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East Deer woman battling rare cancer put in tough spot by UPMC's hardline insurance stance

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review - 2/9/2019

Feb. 09--An East Deer woman has a potentially life-altering decision to make in the next four months: keep her UPMC oncologist but pay more for a secondary insurance plan, or risk finding another whose knowledge of her rare form of cancer is not as sophisticated.

Brittany Eckert, 32, was diagnosed with uterine carcinosarcoma when she was 29. The cancer, she said, typically shows up only in women who have gone through menopause.

"I am one of youngest cases they've seen in this type of cancer," Eckert said.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the cancer makes up less than 5 percent of all uterine cancers and, in the United States, about two per 100,000 women are diagnosed annually. About 35 percent of patients survive five years after diagnosis.

Her primary care physician was first tipped off that something wasn't quite right during an annual checkup in November 2015 and recommended she see an obstetrician-gynecologist.

By April 2016, Eckert was diagnosed with the aggressive and rare cancer, and in May 2016 she had a full hysterectomy because the cancer was found on 90 percent of her reproductive organs, she said.

Just over a year later, Eckert married her boyfriend of four years, Michael Eckert. The couple will never be able to have biological children.

Eckert's dilemma with UPMC is a looming deadline of June 30 , 2019 that requires her to find another oncologist for testing that lies ahead.

UPMC has said the hospital will not provide care to her after that date unless she buys an insurance plan that it will accept. She currently uses her husband's plan under Highmark.

UPMC did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Although Eckert's chemotherapy and radiation treatments are complete, she faces the reality of the cancer coming back.

"Within the first two to three years after treatment, there's an 85 percent chance that it comes back," she said, referring her oncologist, Dr. Alexander Olawaiye.

She said she trusts Dr. Olawaiye -- who was not immediately available for comment -- because he told her he has studied her form of cancer.

"That's what officially sealed the deal for us," Eckert said. "He was the only oncologist doing research and studies to know more about it. That made me feel so much more comfortable."

The potentially fatal news of having cancer and then running the risk of it coming back and not being able to see her UPMC oncologist frustrates Eckert.

"It's almost as if (UPMC) doesn't realize how many lives are in their hands that they're just throwing away," she said.

The risk of the cancer coming back also scares her.

"I thought I was going to die," she said, remembering the feelings when the diagnosis was still fresh.

But with support from her family and a deep faith in God, fear soon turned to a fight-for-life mission, she said.

"I realized there is more life ahead for me," Eckert said.

Eckert said she first found out about UPMC's split with Highmark around the time she and her husband got married in August 2017.

Since then, she has told her story to anyone willing to listen, including to Pittsburgh City Council last June when it weighed whether to approve UPMC's plans for a $400 million expansion of UPMC Mercy hospital in Uptown.

Council approved the project, 7-2. But the decision was met with opposition from people demanding the hospital allow employees to unionize, raise wages and accept patients with or without insurance. Councilwomen Darlene Harris of Spring Hill and Deb Gross of Highland Park dissented, urging council to delay a vote until the hospital agrees to the public's demands.

Eckert belonged to the camp of people who argued the hospital should accept patients with or without insurance.

"I was not trying to stop them from building," she said. "I hoped my story could help (UPMC) see there are a lot of people who will be in the same situation as I'm in."

Eckert was part of a news conference Thursday in Pittsburgh organized by state Attor­ney General Josh Shapiro , where she was able to share part of her story again.

Shapiro filed a 73-page legal challenge accusing UPMC of violating its obligation as a public charity. He also asked a state court to force UPMC to accept out-of-network patients at affordable rates.

Highmark has agreed to work under the terms of Shapiro's plan.

UPMC has said competition in the health industry is beneficial to customers. It contends that businesses and consumers have had "substantial time to prepare for the end of the UPMC-Highmark relationship in Western Pennsylvania."

The five-year consent decree was made in 2014. When it expires June 30, Eckert will need to find another oncologist.

She and her husband, who works as a union organizer with Service Employees International Union, have looked into buying a secondary insurance plan with UPMC that would allow her to keep seeing Dr. Olawaiye.

"There is no feasible way for us to afford to pay for that secondary insurance to see these doctors," Eckert said.

She said she hasn't called other oncologists yet because she's scared.

"What if they don't know as much about (uterine carcinosarcoma)?" Eckert said. "I'll have to put my faith and life in the hands of someone else who would have to come up with a plan if it does come back. It's really scary."

Eckert's plea to UPMC is a simple one.

"I want UPMC to legitimately sit down, to fully look over and read Sharpiro's (petition) on the consent decree and finally just be fair and accept it. Accept his offer and let the consent decree go on forever for those already part of it."

Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Dillon at 412-871-2325, dcarr@tribweb.com or via Twitter @dillonswriting.

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