Health care has been on my (most people’s) mind a lot lately. I’ve been thinking (panicking) about how the upcoming changes to the Affordable Care Act would be effecting me and those around me. While considering this, I thought about what I could add to the conversation. There’s so much out there already: opinions, statistics, stories, editorials, predictions. What more could possibly said? I was left with one thought; health care is so incredibly personal, yet being more and more treated as if it’s a public issue. I guess when everyone’s private issue is being discussed, it does become public. A public debate, a public issue, a social problem. It’s easy to have it become numbers on a screen, amounts of money in a budget. Tax regulation and legislative policy. But it’s so much more than that, it’s our lives. Our lives being treated as pawns in a game, tax dollars, bodies to pay into a budget.
This isn’t about politics for me though. Like everyone else, I am directly affected by my health care. As a child, I didn’t have health insurance. For many years, I didn’t know or care about that. As I got older, I began to notice the worry in my parent’s face when I was sick. I began to hear the whispers about whether or not I would need to go to the doctor, how much that could cost, if it was absolutely necessary. I come from a low-income family. I don’t say that for pity, but for context. There was no job provided benefits package for my parents, so we made due. I never went hungry, but I watched my parents scrape by some months. Some years were better than others but as a child you don’t always understand.
When I had my first seizure at fourteen, my parents debated on what to do next. It was obvious I needed emergency medical attention but I knew they were terrified of the cost. But life isn’t always cheap. So we went to the hospital and went through a barrage of tests. As an adult looking back, I now have an idea of just how expensive that day must’ve been. An ER visit ($900), an MRI ($600), bloodwork ($150), a CT scan ($400). A month’s income going right down the drain.
I am lucky because after my first ER visit, I was referred to Seattle Children’s Hospital, where I would continue care for my soon-to-be-diagnosed epilepsy. And the financial services department at the hospital saved my family from falling through the cracks. They helped my parents pay off the original bills, provided my care pro bono, and helped my parents sign me up for Medicare. To this day, I am so thankful to that hospital and the people who helped us in one of the hardest times of my life.
I remained on Medicare until a year ago, when I got health insurance through my new job. Having spent a lot of time using government assisted health care, I can tell you that it is not glamourous. As a kid, I received dental care through Medicare. I had my wisdom teeth removed while awake, with no medication beyond novacaine. I had no choice in what doctor I could visit, so I was sent to the state doctor’s office in the worst part of town. After 18, I was switched from the children’s plan to the adult plan. Which meant a six-month wait for a doctor’s appointment, a nine month wait for a neurologist, no dental care, and no vision care.
I made the choice to buy my own health insurance, even though I’m still eligible for Medicare, because I felt that I wasn’t receiving quality health care. My doctor’s didn’t know who I was, I had to visit a neurologist that was an hour away, who mispronounced my name and forgot what kind of epilepsy I have. I felt like I was just a government check to the doctor’s office, not a patient. I hadn’t seen a dentist in two years. I was at the end of my rope but knew that the extra $120 a month was worth getting a better shot at control over my health.
And it has been. I’m on a new anti-epileptic medication, have a regular doctor, I don’t have to go to Planned Parenthood for birth control, I got new glasses, and have a dentist who greets me by name every time I walk in their office. Health care is personal. We tell people about the most personal parts of us. We trust our doctors, tell them our sexual history, how many drinks we drink (and are sometimes honest), we strip down in their office, and put our feet up on the stirrups. We have to trust our doctors and often, that means putting our fate in the hands of them and our health insurance providers. Sometimes our health requires more than the bare minimum and a lack of funds shouldn’t bar us from receiving high quality care.
I hope that it doesn’t seem as if I’m slamming Medicare, because that’s not my intent. I am incredibly thankful for the care I received and you never know, someday, I may need it again. But we forget that many people spend their entire lives without health insurance or on a plan that gives them the bare minimum. People fall through the cracks. They are afraid to go to the dentist after years of being unable to afford it. They let symptoms persist because there’s a six month wait for a new doctor. Some don’t take their medication because their insurance doesn’t cover it. We hear these stories all the time but we don’t really put faces to these stories. I am here to tell you that there are people who for them, this is the reality. This was me.
I am lucky to be able to afford insurance. But there are so many who can’t and if Medicare is cut away even more, there will inevitably be many, many more who are unable to get care. Call your legislator, do your research, and talk about it.