Aetna CEO and 30-Year-Old Bond Over Staggering Cancer Bills

Ari Guha gets colon cancer at 30; Exec Mark Bertolini's son fought lymphoma.

ByABC News
August 1, 2012, 2:44 PM

Aug. 1, 2012— -- Arijit Guha, an Arizona State University graduate student, returned from a trip to India with a stomach ache and only one month later learned he had Stage IV colon cancer.

As tough as his diagnosis was at the age of 30, learning that his insurance company would place restrictions on paying for his cancer treatments was almost as gut-wrenching.

Guha had a policy under the university's health plan for which he paid $400 a month out of pocket, but its carrier, Aetna, had an annual ceiling on pay-outs. After surgery and chemotherapy, he had exhausted the lifetime $300,000 limit.

The Affordable Healthcare Act has eliminated lifetime limits, but until Aug. 1 that did not include student health plans, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Outraged, Guha turned to Twitter and other social media to make his case, one that affects millions of Americans who face staggering medical bills.

But last week, Aetna CEO Mark T. Bertolini, a former paramedic who has had his own share of medical crises, tweeted directly with Guha and agreed to pay "every last penny" of his bills.

"The system is broken, and I am committed to fixing it," said Bertolini on his Twitter account, according to the Arizona Republic, which first covered the story. "I am glad we connected today and got this issue solved. I appreciate the dialogue no matter how pointed. I've got it and own it!"

Guha, now 31, told, "I am incredibly pleased and in shell shock and trying to figure out what just happened. It's a huge relief."

It turns out Bertolini and Guha have much in common.

In 2001, Bertolini's then 16-year-old son son, Eric, was diagnosed with a rare and deadly lymphoma, according to a profile in the Hartford Courant. And in 2004, when he was president of Cigna, Bertolini was disabled after being nearly killed in a ski accident. He also eventually donated a kidney to help save his son.

Bertolini admitted the current healthcare system was "broke" and tweeted, "There is a lot to do to make it right."

Meanwhile, Guha had raised $120,000 through T-shirt sales in his edgy campaign "Poop Strong," which riffs on cancer survivor Lance Armstrong's "Live Strong." And now that Aetna has stepped in, Guha said he will donate all of it to three cancer charities in Arizona.

Guha continues to fund raise for cancer support and research on his blog, "Stage IV Hope."

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cancer killer in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2008, the last year for which there are statistics, 142,950 Americans were diagnosed with colorectal cancer and 52,857 Americans died from the disease.

Surprisingly, colorectal cancer is not that uncommon among younger people like Guha, especially those who have a family history of early-onset disease.

"It's not shocking at all," said Dr. Joel Levine, founding director of the Colon Cancer Prevention Program at the University of Connecticut.

There are three risk zones for the disease, according to Levine. About 70 percent of all cases are sporadic; 20 percent come from a familial risk; and 2 to 3 percent result from a gene mutation that passes from generation to generation.

Doctors should take a detailed three-generation family history so that risk for a young person isn't "underestimated," he said. Genetic studies can reveal specific inherited syndromes that can cause colon cancer, allowing other family members to more closely monitor their health.

"If we get all the details correct, picking up the histories for inheritable risk, we can reduce the probability of developing colon cancer," said Levine.