Episodes

How to avoid the crappiest health insurance.

It’s open enrollment: Time to pick health insurance. How one journalist almost got roped into a scam. Plus, some top health insurance brains guide us through open enrollment this year.
Green graphic with photo of smiling, grey-haired woman with her hands on her hips. Text reads:"I'm going to be the secret weapon." The Insurance Warrior's battle plan to save a man's life... fighting his employer.

The Insurance Warrior takes on a $61B Company

When Mattew Lientz needed surgery to save his life, his insurance wouldn’t cover it. Enter: Laurie Todd, the Insurance Warrior. Her first task: Figuring out who Matthew was really fighting, and how big the battle really was.

The Insurance Warrior, part 1

Laurie Todd calls herself the “Insurance Warrior.” She helps people get their insurance companies to pay for treatment, and has written detailed books sharing her knowledge. But that wealth of knowledge was hard won.
Image of old-fashioned phone receiver, plus text: "We spend 12 million hours on the phone with insurance *every week.* Shouldn't we learn how they really make their money? Hint: Often, insurance isn't their real job.

We spend 12 million hours a week talking to our health insurance

So… we should probably learn how they actually make money—understand their incentives. One clue: Often, providing insurance isn’t their real job.

Wait, that was legal until now?!

Hospitals in Maryland were suing patients over bills that should’ve been forgiven. It wasn’t illegal — until now. How a coalition changed that this year. Plus, our friends at Dollar For build their bill-crushing army, one Zoom training at a time. 
Image of Jared Walker with caption "I crush medical bills. Try me." Additional text: "Top tips for using charity care to crush medical debt. From a guy who knows. Jared Walker @DollarFor. Web extra. No audio here. Still awesome"

Using charity care to crush medical bills: Six top tips.

Jared Walker, whose 60-second TikTok video on charity care went super-viral, is now training volunteers to help people apply for aid. We sat in. And took notes.  

“We just kept right on pushing” … and laws changed

A 24-year-old died because he didn’t have insurance. His parents fought back. With help from a tabloid reporter—and seasoned advocates—laws changed.
Text: A tiny provision in the giant Affordable Care Act protects some patients from outrageous hospital bills. Just one Senator pushed for it... then voted against the whole thing.

The wild backstory of a tiny but crucial Obamacare provision (ft. David Axelrod)

How one Republican senator made sure the ACA required non-profit hospitals to act more like charities—and less like loan sharks—before voting against the whole bill. Plus, how the battle over the ACA “broke America”— no big.
Graphic advertizing the episode that reads: "When the lawyer who beat Big Tobacco fought Big Hospitals for price-gouging poor patients... the case went up in smoke. (But he did help start something that's still going.)"

A legendary lawyer sued hospitals for price-gouging their patients. And got his butt handed to him.

Dick Scruggs is the guy who beat Big Tobacco. But when he took on Big Hospitals... it didn't go so great.

We’re back! Starting Aug 19. And we’ve got some doozies for you.

We’ve been on a hiatus for a minute, and we are SO excited about what we’re coming back with. These are stories we’ve been collecting for months — some of them for more than a year — and they’re big.
Image of Jared Walker on Tiktok, plus the following text: "Remember this guy? After his viral TikTok, Jared Walker recruited a mini-army of volunteers, who have logged charity-care policies at 2700 hospitals, and built an online system to CRUSH a TON OF MEDICAL DEBT

Badass volunteers help Jared level up, in the fight to crush medical debt.

Update on Jared Walker, whose viral TikTok described a little-known (and effective) method to “crush” many hospital bills. He's been responding to a mountain of requests for help—and building a system to respond more effectively, thanks to a small army of whip-smart volunteers. 

A whole book about fighting effed-up medical bills? Yes, please.

We talk with Marshall Allen—about some of the best tips in his book Never Pay the First Bill; about how you can’t win ‘em all, and about why it’s worth learning all you can and giving it your best shot.

Want to write a killer letter to insurance? Meet Jeannine.

We talk with one health care industry insider who has mastered the art of the insurance appeal. Because even the folks behind the scenes get stuck with big medical bills sometimes. 
Text: His son fell off a bike. The hospital wanted $19,000 for stitiching the kid up. And his insurance said, "Yeah, pass. This is on you." He knew what to do. now we do too.

Mini-episode: One guy skirts a medical-bill trap, and shares the secret.

With COVID vaccinations ramping up, it's time to check in: Who's been trying to make a buck? And who's been doing their best to serve the folks who need help the most? In Philadelphia, the good, the bad, and the ugly have all been on vivid display.

Who’s been trying to make a buck on COVID vaccinations? (And how did racism help them out?)

With COVID vaccinations ramping up, it's time to check in: Who's been trying to make a buck? And who's been doing their best to serve the folks who need help the most? In Philadelphia, the good, the bad, and the ugly have all been on vivid display.
Black and white photo of two men on a rooftop, with a dog, labeled: "These guys discovered insulin almost 100 years ago. They wanted it to be cheap. They didn't even want to patent it. What the heck happened?" AND: Color photo of Anthony DiFranco, today, holding a plastic model of a complex molecule, with the words: "And: What citizen-scientists, hackers, and activists are doing about it today."

Revisiting insulin, more relevant than ever.

Revisiting and updating a story from 2019: How insulin got to be so horribly expensive—the scientists who discovered it did NOT want price or profits to keep it away from people who need it—and what some people are doing about it, today.
Inset: guy with mustache, captioned "I crush medical bills. TEST ME." Plus the heading: "This 60-second video offers a legal recipe for zapping billions in medical debt. Guess what? It works."

Could billions in medical debt get zapped by the legal strategy from this 60-second video?

