By V.R. Craft for Millennial Politics
Twice, my Republican mother has almost died from a lack of affordable health care, but she still hates the idea of a single-payer system.
The first time she almost died she was at age 21. Her appendix ruptured because she’d put off seeing a doctor until she could get insurance from, ironically, the insurance company she’d just started working for because she wanted health insurance. (Dad didn’t get insurance through his employer at the time.) The health insurance didn’t kick in for three months, so she put off going to the doctor until her appendix had ruptured and sprayed infected tissue everywhere. She was very lucky to survive the surgery. It left her with a pile of medical bills and scar tissue throughout her abdominal cavity that caused years of pain and other problems, requiring more expensive surgery and treatment. But at least her appendix ruptured because she couldn’t afford to go to a doctor, not because the health care system made her wait!
Years later, when I was fifteen, she almost died from asthma. We had high-deductible insurance, the only kind my then self-employed parents could afford, so every time we went to a doctor, they paid out of pocket. There was no coverage for preventive visits, office visits, or pharmacy. Blue Cross paid nothing until the $2,600 deductible had been met. Essentially, we had no health insurance unless something “catastrophic” happened. That fear of catastrophe was how my parents rationalized paying hundreds of dollars a month for a policy that never paid out. Even when they had to apologize to the grocery store manager for bouncing a check. More than once. Even when our electricity got cut off for not paying the bill. Even when a loan officer called and cursed them out about their overdue loan payments two days before Thanksgiving. (No, his name wasn’t Scrooge McDuck, but it could have been.) Even when all those things happened, they still paid for that policy that never paid out.
So when my mom’s asthma symptoms got worse, she put off going to the doctor, knowing she’d have to write him a bad check. Finally, she was sick enough to phone the doctor’s office. He called in a prescription for Prednisone. Fortunately, it had been around long enough to be available in a cheap generic for ten bucks.
Unfortunately, by the time my dad and I got back from the pharmacy, mom’s condition had worsened. She could no longer breathe well enough to walk, or say more than a word or two. Unable to walk to the bathroom, she’d resorted to peeing in the trash can by her desk. She immediately took the pills, but it was far too late for the drugs to help. She couldn’t catch her breath.
At that point, my dad decided she needed to go to the emergency room, and she was no longer in any condition to argue about it. But we lived half an hour from the nearest hospital and she already couldn’t breathe. I remember my dad arguing with the 911 dispatcher, who insisted he had no choice but to send an ambulance from the other end of the county, which was at least twenty minutes away even with lights and sirens. The dispatcher said he wasn’t allowed to send the one that was five minutes away because our house was ten feet over the other side of the county line. (Good thing we didn’t have any government interference with our health care!) They did, however, send a local fire truck that had oxygen. That helped for a few minutes—until they ran out of oxygen and realized their spare tank was empty. Finally, the ambulance arrived, slapped an oxygen mask on my mother, and hustled her out of there. My dad and I followed in our rusted Oldsmobile.
When we got to the hospital, they said my mom was lucky to be alive. In the ambulance, they’d given her three nitroglycerin pills to keep her heart from stopping. (Apparently, that’s a lot.) The doctors and nurses kept asking why she hadn’t come in sooner, since she had a long history of asthma and had to have noticed her symptoms were worsening. She looked away and mumbled something about being busy.
Although healthcare costs have risen since then, it still wasn’t a cheap hospital stay. When my mom left the hospital, she received a bill for a little more than $2,500. Blue Cross paid nothing, because she was just under her deductible. She and my dad spent the next four years paying off that bill, while continuing to pay Blue Cross every month. But they both still insisted it was much better to wait for an emergency that costs $2,500 because a $150 doctor visit was too expensive, than to have the government interfere in health care!
Yes, that’s seriously what my lifelong Republican parents have always said when a lack of affordable health care caused anyone in my family pain, suffering, or life-threatening complications. When asked why they feel this way, they say that countries with single-payer systems have worse healthcare, and that patients are forced to wait days, weeks, or even months in pain just to see a doctor.
