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The luck and youth health plan

by Amy Kingsley

Sometime before this Christmas I started feeling sick. At first it was the usual sniffles and coughs common to a run-of-the-mill cold. But I just couldn’t shake it.

I flew back to Austin for a two-day Christmas visit with my family, worked overtime over New Year’s weekend and woke up Monday with a blinding headache and muscle pains. After I wrapped up my stories from the weekend, I started seriously considering whether I should visit a doctor.

By that time, fever chills had set in and I really knew that I had to do something. Unfortunately, a couple of things stood in my way ‘— lack of health insurance and the New Year’s holiday.

So, in an attempt to solve the problem of my bad health with good, old-fashioned ingenuity, I decided to consult the website most responsible for modern-day hypochondriac alarmism, WebMD. After determining that I most likely had a sinus infection, I reached the section of the prognosis informing me that untreated sinus infections can spread to the brain.

Hysterical, chilly and in pain, I choose to bite the bullet, protect my addled noodle from pernicious bacteria and go to the doctor. My only options were, of course, urgent care clinics.

So, I found one nearby and settled in for the long wait amongst the walking holiday wounded. By the time I hit triage, my temperature ran a cool 102 degrees, and the doctor approached me with a bit of alarm.

Despite my insistence that it really felt like a sinus infection, she warned me that I could be teetering on the verge of pneumonia, mono or any number of other perilous bugs. So, I gamely submitted to a battery of tests and watched my initial $115 investment in bodily health swell with each chest X-ray and blood draw.

In the end, none of the tests turned up conclusive evidence of anything more than a bacterial infection. So, the doctor dispatched a nurse to stick me with a penicillin shot and make sure I didn’t fatally react.

By the time I walked out of that place, through the waiting room filled with crying babies and twisted ankles, I owed the clinic $350. Of course, it could have been more. The doctor provided me with samples of a strong antibiotic at no charge.

Still, I could hardly control the black humor that welled up in me as I smirked and asked for a payment plan. It would be my luck, after all, to land uninsured in the doctor’s office with less than a month to go before work benefits kicked in.

And in that way, I have to consider myself lucky. I know people who play in bands, do art or for whatever reason hold the kinds of jobs that don’t offer health insurance. And, as everyone already knows, paying for it out of your own pocket can be prohibitively expensive.

Of course, not paying for it can be even worse. Who here has heard of Mike Triplett, the owner of now-defunct Go! Studios in Carrboro? Like many twenty-something bohemian types, he relied solely on luck and youth to insure his health.

It didn’t work. He contracted spinal meningitis, spent months in the hospital fighting for his life and won. Now he faces medical bills totaling almost a million dollars.

There are plenty of horror stories about elderly Americans who also struggle with rising health costs. When my older sister was completing work for a speech pathology degree, she worked with a patient who suffered a stroke because she couldn’t afford her blood pressure pills.

Now, everyone has heard these stories. Yet we continue to debate nationalized health coverage. I’m not dismissing the other side of the argument, but the urgency of the situation demands that we do something.

Before the implementation of Social Security, some older Americans literally died in the gutter. That program offered a safety net for people too old to work, so they wouldn’t end up completely broke and homeless. It isn’t enough for a comfortable retirement, but it’s something.

We need a similar safety net for medical care. Something so that the poorest among us won’t suffer so much when they get sick. People could still pay for better health insurance, but a minimum would be provided.

I got better, and will likely be insured the next time I get sick. Sure, I ignored some of the doctor’s orders so I could save a few bucks. I didn’t buy the last four days of antibiotic because it would have cost $60 and skipped a second appointment to monitor my recovery.

A week-and-a-half remains until my policy kicks in. Until that time, I will be holed up inside my house, under three blankets wearing at least two layers of clothing. Spare change will go to germ blocking facemasks. It is a small investment to make until that little health insurance card arrives in the mail.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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