The horrific, televised suicide of an HIV-infected man angry with his HMO has become a stark, new symbol of frustration with California's health-care industry, patient advocates said.
Taking his own life on a Los Angeles freeway Thursday after unfurling a banner that read "HMOs are in it for the money," Daniel Jones has hit a nerve with the public - regardless of whether his claims were justified.State regulators receive from 5,000 to 7,000 complaints a month from HMO patients, although Jones was never one of them.
"I think people have had horrific experiences with HMO bureaucrats. This touched a note," Jamie Court, director of the watchdog group Consumers for Quality Care, said Friday.
"If this is a genuine medical horror story, then we are talking about a symbol of the frustration that too many Americans feel with HMO penny-pinching," Court said.
The death of the 40-year-old man from Long Beach, Calif., comes at the same time that state officials are debating proposals to better regulate California's managed care industry. There are dozens of bills in the Legislature, most of them focused on giving patients more rights.
Many officials didn't want to speculate how such a macabre incident might affect those deliberations.
But others said the tragedy might strengthen the hand of groups pushing to expand patients' rights, which some say have taken a back seat to keeping down the cost of health care.
"I can only liken this to a pendulum. Maybe the pendulum has swung too far," said Craig Thompson, executive director of AIDS Project Los Angeles. "This situation in L.A. may help spur some of those reforms getting passed in Sacramento this year."
Friends and relatives of Jones contend that his HMO had transposed his records with another patient's and allowed a physician's assistant to oversee his care. His sister said Jones once went to his HMO with flu-like conditions and was sent home, only to find his appendix had burst.
"I believe my brother was killed by an HMO," Janet Jones told The Associated Press.
A friend of Jones who asked not to be named said Jones had complained that his treatment for HIV consisted mostly of antidepressant medications.
"He was of the opinion that since the HMO knew that he had AIDS they would just let him die," said the friend. "They just gave him wads of Prozac. That's why he did what he did. I understand it fully. I told him you've got to put this in a little perspective and (write) a statement. . . . this is the statement he made."
Jones never reported his complaints to the state Department of Corporations, which oversees HMOs. Though the department receives up to 7,000 complaints a month about managed-care providers, Jones was not in the agency's database, a spokeswoman said.
Industry officials expressed sadness over Jones' death, but said it remains to be seen whether there was any wrongdoing by his health care plan. Exactly which HMO he belonged to could not be determined.
"We feel horribly for the family. We feel horribly for him. But we don't know anything that was going on with his care, we don't know that anything was going wrong," said Maureen O'Haren, executive vice president of the California Association of Health Plans.
She insisted that HMOs treat people with HIV appropriately. "There was a lot of hope for this man," O'Haren said. "It's sad that he chose to end his own life."
Also on Friday, Gov. Pete Wilson announced plans to create a new Department of Managed Care to oversee the industry. The plan must be studied by a state panel and considered by the Legislature before going into effect.
Administration officials said the announcement had nothing to do with Jones' death.
"We had a deadline to meet," said Steve Tatum, a spokesman for the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency.