Our system of making the sick well while also making the rich richer needs fixing

Mike Christopherson
Times Managing Editor Mike Christopherson

If you're ever unfortunate enough to get sick or have a sudden medical condition pop up that requires immediate medical intervention, obviously any physical symptoms or physical pain you're feeling are predominant.

    There's emotional distress involved, too, of course. Am I going to be OK? Will I eventually recover and be my former, normal self? In more serious situations, you might even be overcome with thoughts involving your own mortality. Am I going to survive this? What will my family do without me?

    But, for far too many people, if you're sick in the United States of America, you're saddled with mental anguish that goes beyond simply wondering if you're going to be alright. When you should be thinking about your health, too many people find themselves obsessed with money, specifically, the monumental, almost incomprehensible cost of the medical care they are receiving, and how they probably have enough money set aside for a rainy day or in their checkbook to cover maybe one set of labs and a couple of meals from the hospital cafeteria.

    Earlier this year, I met up close and personal this secondary fear that almost becomes a primary fear when you're saddled with an ailment that requires extensive medical treatment, surgery, and an extended stay in the hospital while your body ever so slowly starts to come around.

    I started thinking about costs and my family's finances. Those thoughts became a fixation as the days passed, and then bordered on an obsession when my body proved to be a bit more stubborn than usual when it came to rebounding from abdominal surgery.

    I knew our family had solid insurance through my wife's employer. Perhaps the term "solid" doesn't even do the coverage justice. It's great coverage, excellent, even, but I've long wondered how it can not be excellent when I see how much money is deducted from my wife's paycheck every two weeks to pay for it. I remember one time when someone asked about the healthcare coverage provided by my wife's employer and I offered up some details, I was told my wife's plan is the "Cadillac" of health coverage. I said that could very well be the case, but that we're also making bi-weekly payments for that Cadillac. This ain’t free, babe.

    And there are always little quirks. There is always fine print, sometimes a novel's worth of fine print. We always check the box that we understand the "terms and conditions," but we really don't because we don't take the time to squint long enough to read the pages and pages of tiny words. We hope it's all just a formality and that we'd never be left twisting in the wind by those who claim they want to do right by us, but who knows? We certainly don't. It's practically a leap of faith. To wit, I had a procedure done on my elbow several years ago, with all parties involved convinced it would be covered. It was not, and we wrote a $1,200 check.

    I was getting pretty wound up as my hospital stay slogged on, and I couldn't help but figure that my emotional stress level probably was not ideal for my physical health and recovery. That realization just seemed to make my mental state exponentially worse.

    So, one afternoon, as I pulled my IV pole by my side and my wife and I walked a few laps around the hospital unit, I posed the question: How many thousands of dollars is this going to cost us?

    A bit taken aback, she said it wouldn't cost us anywhere close to thousands of dollars. But I wasn't convinced, so she said when she got home she'd make a phone call to get some answers and, in the process, try to ease my uneasiness. On her subsequent call, when my fears were officially put to rest, my wife got the name and specific contact information of the woman providing the good news, just in case she had to follow up later.

    It's not that way for everyone. I friend a couple of years ago was faced with overwhelming medical bills and now is being faced with them again. When asked about how much of the financial burden is on their shoulders, she said their coverage is covering "most" of the costs. But when the numbers next to the dollar signs get that big, "most" is still more than most can come up with. Are you going to take out another mortgage on your house? Make payments for the rest of your life? Will you forfeit assets?

    The rest of the industrialized world can't comprehend this profit-based American way of making the sick better, where seas of executive vice presidents from insurance providers and pharmaceutical companies dance atop mountains of cash, and yet our nation remains so sickly. In these other countries, if you get sick, your country’s medical system intervenes, and when you come out on the other side, your family isn't bankrupt.

    But no one provides healthcare as great as the United States, the argument goes. I was even told, only half-jokingly, that, if I lived in Canada, I'd probably still be waiting in line to get approved for the surgery I underwent almost four months ago.

    We have big problems in this country. We somehow elected Donald Trump president, and there’s no sign on the horizon that we’re going to stop paying the price for that anytime soon. College tuition remains ungodly expensive, and our higher education system keeps sending graduates saddled with thousands and thousands of dollars in student loan debt into the world. The climate is changing and our nation is burning up, but not enough people in power give a damn. But our healthcare system that seeks to make the sick well, while also making people super-rich? That problem is right up there with all of those.