Yep. A viral TikTok video offers a legally-sound recipe for "crushing" medical bills, via charity-care laws. Government filings show it could wipe out billions in debts every year—with enough elbow grease. Jared Walker and his group Dollar For say they've done a few million already.
Text: "I was the bad guy, that's for sure." Jeff is a lawyer, who used to represent medical-bill collectors. He switched sides. Now he's spilling the tea. Secret #1: WE HAVE RIGHTS

A former “bad guy” lawyer shows us how the dark machinery works. And our rights.

Jeff used to represent medical-bill collectors in court. But he switched sides, and he's here to tell us what he knows.

For instance, we have more rights than we probably know. (Getting them enforced can be tough, but he's got some tips there too.)

And his portait of how the dark machinery works is... kind of hilarious.

Mini-episode: Two small doses of good news

2021 is off to a rough start, but here are a couple of small things that don't completely suck. First, a new federal rule could help cut through one completely-ridiculous issue. Then, a listener describes how he headed off an insurance nightmare, using what he learned from this show.

A 21st-century Christmas Carol: How one Scrooge became a health-care whistleblower

Former health-care executive Wendell Potter spent part of 2020 publishing high-profile apologies for the work he used to do— the lies he says he told the American people for his old employers—and trying to debunk the myths he once sold. The story of how he became a whistle-blower is a modern-day Christmas Carol.

A peek inside our reporter’s notebook: What we’ve learned in 2020, and where we’re headed, with T.K. Dutes

This episode turns the tables: Host Dan Weissmann gets interviewed about what he's learned this year, and what's ahead for the show— with T.K. Dutes, an ace radio host and podcast-maker ... who was a nurse in a previous life, so she knows a thing or two about the health-care system.

Fight! My family tries to pick health insurance for next year. COVID makes it harder.

Keeping the plan we've got means paying $200 a month more. But... would a "cheaper" plan cost us more in the long run?  It depends! And COVID makes it a lot more complicated. This stinks.

You can hear my wife and me try to puzzle the whole thing out, and then I debrief with an expert. Who leaves me reminded how lucky we are to have the options we do. HEALTH INSURANCE SUCKS.

But the alternative is so much worse.

Andy Slavitt gives us a pandemic check-in, the 40,000-foot view

Andy Slavitt, who ran a big chunk of health care for the Obama administration, has spent 2020 talking with almost everybody who knows anything about the COVID pandemic— and sharing what he learns in real time, first on Twitter, then on his pandemic podcast "In the Bubble." When we wanted an episode taking a look at the big picture—what we've learned so far from the pandemic and what we might expect next—Andy was the person we wanted to talk to.

How to avoid a big bill for your COVID test, with Sarah Kliff of the New York Times

They're supposed to be free. And usually they are. But sometimes... things happen. Here's how to keep them from happening to YOU.
New York Times reporter Sarah Kliff asked readers to send in their COVID-testing bills; she's gotten hundreds—and seen the most common ways things go sideways.

A self-defense expert’s guide to keeping cool in a tough moment

A listener asked: How do I remain cool when calling insurance companies?
We called a self-defense teacher—because self-defense more than hitting and kicking. It's about standing up for yourself in all kinds of difficult situations. Which means using your words.

David v Goliath: How to beat a big hospital, using small claims court

In a classic—and hilarious—David vs. Goliath story, Jeffrey Fox takes on a big hospital over an outrageous bill, and wins.
He's a bit of an expert in using small claims court to get satisfaction, and he's got detailed instructions for all of us.

How to handle debt collectors, with the TikTok Mom and an expert lawyer

There's a reason Shaunna Burns went viral with TikTok videos about dealing with debt collectors: She used to be one, so she knows a few things. (Also she's smart and funny.)  We fact-checked her advice with a legal expert: Jenifer Bosco, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. Who said: Yep, most of Shaunna's advice totally checks out.

Your TikTok mom has some medical-bill tips. And a hell of a story.

Forty-something mom Shaunna Burns went viral on TikTok, thanks in part to a series of videos dishing out real-talk advice on fighting outrageous medical bills. She's become the virtual mom that thousands of Gen-Z followers love—and she's got stories that'll curl your hair. (Yep, medical bills figure into some of them.)

A Blast of Hope and Humanity: Here’s what perseverance looks like

Laura Derrick fought and endured for decades. When medical bills threatened to swamp her family, she made huge sacrifices, worked unbelievably hard... and helped change the course of history.

In a moment when we're all enduring a LOT, this is a great time for Laura's story. It's one of the first stories we ever told on this show, and it has special resonance right now.

Bonus: We catch up with Laura for an update.

She tangled with health insurance every day for 25 years. And loved it. Here’s what she can teach us.

Barbara Faubion got up every day psyched to go to work—which she says puzzled her friends. “They’d go, ‘You love your job?!? You spend your whole day talking to an insurance company. Are you kidding me?’”

She wasn’t kidding. Because she loved to win— and she was really, really good at untangling other people’s health-insurance problems.

How to fight like a bulldog (against bogus medical bills and insurance denials)

Steve Benasso is an HR director who, his colleagues will tell you, hates insurance companies, and hates seeing people getting taken advantage of. So he fights off weird medical bills and bogus insurance denials for those colleagues. "I am a bulldog on this stuff," he says. "I do it every month." And on this episode, he tells us how he does it.

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

If you need medical care, it's like you've entered a casino, playing for your financial life, with the deck stacked against you. Lucky for us, we get insight — and tips the dealer WON'T tell you— from ace reporter Celia Llopis-Jepsen.

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.

A “deal” on health insurance comes with troubling strings

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. Her story is complicated, and relatable.
healthcare costs, medical bills, hospital bills

Why are ER bills so horrible? Sarah Kliff spent a year finding out.

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.