Emmie Mears
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What Then the Price of Human Health?

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What Then the Price of Human Health?

America is the most wealthy nation on the planet. We spend more on our military than the entire GDP of many countries. We spend more per capita on healthcare than any other country on Earth.

So tell me why I have to write this post?

I’m not asking for money. I’m going to put that straight up. I’m writing this because I’m furious, because America has failed me and so many others like me, and I’m writing this because if I don’t, I’m probably going to scream into a pillow until I’m hoarse.

Both options will probably produce about the same amount of tangible change, but hey, at least this way I can feel like I’m doing something productive while I’m at the whole rage thing.

A few weeks ago, I was at my part-time job, quietly and casually filing some videogames. Mid-stickering, a sharp pain hit me right in the heart. I felt my heart stutter, flop, pause for a moment of terrifying quiet, and restart with a thub. The pain hit again, though my heartbeat didn’t change that time. My entire body broke into a clammy sweat. My left arm started to tingle with little zings up and down.

I had to steady myself on the counter. At that point, I started to feel some serious fear. You might know the kind. The kind where your body starts buzzing with adrenaline because you’re genuinely not sure if your next breath is going to happen.

My coworker asked if I was okay. I said no, and I sat down on a step stool. The pain was still coming, in waves, a razor sharp sort of pain that felt electrified. My breathing became laboured. I showed my coworker my phone and where the emergency contact info and my Health ID was. (Thanks, Apple!) He looked alarmed. Our boss came out, and I told him I was having severe chest pains and I was frightened. I wasn’t keeling over dead, so I had no idea what was happening to me. The pain was excruciating.

He sent me to sit down in the back. I went through every self-calming ritual I have, as someone who lives with an anxiety disorder knows to do. Relax. Breathe in: 1, 2, 3, 4. Breathe out: 1, 2, 3, 4. Each breath was tight, like my lungs wouldn’t fill up. At the same time it felt as if someone was driving an electrified ice pick through my sternum. It’s probably really bad acid reflux. I didn’t buy it, because I know what heartburn feels like, and this was on beyond that. I also know what a panic attack feels like, and it wasn’t that either. You’re gonna be okay, you’re gonna be okay, you’re gonna be okay, you’re gonna be okay you’re okay you’re okay you’regonnabeokayyou’reokayyou’reokayyou’reokay.

The pain hit again, worse this time. I gasped, and an entirely new wave of goosebumps covered my whole body.

I stumbled out of the back room and somehow managed to say, “I need to go to the ER,” to my boss.

An aside:
I don’t have insurance. I can’t afford it even under the ACA. I make “too much” for Medicaid, when 40% of my income goes to student loans and other debt. Even at the low, low price of $250ish (with a $4000 deductible — so value! such premium! so healthcare wow!) that the Maryland Health Marketplace quoted me, in January and December I usually had a running balance of around $42 in my bank account, and that doesn’t quite cover it, let alone every month, plus copays, plus said deductibles, plus whatever the fuck else. The point? If I was saying I needed to go to the ER, where I knew and knew damn well how much it would cost, what I was feeling was Very Serious Business.

I probably should have had them call an ambulance. But when you’re poor and you know that an ambulance will just tack another unpayable $1000 onto an already probable four figure bill, you make stupid decisions even when your body might actually be trying to scream MAYDAY at you.

My apartment is on the way between work and hospital. I stopped to get my partner, for him to drive the rest of the way. And a good thing too, because by the time I got into the apartment (his mobile was in the other room, so he hadn’t seen his missed calls), I was in tears because of the pain that kept growing, my left arm going numb, and the fear that I was about to oh, I don’t know, die or something.

Does that sound melodramatic? I don’t care. I have a damn high pain tolerance. I sat for six hours getting a full back tattoo for the first sitting alone, then for another four and five on more days. I get regular migraines. Before my IUD (back in the brief year or so I actually had insurance, once upon a 2014), I got menstrual cramps bad enough to occasionally make me pass out. I’ve had broken bones and leg impalements and more. I am not a wilting swoony blade of grass who’d make this shit up. Also because I am a boob-having, uterus-having type of person, I feel the need to justify the amount of pain I was in because it’s an actual demonstrated, recorded (and unfortunate) fact that people take women’s pain less seriously, and even though I identify as agender, I read “female” to the world most of the time.

