WASHINGTON - It costs $1,400 to cover the oozing sore on the diabetic's foot with a piece of artificial skin, helping it heal if patients keep pressure off that spot. So when Medicare paid for the treatment but not the extra $100 for a simple walking cast to protect it, an artificial skin maker last year started giving free casts to some needy patients.
Without the right cushioning, "the person will walk to the bus stop and destroy it," fumes Dr. David G. Armstrong of the Southern Arizona Limb Salvage Alliance.
Limb-salvage experts say many of the 80,000-plus amputations of toes, feet and lower legs that diabetics undergo each year are preventable if only patients got the right care for their feet. Yet they're frustrated that so few do until they're already on what's called the stairway to amputation, suffering escalating foot problems because of a combination of ignorance - among patients and doctors - and payment hassles.
"There's no magic medicine right now for the diabetic foot," says specialist Dr. Lawrence Lavery of Texas A&M University, who bemoans that simple-but-effective preventive care just isn't attention-getting.
"People come in (saying), 'Hey, my wife noticed a bloody trail today as I was walking across the linoleum in the kitchen. What should I do?'"
President Barack Obama got a drubbing from surgeons this month after a confusing comment about how they're paid for foot amputations that cost $30,000 or more. That tab is the total cost, including hospitalization; surgeon fees range from about $750 to $1,000.
Obama's larger argument: Better payment for early-stage diabetes treatment, or even care to prevent diabetes, could save the nation money.
The money part is hard to prove but it's a lot of misery saved if it's your foot, and the spat highlights a huge problem. Some 24 million Americans have diabetes, meaning their bodies can't properly regulate blood sugar, or glucose. Over years, high glucose levels gradually damage blood vessels and nerves.
One vicious result: About 600,000 diabetics get foot ulcers every year. Poor blood flow in the lower legs makes those ulcers slow to heal. And loss of sensation in the feet, called neuropathy, makes patients slow to notice even small wounds that rapidly can turn gangrenous.
A mere nick while clipping nails, or a blister from an ill-fitting shoe, can begin the march toward amputation - and about half of patients who do lose a foot die within five years.
Saving those feet isn't cheap. Treating a slow-to-heal diabetic foot ulcer can cost up to $8,000. If it gets infected, $17,000. Worse, a fraction of patients gets multiple slow-to-heal ulcers each year.
• Routine foot checkups.
• Taking pressure off the foot is key, starting with supportive shoes or insoles that target weak spots before an ulcer strikes.
• The "toe and flow" approach, diabetic limb-salvage teams that pair specialists who otherwise seldom work side-by-side, like podiatrists and vascular surgeons. Wound care won't work well until clogged leg arteries are cleared to improve blood flow, said Armstrong.