, the doctor’s exact words were: ‘Go home Connie and make your funeral arrangements. Put together your last will and testament. No other doctor will touch you.’
“He basically passed a death sentence on me, saying there was no way that I would survive beyond 2010. I calmly told him, God is in control here, and you can’t, and you aren’t going to give me a time and a date to die. It’s in God’s hands.”
Nevertheless, Bell did make her final preparations, even drawing up a Living Will. She also underwent further testing by a Thoracic surgeon recommended by her physician. A biopsy was performed but the results were inconclusive. Still, she felt that there was something wrong, and that she wasn’t getting the answers she sought.
Referred to the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center by a former colleague who’d also been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, Bell underwent further testing followed by her first chemo-therapy session at their satellite office in Deerfield Beach.
It was there that Dr. Chuk-wuemeka Ikpeazu — a tall, bald man in his 50’s, known for his colorful trademark bowties — walked into her life. An African doctor, Ikpeazu looked intently at Bell, taking in her measure before stepping back and stating, “God has put me in your life to direct it. I’m going to walk through this with you. I am a Christian man.”
To this day, Bell has nothing but praise for Dr. Ikpeazu, saying, “He’s the best. He went with me every step of the way. I feel so blessed.”
Living in denial
Ironically, it would be nearly a year before Bell fully came to grips with her deadly disease.
“I was sitting in the examining room one day, waiting for my doctor to arrive when I started looking at this chart on the counter. It was depicting the human anatomy along with the symptoms and effects of each stage of cancer.
“It was as if the lights suddenly came on,” reflected Bell, recalling the stunning revelation which felt like an out-of-body experience and all but knocked the breath out of her body. For the first time, she fully understood the magnitude of the illness she was dealing with. It was not the only revelation she would experience during that period, however.
“I had chemo just before Thanksgiving that year. Still reeling from the effects, she found it nearly impossible to eat and could only sit up for a few minutes at a time. Playing a CD by renowned gospel singer, Yolanda Adams, Bell dosed off to the sound of The Battle is Not Yours.
“I fell into a deep slumber. In my sleep, I awoke to find myself in a room made completely of cobblestone, from floor to ceiling. The room was filled with countless angels. I couldn’t see their faces but they were dressed in the whitest robes I’d ever seen, which flowed down to the leather sandals they wore. They also had sashes around their waists fashioned out of real gold. Their wings would flap soundlessly.”
“There was a stool – sitting on the 3-legged stool in which was my guardian angel. My head was in his lap and he was massaging both my head and my back.”
“My left side was facing a massive fireplace. All of a sudden, I felt a presence but I couldn’t see Him. Then He spoke and His words verbatim were: ‘You have to keep her safe tonight; death is looking for her but it’s not time. You all are going to have to stay in this room with her until I tell you it’s safe to let her out.”
“At those words, I sat straight up in the bed. I felt my left side. The whole left side of my body was as hot as if I’d been sitting next to a fire. My right side felt normal, even a little cold to the touch given the unusual chilly Nov. weather outside”.
“I knew then, without a shadow of a doubt, that I’d been in the presence of Jesus along with my guardian angel and a host of other angels in the room. In all my life I had never seen robes that white; so white you couldn’t bear to look at them for any length of time.”
“At that moment I had an epiphany: This battle was not my battle to fight; this was the Lord’s way of telling me ‘Don’t you try to fix it, let me handle it.’ That’s when I knew I was here for a reason, and that I was going to survive, despite being told by some of the brightest medical minds around to make my final preparations.”
All’s not smooth sailing
At the time of her initial cancer diagnosis and treatment, Connie Bell’s insurance provider had been Humana, the PPO she’d relied on for 23 years.
“When I was going through the cancer treatments Humana was excellent with respect to their follow up. They showed concern by asking me how I was feeling. Had I eaten anything? Did I need assistance with grocery shopping or getting to the doctor?”
Problems surfaced in December of 2010 when Coventry Health Care took over for Humana. When Al Lamberti became Broward County Sheriff, the Department changed healthcare providers.
In Bell’s estimation that decision has been a colossal mistake.
From the very beginning she has had to constantly call her doctor to get authorization for everything from lab work to tests to routine procedures. “Every little thing had to be authorized – down to a simple band aid. The delays and the waiting were extremely frustrating.”
Bills also kept piling up from $25,000 to $40,000, then to $60,000 and finally $75,000.
“I began getting calls from the University of Miami which hadn’t been paid in two years. Finally, I wrote a hardship letter to Preferred Compensation requesting a $15,000 loan to offset my mounting medical bills.” (Preferred Compensation is equivalent to an IRA or a 401k pension plan.)
