I draw a modest income with my media production business, but being self-employed makes health insurance damn near impossible to afford. Hell, with the way self-employment taxes are set up, we're lucky to be able to pay those.
Because of this catch-22 (running your own business at the expense of normal company perks like medical care), I find myself thinking things that no one in an emergency should have to deal with. You see, at a Mother's Day barbecue last month, my son accidentally lit himself on fire. The barbecue was luau themed and he was wearing a grass skirt. Getting too close to an open flame with all of that dead grass and he was quickly running in circles in the backyard trying to put himself out before family members came to his aid.
My first thought (other than, "Jesus, he's on fire!") was, "Is this bad enough to need an emergency room visit?"
As soon as I got close enough to see that the skin on his hands and legs was bubbled over and charred, I realized that it was, indeed, bad enough to need a visit.
My second thought was, "But how will I pay for it?"
It's sad and disgusting to me that these things were forced to enter my mind when my only thought should have been getting my son immediately to the hospital. Fortunately, these questions were but split seconds in my judgment and we were in the car racing to the hospital in minutes.
The local emergency room didn't have the facilities to deal with burns as extensive and deep as my sons were, so we were quickly ambulanced to a facility at the University of Utah renowned for it's Burn Trauma Intensive Care Unit. (40 mile ambulance ride? $2,000)
When we got there, the doctors went to work, cutting his blisters off, treating his wounds and making assessments about the possibility of skin grafting. He had 2nd degree burns over 10% of his body and a few spots were on the border of 3rd degree. I spent 8 sleepless nights in that ICU with my son, helping clean his wounds and wash the dead skin and scabs off twice a day, knowing that this would all cost me more money than I could imagine. But I did it anyway, without regard to the cost because no matter how well off or poor, well insured or not insured at all, medical emergencies take precedence over monetary consideration.
We were able to bring him home just a couple of days before his birthday, though he still needed twice-a-day wound care (and still does). The total cost of this ordeal if I end up having to pay for it out of my own pocket? In excess of $25,000.
But did I have a choice?
But things got worse. The night we brought him home, the most improbable thing in the world happened. I was struck with severe abdominal pain. The worst I've ever had in my life.
Again, I started asking myself these questions (after, "Jesus, this hurts like hell!"), "Is it bad enough to need a trip to the emergency room?"
After the first hour, I thought I could self-medicate the pain away. I don't get heartburn, but I assumed this might be what it's like, so I decided antacids (which I've never used) might help.
Another hour of writhing in pain with no help from antacids went by and I had to reassess my situation, "This still hurts like hell, and the antacids didn't work. Do I go to the hospital?"
Knowing that I couldn't afford a trip to the hospital, I decided I'd try more self-medication. "Perhaps I've pulled a muscle, or inflamed something," I thought. And then I proceeded to take some Ibuprofen; hoping painkillers might dull the pain.
Yet another hour of painful torture went by and I was forced again to assess the situation, "It actually hurts worse now, antacids and painkillers didn't help at all, perhaps it's something serious. But can I afford a trip to the hospital?"
The answer I came to was that, even if something serious were wrong, I couldn't afford a trip to the hospital and so I decided that the best course of action was to try sleeping off the pain.
Unfortunately, this didn't work either. I spent two hours in bed, tossing and turning, trying my hardest to find a position comfortable enough to wait out the pain. No comfortable middle-ground could be found and after 6 hours of excruciating pain and the knowledge that I wouldn't be able to sleep, suddenly, the cost of a trip to the hospital didn't seem so consequential.
But why should anyone be forced to writhe in pain for fear of having to pay for a trip to the emergency room? Shouldn't we, as a society, make sure that when people are in pain, that they are able to seek treatment without the fear of eternal debt and foreclosure and anything else medicals bills of impressive size would cause?
I went to the hospital and discovered that I had a severe case of gallstones and my gallbladder needed to be removed immediately to prevent worse problems, including death. I didn't really have a choice about this one. I prolonged my decision because of the economics of seeing a doctor and I could have made things a lot worse. The total cost of that operation? In excess of $15,000.
By the end of May, my son and I managed to incur more than $40,000 worth of medical debt. We're working on a couple of options to cover some or all of this (including Medicaid which is a paper-work nightmare but a dream come true if it works out).
But the point is this, I've actually spent more time filling out papers, answering questions, and tracking down documents and pay records trying to get help with these bills than I actually spent in the hospital.
How much safer, easier, cheaper and more pleasant would all of our lives be with single payer universal healthcare? To be able to breathe easy and see the doctor when you need to. To be able to have life-saving surgeries and not worry that you might have to sell your car or go late on your rent? Millions of Americans have problems like this every day and we should be ashamed of ourselves that we've led our culture so far down this road.
As for me? I'll probably end up ok, it seems as though I can get help for my sons bills with a couple of different government programs (like Medicaid or SCHIP). The chances of me getting help with the bills for my surgery are a little lower, but in any case, I'm sure I'll weather the storm. But for every case like mine, I'm sure there are a dozen families who simply can't weather the storm, and for that, we should be ashamed.
I'm sure there are a dozen Christian conservatives reading this now and asking themselves, "Why should we help with this? Why should we help people who can't afford to take care of themselves?"
In the novel Jailbird, Kurt Vonnegut provided me with the perfect answer to these questions and it's very simple: "Why? The Sermon on the Mount, sir."