More insurers covering first non-drug treatment for severe asthma

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OVERLAND PARK, Kan. -- The first non-drug treatment for severe asthma has been available for five years, but it's only recently that patients have started having success in getting insurers to cover the procedure that costs more than $20,000.

Michelle O'Brien has lived with asthma for 45 years. It nearly took her life.

"Overland Park Fire and Rescue, bless their hearts, saved me with an epinephrine shot, but I had stopped breathing," said O'Brien, recalling one asthma attack.

Medication wasn't enough to prevent frequent attacks, so doctors at Overland Park Regional Medical Center recommended bronchial thermoplasty. It's done in three separate treatments. Dr. James Kaplan puts a scope into the airways to see the tissue. Then with a catheter, he delivers heat that shrinks the smooth muscle in the airways.

"It's the clamping down of the smooth muscle that causes an asthma attack. By reducing it, they have less asthma attacks, their lungs are less fragile and they're able to do a lot more," said Dr. Kaplan, a pulmonologist.

But insurers have been reluctant to cover bronchial thermoplasty, saying it's experimental. O'Brien says she fought for coverage for 18 months.

"Denial after denial after denial," said O'Brien.

Then the Kansas Insurance Department ordered United Healthcare to pay. Dr. Kaplan says more insurers are covering it now.

"It took the five-year data that showed sustained benefit for insurance companies to be willing to approve this," he said.

O'Brien said, "It's a new lease on life. I feel like I have new lungs."

She added that she's needed her rescue inhaler a handful of times since her first treatment in June compared to a dozen times a day before. She's running again, and recorded a video for Dr. Kaplan and his staff while she was running.

"From the bottom of my heart and the bottom of my lungs, I thank you all. See ya," she said in the video.

O'Brien will have her final treatment next week. Risks include a worsening of asthma immediately after treatment. Dr. Kaplan says even though the procedure costs more than $20,000, it can save money by preventing emergency room visits and hospital stays.