I've had the fortune and misfortune to experience our healthcare systems from many sides. Growing up in Maine, my family didn't participate in activities like ice-skating because it could land us in the emergency room - and we weren't insured. Today, I'm fortunate to have two jobs that provide one of the better healthcare plans our nation has. As a Maine state legislator and member of the Marine Reserves, I am better insured than most Americans.
Or so you would think. About two months ago, I received constant calls from an unknown number - and after I finally picked up, the first question was, "Are you Alexander Cornell du Houx? Can you verify the last four digits of your Social Security Number for security purposes?" He was calling to collect a medical debt from an injury I received while deployed to Iraq two years ago. My thoughts turned to "fraud," because injuries incurred while deployed are considered line-of-duty incidents and are 100 percent covered by the military. Yet upon further questioning, it became clear that the claim was for real -- someone thought I owed them money.
The purpose of the call was "to perform their due diligence before making a legal recommendation." I needed to call them back by 5 p.m. that day to avoid legal action and a diminished credit rating. After wondering how I would pay or fight them in court, this made me think of the 62 percent of bankruptcy cases that result from underinsurance and no insurance. Although nearly $400 is far from putting me in personal bankruptcy, it hits home how fragile the balance is between living a happy, productive life and being bankrupt because of how broken our healthcare system is. I know a veteran who had a stable job, but when he suffered a stroke, he lost his job, his health insurance, and his home. Another friend was hit by a car, laid off until she can work, and has to rely on charity care to cover her expenses. These are only two of the millions of hard-working Americans who have fallen victim to an outdated health care system.
In my own situation, I remember receiving some bills years ago, but assumed they were logistical mistakes, since this was a line-of-duty injury. Last year two logistical mistakes between the provider and insurance office were made that resulted in collectors calling me, but they corrected them before legal action was suggested. However, it did get me thinking about how ironic it was that private insurance agencies -- whose administrative costs are 14 to 22 percent, versus the 6 to 8 percent administrative cost associated with Medicare -- made so many errors, errors that may affect my ability to buy a car or house. I was lucky to have insurance, but for those who have no insurance, are underinsured and are working hard to raise their families in this recession, errors like this can ruin their lives.
I was shocked to listen to the person on the phone tell me that my case was not unique -- many assume their insurance will cover the cost and never know they are reported to a collection agency. And by that time fees and interest skyrocket their bills, not to mention their diminished credit. My case is still undetermined, but it has given me an inside perspective on how broken the current system is. Our health care system is a tragedy. Forty-seven million Americans do not have coverage and even more are underinsured. It was heartening to see Congress expand SCHIP to cover our children, but we need a national health plan, with a public option, to solve what is one of the most important social and economic issues facing our nation today.
Alex Cornell du Houx served in Iraq in 2006 with the Marines in Fallujah and represents Brunswick, Maine in the Maine State Legislature.
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