Thursday, May 11, 2006


How Lack of Universal Health Care Hurt One Woman

The problems of my very good friend - call her Ms. X - underscore the danger, irrationality, and unfairness of the present healthcare "system" in the United States.

She must choose between hope coupled with financial ruin; or abandonment of hope for herself, leaving an uncertain future for her son.

Stage IV renal cancer is a grim diagnosis, but my friend's oncologist tells her an experimental drug may arrest or even cure the disease. The catch: $7,000.00 monthly cost of treatment.

The Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan (FEHB), the umbrella under which my friend's particular insurance is chartered, is often held up as a model plan. Congress, as well as rank and file employees, are all covered under this same plan.

Hearing the price of the medicine, I sorrowed. I had the same particular insurance plan as she does for years: I fired them last year for poor service, slow payments, and third-rate performance. Much to my surprise, though, they came through, and said they would cover the drug under their usual terms.

Ms. X is a lovely person; gentle, kind and unassuming, the modest kind of self-reliant person who would never ask for help. It was my family's great pleasure to host her and her son on a recent trip to Orlando and then the beach. She insisted on paying a significant part of the expense. On her modest salary as a government clerk, she had never been able to have a real vacation; she had never before seen the ocean, waded in the surf or had the feeling of sand between her toes. She experienced magic then, and we shared in her perfect contentment.

Alas, the story does not end happily. The co-pay for the drug would run about $1,600.00 per month, or approximately the same as Ms. X's entire take-home pay.

But wait! Aren't there programs for people like Ms. X? Programs to keep the light of hope glowing? Well, yes, there are. In her locality, there is a program made exactly for people in her situation. Trouble is, that program spent the final dime of their 2006 budget last month. Only eight months short of having enough for the whole year. The program met 25% of the need. Ms. X was literally only a few days too late for this help.

For me, her story puts a face on the Harvard study that showed about half of all personal bankruptcies in the US result from medical bills. One researcher summed up the dismal findings by saying health insurance is "Like an umbrella that melts in the rain." (The full study can be found here.)

My generous wife risked hurting the pride of Ms. X by offering to pick up the co-payment. We could cut our gifts to the church and skip a few nice vacations, maybe make other small sacrifices, and absorb the cost without giving up anything we really need.

Ms. X refused. She's that kind of person.

If only Ms. X had the good fortune to be born in Canada, or England, or France or Germany or any of 28 developed nations. Those countries enjoy systems of universal healthcare, and their citizens never declare bankruptcy because of health crises. Her misfortune is to be born in the US, the nation where healthcare costs double the amount it costs in any other nation. Her misfortune to be born in the US, where healthcare is mediocre compared to any other industrial nation. (For more information, search the internet. Some of the better charts and articles are here, here, here, here and here.

My family cannot help Ms. X except to pray for her.

But what we can do for our children and grandchildren is support the establishment of a system of national health insurance. My online petition is here. I ask anyone reading this to look at the petition and to consider signing it.

And to pray for Ms. X.

Since I wrote this post, my friend went two weeks without treatment. Cancer Action has since answered our prayers and will pay the co-pay.

Jane and I will be taking our friend and her son on an all expenses paid vacation later this summer. Another friend of ours - you know who you are - is helping pay for the trip. The cost of sending two adults to a luxury all-inclusive resort on the Mexican Riveria is only marginally more than one month's co-pay for her cancer treatment.
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