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On Health Insurance

March 24, 2010

Hi. My name is Squirrel. And I have a chronic health problem. Actually, I have several chronic health problems, but I could spend a thousand words talking about all of the ways in which my body is broken, or I could spend a thousand words discussing what is keeping those problems at bay. Suffice to say that I was a generally healthy child, who got lots of exercise, was feed a more nutritious diet than most of my peers, and one day collapsed during PE because I couldn’t breathe.

Hi. My name is Squirrel. And I have health insurance. I am among the fortunate. When I had my very first asthma attack, my mother had a good job in medical records which provided health insurance benefits and allowed me to see an excellent doctor. He diagnosed me, wrote a prescription, and my parents were able to buy medications which would help me in case of future attacks. As time passed and my asthma grew more severe, I was able to see other excellent doctors who each in their turn prescribed me new and better medications, this time designed to prevent attacks before they happened. I spent a lot of time in doctors’ offices, but never saw the inside of an ER until I had an anaphylactic reaction at the age of 21. Again, I was among the fortunate. I was attending college and still on my parents’ insurance. The following year I was able to cope with the fallout of that reaction (increased asthma attacks, dizziness, and pneumonia) because the college I was attending had a decent clinic on campus geared towards providing lower cost health care for its students. After graduation, I was allowed to stay on my mother’s insurance for a time, but was eventually forced off by her insurance company. I qualified for COBRA continuation health coverage and while I was paying more than I could afford each month for it, I was able to stay on my most important medications until I found a job whose benefits package included a good insurance plan.

I am lucky. Damned lucky. As much as I complain about how badly broken I am right now, I understand that if my mother had worked somewhere without insurance, I would not be nearly as healthy as I am today. If it weren’t for COBRA, I might not have been able to afford the medications I needed for those months until I found a good job. If I hadn’t found a job with insurance when I did, I would have been forced to choose between paying for my rent, or paying for my health insurance. Actually, after I was hired, I did decide to choose my rent over my health insurance. It was either that or not eat and I couldn’t afford my medications anyways. If I had found a job, but it didn’t have health insurance, I might have been able to afford paying for my insurance, but maybe only some of my medications. Or neither. I love my job, so I don’t have to worry about looking for a different one and hoping that it will provide me with benefits, rather than be stuck doing something I hate so that I can afford my medications. Even if I decided for whatever reason to leave this job for a different one, I would run the risk that I would be denied coverage due to my pre-existing condition. I still run that risk with my current insurance, but I am fortunate that it is a very small risk. With all of this luck, I can expect to live a mostly normal life. Probably shorter than 90% of asthmatics, but still longer than if I hadn’t had any health insurance at all.

Imagine my life without health insurance. Imagine my family’s life. Without the doctor’s visits and prescription medications, I might have been forced to rely on over the counter medications. Assuming that my parents could afford them. My parents would have been weighed down by the cost associated with keeping me healthy. They might have had to choose between putting food on the table for all three of their children and buying medicine for the one. Without proper care, the course of my decline would have been much steeper. There would have been no doctor to suggest allergies as an additional factor in my asthma, no one to suggest that I might be allergic to foods as well, no one to help with preventative health care. I likely would have gone to the emergency room sooner, leaving my parents dealing with hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills that they could ill afford. Or I might have been among that truly unlucky percentage who dies from a completely treatable chronic health problem. All because my parents didn’t have health insurance.

My parents are not lazy. They are good people, who through determination and hard work made better lives for themselves and their family. My mother was lucky in that she chose to work in a profession that provided health insurance. My father was rarely that lucky. He never finished college, so he worked what jobs he could get based on his skills in construction and car repair. Without my mother’s good fortune, my parents would have very likely not been able to afford to have a chronically sick child. They would not have been able to afford to move into a nicer house in a better school district, to better provide for their two youngest children after the eldest went off to college. Sure, Mom could have found a different job, so that they could have health insurance for me. But what if she couldn’t? It’s not like jobs with health insurance are laying around on the ground, just waiting for someone to come by and pick them up. My family was lucky. They had determination and an opportunity to hook that determination to something which they could use to pull themselves up.

Not everyone is that lucky.

I keep hearing people talk about the health care bill as if it is passing out drugs and money to people who are sitting around on their asses eating bonbons, watching Oprah, and popping out kids. I’m cynical enough to admit that yeah, there’s probably a few people out there who will be getting some unearned and undeserved benefit from this bill. But I am not so cynical that I can let that microscopic percentage overshadow the benefit to the vast majority of people who are just as hard working, just as determined, and just as driven as I am. Just not as lucky.

It is all well and good to tell a man that if he keeps swimming, he’ll get to shore eventually. But if he’s in the middle of an ocean, then he is still going to drown eventually. And if you are giving this advice from the comfort of the boat you are lucky enough to be rowing, then maybe you need to rethink your reluctance to reach out and offer up a hand.

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