On the way to hospital, the pain got a lot worse. Like to the point that I was struggling to breathe (and at the same time, the shallow breaths were tipping me into hyperventilating) and I was seeing those proverbial spots. John held my hand and told me to squeeze it each time the pain hit.

When we got to the ER, someone wheeled me in, and they plunked me right in a room for an EKG. One thing I remember, that at the time almost made me cry, was that the man who got my wheelchair, when I murmured that I didn’t have my wallet, said, “Don’t you worry about that right now. They’ll take care of you.”

They hooked me up to an EKG, then sent us back out to the waiting room. John cuddled me while I sat there, still in pain and scared, and he worked hard to make me laugh. (I love this person more than I thought possible to love a human being. He is such a wonderful partner.) They found a bed for me relatively quickly, and they hooked me up to more machines, drew some blood (which was kind of funny, since the nurse said they’d gotten new needles and I got to see what happened when her hand slipped and I got a whole puddle of blood in the crook of my arm before she could stop it), made me pee in a cup. Then someone came by from registration, and I felt my heart drop — this time not from the pain.

Because here’s the thing: when they asked for my social security number? It was like I could see the visit going onto my credit report then and there. I’ve been painstakingly rebuilding my credit for years now. And this additional debt (and the probability that I won’t be able to pay it) is not going to help. At that moment I felt The System. Sure, they’d take care of me then, wallet or no wallet, but those nine numbers strung together were the ball and chain the American healthcare system was about to shackle to my ankle.

That guy running registration though? He got it. I could tell he knew how hard it was. We talked about not having insurance, and I saw his pity when I told him I didn’t have any. His advice for Monsieur and me: get out of America if you can.

They sent someone by to do a chest X-ray. A very nice PA came in. We chatted. The pain was starting to subside, inexplicably. The EKG was normal. We were just waiting on the other tests to rule out blood clots, cancer, infection, whatever.

They all came back clear.

At that point, the PA told me it was probably just anxiety and reassuringly made sure to say that that didn’t mean it was all in my head or anything. She gave me a script for lorazepam and sent us home.

The next day, I asked Monsieur to scratch my left shoulder blade, because it was itchy.

The next day, I asked him to scratch the same spot again, because it was itchy again.

The next day, I asked him to scratch the same spot again, because it was itchy again, and then I went in the bathroom to look at it, because I was pretty sure it was a bug bite. I was still getting the weird pains, but told myself it didn’t matter because the hospital said I wasn’t dying.

The next day, the spot was still itchy, and instead of asking him to scratch it, I looked at it again. It was now a cluster of angry red bumps, close together. And there were more. I called Monsieur in to look, and we both wondered aloud if it was spider bites.

The next day it was worse. My left breast started itching, and I started getting the same electric stabby pains in my armpit. The first welt was now raised about 3 millimetres off my skin and bright red and inflamed.

Over the next couple days, it kept getting worse. The itchiness left and became constant pain. I posted about it on Facebook, because I knew fuck all about what was happening. A friend in Scotland who used to work in a home with the elderly said she thought it was shingles. I sent her a couple pictures. She came back with a resounding yep.

I contacted my cousin, who lives 3000 miles away and is a doctor. We chatted on the phone, and he agreed wholeheartedly that it was shingles. And everybody who found out basically reacted the same way: “Oh, shit. I’ve heard that’s horribly painful.”

In a word, yes. Turns out it is. The night in the ER, which hovered around an 8 on my pain metre, got scaled way down in retrospect. Turns out that once you’ve spent a night with what feels like every nerve on the left side of your torso and down your arm firing with cold, electric, barbed shocks, you start to get an inkling of what torture might feel like, without some sadist standing over you and laughing at least.

So. It’s now been a few weeks since the ER visit. I’m still in some bit of constant pain and hoping I’m not among the happy 17% of shingles sufferers who get to take home the consolation prize of post-herpetic neuralgia (a fancy way of saying: your body’s going to keep hurting like hell even after the rash goes away).

And yesterday I got the bill from the local hospital. Actually, I got one bill. I opened it, breathed a sigh of pleased relief because it was a third of what I expected, and then I saw another envelope from what appeared at first glance to be some sort of scammy junk. It wasn’t. It was the rest of the bill, and it tripled the first one.

