Frank Dungan poses for a portrait near Barnett Reservoir in Ridgeland, Miss., Tuesday, May 10, 2022. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Frank Dungan of Madison needs a liver transplant, but the focus of his past few months has not been his health. His focus has been a battle between his insurance company and his hospital that left him without insurance coverage at the state’s only organ transplant program.

But as of July 1, Dungan has switched insurers, and he’s getting the medical care he’s had to put off – and, most importantly, is back to “active” status on the transplant list.

After Dungan’s hospital, the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC), went out of network with his insurer Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Mississippi on April 1, Dungan spent months trying to get answers about what that meant for him. UMMC marked him as “inactive” on their transplant list, meaning if the perfect liver match became available, he wouldn’t get a call. 

Blue Cross directed him to the transplant program in Memphis, which was over three hours away from his home, a logistical and financial nightmare. He knew very little about the program, and he had spent years building relationships with his doctors at UMMC, which houses the state’s only transplant program. 

Neither Blue Cross nor UMMC would get him answers about what the out-of-pocket costs would be if he got the transplant through UMMC while it was still out of network with Blue Cross. In May, Mississippi Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney stepped in and sent a letter to both the insurer and UMMC asking they provide him with what he needs. 

But Dungan said he couldn’t get definitive answers and never received anything in writing. 

“It was to the point it would drive you crazy. Every time the phone rang, you were trying to figure out what other freaking problem we had,” he said. 

UMMC and Blue Cross had agreed to mediation to try and settle the contract dispute, but more than two months after the hospital went out of network, a resolution still seems unlikely. Neither UMMC nor Blue Cross will speak publicly about how the negotiations are going.

The dispute stems from disagreements over reimbursement rates, with UMMC insisting Blue Cross is not fairly reimbursing the safety net hospital for its services and Blue Cross maintaining rate hikes would necessitate a substantial increase in member premiums. The hospital’s reimbursement rates are not public record.

In June, when squeezing in his appointments with various specialists before the continuity of care grace period expired for certain Blue Cross members at UMMC on July 1, one of his doctors found something concerning. He had esophageal varices, a condition that requires a medical procedure that uses elastic bands to tie off bleeding veins. If untreated, the varices can rupture and cause severe internal bleeding.

The condition commonly occurs in people with serious liver disease. 

Dungan said his UMMC doctor told him the banding procedure would be “on my dime.” 

Dungan was scared. He worried when going to bed each night if it would be the night he’d bleed out. He knew something had to change.

“I found a (Marketplace) insurance adviser and asked them if there were options (for me) … See, my insurance agent in my hometown had told me you can’t get health insurance except in December, even he gave me erroneous information,” said Dungan. “I was concerned about that, concerned about premiums, concerned about the language … I didn’t understand some of the language (of the policies).” 

He connected with an insurance broker trained in federal Marketplace plans and found out he did not have to wait until December to sign up for a plan. 

“She walked me through the specifics of the policy, and I found it covered what I needed,” he said. “She explained the deductible, the out of pocket, and the premium, everything.”

Dungan, who had an individual policy with Blue Cross, is now covered by Ambetter, which offers health care plans on the federal Marketplace and is accepted by UMMC. He underwent two procedures to address the esophageal varices earlier this month and has visited his dentist to ensure he does not have any infections in his mouth – a requirement for reclaiming his spot on the transplant list.   

Switching insurances is not an option for some people, especially those whose employers only offer Blue Cross to employees.

But he’s starting from square one with his insurance: he has a new out-of-pocket limit to meet of around $8,000. But his monthly premium dropped from almost $1,200 with Blue Cross to $402 with Ambetter, he said. 

“I’m back confident that I’m getting good health care and confident that my bills are not going to be outrageous,” said Dungan. “I’m confident (the UMMC doctors) are keeping an eye on me.” 

Editor’s note: Kate Royals, Mississippi Today’s community health editor since January 2022, worked as a writer/editor for UMMC’s Office of Communications from November 2018 through August 2020, writing press releases and features about the medical center’s schools of dentistry and nursing. A longtime journalist in major Mississippi newsrooms, Royals had served as a Mississippi Today reporter for two years before her stint at UMMC. At UMMC, Royals was in no way involved in management decisions or anything related to the medical center’s relationship or contract with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Mississippi.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.