Retired: Senior Vice-president of Sales, Group Customer Division, The Great-West Life Assurance Company
“ If I had not found the right treatment, things could have been much worse. When I was initially diagnosed with RA, my doctor said there was a good chance I’d be in a wheelchair by the time I was 30.”
As Jeff Aarssen retires after a 38-year career in the group benefits industry, he reflects on how his journey with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) has affected his life.
I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) at age 21, during my final year of university. I was an avid athlete at the time and my primary concern was being able to continue playing sports, including running 50 to 70 miles a week and playing competitive-level baseball. After I had several hospitalizations due to disease flare-ups, my condition was managed with the basic treatments available at the time.How did your life change over the years with RA?
In order to manage my RA, I had to compromise on sporting activities, and eventually give up most of them at age 30. I just had too much pain and deformity, or too many post-activity flare-ups that got in the way.
In many ways, RA is more of a mental and emotional challenge than a physical one. Even though it prevented me from doing a lot of things physically, the mental and emotional side of losing a good part of your life (or what you most like to do in life) was tough. Even after being married and having kids, I did not have the hand strength to hold our babies at times. As my career in group benefits progressed, the frequent travel brought fatigue and increased my susceptibility to colds and flus.
The process for finding the right treatment was to keep trying the next step in available treatments that might work for me. When my rheumatologist first prescribed a biologic, it gave me a strong remission and I enjoyed the best quality of life since my RA diagnosis. I was able to take long walks, play golf and walk the course and even play a little bit of basketball recreationally.
If I had not found the right treatment, things could have been much worse. When I was initially diagnosed with RA, my doctor said there was a good chance I’d be in a wheelchair by the time I was 30.
As I progressed from one treatment to another, I would be fearful that it would no longer work. Now that I have stabilized on a biologic for 17 years, my biggest fear is that it stops working and I am back to unrelenting pain and fatigue.How would a change in coverage impact you?
When I retired this past summer, having full drug coverage as part of my retiree benefits was critical in my decision to retire at age 59. I would not likely have retired without this coverage being in place.
If my benefits plan no longer covered my treatment, I would fear that an alternative treatment might not work as well or be as effective. I would only consider a different treatment if my rheumatologist was convinced I would not lose any efficacy.
With biologics, someone’s physiology and how a medication works for them is reasonably sensitive. My current treatment path has provided a quality of life that is the best I have experienced. Why would I risk upsetting that balance? I appreciate the desire for drug management solutions and cost control, but is it worth putting someone’s health and quality of life in jeopardy?What would you tell plan sponsors that are faced with the cost of biologic medications?
Paying for my medications, providing workplace modifications and allowing me to work from home when necessary created a win/win for my employer and me. I was a more productive, loyal and committed employee. I never wenton long-term disability and always tried to return to work as soon as I could with my employer’s support. In total, I missed, perhaps, only 14 weeks of work over more than 38 years on the job. In return, my employer had my services for the other nearly 2,000 weeks of my career — a pretty good trade-off.
Sponsorship for this interview was provided by Amgen Canada. The statements, opinions and viewpoints expressed are those of the interviewee, and are not reflective of the views of Amgen Canada.