Le grande total? The equivalent of a month and a half’s income for me. Came out to around $500 an hour for the time I was in hospital. When they didn’t diagnose what I had. No-one even mentioned it could be shingles, probably because I’m 31 — which is absurd, considering the number of young people who do actually get it. Anyone who’s had chicken pox can get it.

To add insult to literal injury, I’m about to be told by the IRS to pony up a penalty for the privilege of going without the insurance I couldn’t afford. I’m SO looking forward to doing my taxes.

I am…just done with America on this. (And many things.) There’s a better way. We blatantly refuse to do it, because something something socialism. Well — I’m about as liberal as I can get, and I’m here to tell you that this isn’t about socialism for me. It’s about the fact that this country can afford to have the best goddamn healthcare on the planet and provide it to its citizens for the cost of the taxes we already pay. But we choose not to, and that is, in my mind, absolutely criminal. I’m not going to tell you you should feel sorry for me (though feel free if the spirit moves you). I’m telling you that this could just as easily be you. And worse.

You shouldn’t need to support a single payer system and universal healthcare because some random dude on the internet is telling you their life sucks because the current system is a steroidal fleet of piranhas that will devour you down to your marrow and then burp and go after the kid down the street as well. You should support a single payer system and universal healthcare for YOUR OWN GOOD. FOR YOU. FOR YOUR LITTLE SPECIAL AMERICAN PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY LAND OF THE FREE HOME OF THE BRAVE SNOWFLAKE OF A SELF.

Because I don’t care how well you’re doing right now or how good your insurance is — you could get laid off tomorrow and find some weird lump in a breast or a sharp pain in your pancreas or a sudden headache that makes you pass out when you’re updating your resume to try and compete in this job market. And you could land in the ER and find out that you have cancer, or HIV, or MRSA, or kidney stones, or dog knows what else. And you could find yourself staring at a bill that has more numbers than you used to make in a year while your kid tugs on your pant leg and asks if you can go eat at Outback tonight. Or it might not be you. It might be your sister. Your husband. Your fucking soulmate. Or someone else you love as much as yourself.

The point is: a single payer healthcare system that, in the world’s wealthiest country, provides excellent care to citizens because it is morally the right thing to do isn’t about the faceless strangers you imagine shooting heroin into their eyeballs and shaking their fists at clouds in the sky. It’s about you. It’s about me. It’s about public safety. And yeah, we’d all be better off with this elephant taken off our backs, if the huge swathes of the American populace who currently have to worry at because a single catastrophe could bankrupt them could worry about something else instead. Like opening a new business or going back to uni to learn something new and make this country even better. It is about we — but Americans kind of suck at that notion of we.

So here. It’s better for YOU. Because this system is fucked and broken. It haemorrhages from every orifice whilst devouring people and stripping away their ability to move up. This system is part and parcel of the deconstruction of the American Dream.

In summation of my own personal most recent experience:

  • 1 case of shingles, diagnosed by a Facebook friend and my cousin who is a doctor 3000 miles away: cheap as free
  • 1 ER visit with severe chest pain before the rash started only to be told it’s probably just anxiety: $2200
  • Knowing my country is about to penalise me for not being able to afford insurance and still also having to pay the hospital that didn’t diagnose me: priceless

It’s an election year. Something like 80% of those fuckwits in Congress (who, by the way, get lovely healthcare courtesy of you and me) can get the boot if you think someone would do their job better. Or hell, do their job at all, since most of them right now are sitting on their thumbs and saying “neener neener boo boo, no SCOTUS for yooooooou.”

I don’t really think anything’s going to change. Frankly, this incident in my life is only the most recent in a very long list of ways I feel like this country has betrayed me. It’s made me bitter and cynical, and Monsieur and I are probably going to take that registration clerk’s advice and GTFO if we can, even if it means adding to our monstrous piles of student debt (a rant for another time), because while we can’t afford that well, we know we can’t afford to keep living here if we ever hope to attain anything resembling the fabled “quality of life.” He and I have both spent the past six years working multiple jobs for upwards of 60-80 hours a week. We want to live somewhere where the rights I have over my body are not continually lambasted, where I’m counted as much a person as he is, where if we are ill we can be treated without fearing bankruptcy, and where we have a glimmer of hope that we might be able to get ahead someday.

Sorry, America. I don’t think you and I are gonna work out. But till I can pack my bags and leave, I’ll throw my votes in the direction of something I hope is better. You should too. Especially when it comes to Congress, because bloody hell — do they not seem to care about us.

