‘A proper hand:’ As advocates push for prosthetic device coverage, legislation sent to commission for review

Manassas resident Kara Murdock, 28, has become an advocate for amputees since losing part of her right arm when she was 23. (Katie O'Connor/Virginia Mercury)

In the middle of a packed committee room in late January, Kara Murdock sat patiently, resting her swollen arm on her leg.

She waited for over an hour while a House Commerce and Labor subcommittee rushed through its lengthy, late-in-the-day agenda so she could tell lawmakers about that arm: That she could lose it, but legislation they were considering might help.

Murdock, 28, is already an amputee. She lost her right hand and forearm when she was 23 due to a blood clot and she’s been trying, without success, to get a prosthetic. Her health plan turned her down when she was still covered by her parents’ insurance, and she eagerly awaited Medicaid expansion so she could get covered.

Now she has Medicaid, and while she’s still waiting to select a health plan, she should be able to choose one that covers prosthetic devices. But she returned to the General Assembly this year to advocate for people like her, because if she doesn’t get a prosthetic she could lose both arms.

Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, re-introduced legislation this session that would require all health plans operating in Virginia, including Medicaid plans, to cover prosthetic devices.

“The bill could not only save my arm, but it could save me a lot of emotional pain having to go through this amputation process all over again,” Murdock told the subcommittee.

Last year, a similar bill was left in House Commerce and Labor, but this year’s iteration had co-patrons from both chambers. It was sent to the Health Insurance Reform Commission, where all new mandates must go to be studied before the General Assembly can pass them.

For Roem and Murdock, that’s a win.

“The fact that it’s going to the Health Insurance Reform Commission keeps it alive,” Roem said. “That keeps it in better condition than we were in at this point last year. That is clearly a good thing, that is progress. This time, we have hope.”

When she comes back in 2020, pending the results of the November election (“I’ll be back,” Roem added), she intends to pick up the legislation again.

Since her amputation, Murdock has faced a slew of other health challenges. She’s been through over a dozen surgeries and suffered from an addiction to painkillers. And now she could lose her remaining arm, which is often painfully swollen.

“We went to my vascular surgeon and they basically told me: ‘You need to use that arm less, you’re overcompensating,'” she said. “But what am I supposed to do? A simple thing like taking a shower can make it that it’s so swollen that I can’t pull my socks on. Fine dexterity does not exist.”

Doug Gray, executive director with the Association of Health Plans, said that the Health Insurance Reform Commission needs to study the bill to determine “what’s appropriate and what’s not.”

“The shortfall with the prosthetics bill is it requires every prosthetic device to be covered regardless of cost,” he said. “So if someone wants the $150,000 computer-run prosthetic when a $50,000 one would do — that’s something that needs to be managed, you can’t just say ‘we’ll cover anything.'”

Roem pointed out that the bill would only require health plans cover the devices when a doctor confirms they are medically necessary.

“This bill would in no way interfere with the doctor-patient relationship,” she said. “It would just simply say that if the doctor decides that they need a mechanical prosthetic device, that her health insurance provider would have to cover it. That’s the important part. It’s not mandating that every amputee is going to get one.”

Murdock, a Manassas resident and one of Roem’s constituents, said she is more hopeful than she was last year that the legislation could become law.

“I’m surprised, and very happy,” she said.

She talks about getting a prosthetic hand with relish, as though she cherishes just the idea of it.

“The prosthetic I’m looking for is a BeBionic 3,” she said. “You’ve got 33 pounds of grip force and you can bear 99 pounds on the fingertips.”

She called it “a proper hand.”