Though I have written previously about the value of hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBT), it is still one of our best kept medical secrets. In the United States, we have approved just 17 indications for HBT, while Russia has 73.
We are making progress, however, as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) have authorized payment for both professional and technical fees for outpatient HBT. In the past, CMS and most insurance companies would reimburse only for the professional fee at freestanding centers.
This is a significant advance forward because the cost of HBT in freestanding centers is much less than you will pay in a hospital setting. Most freestanding centers charge $200 to $250 per treatment, whereas the cost in a hospital is anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 per treatment.
Yet even in a hospital setting, the treatment can be cost-effective. For instance, one young man I worked with lost a leg in Iraq, and the other leg was severely injured. He had been in and out of military hospitals for two years before finally being admitted to Bethesda Naval Hospital, where, until the early 2000s, there was a very active HBT program.
The surgeons at Bethesda told him that in two days they would have to remove his remaining leg because of a MRSA infection.
Fortunately, he had friends at the University of Maryland who performed hyperbaric oxygen therapy on horses. He went to Maryland and received 23 HBT treatments for a cost of $23,000. It controlled his MRSA infection. Meanwhile, amputation would have cost $90,000, with additional expenses for prosthesis and physical therapy.
Five years later, he is still walking on that leg.
Recent news from Wake Forest Medical School shows that they are developing an ambulance that has a hyperbaric chamber in it for stroke emergency patients. This is a significant step forward in the recognition in the value of hyperbaric oxygen.
Valerie Green had a stroke at age 30 that prevented her from walking and talking. But now, with HBT, she is a spokesperson for the stroke association.
The value of HBT in traumatic brain injury is also being recognized. Oklahoma has now passed legislation indicating that veterans with traumatic brain injuries should be treated with hyperbaric oxygen — and they are providing a program to fund this treatment.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is starting to recognize the use of HBT, and some of the VA hospitals are now referring patients for this therapy. One young man, John Graciano, who had traumatic brain injury, spent two years in the VA hospital. After a series of HBT treatments, he was discharged to go home.
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