“Coventry should have paid these bills having inherited them from Humana but instead they declined to pay them, nearly bankrupting me in the process.”
Bell’s request of Preferred Compensation was granted and she was able to stop the damage being done to her credit.
Through it all, Ms. Bell has been able to continue her current lifestyle, thanks to family members particularly her sister who left her family in Philadelphia 18 months ago and moved to Florida to help her through this ordeal.
Bell – who worked as a deputy sheriff in the Broward County jail for 10 years prior to joining the road patrol in 1997 – also had nothing but praise for her BSO family and the City of Dania for its wonderful support.
“My co-workers and supervisors have gone above and beyond the call of duty,” she said, noting that fellow deputies have taken her to and from doctor’s appointments over the past 3-4 years; cared for her four dogs, even buying food for them on occasions and staying with her during chemotherapy sessions.
“Some of the other chemo patients even thought that I was a prisoner in police custody, until they realized what was really going on,” she recalled with a laugh.
After remission period, cancer returns
Although her lung cancer had gone into remission twice since 2009, thanks in large part to the heroic efforts of Dr. Ikpeazu and University of Miami’s team of oncologists, she was informed, following a Nov. 2, 2012 biopsy that the cancer had returned. That’s when her problems with Coventry escalated all over again.
She was recently notified by her doctor’s office that there could be problems going forward with their 3-chemo-ingredient cocktail, along with getting authorization for Neulastra, a drug that builds up the white blood cell count and is required to be taken within 24 hours of chemotherapy.
“Dr. Ikpeazu sat me down and told me, ‘Your insurance company is very hard to get along with. This guy tells me he used to be a doctor and he’ll authorize it today, but that’s it.’”
“According to the University of Miami team, Coventry was pressing for a more aggressive cancer treatment,” stated Bell. “On the face of it, that may sound good. However, the problem is that the side effects of a harsher chemo dose would likely cripple me. It would prevent me from going to work, which out of necessity, I must do. Also, the more aggressive treatment would result in a flare-up of neuropathy, which is a very painful circulation problem affecting my hands and feet, which would further prevent me from working.
“I called Coventry trying to calmly respond to their concerns and get to the bottom of the situation. I explained to them that I was going to work so sick sometimes, I could barely hold my head up. I explained that I had no husband, boyfriend or anybody to help me. I told them that I pay my premiums faithfully only to have a man who claims that he was once a doctor – who has never seen me; talked to me, or examined me – making life and death decisions for me.”
Exacerbating the problem, the visiting nurses assigned to her case were often ‘no-shows,’ or else they didn’t show up in time to inject the Nuelastra within 24 hours of her chemo session.
“Can you imagine – these were supposed to be professional nurses hired by Coventry, who didn’t bother to show up or even extend me the courtesy of a call if they couldn’t make it?”
Undeterred, Connie Bell told Coventry to keep their money; she’d give herself the Nuelastra injections.
“To be very honest with you, I really feel that Coventry’s Health Care insurance is comparable to Third World coverage. My veterinarian has shown more compassion for my dogs over the last 20 years than Coventry has shown me, a terminal cancer patient, during the past 24 months.”
“Equally frustrating is that while I have to fight for every cancer procedure Coventry consents to do, BSO’s former top brass were given free health care through Coventry – a practice that continues even now after they’ve retired with golden parachutes — which doesn’t sit well with rank and file which hasn’t seen a raise since 2006.”
Denied chemo and left in limbo
The latest incident involving Bell and Coventry Health Care occurred just this week when Dr. Ikpeazu notified Ms. Bell that Coventry had denied her chemotherapy treatment.
Apparently, Bell’s white cell count from her bone marrow was thought to be too low to risk chemotherapy, and so it was being put off until the beginning of February so that her white blood cell count could have a chance to grow and not be killed off by the chemo.
In the meantime, Ms. Bell is in a state of limbo as to what course her future cancer treatment will take. She just learned from Coventry that her medical case had been subcontracted out to another insurance provider; a worrisome new development that does nothing to allay her health fears.
“I believe that I’m just one of many having problems getting surgical and lab procedures authorized by this insurance company. I believe that people are being denied across the board by Coventry but fear of reprisals may be keeping them quiet.”
“As for me, I’m going to continue demanding justice, not only for myself but for all of the others who are in desperate need of help. I know that there is a power far greater than me fighting this battle on my behalf. Of that I am certain.”
Just yesterday, Ms. Bell saw a bald spot appearing on her head. So she shaved her head completely, put on her makeup and went on to work in spite of everything. Never let them see you sweat.
Just before press time we learned that Coventry has agreed to pay for Dep. Connie Bell’s chemotherapy. We will keep you updated of any further changes. To God be the Glory!!