Open Letter to US Insurers from a Person With Diabetes

(Photo courtesy of Diabetes Mine)

Just under a month ago, I had the opportunity to attend the DiabetesMine Innovation Summit in Stanford. It was not the first time technology innovators in diabetes met with other sectors (industry, government), but it was the first time payers (insurance companies) were present and engaged in dialog with participants, as far as I can recall.

Diabetes Advocates were very vocal, challenging the views of the panelists. A couple of write-ups worth reading about the payers panel, which addressed some of the key discussion points came from type 1 diabetes advocate Scott Strange, and type 2 diabetes advocate Corinna Cornejo.

There were lots of things worth exploring in the panel, but an insight I took with me was how profoundly disconnected the payer sector in general is from the realities of the lives of people with diabetes. Examples of this that were brought about by panelists:

  • Inviting patients searching for information related to their policy to Google it, later acknowledging that the info to be found on their web site may be hard to understand because it is aimed at a physician audience.
  • Suggesting that physicians advocate on behalf of patients to insurance companies, as if physicians don’t have enough on their plate already as pointed out in a reply by world-renowned Dr. Nancy Bohannon.
  • The admission by another panelist that his company was unable to talk to all patients, as if that is not what customer service is supposed to be about.

In regards to these three specific examples,

  • I certainly expect policies to be easy to find via Google (that is a very basic expectation). But patient-centric content and information is critical to empower patients to advocate for ourselves.
  • Expecting a company to be able to talk to all their customers at the same time is unreasonable for sure, but it is unreasonable as well to expect to continue to do business in an era of exchanges with the mindset of 20-30 years ago. Would you prefer Verizon over AT&T if they didn’t have significantly better customer service?
  • As I said to the panel, I truly believe that if insurance companies continue to not have a consumer/patient focus, they don’t deserve to be in business. They won’t get our business and if they have it, they will gradually lose it.

Once the dust settles after the current madness surrounding the Affordable Care Act, we will all remember that for the first time in US history, we the people are in a position to shop for insurance for ourselves. Even if employers will likely continue to be key clients of insurance companies, people will now have a choice. Therefore, not just insurance products but the mindset surrounding those products needs to acknowledge and treat patients as clients.

It is my hope that this humble letter gets leaders in all insurance companies to think about ways in which we can have their companies truly become patient-centric, as a central strategy to stay in business. That is how information and resources they provide to their members will help them make informed decisions about their health. That is how perceptions of insurance companies will change. That is how you can improve the health care system: by truly empowering the patient.


— Manny Hernandez, President
Diabetes Hands Foundation
Living with type 1 diabetes since 2002

P.S. Since the time of this panel, one of the companies in it expressed a concrete interest in setting up
a national patient advisory committee. That is a bold move that deserves to be applauded. I look forward to hearing what all the other payers are thinking of doing.

  • Jean Coghill

    Great letter…. I have ongoing problems with my insurance company filling diabetes prescriptions. I see it as a purposeful denial of service, which makes them responsible for outcomes.

  • tmana

    “We the people” are in no better position to shop for insurance than we were two years ago. Exchanges will make for larger groups, but the groups may be “sicker”, invalidating projected savings. And there will likely be only the same two or three choices in the state exchanges than there were privately. In the end, the payors still hold the strings.

    • Mike Lawson

      I don’t completely disagree with you, Tmana…but I do think that the strings held by payers are now regulated a bit tighter by the government, and that will benefit the patient. I wish that the awful gridlock in DC didn’t exist and we could get some real progress made. Until then, I consider this an improvement on the system.

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  • Jen Fisher

    Very interesting to me. I am Type 1 and have been since age 3. I am now 41. I am convinced the only advocates out there today are those who live with the disease. I am truly interested in a patient advisory committee

    • Heather Gabel

      Hi Jen! Have you looked into our Diabetes Advocates program? We would love to have you apply, see what other advocates are doing for the cause in various areas of diabetes care, and join in on the conversation by adding your own ideas and plans. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts!