If the mastectomy is for breast cancer then the law states it must be covered by insurance. If the mastectomy is covered, the reconstruction will be too. The bad news is that even though insurance covers breast reconstruction, there are still some costs that the patient will be responsible for. Patients much research this ahead of time to limit the risk of a nasty financial surprise down the line.
While the degree of coverage varies based on the insurance plan, there are some things that are pretty standard. Effective June 1, 2010 even Medicaid will provide a benefit for breast surgery to the unaffected breast for symmetry, providing certain criteria are met. Breast reconstruction after prophylactic (preventive) mastectomy is usually covered as long as the patient is deemed to be high risk for breast cancer (significant family history or BRCA gene positive).
Even though insurance companies are mandated to cover reconstruction, breast reconstruction insurance laws do vary by state. The amount each insurance pays can also vary a great deal.
It is important to make sure your surgeon is in-network for your insurance plan if at all possible. This will limit your costs to whatever you've agreed to pay under the terms of your insurance plan (such as your deductible, co-pay and out of pocket expense). Using an out-of-network surgeon will likely subject you to other costs such as "balance billing". This is when the surgeon essentially sets his/her price (just to use an example let's say $1,000), receives whatever the insurance plan pays (let's say $600) and then asks the patient to pay the remainder (ie the "balance" of $400). This example is based on relatively small dollar amounts but you can see how this could add up to tens of thousands of dollars of additional bills for a major surgical procedure, and that's just for the first procedure.
Whether or not you can find an in-network, experienced surgeon depends on the procedure you've decided to have. If you've decided to have an implant reconstruction then you may have several doctors to choose from. Implant breast reconstruction is technically not as challenging as other options and most plastic surgeons perform the procedure.
On the other hand, if you're more interested in an advanced reconstructive procedure that not many surgeons offer (like a DIEP flap), you're likely to have a harder time finding an experienced surgeon to perform your surgery who is in-network. Most patients will unfortunately have to travel for their surgery because of this. Even though this may now add the cost of airfare and hotel stays, these costs are typically significantly less than a "balance bill" from an out-of-network surgeon.
Some breast centers even offer special arrangements to traveling patients such as significantly discounted hotel charges to help ease the financial burden.
Find answers to frequently asked breast reconstruction insurance questions here.
Dr Chrysopoulo is a board certified plastic surgeon specializing in advanced breast reconstruction surgery. He and his partners are in-network for most US insurance plans. Learn more about your breast reconstruction options and connect with other breast reconstruction patients here. You can also follow Dr C on Twitter!