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On Health Care: The Price of Hope

Updated: Apr 14

This is the post I wish I couldn’t write. I loathe writing about it, because it is private and painful, and in many ways, none of your business. It also cheapens a loss in many ways, to take that loss and use it for a political illustration, but I think this story should be told.

Because folks like Rep. Vic Snyder tell us health care reform is needed because there are 50 million uninsured persons. When they say this they are implying that there are 50 million people that are denied health care because there is no insurance to pay for it—no insurance, no health care.

Last December 4, I held my mother’s hand as we watched my sister, Jeannie, draw her last breath. She was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer in October 2007. Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare form of cancer that spreads quickly and has a less than 50 percent survival rate in the best instances. Jeannie’s cancer was discovered late; by the time it was discovered, her lungs were already beginning to fill up with fluid.

Jeannie worked as a cashier at Kroger. By her own admission, she was a redneck woman. She bought her clothes at Wal-Mart, hunted deer and drove a 10-year-old Dodge pickup. She did have some insurance through her job, but like the insurance of most Americans it was inadequate to pay for the treatments she would undergo. Her insurance was capped at $23K a year. It took half a month of treatment to use up her insurance benefits.

Despite this and despite the fact that it was glaringly obvious that my sister would never be able to pay off her medical bills, her doctors and the hospitals never denied her treatment or turned her away. For 12 months after her insurance ran out, she was given expensive cancer drugs, despite her inability to pay. As she lay, drawing her last breaths, her doctor came by to make sure she was in no pain. “It wasn’t unexpected,” he said. “She had an uphill struggle.” He knew her chances were low, yet even up until the end, he was caring for her at his own expense.

As far as I know, the doctors never told Jeannie her chances were slim. I know that none of them explained to my parents that their daughter and first child would be dead in a year’s time. Instead, they treated her like she had every chance, that her case was curable. Honestly, money wasn’t an issue. The only issue to the doctors, nurses and hospitals was that my sister got a fighting chance.

When she died, she left almost a million dollars worth of medical bills, bills that will be written off. There is no one in my family can afford to pay them off, and the cost will be passed on to you and me when we go to the doctor. And we are paying off the costs of millions of others who, likewise, cannot pay for their bills.

There is a type of wealth redistribution already in place. We do pay for others’ health care. Sure, health insurance companies do influence the type of treatment given and some people do not get medical care because they have no insurance.

But in many instances, doctors make the decision to treat, even if they know that the patient cannot pay. I know there are a lot of doctors out there that would refuse to treat my sister. But based on the odds, most actuaries, bureaucrats and accountants would have declared my sister’s case hopeless and she would have been denied treatment. On paper, it made no sense to treat her; it was cost-prohibitive and waste of resources that could have been spent on someone else.

But fortunately, my sister’s treatment wasn’t left up to actuaries, bureaucrats or accountants; it was left up to some very caring  health care professionals who looked at her and saw the human face that no report could ever show. She couldn’t have received better care if she were a billionaire.

Do I wish that health care was cheaper? Sure. I wish that many other things were cheaper, but that doesn’t mean I want the government socializing everything I can’t afford. Lower prices do increase access, but will that access come at the expense of something much more dear than money?

I understand when I see polls that say that many are satisfied with their health care, even if the prices are high. In our dire case, we were given hope, despite the fact that my sister didn’t make much more than minimum wage. I know of no government agency or program that can give hope. Until the government can do that, I’ll take what I’ve got now.

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