Pharyngula

Our illness is their profit

Have you ever walked around an 19th century (or earlier) graveyard? It gives you a depressing snapshot of the old reality: so many young women dead in childbirth, so many children reaped by diseases. We’ve been fortunate, we residents of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, that so many of those lethal conditions are treatable, and we’re mostly able to live without fear of our children dying in our arms. But here in the United States, we may have been living in a brief window of time in which treatments are both available and affordable, and are moving into an era where they’re available, but only the lucky top few percent are actually available to take advantage them.

I’m one of those lucky ones: I’ve got a good secure job with adequate health insurance. I had my own little health scare a year and a half ago, and I obediently marched into the hospital for a full battery of the most up-to-date treatments, and I walked back out with almost all of the expenses fully covered by my insurance. I could even urge everyone to get checked out at the slightest twinge. But this isn’t true for everyone.

Take, for example, Kevin Zelnio: a smart guy with an advanced degree, working as a writer and scientist-at-large, relatively young and healthy, with a young family — and he’s uninsured, like almost 50 million Americans. When they get a cough or a nagging ache, they can’t just go to the doctor to get it checked out, to prevent something more severe developing. Even the most basic and most essential of preventive medicine is prohibitively expensive.

When I started my family 6 years ago, I was on a path to a career in research and teaching. We had amazing health insurance through my institution and my wife and children-to-be were generously covered, no-questions-asked by the state of Pennsylvania during, and a year after, the pregnancies. We never saw a bill. After I got “real jobs” upon completing my Masters degree, I entered a grey zone of contract teaching and research employment at universities. With a decent, regular salary we were ineligible for state aid, yet didn’t make enough to afford extra costs. Furthermore, the quality of the insurance kept lowering until I wasn’t even sure what I was paying for – even as the premium costs were rising.

It reached rock bottom last Spring when we attempted to actually use our insurance that I bought for $1400 every six months while a contract lecturer and beginning PhD student at a North Carolinian university. My boy was starting Kindergarten and needed to be current on his vaccines. Of course, both kids needed to be current, so we took them in one-by-one, got their shots and check-ups, handed over the insurance information, paid our co-pay and went on our way. Never thinking about it, assuming that insurance would do the job we paid them to do.

Exactly 6 months later we received bills, after I no longer had insurance (I had to leave my phd for variety of reasons), and addressed to our kids’ names and not mine, the policy holder, for substantial amounts. Apparently, my daughter owed over $400 and my son owed over $1600 to the doctor office, which was the net left over after the insurance contributed about $200 for each visit.

The Zelnios are paying more for simple vaccinations and check-ups than I had to personally cough up for a week of cardiac care and surgery in a hospital. That is a deep injustice. That is wrong. That shouldn’t be happening in what we arrogantly call the richest country on earth, but it is. And you don’t get to claim that people in these situations “deserve” it.

Most of the uninsured in this country aren’t lazy, freeloading hobos who don’t wanna work. They span a wide variety of demographics. As a 30 something, white male with advanced college degree who works full time as a self-employed consultant and writer are you surprised that I cannot afford health insurance for my family? In fact, the majority of uninsured are in my age range and are full or part time workers earning incomes above 100% the federal poverty level. The fact of the matter for many of the uninsured is that employment-sponsored coverage has been in decline due to the escalating costs of health care. Employers can’t remain competitive and pay double the costs they were paying a decade ago for insuring their workers.

The uninsured are locked out of basic health maintenance: now imagine a crisis, a life-threatening illness striking one of your kids. The Zelnios don’t have to imagine, it happened; read the whole thing.

This is madness. All this country has is this paltry compromise called Obamacare, which doesn’t even touch the fundamental problems of our rapacious insurance industry and complacent medical system, and the Republicans want to revoke even that. The people who are the heart of this country are driven into bankruptcy while the people who are little more than parasitic tumors, the obscenely wealthy, flourish. That is not a formula for survival.

(Also on FtB)