ANNAPOLIS – Sixteen years ago, Dundalk resident Betty Lookingland went to bed with a full head of hair: beautiful, dark brown with a little silver, and thick with a natural curl.
When she woke up it had all fallen out.
Lookingland, now 69, became bald literally overnight, she said, and over a short period of time lost all the hair on her body.
She had developed alopecia areata, an autoimmune disorder where the body’s white blood cells attack hair follicles, and cause hair loss to varying degrees over the whole body. The disease’s onset can vary, and often happens in childhood.
Lookinland has worn wigs costing between $40 and $80 dollars each. The wigs fade or wear out, and Lookingland says she goes through five a year, which she has to pay for herself.
This year, the General Assembly is considering a bill to make insurers’ pay up to $350 for one wig – called a hair prosthesis – for people with alopecia.
The bill’s sponsor in the House of Delegates is Mary A. Conroy, D-Prince George’s, who last session pushed through legislation to require insurers to pay for wigs for chemotherapy patients.
Passage of that law inspired Lookingland to call Sen. Norman R. Stone, D- Baltimore County, who submitted a Senate version with former nurse Sen. Paula Colodny Hollinger, D-Baltimore County.
“I feel badly for kids who have to go through life with patches of hair,” said Conroy, who got a request for this bill from a woman whose grandchild had lost his hair to alopecia.
Dr. Laurence Miller, a Bethesda dermatologist, says insurers should pay for wigs, just like they would pay for breast reconstruction for women who undergo a mastectomy.
Opposition is likely from some insurers who don’t like to be told what to cover.
“Traditionally, we oppose mandated benefits, because they take away . . . the choice of which benefits (employers) can provide,” said Fran Doherty of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield. “This particular bill is so broad it could involve many millions of people,” she said.
While CareFirst was not in favor of the previous wig bill for chemotherapy patients, spokesman Jim Day said the company realized there was some justification for it.
The National Alopecia Areata Foundation estimates 2 percent of people will develop alopecia at some point in their lives – more than 4.5 million people in the United States.
The hair loss from alopecia is usually patchy and small at first, but can be dramatic, as in Lookingland’s case. Hair loss can be limited to the scalp or include any hair on the body, and occasionally affects finger and toenails, but there are no other effects of the disease.
Treatments for alopecia include suppressing the body’s immune response with cortisone injections or pills or topical hair growth treatments such as minoxidil. The treatments are most effective for patients with less than 50 percent scalp hair loss. For people with total hair loss, the solution is a wig.
Sometimes hair grows back without treatment, but it can always fall out again.
Only some of Lookingland’s hair eventually grew back. “I was lucky to get my eyebrows back, she said, “it was a little bit of a miracle.” – 30 – CNS-2-2-01