During our recent vacation in Germany we had a little pregnancy scare that made us go to the emergency room. Now, before you go crazy, let me assure you up front that it was nothing and Emily is fine.
But at the time it was very frightening. Without getting too specific, something happened that shouldn't have. Emily called her midwife and she said, "That's not normal, you need to go to a hospital." It was seven o'clock at night, we were in a small town in the Alps, and it was the second full day of our vacation. Neither of us spoke German.
At first, I'm a little embarrassed to admit, I was annoyed. I was almost 100 percent sure it was nothing. But then I saw how scared Emily was and I felt ashamed. It's easy to write off the concerns of people who are not you. After the midwife advised us to go to the hospital, I reluctantly agreed. "Great," I thought, "There goes my once-a-year vacation." Anticipating a three to four hour wait like my visits to the ER in America, I grabbed a book before we left.
We took a taxi to the next town over. It was only a six mile drive but it gave me a plenty of time to think. They were not pleasant thoughts. At first my concerns were practical - how are we going to pay for this? Will insurance cover it? Will they even see us? How are we going to fill out forms in German?
And then my thoughts turned grim - what if this is serious? What if Emily has the baby here? How do we bring it back to the states? What if we lose the baby? What if I lose them both? I got choked up envisioning myself making phone calls telling people about the loss. I saw everything I planned dissolving away and felt powerless to stop it. I looked up at the ceiling to stop from tearing up. Emily was scared enough already.
There was hardly anyone in the hospital when we arrived. We wandered around for a bit looking for a reception desk, trying to decode 18 letter German words. After talking to two friendly nurses in our pidgin German, we took a seat in the waiting room of the OBGYN.
It was a waiting room the likes of which I hadn't seen in years, in that it wasn't spilling over with people in various states of distress. We were the only people there outside of two women quietly chatting over a newborn. Everything about the hospital radiated calmness and order. Quite a contrast from American hospitals, where it seems everything is teetering on the edge of anarchy.
We hadn't been waiting more than five minutes when the doctor came out to see us. He was dressed casually in jeans and a button-up shirt but he had a nice smile for us. He looked solid, like a mountain man or a soldier, but kind. Thankfully, he spoke fluent English. He explained he had grown up around American soldiers and spoken with them often. He seemed to welcome the novelty of treating Americans.
In the examining room, he quickly discovered the cause and assured us it was nothing. I can't describe the feeling of lightness I felt when he said this. He did an inspection and then ran an ultrasound. He took a little time to chat with us for a couple of minutes before sending us on our way. I kept thanking him for seeing us so quickly and he just smiled and said, "It's nothing, it is my job."
This experience was like nothing I had ever had before. We never filled out any forms. They never asked us about insurance. We didn't pay anything. It was only as we were leaving I realized they hadn't even taken down our names. And the longest part of the ordeal was the taxi ride.
Healthcare has been in the news lately with the release of Michael Moore's "Sicko." And it should be because this experience revealed to me that our current national system isn't just a joke, it's an embarrassment.
The sad thing about being trapped in a poor system is that it limits people's perception. People are inclined to think "Well, that's just the way it is", grit their teeth, and bear it. And that's what I thought until we went to the German ER. Only now do I realize the contrast between our system and theirs is as stark as night and day.
And let there be no doubt, our system is a disaster. In his recent confrontation with Wolf Blitzer, Moore pointed out that 18,000 Americans die every year because they lack health insurance - the equivalent of six 9/11s a year.
My personal experience with American medical care is also not good. In contrast to the German system, I've never spent less than three hours on a visit to the ER. The bureaucratic morass of paperwork I have to fill out to see the doctor makes me dread regular checkups. I once was in a three month period where I did not have any insurance. Now that I do have insurance that I pay out the nose for, I have no idea what they will cover and what they won't. And I live in fear that they will drop me for a "pre-existing condition."
I know proponents of private health insurance assert that it is the cheapest method, that competition among insurers drives the cost down. And this may make sense in the theoretical clever-clever land of economists. All I know is I am paying $12,000 this year for an insurer who will not even pick up the cost of our hospital stay (around $1,000) when our baby arrives. The median American income was around $46,000 in 2005 and $12K a year is almost a quarter of that. How can anyone afford this?
No wonder people give up on insurance, HMOs charge outrageous premiums and the profit motive drives them to not cover the cost of anything. Our system is locked in a death spiral. For healthcare to work, everyone has to buy in. Right now it's set up that healthy people (who defray the cost of unhealthy people) drop out because premiums are too expensive. This dropping out drives up the cost of premiums, which drives out more healthy people, which drives up the premiums, etc. We repeat the cycle until the entire system collapses.
Not only does this negatively affect the health of our citizens, it also hurts the economy. When Toyota was recently looking to build a factory in North America, they chose to locate it in Canada rather than Alabama, citing healthcare costs. Canadian workers are $4 to $5 cheaper to employ partly thanks to the taxpayer-funded health-care system in Canada, according to Canadian federal Industry Minister David Emmerson.
But we can be sure this issue will not be addressed until after the long national nightmare is over in January 2009. That day cannot come soon enough. George Bush will leave office with many shameful legacies. Doing nothing about the state of healthcare in America is one of them.
Update - Bush breaks out the veto pen! Today Bush rejected funding for a government program that provides health insurance for six million poor American children. He cited "philosophical grounds" for his decision and I'm sure his favorite philosopher Jesus would approve. If there was one thing Jesus hated, it was kids whose parents were too poor to afford health insurance. Damn freeloaders. No word on when Bush will launch "Kick a Homeless Person on the Way to Work Day" to go along with his vote.