Episodes

Financial self-defense school, now in session: Make your own luck.

We wrap up our COVID-19 popup season with three takes on what we've learned so far about what the pandemic is costing us: A doctor and advocate in Brooklyn looks back on the wave of black and brown patients that filled her clinic in March. A nurse-practitioner in Texas looks at how new tech is—and isn't—helping the older patients she cares for.

And: One of the country's top insurance nerds says her first policy ideas to keep people from getting stuck with high bills for COVID tests ... were wrong.

The hug shortage, the new abnormal, and the $7,000 COVID test. What we’ve learned in SEASON-19

We wrap up our COVID-19 popup season with three takes on what we've learned so far about what the pandemic is costing us: A doctor and advocate in Brooklyn looks back on the wave of black and brown patients that filled her clinic in March. A nurse-practitioner in Texas looks at how new tech is—and isn't—helping the older patients she cares for.

And: One of the country's top insurance nerds says her first policy ideas to keep people from getting stuck with high bills for COVID tests ... were wrong.

How Katelyn survived COVID—without going bankrupt. (Not easy. She has tips.)

In early April, Katelyn was in a financial bind: Home sick with COVID, she hadn't been paid in weeks. And bills were due. "My landlord is kinda beating down my door right now," she said in a voicemail to our hotline.

Weeks later, Katelyn got back in touch: She had made it through, with a heck of a story, and tips that lots of us can use.

From inside the health insurance company: Angst and advice

A listener, who has worked in health insurance for decades, wrote in after a recent episode. "I have listened to all the episodes in this podcast, and there are times I come away feeling bad working for the insurance company."

We talked. In addition to angst, she shared insights and advice we all can use.
Famous economist Justin Wolfers tweets his surprise at how much of the recession is health care

The severe, very weird recession… in health care. And what it means to our wallets.

You've probably noticed: The U.S. economy is crashing.

Something you may not have noticed, that may sound really weird: Almost half of that economic devastation comes from just one sector.

And that sector? It's health care.

If that sounds completely backwards, it is. Except in the world of how we pay for health care in this country.
Anna Davis Abel's tweet about her experience with Aetna, which went viral.

COVID tests are free, except… when they’re not

Anna's insurance company said it would pay 100 percent for COVID-related testing. And then they left her to pay a giant bill.

She got help, thanks to a viral tweet, but... her story exposes big loopholes in consumer protections. (We learn how not to fall in.)

And: The way people responded to her tweet was generous, moving, and ... complicated.

Like a fire, with no one to call: ‘We’ve left no latent capacity in health care’

Ryan Gamlin spent a decade working on the financial side of health care, before going to medical school. Now, as a doctor, he’s on the front lines fighting COVID-19, an experience he describes as “scary, in a way that I never expected to be scared, going to work.”

He was scared last summer too, when a California wildfire came within feet of the hospital where he was working. But there was a difference.

If I get COVID-19, what good will my insurance do me?

Lots of people have insurance plans that only cover them with certain places —providers, certain hospitals.

But: in a COVID pandemic surge, who knows if you'd end up one of those places? And if you end up someplace else... then what?

Makers unite: Speeding PPE to a COVID hospital. A dose of hope.

Here's a dose of hope for the first episode of SEASON-19, our dive into the cost of COVID.

People quote Mr. Rogers a lot these days, about what to do in a crisis: Find the helpers. This is a story about people deciding to become the helpers, finding each other.
Sally Herships and Dan Weissmann

Bonus: Peek inside our reporter’s notebook. What we’ve learned and where we’re headed, with Sally Herships

This bonus episode turns the tables: Ace reporter Sally Herships interviews Arm and a Leg host Dan Weissmann, about what he's learned so far, and what's ahead for the show.
Back Pain Surgery Cathryn Jakobson Ramin Crooked

Watch your back: Outwitting the back-pain industry with Cathryn Jakobson Ramin

Season 3 - Episode 8
Cathryn Jakobson Ramin, an investigative reporter with a bad back, spent years researching the $100-billion back-pain industry. She found that the most commonly-prescribed treatments, including surgery, frequently do not work — and often leave people a lot worse off. She also learned what does work.
Denny Buehler Memorial Foundation

Christmas in July. One family’s tragedy becomes a $1 million gift to their neighbors

Season 3 - Episode 7
This story has everything: Community. Generosity. Softball. Beer.

... AND: Punk rock. John Oliver. A taco bar. And the erasure of $1 million in medical debts.
Journalist Wendi Thomas She is pictured in front of an image of the hospital, with a quote saying says the hospital was shamed into changing its practices.

A hospital sued thousands of patients. Then a reporter called them out.

Season 3 - Episode 6
In Memphis, reporter Wendi Thomas found that the city’s biggest hospital routinely sued its patients over unpaid bills, despite making tidy profits.

Thomas did such a good job making a stink about it that after a couple of months, the hospital dropped more than 6,500 lawsuits and erased the debts.

Can They Freaking Do That?

Season 3 - Episode 5
A woman gets a bill from a medical testing lab she’s never heard of, for $35. Not long after, a follow-up bill arrives. This one says if she doesn’t pay right away, the price is going up — way up: to nearly $1,300.