Apparently waiting for medical treatment and almost dying because you can’t afford it is way better than waiting because the government said so. Glad they clarified that.
My parents say the cut-rate dentists we went to when I was a teen—i.e., whoever would take patients with no/horrible insurance—never told them I needed braces. Maybe they’re right. I can see a dentist deciding there was no point in telling two people with no money or insurance their kid needed a small fortune worth of braces. But at least the government didn’t refuse to pay for my braces, because that would have caused me problems!
Oh wait, I have had years of dental problems due to a severe crossbite/overbite problem that would now cost tens of thousands of dollars to correct. Once I had a nerve die in a tooth, which is exactly like having a live wire in your mouth. I didn’t even have an abcess—the nerve simply died because the tooth had been hitting the one above it wrong for so many years, that one day the nerve couldn’t take it anymore. Also, I can only chew on about eight teeth in the back of my mouth because the front ones don’t touch at all when I close my mouth. Ever try taking a bite of pizza by shoving it in the side of your mouth? Yeah, having pizza sauce on your face is a lot of fun, and doing all your chewing on eight teeth causes extra wear and tear on those eight teeth, versus normal chewing using all your chompers.
But at least I didn’t have the government refusing to pay for dental care that could prevent problems like severely misaligned teeth, right?
So, despite being raised by Republicans, I had to ask the question: Is health care really worse in other countries that have various forms of single-payer healthcare?
Health care, overall, is less expensive in other countries, including Canada, France, Australia, and England, which have either socialized medicine or other single-payer systems like national health insurance or Medicare for all. (Despite what my Republican parents think, those are not all the same thing.) In fact, patients in the US find it harder to get a same-day or next-day appointment for health care than those in Germany, Australia, France, and the UK. That’s right, we Americans pay more to wait longer for care—the exact opposite of the Republican argument that people wait longer for care in single-payer countries.
I asked a friend of mine who moved here from England a few years ago if it was difficult to get health care there. (England has something called the National Health Service, which provides care to all permanent residents of the country free of charge. There are charges for some services, including dental and vision care.) My friend said she couldn’t remember ever having to wait an excessive amount of time for anything urgent.
I’m aware that single-payer systems have drawbacks. If you get turned down for a treatment, you’re out of luck unless you can pay for it yourself. But that’s already a reality for millions of Americans. Just ask my friend who couldn’t get the new medication her doctor prescribed to treat her Crohn’s Disease because the insurance company deemed it “unnecessary.” Or my other friend who, with her husband, had to move to Australia because she couldn’t afford to treat her bipolar disorder here.
Or you could just ask my parents, who once had to spend four years paying a $2,500 hospital bill because they couldn’t afford a $150 doctor visit. But they would just tell you they’re glad the government didn’t interfere with their health care.
By the way, they both rushed to sign up for Medicaid after turning 65, despite hating the idea of the government getting involved in their healthcare. “But isn’t Medicaid communism?” I asked them sarcastically, having heard them chant this Faux News-inspired misinformation every time the subject of health care reform came up.
“No, because we paid into it,” my dad snapped.
Because that’s not how single-payer systems work at all!
So is the US healthcare system just more expensive for equally bad care, as compared to countries like Canada, the UK, and Australia? Are you just screwed anywhere you go? Actually, no.
After doing some research, I learned that total costs are lower under single-payer systems for several reasons, including lower administrative costs and better drug prices. In France, a typical doctor’s visit costs the equivalent of about $27 US dollars. In England, it costs permanent residents nothing to see a doctor. But despite the fact that the US spends more on healthcare than any other country (including multiple countries with single-payer systems), we also have more deaths from preventable causes and a lower life expectancy than those countries.
So what my Republican parents inadvertently taught me was that a single-payer setup really isn’t worse than our current system of healthcare in the US. Unless, of course, you like waiting to go to the doctor until you literally can’t breathe.