Do better, America.

Peace and Patriotism,

Your friendly neighbourhood Emmie

You certainly don’t have to give me money. I usually write fiction instead of dystopian narrative reality. If you want to support happier universes where there’s magic and stuff, you can find me on Patreon where I very seldom rant about healthcare. I also have a bunch of books about demon hunters and superheroes who try to make the world better.

 

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Author | Emmie Comments | 5 Date | March 30, 2016

comments

Lara

My question is about the dollars, as appropriate for an accountant… If the hospital sent the insurance company the $2200 bill that you received, how much would they actually get from them? 40%? Every time I get an invoice from the hospital I see the “insurance adjustment” reducing the bill. Why doesn’t the general public, who needs the discount, get it, and the insurance company, who can pay the full dollar amount of the bill, not get a break? This just seems backwards to me. I wonder if you could call them and make enough noise to get them to give you a discount… Sorry, a little off topic, just the way my brain works.

March 30, 2016 | 9:53 am

    Emmie

    That’s a reasonable comment. I will be applying for financial assistance from the hospital, since the hospital has programmes for that, but since I didn’t qualify for the ACA, didn’t qualify for the ACA penalty exemption on my taxes, etc., I don’t know how likely it is.

    You’re right though — the insurance companies are for profit, make huge amounts of money, and get discounts not afforded to the general public. Just another depiction of how backward the industry is. Ugh.

    March 30, 2016 | 9:58 am

Stacey Trombley

I went through something similar, I mean less bad but still stressful and suckish. Had a surprise pregnancy (married 6 years at the time so not awful just…. not ready for it) to find out I didn’t have maternity insurance. And there was apparently a rule that you can’t change your insurance until an open enrollment (This makes sense for healthcare through work. Not so much for independent insurance). We got some big bills for my first ultrasound, over 1,000$ in bills for bloodwork (same situation as mentioned above. They give discounts to insurance companies. Not for individuals.) And like you, we made too much for any finacial help.
Luckily we found a obstetrician offic that was AMAZING and had a whole plan for all the prenatal stuff and gave us big discounts. And even luckier I was able to get new insurance about a couple weeks before the birth so we had coverage for that (though still had a few thousand in bills from it). The one good thing about health care bills is that they can’t/don’t do anything so long as you are paying something. 25$ a month is enough to keep them off your back. Just call the finance offices and set up a payment plan. You might pay it forever, but it won’t mess up your whole life.
Also, it may help to send your story to some politicians. They’re very open to hearing/helping around this time.

March 30, 2016 | 1:09 pm

falstaff36

Just still utterly agog at the system of “health care” in the U.S. I’m one of those fortunate to be north of the 49th parallel types (a.k.a. Canadian.. 😛 ) who reads something like this and still wonders why the vast majority haven’t rioted to the point of mass instances of scenes like that Denzel Washington movie “John Q”. I had a bicycle accident (sadly don’t remember the exact what happened part. The concussion part of the injury wiped that out of the ol’ memory banks) 5 years ago where I ended up breaking my collarbone &, much more seriously, suffering what the technical term refers to as a subdural hematoma, the veiny film that covers the brain had a bunch of veins ruptured. Had they done nothing, I would have died via the brain drowning in its own blood. So, naturally, I had to go in immediately for an MRI (which made clear the problem), & then some pretty serious ass surgery to repair the damage. I cringe in horror to think of how many thousands of dollars such a scenario would have cost me had my accident happened down south. Bankruptcy would have been an absolute given for sure.

So I can definitely appreciate the conclusion that you need to GTFO ASAP.

March 31, 2016 | 12:29 pm

Wordsmith Magic

Three points.

1. Walk into the hospital and talk to someone about your situation and see if they will accept less. They will negotiate.

2. Print off your blog and send to your congressman. Democrat if at all possible. Senator is best, but representative is acceptable.

3. Print off your blog and send it to the White House. Seriously. The President will never see it, but the right folks will.

Possibly nothing will happen, but at least you will have alerted three important entities to your personal hell. This is so important. I mean it. The only way to improve things is to make sure the entities that count hear ALL the stories. I cannot emphasize enough how badly they all need to hear yours.

Thank you for sharing this with us, your readers. Now go share it with the three listed above. Hugs to you.

April 3, 2016 | 11:09 am

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