If they’re going to take you for $3,000 — for stitches! — why can’t they at least tell you the price upfront?

Season 3 - Episode 4
Sarah Macsalka has seen the stories about how expensive an emergency room visit can be, even for a minor complaint. So when her seven year-old son Cameron gashed his knee on a weekend morning in June, the ER was NOT where her family headed first.

What if this podcast were a musical? Well here’s what it would sound like.

Season 3 - Episode 3
It would sound a LOT like Explanation of Benefits, which is a musical revue that actually played in New York City in 2019. Created and performed by a young NYC troupe called Heck No Techno, Explanation of Benefits is a musical revue about the sad history of U.S. health care, filled with smart, funny songs.

My Neighbor the Health Care Ninja

Season 3 - Episode 2
Meredith Balogh has spent years learning to navigate the financial side of the health-care system. She’s a type-one diabetic, she’s never had a lot of money, and for years she didn’t have health insurance. It hasn’t been easy, but she’s become a master. She's a health-care ninja.

Mom vs. Texas

Season 3 - Episode 1
Stephanie Wittels Wachs has a daughter born hearing impaired, which is how she found out insurance didn't cover hearing aids for kids. Those start at $6,000 and only last a few years. Stephanie teamed up with a few other moms to change Texas law... and won.
Stephanie is a terrific storyteller.
James Gingerich, founder of Maple City Health Care Center.

A place where they do health care more cheaply and effectively. (And yes, it’s in the U.S.)

Season 2 - Episode 8
For 30 years, James Gingerich has run a super-effective clinic in Indiana, delivering great results at low cost — to high-need, low-income patients.

An actor walks into a doctor’s office…

Season 2 - Episode 7
Researcher Saul Weiner has been sending fake patients — actors, wired for sound — into real doctors’ offices, to learn about what actually happens, especially: How well doctors really listen to their patients.

Whoa, this medical device is spying on me. In my sleep. So my insurer can deny me coverage.

Season 2 - Episode 6
That’s the rude awakening Eric Umansky got when he called the company that provided his CPAP machine — a device that helps him breathe at night. He got mad. And he got even, in a way: Eric is an editor at the non-profit newsroom ProPublica, and he tipped a colleague —Marshall Allen, who covers health care there.
Anthony Di Franco holds a 3-D printed model of an insulin molecule at Counter Culture Labs in Oakland.

The surprising history behind insulin’s absurd price (and some hopeful signs in the wild)

Season 2 - Episode 5
The price of insulin is iconic — doubling, tripling, multiplying like crazy, for medicine Type 1 diabetics can’t live without. To understand it, we went back almost 100 years and dug up some surpising parts of the history of insulin...and some hopeful signs out there today.

Why are drug prices so random? Meet Mr. PBM

Season 2 - Episode 4
I filled a prescription recently, and the drugstore said they wanted more than 700 bucks… for an old-line generic drug. My insurance ended up knocking that down, but it was WEIRD.  And it meant a big homework assignment for me.

How much for an MRI? Well, that depends…

Season 2 - Episode 3
This week, we look at three MRIs with four different price tags, and an enormous range.

To get paid, hospitals get creative

Season 2 - Episode 2
Hospital bills are too high, and insurance doesn’t cover enough. Turns out, that’s a crisis for hospitals too: more and more of us aren’t paying those bills, because we can’t. So, they’re getting creative about collecting — and offering discounts. Which raises questions about why the bills are so high to begin with.

We thought we had adulted properly

Season 2 - Episode 1
Caitlin and Corey Gaffer got a surprise letter from their insurance company — saying they were being dumped for non-payment. Except, as far as they knew, they were paid up.

Is it ever appropriate to fudge a little?

Season 1 - Episode 8
Bari Tessler is a little famous as a “financial therapist,” but even she gets rattled by the price of health care.
healthcare costs, medical bills, hospital bills

Why are ER bills so crazy? With Sarah Kliff of Vox.com

Season 1 - Episode 7
Emergency rooms often bill you a “cover charge” just for walking in the door, and it can be thousands of dollars.
Pissed Off Sick Boy

Why Health Insurance Actually Sucks

Season 1 - Episode 6
Turns out, insurance companies allow — even encourage — crazy price-gouging by hospitals. For example, the leg brace Blake needed was available for $150 on Amazon. But thanks to his insurance, he paid more than $500.

So, Robin Hood’s got an approach to medical bills.

Season 1 - Episode 5
The health-care system — especially the financial side — can feel like a Medieval torture device. So maybe it fits that workers from Renaissance fairs have come up with a work-around.

Why you (and I) will likely pick the wrong health-insurance plan

Season 1 - Episode 4
Because as smart economists recently proved it is super-confusing, and most of us can’t do the math.

How one drug got its $500,000 price tag. (With 99 Percent Invisible)

Season 1 - Episode 3
The answer involves a suburban housewife, a 1970s TV star, and a Las Vegas maker of popcorn and nacho cheese sauce. Also: Wall Street.

All the Marbles: One woman’s epic quest for health insurance

Season 1 - Episode 2
Laura Derrick takes a drug that costs more than $500,000 a year.

This is Water, and it sucks. Let’s talk.

Season 1 - Episode 1
When I first started talking about doing a show about the cost of health care… everybody had a story. Including me.