Health Care and a Health Scare

Then the Bills Came In

I was turning 60 with a reasonable amount of optimism. After all, I’ve been strong and healthy all my life. I certainly received a big birthday surprise: “Happy Birthday, you have prostate cancer.” This was devastating, but I was told that treatments were available with a high probability of complete cancer eradication. I have since received radiation treatment, and the results are not going to be in for a while. The bills came right away. Without health-care coverage, I wouldn’t have been able to manage them.

I had no health insurance until I was 56. I took my first prostate specific antigen (PSA) test, considered a reliable indicator of cancer, at 58. I have health insurance because I now work for a large organization that offers medical insurance. Prior to this, I was uninsured like many millions of U.S. citizens. I have always worked for small entities or myself. Health-care insurance has been unaffordable.

I came close to getting a PSA test when I was 51. I suspected a hernia, and a visit to a urologist cost me $250. He ordered a PSA test after noting that I had never had one. I walked into the prescribed lab, and they said the cost would be $230. I walked out. My family has no history of cancer, and $230 was my weekly take-home pay.

That first PSA result was 5.0. This score was considered high, but there was no historical reference. My second PSA test a year later was a 6.5. This raised some concern. I was given a molecular resonance imaging test (MRI). Questionable spots were observed. A biopsy showed cancer and also precancerous cells. Treatments were discussed, and I chose a procedure that involved the insertion of radiation pellets into the prostate. The pellets are designed to emit localized radiation into the prostrate and kill the cancerous and noncancerous cells without affecting nearby tissue. Time will tell how it works out.

The reason I was diagnosed and treated is because I have health insurance

Untreated prostate cancer commonly metastasizes into the bones or other places. Though I had no symptoms, my cancer would have spread until I started to feel sick. By then it could have been too late. Prostate cancer is the leading cause of death in men, along with lung cancer. Without my present job I would still be one of the millions without insurance. At 65 I could be on Medicare in time to discover I had widespread cancer.

My annual take-home pay has been around $30,000. The out-of-pocket cost for the MRI was $5,000. The out-of-pocket cost for my treatment over the last six months has been more than $50,000. Without insurance, I wouldn’t be able to afford treatment. I have had a $6,000 copay with insurance. That in itself has been a large burden, but manageable.

The number of uninsured citizens in the United States hovers somewhere around 30 million. The quality of insurance coverage varies widely. Many “insured” people only have coverage for catastrophic health events. The cost of health care in the U.S. is higher yet provides less access than any other developed nation in the world. Most developed nations consider health care to be a “right,” but here it is a “privilege.”

When Medicare was enacted in 1965, the average life expectancy was 70.22 years. The taxpayers only provided about five years of health care for seniors. U.S. citizens are now averaging an 80-year life expectancy. Medicare costs are increasing. Conservative lawmakers are making overtures of privatizing Medicare along with the rest of healthcare. Conservative lawmakers happen to have the best taxpayer funded health care available.

One important point is that the majority of U.S. citizens have health-care coverage but don’t want higher taxes. I am now one of those citizens who has employer-provided health care and can transition to Medicare. Should I join citizens who have decided to vote for the repeal of any attempt at national health care? Should I say, “I have health care so I just don’t care?” I would be awfully cruel to think like that. Unfortunately, that is the way many of my fellow citizens and elected officials do think.

Health care should be a “right.” Health care as a private enterprise makes no sense. Insurance companies don’t make money insuring people like me with cancer. Corporate hospitals don’t make a profit treating people inexpensively. One item on my hospital bill was a $500 shot of Tylenol. That’s analogous to a carpenter charging $500 for replacing a door hinge. That carpenter would be sued for fraud. Pharmaceutical companies don’t make huge profits providing affordable prescription drugs. Health-insurance companies don’t make money insuring the elderly, sick, or retired. The only reasonable conclusion is that health care has to be a “right” for everybody.

Fiscal conservatives say “we can’t afford big government” and “we need to promote small businesses and entrepreneurs.” I was a small business and an entrepreneur, working by myself as a carpenter, unable to afford health insurance or out-of-pocket medical treatment. I was a private contractor working as a boat captain, unable to afford health insurance. I was a private contractor working on commercial fishing boats, unable to afford health insurance. I worked for small bars and restaurants that could not afford to pay health-care insurance costs for their employees. The truth is that if you are not wealthy, not an elected official, don’t work for a big business, federal, state, or a local government agency, then you can’t afford health care in the United States. This only promotes big business and big government.

My grandfather was among the last generation of small-town country doctors who provided medical care to everyone for whatever they could afford (sometimes chickens or produce). In just a few generations, our health-care system has gone from one where anyone could call upon my grandfather for affordable medical attention, to the point where his grandson couldn’t afford any health-care program.

Health care for all as a free enterprise is just not tenable in the real world. The “Affordable Care Act” signed into law on March 23, 2010, was an attempt to start the process of universal health care without upsetting the status quo of our nation’s all-powerful private health-care businesses. That administration knew that the power of the giant corporations that now control our health care was too large to take on in one swipe.

Health-care providers, pharmaceutical corporations, and insurers have reacted by jacking up their fees to compensate for expanded coverage requirements while still making a profit. People who now have health care see their costs going up. Many are willing to throw their fellow citizens “under the bus” believing their costs and taxes will go back down.

First, health-care costs never go down in this nation. Second, insurance rates might go down only after they refuse to insure anybody considered to be at higher risk or having pre-existing medical conditions. If you’re like me and are diagnosed with cancer, your insurance company would probably drop you (free enterprise). Third, pharmaceutical corporations can (and do) charge whatever they want for prescription drugs, making the cost of lifesaving medications out of reach for millions in this country. Don’t forget that the price for prescription drugs in the U.S. is the highest in the world (for most of the same exact drugs). We are never going back to the country doctor like my grandfather who would drive out to your house in the middle of the night and deliver your baby or treat any other condition for whatever you could afford to pay. Instead, we are on a destructive path toward big business providing affordable health-care services to only the healthy and the wealthy.

Finally, if you are a proud, patriotic, and productive citizen like me, then I’m sure you want to support our taxpayer-funded military, municipal police, fire departments, and quality public education. If you are a proud, patriotic, and productive citizen like me who cares about all our fellow citizens, then I’m sure you want to support universal healthcare as a “right.”

This is the only way to actually bring health-care costs down for everyone. It will bring down the cost of health care for seniors by preventing health issues from arising during their earlier years. Senior citizens will live longer lives while facing less debilitating conditions than they face today. Universal health care will actually open the door for truly small businesses and the individual entrepreneurial spirit. Mom and Pop will take the risk to open their own restaurant or other business because they won’t have to fear for their family’s health. Tradespeople and inventors will take charge and start their own enterprises for the same reason. The stalwart individualism that has built this great nation will be revived with universal health care.

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